My medium of choice, the camera, doesn’t pick and choose. It has no opinions, no favorite colors or times of day. With complete dispassion, it accepts and reflects the breadth of what is in front of the lens, excluding nothing. You may argue that this isn’t quite true – cameras do have limitations – but bear with me. The point is that in this season of abundant darkness when shorter days bookend the winter solstice, the camera’s all-seeing lens may not see as much as it does in brighter seasons. Unless you’re photographing a snowfield, it’s likely that a fair amount of the frame will fall into the shadows. That makes it easier to concentrate on a few elements of the scene. Darkness can be a wall where light enters through a door.
When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest from the east coast I bemoaned the lack of light. I missed the dazzle that accompanies blankets of snow, the delicate light of spring, the pop of bright autumn leaves. At a photo conference, I asked Art Wolfe, a respected Seattle photographer who travels widely, about what I thought was the problem of the paucity of light in the region. He surprised me by disagreeing and expressing warm enthusiasm for the local landscape, just the way it is. I respect him and his work so I thought long and hard about what he said. I tried to flex my mind and open myself to other possibilities. Over the next five years, while I grappled with camera noise and somber tones, I gradually developed a feeling for the moody Pacific Northwest. That meant accepting the challenges of dim, overcast days alongside the picture-postcard beauty of snow-topped mountains and craggy, forested islands. Now, my least favorite time of year for photography is the summer, when the sun rides high and bright in clear skies.
In a few weeks, the shortest day of the year will mark the turn toward an increase in light that culminates in June with deliciously long, sunlit days. I value the rebirth and growth that comes with spring, my favorite season. But by midsummer, I’m tired of sunny days whose harsh, flat light illuminates every nook and cranny in the landscape. It gets to be too much.
The crepuscular hours of winter’s short days are just the remedy – and it begins well before the official start of winter. Shadowed landscapes offer magical openings that leave more to the imagination. When a sliver of golden light picks out a few twigs in the forest and hides everything else in the murky half-light, a drive awakens in me. Like an animal focused on its prey, I become intent on finding interesting plays of light during the last hours of the afternoon. The cold is forgotten as I study details and analyze the pros and cons of each mentally framed scene. Working quickly before twilight turns into night, I appreciate every patch of light as a treasure in a half-dark world. And of course, it’s the darkness that makes those treasures valuable.
A few days ago a light snowfall coated the ground overnight. In the morning the snow was marked with neat circles where icy rain fell onto it. In search of whatever beauty I might find, I tried driving up Mt. Erie, the highest place on the island. Within minutes, the car began to skid. The road up the mountain isn’t a priority and isn’t well-plowed. Congratulating myself on a well-executed three-point turn on the narrow, icy road, I retreated in low gear and parked at the bottom. A trail across the road that leads up a gentler hill would have to be good enough.
And it was. In a forest opening, I found scraps of ice hanging like baubles from clumps of gray-green Usnea lichen that dangle from the branches (#2, 3, 4). Delicate twigs festooned with waterdrops glowed faintly in the low light (#5). Like an interloper, a beam of light sliced through the forest and illuminated a patch of drooping flower clusters that were dull brown with age. For a few seconds, they sparkled like gold. With fingers going numb, I photographed straight into the weak, distant sun before the light shifted again (#1).
The forest was losing what little light was left as the sun dipped behind the hill. Only the tallest treetops gleamed saffron; everything else was obscured in the dusky shadows. My toes and fingers were cold. Alone in the woods, I followed the trail back down to the road. The birds were quiet, probably busy gleaning the last seeds and tiny insects from the woods before huddling close to a tree trunk and fluffing their feathers for the night. Somewhere behind me, the high-pitched chatter of a Douglas squirrel broke through the shadows.
It felt good to get back in the car but there was still a little daylight left so I decided to check out Heart Lake. Just up the road, the small lake is a pretty splash of blue set in a deep green border of conifers. I knew the afternoon light would be raking across the lake in chiaroscuro patches. As I pulled into the parking lot mergansers dove in the shallows and a man threw a stick into the water for his happy Labradoodle. I got out and exchanged friendly words with the man but I was more interested in what was behind him on the edge of the lake. A great tangle of brush, grass, reeds, and trees glowed like copper in the lowering sun. Each twig and leaf was picked out in sharp definition. All I had to do was to stand as close as possible to the shoreline without getting wet feet, check settings, compose, and click (#6).
To the left, gracefully bent reeds were mirrored by the cold, still water (#8). On the north end of the lake, a group of ducks worried the surface. Noticing the pattern of sunlit reeds, barely visible trees on the opposite shore, distant ducks in a line, and striped reflections on the water, an idea came to mind: the varied bands of light and dark would make a nice composition. Later, I realized that the color was distracting and made the image black and white (#10). With the sun finally gone behind another hill, I saw one last subject: a loose fountain of tall grass sticking up through the ice. The ice was mushy and pock-marked from waterdrops that must have fallen from a nearby tree. I liked the graceful droop of the grass and muted colors. It was a natural conclusion to the afternoon (9).