Since the start of the pandemic, many (most?) of us have have found lots of time to catch up on books and movies (among other things). Of course that also includes me, and as a photographer I find it hard not to find parallels between my chosen creative medium and these others. The tension in books and movies, whether dramatic, comedic, or some combination of both, originates from the interaction of characters with each other and/or their surroundings, and the change that interaction spawns over time. Which of course got me thinking about whether it’s possible to create tension in a still photograph, and if so, how?
Though we might not be conscious of it, the best photographic images do indeed convey a form of tension. It’s human nature to seek relationships, not just in our lives, but in our art as well. Every relationship has inherent tension, an invisible connecting thread that pulls tighter as the relationship strengthens.
Lacking the passing of time and the change it brings, still-photographers must create tension by setting up relationships between disparate elements in our frame. We signal these relationships, thereby dialing up the tension, through careful positioning of compositional elements (Google “rule of thirds” and “golden ratio”).
The most obvious relationships available to landscape photographers is the juxtaposing independent physical elements in the scene. For example, pairing a foreground tree or flower with a distant peak permanently creates a relationship between two formerly unrelated subjects. Reflections are an easy way to connect a nearby water feature to a distant subject. And then there are the dynamic celestial elements like the moon and stars, and ephemeral weather phenomena such as lightning and rainbows, that make powerful connections with terrestrial subjects.
But wait, there’s more…
Even though no time passes in a still frame, landscape photographers can and do signal time’s advance. Whether conscious of it or not, when we photograph the color and light of the natural boundaries separating day and night, the broken clouds and rainbows of a clearing a storm, or the juxtaposition of elements distinctive to two seasons, we signal the passage of time and the tension inherent in its inexorable march.
Lacking other features to set them apart, the cliched nature of sunrises and sunset images diminishes their power to generate tension—in other words, sunrises and sunsets are a dime a dozen, so if you’re going to photograph one, you’d better make an effort to put it with a strong scene. On the other hand, though it’s always important to seek a strong composition regardless of the conditions, the more rare the change, the better it can overcome an otherwise ordinary scene.
A clearing storm can feel like catching lightning in a bottle (a nice rainbow can elevate nearly any scene), but an even rarer opportunity to capture change is a scene with clear signs of two seasons. That’s especially true in my home state of California, where seasons tend to be more of an afterthought. But that doesn’t mean opportunities to photograph seasonal change here are nonexistent. California does get spectacular spring wildflower blooms, and our autumn color display (though maybe not as spectacular as some other places), can be very nice.
Bracketing spring and autumn on one side is summer, hands-down California’s least photographically compelling season. But on the other side of spring and autumn is winter. While most of the state doesn’t get snow, our mountains do (and lots of it)—capturing late snow on wildflowers and dogwood (an extremely rare event), and early snow on fall color, are real treats.
So maybe I should have warned you that there’d be math…
Which brings me to this image from my visit to Yosemite during an early November snowstorm. I really don’t need to go on any more about this day—if you’ve been reading my blog for the last couple of months, you’re probably well beyond sick of hearing about it. But it does illustrate the synergy of combining two seasons in one image. No one can deny that fall color is beautiful, and fresh snow is beautiful too (which of these is more beautiful is in the eye of the beholder, and a debate for another day). But if we were somehow able to quantify beauty, I suspect that we’d find the total amount of beauty (“beauty-units,” “beauty-bucks”?) in a fresh snow on fall color image would exceed the sum of the beauty derived from an image with fall color plus the beauty of an image with fresh snow.
You could attribute this synergy to the relative rarity of snow on fall color, but I think the power goes deeper than that. There’s just something about change the ups the stakes, so even though this is nothing more than a (totally unprovable) mental exercise (maybe I’ve been locked up too long), I’m sticking with the theory that the synergistic power of an image that combines the distinctive best of two seasons is the tension of change it conveys.