Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Siouxland Aesthetics

I think I’ve taken a couple thousand pictures of the Siouxland landscape. I’ll admit some preferences—I avoid hog confinements, even though, like earwigs this time of year, they’re everywhere in Sioux County. There are fewer across the border in South Dakota, so often as not I cross the river. I have good friends who are sure the dominance of row crops makes this world monotonous, but long parallel lines of corn and beans this time of year, early summer, add sweet swooshes and swoops against the broad, open spaces.

Without a doubt, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, one of whom I am. Saturday morning I returned with this shot, which I really like. It’s still a mystery to me how it is that some few shots just get me, and others—thousands of others—get unceremoniously deleted. Why does the eye seem to like one composition better than another? I know what I like, but even after all these years I still don’t always understand why I like it.

My guess is even the finest photographers would admit that getting a particularly good shot is vastly more a matter of sheer good fortune than meticulous planning. I'm wandering around in the country like some drunken sailor when I stumble over this Northern Catalpa in the middle of nowhere--don't know if I could find it back. Okay, first element--I was blessed last Saturday with a comely sky, a rich background that could make a honey wagon look memorable. So we’ll start there. Element #1: background. In this case, not overstated; it shouldn't be brewing up a storm. Calm but textured. To my eyes, the sky here is a undeserved blessing.

It seems to me that landscape photography is all about light, and I hit this one just right. Those clouds were threatening the early morning sun (Element #2—early morning sun, for warmth and shadows), but I came up on this incredible show when the sun was still smiling down. Twenty seconds later it disappeared, and so did the pop on those massive blossoms. Element #3: good light.

Element #4: sweet lines. This fulsome tree sits at the corner of two gravel roads, only one of which—the one lying behind it—is visible, and that, barely (I’m on the other). But the road behind it is there, and it’s unobtrusive, which helps. Let’s face it, too much gravel road would wound this composition mortally; just a hint is graceful. Along the road is a fence, which, like that nearly indistinguishable gravel road, leads the eye into photographic eternity. Nice. There’s even a third line—of trees—that gives this shot more depth, which doesn't hurt either.

Element #5: symbolism. Once upon a time, the whole region was tall-grass prairie, an eco-system that’s almost entirely disappeared, victim of its own richness. Trees were sparse. Still are. White settlers created sod houses because getting wood was a major undertaking--and costly. The scarcity of trees still makes them noteworthy or memorable against the endless sea of grass (now row crops). There remains something iconic about a single tree, especially a big one, out here on the edge of the plains, something suggesting sturdiness or character, methinks. Okay, maybe stubbornness too.

Element #6: surprise. This icon, magically, is in glorious full bloom. It’s almost unreal. First of all, the tree itself seems huge—is there even two of them here? Secondly, it’s thick and heavy-laden with blossoms the size of volleyballs. Look, one simply doesn’t expect that kind of gaudiness out here where the lines are minimalist. It’s shocking, almost sinful in a very sweet way.

But then there’s the trump. Element 7: you simply like the place. In just a week or so we’ll be in the Pacific northwest, right on the Sound. The place is gorgeous—I’ve been there before, often. I had a wonderful student from Colorado—two of them, in fact—who both told me they couldn’t wait to get home at the end of the year just to be close to mountains again. I understand that. But without a doubt, one of the reasons I like this picture (and others may not) is because to me the whole place is beautiful—the emerald edge of the Great Plains. If this country is nothing but an armpit, the shot’s got zero charm.

I wish I could say I knew all of that when I snapped the picture, but the truth is, I didn’t. I did wait for the sun to peek through; but I wasn’t thinking about lines or symbols or the tree as showy babe. Nope. I wasn’t thinking of anything, really; but some instinct in me knew that something about that tree, right then, right there on the corner, was noteworthy, which prompted my eye to point the camera.

All of which reminds me why I head west on Saturday mornings when I can. Going out in the early morning light forces this old Calvinist to do some theological therapy: it pushes me to look for beauty, a task which sometimes requires some work in this veil of tears.

The irony is, I don’t need the picture to know I found it. I get home, have a look at the catch, and realize, every dang time, that what I’ve got, virtually, in the camera just doesn’t compare with the reality I've just witnessed--the sheer glory of dawn’s early light.

Still, this shot I like. But then, you know—there’s no accounting for taste.

1 comment:

dutchoven said...

Element 8(?)...the "inner eye of the beholder;" you can give a camera to just about anyone and get a good picture with attention to mechanics; but to get a truly great picture- one that is inspiring, you must have someone with a gift of "inner vision" and once "seeing" the picture, frames it first within their soul...the picture is then truly praise-worthy; you have a gift, and with it you are not only blessed- but are a blessing.