Crozet Calendar Clinic: Henry Thompson

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Henry Thompson’s photograph won an honorable mention in the 2017 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.

We live in the golden age of remote photography. The most consequential (and brilliant) photographs of our time have been made remotely. They are the astonishing images from the far reaches of the solar system. As they have streamed in we have been given sublime, and scientifically significant, glimpses of worlds never before seen.

Elements of the sophisticated camera technology used to make those images have trickled down from outer space into our backyards. It’s now possible to render intimate images of ‘inner space’ that also haven’t been seen before—like the inside of a modern bird feeder.

Henry Thompson’s regal portrait of a cardinal inside his family’s bird feeder in Afton is an excellent example of what is now possible with remote photography. But in describing his process it’s clear that even the most capable camera needs to be guided by human intuition, vision and decision making.

“This photo was taken in the morning after a heavy overnight snowfall in late January. I believe it was still snowing, and very overcast. Because of the snow covered ground, the feeder was very busy. So I decided it would be easier to get a close up shot of one of the birds. I used a GoPro Action Camera, which has a very wide-angle lens. This allowed me to get a view of almost the whole feeder. It didn’t take very long to get the camera set up correctly—the cool thing about the GoPro camera is that you can get an app on your phone which shows you what the camera is seeing. So I was able to walk away and watch the camera’s feed on my phone. When a bird came by I could see if the camera was positioned correctly.”

“I set the camera to take a photo every 5 seconds, and let it sit at the feeder for about an hour. When I went through all the photos, I had a bunch of photographs with all different kinds of birds. I chose the cardinal because its red color contrasted with the white, snow-covered scene in the background. I also liked how the cardinal was turned to the side, so you could see its recognizable silhouette.”

Every aspect of Henry’s process—from pre-visualization and preparation to the timing and final editing of his image—matches the process used to bring us images from outer space. In every important regard this is a human-made photograph.

Within that process the most critical aspect was Henry’s observation that a snow covered backyard was the ideal setting for his photograph. Snow worked in three ways. It restricted the bird’s available food and concentrated activity at the feeder. It gave cool contrast to the warm color of the cardinal. And it smoothed the busy background of the yard. Snow on the ground and gray clouds in the sky turned the world into a photo studio. (Gray is the most congenial color in color photography. It makes other colors better. Blue, as in blue skies, does not.)

Henry’s editing is also astute. He chose a profile so that the distinctive beak and crest of the cardinal are featured. The result is a dramatic, yet intimate portrait of a bird that is instantly recognizable as Virginia’s beloved ‘state bird’. (As well as the ‘official state bird’ of six other states.)

Beyond the portrait other elements power Henry’s picture. One is the strong structure of the feeder itself, particularly the apex of the roof. It gives a ceiling to the composition and adds framing strength to the bird’s profile. The other element is the plexiglass tube the bird is perched upon. It gives a foundation to the composition. The synthetic material of the cylinder also places the photograph in our time.

Does the inevitable distortion of the ultra wide angle lens matter? Initially, yes. But the strength of the portrait and the privileged perspective we’re given overcome objections. The picture prevails.

Henry was a teenager when he made this picture. I mention that because the most elegant images to emerge from remote photography have been of the rings of Saturn. The person most responsible for those images is Carolyn Porco. As a teenager living in light-filled New York City, she was once invited to a neighbor’s rooftop to peer through a telescope. She saw the rings of Saturn. It changed her life. She grew up to be co-originator of the idea to take a ‘portrait of the planets’ with the Voyager 1 spacecraft, and participated in the planning, design, and execution of those images in 1990, including the famous Pale Blue Dot image of Earth.

An amateur telescope on a New York City rooftop. A backyard bird feeder in Afton. Two teenagers experimenting with remote photography. 

Connection? Why not. 

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