Crozet Calendar Clinic: Corbett Smithson

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Corbett Smithson’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.

Corbett Smithson’s photograph of star trails reflected in Beaver Creek Reservoir instantly elicits two responses: Wow! and…how?

First, the Wow!

“Star trail” images have existed a long time during photography’s brief history. From the start the images have had impact. They appear to track not only light but also time.

The images have significant “stopping power” because in a dazzling way they appear to confirm what we experience at night: the stars move. But, of course, the stars aren’t moving, which leads us to…

The how?

Star trail images are made when the camera shutter is left open. That produces a “time exposure.” Over time, the stars trace their light on film or on the light sensor in a digital camera.

But it’s actually the smooth, predictable rotation of the earth that creates the impression of stars moving across the image. But the stars are permanently still points of light. Earth, including Corbett’s camera and Beaver Creek Reservoir, does the moving. Knowing this, Corbett had a vision for a new kind of image he intended to make using his digital camera and, later, some sophisticated software.

“My friend Matthew and I headed out about 10 p.m. It was cool, around 40 degrees. There was a new moon, so the stars were visible in the water as well as the sky. We had a variety of cameras and accessories and spent some time composing the scene and calibrating our equipment.”

The key move was in their use of a camera-linked external intervalometer. “It was set to fire 15-second shots one after the other. I captured 78 photos that night.”

“When you look at this photo it seems as though time is either speeding up or slowing down because of the trails. In reality, this is a multiple exposure photograph of an unmoving landscape. The trails are from the long, 15-second exposures taken one after the other.”

“In post-production the images are combined in the order of the numbers they were taken (1-78). When the exposures are ‘stacked’ on top of each other they produce images like this.”

This technique of stacking multiple images, each one slightly different, is new. It supersedes the traditional technique of simply holding the shutter open. So this photograph is, in part, an achievement of the skillful use of software in post-production.

To me, the question is, “Who is the author of the image? The photographer or the software?” In this case, Corbett is the author. Technology is being used by him to bring a pre-visualized image into existence.

“It takes time tracking weather, locations and phases of the moon before I decide to shoot stars at night. Matt and I planned this shoot for about a week. When it comes to going out looking for places to shoot at night it isn’t any different from traditional landscape photography. When I look at this image, I love the reflections of the stars coming back into the center of the composition.”

I like the story behind the making of the image. It speaks of three things: Being young in photography; being absorbed in photography’s current cutting edge and being out in the field with a buddy.

When I meet aspiring photographers I say, “Experiment widely. Consider photography a cornucopia of fruit spilled before you. Everything’s there: Black and white or color? Large format or pinhole? Old processes or Photoshop? Take a bite of each fruit. One will taste better. Stay with that kind of image making until it loses its appeal, then move on. One will last.”

We live in the golden age of photo technology. Corbett’s comfortable relationship with that is commendable as long as he, and others drawn to ‘digital magic,’ keep soul in their work.

And being out with Matt, his buddy? There’s no better way to be as a photographer. I’ve been in the field every way a person can be—alone, with a writer, with a group and with a photo buddy. All can work; buddy is best.

I like it that Corbett is self-taught: His uncle sat with him at the age of 12 and taught Corbett everything he knew about film photography. Corbett was on his way until a thief stole his camera. That stopped him and years passed. He moved back to Virginia. “Here I got serious about photography and tried to remember everything my uncle taught me.”

When I asked Corbett what subjects he liked to photograph, his instant answer was, “All of it. I actually mean ALL of it. I always have a digital or film camera with me. I am constantly taking photos of everything around me, always trying to learn.”

Corbett actively contributes to his Instagram site (Corbett Smithson). Work also appears on Facebook at Corbett Smithson Photography.

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