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Path of the Sun

Path of the Sun

Focus, 2000

I looked at the plane of rock, three feet away — the top of a cliff. I looked at the plane of water, a dozen feet below — and further into the depths. The image in my mind for Path of the Sun iii was all in sharp focus. But there was no way to bring it all in focus at one instant, even with my eyes. Stopping down wouldn’t do the trick, even to f45. No swing, tilt, or shift would do the trick; both planes were roughly parallel. Consequently the technical solution lay not in shifting physical perspective (the composition would change) or equipment (from a normal lens to a tilt/shift lens or from hand-held to view camera) but in a mental shift in perspective. Again, two exposures did what one could not. One exposure was made for the plane of rock and another for the plane of water. I framed the image, focused far, exposed, focused near, exposed. Later the two images were registered, digitally. Out-of-focus planes were hidden to reveal in-focus planes. Depth of field was functionally extended.

Once again, the solution lay in thinking outside the established practices of my craft, but using it as a foundation from which to solve the problem. Tradition is not a prescription for action; it is instead a foundation upon which to build. It offers a useful set of guidelines. Those guidelines become liabilities if they limit, assets if they enable. Time and time again, I have found that I must reconsider my habitual practices in order to find an optimal solution. This solution lay outside a conventional formula, but the problem solved was quite typical. It can be challenging to shift your perspective; it’s harder still to discover new ways of looking and fashion ways to record them. In the former, you can build upon the efforts of the past; in the latter, there are no precedents.

The process of making this image seemed appropriate. The image in my mind was a composite of many perspectives, involving the motion of my eyes. I tried to hold everything in sharp focus. It involved some effort. Looking at the final image is, in some sense, a relief. The visual challenge is finally resolved for the viewer. A great deal of the work of looking is done and held in place.

To my mind, while sharpness flattens an image visually, psychologically it adds depth. In an image that is sharply focused overall (as in this image), each element holds equal weight with regard to the element of focus. One kind of prioritization — lack of focus, a clue to depth — has been removed. Yet, conversely, when focus is removed, the viewer’s efforts to penetrate to out-of-focus areas is thwarted. In these kinds of images we are constantly deflected away from soft areas to sharp ones. While the landscape that is partially out of focus will give the visual impression of depth, the landscape totally in focus will give the psychological experience of travelling through those spaces (albeit more easily, as the eye does not have to work as hard to do the travelling). In focused images, you can look toboth near and faraway places and see them both in focus; thus the total psychological distance travelled is greater. Yet the visual impression is of reduced depth. The visual sensation can sometimes be at odds with the psychological effect.

This image is part of a series. For some time now I have been making multiple images of the same subject composed from different perspectives. In this image, I was pulled along by the reflection of the sun that moved with me as I moved through the image. The environment changed as I moved through it. The reflection changed position within it, and sometimes its shape shimmered in the wind. In this image the sun is positioned behind the floating log, but you can still see its halo. I often like to walk around, in, and through an image I have found. For me, the process of making images for me is a journey, a path of discovery. I enjoy the physical and kinetic aspects of making images. The discovery of every composition involves a balletic dance between the observer and the observed.

It is at once less and more present in photography than in painting. In painting this process of discovery is often revealed in traces on a surface made by successive observations of the artist through gesture. Through a process of manually rendering an image, you understand the contours and space of things kinetically by reproducing or finding equivalents in motion for them. (This kind of understanding is one reason I like to make sketches of images, before or after they are complete.) In photography the image arrives instantly; fewer traces are left. But more frequently, the image is found by moving by or through an environment. Often the image itself is moved through, prior to or after exposure. Even if other images are not made along the way, the artist understands the spaces by moving in them or relative to them. Different and similar, in both cases, the body becomes a receptor. The sum total of the impressions yielded by all our senses is greater than their individual parts — it’s sensory synergy. Often we conjure up ways to suggest these other missing dimensions in images — texture, temperature, sound, smell, and motion. In many ways this resembles the neurological condition of synesthesia. Synesthetic involves the crossing of sensory input from different senses, usually in diminished intensity, for instance hearing and tasting color or seeing images in response to sound. To one degree or another, we are all synesthesiatic. In the case of motion, no synesthesia is necessary. Vision itself is kinetic. We constantly move our eyes. We move through the world and are moved by it. Things grow more or less focused in the process.