A couple of months ago I got a WhatsApp message from close friends, Patrick and Susanne, who at the time were out camping for the weekend. They were in the Overberg region of South Africa and had spotted a burnt forest on the slopes of a mountain. The message, accompanied by a picture of the area taken from the road read, "We think you need to check this place out. Interesting burnt forest....". The message came with location details. I thanked them, but for a while I could not find time to visit it. Recently, when shooting down the coast towards Die Dam, I decided to go and have a look.
We were based quite far from this particular location, but on the day that my family and I went for a drive we passed by to check it out. When I drove towards it, I recognized the area from the photograph Pat and Sus had sent, and I could immediately see that this location had lots of potential for photography. The boundary fence had burned down so this time, gaining entry was easy. The fire had taken its toll, and had left a large area scorched, but the green undergrowth had started recovering. There were also a number of trees that had been planted in straight lines, which offered beautiful rhythmic patterns.
There were also a number of trees that had been planted in straight lines,
which offered beautiful rhythmic patterns.
Allow me to take a step back and explain my motivation. A few years back, after the bush fires ravished Silvermine and Hout Bay near to where we live, I photographed what turned out to be a very successful abstract series called After The Fire, and have since wanted to expand on the collection, but this time making use of strong black vertical lines similar to those I achieve to get in this new series. I had yet to find a suitable location, or the time, and thought that this place could perhaps work... Well, it didn't, not for what I had in mind, but it certainly came with other opportunities.
(Right) After the Fire Print Collection | Abstract Macro Photography | View Now >>
Because the fire had burned right up to the higher slopes of the mountain, the backgrounds were fantastic as most of the visual clutter had been removed. All that would be needed on the day, to capture the scene properly was some good soft directional light. The slopes were southeast facing, which meant that early morning light would work best. The temptation to start shooting immediately was high but the light was on the wrong side, so before dawn the next morning, Samantha, my eldest daughter and photography companion and I, left for the same spot to see what was possible. When we arrived, clouds were building on the eastern horizon which subdued the light. Every now and then as a little light came through, we caught a glimpse - a teaser if you like - of what was possible.
Dew to time constraints, I found myself getting frustrated, and ran up and down the slopes chasing after any opportunity, without success. After an hour or two we packed it up and left to put in fuel at a nearby town, hoping that a cup of coffee would heighten our spirits. But no such luck...Fuel yes, coffee no - you had to be kidding!
I don't know if it is just human inclination, excitement, or just lack of patience. But when I know that there is a photograph to be had, I want to catch it and bag it before the opportunity gets away. Funny, I don't mind waiting hours, days or even years in some cases for an opportunity should logistics be possible, but when I know that I only have a short time, I somehow feel like I can easily offer God a hand to speed up the process. So, on our way back from filling up the vehicle, we noticed that the sun was still relatively low in the sky and the heavy cloud cover have lifted a bit. I just couldn't help wondering “What if?”, so I turned back to try again. The light continued to tease, and although we both got one or two interesting shots, it was still not what I was really after.
The light continued to tease, and although we both got one or two interesting shots,
it was still not what I was really after.
After what I have just said, I know it sounds strange, but this is one of the things I actually love about photography. Some days, when the light and weather conditions come together it seems effortless, and others (especially when you can see the underlying opportunities, but the light and circumstances do not work) it feels like a total grind and an extreme test of one’s patience.
Again disappointed, it was not long before we packed up and headed back. Driving back, grumpy and feeling sorry for myself, I spotted a large burnt area just behind a thicket off the main road. It was somewhat obscured, but I realized that if I could gain access, it might have potential. We turned around to have a quick look. Fortunately we found a secluded pathway that led though a burnt down gate that made access simple. I could see that I could get to where I wanted to shoot, but the light at this stage was harsh and high in the sky. I earmarked the location and called it a day. That evening and the next morning I accompanied Sam as she wanted to shoot some seascape work for her new upcoming exhibition (Eternity) later this year and thought nothing more of my obsession with abstract compositions and God’s injustice. That afternoon at about three some mist and light cloud rolled in. Suddenly I was reminded: black burned tree trunks, white light ash backgrounds and soft light....yep, a marriage made in heaven.
I asked Sam if she wanted to accompany me, and we packed the vehicle and drove back, very excited. When we drove deeper in I knew that I had found a great location. I parked the Landy and walked in further. A short distance in I discovered a large enough isolated area where the fire had burned so hot that there was very little shrubbery left; only blackened wood and white ash. This is what I was looking for.
I tried a number of different “normal” shots which didn’t work. I felt like a child in a candy store without money. I knew the opportunity was there, but couldn’t get to it. I then decided to go with a slower shutter speed using slight lens movement to achieve an abstract impressionist effect. From the first exposure, I knew I was on the money. And wow! After that, exposure after exposure just popped up and shouted, "Use me, Use me!". Yes, this was it….finally!
I shot two formats, one horizontal and one vertical, both of which worked equally well. With the horizontal I was able to express more pattern and rhythm, and with the vertical, more visual power. The combination of soft light, burnt tree trunks, powdery ash backgrounds and camera technique all came together in beautiful harmony. I had an absolute blast and the creative juices just flowed. About an hour or so or later, the light cloud cover and soft mist lifted and just like that, harsh shadows and sunlight complicated the compositions and the session was over.
The combination of soft light, burnt tree trunks, powdery ash backgrounds and
camera technique all came together in beautiful harmony.
I have always maintained that photography is a reality driven medium, and therein lie the challenges and opportunities when using a camera and lens to create art. These pictures are a good example of this. Had I persisted to take sharp "normal" compositions, the photographs would have probably turned out boring and predictable. And though there is nothing wrong with sharp images for the right subject, I just felt it would not have worked for this particular scene.
Ansel Adams, one of the most technically proficient photographers that ever walked the earth, summed this up beautifully when he said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept". Photography can be used to record reality very accurately, but on the other hand it can be used completely differently, like in this Fire and Ash series to obscure reality within the boundaries of the abstract. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons why the camera is such a wonderful and creative tool in the context of art. It is not about what is being photographed, it is about how that subject is portrayed to the viewer, through the vision of the artist.
Thank you, Patrick and Susan for pointing me in the right direction, if it was not for your prompting, I may never have discovered this wonderful find.