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.
The drama in Beth Seliga’s photograph of downtown Crozet comes from three elements—her vantage point atop the Mountainside Senior Living building, the flowing shape of the Amtrak train and the presence of heavily layered clouds.
Of the three elements the most influential is her point of view. It’s a unique vantage point, one for which Seliga needed special permission. But one of the best things about being a photographer is getting to places others can’t—or don’t—get to. That ‘behind the scenes’ feeling is so enlivening that for some photographers the experience of being in a privileged location exceeds the feeling generated by their finished photograph.
That’s not the case with Seliga’s image. It instantly delivers the exhilarating feeling of being on the roof of a tall building, peering over the edge and watching a silver train streak through town. By using a wide angle lens she also shrinks the scale of the scene somewhat. The result is that familiar downtown Crozet gets an unexpected make-over. It now takes on the charming look of a scale model train layout.
That is fitting. Crozet’s very name comes from Claudius Crozet who in the 1850’s was civil engineer for the (then record length) 4,237 foot Blue Ridge Tunnel that permitted a rail connection between Nelson County and the Shenandoah Valley. Crozet is a railroad town still. Freight trains rumble through it daily. The tracks bisect the town and define it’s development. Every blast of a train whistle is the sound of our history.
But the character of trains and their central place in our community aren’t easy to photograph, especially in a fresh way. As Seliga recalls: “It took a little planning to get this image because Amtrak only runs through town at specific times. Additionally, I had to co-ordinate a time with the Mountainside Senior Living staff in order to access their roof for this particular angle. In retrospect, this could have all been accomplished much more seamlessly with a drone.”
Yes and no. Seliga’s point of view is one a drone could duplicate. But a significant part of the photograph’s success comes from the slow shutter speed she selected to convey the motion of the train. For that she needed a tripod to steady her camera. And calculating the correct shutter speed takes human judgment, based on experience. There’s only a single shutter speed that will render enough detail to allow the train to be seen legibly and at the same time blur its forward motion, thus imparting a sense of speed. A fine line exists between too much and too little blur. Can a drone critically compose the picture, select the shutter speed and simultaneously steady itself for a long time exposure? Not yet.
Then there’s the exact placement of the train. To see it best, the train has to be near the building Seliga is on but not be obscured by nearby foliage. Only one place is ideal. And the train has to be the sleek, shiny Amtrak ‘Cardinal’. A dark, bulky freight train would absorb the light, not reflect it. Because of these factors, Seliga is down to one intense moment. If she misses it the next passenger train at this time of day will be in two days. And, of course, by then the clouds would not be the same.
Those clouds matter. Their somber mood gives character to the sizable top half of the photograph. A blank blue sky would have left much of the image bland and the overall effect unbalanced. As is, the visual energy of the clouds balances that of the train.
Because of the enterprise shown in getting to the roof of Crozet’s tallest building I asked Seliga where else in western Albemarle she went to photograph. Her answer was emphatic.
“Everywhere. We live in a beautiful area of the world and it’s easy to find inspirational corners in Crozet. I have a strong personal commitment to sustainability and to the environment and feel my happiest in the natural world.”
“My favorite place, however, is anywhere in the mountains. Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway are an endless source of inspiration to me.”
That answer could easily lead one to assume that Seliga is a landscape photographer. But she considers herself primarily a photographer of relationships.
‘My interests lie in digging deep to find the authentic and heartfelt emotions of a moment. For years I covered the professional cycling world. The first race I photographed was won by a racer who had just lost his father. The story for me was not his win but the way he processed his loss through the race. I bring that commitment to authentic story telling to my clients, including those celebrating weddings in our area.”