Crozet Calendar Clinic: Jan Harrison

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Jan Harrison’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.

“Craft isn’t enough. Compelling photographs also have heart.”

With those words I gave a dozen photographers enrolled in a recent online workshop their last assignment: Submit a newly made image that is built with craft but which lives on because your heart is also in it.

What I had in mind was a photograph like Jan Harrison’s endearing image of sledders at Mint Springs. It has craft, high intention and a very happy heart. 

As Jan says, “The central reason I love to photograph is to capture the movement of life-in-action so that it is stilled and one may gaze at it un-rushed, pondering movement’s meaning. Whether it be of a gleeful child sledding down a hill or gazing into an aquarium, a photograph can capture a fleeting moment potentially lost to memory.

“I had specifically gone out to shoot photos of the snow because sledders are a spectacular resource for stopping life-in-action. I moved to several locations in order to frame the sledders, waiting for them to be strategically placed across the hill.

“I made the photo using a Canon EOS camera with a  zoom lens. I prefer shooting with maximum aperture, but I  was afraid I would lose focus with kids flying down the hill, so I closed the aperture to avoid being out of focus and to hopefully capture the whole hill of sledders.

“I tell people my equipment is more impressive than I am because I mainly shoot with manual settings. But I often rely on the lens’s auto-focus; my lenses are faster than I am when trying to quickly capture a split-second moment. I set the ISO and aperture and let the camera determine the shutter speed and auto-focus.

“Since the age of digital, I take far more photos than I ever would have taken with film. I shot 130 photos of the snow that day, around 50 of the sledders. I also intentionally added the pine tree branch in the foreground in several of my pictures.”

Jan had enough camera savvy to feel confident. She also had intention. The weather that day motivated her as did the prospect of action. “I was inspired on that wintry day to stop all work and photograph snow and sledders.” 

Then came the crucial act of editing. It’s here that feelings enter the equation. “I chose 2 out of the 50 as favorites that I submitted to the Gazette. The photo chosen for the calendar was my favorite of all 130 photos made that day. I love the little boy balancing on one leg as he is making his way up the hill. It reminded me of Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day that I read thousands of times to my little ones decades ago.”

Jan is right. The heart of the picture is the dynamic moment of the child’s gesture. Though small in stature the boy, looms large because of the white background he is set against. The well-defined posture of his dad also contributes to “the heart” of the picture as does the nearby sledder. 

Jan’s photograph reminds me of another beloved illustrated book. William Kurelek’s A Prariie Boy’s Winter charmingly depicts the life he knew growing up in a large family on the snowy landscape of interior Canada during the stark years of the Depression. Like A Snowy Day, Kurelek’s book is cherished for the craft—and heart—that was put into it.

Of course all artists suffer some for their art and Jan is no exception. “I have loved taking photos lifelong. I was given a Kodak camera when I was six. Even so, I had little means as a child and little when raising four children, so photos were limited, usually taken with point and shoot cameras.

“I was given a Minolta 35mm when my third child was born Even then, photos were few because of limited means. 

“I also had a strange, uncanny, regular experience of photos being lost often through no fault of my own. I have no newborn photos of any of my four children. The last photo loss experience was when my car was broken into. 

“The thief thought he was snatching value in my purse. All that was in it were 5 rolls of precious undeveloped film I had been guarding with my life during a 3,000-mile, 5-week cross-country trip with my four children in a minivan. While swimming at a sunny pool, I had intentionally left my purse in the cool, shaded car to protect the film. We were almost safely home. It was the last time I lost precious photos. The digital age was just around the corner.”

So too were timeless moments like the one captured in Jan’s thoughtful, heartfelt photograph of a sledding party at Mint Springs. 

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