What Comes A-Floating Down the River

This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer


At the northern end of the eastern arm of our lake there begins a long stream (how long? A search didn’t turn up that information), with dams and waterfalls and the remnants of 19th-century mills, called the Keuka Lake Outlet, through which Keuka Lake drains into the larger and lower Seneca Lake. The Keuka Lake Trail runs alongside. Various stretches of the Outlet are used by recreational boaters and fishermen. At the local Arts Fair a couple of months ago, I saw a picture here—a couple in a canoe paddling lazily past this spot. I saw the picture without seeing it, because I was off to the side and a couple of hundred feet away when the couple in the canoe came by. They passed by, and I couldn’t get into place in time.

(View an enlargeable version of this shot here.)

Since then, I’ve been back to this spot twice more to to see what I might get. I worked out the vantage point I wanted for the background and put a piece of wood on the ground so I could return to it easily, set the camera the way I wanted it, and retired to a bench in the shade to wait. It’s very near the public landing, so lots of watercraft stopped short of me because the people were headed back to pull the boats out of the water.

On this occasion I patiently photographed this same scene with all sorts of craft passing—multiple kayakers, a sleek speedboat, a strange one-person fishing-boat contraption with an electric trolling motor, this young paddleboarder…and a flock of geese. Strangely, everyone passing (even the geese) looked at me, except the people in the speedboat. None of them even glanced over. I waved to most of them, and spoke to a few. The geese were amazingly cooperative, arraying themselves in a single line, perfectly spaced. The thought crossed my mind that they looked too perfect, and people would think I had cloned and Photoshopped them into place!

Are they bitin’ today?

Theme song for this picture: J.J. Cale’s “The Old Man and Me,” a song I’ve always loved. I used to call it the theme song of my life. The lyrics describe a situation that is lyrical, pastoral, touching, profound and profoundly ridiculous all at the same time:

The old man he catches

The fish in the morning—

He rides the river every day.

I sit on the bank and

Holler when he passes

‘Hey, old man, are they bitin’ today?’

I wake up in the morning,

Thinking ’bout my troubles

I go down to the water

And they pass away.

And when the old man comes

A-floating down the river

‘Hey, old man, are they bitin’ today?’

Now here we got a thing

That keeps on rolling.

It ain’t heavy, don’t take it that way.

The old man and me,

We got a good thing going—

He catches fish, and I sit all day.

He catches fish, and I sit all day.

I could write a whole post on that song.


But which one is “the” picture? They all work, and yet none of them were exactly what I had in mind. You have to avoid being bloody-minded (“stubbornly contrary or obstructive: cantankerous“) when photographing. I am willing to be patient when hunting a photograph, but I’ve noticed over the years that when I get too attached to the idea of the picture I think I want, often nothing good comes of that. On the other hand, I’m good at accepting serendipity when it happens, and it happens often. Sometimes I will go to a place to photograph a specific thing I saw, and try hard to get that shot, only to have to accept the fact, later, while editing, that the shot I went after just isn’t much. On the other hand, when I’m out taking one shot, sometimes I happen on another scene, and that one is the good one. Photographing is like fishing—you equip yourself, position yourself, encourage good luck as much as you can, but you’re still not entirely in control of what you’re going to get. You have to stay open-minded pretty much every step of the way. Especially, you always have to be open to the fact that maybe what you thought would be a good picture, isn’t.

So is the paddleboarder “the” picture? …The one I should be open to? I like it. At the same time, my instincts are a bit muddled—I’m not quite certain it all comes together. Maybe this is it, or maybe there’s not a picture at this spot. (The geese came close for me too!)

Time will tell

The answer, for me, almost always comes as time passes. When pictures are new, there’s a residue of false enthusiasm that clings to them. But after some time goes by, usually the good ones come forward more—that is, I like them better—and the poorer ones fall away—they offer me less and less. That’s when I realize that I’ve “forced” something that doesn’t quite work.

So I’ll let some time pass, and see how I like the paddleboarder. But whatever happens, I think I’m going to return to this spot at least one more time this summer, to see what happens by.


Original contents copyright 2023 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. (To see all the comments, click on the “Comments” link below or on the title of this post.)

Featured Comments from:

Aaron: “I’d love to see the geese version. I think your understandable concern about it appearing too perfect is reflective of our cultural moment. Serendipity happens. But, because it’s technically possible to create a fiction that is indistinguishable from an authentic spontaneously serendipitous moment it becomes harder for all of us to trust and appreciate an image of such a moment. And because visually we’ve been trained with certain expectations of perfection we now have an unending stream of simulacra of serendipity. It’s hard to distinguish photography from graphic arts (and nothing against graphic arts, by the way). I don’t think there’s an antidote to this except to find photographers who we trust to give us those moments within certain conventions of image manipulation without violating the authentic moment, perhaps image manipulation that calls appropriate attention to the moment without fictionalizing it. That’s clearly an art and not a science and people will understandably disagree about what counts as appropriate manipulation.”

Mike replies: First, here’s the variant with geese:

Geese outlet

Second, to your main point, very pithily (is that a word?) stated, I’ve long thought the same thing. People don’t tend to like that argument, but the fact that photography is not as much a pure record as it used to be has dampened my enjoyment of photographs somewhat. I remember when I learned to be wary of photographs with telltales of manipulation (including excessively perfect “spontaneous serendipity”!), and also when I realized that I was becoming more reflexively wary about the truth-value of all photographs.

Kevin Crosado: “A magazine editor I used to do prepress for back in the noughties would have had me Photoshop out the paddle-boarder because they distracted from the photograph of the building….”

John Camp: “People shooting digital often shoot multiple takes of a single evolving scene. Did you, by chance, get a shot of the paddleboarder entering the scene? Or did you wait until she was in your pre-selected shot, and then take it?”

Mike replies: I only took two of her, which is too few. I generally don’t take enough variants, and often, back in front of the computer, wish I had more to choose from. I suppose I’m still too attached to the old idea (or habit) of anticipating just the right moment and hitting the shutter at exactly the right moment. In this case I have one of her entering the frame, and then the one at the top of this post. I didn’t take one of her in the middle of the scene because I realized she wouldn’t contrast well unless she was in front of the darkest background. I took 36 shots of this scene altogether, with various watercraft, which is, by coincidence or not, just about exactly what I would have given this subject shooting 35mm film.

I have another shot that I haven’t yet posted on Flickr that has a man walking through the scene. He’s quite far away from the camera, and I couldn’t see his expression as I was shooting. I took five variants of that one—and there’s only one in which he’s not looking at my camera!


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