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.
“I needed to get out of the house.”
In one succinct sentence Leslee Parsons sums up what many photographers have been feeling for more than a year. But she felt it last March when the pandemic-induced shutdown of society was only in its first month.
“I had been put on an every other day work schedule due to Covid and decided to take a drive. Chiles Orchard has always been one of my favorite places to visit, especially during this time of year. I parked on a side road near the orchard and walked among the trees.
“I noticed the various shapes created by the blossoming branches—circles, ovals, rectangles and triangles. I could see how they framed the blossoms in the background. I took probably 100 or more photos. For me that’s a lot. Interestingly, this was the sixth picture I took.”
“My equipment is simple—an Apple iPad. I like that I can see a full-sized version of the image on the screen. That makes it much easier to compose. And I don’t have to worry about all the technical things. In other words, it’s simple to use and lets me think about just the picture itself.”
“The picture itself” is embracing. By placing the iPad within the arms of the tree Leslee wraps the orchard around the viewer so that from left to right, top to bottom and front to back there is no escape from the pink blossoms.
That seductive point of view may be appealing on site, but does it result in a compelling photograph when one is back home in the cool confines of the editing chair? Rarely. That’s because the color becomes chaotic. It’s too much of a good thing.
An image looking to survive that fate needs to be graphically grounded. Leslee achieved that grounding by centering the composition on the boldly declarative horizon line on the back layer of her composition. Around the anchoring of that line the blossoms dance—but in a choreography controlled by the photographer.
Leslee further enhanced the photograph by astute choice of time of day. “It was 6:30 pm, cloudy and cool. Diffused lighting was making the colors of the blossoms seem more vibrant.”
How is that possible? Wouldn’t direct sunshine make the orchard more brilliant? No. Direct sunlight does create brightness. But it also creates darkness. For every highlight there is a shadow. The result is a condition known (to me) as “broken light”—light broken into alternating bits of bright and dark. This splintering of light can be useful when a particular quality of visual movement is called for. But direct sunlight and its shadow often result in the deadening of images. That is especially true in floral photography.
Diffuse light envelopes the scene and everything in it. The blossoms, wrapped in light, almost seem lit from within. To that effect add the influence of the gray sky. To me, gray is the most consequential color because it makes all other colors better. In summary: diffuse over direct; gray over blue.
Leslee came to this day with a rich background in photography, one that will sound familiar to photographers born around the mid-century.
“I started taking pictures for a Girl Scout badge. While still in grade school my father hired me to take pictures of the construction of Tome School, a private school in Cecil County, Maryland, that he supported. He owned one daily and a dozen weekly newspapers in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and New Jersey where my sisters were allowed to work as proofreaders. I was daughter number three and chose to learn about the advertising and printing sides of the paper and what was going on in the darkroom. That led to relationships with the newspaper photographers. I tagged along to sports and other activities and learned to develop and print those images.
“For the 1974 yearbook I spent time taking and developing pictures. Specifically, I spent time taking candids of our students. There were seven in our graduating class so it was an interesting challenge to make a full book of that year.”
For decades the small town newspaper and high school yearbook were the building blocks of careers in photography, including my own. Today when aspiring photographers ask me how to get started I want to invoke those two eternal institutions—the town paper and school yearbook. Except they weren’t eternal. Improbably (to me) they’ve ceased to exist across much of America.
But Crozet is one of those special towns with its own paper, the Gazette. And while the paper’s calendar competition isn’t a yearbook, it is still something to aspire to. When I asked Leslee about her photographic ambitions she said, “Someday I’d like to get the cover of the calendar.”