Crozet Calendar Clinic: Robert Gutkowski

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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.

‘A calendar picture’ is the phrase used to describe a photograph of near universal appeal. But sometimes the phrase is heard to describe not a picture of a scene but the scene itself: ‘That looks just like a calendar picture.’

Such a statement might be heard to describe the scenic appeal of the view looking west from Route 680 as it crosses Garnett Dam and Beaver Creek Reservoir comes into view. The elements of the scene—a gracefully meandering body of water surrounded by forested slopes and backed up by the Blue Ridge—come together to form what professional park planners call ‘a scenic climax’. If residents of western Albemarle County had to name one public vista that describes the natural and man-made beauty of their region, the most-named one might be Beaver Creek Park from the dam. It’s our ‘calendar picture.’

The challenge for photographers is to transcend the ready-made composition of that ‘calendar picture’ and make an image that does justice to the deeper moods of the park. Robert Gutkowski has done that by making a habit of regularly traveling past the reservoir, always accompanied by his camera and his awareness of the photographic potential of the scene.

“I always travel with my camera, even if it’s just to the hardware store. And I make it a point to drive past Beaver Creek Reservoir on my way to or from work. There are often birds, fishermen, individual rowers or the crew team out practicing. Even if no one is on the water, the view towards the hills is often worth a picture. And the reflections in the water make a great mirror image, especially when fog is covering the slopes and peaks.

“On this day I knew fog would give me a good opportunity. It was creating noticeable separation in the slopes above the water. As I pulled into the parking area near the boat slip I saw a rower, dressed completely in white, pass by. I made a few pictures of the white-clad rower reflected on the lake against a background of the dark forest. I thought it would make an interesting image, which it did.

“But I wanted to get a longer shot that took in more of the water and the fog-covered hills beyond the lake. I went back to the dam where I could look both down onto the water and out towards the surrounding shoreline and distant hills. I began composing the picture. As I did so I could see the rower returning, his silvery wake and white outfit making a bright point against the dark surface of the water. I knew he’d likely hit the perfect spot if I waited a bit longer. I was correct.”

Gutkowski’s finely crafted photograph falls into a category of images I informally refer to as ‘dioramas’. (These are the three-dimensional miniature models, usually enclosed in a glass showcase, that are commonly seen in history museums. Using small figures set against a large painted landscape, dioramas typically depict a bygone era, such as ‘Life in Colonial Virginia.’)

Success in constructing an actual diorama, or a diorama-like photograph, depends on mastery of scale and proportion. The relationship between the large landscape and the small figures has to be satisfyingly ‘just right.’ In Robert’s image the actual rower is too small. But because the rower is seen against the bright background of his own wake he is sharply defined, almost silhouetted. In this sense it’s less about the rower and more about what’s directly behind him.

But the gesture of the rower matters too. The balanced position of his uplifted oars is ideal. Taken together the trio of elements—the rower, his raised oars and the fan-like wake behind him—are enough to enlarge the scale of the small rowing scene. So there are really two compositions for Robert to consider—the overall composition of the landscape and the ‘micro-composition’ of the rower. The end result is satisfying because the balance, scale and proportions between macro and micro are near ideal. The ‘calendar picture’ of Beaver Creek comes to life.

Gutkowski concluded, “I think our brains take in more than we are conscious of at a glance. But photography allows us to capture moments in time and examine them at great length. I try to make those sorts of photographs. My hope is that anyone from the area who looks at the Crozet calendar will recognize the place or subject that’s portrayed and get a feeling of home—but also see where we live in a way they might not have considered before.”

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