Friday, January 20, 2012

Everything Old is New Again

It's hard to believe that 100 years have passed since the ill fated Scott expedition to the South Pole.  In one sense 100 years doesn't seem that long - I was lucky enough to know my great-grandmother well into my college years.  She was born in 1897 making her 17 years old when Scott set out.  Knowing someone who was alive during the time period makes it seem not so long ago.  However, knowing that Herbert Ponting took 400 pounds of camera equipment on that expedition, spent 14 months in a hut at Cape Evans and came home with just over one thousand images makes it seem like ages have passed.

My camera bag weighs in around 45 pounds on an average trip but even with a few added accessories, I rarely need more than 100 pounds of luggage.  During my 5 weeks camping in Ethiopia I took more than 18,000 images and didn't need to figure out how to keep my chemicals from freezing or how to safely transport glass plates back home.  By comparison photographers today have it easy!  Equipment today is smaller, lighter, more versatile, capable of capturing greater dynamic range and of being pushed to further extremes.

And yet the techniques, tried and true, remain the same and amazing photos remain amazing no matter how long ago they were taken.

On my way to Ethiopia I stopped over in London.  I've always admired Ponting and Hurley so the opportunity to view their images of the Scott and Shackleton expeditions at the Queen's Gallery was priority one.  I was completely unprepared for the haunting beauty of the exhibition.  Seeing scans or reproductions of the photographs online or in books falls short of seeing the actual prints.  The raw emotion these two photographers captured was palpable. 

'Endurance' at night - Frank Hurley 1915
When I finally came to Hurley's 'The Long, Long Night' I was practically in tears.  The image of Endurance caught fast in the ice, lit with ghostly light which seemed to foreshadow her demise is so iconic and moving.  It struck me that if one wanted to capture a similar image today we would use the same exact technique almost 100 years later.
'The Long, Long Night' -Frank Hurley 1915

Working in the White Mountains in California I used Hurley's technique of light painting the foreground Bristlecone Pine tree.  I like the simplicity of the silhouette but in comparison, the soft light of the lamp gives the tree more of a haunted, soulful mood which speaks more deeply to me.

In Death Valley I used my head lamp to illuminate a branch which had blown onto the playa, opting to light just a portion of the image rather than utilizing filters which could have allowed for an entirely bright foreground.  For me this image is more about creating a mood than just documenting the fact of the branch.

And if you think the next image is out of the box and 'new' - think again.  Even Pablo Picasso (yup the famous painter) and Gjon Mili were creating light paintings in 1949.   'Drawing a Centaur in the Air'

So take a walk through history, see who has gone before you and savor their triumphs as you incorporate their tried and true techniques into your own work.  Techniques that produced amazing photos 100 years ago are never too old to be new again.

Images by Frank Hurley displayed with permission by the Royal Geographic Society
'The Heart of the Great Alone - Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography' is on display at the Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace until April 15th.  I can't recommend it highly enough.

1 comment:

Beate Dalbec said...

great post! On top of lugging around all that equipment back then, they also had to wait until they got back home to develop the images. No such thing as instant gratification like we have today when we can check our image right after we took it.
Love your work with the light painting!