Crozet Calendar Clinic: Margaret Marshall

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Photo: Margaret Marshall.

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.

People are by nature phototropic—they move toward the light’, writes Christopher Alexander in his influential book A Pattern Language. He also points out that the built world is over-bright with the mood of interior spaces destroyed by illumination that is far too even. To counter this he advocates creating ‘tapestries of light and dark’ and intimate ‘pools of light’. 

I first experienced the transforming influence of such ‘tapestries of light and dark’ while riding my bicycle at night through the quiet streets of our small Ohio town. Beneath each street lamp was a pool of light. Speeding into it caused my shadow to disappear—then to magically reappear and stretch out in front of me as I sped onward toward the next pool of light. 

That memory came to mind when I encountered Margaret Marshall’s evocative image of downtown Crozet under the spell of snow and street lamps. In her image our eye travels from one pool of light to another—from left to right and from foreground to background. 

Margaret achieved this effect by making her photograph in that small window of time when the fading natural light of evening briefly mingled with the oncoming artificial light of night. Minutes earlier the light was flat and dull; moments later darkness and glaring contrast dominated the scene. But when she made her photograph there was an affecting ‘tapestry of light and dark’ between her camera and the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

As Margaret recalled, “It was dusk on the day following the big snow of winter. When it stopped I wanted to go for a walk to see how much civilization the snow had managed to muffle. I was a little worried because I got a later start than I planned and darkness fell very quickly. I was up to my hips in snow when I climbed over the piles made by the plow near the depot entrance.”

“I have lots of pictures of this spot in various seasons and times. To me this view of Seal’s/the Dairy Queen is quintessentially home. Several times I’ve been compelled to pull over at the depot and climb on top of my car when the light struck me, or when the colors were creeping down or up the mountain. The white snow of winter, the tawny trees in fall and the deep greens of spring are too pretty to pass by.”

To Margaret part of the scene could be prettier however. ““The power lines here get me. I’m always wishing them away and trying to find an angle where they won’t be an intrusion. I wish they were underground like the ones on Crozet Avenue just around the corner from this location!” 

I know what she means about the intrusion of power poles and electric lines. I’ve also spent a lot of my life wishing them away. And Margaret is right about how nice it is that they are now buried beneath the renovated Crozet Avenue. But in most of the world (except Washington, DC and Denmark, among a few other locales) the utility poles and lines are there, spoiling the view. What to do about them?

Civically, the most effective thing is campaign for pole burial—as was done on Crozet Avenue (and also at Court Square in Charlottesville). Photographically, the best solution is to find a way to integrate them into the composition, as Margaret has. “I guess their gentle drape can be a weirdly nice opposition to the mountain’s graceful curves. And because the electric warmth was what made this well-loved view extra attractive that night, the power lines seem more appropriate. I don’t mind them as much.”

But with commonly available digital retouching tools, do the power lines really have to be anywhere in Margaret’s final print? She could have ‘cloned’ the power lines away with a few keystrokes on her computer leaving a perfectly unblemished sky. But documentary photographers like Margaret want to tell the truth about the world. To these photographers digitally prettifying a photograph is also falsifying it. So these photographers march on in an imperfect world, making the most of it. 

And Margaret’s part of that world is distinctly Crozet and western Albemarle. “I first took a photography class my junior year at Western (Thank you, Mrs. Roebuck!). That’s where I learned about cameras. We did everything on film, of course. Now I mainly use my phone camera. I have about a billion pictures of the view from the fire trail at Mint Springs, the hills around Mint Springs Farm, Chiles Peach Orchard, and the view of my parent’s house as you drive up their dirt road. I take pictures every day because I love to. It’s partly nostalgic; I’m trying to make fleeting things feel permanent.” 

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