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.
Daily Practice Makes Perfect
It’s orchard blossom time in western Albemarle County and that means local photographers are out in force. The brief but closely watched bloom of the fruit trees signals the end of winter and the beginning of spring. It also signals the greatest concentration of submissions to the annual Crozet Gazette calendar contest. With so many competing photographs it’s hard for one image to stand forth to represent this singular moment of beauty.
Nate Ostheimer’s image does so by understating the spectacle of the bloom. That’s not easy. After months of a barren, brown look, the local landscape doesn’t just come alive. It puts on the most dazzling color display of the year. At such times it must seem to photographers that the landscape takes its own picture. Just point a camera at the orchards, click the shutter and a successful picture is made. But the result is often nothing more than an unorganized splash of color.
The test for aspiring photographers is to go beyond the surface spectacle of the colorful bloom to express the underlying landscape. That is, if the color of the flowers were taken from the photograph, would it still be interesting?
Nate’s photograph passes that test. But that doesn’t mean his image is without compelling color. By choosing to photograph just after sunset Nate has captured the orchard’s brief but intense transformation from bright pink to deep rose. Twilight does that. Garishness is gone with the departure of direct sunshine. For a few minutes, a luminous glow brings the landscape to life. The orchard seems lit from within. The result is a serene, settled feeling.
Nate recalled the change in lighting. “I had been out a good portion of the day photographing the blossoms around Chiles’ Peach Orchard. It had been a clear sunny day and the lighting was a little too harsh. As dusk rolled in the lighting seemed perfect to make the blossoms stand out. I hopped in the car after the bedtime routine with my sons and drove back over to the orchard parking lot. Initially I took some close-up pictures of the blossoms as well as panoramas of the trees with the Blue Ridge as the backdrop. I was getting in the car to head home and drove to the southwest end of the orchard and came upon this scene. I was able to line up and capture this photo.”
Adding to the settled feeling of the photograph is the inclusion of the weathered farm building. It gives scale, a sense of history and hominess to the scene. It’s hard to overstate the importance of such an inclusion in the image. The old farm building allows us to emotionally inhabit the picture. But such an inclusion also brushes the picture up against a not so desirable, overly sentimental effect.
That’s kept from happening by the restrained, lit-from-within quality of the color. It’s also kept from happening by the concentrated quality of the composition. The elements of the image—orchard, mountains and sky—center themselves on the building. And, in a quirk of design and construction, the building seems to have an interesting personality. We look at it; it looks back at us.
I asked Nate if his image was a ‘one-off’ or had he been watching the scene develop over time. He replied, “It was partially both. I had spent a lot of time photographing the peach orchard. This specific scene had jumped out at me before while driving past, but I had never stopped to take the picture. With the way the blossoms popped out from the last rays of light, I decided to stop this time. I try to have my camera with me most places I go. I’m trying to get in the habit of scouting particular places and watching them change over the course of the year.” Such close attention to the orchards implies a long-standing interest in landscape photography. Nate agreed. “I’ve liked to take pictures of landscapes since I was a teenager, but I really got interested in the nuts and bolts of photography while doing medical residency in Salt Lake City. On a whim, while my wife was out of town, I bought my first SLR (Nikon D60) and started to play around with it. That would have been around 2009. That’s where I learned how to use manual settings on the camera to take pictures. It was also a beautiful place to practice landscape photography.”
I was curious how he kept motivated to photograph now that he wasn’t living near the dramatic mountains of the west. His reply intrigued me. “In late 2013 a group of my friends decided that we would each make a New Year’s Resolution. Mine was to take a photo every day for the year. It was through this experience that I really developed my eye for looking more closely, trying to look at the whole sum of a scene as well as the main focal point. It also helped me work on positioning myself to capture the best photo without relying as much on a zoom lens. It was certainly a challenge to capture a new and interesting photo each day of the year, but was a lot of fun and really helped me become more complete in how I take photographs.”
Note: Nate Ostheimer’s Picture a Day project for 2014 is posted on a Tumblr page.