Crozet Calendar Clinic: Bryan Parsons

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Bryan Parsons’ photo of the Crozet Parade was featured in July 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.

“I want to celebrate Crozet’s small-town character whenever I can.” With that straightforward sentence Bryan Parsons summarizes the spirit of the Crozet Calendar and of the photographers who work to make it meaningful.

Crozet’s small-town character is on its most spirited display at the annual Fourth of July parade. Meanwhile, on display here is Bryan’s photograph from last year’s calendar. Not so obviously on display is the thoughtful work that went into making his photograph a success. In describing his process Bryan reveals that he began thinking about the pictorial possibilities well before he made the photograph.

“I got there before the parade started with the intention of photographing the event from start to finish. I’d been to this parade several times in previous years (I live nearby) so I knew the color guard would be leading it off. I wanted an image that would present the color guard as the primary subject in front with the parade trailing behind. I selected a position by the Dairy Queen facing north. The dip in the road by the rescue squad and then the rise up toward St. George Avenue gave me a better angle on the vehicles coming down the hill.

This is a big event for a small town and I wanted to capture that feeling in my photograph. I like to take pictures that generate a positive emotional response in the viewer. In this case, it’s the image of a community complete with fire trucks, flags and families with kids chasing candy.”

Embedded in Bryan’s approach are several elements that go into making a successful photograph. First of all, he was motivated by a desire to express a personal feeling. He wanted to convey an emotional sense of the parade but also a feeling for Crozet’s character. With that goal in mind, Bryan paid attention to his stance. Based on his prior knowledge of the parade route he chose a specific spot that would yield the result he wanted. So, to a great extent, the photograph was pre-determined. Many photographs are.

I know that because in my career as a National Geographic photographer I tried to pre-visualize as many pictures as possible. But there were limits. I was itinerant and had to move on. That made me appreciate photographers like Bryan who had deep roots in their culture and community. They could return again and again. I could not.

Bryan speaks to this in a reflection of his time here: “I’ve lived in Crozet since 1997. I’ve watched it change over the years. I knew Crozet before it got its stoplight. I remember when MusicToday and Starr Hill Brewery were Conagra foods and the Dairy Queen was a real gas station with service bays, when Acme was still around and there was a grocery store where the post office is now. I’m not a native by any stretch, but I feel an attachment to this town that I didn’t have in a suburban setting like Northern Virginia, where I grew up. I buy groceries at Great Valu, get my prescriptions from Parkway Pharmacy, go to Fardowners for a burger and beer, walk the family dog to Mint Springs Park, get my hair cut at the Modern Barber Shop, gas up at the Dairy Queen, load up on fresh peaches at Chiles orchard, attend the raffle twice a year at the firehouse, photograph the Crozet Choir during their Christmas concert at Crozet Baptist Church and on and on.”

Many of us share this history and these unique Crozet customs. But what does living a dedicated local life mean to a practicing photographer? It means knowing where and when to be when conditions are ideal for photography. For Bryan it meant knowing about ‘the dip in the road by the rescue squad and a half dozen other things about the parade. But returning to that spot was not enough. Bryan needed the atmospheric conditions to favor him. As he recalls: “The parade started at 5 p.m. Weather was partly to mostly cloudy. The result was high, diffused light which evened out exposure and prevented strong shadows. The diffused sunlight was coming from over my left shoulder which gave nice portrait lighting for the color guard’s faces.”

These are the words of a professional portrait photographer, someone who knows the importance of lighting. Did parade watchers notice the difference between diffuse and direct light that afternoon? Probably not. But to Bryan, and to his photograph, the quality of light was crucial. That’s because he was treating the event both as a parade and as a portrait opportunity. A portrait of small-town life, yes. But also a portrait of five men.

That all five of the men are recognizable is an achievement. The moment matters. In any other moment it’s very likely that at least some of the faces of the honor guard would be more obscured. That would have diminished the emotional effect Bryan was after. Thus there are two compositions for him to consider—the macro-composition (the overall parade scene) and the micro-composition (the five faces). Thoughtful photographers organize the macro-composition first—to get it out of the way—so they can concentrate on the fine detail and intricate timing of the micro-composition. The photograph works because the faces of the men are successfully set in the larger context of the parade.

Accomplished photographs like Bryan’s seem inevitable. That happens when the work—in Bryan’s case years of it—is invisible to the viewer. 

Bryan’s website is bpphotos.com. He also has work on display at the Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital Cancer Center as well as at Bryan’s Photo Store on Ivy Road.” 

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