Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Impressionist Photography

There's no doubt that landscape photographers have been influenced by the work of the more well-known painters throughout history.  This should come as no surprise.  Landscape painting predates the invention of the first first photograph process, the daguerreotype, by over 3,000 years.  (The first landscapes are believed to be frescoes from Greece that date to approximately 1500 B.C.  The first daguerreotype was completed in 1837.)  More importantly, however, both painters and photographers over the course have time have been fascinated with capturing the effect of light on their subjects.  As America moved onward in its Manifest Destiny, painters like German-American Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) documented the splendor of the American West in landscapes painted on massive canvases that were exhibited publicly for an admission fee.  For most Americans, this was their only insight into the natural diversity of the new Nation.

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Albert Bierstadt, Looking Down Yosemite Valley (1865) Birmingham Museum of Art  

Another landscape painter-celebrity of Bierstadt's day, American-born Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), went even further in his travels. He not only documented and was inspired by the landscapes of the Northeast United States, but also traveled to South America, Europe and Newfoundland.

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Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness (1860) Cleveland Museum of Art 

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Frederic Edwin Church, Heart of the Andes (1859) Metropolitan Museum of Art   66 1/8" x 119 1/4"

My real-life landscape photography has a ways to go before I am able to capture digitally the awesome images created by human hand through master painters like Bierstadt, Church and other members of the Hudson River School.  Instead, I've turned to more abstract artists for inspiration- Impressionists and Post-Impressionists like Monet, Pissarro, and Van Gogh.  Like photographers, the Impressionist movement placed an emphasis on accurately depicting the qualities of reflected light.  Other characteristics of the movement were the use of visible brush strokes, the depiction of ordinary subject matter, the inclusion of movement, and the use of unusual visual angles.  They also tended to paint outdoors rather than make sketches and create the painting later in an indoor studio.

The name of the Impressionist movement was taken from a work of Claude Monet (1840-1926, French) entitled Impression: soleil levant and the term was used derisively.  In fact, the first exhibition of Impressionist paintings was held not in an art gallery but in the salon of a French photographer.  

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Claude Monet, Impression: soleil levant (1872) Musee Marmottan, Paris 

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Camille Pissarro, The Boulevard Montmarte on a Winter Morning (1897) Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Post-Impressionists, of which the world's arguably most famous painter, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890, Dutch), was a member, adopted most of the characteristics of the Impressionist school but engaged in further abstraction, used more vivid color and in the case of Van Gogh used thicker, more visible brush strokes.

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Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows (1890) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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Vincent Van Gogh, Sheaves of Wheat in a Field (1885) Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

And, of course, Van Gogh was known for painting flowers:

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Vincent Van Gogh, Four Cut Sunflowers (1887) Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

My own attempts at developing an impressionist photography technique began with flowers.  My idea certainly wasn't unique; I owned a copy of the National Audubon Society Guide to Landscape Photography by Tim Fitzharris in which he provides an example of a summer mountain landscape using a slower shutter speed in order to capture some of the movement of the colorful wildflowers in the foreground.  I decided to try the same technique on a relatively sunny but windy day while walking through Cape May Point State Park in search of birds.  I didn't have my tripod handy or a 10-stop ND filter, but I wasn't about to let my lack of proper equipment stop me.  Having to contend with sunlight, I did the unthinkable: I stopped down my rented 300 4.0L to f/45 and purposefully overexposed to obtain a shutter speed of .3 seconds.  I pointed my camera to cluster of small, yellow flowers and waited for a breeze to do its trick.  I made several dozen attempts, only two of which I processed or even bothered to save.  One of them was this unprocessed RAW image:


After changing the white balance to 'daylight,' adding a touch of color saturation and bringing down the exposure, the end result was this:

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Canon 50D, 300 4.0L + 1.4TC, f/45 @ .3 sec., ISO 100 September 19, 2009 at 11:38 a.m. Cape May Point State Park, Cape may Point, NJ

I hadn't created a masterpiece, and I certainly wasn't going to attempt the impossibility of cloning out the dust spots resulting from shooting at f/45 in such an abstract image. But I liked the way that the camera had captured the intensive movement of some flowers while others, particularly in the right half and far upper left of the frame, had demonstrated relatively no movement at all and were still clearly recognizable for what they were. Obtaining a proper balance between the abstract form and recognizable shapes, I learned, is the key to creating a successful impressionist photograph of this type.  This balance is the difference between creating an image that is pleasing to the eye vs. one that instantly makes the viewer dizzy and yearning for proper focus of the frame's forms.  (Some people find that all impressionist photography of this sort makes them dizzy.)  And there's no secret formula for obtaining such an image, other than to take lots of photographs and pray that nature does its work in a way that is pleasing to the viewer.  

One week and several hundred frames later, I captured the first image with which I was really satisfied:

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Yellow Flowers, Canon 50D, 70-200 2.8L + 1.4TC @ 90mm, f/40 @ 1/6, ISO 100.  September 28, 2009 at 1:11 p.m., Cape May Point State Park, Cape May, NJ 

I'm getting a test print of this done next week and I'm curious to see how it looks.  I'm not too concerned about what appear to be dust spots; they tend to get lost in the movement of the image and probably won't be picked up by someone who isn't aware that this was shot at f/40.

I decided not limit myself to shooting on windy days, and instead began purposely employing camera shake to create an impressionistic image.  I learned quickly that obtaining a properly balanced image with this technique is much more difficult than shooting in a breeze.  However, it also has the ability to render an entire scene instead of just a patch of flowers.  The following examples show the strong Monet influence at work:              

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Claude Monet, The Garden in Flower (1900) 

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Canon 50D, 70-200 2.8L @ 70mm, f/11 @ 1/5, ISO 100.  September 28, 2009 at 4:11 p.m. Leaming's Run Gardens, Rt. 9, Swainton, NJ 

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Flowers and Grass, Canon 50D, 17-40 4.0L @ 21mm, f/16 @ 1/4, ISO 100.  July 19, 2010 at 4:17 p.m. Leaming's Run Gardens, Rt. 9, Swainton, NJ

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Canon 5D Mark II, 70-200 2.8L @ 95mm, f/32 @ 1 sec., ISO 50.  August 16, 2010 at 12:12 p.m. Leaming's Run Gardens, Rt. 9, Swainton, NJ

And a final 'camera shake' landscape inspired by Van Gogh:

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Canada Geese in Fall, Canon 50D, 100-400 4.5-5.6L @ 400mm, f/18 @ 1/20 ISO 100.  October 26, 2009 at 4:21 p.m. Cape May Point State Park, Cape May Point, NJ

I still have quite far to go in developing my technique and have captured only one printable keeper out of thousands of frames of experimentation. I still feel it's worth developing, even if the results aren't quite there yet.  

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  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LT475.
    The image can be seen at wahooart.com who can supply you with a canvas print of it.

  2. Congratulations with some lovely photos! Kobus

  3. Congratulations with some lovely photos! Kobus