“Did you put that leaf there?”
I’m frequently asked if I positioned a leaf, moved a rock, or “Photoshopped” a moon into an image. My (truthful) answer is always the same: “No.” I suspect I’m asked this so much because I aggressively search for natural elements and patterns to isolate and emphasize–they’re not hard to find if you look.
We all know photographers who have no qualms about arranging their scenes to suit their personal aesthetics. The rights and wrongs of that are an ongoing debate I won’t get into. But the pleasure I get from photography derives from revealing nature, not manufacturing it. There’s enough naturally occurring beauty to keep me occupied for the rest of my life.
Nature is inherently ordered–in the big picture “nature” and “order” are synonyms. But humans go to great lengths to control, contain, and manage the natural world. We have a label for our failure to control nature: chaos. Despite its negative connotation, what humans perceive as “chaos” is actually just a manifestation of the universe’s inexorable push toward natural order.
Imagine all humans suddenly removed from Earth. No lawns would be mowed, buildings maintained, floods “controlled,” oil drilled, etc. Let’s say we return in 100 years–while the state of things would no doubt be perceived as chaos, the reality is that our planet would in fact be closer to its natural state. And the longer we’re away, the more human-imposed “order” would be replaced by natural order.
Embracing the concept that nature is inherently ordered makes it easier to find order when you explore the world with your camera; photographic success suddenly becomes a function of your ability to convey nature’s order with your camera. Elements and relationships, lost in the confusion of 360 degree human sensory input, can snap into coherence in the rectangular confines of a photograph.
What does all this have to do with a leaf on a rock?
The leaf clinging to a wet rock was just one of thousands of colorful leaves decorating the cascades of Bridalveil Creek in Yosemite. By carefully positioning it within the finite boundaries of my frame, I was able to make the leaf stand out from the confusion of the competing elements surrounding me. In other words, I’m controlling your experience of this moment by giving your eyes a single element on which to focus, and capturing it against a simple background that allows you to plug in your own sensory memories. Hear the water? Feel the chill?
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