LOCAL WALKS: Getting to the Essence

I’ve been trying to remember to pause, think, and look for the essence of a scene when I’m out with my camera. Often, that can be accomplished by simplifying the composition. I’m inherently detail-oriented and my attention constantly wanders so when I’m outdoors, I scan a world where thousands of details flash by, all seemingly of equal weight. My basic desire is to include everything. Why? Because I deeply appreciate this world, in all its guises and permutations. There is a lot to love.

But including everything in the frame is not a good formula for making appealing photographs. Time and time again I’ve sliced off the edges of my files in Lightroom, trying to whittle down an overwhelming amount of information. Gradually, I’ve learned that a better way to make stronger photographs (and a way that sharpens my aesthetic sensibility in the process) is to try to grasp the essence of what I see.

Merriam-Webster calls essence “the most significant element, quality, or aspect of a thing or person.” Wikipedia’s entry about essence talks about “the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity.” We could easily get entangled in words and concepts by trying to define essence but it’s not really complicated, is it? I think we know what it is, we just don’t always pay attention to it.

For me it’s often a matter of recognizing fundamental shapes when composing a picture, a process akin to abstracting visual information. It doesn’t have to be about the shapes though, it can be the colors, the play of light, the texture, or some other quality inherent in what is seen, that seems to be fundamental to its identity. I don’t only photograph particular objects so the essence can also be something fundamental to the overall quality or atmosphere of a scene.

Whatever this significant aspect may be, I don’t believe it’s a fixed quality. In the end everything is in motion, constantly changing, without a permanent self or essence. Ever shifting, essences appear and disappear. An essence of something needn’t be fixed in time or space. What I try to look for (when I remember!) is a quality that simplifies what I see, eliminates distractions, and strengthens the composition. The photographs below, all made this year, may reflect this idea.

1. To me the essence of these two intertwined objects is a soft curve. Strands of Bullwhip kelp naturally bend. Feathers can bend too. The beauty here is in the chance meeting of seaweed and feather on a sandy beach caused by the inexorable pull of the tides.
2. This Madrone tree survived a fire. Simplifying the composition down to a section of bark could express the story of the tree’s experience of fire, in color and texture.
3. Form follows function; form and function kept this bivalve going. Split in half and mirrored, the shapes appeal to me in a fundamental way, as primal as an infant’s search for the returned gaze of two eyes.
4. Everything is dry: the leaf, the strands of grass, the twigs, the sunlight. A simple oval, the fine lines of veins and grasses, and shadows: I think this is enough.

5. Finding the essence meant photographing just the curving tip of a leaf in the sun with its toothy shadow nearby and moving them to one side of the frame to show the feeling of motion implied by the curve.
6. River water in motion reflecting its surroundings is a complex phenomenon. Smoothing everything out with a quarter-second exposure keeps the eyes flowing with the current.
7. Bullwhip kelp has thick stems and broad, flat leaves. These kelp leaves washed up onto the beach in a mound of rubbery, brown ribbons. The stiff leaf blades can reach thirteen feet (4 m) long; a pile of them is a complicated, tangled mess. Simplifying the mound into a small composition and heightening the contrast made a more visually manageable image.
8. Focusing on four rocks and two squiggly lines reflects the essence of one beach on one day, during one low tide.
9. Color and form seemed to merge and be swept across the beach together on another day at low tide.
10. Madrone bark close-up is smooth but slightly grainy. Its colors range from yellow greens to deep rust, with a rainbow of possibilities in between. For me the essence of this one tree was in one small section of bark.
11. Can sheer complexity be the essence of something? Maybe, and draining the color helps keep the focus on the lines, shapes and texture.
12. The tips of two burned branches told a stark story. This seemed to me to be enough.

13. Intentional camera movement – a horizontal, handheld panning motion – blurs an already vague horizon on calm waters. That felt like the essence of what I sensed on that winter day as I stood on a rock and looked out over the water.

*

You may not think this concept of looking for the essence of a scene is worthwhile, or you might not think these images exemplify that idea. That’s the beauty of human individuality; each of us has our own subjective experiences. It would be interesting to hear about what you look for and think about when you’re out with a camera or when you’re mulling over your writing, music, or any creative work.

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67 comments

  1. Good pix, esp 1, 2, 4, 8 and 12. And “But including everything in the frame is not a good formula for making appealing photographs.” says it. Don’t know if I look for essence, but then maybe I call it something else. Your close ups, incl those I’ve listed, really work very well. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    • For me, it’s so much easier to simplify close-ups than a wider shot. Maybe if I lived in the desert that would be different! ๐Ÿ˜‰ Thanks for your thoughts Adrian, I’m always interested to know what you think.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I guess I could have chosen “Local Walks: A Meditative Mood” as easily as what I did use for the title. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m glad you mentioned the curled leaf tip and I’m surprised you like the last photograph, and pleased – thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Much appreciated! I was saying to Michael (below) who has done hundreds of blurred horizons, many of them very beautiful, that I drained almost all the color out at first. It wasn’t until I put it here in the post that I realized it needed more so back to the drawing board, out with the tools. And I enjoy that. Knowing me, you’d guess correctly that I also like the unpredictability when you’re shooting.

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  2. The es in Latin-derived essence is a cognate of native English is. The essence of something is its “is-ness.” That lets us point out that you’re as essentially concerned here with isness as more commercially minded people are elsewhere with business. And in what seems a strange semantic narrowing, essence in French has come to mean ‘gasoline.’

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting! I like “isness” very much. In zen, suchness is talked about. Form Wikipedia: “Thattata is a Buddhist term variously translated as “thusness” or “suchness” and meaning the true, concrete essence or nature of things before ideas or words about them.[1] It is a central concept in Mahayana Buddhism …” We couldn’t live without words and concepts but I think it’s good to try to imagine a quality existing before them.
      Whether concerned with isness or business or even suchness, it’s all good as long as you keep those rhymes going. ๐Ÿ™‚
      (I don’t remember learning the French word for gasoline – crazy!)

      Liked by 1 person

    • There are two Madrones but I’m betting you’re referring to #10, right? They’re such photogenic beings! I was thinking about your horizons when I processed this and it’s funny, I drained the image of most of its color and then built a lot back in, bit by bit, with different tools. Working on images like this is fun – I don’t have to tell you that!!.

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        • That final photo is actually from January – the rest are more recent. I play with ICM periodically – I’ve experimented with it for ten years, but not consistently. At first, I did more in forests and gardens but since moving up here where there’s so much water I’ve done more water horizons. As you know, our waterscapes aren’t as dramatic as yours but of course, the subtle colors can be beautiful, also as you know. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  3. I have a favorite poem. Itโ€™s called โ€œThe Heron,โ€ and itโ€™s by Conrad Hilberry:

    The great
    blue heron lives
    by stepping
    slowly and standing still,
    letting the ideas
    come to him.

    Thatโ€™s how I feel when I go out with the camera. I purposely avoid analyzing (including โ€œlooking for the essenceโ€) and preconceiving. The hope is that if I can clean the window, whatever is on the other side will be clearly seen. I wait for something to announce its appearance even if I am stalking places (the Vermilion River, dumpsters, fish bins) that have formerly presented me with something with which to make a photograph. Or maybe creating a composition is looking for the essence. I certainly do that. Maybe my photographs would improve by my conscious effort to find the essence even before creating a composition, but that sounds too difficult. I just donโ€™t want to. Perhaps for me taking photographs is an antidote to thinking or an escape from it. However, if finding the essence of a scene is what results in your wonderful photographs and narratives, please never stop. I love the intertwined curves in #1. Youโ€™ve use the perfect shutter speed for #6. What lovely colors in that photograph. Number 10 is the kind of abstract I like best, one where it makes no difference what the object is; itโ€™s all beautiful color, line, and form. Your draining the color from the scene in #11 works wonderfully well to emphasize the complex lines. If I didnโ€™t have the rest of my life to attend to, I could look at #13 for hours. Another calm ending. Thank you, Lynn.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Great blue herons have been totem birds for me and I didn’t know that poem – thank yoU! It’s perfect.
      I have to say that I questioned myself about doing this because once I wrote it I realized it’s not true, I too avoid analyzing or looking for the essence. And yet, lately, I have been trying to focus more on simplifying compositions. But the poem describes the essence (I couldn’t resist!) of the way I like to approach photography, too. Cleaning the window is such a good analogy. Thank you for talking about your process, it’s valuable, to me. And thanks for these nuggets about particular images that spoke to you. Many thanks, in fact. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 3 people

  4. In a way, the “essence” is the minimal idea, the soul of something or what is essential to convey the intended message.
    I believe that in photography it is much “purer” to achieve this right at the moment of taking the picture than later in the laboratory.
    This post shows how essence can be in a line, in movement, in a color, in a contrast, in an asymmetry, in randomness, etc.
    I love the act of feeling with my eyes that little thing that touches me. It’s always a silent and a inner challenge.
    Excellent post, with beautiful images and very interesting ideas!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your comments are always interesting and thoughtful, Dulce. I have to agree that it’s best when you’re able to feel and understand the essence of something when you are taking the picture rather than trying to find it later. What is it that touches us? That is a very good question to ask when you’re walking around with a camera. It’s easy to be sidetracked by other things and forget what caught your attention in the first place.
      Thank you for being here and have a wonderful weekend, OK?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I had to go back to spend a bit more time with this. I do love the way you “see” and share. Bits and pieces of flotsam and jetsam. Who knew the last two words have “a specific meaning under maritime law”. (The things I find when I’m not sure of spelling.) I’m thinking the first three images summed up the “essence” perfectly. I find myself sinking into these images. My experience is that I have to be in the “zone” to enjoy or capture that quality. Then again different locations call up different approaches.
    Not so sure about 11. You may remember my aversion to b&w conversion… perhaps that colors (pun intended?) my perception of that image. Rather than helping to “keep the focus on the lines, shapes and texture”, it seems to be a bit too busy to keep me focused on anything. Leading into something akin to dizzy. (That could also be a function of my weird eyesight problems these days!)
    The water shot, as always was highly soothing.
    Oh, and I love Linda’s Heron poem. Wish I’d had it for the trailcam capture of our Big Bird. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    Always a delight to visit… and I always find something to love! ๐Ÿ’•

    Liked by 2 people

    • I didn’t know that about flotsam and jetsam. ๐Ÿ™‚ I hear you about # 1- 3, thank you. #11 was even busier with color, but I appreciate your honesty, I really do. And how nice that you read Linda’s comment with that beautiful poem. Thank you for looking….there is so much out there these days, it’s really hard to keep up. So it’s good to hear that it’s a worthwhile visit. Have a good weekend! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  6. What snags us, makes us pause? How does it speak to us? that takes us to the essence of something that matters … & even if ‘essence’ in French means only gasoline, they’ve kept the word ‘essential’: remember the fox, in St-Ex’s “The Little Prince,” teaching the little prince that the essential is invisible to the eyes, it can be seen only with the heart — and for me that spirals us back to our own search for essence

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  7. Sometimes it seems that there is so much to see, so very many things that are nearly begging for attention, if we can attribute something like that to a landscape or its elements, that it hard to pause and focus long enough to grasp the essence of a particular setting, I find…unless we are returning to a place with which we are already familiar and now want to intentionally focus on specifics.

    Having lived with the mountains and now in the desert, I think I can apply the above to both environments. Sometimes it’s the broader landscape that is compelling with its peaks and slopes, or flowing desert hills and expansive views, and other times it’s the vibrant pink bowl of a hedgehog cactus bloom in the undulating pan of the harsh desert, or it’s the delicate orange cup fungi growing under the protective trunk of a fallen tree.

    Thought provoking post, Lynn…and beautiful treats for the eyes while enjoying the possibilities of the words. Thank you. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, it’s much easier to get to what’s essential about a place if you’ve been going back over and over. When I first moved up here I thought my photos all looked like picture postcards – there was something missing. Now that I have a better feeling for the place I think I can bring my own ideas to bear on it better, and that may be the same thing as allowing the place to express itself more fully, through the photographer. I hope you get what I’m saying.
      Regarding the big picture and the particulars, absolutely, yes, what compels us swings back and forth between those broad vistas and the amazing details. You said it beautifully. Anytime I can provoke a thought or two from you, I’m very happy, Scott. Thanks for commenting! I hope all’s well…soon summer’s heat will subside…a little at least.

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  8. Loved your photos and narrative. An exquisite piece of work. I will frequently take a series of photos from a broad landscape down to some macro shots and then think about which ones best express the personality (or essence) of the place and time.

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  9. Your photos certainly exemplify the essence of your observations! There is nothing to distract the viewer and it is clear what you want the viewer to see. Being a bit of a neat freak I am always looking to simplify my landscapes. My wide angle lens doesnโ€™t stay mounted very long because it usually includes more than I want in a scene. When judging I preach clean compositions โ€ฆ nothing extraneous or encroaching or distracting. Great photos and post Lynn!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Denise. It can be hard to simplify compositions in a complex environment and obviously, an intimate look makes it easier. And snow! ๐Ÿ˜‰ What you say is certainly true about your own work and it’s a good message to bring into judging contests, too. Have a good week!

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    • It’s interesting to know which images spoke to you…thank you. You will see more kelp and madrones (should I say arbutus?), and more water of one kind or another. They’re perennial subjects down here! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  10. Hi Lynn, Your theme reminded me of the of the famous quote by Robert Capa, โ€œIf your pictures arenโ€™t good enough, youโ€™re not close enoughโ€. Your studies are beautiful: the Madrone made me linger, the simple edge of the lit up leaf, choosing monochrome for the complex trees is brilliant and I love your close-ups in the sand (reminding me of my recent trip to the coast hunching over beach finds). You are practicing the art of seeing so beautifully. Thank you!

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    • Thank YOU, Jane, for your presence. Your comments are never just thrown together thoughtlessly.
      It’s so engrossing to look at things on the beach, isn’t it? I know that quote and have told myself that a number of times: “Are you sure you want all that? Try closer.” ๐Ÿ™‚ But I’ve always been drawn to details anyway. It’s the bigger pictures that are harder to organize, especially in the forests up here. They’re not like Redwood forests, where it all’s soaring verticals and a nice underlayer – no, it’s trees leaning every which way and tons of detritus of all kinds on the ground. A good challenge for the next few years. The art of seeing – what better way to spend our time? Thank you!

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  11. You are so much better at thinking about the image than I. Most often my image making is a quick response to what stimulates me about what I am looking at. Sometimes my first impression hits the mark and other times I think about returning and fine tuning.
    I cannot think of one of these images I like less than any others. They are all excellent, Lynn. Although I know that bivalves don’t “walk” as we do, those shells made me think of slippers. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • I wouldn’t think of your photography as a “quick response” and yet, I would definitely think of mine that way. Isn’t that funny? This thinking we’re talking about mainly goes on after the fact. It also happens in various settings – I can be looking at anything, an object or a painting, for example, and thinking about what makes it tick. That is probably thanks to years of art school. And of course, my first impressions often miss the mark but I’m not as good about going to back or at least remembering what I did wrong as you are. I wish I would learn from my mistakes more – that seems to take forever. Having this forum where we see one another’s work and talk about it is really helpful though.
      Thanks for your thoughts, Steve, I hope you’re enjoying a nice, long weekend (and you didn’t get too soaked, did you?)

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  12. I really like the way you illustrate your thoughts with photos, dear Lynn. You immediately show that not only the design of the individual picture, but also the arrangement of pictures in the presentation contributes to the emphasis on the essence, right with the first two pictures: water, earth, air combined in the first, the thought immediately arises in me of the missing fire … you deliver it in the second picture.
    With the exception of the last three pictures, you look for the essence through the narrow section, i.e. through the detail. Right now, through your thoughts, I am amazed how seldom I ask myself about the “bigger picture” with such detailed pictures: I should ask myself whether this detail stands for the essence of its (cut off) surroundings or for each one of them itself and its own essence. How else could you show the essence of a landscape etc? You choose the way by emphasizing the atmosphere through colors in picture 13 (yes, movement evaporates the undesirable concrete). And in picture 11 you do the opposite, declare the concrete to be desirable and take it to the extreme in its complexity … and you actually achieve the impression you want to create.
    I think the pictures underline your thoughts on essence very strongly, they give impulses for the viewer to reflect on their own actions and become a delicate little photography course. By the way, of course, they offer the opportunity to enjoy great photo art.

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    • For me at least, it’s much easier to get to the essence of something by elimination, which I realized as I put the photos in. So I challenged myself to find it in wider views. Well, I found a few! ๐Ÿ˜‰ Honestly, when I’m out with the camera I never ask myself questions like whether a subject represents the essence of a scene, it’s more of an instinctual search for fundamental forms, or something like that. I make a conscious effort to lean toward simplicity, which is a similar idea. Then I see an incredibly complex scene, like one with many branches, and it appeals to me and I want to find a way to photograph it convincingly. It’s a good challenge because that happens a lot in the forests here. Of course one way is to eliminate color, like in #11. But sometimes the color is so delicious! ๐Ÿ™‚ I am one who wants it all. ๐Ÿ™‚
      Thank you so much for taking the time to make worthwhile observations – I enjoyed this conversation with you. And thanks for the compliments. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • You’re very welcome, dear Lynn, it is pure pleasure to me to dive deeply into your beautiful work.
        It sounds very similar to me how you describe your state of mind on photo walks. When I sometimes set my mind on a special task to watch out for, it somehow feels a bit artificial, the more theoretical the task the more artificial the feeling.

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  13. Hi Lynn! Bit late as far as time is concerned.. Interesting thoughts on ‘Essence’. On my blog(s) is a pulldown with Portfolio (https://harrienijland.wordpress.com/portfolio/ ) and one of the items is Essence. Back then, in 2013 I wrote: ‘In Essence the question is: What is it. Where Abstract is a search for beauty beyond the recognizable things from the real world; Essence doesnโ€™t try to go beyond the visual world; but tries to capture the pure heart of the matter. The photo on top is not โ€˜a tentโ€™; but โ€˜tentโ€™. Itโ€™s about the principle. The principle of a tightened canvas, that is characteristic for all tents.’ If I remember well I had something like Plato’s ‘Ideas’ (non moving..), that emerge into the individualistic (moving) outside material world, in mind. And as you said ‘simplifying/reducing’ is a good way to get there. But in my Portfolio you could easily end up in ‘Minimal’, doing so. ๐Ÿ™‚ The difference between the two was for me that Minimal shows the ‘less is more, simple, silent beauty of ‘the things’; while Essence also is about ‘what they are’; or mean… I made the Portfolio to get conscious of what I was doing when shooting around in the real world. Don’t know if I still understand what I was thinking back then… ๐Ÿ™‚ Nowadays I would say that the most important thing in photography is that you are conscious of the subject/content that you are shooting. If so, you will be able to make the right photographical choices (framing; sharp-unsharp; light; movement, composition) to get to the essence of ‘you and your subject in that moment’. And I think that it is more a matter of intuition/feeling than rational understanding.. Having said all this, I must admit that most of my shots that are special precious to me, came to me rather as a gift then that I ‘took’ them. Weird, not so controlled short moments of excited being pulled at something. Could be that I said it before.. only later; at home in front of the computer, I became aware of the meaning of shots like that.. As if they were some kind of symbol in which ‘the universe’ spoke to me… ๐Ÿ™‚ Don’t take it to heavy.. And I would say that what was spoken to me was ‘essential’.. See you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t ever worry about the timing of a comment, it’s fine. I appreciate the difference between “tent” and “a tent” – sometimes we say “tentness” to refer that idea. Another possible way to think about the difference between minimal and essence is to ask whether the image (if that’s what we’re talking about) has emotional weight. I think minimalism, as much as I love it, often does not have much emotional weight. When an image really gets to the essence of something, I think we feel something – it conveys some emotion. That’s probably related to what you’re saying about being aware of subject/content – and certainly when you say it’s more a matter of intuition/feeling than rational understanding, then we’re talking about the same idea. It’s wonderful when photos come to you as a gift. Let it pull you instead of pushing yourself toward it, right? ๐Ÿ™‚
      Thank you, it’s great when posts create dialogues like this. And by the way, Joe was talking about you yesterday, remembering how he knew it was Harrie the moment he saw you, and what a great guy you are. ๐Ÿ™‚

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