Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Looking for Humanity

I have long had an idea for a photo series that would study the relationship of man to his natural environment. This concept is an extension of my study of the human mind and consciousness, all related to my efforts and study to understand what it means to be 'human'. The photo project is waiting for me to come to some sort of creative conclusion as to precisely what I want to express and also how to convey that message through the photographic medium. My Street Photography Series is the beginning of this process.

It must go much farther than the restrictive environment of man existing - for better or worse - within the self-constructed cocoon of concrete, glass and steel that urban street photography captures, however. Much of the Western world has developed an unfortunate - and potentially fatal - idea that man exists separately, above and independently from what we consider the 'natural' environment. The urban environment is the perfect construct of this reality. Too many of us consider the natural world - those parts that remain mostly unaffected by man's presence and mechanizations - as an alien thing. A thing to be avoided, at minimum, and preferably subjugated and cleaned up a bit at best. The real truth is that, even buried deep within our most impressive skyscrapers, we never exist completely apart from the external environment. We can temporarily alter parts of it to suit ourselves and our unfortunately misplaced and misdirected egos, but in spite of our best attempts the entropy inherent within the broader system always, inevitably catches up with us. This process is actively manifesting itself all around us even now, although most don't have a deep enough understanding of natural processes to recognize what is happening. Worse, many of those who do have an inkling, but an interest in maintaining the status quo, work to promote obfuscation and/or denial.

One of the purposes of art is to open channels of communication not otherwise available to us. By sidestepping the more accustomed verbal channels of interaction and encouraging the viewer to pause and be exposed to a new perspective, art can sometimes deliver a message that might be otherwise missed or never considered.

A friend of mine, Shane Steinkamp, has spent a good portion of his life trying to come to terms with this not always subtle reality. Among my broad group of friends, he is one who can speak clearly and at length to the general concepts touched upon in the paragraphs above. He has also been experimenting with photography and video as a way to convey some of what he has learned. He is, unsurprisingly, a naturist who eschews the artificial shell represented by clothing and prefers to shed that shell whenever a practical opportunity to do so presents itself. During a recent canoe trip with friends, he took a series of photographs which mark a new level of success for himself in the photographic medium, but also served to help clarify where I want to go with at least a part of my project. Of the photographs he posted for us to see, two were standouts in-so-far as what he was trying to accomplish. The two photographs posted below were taken by Shane and then processed by me.

I immediately saw the potential in these two images and decided to see if I could help them along a bit to better communicate what I saw in them and what I thought would better reflect Shane's intent. The first image is of Shane balanced on a fallen tree in a remote section of the Mississippi's Black Creek. I am really attracted to the dynamic of this shot. The composition is spot on, with the shattered trunk anchoring and dominating the lower right and the flat diagonal of the fallen tree leading to and literally - as well as visually - supporting the obvious focus of interest, Shane himself. A case could be made that the figures presence is too small within the frame, but for this image to work as intended it requires the broad angle of view of that long, fallen tree trunk and the resulting void around the image only enhances the sense of place. The pose speaks directly to raw exposure and joy in this scene. The original is in color, but the photograph, to my eye, is far stronger in black and white as the conversion both removes the distracting element of color and forces the focus onto the parts of the image that are most relevant.

(click on image to enlarge)            Release

The next image is actually my favorite of the pair and speaks more directly, if more subtly, to what we are trying to convey with these photographs. Shane set up for a long exposure and then positioned himself in Black Creek for the shot. The result was this photograph:

(click on image to enlarge)          Water Spirits

As with 'Release', the composition is excellent. The presence of the main subject is again a bit small within the frame, but the sense of place is critical and, accordingly, requires an enhanced place in the subject's background to effectively convey the moment. One of the most important aspects of this image is the tension in the subject which is communicated to the viewer within the subtleness of body language. This is not the quiet, immobile, zen-like moment it appears to be at first glance. Note the curve in the subjects back and the expression on his face. His eyes are closed, but he is not relaxed. He is forced to lean into the slow but steady current as the water flows by, implacable and unrelenting.

These are parts of the message we need to deliver. The photograph 'Water Spirit' speaks directly to the metaphorical description of mankind's increasingly precarious position. It requires attention and careful balance to maintain ourselves in an ever moving and changing environment. Failure to achieve this balance will ultimately result in our being swept away with nary a trace.

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