Behind these Doors, Bond Chapel, University of Chicago, February 2014
Image by kern.justin
Bond Chapel, stately and very lonely in the snowfall
Behind these doors I’ve attended and photographed at least two very dear friends’ weddings, was wed myself, and mourned a colleague and a friend with whom the world was parted too early. Despite the snow and the cold, its wintry facade conjures memories of the diaphanous walls in the summer heat, slowly shifting colors as the ivy and the trees beyond fluttered their leaves in the warmth of the summer breezes. Like Harper, Bond looms large.
There is a particularly photogenic path that leads to Bond’s front gates and it is overhung by the branches of redbud trees (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what they are). The early morning snow had clung to the branches of those trees like I to my memories of a younger self coming here to meet my bride.
A couple from China passed through as I was taking this photograph and asked if I would use their camera to make an image; afterward, the woman paused to choose her english words carefully and flawlessly asked, "Would you like us to take your picture?" I politely declined and they thanked me and continued on their way, I didn’t know how to explain to her what was going through my head, a photo of Bond or Harper or Ida Noyes is, for me anyway, something of a self-portrait as it is.
For the photographers
When I was just getting serious about photography, I would spend most of my hours at my work-study job on the latter of those too but very little on actual classwork and a whole lot reading about photography. The authors I read spoke frequently about the need to "pre-visualize" images in order to be successful at matching potential and intent with the final image.
I admit I had not idea what they meant.
In the subsequent years (many years) I think I’ve come to my own understanding and, since it remains such an important but over-complicated and mysterious topic for those getting started in photography, I thought I’d spell out in very tactical turns what I mean by "pre-visualization."
The process starts for me by identifying a subject I want to photograph. Nowadays this is easier than every with tools like Flickr and 500px, but it is perhaps best accomplished by primary experience. Next, I think about the type of photograph or the type of light I want to end with. Sometimes this idea is a literal (or very nearly literal) one-for-one match with what I end up with (as is the case for this image of the Golden Gate bridge partially obscured by fog that I had attempted at least six times before landing) and sometimes it’s as simple as the position from which I’d like to take the photo. Finally I adjust on the spot to the conditions on the ground to execute. Importantly, timeline here isn’t all that important, although the more satisfying images come from visualization exercises long before the shutter is actually clicked. Therefore the process to make the images on this page went as follows:
~9 AM, it’s snowing and I have the day to photograph, decide in my mind that the gothic facades of The University of Chicago were meant to be photographed in the snow
Mentally add Bond chapel and its massive stained glass windows to the list
Begin walking around campus purposefully to pass by all my favorite spots, linger in thought of how I want to frame things when I get to Bond
Try a few exposures and iterate again and again, identify the quickly falling snow and the snow-covered tree branches as the critical element to making a unique image of Bond, this is an unstructured and reactionary process that builds upon steps 1-3 but was always my source of confusion about what photographers meant by pre-visualization (how can you visualize the final image if you have no idea what the weather will be like?).
This is where the rubber meets the road: translating your mental image into a language the camera understands
Choose camera settings (ISO, aperture, and exposure) to properly capture the falling snow (ISO 50—very bottom image—is a poor choice as the snow disappears from the frame due to motion blur). This mean sacrificing low-ISO performance for high-ISO, high shutter speeds and an f/11 aperture to keep things in focus from near to far.
The next stage in development is to be able to identify the perspective and focal length (approximate) that make the image you’d like. I wanted to capture the branches overhead, as though you might see walking toward Bond. I often imagine myself or my readers walking through my images and I try to place things in the frame as they would like to see them. So I dropped the camera down low to exaggerate the position of the branches and choose a long focal length to compress the scene and fill the frame with the doors and windows of Bond
A further stage in this process (which I have not reached) is to be able to identify that "extra something" about the environment that turns the image from good into totally unique. National Geographic photographers do this with every frame that gets published (which, don’t be fooled, is like 1/10,000 of what they take). Galen Rowell was a master at this. In this case it could have been two students walking past, but they’d have to be something more than ordinary students. Maybe a bagpiper on his way to convocation or a professor in full academic robes hurrying past… you get the point. I’ve been able to do this once or twice, but it’s a tough step and it requires real time and patience.
The final step has always been the most important: processing to finish the execution and achieve what you had in mind at step 1. This deserves its own post, because it’s all about colors and contrast and mood, etc. For now, I’ll just say that this isn’t something new to digital processing. To quote Ansel Adams,
The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.