by Jim McGee
Be vewy vewy qwi-et. I’m hunting images. Ha ha ha ha ha
Maybe it was the cold, but all of a sudden Elmer Fudd was talking inside my head.
I was experimenting with the composition of the scene before me and it was about as elemental as you could get. Ice crusted white snow sculpted by the wind into the waves of a frozen ocean, and a single tree against a gray sky. Kind of a photographic haiku. But like that deceptively simple poetry, which takes so much tinkering to get just right, this deceptively simple image needed just a bit more tinkering somehow.
For each composition I was swapping lenses back and forth as part of an equipment test and I was cold.
Eleven degrees and a steady 20 plus MPH wind blowing across the field directly into my face. To get to this spot I’d eased over a waist deep snowdrift crusted with ice on my knees, spreading my weight out just enough that I didn’t fall through. Just one more shot and there – it finally looked just right in the viewfinder. Snap.
Elmer Fudd’s voice was a definite sign I was a little too cold. Time to get back in the truck and warm up. After all I’d bagged my image and the feeling it gave me warmed my chilled fingers and toes. Back in the truck I pictured the shot in my minds eye. But since I was shooting film, and not digital, I knew there was always a chance it wouldn’t turn out exactly the way I envisioned. Soon enough the light table would tell the tale.
As photographers we trip the shutter thousands of times. But there are those few images that really hit the hot button for some reason. Those images that, as you press the button, you’re grinning and thinking, “this is really cool!”
It’s a feeling you never outgrow. The most grizzled pro still gets that rush and many photographers can still remember the first time they felt it. It’s what keeps so many of us out there shooting. At the risk of sounding perverse I think that little bit of uncertainty that comes with shooting film actually adds to the moment.
And with film you get to feel the rush twice. First when you press the shutter and then again when you put your slides on the light table or pull your prints out of the lab’s folder.
The funny thing is almost any subject matter can elicit this feeling. Early on it may be that sweeping “Ansel Adams” vista. But for experienced photographers it’s often the small things, the details, or the unusual. Some tiny detail that delights the eye. Or some simple, elemental composition.
Ready, Aim, #&$!@* ! ! !
Sometimes it seems that all you need is a little patience and great opportunities fall into your lap. But some days you’re destined to come back empty handed. That’s not to say you come back without images – you just don’t come back with that perfect image you pictured in your minds eye.
That same snowy day I was driving down a lonely rural road in southern Pennsylvania when I saw a groom leading horses into a field of virgin snow. Even better the horses were in high spirits and proceeded to tear around the field at a gallop throwing snow into the air with their hooves and jostling each other for position and nipping at each other as they ran. What a great photo op!
I got the truck off the road grabbed my gear and jumped out with visions of tightly cropped images of horses breathing steam and motion and snow flying!
But as soon as the horses saw me they stopped running, trotted over to where I was standing, and just stared at me. The groom wandered over and explained that they were used to getting snacks over the fence so that any time someone was standing there they stopped to look for a handout.
“But sometimes they get the idea you’re not giving them treats and they start playing again.”
After twenty minutes I discovered that the horses had more patience than my cold toes so off I went. But the photo in my head was a really beautiful shot. Really.
A couple of days later I found myself on the street in downtown Philadelphia. I had a couple of frames left on one of the rolls I was about to drop at the processor and I had the idea that a bicycle messenger riding in the rain with a bright colored slicker and the spray flying might make an interesting shot. Another possibility that presented itself was a huge puddle that stretched a third of the way across the street. I knew the cab drivers would be aiming for it if there were anyone walking by on the sidewalk – another unique action shot.
So I camped out in the cold rain in the edge of a doorway and trained my lens toward the puddle figuring I’d take the cab or the bike messenger – whichever fate threw my way. Forty minutes later I’m wet, cold, and miserable and not a sign of a bike messenger. Not only that but the cab drivers were actually being polite and slowing down or swerving so as not to splash people on the sidewalk. If you live in the Northeast you know just how unbelievable that is. So reluctantly I hit the rewind button and started into the lab. At that moment, I kid you not, both a bike messenger and cab tore through that huge puddle simultaneously while I stared in disbelief.
Any of us who’ve been shooting awhile can look back on similar situations. But then that’s why it feels so good when you do bag that image that’s exactly what we saw in our mind’s eye.