Crozet Calendar Clinic: Bryan Parsons

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Bryan Parsons’ photograph is featured in the 2021 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.

Take a closer look at Bryan Parsons’ carefully considered photograph of Crozet Avenue. Something is missing.

The primary elements of the image are plainly evident: A carpet of phlox flanked by pavement. Prominent light poles. An array of buildings, old and new. Blue sky, white clouds.

But the photograph is most remarkable for what is absent—traffic. The empty avenue marks Bryan’s image as instantly historic. It’s in its own distinctive category—a 2020 pandemic photograph.

As Bryan recalled: “When I first got there the street was deserted. The scene was like a movie set. I almost expected a director to yell “Action!” Covid meant people who might otherwise have been out enjoying the weather were staying home. I usually seek more natural scenics and wait for people to move out of the frame, but Crozet Avenue is a much different place without people. This streetscape was designed for people and I was missing them. A town without life. It was eerie.

“I turned my attention to the main subject, the median. I wanted to emphasize the flowers while placing them in context. The best way to do that was to get the camera as close to the ground as possible.  Ideally, I would have used my tripod, but it was still in the car and I was feeling a sense of urgency with the lighting. I used a wide-angle lens to include as much of the street as possible. Using that wider lens increases depth of field and enhances overall sharpness. I set the ISO at 200 to minimize noise. I used aperture priority set at f/8 for sharpness, which also gave me a moderately fast shutter speed. This, combined with a vibration reduction lens, helped to compensate for not using a tripod.

“One element that concerned me was the sign at the other end of the median. It needed to be made less obtrusive. Moving slightly to my right placed the sign within the rectangular shape of the Mountainside building, visually making it a part of the building. But I had to make sure it didn’t obscure any of the grey roof of the building to the left.

“The planted median strip was a prominent feature in the redesign of Crozet’s ‘Main Street.’ When I first saw the county’s plans for traffic calming and streetscape improvements, I was curious to see the finished product. I think it turned out well.

“I pass this spot several times a week, so I watched the progress of the plantings as they matured to full bloom. On this particular day, Leslee, my wife, (and last month’s featured photographer) and I had gone out for a drive. Leslee often takes on the role of ‘art director.’ She drives and spots potential locations, I keep the camera ready and bail on command. By late afternoon we were on our way home and decided to come through town—‘Let’s see if the median flowers are in full bloom.’ As soon as we turned onto Crozet Avenue from Jarmans Gap Road, we knew this was the time to stop. I barely said a word before Leslee was pulling into the church parking lot.

“Crozet Avenue was unremarkable when we moved here in 1977 because Crozet was much smaller then. The town was more organic. It was only beginning to be seen as a focal point for development. There was no Old Trail, no Dairy Queen, no stoplight. There was a grocery store where the post office is now, but no new library, no Highlands, no Wickham Pond, no Starr Hill brewery.

“And then Crozet became a growth center for the county. Growth is inevitable because central Virginia and Albemarle County are desirable places to live. But how do you hold on to a small town’s identity while it’s being engulfed in a sea of new development? How do you add new features to the built environment without changing the very character of the town itself? Having both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in city planning, questions like these draw my attention, especially when they’re so close to home.”

Most pandemic photographs have been characterized by high human drama—loneliness, long lines, masked and strangely separated citizens, tests and vaccines being administered and ailing individuals being cared for.

But a quieter photographic documentation has also taken place. In these images of shuttered stores, blank intersections and vacant venues an eerie emptiness is evident. Bryan’s Crozet Avenue is in that category.

On September 24 I stopped at BreadWorks, the beloved bakery in Preston Plaza run by disabled citizens. Only a clerk was present.

“What’s happening?”

“We’re going out of business.”

“When?!”

“Tomorrow.” On a wall of empty shelves was one loaf of bread. I bought it. But not before making a photograph of the large wall and its one lonely loaf.  

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