Can Photographs Make the Ordinary Interesting?
About a week ago, I posted a gallery of pelican photoson my Web site. A few were white pelicans, which are inarguably beautiful. A few more were of adult brown pelicans, which have lovely heads of white and ochre, and grizzled edges to their primary feathers. But the majority were of immature brown pelicans, whose coloring is brown all over and pretty drab.
A couple days later, a friend commented on the Pelicans gallery: “This is a bird that I never considered attractive and only photographed if nothing else was around, usually sitting atop pilings at the marina .... But you have changed my thinking by capturing the beauty of their coloring, especially with wings spread and glinting under the sun. I will look twice the next time I see one.”
This was the highest compliment I could ask for. My first objective as a photographer is to get people to see things differently. The real challenge is to show you a new way to see something familiar, uninteresting or even ugly.
Some of my favorite photos over the past couple of years are birds that most people, and most photographers, don’t look twice at. Take, for example, this crow.
Crows are probably the most common bird we see, with a raucous cry (can’t really call it a song) and apparently uniform colorlessness.
But one afternoon as I came back from shooting shore birds on a sandbar in Port Royal Sound, this bird perched on a branch and watched me pass. The lowering sun caused her feathers to shine, and you can even see a subtle purple on the wings.
If that catches your attention, are you willing to look more closely at this bird, maybe read up on it and learn that crows may be among the most intelligent and socially organized of all birds? I hope so.
Another example is the vulture. Again, a very common bird, carrion eater, nasty looking curved beak, wrinkled featherless head. To many people they are ugly. But when I saw this black vulture resting atop a power line pole in South Carolina's ACE Basin, I saw and tried to capture the bird's dignity and even sense of purpose (who else cleans up after us, after all; think about roadkill).
One of the most strikingly "ugly" creatures I've photographed was this snapping turtle, which was making its way beside the dirt road in Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware one day last spring. I learned later that snappers often travel some distance over land to find sandy soil in which to deposit their eggs.
There is something primitively sinister about this animal, but I find myself drawn to the eyes, wide, dark and aqueous. I do not see a threat there, but rather a certain amount of awareness, curiosity and fear. Your mileage may vary. In fact, contrary to common wisdom, snappers normally flee when they encounter humans out of the water. This one just sat patiently while I photographed it, then continued its search for a nesting place.
Although the renowned photographer Edouard Steichen once said that “Photography is a lie from start to finish,” I don’t for a minute believe that these photographs misrepresent the subjects in any way. My goal is to represent my subjects so faithfully that the viewer immediately recognizes and at once is startled by what she sees. In at least one case, it appears I may have succeeded.
The next step, which will be the topic of a future blog post, is for the viewer to realize, at least unconsciously, that the moment of recognition is the same experience she has when looking into a mirror.
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