I went out photographing yesterday, and a nice thing happened. But before I get to that…
…On November 1st I was driving into town on a brilliant sunny day. The sky was very active: lots of clouds of various types rearranging themselves with the appearance of urgency. But lots of blue sky too, and the kind of brilliant, intense sunshine we get on cold days. As I crested the top of the big long hill leading down to the little Mennonite-owned grocery story, I saw a wall of opaque gray shrouding the land up to the north of me, from west to east, enveloping the town of Penn Yan where I was headed.
For one thing, it was a beautiful sight. I’ve deliberately given up trying to photograph particularly volatile weather here; you just can’t capture fast-changing conditions and the magic of different things happening all at once in different directions. But boy, do I ever enjoy it. When I saw that wall of gray streaming across from the West, I thought, “it’s got to be raining in town.”
But no. It was snowing in town. A furious snow squall of the sort we get around here once in a while. Dense clouds of giant flakes so whipped up by the roiling wind that they don’t seem to be falling downward at all. Visibility shuts down and it gets tough to see. One football field away, all you could make out of cars or the road were floating pairs of tiny headlights, two little dots of light amid nothing but gray. The squall was intense enough that the locals talked about it afterwards, in casual encounters around town—in the line at the bank, at the Post Office, or at the little mainstream grocery store. “Did you see how hard it snowed?” I went into the plumbing supply place, in one of those pole-barn warehouse-type structures with no windows, and encountered a friend, and we talked a while. When I emerged from the store the snow squalls were gone, having moved on to the East.
The temperature was above freezing, but the grass was covered with that light, lumpy snow that looks a lot like like cake frosting, so white it was almost glittering in the sunlight, which had returned as quickly as it departed. Next stop was the gas station, to check the tires. When working on your tires, you keep your head down, bending over, screwing and unscrewing the little stem caps* and holding the hose to the tire valve till your back starts to…um, tire. You don’t tend to look up or pay attention to much else.
And after the time I took to do that, I looked up, and all the snow was gone, as if it had never been there.
First snow of the season.
A picture for the taking
So here’s what happened yesterday. On Sunday I found myself coming home from Geneva, driving up the hill shown in this post, carefully passing one Mennonite buggy after another (they go visiting on Sundays). It was just after sundown on a crisp day. At the top of the hill there’s a small graveyard of the sort that dot older areas of the country, most of the graves a century old and more. Glancing over, I flashed past a dramatic picture—a line of headstones silhouetted on the horizon line, against the dying brightness of the clear Western sky. I thought, there’s one. Right there.
I didn’t have the camera on board. But I noted the time, 5:30, and thought, I’ll need a clear day.
Usually you can’t do this. Too much can change; sights, even from exactly the same vantage point, wink into perfection and disappear, whether quickly or slowly. The physical world is a river that looks like it’s staying the same but actually is never the same. Jay Maisel, one of the most successful professional photographers in America, certainly in his era and probably “of all time,” says, “Never say you’re going back—shoot it now!” (All photographers should be issued a couple of Jay Maisel books when they buy a decent camera or get into photography.)
But yesterday it was a carbon-copy day, same weather and light as the day before. My thought was, naw, that never works. But it nagged at me, so at about 4:45 I set out.
I didn’t have high hopes. First there’s Jay’s “shoot it now!” ringing in my ears. And I didn’t know if the shot was actually there from the road; what if the best view was from off the road? I don’t like to trespass. Or what it it was only there from the road? Almost as bad. What if the elements weren’t actually visible at once from one standpoint? That happens with me sometimes—what I think is one view is actually an amalgam of the succession of visuals from the fast-moving car, melded into one in my mind’s eye. (Using AI—authentic intelligence.) Being a little self-protectively pessimistic, I gave myself a 15% chance of success.
But half the battle is being there. I drove past, turned around, pulled over as far as I could without pitching into the ditch, put the flashers on, and there it was. Just as I had seen it the day before. A picture for the taking. I set up the tripod, climbed to the other side of the roadside ditch, looked at the scene with the camera to see just where I should be standing and where the right view was, clamped it to the tripod, and then took a dozen shots with minor framing and exposure variations.
Got it! FWIW.
It’ll be a while before I download that card, but when I do, I’ll be sure to upload that shot to Flickr so you can see it. I’ll call your attention to it when I do.
This experience isn’t a contradiction of Jay Maisel’s rule, by the way. His words are still words to live by. But it’s nice to know that even though you shouldn’t say you’re going back, sometimes you can.
*You’re going to laugh, but due to my “reviewer nature” I have a favorite kind of stem cap.
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Featured Comments from:
Rob Griffin: ” Sounds like a really good example of being prepared to be lucky! You were indeed lucky that the image you saw repeated itself 24 hours later, but you were prepared and made yourself available to be lucky. Can’t wait to see the photo!”
Hugh Lovell: “I’ve been trying to build the habit of getting up very early Saturday mornings, skipping my walk, and driving to a place I’ve not been to before or been very often. Few people, little traffic and interesting light (SF Bay area dweller). Mixed success; best results so far were photos of the SF Bay bridge with pre-sunrise behind it (taken from Rincon Park, SF), which was beautifully enhanced by several flights of California brown pelicans flowing through. Will continue to work this practice.”