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Weather Almanac for December 2008
PHOTOGRAPHING THE WEATHER
A while back, I came home from a meeting and clicked on the television to catch Landscape as Muse which features various visual artists travelling to Canadian wild areas to practice their art plein air. This particular episode featured a Robson Valley (the area of the British Columbia where I too live) artist and photographer Matthew Wheeler whom I had met during the summer at the Valemount Museum. His unique photographic look at the landscape uses hand-made ice lenses for his camera, which give an abstract, impressionistic visualization of the subject.
Prior to that program, British Columbia's Knowledge Network had broadcast a biography of famed photographer Ansel Adams (Unicorn PeakThunderclouds shown on right). Adams' collection of landscapes contains many photos in which weather plays a dominant role in the composition. Adams believed: "Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art." More and more, I have been bouncing between the two and landing more on the creative side in my expression. The documentary also stated that he often used darkroom techniques to enhance the punch to his original photograph. For Adams, "The negative is the equivalent of the composer's score, and the print the performance." That statement rang a bell with me as I have become increasingly interested of late in using imagery software such as Adobe's PhotoShop and Photoshop Elements to enhance the artistic nature of my photographs.
The stark images of Adams' work induced me to write this essay on photography and weather. Its focus is a general overview rather than providing specific techniques. (For those, I recommend Harald Edens' Photography techniques as a good starting point.) I hope that through this essay I can give some of you a new tool for seeing and appreciating weather in all its beauty and power.
My Weather Eye and Camera
I first melded my interest in weather with the camera in my mid-teens. Before the convoys of storm chasers roamed the American landscape chasing tornadoes, I hopped into the family car to chase down less-obstructed views of majestic cumulonimbus ranges advancing across the northern Illinois prairies. I never looked for the severe weather, only the best shots of the billowing clouds. My camera at the time was one of the first Kodak Instamatics with a small "telephoto" lens attachment. On other occasions I crawled up to the peak of our garage roof with Dad's 8-mm movie camera screwed to a board in order to photograph the growth of cumulus through time-lapse exposures. I sat astride the roof peak and pressed the single-frame shot trigger every second for 15 minutes. This procedure gave me a short time-lapse film of the cumuli building in height and sending up new towers as they crossed the region.
My interest in photography grew over the years, my first expressions of creative art moving up to a 35 mm format by my mid-20s and later to a Minolta SLR. I took a correspondence course in photography and even had one of my works published in a national magazine. This sunset silhouette of corn tassels has always been one of my favorite scenes, and I have painted it twice. I also photographed thistles silhouetted on a dark blue sky background, but for years wondered what it would have looked like with a fiery sky background. Today I can fulfill that wonder using photo-enhancement software and also using paint.
(For my take on Aids to Weather Photography, click here.)
In the intervening decades, I have used my camera to document travels and some weather events such as an ice storm in Guelph, Ontario in 1972 and the 1996 Victoria blizzard but not to the extent I had once thought I would be practicing the art. That has changed with my semi-retirement, the advent of the digital age (if nothing else, it gave me a place to store and view my thousands of pictures) and new interest in visual arts.
Currently, I have put away the 35mm film camera and replaced it with a digital camera (Fujifilm Finepix S700) which gives me instant return on my photograph and has many features that improve my weather viewing and archiving work. The morning I began researching this piece dawned with bold colors, and I was able to capture some of that color as the sun rose to the right of Mount McKirdy. At the same time, the clear overnight sky that allowed the long-range view produced a windowpane of Jack Frost's artwork on my front door. Using the camera's extreme close-up feature, I was able to photograph the feathery details of ice crystal flowers etched on the glass.
The latter photos I will likely use to produce "reflected mandalas," a visual art technique I have been working on this year. The technique uses slices of photographs to produce a kaleidoscope-like image. The sunrise photo may someday become the subject of a painting in its original form or with added components. I often use photographs or combinations of photographs for my painted works.
While I have not changed my charge to myself, my friends and my readers to "keep their weather eyes open" to enjoy the beauty of the skies, weather events and the seasons as an activity without aids, I know that using observational aids, such as portable weather instruments and cameras, add a new dimension to our weather eyes. To twist around an old adage, they can focus us to see the tree within the forest. Look across a frosted grassland in the morning light, and you have one vision of beauty. Get down on your knees with, or without, a camera to focus on a single plant bristling with frost, and you have another complete vision of beauty....the micro-look. (What else would you expect a micrometeorologist to be looking at?)
What To Look For
Since a camera is an extension of the eyes, I could drop in many of the recommendations from my articles The Joys of Weather Watching and Ten Weather Phenomena To Look For. Of course, the splashy, adventurous images taken by storm chasers of tornadoes, lightning and severe thunderstorms can give a big bang for the camera click. (However, these phenomena are also dangerous and I would caution anyone wishing to pursue these subjects to do so with great care.) Being out in the open in such weather can be hazardous, mostly from the lighting risk. Severe thunderstorms produce many obstacles to the photographer besides being struck by lightning, you can be injured by wind-blown debris or large hailstones. Heavy rains including downbursts can drench the photographer and damage cameras if they are not properly protected. But if you have good lines of sight from an enclosure a covered porch or open garage/carport, for example you have a safe, and dry, haven from which to pursue severe weather photography.
Next to the beauty of thunderstorms, I would rate ice storms and snowstorms high as dramatic subjects for photography, and they can pose their own hazards as well. Ice storms cause many objects to take on a beauty uncharacteristic of their non-iced existence. Sunlight can dramatically increase the visual impacts of ice storms by turning the iced objects into dazzling gems for the diligent photographer. Snow, falling or fallen, can ornament common objects into something special, and wind can sculpt snowbanks into unique shapes. And, as Wilson Bentley and Ken Libbrecht have shown us, photographing individual snowflakes and ice crystals opens a whole new world on natural beauty.
Subfreezing temperatures that allow subtle ice formations as frost on glass or other objects also make a unique vision for the photographer able to look at the small-world scale between the grand landscape and the microscopic world of crystals. Photographs of ice formations can also open whole new venues of interest and even research. Several years ago, I received photographs from two women in the Ohio Valley region of the United States asking what I thought the ice they photographed was. This opened a whole new venue of interest for me into the world of ice ribbons and ice flowers.
Ice is also instrumental in another group of great subjects for weather photography: atmospheric optics. The specific phenomena here include haloes, sundogs, light pillars and diamond dust formed when light passes through or is reflected by ice crystals in clouds or the air. Water droplets can also give interesting sky subjects, primarily rainbows which hold so much fascination for us.
Another incarnation of water, cloud droplets, produces clouds, a whole menagerie of subjects for photography, particularly when colored by the sun at low angles around sunrise and sunset. Perhaps the most beautiful of clouds in the sky form from ice crystals rather than water droplets: the cirrus family. These clouds often look like the handiwork of some giant sky painter whose brush strokes of white jump from the sky-blue canvas above.
I also like to focus on subjects characteristic of seasonal weather patterns, particularly the autumn colors of vegetation and the initial buildup of ice along bodies of water. Even a simple puddle can produce a striking visage when frozen on a frosty fall morning.
Winter conditions pose a unique challenge due to the extra care needed for camera and photographer. But don't let cold weather deter you. The softer and often cleaner light of the sun in winter can enhance the lighting of your subject, particularly surfaces with snow or ice which provide multiple surfaces for reflection. Also be on the lookout for frost and ice patterns on the ground and water surfaces that may form unique patterns.
Rain and wind can pose interesting challenges to the photographer who often has to look for surrogate images to show their presence on film. The whole concept of rain can often be shown by looking closer at rain-soaked objects. Large-scale fog and mist give similar challenges. To photograph them, one must focus on the objects within the fog/mist to show its presence. Patchy radiation fog or steam fog is more photogenic but often requires careful composition to bring it alive.
Other subjects for weather photography can be elusive. Some very interesting forms of mirages are rather rare phenomena and you must either be lucky to have a camera handy when one appears or undertake an "expedition" as detailed as those of the experienced storm chaser to find them. Noctilucent clouds and auroras form only under certain upper atmosphere conditions, often in very specific geographic regions. Photographing them might require a "weather safari." In 2007 I was fortunate to catch noctilucent clouds on the horizon here, but in 2008 I saw none of them, though I looked most evenings. Auroras when present outside the arctic circle are often faint and overwhelmed by street and other lights so location is doubly important. Snow rollers are a weather phenomenon that is likely under-reported and a good reason to venture onto a flat snowy area with a camera.
Keeping a eye/ear on the local weather forecasts. They can often alert you to upcoming conditions that might warrant a foray into the outdoors for a photo expedition. Numerous websites now keep tabs on the progression of autumn color.
I know I haven't exhausted the possible subjects for weather photography, and I am constantly on the lookout for a new visage in the skies.
Views Of The Elders
Today there are so many outstanding photographers aiming their cameras at the sky it is difficult to focus on just a few. Among the best contemporary photographers whose works I have seen and admire include (with apologies to the many I have omitted):
Click on the name to go their website.
I end this piece with brief biographies of three photographers from past days beginning with the man who revolutionized not only photography but meteorology as well with his life's passion of photographing snowflakes: Wilson A. Bentley.
Wilson A. Bentley
The life-long occupation of Wilson Alwyn Bentley (1865-1931) was farming his family's acreage in Jericho, Vermont. But his passion, from 1885 until his death in the waning days of 1931 was observing and photographing snow crystals. Over those 46 years he produced more than 5,000 photographs of snow crystals and several papers in scientific journals on his work. Even during his lifetime, Bentley was known as "The Snowflake Man" or "Snowflake" Bentley to thousands of Americans.
We owe much of our initial impressions of snow flakes/crystals to the work of this self educated farmer from Vermont. Bentley combined microscope components with a bellows camera to became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal in 1885. It is likely that your belief that no two snowflakes are alike stems from this passage from a 1925 report by Bentley: "Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost." While others looked outward at the big picture to understand the weather, Bentley taught us to also look inward to unlock its stunning secrets. Bentley's mantle has been taken up in recent years by Dr Ken Libbrecht whose vibrant micrographs of snow crystals embody art as well as science.
Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) enjoyed a long career as a photographer, playing an important role in bringing photography to acceptance as an art form alongside painting and sculpture. Initially, in his photographic images he tried to emulate paintings, and he often matched the paper on which the photograph was printed to the scene in the image. For example his A Wet Day on the Boulevard, Paris (1893), was printed on textured watercolor paper that actually looked as if it had been rippled by the rain.
For Winter Fifth Avenue (1893), which Stieglitz described as "a three hours' stand during a fierce snow storm on Feb. 22, 1893, awaiting the proper moment," he spent additional hours in the darkroom to get the mood just right.
From emulating painting styles in his early career, Stieglitz turned to abstraction during the 1920s. It has been told that a critic once remarked that there was nothing extraordinary about Stieglitz' figure studies, and anyone could produce a beautiful picture when the model was as striking as Georgia O'Keeffe (whom he would later marry). Supposedly in response, Stieglitz decided to make equally lovely photos focusing on the most transient of subjects: clouds.
In 1922, Stieglitz began his photographic series of cloud as objects of art. Stieglitz produced two series of cloud photographs under the titles Music and Songs of the Sky in 1923 and 1924. In these photographs, he focused his camera solely on the clouds with no reference to the landscape to underscore the abstract qualities of the clouds. His full cloud series named Equivalents, emphasized the pure abstraction of cloud forms. About this series, he said "I have a vision of life and I try to find equivalents for it in the form of photographs." By 1931, he had taken over four hundred black and white pictures of the sky and clouds.
Ansel Adams (1902-1984) turned his photographic eye in the opposite direction to Bentley and Stieglitz: outward to look at the big picture of the landscape and the sky above. Despite this difference, Adams was greatly influenced by Stieglitz, the artist whose work and philosophy Adams most admired, and called him a friend for the last 13 years of Stieglitz' life. Their correspondence has been characterized as "frequent, rich, and insightful." In 1948 he claimed his "intense experiences in photography" included seeing Stieglitz's Equivalents. One of Adams's earliest collections of small prints produced during the 1920s shows the influence of Stieglitz's Songs of the Sky.
Adams also came under the influence of famed photographers Edward Weston and Paul Strand, both of whom he would call friend. He developed a long personal and professional relationship with Weston. The two founded the renowned Group f/64 in 1932 along with photographer Imogen Cunningham that fought for photography to be recognized as a legitimate art form.
Adams had a strong relationship with the Sierra Club, who published many of his photographs of the Yosemite Valley and elsewhere. Yosemite was his "place" and he found time each year from 1916 to the year of his death 1984 to revisit the valley. His early association with the club and its influential members, many of whom became the founders of the environmental movement in the 1960s, led to his photographs playing a major role in the movement. One in particular This is the American Earth (1960) is often credited along with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in launching the environmental movement in the 1960s. Critic Abigail Foerstner would write in the Chicago Tribune (Dec. 3, 1992) some years after his death, Adams "did for the national parks something comparable to what Homer's epics did for Odysseus."
In William Turnage's biography of Adams published by Oxford University Press for its American National Biography tome, Turnage states:
"Seen in a more traditional art history context, Adams was the last and defining figure in the romantic tradition of nineteenth-century American landscape painting and photography. Adams always claimed he was not "influenced," but, consciously or unconsciously, he was firmly in the tradition of Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, Carlton Watkins, and Eadweard Muybridge. And he was the direct philosophical heir of the American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. He grew up in a time and place where his zeitgeist was formed by the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and "muscular" Americanism, by the pervading sense of manifest destiny, and the notion that European civilization was being reinvented much for the better in the new nation and, particularly, in the new West."
While Adams's photographs focused on all aspects of the landscape including water and air, some of his most striking images contain bold cloud formations. Even a nearly empty sky served Adams well as his famous moonrise photographs show.
I can think of no better way to end this piece than with more of Ansel Adams's thoughts on nature and life. "Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film. Your bright eyes and easy smile is your museum."
Keep those weather eyes looking up and a camera at your side.
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