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.
“Try to be there when things happen.” That sparse sentence was the only advice—or was it a subtle command?—I received from a National Geographic editor in the 33 years I worked there. But the words, spoken in 1971, came from Robert E. Gilka, the august, taciturn director of photography who had recently hired me out of college because I had, in his eyes, “potential.” It was potential I wasn’t living up to at the time, however. He wanted me to do better. That is, he wanted me to produce publishable pictures. I was a purist and wanted the fundamental elements of photography—the structure, texture, color, quality of light and sense of space—to be enough. Gilka wanted that too. Plus content.
I took Gilka’s words to heart. They still guide me. And I thought of his admonition about being there “when things happen” as I studied the serene winter photograph of the pond in Crozet Park made by Gay Baker. The picture has many of the fundamental elements I admire in an image. Plus a happening. Just enough is happening to bring the picture to life.
As Gay recalls, “Following a snowfall, my husband Scott and I made the short walk from our home to Crozet Park where we frequently take our dogs. As we were walking along the far side of the pond, we could hear the honking of approaching geese. I immediately turned, raised my camera and began taking pictures as they flew into view. I was able to get multiple pictures of them flying into the park, curving towards the pond and then landing on the water. I took several after they landed in order to catch the rippling movement of the water.”
It’s the rippling of the water that catches our eye and incites the question, “What’s causing the ripple? Something’s there. What is it? Geese!” So there is a sense of discovery as well as an implied action in Gay’s photograph: Geese have just landed.
Provoking a question in the viewer’s mind is a difficult but desirable achievement in photography. In this case, Gay succeeds because she “photographed through” the full evolution of the geese landing. In classic action photography the climax—geese splash-landing on the pond—has already taken place. But by staying with the event Gay captures the quieter, and to me more enduring, aspect of the aftermath—the rippling rings of water.
Thinking about this raises another question, “When does a happening happen?” Is it the dynamic splash-landing of the geese or the quiet, question-provoking aftermath of the rippling water?’ In photography done for publications the answer is almost always “the dynamic peak of action.” Editors know that’s what people want to see.
But a case can also be made for the well-crafted moment before, or after, the peak of action. Over time I’ve given more attention to the moment just before an action is to take place. To me that sustained moment of coiled concentration is visually interesting. Plus it lasts longer than the instantly over climax of the action.
In Gay’s diverse photographic life she has many opportunities to render the moments before, during and after the action. She’s a grade school teacher. Talk about happenings!
“I teach second grade at Crozet School and take a lot of pictures of my students to share with families. Pictures that capture my students excited, engaged and interacting with friends bring particular joy. Each week I email families a link to our class newsletter. I post pictures on a Weebly page blog-style. I believe my Baker Bunch families appreciate getting to see what their children are doing each week in school. Not only is it an effective way to communicate, it also provides parents a starting point for conversations about the school day.”
When Gay’s not doing that she’s photographing wildlife, landscapes, her three grandsons, her nieces and nephews—and her two shelties. “My husband and I take our shelties to the park often. I frequently take the camera with me but especially make the effort after a snowfall. Shelties love the snow and delight in running and playing in winter weather. It has been fun to catch their joy in photos.”
Gay summarizes her thoughts about photography with an insight and a sentiment shared by many of the contributors to the calendar: “Like most people these days, I take a lot of pictures with my cell phone. For me it is a very different experience to focus through the lens of an actual camera. I keep one camera at school and one at home so one is always within reach. In recent years I’ve become more aware of how photography has helped me to slow down, be mindful and appreciate the beauty around me.”