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.
“This is a very good photograph,” was my first thought upon seeing Malcolm Andrews image of geese in flight. ‘Maybe too good.’
We live in the golden age of perfect pictures, made that way by digital “post production.” In this process, photo software is used to eliminate imperfections, enhance “drama” and alter content. In short, photographers try to synthetically achieve on their computers what they couldn›t achieve when they were actually making the exposure. To me, it isn’t photography.
Photography is activating your senses in anticipation of how the situation before you will unfold. Using experience, intuition and camera skills, photographers then render an image of the scene at the height of its pictorial power–which is exactly what Andrews did to produce this excellent, and completely authentic, image.
“I’m not a professional photographer. I’m a pilot,” said Andrews. “But I try to take pictures every day when I’m out walking. I like to photograph things that fly, the mountain scenery of western Albemarle and animals.
“On this day I was driving past the King Family Vineyard and noticed geese on a small pond. I stopped and got out. The geese seemed agitated and about to fly. I noted the strong west wind they would encounter. When they lifted up for a short hop over the reeds, the stiff wind gave them pretty good hang time–long enough for me to make three exposures. The last one worked.”
The pilot in Andrews is present in this photograph. He understands flight and what would happen when the geese lifted off into that particular wind. The photographer in him knew to pre-compose the scene that the suddenly flying geese would enter.
Thus the formula for a fine photograph: experience and intuition combine with camera skills to turn a promising situation into a prize-winning photograph. No post-production needed.
The flight of the geese is clearly the subject of the picture. But it’s only one aspect of why the photograph works. Remove the geese and the image is still interesting. The background is composed of strongly stacked, almost equal horizontal bands. Each band has its own texture, color and substance. The morning light is strong. So, yes, the moment of flight is all important. But the setting lives up to the moment.
In the end, though, it is Andrew’s refinement of the moment of flight that attracts and holds our attention. In workshops I stress the significance of separation of elements in a composition. “No touching!” becomes the difficult-to-achieve ideal. Why no touching? Because each element in a composition has its own eloquence. When elements conflict or collide that quality is destroyed.
Consider the geese. Each one expresses the character of flight in a subtly different way. Because their wings are cleanly separated that character is made visible.
Importantly, there is a second clarification. The geese as a group are cleanly pictured against the uniform texture of the grass. Their individual bodies are like notes of music singing the song of flight. How long does this delicate melody last? Less than a moment. That’s why this photograph is timeless.
For Andrews the experience of photographic seeing is continuous. “Seeing the world with a frame in mind is something I do wherever I am–in the air or on the ground. Critical thinking is involved. That’s the challenge of photography. The reward comes when things come together and align in the frame. I get a kick out of that.”
It’s a kick he has been getting since he was given a Kodak Baby Brownie camera as a boy in Springfield, Virginia. “I still have it. Eventually I grew into using more serious cameras and in 2009 I got a digital camera. That changed everything. Now I could see what I was getting and make instant adjustments. The feedback of seeing the image allows me to think more critically about the composition.”
I asked Andrews if he photographed from the cockpit on transcontinental flights. “No. I used to photograph at altitude (top cruising elevation) but the rules governing photography from the cockpit have changed and are now a little ambiguous. So I’ve stopped. Of course I never took pictures when I was below altitude and piloting. But I still study the landscape coming together into framed compositions. Nothing changes that.”
These days Andrews actively photographs the landscape and animals in western Albemarle. Some of his favorite places are Mint Springs, Lickinghole Creek, Bucks Elbow and the south fork of the Moormans River. “Companions on my outings are my dog, a Labrador Retriever, and a camera. In a typical week I produce 500-700 images, always studying the results to sharpen my skills.”
The Aerial Horizon, Andrews’ blog of previously made aerial photographs is available free online. Visitors to the site encounter a gallery of well-composed landscapes, photographs made compelling by the perspective of flight—pictures similar in spirit to his elegant photograph of geese flying over a pond near where we live.