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.
It’s 2022 and that means a fresh Crozet Gazette calendar. Once again, the calendar, and this column, will present a new photograph each month, one carefully chosen to coincide with the current season.
So why, in January, are we discussing an image of a local orchard in full bloom? Because the photograph, by Nate Ostheimer, is on the cover of the newly released calendar.
Having your photograph on the cover is a conspicuous honor. But it’s also a qualified one.
Covers have to carry expansive type which can obscure important aspects of the underlying image. Since it’s the purpose of this column to discuss the finer points of photographs, Nate’s atmospheric cover image appears here in print, for the only time, unadorned by type.
Covers are consequential for photographers. In my own career I underestimated their power. That’s because for twenty years I didn’t have a cover for the magazine I worked for. Then I did. Only then did I understand a cover’s sustained and far-reaching visibility. That’s why “getting the cover” was prized. In celebration, the photographer whose image was chosen had to throw a themed “cover party” for the editorial staff. Decor, food and drinks for the party had to come from the country or region featured in the photograph. Skol!
But who decides what images adorn the covers of magazines, books and calendars? Not photographers. They are regarded as too close to their work. Most often it is a committee of dispassionate editors and marketing experts. Uppermost in their minds are three questions: First, will the image help sell the publication? Second, is there suitable space for type? Lastly, does the image have compelling visual power? In summary, does the cover photograph attractively (and honestly) reflect the contents of the publication?
Nate’s image positively answers those questions. The blooming orchards are the romantic symbol of life in western Albemarle County. The type boldly floats above the fog of the photograph. And the essence of Nate’s strong composition comes through, despite the overlay of type.
But what does his photograph look like standing alone? In addition to the colorful trees a somber abandoned house emerges from the fog. The decaying structure balances the vibrant trees and gives the image a strong sense of human history. Fog unifies, and softens, the elements of the image.
Also balancing the image is the account of its making, a story that, as told by Nate, strongly involves his family.
“It was about 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I was in the kitchen preparing batter for waffles when my wife, Margaret Hess, came in from walking our dog. She well knew I’d been talking about photographing the orchard while the peach blossoms were at their peak and said I’d like the morning’s foggy atmosphere. With her encouragement I stowed the batter in the refrigerator and headed out. She was right. The atmosphere was almost mystical.
“It was one of those saturated early spring mornings where parts of the landscape seemed to slip in and out of the low-lying fog. That allowed the pink peach blossoms to really pop against the overcast backdrop.
“I wandered up Jarmans Gap Road on the edge of the orchard taking photos from a variety of spots. As I was walking back toward my car, I noticed how the old farm house seemed to be perfectly positioned between the fog-shrouded hillside and the peach blossoms.
“What struck me was that the blossoms seemed even more vivid given the relatively monochrome backdrop. I liked the contrast of this and thought it gave off an intriguing, eerie quality. It reminded me of the haunted houses in old Scooby Doo cartoons. It was a compelling scene and turned into one of my favorite photographs made this past year. My wife was right (as she usually is).”
It helps to have your family on your side. But that doesn’t always happen. One of the most frequent comments I hear is, “The family doesn’t get my need to photograph.” I understand both sides. The compulsion to photograph is real. So, too, is the family’s objection. Photography, which is about stopping and waiting, can interrupt the flow of family life.
What to do? There are solutions. Carve out solitary picture-making time for yourself, even including dedicated photo trips. Or take a workshop to be with other like-minded individuals. Or, best of all, photograph with enough discretion that your family, like Nate’s, is on your side. You’ll know that has happened when your spouse says something like, “I think you’d like the atmosphere this morning. Why not go up to the orchard you’ve been wanting to photograph?” (Who knows…you might make the cover picture for the new calendar.)