Crozet Calendar Clinic: Fred Williamson

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Fred Williamson’s photo of the Moormans River in Sugar Hollow was featured for January 2017.

Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.

Fred Williamson’s photograph of the forest along the Moormans River beneath a blanket of a late winter snow was made near his home in Sugar Hollow.

“We’ve lived in Sugar Hollow since 1988,” said Williamson. “During those decades I’ve been documenting—as an amateur photographer—the special scenes I see. I saw this scene on my way to Crozet and hoped it would still be there, unchanged, when I returned an hour later. It was! I raced to my house, got my camera and returned to the bridge. I documented the scene looking both upstream and downstream. Later I chose the upstream view because of the visual energy of the onrushing river. Likewise, I photographed the scene in both horizontal and vertical formats then later chose horizontal. I like the way the trees frame the river. I also like the contrast between the stillness of the snow and the motion of the water.”

Williamson also mentioned the particular quality of the snow. “It was a late season snowfall—deep, wet and clinging to every branch. We called it a ‘Dr. Zhivago snowfall’ because it so transformed the landscape and buildings at our homestead.”

The photograph has immediate pictorial appeal. But where does that come from? Is it one of those scenes that takes its own picture? No. It comes from the factors Fred mentioned and some he did not.

The framing power of the forest takes viewers straight into the subject of the picture—the river—and holds them there. The contrast between stillness and motion is also a subtle factor. So, too, is point of view—upstream, with the river coming toward us, not departing downstream. Format also matters. By excluding the sky the horizontal format compresses the trees and river into a highly concentrated composition from which there is no escape.

These are all important factors, but also factors that are present every day at this scene. What makes the picture ‘work’ is the unique weather—the thick, gently clinging snowfall—of this particular day.

That rings a bell with me. In 1959, as a boy of 14, I made what many people think is the best photograph of my life. It’s of my dad watching a train depart from a snow covered train station in northern Ohio. Icicles hang from the roof of the station; steam from the departing train fills the air; my dad buttons his coat against the cold.

The photograph is influential in my life for two reasons. First, it won honorable mention in the 1960 Kodak National High School Photo Contest, jump-starting my career at an early age.

Much more importantly, the picture also embodies several of my father’s gently spoken thoughts about what makes an interesting photograph. One of them was: “Bad weather makes good pictures.”

Because of the difference-making power of dramatic weather departing photographers at National Geographic could be heard to say good-bye to one another with the sign-off: ‘Hope you have interesting weather!’ They said the same thing about light. It ranked high on the wish list for any assignment and returning photographers were often greeted with the question, ‘How was the light?’

To the casual observer, light—and color—may not be influential factors in Williamson’s photograph. There appear to be almost none of either. But they are forcefully at work nevertheless. The light is “even,” without the visual tension of contrasting brightness and shadow that comes on a sunny day. This overall evenness of light gives a calm quality to the photograph.

The picture’s predominant color is a neutral gray, which comes from the barely visible cloudy sky. Gray, to me, is the most desirable color in color photography. Unlike blue, gray does not compete with other colors. Instead, neutral gray complements other colors by allowing them to be themselves. In this case the result is a desirable (and somewhat rare) “black and white” color photograph.

Then there is the matter of stance. Williamson is standing on a bridge looking down and out onto the river from an elevated stance. In an interview I was once asked what I most desired when photographing landscapes. Dramatic action? Great light? Time? I considered all of these good possibilities then answered, “Five feet. I’d like to be five or ten feet above the scene I’m engaged with.” Why? Because the difference between ordinary ground level seeing and enhanced elevation is significant. When seen from slightly above, the landscape opens up gracefully and becomes more involving. (That’s why in my archive there are so many pictures of me standing on the hood, trunk and top of my vehicles.)

The final influential factor is invisible. It is familiarity. Williamson has driven past this scene many thousands of times. He’s kayaked through it countless times as well. In short, he knows this scene very well. But because he was attentive, this day looked different. That is an advantage the ‘at home’ photographer has over the itinerant photographer who is passing through a landscape.

Fred Williamson is a distinguished and admired artist who lives an exemplary local life. He is in intimately in touch with the landscape around him in many ways, including being a photographer of that landscape. That is the true secret behind the successful making of this photograph.

Sam Abell, who has lived in western Albemarle since 1977, was for 30 years a contract and staff photographer for National Geographic. For the past five years he has judged the annual Crozet Calendar photo contest.

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