Crozet Calendar Clinic: Kim Kelley-Wagner

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Kim Kelley-Wagner’s photograph was featured in the 2020 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.

Fine photographs are usually the result of three elements—subject, setting and moment—coming together in a meaningful way.

Almost everyone gets the subject and moment right: A child blows out the candles on a birthday cake. But the setting? It often goes unseen. That’s why I ask photographers to reverse their seeing. I want them to compose the room, the cake and the candles without the child. When the moment is right fit the child to the scene. 

So, the mantra is: Setting first. Subject second.Moment last.

Kim Kelley-Wagner’s excellent image of a lone rider set against a field of grass at Miller School is a fine example of the mantra at work in real time. As she recalls, “The photograph was taken on a cold, overcast day when the ground had thawed and the wind was beginning to feel a bit friendlier. One could hear hounds barking at a distance, which meant I was not in a good place for getting any photos. I had lost the hunt, or so I thought. I was on foot, carrying two cameras over ground that was uneven and muddy. I had been slogging through the woods, the fields and the hills for hours trying to keep up with people who were on horseback.”

This is a familiar story to many photographers. Kim was futilely chasing the subject (the hunt) through settings—like the forest—that were photographically unpromising. What she needed was a setting that would work for her. Then a subject. Then a telling moment.

“I had just made it to the road when a lone rider came out of the woods. I froze. The scene was perfect. A cold breeze was causing the tall, golden grass to roll like ocean waves against the contrasting, almost black tone of the trees. The light gray of the horse and its rider as they “swam” through the field was beautiful. I took several shots. Then they turned away from me. For a moment I was disappointed. Then, from a distance, they heard the blast of the huntsman’s horn. Both rider and horse turned towards the sound. That’s the moment I captured.”

The three elements of setting, subject and moment often come together quickly, as they did for Kim. But she saw the promising setting, tracked her subject and stayed with it. She was ready for the decisive moment when the horse and rider presented their profiles. It takes experience to see situations such as this evolve in your favor. And the only way to get that experience is to do what Kim does—steadily practice photography.

“I adore making photos! I take my camera pretty much everywhere. I go to certain favorite events on a yearly or regular basis: I love the “Zombie Walk” in Richmond at Halloween, the Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello each July 4th (where both my own children were sworn in as American citizens), the Mattaponi Pow Wow and the Richmond Art Museum with my children. I also go to events, like protests, where I can get editorial shots and powerful interactions between people. But I also like making photographs of my daughters reading or playing chess, or people getting coffee, a back alley, clouds, fences and the things my cat kills and brings home. And anything abandoned and lonely.

“Abandoned places, especially ruined, vacant buildings, are one of my favorite subjects. I choose places of abandonment because although they appear to be devoid of life, upon closer inspection they are full of discarded artifacts that represent countless lives, stories, and dramas played out in spaces that were once filled with life; they are testaments to survival.

“Abandonment is a theme that hovers in my family as my daughters were both abandoned as babies. As a family we have worked together to create a series of photographs dealing with the theme of abandonment—placing together once vibrant, sheltering spaces, now forgotten, with two people that were once abandoned, but who are now very much wanted and loved.

“For eight years my daughters moved through the same abandoned rooms and posed as they wished. They moved around as they wanted. Sometimes they interacted with each other, sometimes they were alone. I photographed them thousands of times. As they grew and changed the light and the objects in the room shifted and changed. It was cathartic; the photos are haunting. It remains my favorite project because it is one that we did together over an extended period of time. It evolved and grew as we did.”

I have not seen the moods Kim and her daughters generated in these photographs. But I can tell from her process that by choosing the places first and then populating those places with people she was practicing the mantra that leads to meaningful photography: Setting first, subject second, moments last. 

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