Crozet Calendar Clinic: Sam Abell

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Don Detmer’s photo of Fox Mountain was featured in June in the 2017 calendar.

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.

Not all photographs can be easily inhabited by the viewer. The picture must invite you in. But when you enter, the image comes alive. ‘Barn and Fox Mountain’ by Don Detmer is one of those inviting photographs that the viewer can easily inhabit.

That welcome feeling is created by the stance Detmer takes relative to the landscape. He’s above it. Because of that the landscape flows down and away from him to the barn at the center of the composition. Our eye follows. From there the scene expands to include the breadth of the valley and the towering tree. At the back of the composition the broad, rhythmic profile of Fox Mountain dominates. Above it all are the turbulent clouds of the departing storm. Shafts of strong sunlight and corresponding shadows sharply illuminate the scene.

The result is a finely balanced photograph in which the visual weight of each dissimilar element—valley, barn, tree, fence, road, mountain, clouds, bright light and dark shadow—are essentially equal. A pleasing harmony exists in which the elements seem to visually speak to one another. So it’s not only easy to enter the image; it’s easy to stay.

Detmer recalled the circumstances of the day and his relation to it as a photographer. “It was mid-afternoon. I had just stepped outside my office door and was looking at Fox Mountain and down the hill a bit in order to get the right feel for the items in view—the black walnut tree, Fox Mountain, the barn, and the edge of the paddock. There had been a storm and the clouds and lighting were just so rich and dramatic.

“I steadily track this scene throughout the year. I look at the bridge and stream, Fox and Pasture Fence Mountain as well as the huge ash tree and tiny cemetery in the center of the farm. I see all the weather that hits our area since I’m looking up into Brown’s Gap and see the storms arrive from the north and then see their aftermath, including an occasional double rainbow. I probably take 80 percent of a year’s photos at the farm.”

Detmer’s recollection of “looking down the hill a bit to get the right feel” reminded me of a conversation I had 30 years ago while working on the book Contemplative Gardens. The author, Julie Messervey, and I were above the garden at Villa Serbilloni near Bellagio, Italy when she asked me how I felt. “Pretty contemplative,” I answered. “Why? What goes into creating your contemplative feeling?” I looked around and said. “I’m sitting with my back against a small stone building. My gaze is downward into the garden. In the distance there are hills. So, first of all, the stone hut makes me feel secure. Secondly, I feel engaged by looking down into the design and details of the garden. Lastly, I take inspiration from the distant hills. I think, ‘I might go there someday.’”

My casual thoughts that day amounted to a personal formula for landscape appreciation: a secure situation, elevation above one’s view, involvement with the middle ground of the scene and inspiration from the most distant elements of the landscape.

In the decades since then I’ve tested that formula for achieving a contemplative state of mind in many landscapes. It’s held up. But of the elements involved the most important is height above one’s view. Gazing downward, even slightly, enhances the esthetic experience of being in the landscape. The scene opens up, and deepens. That’s why the traditional Japanese teahouse is elevated above the garden. An elevated all-American back porch works too. It’s why my wife has so many pictures of me standing on a car with a camera in my hands.

But Detmer’s photograph depends for its success on more than his stance above the scene. The atmosphere created by the departing storm is the central subject of the image. As Don said, “The clouds and lighting were just so rich and dramatic.” I mention this because June ushers in the long days of summer and with them the season of thunderstorms. The county has already seen several of these spectacular storms pass through. The arrival of these storms—and their departure—presents another good reason to be out photographing. Finally, Detmer used the camera in his phone to make the photograph. Its slightly wide-angle lens is ideal for inviting the viewer into the image.

In closing, there is a unique chapter of Detmer’s life that deserves to be known. It illustrates that through photography there’s more than one way to “invite people in.” In Detmer’s words:

“Between 1989 and 1999, we lived in Pavilion I on the West Lawn of the U.Va. grounds. I took countless photos of the Academical Village during that time as well as pictures of many visitors. During that time my wife and I started an annual Halloween pumpkin carving party for the Lawn students. I have some wonderful photos of the parties and also of the growing numbers of folks who came to the Lawn each successive year in costume for ‘trick or treating’.”  

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