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Newsletter, Spring 2005

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Landscapes - of the Eye
and of the Mind

by Mary Talbot

Rolling hills, farm fields, lush woodlands, rivers, and lakes: a photographer’s delight. All of these, and much more, are to be found in Northumberland County in southern Ontario, as in many places right across Canada.
It’s not often one sees hand-built wheat stooks any more, but I came across these in Northumberland County last August. Besides the brilliant greens and golds, what caught my eye were the lines formed by the hundreds of triangular-shaped stooks climbing the rolling hills. I chose various angles, including this one, to bring out the lines and shapes, and photographed the landscape with a small aperture to give good focus from front to back.

While very drawn to making abstract and close-up images, I also enjoy expanding my horizons and absorbing wide-open views. Landscapes surround me and provide me with beauty and inspiration. From my property in the country I can see quite some distance and, although I love to visit other places both near and far, I don’t have to travel around the world to find striking scenery to photograph.

Across the north, I follow the seasons as Nature colours the mixed woods in the valley below: fresh yellows and greens in spring; more muted greens in summer; saturated reds, oranges, yellows, and browns in autumn; and soft whites and blues of snow blanketing the evergreens in winter.

To the south, the closest field lies fallow. It is returning to its natural state and becoming home to many different species of wild flowers and a place where birds find food and shelter.

Looking easterly, or westerly, I watch the sun’s rising, or settings, noting the northern and southern ends of its range at the spring and autumn equinoxes. There are certain clumps of trees which, as silhouettes, will complement the background hues of sunrise or sunset photographs.

Never the same twice, sunsets from my property range from subtle pastel hues to flaming reds and oranges. In this image, I not only wanted to capture the fiery colour but to complement it with the silhouette of an oak tree. Shooting straight into the light created the silhouette and I emphasized the tree’s triangular shape by placing it in the centre of the image. I included a very small base to indicate the distant hills.
Living on top of a ridge allows me to see squalls like these miles from my home. Although I wanted to give somewhere for the rain to land, I did not feel it necessary to include any more of the hills as they were not the subject of this image.

Not only do weather and season influence my landscape images, but my approach may also depend on my mood, and on what I see and feel around me. Light spring and summer rains can give a certain sense of nostalgia. If I get up early enough in autumn I am often rewarded with mist in the valley, mist which outlines the series of hills. Occasionally, on a still morning, hoar frost touches everything with a soft sparkle.

Early morning mists accentuate the individual rows of hills across the valley from where I live. To set them off, and to lend a sense of perspective, I moved my camera and tripod until I had several clumps of cedar trees in the picture space, balanced from side to side so as not to overpower the hills.

With any type of photography – or any other form of art, for that matter – we first need to learn to use our equipment so that the technical aspects become second nature. We also need to arrange the subject’s design elements into satisfying, balanced images. Simplifying composition is central to creating effective images. If a work is too cluttered, it may be difficult for the viewer to appreciate or enjoy, and it may have little impact. We communicate more successfully if we can identify what drew us initially and then accentuate that by narrowing the elements down to those necessary to give the desired impression and by placing the key element where it will best impart our message.

Light is essential in photography. The quality of the light directly affects the feeling of images. While it may be pleasing to have a blue sky in a landscape, if it is made when the sun is high the resulting photograph may also contain deep, contrasty shadows. The less-white sunlight at the ends of the day lends an expressive richness to a landscape; moreover, the even light of an overcast day eliminates strong contrasts. On the other hand, a washed-out sky can not only look uninteresting, it can also draw the eye away from the landscape. Unless it is the sky itself which is the subject, we don’t always need to include it at all.

Photographing glass, particularly old glass with imperfections and interesting shapes, is fascinating and absorbs me for many hours. Simply changing the focus on part of a glass object can change the “painting.”

Although I am uplifted by the lengthening of days each January, I know that the number of days when the winter sun will be low enough across the southern sky to pour in through my kitchen windows is decreasing. When it is too cold to photograph outside for long, I sometimes buy flowers from a local flower shop or bring out some glass, particularly old glass with imperfections or glass with interesting shapes along the rim. Working with these on the counter can absorb me for hours. There is almost a sense of urgency as I know that soon I won’t have direct sunlight in that room to reflect onto the flowers or to shine directly onto the glass.

Sometimes I discover a landscape in a piece of old glass, or on a barn door, or on the side of a long-abandoned car in a junkyard. I think of these as landscapes of the mind and they seem to fit The Canadian Oxford Dictionary’s definition of the word “landscape” just perfectly: “Natural or imaginary scenery, as seen in a broad view; a picture representing this.”

Using a 28-200mm zoom lens to obtain good depth of field at fairly close range, I explore all kinds of subjects, including metal, wood, rusty cars, barn doors – anything that has interesting textures, shapes, lines, colours. What the subject is is not the point here.

It is a matter of letting go, of allowing the mind to explore what the eyes see, and of not remaining confined by the words used to identify things. It shouldn’t matter that what I see is really part of a track in the snow, or of a car door, or of a piece of sculpted metal. To quote from Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson’s Photographing the World Around You:

“When we consciously challenge ourselves
to open our eyes, to remove familiar labels,
we will discover that the world around us
— wherever we are — is as visually exciting
as any place we can possibly imagine.”

It is not as important for us to know what the actual subjects of landscapes such as these are as it is to let our mind’s eye take us where it will, to allow ourselves to feel rather than to analyze.

As long as we approach our photography with an open mind and eye, and allow ourselves to let go of the day-to-day things which can absorb us, we should be able to see things afresh and to be amazed at the world around us, in all its diversity. If we don’t try to control our seeing, but rather explore subjects through the lens fully and without imposing restrictions on ourselves, we may achieve new direction, growth, and excitement. We may not only capture satisfying landscapes in the traditional sense but also find serendipitous landscapes which exist only in the eye and the mind, but which are no less real.

Landscapes are everywhere; some of them are more in the mind.

Author Bio: Mary Talbot is an award-winning photographer and freelance editor who lives in Northumberland County, Ontario. While primarily self-taught, Mary has studied with prominent Canadian photographers Freeman Patterson, André Gallant, Richard Martin, and Stephen Patterson. She runs workshops in composition, has made presentations of her photography to camera clubs and other interested groups across southern Ontario, and has had images accepted by the Canadian photography magazine Photo Life. Mary is also administrative assistant to Farley Mowat and contributed to an article about Farley in the first issue of The Empress; a first article in which she shared other aspects about her photography also appears in the issue. Anyone wishing more information about Mary’s photography or wanting to purchase prints may contact Empress Books at empressbooks@empressbooks.com. We’ll gladly pass along your requests to Mary.

All images and text Copyright © 2005: Mary Talbot

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