Writing On Stone
by Gabriele Ehnes-Lilly
No, it is not Banff. Beautiful, picturesque, and sought out by millions of tourists from all over the world, Banff has become overdone and photographically killed as many times as pictures are taken by anyone that calls themself a photographer. The classic shots have become worthless; they exist too many times in every conceivable set-up, and nothing new can be discovered there. The story is dead. I like to visit Banff for its beauty, for its nature, and to relax in the luxurious Banff Springs hotel.
I am hungry for the original, for the undiscovered, and for the places that still hold some secrets. The good thing is, Alberta still has a few hidden gems tourists know virtually nothing about. I can roam freely, taking pictures to my hearts content, and nobody stands impatiently behind me - waiting to take their own shots with the same set-up. I love to discover these places, love to explore them, love to take a million pictures, and then fuzz for hours trying to enhance the best in Photoshop.
Let me tell you about one of these places - not in a detailed description of a travel magazine article, or even a technical how-to on what to take pictures of, but rather in a half a dozen or so moments of times, giving you a glimpse of how I saw the place, and sharing a bit of my opinion on photography along the way. The full discovery of this hidden gem is left up to you - making your own interpretation of it - and what photography means to you.
The Sweetgrass Hills in Montana make a perfect backdrop to a valley of hoodoos cut in half by a milky river meandering throughout. At the top stands one of the stone carvings who imagines himself as the master of this timeless place. Visitors can let their imagination roam, observing wild-west gun fights between cowboys and the Natives as it would have happened over a hundred years ago, or perhaps imagine themselves as far back as the dinosaur age. Think of the excitement and trepidation mixed together in a moment of increased heart rate at the thought of a flesh-eating member of this family catching your scent in the wind as it stalks its next meal not too far away from where you are sitting and enjoying the scenery.
Instead of being devoured, you hear the beautiful but high-pitched sound of a Meadowlark and turn around to see the little guy with his yellow chest, sitting on a fence stump, just singing away to his hearts content. He brought you back to a safe time, causing your heart to slow down and changes your momentary adventure into a relaxing afternoon stroll through a magnificent landscape. The Meadowlark too thinks of this place as a perfect choice to retreat and make a quiet vacation with untouched nature at center stage. He continues his song as he flies away in search of a juicy bug for lunch.
Having soaked up the mood of the place, it is now time to wander through the maze of hoodoos with the hope of getting lost amidst the many different shapes. Mazes are one of my most favorite places, especially Venice. If you have ever had the chance to visit Venice, you know what an ultimate maze can be like. But I digress. Getting lost in the maze of hoodoos can take you straight back to your childhood of playing hide and seek - but never mind the hiding. It is now time to do the seeking. After all this is the place with a million spectacular photographs and none of them a replica of a picture sold a million times over. This is the place you can make your own and be truly creative in. For example, I choose to play on the nearly overcast sky, making it dramatic and playing the perfect contrast and backdrop to the stone formations themselves.
The technique is simple enough. In Photoshop adjust the sky separate from the landscape with Levels on an Overlay of about 50%. Play with the two layers until you have achieved the look and feel you like. After that fine tune it with a Graduation Filter and some sharpening if needed. More important though, don’t copy someone else’s technique, discover your own style. The example here is just one possibility and explains the effect you see in the above image. If you want to be satisfied and truly happy with the photographs you are taking, you have to make them your own first. You have to be able to write the story into them and bring out the emotions you felt when you saw the scene and took the picture. I guess this would describe the second premise of how I live in the photographic world. One, I don’t like to take pictures of that which has been photographed a million times before, and two, I have to see the story or emotion in the finished image after I touched it up.
Have a look at the the image above, it gives me the distinct sense of being on another planet, or at least another strange country not yet discovered. It allows me to let my imagination roam free very much like you when you where sitting beside the master stone thinking of cowboys and dinosaurs. A good picture is one that provides more than a mere 2-dimensional replication of what you saw - a good picture entertains and captivates. A good picture gives you pleasure when you look at it and may cause you to remember what it was like when you took it. It does some of these things; it does all of these things.
What then makes a great picture - one in a million? As I meander through the hoodoos, taking pictures at least as many as there are hoodoos at Writing On Stone, I was not contemplating this difficult question. I guess the writing of this article has led me down this path all by itself. While I was taking pictures at Writing On Stone I was not aiming to take that one magnificent picture either - the one that will make me famous or even cause some sales. While I was taking pictures I was simply mesmerized by the place and enjoyed being in it to the extend I had capacity for enjoyment. I imagined being there by myself with no consequence for time or responsibility. I enjoyed the moment and came away with some pictures I was really happy with.
So what then makes a great picture? Re-read the article above and verify that to this point I focused strictly on the relationship between the photographer and his photograph. It is one thing to take a picture and to find all aspects in it that move you and make you fall in love with it. It is an entirely different challenge to invoke true and honest emotion in another person. What then makes a great picture? A great picture is one that speaks to another person with more intensity, with more fierceness than it does to the photographer itself. It recklessly abandons its loyalty to its creator and instead chooses to tell a story to someone else. If a photographer can create pictures like this, they may become a great photographer.
Of course, this is strictly my opinion and nothing more. I believe my pictures are successful because I can create pictures that speak to me and allow me to reminisce about the locations. I discovered in my own way and with my own imagination, pictures that cause me to want to go back to these locations and get lost in the moment one more time. Writing On Stone is a place like this, a place where I like to take good pictures. And if by chance I manage to create one great photograph along the way, I’ll consider that a bonus. After all, I am only an amateur.
Gaby lives in Calgary, AB with her husband Dave Lilly