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.
Jessie Duff-McLaurin’s intimate yet expansive photograph made from within the mighty arms of an ancient oak tree belongs to a class of photographs I refer to as ‘subject driven.’ In these images, the subject is so compelling it seems to dictate that the picture to be made. As a working photographer, I liked coming upon such strong subjects. They made my life easier. But strong subjects didn’t make their own picture. They didn’t even make my life easier. They put me to work, just as the old oak tree put Jessie to work.
In the face of compelling subject matter even experienced photographers can forget photography’s fundamentals. Quality of light, depth of space, context, even basic composition, go unconsidered. Instead of assuming that “the subject is the picture,” photographers should come to a full stop—or at least pause for a moment—and say, “This is a strong subject. What can I do to make it stronger?”
Jessie did quite a bit. “The photo was taken late in the afternoon, during that magic hour of long shadows and gentle glowing light. It’s my favorite time of day, especially up here on the mountain. The oak tree rises in a meadow near an old but lovingly restored chestnut-log cabin, built in the mid to late 1800’s. It is a place I visit regularly, at various times of the day, to gaze at the view and admire the old oak. The huge, curving branch in the photo points the eye to the mountains beyond.”
There is much to appreciate in Jessie’s brief description: time of day, familiarity with the site, affection for the tree. And, crucially, her point of view: It is from within the tree. By relating the nearby branch to the distant horizon, Jessie has transformed the scene into an enveloping landscape of great reach and depth.
Most importantly she’s understood that the way to make the grand tree even grander is to be suggestive. “I feel my point of view might make one ponder what is not seen in the photo—that is, the size and majesty of the tree from which that huge branch emanates.”
In answer to the question about where in western Albemarle she photographs, Jessie answered, “Well, mainly right in my own backyard: Buck’s Elbow Mountain and Calf Mountain. Living where I do affords great opportunities to engage with nature and photography. It is an isolated spot with dense wood, open meadows, streams and a remarkable variety of flora and fauna. Magical things can happen up here.
“The most unique wildlife experience I’ve had involved a ruffed grouse. One day I was working in the garden, turned around to put something in the wheelbarrow, and there was a ruffed grouse sitting on it. I called her “Ruby.” She followed me everywhere, came in the house, jumped in the car, sat on the drawing board in the studio, landed on my head and pecked insistently on the glass door asking to be let in. She stayed a few months and then left, perhaps enticed by a suitor, I like to think. I have a shameful number of photographs of this quirky wee creature, who was so very photogenic. That’s because I almost always have a camera with me whether inside or out. I don’t like to have to utter the words, ‘I wish I had my camera with me.’
“I am also drawn to architecture and interiors, and am absolutely wacky about shadow. Where there is light and object, there is shadow and I am often drawn more to the shadows than to the object itself. Shadows are subtle, calm, more meaningful, more mysterious, more beautiful.
“There is a splendid little volume by a famous Japanese novelist, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, called, In Praise of Shadows. In it he discusses various aspects of the Japanese aesthetic by touching on architecture, interiors, light and shadow, poetry, and even paper. His work resonates and this aesthetic influences my photography, as it does everything else in my life. He describes Japanese paper as seeming to ‘take in the light, to envelop it gently like the surface of the first snowfall.’
“Photography has been a part of my life for a very long time, thanks to my father. He was a fine photographer with a wonderfully innate sense of composition, of light and dark and an eye for what was interesting and told a story. He gave me a Kodak bellows camera on my 10th birthday. He was an excellent mentor and we had such a good time shooting together.
“I now simply aspire to keep on with the art of photography, which for me is a contemplative art. Photography encourages us to see things as they are—nothing added, nothing missing. There is poetry and beauty in everything, just waiting to be seen. Tanizaki said, ‘An art must live as a part of our daily lives or we had better give it up.’ How true.”