Emotion and Photography

How can a photograph embody emotion? How can a photo capture your feelings? My answer is that it’s a matter of opening your eyes to what is around you. I was visiting an old friend of mine who was dying in hospital. I spent a couple of days beside his bed, and the time was filled with laughter and tears. My friend Ralph is a musician and songwriter, and I’ve known him for three decades. Eventually I needed to say goodbye, and face a long walk back to the motel I was staying in, before catching a flight back home. Ralph was born and raised in Taranaki, noted for the big mountain, Mt. Taranaki, that looks down on the entire province. I remember when he and I left the province in ’79 or ’80 Ralph wrote a song about the mountain, using it as a metaphor for his feelings about the province…

I looked over my shoulder,
and saw the cause of my misery.
It’s a big white mountain
Pretty as it can be
But its ice cold breath, boys,
Be the death of me.

Walking down the road from the hospice I looked over my shoulder, and there was the mountain, looking down on me. Some days the mountain is hidden by cloud, but on a clear day it seems to be visible from almost everywhere. The mountain seemed to embody the complex feelings I had, having just said my last goodbyes to Ralph. I tried taking a photo of it with my phone, but the moderately wide lens made it look further away, and the suburban houses in the foreground seemed to be sending the wrong messages. The mountain was just too small in the image, and you didn’t really see the point of the photo. But when I got to the top of a hill near the motel I saw the mountain between a nest of signs, including one sign pointing towards a cemetery, a give way sign, and a man walking image. It was as if this is what I was put here to photograph. The place was asking me to photograph it. The best photos are not taken, but allowed to be taken. Knowing that the phone camera would not cut it, I unpacked my bag on the roadside – the 6D was at the bottom. I tried a couple of shots but I knew I needed something more. I re-assembled the tripod that I had packed away for travel, and found the ideal spot for the camera (on the road, pretty much in the path of passing cars) with the longest lens I had with me (70mm). I knew a longer lens was what I’d need to make the mountain large in the image relative to the foreground. I took a series of photos with long exposures looking for cars moving, and avoiding getting run over. I figured that a ghostly blurred shot of a car passing would complete the photo, and I think the result works really well. Mountain-8270

In post I’ve adjusted contrast and increased the saturation. I’ve applied a mask to the sky and lowered the colour temperature to get the Japanese-y woodblock like colour in the sky (actually that was what the sky looked like, but it bleached out in the photo). I’ve also applied a mask to the signs and brightened them a little to make them more visible. Back at the motel I slept badly, and dreamed about Ralph. I was already wide awake when the alarm sounded at 5:00 am to get me ready for the shuttle to the airport, so I was outside, waiting for the shuttle in the predawn darkness well before the shuttle arrived. Lights over deserted roads and pedestrian crossings on still nights have always fascinated me, although given my state of mind they seemed like crossings over the river Styx. Since I had time to kill I ‘worked the scene’ with my phone. The first image was taken with the Hueless app that is a great little app for black and white photos, and seemed fitting for a fairly noir image. Mountain-3094

Then I tried my favourite app – Hipstamatic – and took a bunch of shots with the randomise setting on. I really like the joy of finding a gem in the random combination of “lenses” and “films” you can get with this app. It reminds me of the joys of using a lo-fi film camera where you never really know what you are going to get. Mountain-3103

The last shots of this trip are a little more optimistic, but nonetheless are dominated by that mountain, and I still have the words of Ralph’s song ringing in my ears. From my seat on the plane there was a wonderful view of the mountain (that damn mountain) and again I used Hipstamatic to take some shots. These work best in terms of composition – the mountain juxtaposed against the plane’s engine. With the random settings I’ve ended up with two very different treatments – choose the more colourful one for a more optimistic ending, or the muted one for something sadder. Mountain-3125 Mountain-3124

Let’s return to the question I posed at the start. How can a photo embody emotion? Well, the images above certainly resonate to me with some very complex emotions connected with my friend’s passing, and when I look at the shots of the mountain I can’t help but hear the words of his song. They are certainly emotionally charged to me, and I guess you’ll pick up some of that charge from the images now that you’ve read the story behind them. But if you are just looking at the images? Probably the phone images won’t count for a great deal. The last two images are nice shots, but I doubt if they will convey the feelings I had without hearing the story (even though they work well as images). The two street shots are a little obvious. The one that I like though is the one at the top of the page, the shot where the universe asked me to take the photo. At first glance it’s a pretty shot of the mountain with the interesting lines made by the power poles, but the text in the image (on the signs) and the implied movement to and from the cemetery – the main walking towards his grave and the car recoiling from it – give the image more substance.

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About Phil Davison

Photographer, musician and filmmaker.

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