When Photography Works, It’s Like Being There

September 08, 2016

This delightful trio of young raccoons bounced out of the underbrush and into the focused telephoto lens of Herald photographer Bob Eddy more than two decades ago. (Herald File / Bob Eddy) “Vermont is a state of strong weeklies and weak dailies,” wryly observed, The Boston Globe’s legendary editor, Tom Winship, before the Vermont Press Association in 1994.

Today, as we receive world, national, and regional news updates by the minute, Winship’s words are still true. I remembered them during the recent difficult transition at the Times Argus and Rutland Herald, two excellent dailies significantly diminished by the media revolution.

A Slower Pace

The photograph we consider here probably wouldn’t exist had I been working for a daily. It’s an image not found by rushing out the door for breaking news, making an appointment, or covering a scheduled event.

One early summer day in the 1990s, I was headed up Braintree Hill on the Flint Road for a late lunch with Kathy. Motoring along with the windows down, I heard an odd disturbance coming from the underbrush at the side of the road.

Pulling over, I grabbed my camera bag and climbed out to see the source of what now seemed like chatter, almost squabbling.

A moment later, these three critters came bumbling out from under the leafy verge, seeming surprised to find a broad graveled swath of country road before them, continuing to chirrup and cluck as they looked about.

They were on an adventure!

Spying me about 20 yards away up the hill, they turned as one and began, in an uncertain, roly-poly way in my direction.

I grabbed a camera with a 300mm lens and dropped to the ground to photograph their approach.

Telephoto lenses are a wildlife photographer’s best friend. The 300 allowed me to fill the image area with these raccoons, while keeping a respectful distance. I had no idea what three baby raccoons might do if they reached the photographer, and had no intention of finding out! Somewhere behind them, too, there lurked at least one more coon of much larger size.

Photographs and Life

For a moment, try to imagine the encountering with these three little creatures yourself. How would you photograph them?

Many times, a person has excitedly approached me, saying, “I just saw a wonderful photograph!” Then, inevitably, they proceed to describe, not a photograph, but something they saw out there in the world.

I know what is being explained in these moments, but truly it isn’t a photograph that is being described; it’s life!

A photograph, however wonderful it may be, is simply a pattern of tone presented on a two dimensional surface. The photographer’s dilemma, the critical task, is to find a way to translate something of the mystery, the profound fulsomeness of a life moment, into a tone pattern. Success depends upon one’s ability to convey, with a camera, something of the experience of the original moment to others.

It’s not as easy as it looks.

The next time you are excited about something you think would make a great photograph, grab a camera and try to create an image for those not there at the time. Snapshots are easy to take; they serve to remind us of moments in our personal past.

A great photograph, by contrast, can bring others into that moment of encounter. Looking at it we feel a connection with the subject, or with experiences of our own evoked by the image.

Now we begin to understand the audaciousness of naming a photographic publication, “LIFE.” Their goal was to create a magazine with images so compelling readers felt they were right there; on the beaches of Normandy, running a 4-minute mile, inside the womb with a child about to be born. The magazine’s success is a credit to the people who created its often startlingly superb photographs.

The Angle

So, how does one photograph three baby raccoons, possibly out on the first wandering adventure in their lives?

Dropping to the road helps this photograph, bringing us down into their world. Lying there flat on our belly, the camera right on the road, we are no longer looking down, but directly toward them, eye to eye.

If this image works, we are not observing these creatures, we are experiencing their approach, as I did twenty-five years ago.

This low angle and direct view reminds me of Gary Cooper standing, his gun ready, in the middle of a dusty western town in “High Noon.” Also, the slow-motion walk of the gang in Quentin Tarantino’s, “Reservoir Dogs,” comes to mind.

In this context, being confronted by this gang, three adorable masked balls of fur, is all the more arresting and memorable, and amusing.

Depth of Field

This image has a very shallow depth of field, perhaps six inches. The focus is right there on the noses of the two in the lead. Notice that the pebbles on the road, sharply defined here, are out of focus to the front and the back.

The fine fur and whiskers around the heads of the matched pair is tack sharp. By contrast, their buddy, head poked around from behind, is blurred.

This shallow, carefully zoned focus leads our eye into the scene and creates the illusion of depth.

In looking upon this photograph, I feel these charming creatures again right here before me. If you feel this, too, that’s wonderful.

When photography works, it’s like being there.

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