Crozet Calendar Clinic: Rob Gutkowski

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June Winner: Spring Breakout by Rob Gutkowski

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.

Frederick Law Olmsted would have liked Robert Gutkowski’s photograph of groups of people mingling on the open lawn at Beaver Creek Reservoir Park.

Olmsted, regarded as the founder of American landscape architecture, designed New York City’s Central Park, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and more than 500 other beloved public parks and private gardens.

A core tenet of his design philosophy was the creation of unstructured green spaces. He contended that in such places people would find their own pleasure, be it picnics, informal musical events, kite flying, baby strolling, exercising, sunbathing, dog walking, dozing or informal socializing. Unstructured green spaces would be the permanently open page upon which an endless number of stories could be written.

But over time, in park after park, many of his open green spaces have been hardened into highly structured (and often unused) sport facilities, pavilions and paved parking lots.

Not so at Beaver Creek Park, where an expansive green lawn flows gracefully towards the reservoir. Beyond that rises the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was this setting that drew Robert’s attention late one spring afternoon. But there was more. As Olmsted prophesied, people were creating their own pleasure in that unstructured space.

“When I arrived, I saw several large groups of people. Each group was distinct from the other due to activity, clothing, age and so forth. One very noteworthy aspect of the groups was that several had unique cultural or ethnic compositions. The students in the foreground were from Asia; the group in the background was a blending of Iraqi and Afghani families who’d met in Charlottesville. In their respective homelands it’s unlikely those two families would have met. But a son from one family had married a daughter from the other family. That is a familiar story for many Americans.”

Robert continued, “Having lived here for 15 years, I’m not surprised. Beaver Creek Park often hosts groups of students, or resettled families, or university staff, or workers from all over the world. On this particular day each of the groups had their own reasons for being at the park—graduation photos, a picnic, a day on the water. I wanted to capture the theme of a shared space so I walked to a higher spot.”

Robert’s decisions were consequential. He chose late afternoon because, as he said, “Sunlight comes in at a low angle. That makes the contrast between light and shadow more pronounced.” He was right about the importance of that slanting light and the long shadows it created. Graphically, those shadows are an integral part of his photograph.

He also chose an elevated vantage point. This was critical. An elevation gain of only a few feet opens, and deepens, the landscape. Within this newly created depth, crucial separation of the different social groups was realized.

This principle of landscape enlargement through simple elevation gain has been brought home to television viewers through the now-widespread use of video-equipped drones. Skillful drone pilots can place the camera at ideal elevations just above the unfolding scene.

This year’s broadcast of the Kentucky Derby is an example. From personal experience I know the Derby is visually chaotic from ground level. There’s no way to sort out the action. But this year a drone flew just above and slightly behind the thundering horses. The resulting vision of the intense race was stunningly intimate and deeply immersive—all because the point of view had been elevated.

About Robert’s photograph there remain two considerations. One, the boat in the upper left corner. Though distant, and small, it is cleanly articulated. As such, it awakens the entire back layer of the photograph. It also enhances Robert’s intention to illustrate the many uses made of the park.

As long as the boat remains clarified (not long), Robert can turn his attention to the main subject, the mingled foreground group. Ideally, he would want the clumped group to disassemble into discrete individuals and/or smaller but well-composed units. In one word: separation. Does that happen? Almost! It’s very close. But that’s documentary photography. It’s hard to get all of what one wants into a single fully-clarified image.

But compositional perfection isn’t the goal. Authenticity is. And Robert’s photograph rings true, especially in regard to his larger thought: “I am always surprised at the cultural crossroads that is Crozet. I have had the great fortune to live and work in several places outside the U.S., and I am struck with a little nostalgia when I see a quinceanera party or hear Arabic music and smell grilled lamb. I think some folks might be surprised at how much diversity one can find in a Crozet park on a beautiful day.»

Robert’s photographs, submitted to the Crozet Gazette calendar in the last decade, and titled “Book of Days” are viewable at: https://flic.kr/s/aHskMBf1e5. 

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