Crozet Calendar Clinic: Cass Girvin

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Cass Girvin’s photograph is featured in the 2019 Crozet 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.

As I consider Cass Girvin’s fine photograph of an Albemarle orchard in peak bloom I’m on a plane halfway to Japan. I’m traveling there to continue a photographic re-interpretation of the seminal book Narrow Road to the Deep North, written in 1654 by the revered haiku poet Basho. The book contains Basho›s impressions from several long pilgrimages he made through the then-forbidding territory north of Tokyo. My thesis is a question: ‘What would Basho see today on the same pilgrimages?’

An interesting question perhaps, but I’ve left home with misgivings. Among them, the haunting thought that while away I’ll miss seeing our local orchards in bloom. And aren’t those orchards in peak bloom one of the great spectacles to be seen—anywhere? Don’t they rival Japan’s world-famous cherry trees in full bloom? Yes, they do. And yes, I will miss their bloom.

That’s too bad because that brief, spectacular season of bloom most arouses local photographers—based, that is, on the significant number of colorful orchard images submitted to the Crozet Calendar every year. In the five years I’ve been associated with the calendar I’ve seen a great many orchard-in-bloom images. What sets Cass Girvin’s photograph apart from the rest?

The narrow road.

Imagine his image without the road. Pretty, yes, but not involving. I’m forever urging photographers, including myself, to produce work that’s emotionally or intellectually involving to others. Without that transaction an image has no real life. And giving life to one’s work is the never-ending quest of serious photographers.

How to generate involvement? Cass’ words provide an insight: “I love watching the sunrise and this photo was taken around 7 a.m. at a location I visit often with my camera. After witnessing a particularly vivid sunrise over the same scene covered by snow in March I made a mental note to return to the same spot in April when the trees were blooming. Unfortunately the sunrise this particular morning was tepid. The sky never popped. But the pink blossoms held my attention well into the daylight hours.”

So Cass himself was involved: “Location I visit often…made a note in March to return in April…sunrise didn’t work…but blossoms held my attention…I stayed with it.”

This is key. If you aren’t engaged with your image others won’t be either. And personal engagement is usually provable. You “stay with it.” In Cass’s case staying with it resulted in a thoughtfully made photograph where the character of the road humanizes the scene. We can easily picture ourselves on that quiet road.

But could the photograph have stimulated even deeper involvement? Cass thinks so: “I frequently frame this scene with a wide angle lens. However, with the sky being so bland, I didn’t think a wide shot would work. Instead I chose a tighter framing of the repeating figures of the blossoms retreating over the hill, bisected by the road. I didn’t really have to move far to do so—a few steps here or there to get between a tree.

“In retrospect I wish I had stepped a few feet to my left so both dogs would be fully visible. Truthfully, I didn’t really consider the dogs in my composition in the moment. However, when I got home and saw the image on a bigger screen, I realized the dogs provided a point of interest and a little bit of pop to the photo. I wish I could’ve gotten both dogs standing in the middle of the road!”

So do I. But I also understand, and sympathize. Cass is right. The dogs are vital. They finish the road; the road finishes the photograph.

A word to non-photographers who will see only the blooming orchard: Cass, I, and other photographers will see only the could-have-been dogs. This is common. Inability to see the insignificant but life-giving detail of a scene afflicts most photographers most of the time. Even in the most accomplished image our mistakes glare back at us.

But this is also how photographers grow—by further resolving to studiously stay with a scene to see what elements, if any, exist that could animate the image. Then articulating those elements. In this instance by seeing the dogs, valuing them, then taking that extra step to place them cleanly on the road. It sounds easy, but actually isn’t. Why? The beauty of the orchard is blinding.

But that blinding beauty didn’t keep Cass from seeing ‘the narrow road’. By making it, not the orchard, the centerpiece of his composition, Cass succeeds in creating emotional involvement. We easily inhabit his photograph and accept the road’s invitation to enter the orchard. It’s hard to ask more from a photograph than that. 

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