This past week has been an educational one. Yet again my approach to a particular aspect of photography has been challenged and needs to change. I love it when this happens although this is tempered with a slight shame that I’ve been ‘getting it wrong’ for so long. Well, maybe not wrong but certainly not as mindful.
Some of the most arresting images are woven from darkness, mystery is threaded through their lines and unanswered questions linger around corners. These images are stories with unwritten endings, tales that keep us guessing, wondering and dipping into their magic.
Mystery has a pull that is impossible to quantify or even fully understand and in some ways not having the answer is more tantalising that having the answers spelled out. Many times as I’m driving through our landscapes I’ll peer at a nearby ridge and wonder what’s on the other side. Every bit of me wants to park the car and hike to the summit just to have a look into the unknown. Usually this is not possible and the mystery remains alive to revisit my imagination again.
Not knowing is powerful stuff. And not being able to know is even more spellbinding.
So, what has this got to do with my photography? Those of you who know me may be aware of my penchant for taking occasional sets of photographs in the dark. I mean the total darkness that only occurs 3 hours after sunset when there’s no full moon in the sky. I expose the sensor for an incredibly long time until a daytime-like preview blazes across my lcd screen. I then dutifully process this to convey this ‘dark light’ and have begun to understand why this works so well.
But here’s the catch, I then share these images and show the night-land with every conceivable corner illuminated as if it were noon! No mystery. No magic. No unanswered questions.
It took a journey into Wabi-Sabi to understand what I was doing wrong, or more specifically Yugen. Alan Watts spoke very eloquently on this somewhat esoteric, certainly philosophical approach to nature and connection and I find his YouTube videos most enlightening.
My approach to night photography has been all about me! Look at me! See what I can do! I can turn night into day in a mere 8 minutes!
Yugen has taught me to draw the curtains closer, to let the darkness do its work of mystery-making and to share that feeling with my audience. It’s time for me to stop shining a light on that which doesn’t need it, and maybe doesn’t want it and to explore how to let the magical, sometimes unnerving mysteries of night creep through my images.
The appeal of night, for me, is not knowing what’s out there and while it can be rewarding to find out, just like the view over the horizon, the mystery is even more compelling.
So, from now on I’m going to be shooting the dark of night and leaving inky black pools to lie untouched where they choose to gather in the gloaming. This will warrant a change of approach and I’ll probably no longer need to shoot for 40 minutes to gather sufficient photons onto my sensor to fully light up the night lands.
No, from now on I will aim to collect just enough light to illuminate the visual path into the picture and that path will sparkle with just enough light to wander into the frame by. Mystery will then prevail and maybe the shadowlands will begin to speak more freely with me.