Archive for Iconic images

On Trying To Capture An Iconic Image

Posted in photography with tags , , , , , on August 26, 2017 by johnbuckley100

Snake River Overlook-10

Leica SL, Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm

The other night, my family and I were driving to the north end of Grand Teton National Park for dinner when the sky put on a show. “Jesus light,” my son called it, those cathedral shafts of heavenly luminance sweeping the ground below it.  Better than 15 years after first spending time in Jackson Hole in the summer, I seldom stop at the Snake River Overlook to take a picture — you know the spot because you’ve seen Ansel Adams’ iconic image of it 1000 times — but this time I did, because the light promised it would be worth it.

Snake River Overlook

Leica SL, Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm

And it was worth it, stopping and taking a picture captured a million times or more by every photographer worth his salt who comes to this spot, slightly higher than where Adams set up his tripod back in the 1940s.  In fact, the very first image ever posted on this site was the above view, only taken on a freezing cold morning in 2008, when the bright sun highlighted the snow that had fallen on the Tetons.

Leica M8, 50mm Summilux

Last night, when processing my most recent picture of the Snake River Overlook, even referencing the iconic Ansel Adams photo for inspiration and comparison, my son saw what I was doing and, as only a 19-year old can do, laughed at his old man.  He’s reading White Noise by Don DeLillo, and he quickly found the riff about how we all take pictures of things that have been immortalized in photographs which, over time and multiple exposures, no longer are seen in their own right, but are viewed as “photographs.”  We take pictures of pictures, DeLillo says.  Which is true enough, when it comes to iconic images that we are drawn to photograph over and over again: the Half Dome in Yosemite, the Moulton Barn in Jackson Hole.

Spending time in Jackson Hole is both rewarding and frustrating for a photographer, because as a friend of ours once said, it’s hard not to take a good picture here.  But at the same time, with so many thousands of wonderful photographers having come before you, it’s hard to take an original photo, and harder still to take an iconic image.

There is a photographer named Ed Riddell whose work I urge readers to check out, because to me, his lovely photography of the Tetons comes closest to being truly iconic.  So much so that, like a lemming following DeLillo’s playbook, I found myself earlier this summer trying to imitate one of his best-known images, which you can see if you click on the link to his site.

Snake River Overlook-7

Leica SL, Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm

I certainly found out where he’d taken the image from, which had always been a mystery.  And I came close (though no cigar) to recreating his angle of view.  His image is, of course, better, because of that wild kismet of his having found the right angle, the right lens to use, and because there were both rain clouds and bright sunshine to illuminate the shot. He was in the right place at the right time, with the skill to get the image — something to which photographers as disparate as Joel Sternfeld and Henri Cartier-Bresson can attest.

Still, going out in search of where he’d taken the image from, and yes, trying to imitate it, is as valuable an exercise as something I know writers other than me have tried doing: typing a paragraph or a sentence from a favorite novel, just to feel what it is like to have written, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”  When you do that, you aren’t Joyce — I’m neither Joyce nor Ed Riddell — but I am a better writer and photographer because I have reached for the greatness they inspired.

It dawned on me recently that — and I say this with the modesty of someone who has taken thousands of pictures in this valley, among which a handful have merit — I have taken an image or two that could be added to the Jackson Hole iconography.  Two years ago, I was in the Elk Refuge on a night when the clouds rolled in and the sun was shining, and I took this image:

Snake River Overlook-8

Leica Monochrom, Typ-246, and Vario-Elmarit-R 70-180

In my humble opinion, this is an image that, were it to have enough exposure, could help define the Sleeping Indian that sits across the valley from the Tetons as being at least the equal to the Grand Teton as an object of photographic interest.  The picture is original, which is to say, I don’t know others who had the same luck to be where I was, with the right tools in hand, and clouds behaving just as they did, the light so perfect.

But let’s go back to the other night as we were driving to dinner, and by chance, the Tetons were illuminated wondrously while I had a camera in the car and a patient driver (my wife), who let me exclaim, “Pull over here!” understanding that the light — and the opportunity — were special.

We first took the image that is at the top of this post, which I quite like.  But over the next few minutes we also took this:

Snake River Overlook-9

To us, this is as good an image as we rightly ever can expect to take here.  We can see it printed on a large scale, can visualize it on a wall.  It is our picture.  We didn’t take it in imitation of Ansel Adams or Ed Riddell.  We were blessed to have been in the right place at the right time with the right tool and opportunity.  It is a picture of a thing: the Tetons bathed in “Jesus light.” It is not a picture of a picture.  We humbly add it to our own roster, our own portfolio.

The search for an iconic image — a picture that defines something well known, but in a unique way — is a goal that can motivate a photographer surrounded by a multitude of photographers.  (Though if we are being honest, the first ingredient in making an iconic image is simply showing up, camera in hand, when something wondrous unfolds before you.  Garry Winogrand famously said that he liked taking pictures to see what things looked like as a picture; getting out of the house and going to where a good picture might be taken is at least equal in importance to having the skill to capture the image when you see it.) It is a pursuit that allows us to move forward even as we look at Instagram and, on a daily basis, have our breath taken away by the brilliance of so many others.

If you would like to see other such images of Jackson Hole in monochrome, here is a link to our black and white portfolio.  And if you would like to see our approach to color photography in the Tetons, perhaps you will go here.

 

 

 

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