Time and Tides

April 14, 2017

"Mattabesset Spring 2016" by Eric Rennie


What you see is what you get.
-- Annie Dillard

“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam,” wrote Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  She was using light as a spiritual metaphor in her fine essay on seeing.  But it occurs to me she might also be speaking for every visual artist who works with natural light.  Think of Monet’s haystacks or his series on the Rouen cathedral.  Monet was not painting objects but the light falling on objects.  For his cathedral series, he set up his canvases in rented space by the front window of a lingerie shop across the street, working from dawn to dusk on ten paintings in succession to capture the changing light on the cathedral’s façade throughout the day.  He worked from February to April in two succeeding years (1892 and 1893) to render the same seasonal light.

For a landscape photographer like me, your palette is essentially determined by what nature gives you.  Yes, Photoshop allows you some leeway.  But if you want to be true to the light that falls on your subject, you have little choice but to put yourself in the path of its beam and go from there.  A studio photographer has the luxury of moving lights around to achieve certain effects; those who shoot outdoors must move themselves around instead.  Ansel Adams once said, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”  True enough, but you also need to know when to stand there.  As Monet well understood, the light changes by the hour, as well as by the season.

Lately I have been taking pictures soon after sunrise at a favorite stomping ground along the Mattabesset River in Connecticut.  The river meanders for 18 miles through a tidal wetland, ending at the Connecticut River, about 25 miles upstream from Long Island Sound.  I have shot here in every season, but my immediate interest is in documenting the brief period after the trees have budded in the spring but before the foliage has obscured all sense of distance.  In this neck of the woods, that interlude occurs between the end of April and the first week or two of May.  I have in mind a particular vantage point at the end of a narrow channel that extends west for perhaps a hundred yards before emptying into the Mattabesset.  At high tide on a clear day, with the sun spilling over the horizon behind me, the still channel mirrors the trees growing on either side, so they appear to be reaching simultaneously up to the sky and down into the water.  The light pours down like honey from the tops of the trees at this hour.

I do not just happen to be here.  I already know the terrain from my many previous outings, and I have long since staked out the vantage point at the head of the channel.  Since I live nearby, I know how far the season has advanced.  The sun has already risen by 6:00 AM, which means I have to be in place early to catch the light.  I consult the hourly weather forecast the night before to make sure the sky will be clear at sunrise.  I must also consult the tide tables; otherwise, the channel might be a mud flat rather than a mirror reflecting the sky and trees.  With luck, all the elements will come together.  “Of course it’s all luck,” said Henri Cartier-Bresson, a street photographer.  Yet I also seem to recall Louis Pasteur saying that “in the fields of observation, fortune favors the prepared mind” – in art as well as science, it would seem.    

In her essay on the subject, Dillard identified two ways of seeing.  The first is what Buddhists would call “clear seeing”, or vision unencumbered by thought.  She writes, “When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied.”  In contrast, there is the kind of seeing you might do with a camera in hand.  As she puts it,  “When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter.”  Certainly there are tens of millions of people today armed with their smart phones who go around taking pictures unencumbered by any real seeing.  But where does that leave serious photographers who use cameras to make their art?  Without true seeing there is no art, but this necessarily involves reading a light meter – to say nothing of checking the weather and tide tables.  Even William Blake, the most visionary of artists, invented a technically demanding printing process to integrate text and drawings in his illuminated books.  Art and science go together.  Even Dillard would concede that to put yourself in the light’s beam, you have to know when the sun comes up.