Found, Forgotten and Found

Eroded Cliffs near Dettifoss, Iceland © jj raia

As happens most times a photo is taken, something motivated you to do so prior to tripping the camera’s shutter. Some object, activity, person or scene inspired you enough to memorialize it with your camera in some way that satisfies that inspiration. After importing those photos onto the computer, the better images are processed and those considered subpar are ignored and left to languish on a hard drive. The cycle repeats, and over time those unprocessed files, and even some of those that were, are forgotten. But occasionally, we come across those same files years later only to be inspired again by what we originally saw and captured with the camera.

The image at the top was one of hundreds of those subpar files from a trip to Iceland in 2019 that were never processed and set to be purged from the hard drive. At first I thought: “What was I thinking there?” The initial answer was: not much! But looking a little deeper for some clue, the search finally fell on the design and structure of the various lines and shapes of the lighter rocks against the black basalt scree. On the cliff face, erosional lines of drainage are clearly evident, while the parallel lines of rocks along the river just below the waterfalls (out of the frame), show evidence of retreating water levels as the river depths increase and decrease during seasonal cycles of snowmelt. Most of those lighter rocks are larger, being more resistant to movement from the forces of flowing water. It was the evidence of how the natural forces of nature can create interesting designs that initially inspired me to photograph them. But over time, the connection of the moment may have dimmed, blurring any recollection of what the motivation was then to make a photograph, and had to be rekindled before beginning the post processing.

The one below was another unprocessed image. The composition was satisfactory, accentuating the depth of the scene with rocks in the foreground and mid-ground leading to the distant mountain hidden in clouds, along with the unanswered question of how these rather large rocks got here so far from the mountain. Although the camera was set on the tripod close to the ground, care was taken to allow enough space between the foreground rock and those in the middle ground to maintain the sense of distance. If they were too close together in the frame, even though they didn’t merge, which would not have been the preference at all, some of the depth would have been lost, leaving it much flatter. But since those clouds initially lacked much in the way of structure, and were blocking the mountain itself, they were a strong source of the overall disappointment with the image in the first place. If the clouds could be coaxed to exhibit more of the structure and gloom as the memory from that day suggests, then the image might avoid the trash can. Once I felt some of the texture in the clouds was sufficiently recovered, then the usual global and local adjustments, cleanup and some tweaking finalized it. The difficulty in processing the image was the tonal range that needed to show detail from the black sand to the bright clouds, and everything in between. The drier sand was a deep charcoal, while the wetter sand was almost completely black, and without much detail, would have been as problematic as the unstructured clouds. Although satisfied with the result, with a bit of mystery as to what lies behind the veil of clouds, there will always be a dollop of disappointment at having never seen the Vestrahorn, the iconic mountain I’d seen in so many photos. It reminded me of two visits to Mount Rainier National Park long ago, having never laid eyes on the mountain itself during either visit, being hidden in an almost constant cloud cover..

Black Sand at Stokksnes — Iceland © jj raia

One of the most striking features of Iceland is the near total absence of trees throughout the country. So when there is a small family of them clustered together in the barren, rocky landscape, they’re noticeable, especially when lit by the low, early morning light and set against some dark shadows. This scene occurred briefly during one of the rare moments when the sunlight was able to pierce the relentless overcast and rain during the first week of the trip. Although it was processed and cropped into the roughly 16:9 ratio seen below, it wasn’t until it was severely cropped again that the trees were large enough in the frame to become the focal point, rather than competing with the broader landscape. Additionally, the group of trees on the right hand side did not have the benefit of a dark shadow behind them, so did not stand out, instead blending into the sunlit hillside. I would have liked to have gotten in closer, but was unable to already being at the 300mm end of the lens.

The original intent was to show the expansiveness of the scene void of any trees except for these two small groups, with the lighter streak of cloud mimicking the slight undulations of the far hills. That intent was satisfied, but in an unsatisfactory image. As it is, almost the entire right side of the frame is unnecessary, so slicing that side off, the remaining square frame makes the image somewhat more compelling, and retains most of the thin strip of lighter clouds. If there had been a dark background behind the right hand group of trees, the original intent probably would have worked, and may have reinforced the idea of expanse. But as we all know, we have to confront the circumstances we encounter rather than those we wish for.

Sunlight through the Clouds — Iceland © jj raia

Glacial ice is so accessible in Iceland, laced with contrasting pastel turquoise and dark dust, abstract details of them were easy to find. I spent quite a bit of time searching among the terminal ice faces and huge (think car and house size) floating ice bergs for balanced designs within them. However, I encountered one unanticipated problem with the bergs. Even though they may seem to be stationary, they’re floating and therefore may be moving imperceptibly. So if depth of field is a concern and a small aperture is needed to keep everything within the frame in sharp focus, a resulting longer shutter speed may cause the image to be less than tack sharp. It may be best to up the ISO to freeze any possible motion with a faster shutter speed, even if it’s thought to be unnecessary.

The main problem for abstract images, whether it’s ice or any other subject, is to find an interesting element to serve as a focal point within the frame to initially attract the viewer’s eye. It can be a line, a shape, a different color from the surroundings, or anything that will draw the eye to begin the travel around the remainder of the frame. Many times these interesting points cannot be easily isolated from distracting elements nearby, ruining the cohesiveness of the composition. So don’t limit yourself to a horizontal or vertical camera position. Quite often these problems can be solved by angling the view, simply recomposing by rotating the camera to eliminate any unwanted elements or distractions. After all, it’s an abstract; horizon lines do not apply here.

Finding these overlooked or forgotten images always rekindles the recollections of past photo trips. All the difficulties, disappointments and inconveniences encountered during those “living out of the car” adventures (because they’re always adventures) have been minimized with the passage of time, and the strong pull to embark on another is unrelenting. After skipping a major trip last year because of Covid, I hoped to dive into another one this fall. But with a recent uptick in new cases and hospitalizations, a short trip of a few days away from crowds, like last year’s 3-day trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway, may be the only available safe option for now.

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