Among the chief reasons I photograph the landscape is to escape, at least briefly, the chaos of the built environment—the cars, power lines, signs, dumpsters, traffic lights and other elements that surround us daily. And yet, the landscape can be equally chaotic.
The beaches on Big Talbot Island are covered in what looks like driftwood, but are actually live oaks, pines, palms and other trees that have fallen onto the beach as a result of erosion. On Blackrock Beach, there are also fascinating geologic formations that look like rocks and lava, but are instead compressed sand and leaf litter. They are sturdy enough to walk on, but will crumble in your hands when compressed. This beach is so different from others in Florida and along the southern Atlantic Coast that when you reach the drop off to the beach, which requires a bit of scrambling, all you can do is stop in your tracks and gasp.
Blackrock Beach is eerily stunning. It is also surprisingly difficult to photograph. There is something everywhere. And these “somethings”—enormous uprooted trees, in particular—are enormous. Even though I have photographed this beach many times, I still struggle to capture its true spirit. Part of that, I realize, is my desire to shoot simple images in serene settings. This beach is anything but simple and serene. But I’ve taken others to this beach and they always ask: How do you take photographs in such a chaotic environment?
The answer, of course, is: “It depends.” Do you want to capture the chaos or find quiet spots amidst the chaos? Are you shooting from a documentary perspective or an artistic one? As the photographer, what do you want to say about the island with your images? What do you want to remember or share with others?
I’m still working on solutions to that question, but here are some approaches that have helped me work my way through Blackrock Beach and other chaotic environments—dense forests, eclectic gardens or, yes, even the built environment.
- Start by sitting and observing for a while. Let your eyes and mind adjust to the chaos. Decide on what compels you most and start there.
- Move in close and focus on the details such as patterns in the sand or sun-bleached trees, formations in the “rocks,” or the snails living in damp pockets on the fallen trees.
- Where you have a little more breathing room, capture vignettes—a small cluster of boulders, water swirling around a fallen tree, or the relationship between a few tree branches.
- Seek out uncluttered backgrounds—shooting down toward the sand, out toward the sea, or up toward the sky.
- Or get right in the thick of it all and shoot the madness—compressing the elements in the image with a telephoto lens.
- Find a distant view point (such as a point that extends out farther than most of the beach) and shoot a broad shot with a wide-angle lens, giving the composition ample breathing room.
- If you have the luxury of returning to a challenging site, try doing so on a lightly overcast or foggy day, or when the site is in shade. This reduces the contrast, eliminates harsh shadows and, in the case of fog, may eliminate distracting backgrounds altogether.
- When you return to a site, not only will the light and environmental conditions have changed, but your mood and mindset will have changed as well. This also gives you time to review your work, think about potential solutions to specific challenges, and then try it again. In time, you will find your own way of seeing and capturing a place.
And finally, sometimes we simply have to admit that there are limitations to photography. As Bruce Barnbaum says in The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression, “It is not always possible to distill so much sensory input into a two-dimensional picture with great effectiveness.”
But, of course, we will keep trying.