Stillmotion

by George Murphy on November 19, 2016

– SLOW EXPOSURE LANDSCAPES FROM THE SHIFTING VANTAGE OF THE RAILS –
Featuring scenes from the Waimakariri River Valley, New Zealand

 

Even when it seems the human world is on fire, the natural world persists; impartial and uncaring – though perhaps not so immune – from all the things that keep us awake at night.  There in tiny pockets underfoot and vast spaces in between, it whispers to us; and offers up for those who care to look, a rich tapestry of truths and soul filling wonder, grounded in a reality so much bigger than all of our self inflicted craziness.

Ironically, it is this world outside humanity that is so often able to give us back our humanity… and with it, a perspective that reminds us more of what we share than of what divides us.

To that end, I take great pleasure in finding fresh ways to capture and share a view into the natural world, and why I am particularly excited about this new series of images I was able to make on my recent travels to New Zealand.  The photography in STILLMOTION began as an experiment in the art of simplification, but turned out to also reveal – at the very same time – the underlying complexity within the landscapes in front of me; a dichotomy that not coincidentally, is reflective of the very character of the natural world itself.

The accompanying images are a sneak peek at some of the uniquely surreal results of that effort and the story behind how I came to make these images.

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I have long been interested in how the “frozen moment” lives within a broader contrast of motion and change, experimenting with slow shutter speeds and camera technique, to bring both of these aspects together in a single image.  Usually this would apply to a subject that was itself in motion, however on my New Zealand trip I had an opportunity to explore this concept in reverse, shooting static landscapes from the shifting perspective of a moving train.

I was in New Zealand as part of a film crew, riding our own custom rigged train along the rail lines between Christchurch on the eastern coast of the South Island, and Arthur’s Pass, deep in the heart of the beautiful Southern Alps.  We had been traversing this route for several days, photographing this magical landscape in every kind of lighting and weather.  What we’d really hoped to capture though, was winter snow.  We thought we might be too late, that we’d missed it; but a late season blizzard moved in from the West, gifting us with piles of the white stuff and making our rail route the only viable passage through this incredible landscape.

With the snow came visual isolation, focusing our view to the closer details of the world around us, now disconnected from deeper vistas hidden in the closing clouds.  Moreover, the snow added contour and texture to everything it settled on – branches, leaves, rocks and streams – even as it erased from view competing details on the ground and beyond.

As we crossed this idyllic winter environment of defined shapes and contrast, I knew I had to somehow capture it in my own way.  I decided I would try to use the weather as an opportunity to abstracted select features from their larger environment, yet without losing a sense of that environment.

To that end I turned to the long exposure techniques I mentioned earlier. My very first exposures were promising.  The complex motions, intertwined with the frozen details of trees and branches, were unlike anything I’d managed to capture before.  Encouraged, I continued to photograph, revealing a world in these images that swirled, as if in orbit around the chosen subjects, creating a beautiful and complex dance of opposing movements and detail that did not seem possible just from my linear travel alone… but there it was!

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As we made our way past woods and streams, I would pick out features from the fast approaching landscapes to be the focal point of my slow exposure tracking, then quickly decide on a composition to frame up. It was a little like sports photography techniques, now applied to landscape photography! The tricky part was tracking and panning to match the accelerating, then decelerating speed of the subject as it passed by (or rather, I passed it). This kind of panning exposure always takes a little practice to get right, especially since the viewfinder goes black for the duration of the shot. Some of the magic in these images comes specifically from the inaccuracies in that process, holding a feature steady just long enough to burn a clear image, then getting the smear from it drifting off track.

What I love about these images is that they have a richly textured, painterly quality that comes naturally from the start, stop streaking that occurred during the exposures. While at first it might appear that this was a look achieved through layered enhancements in post production, the content of these images remains un-manipulated.

These are all single exposure photographs that have been graded for basic values, contrast and color, and only to bring out the details that were actually there in the image. The overall tones were naturally muted by the flat overcast lighting, though slightly contaminated with additional browns and greens, that came from reflections of the train interior in the glass of the window I was shooting through. This subtle but noticeable effect ultimately adds to the ethereal quality of some of the images.

And yes, despite some generally successful composing at the time of exposure, I found that some images benefited from additional cropping, to help balance the final placement of sharp and smeared content.

With regard to more artistic enhancements: Where it serves the artist’s intent (and is not used in a misleading context!), I have no issues; however, there are few things about photography that bring me more satisfaction than the discovery of what happens naturally when light passes from a subject through a lens, at just the right moment, for just the right amount of time, from just the right angle… to reveal something wonderfully unexpected about that subject; something that is more in its sum, than a matter of fact record of what was there in front of my camera.

That is exactly what has excited me about the magical results of my afternoon experiment, riding the rails of New Zealand.

-GM

Note: These images really need to be seen as large prints to fully enjoy their uniquely complex content. As such, I will be exploring the possibility of an upcoming gallery presentation of these images (as well as other images in this series not shown) either here in London, or back in the United States, or both. In addition, I am looking at making available select print editions of these images. I will post updates to this blog listing as well as to the Firsthand Pictures Facebook page as details come together.

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Technical Notes:
All images shot using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLR camera with a Canon EF 24-105 ƒ4.5 lens. Exposures varied from 1/6th sec to 1/13th sec, between ƒ18 and ƒ22 at ISO 100, with image stabalization turned off.

Image copyright © George Murphy 2016. All rights reserved. Use by permission only.

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