Crozet Calendar Clinic: Bryan Parsons

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Bryan Parson’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.

Compelling photographs are often the tightly composed section of a scene. The whole scene is too vast, or too vague, to make an interesting image. But a section of it—often just a sliver of it—can have worth. That’s what photographers typically concentrate on.

But occasionally the whole world speaks with one voice and shouts out, ‘Take my picture!’ It’s the job of photographers to hear that call, get into position and make an image of the entirety of the scene.

Last summer such a call went out from Rockfish Valley. Bryan Parsons heard it. The result is on the cover of this year’s Crozet Calendar. When asked how he made the photograph, Bryan recalled:

“I was on a late Sunday afternoon drive with my dad. We were exploring Crozet and Greenwood looking for landscape photo opportunities. A large cell of thunderstorms had come through the area that afternoon. Remnants of those storms were still blanketing the valleys and wrapping around the mountains. I wanted to get above the low-lying clouds so drove to the Route 250 overlook on Afton Mountain.  Portions of the valley were still visible through the clouds. I set up in a slender clearing between several trees and went to work.”

“When I saw the scene I thought of Brigadoon, the Lerner and Lowe musical where an idyllic magical village rises out of the Scottish mist once every 100 years, and only for one day. The landscape below that overlook could be a perfect setting for Brigadoon.”

I know what Bryan means about that overlook. Even on an ordinary day the view is mezmerizing. How many weary travelers have stopped at that overlook and been so charmed by the view that they’ve vowed, ‘I will live here someday.’ I know I’ve felt that way—and I already live here.

Meanwhile, Bryan’s light was diminishing quickly. “I had to work fast. Set up the tripod, set the exposure, compose the image. Then make a number of photographs using a range of focal lengths. I worked until the light lost its color.” That’s what one does when face to face with a dramatic and rapidly evolving scene—cover yourself with choices, then decide later which is best. Bryan was being mindful even when the intensity of “getting the picture” was greatest.

I’m interested in what occupies the mind of photographers when they’re in the flow of making a fine image. Other than envisioning Brigadoon, Bryan was thinking about a particular school of painting. “I admire the painting style of the Hudson River School. I especially like the way those artists used light to enhance a landscape. My favorite photographs are those that remind me of the Hudson River School.”

Bryan’s color photograph is in the aesthetic tradition of those famous artists (who also often worked from—and famously painted—overlooks). But he could also have been thinking about Ansel Adams. He made one of his most iconic black and white photographs, ‘Clearing Storm, Yosemite’, from an overlook—one very familiar to him and to countless other visitors. Both Adams and Parsons rendered a broad landscape dense with lingering clouds. In both images it’s the presence of clouds that gives a deeply layered dimension to the valley below.

So photographers have their spots—those places they know well and think of when weather conditions and light are changing. It’s there that they go. But, as Bryan said, “I had not visited the Afton overlook for some time. I have two favorite Rockfish Valley overlook views other than this one. The first is the VDOT workers memorial overlook on I-64.  The second is a small clearing between mile markers 1 and 2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.”

Other locations Bryan favors are Chiles orchard, the landscape along Route 810 between Henley’s Orchard and White Hall, Mint Springs, Greenwood, Beaver Creek Reservoir and downtown Crozet.

“My camera and tripod are always in my car and I’m on alert for opportunities to capture a dramatic landscape like this. People sometimes ask how I got so lucky capturing a particular image. I tell them that luck happens when opportunity and preparation meet.”

That preparation has been ongoing for some time. “I’ve been making photographs since the late ‘60s when I was a Boy Scout in northern Virginia. My troop had two dads who were professional photographers—one with National Geographic and the other an AP photographer at the White House. Later I got to know another White House photographer and spent hours in his basement looking through pictures of the presidents from Truman through Nixon. I admired those people and often fantasized about being a National Geographic photographer whenever I went traveling.”

Bryan Parson’s work is displayed at Bryan’s Photo Shop in Townside Center, Charlottesville. 

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