Crozet Calendar Clinic: Kim Kelley-Wagner

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Photo by Kim Kelley-Wagner

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.

Meeting the World Halfway

Kim Kelley-Wagner’s photograph of a horse in the landscape is quiet. That’s its appeal. In a noisy visual world over supplied with energetic images, the well-made, quiet photograph is welcome because it’s easy to live with.

As a professional photographer I made a career of producing publishable “quiet pictures.” I did so because of a strong belief in the staying power of quiet images. But magazine photographs also need to have stopping power and at one point I was warned that my images were too quiet. In response I resolved to not change but to do quiet better. That’s precisely what Kim has done with her image of the horse in the landscape. The quiet confidence of her image both stops us and asks us to stay.

She’s achieved that by making the photograph one of landscape and sky, not one of a horse. The horse, placed to the far side of the composition, looks across the landscape. We do too. What we see is the graceful, grassy Virginia countryside. Above the landscape, clouds fleck the hazy summer sky. In the distance the Blue Ridge lives up to its name. There isn’t a glaring note in the gentle tapestry of elements that make up a warm September day in the Piedmont. Her image has the painterly qualities of a timeless English landscape painting.

To create this result Kim made a series of decisions. The first involved her stance. She’s behind the horse, and low to the ground. That’s not the most promising position. It doesn’t favor the face of the horse and makes a portrait almost impossible. It dictates that the horse will be a silhouette, not a fully figured feature of the photograph. Why do this? The immediate answer is that this is a landscape photograph, not an equine one. The horse is incidental to the central subject—the unity of grassy field, hazy sky, passing clouds and distant mountains.

And yet we sense the horse is the intentional, emotional heart of the photograph. It’s the horse we look at and contemplate as its gaze takes us into the depths of the picture. This is done with delicacy. By lowering her camera Kim raises the horse in the picture plane until its head and shoulders rise above the horizon line—a visually powerful position. Thus composed, Kim waits for the horse to present a profile against the clean background of the sky. When that happens she clicks the shutter.

Documentary photographers don’t stage situations. They believe the world is enough, as is. It just has to be seen and rendered with enough clarity and feeling to be made meaningful. Like Kim, these photographers aspire to meet the world half way. They make informed decisions and take stances–horse to the side, back view, low angle, and so forth. But that alone doesn’t guarantee a result. The world must do its part. The horse must raise its head and look left into Kim’s committed composition. But the world doesn’t deliver all the time. Far from it. But successful pictures, especially quiet ones like Kim’s, depend on the world meeting the photographer half way. That’s when it clicks.

I was once faced with the same situation as Kim’s. It was a quiet scene but one rich with potential. The setting was dawn on the moors of England. Fog, a strong positive for me, was rising from the valleys. But it would soon obscure the landscape, a strong negative. The landscape mattered because the subject of my assignment was “Britain’s Hedgerows.” The distant, dimly seen hedges needed to be visible. Between those distant, faintly hedged moors and me were two wild stallions, heads down grazing in the grass. They could be used to anchor the picture by enlivening the landscape.

“Stallions on the Moors of England” by Sam Abell.

I committed to the landscape potential of the scene and fit the horses to that composition. Then I went to work, waiting. As the horses grazed and moved I moved with them, continuously re-composing them into the landscape. This went on for twenty minutes. I was doing my part but the world wasn’t meeting me half way. For the photograph to work the heads of the horses needed to be raised. That wasn’t happening.

Meanwhile the fog was steadily rising and the sun was losing its early morning glow. Soon the rich potential of the scene would go unrealized. The head-down horses continued to graze monotonously. Then, suddenly, from a far off moor came the powerful whinny of another stallion. Up shot the heads of the horses. With ears pricked, they presented identical profiles to the camera. Click.

The picture, a quiet one, had enough stopping power to be published as the concluding image in the Hedgerows story. But the picture also had staying power. Time has not lessened its appeal. In that respect it’s like Kim’s quiet photograph of a horse gazing across the Virginia countryside. Both pictures work because when we needed it, the world met us more than half way. 

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