Wednesday, June 13, 2012

From the Department of Unexpected Consequences

Warship with a Smile, 2012

Here’s a bit of photographic irony for you.
I included this picture the other day in a post about OpSail 2012. When I took the picture I had one intention in mind. But it turns out the bigger story didn’t become apparent until later on. (And fortunately, it’s not one that involves the Department of Homeland Security, my usual nemesis when taking photographs around naval vessels.)
My original thought for this photograph was for the bow of the Norwegian Navy’s guided missile frigate Thor Heyerdahl to form a bold diagonal slash across the frame, making for a bit of bright light and color to the left and a bold dark graphic void to the right. And I could have done that, too. But for now I chose not to make the contrast so bold and let some of the detail of the ship show. The result is almost laughable.
This great gray floating machine of a warship has a smile.
This kind of thing happens every now and then. Unexpected consequences are one of the great pleasures of photography. I don’t think painters and illustrators can experience the same thing because what appears on their paper and canvases is so intentional. But photographers can think they’re photographing one thing and then realize that their frame is full of all kind of other things.
Back in 2006, I had the chance to briefly visit Los Alamos, New Mexico, home of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the birthplace of The Manhattan Project. Los Alamos sits atop four mesas of the Pajarito Plateau. It’s about a mile and a half above sea level, for which reason the approach highway to Los Alamos involves a four-lane highway that narrows to a two-lane road that twists and switches as it climbs up to the mesa.
It had been a beautiful sunny day. But as I started up the mountain the sky turned dark purple. Then the rain came in torrents that washed mud and rocks across the road. There was thunder and lightning unlike any I’d ever seen before. Given the fury of the storm and the potential for all that electrical activity to intersect with all the scientific, electromagnetic and nuclear work of the National Laboratory, I’ll admit I was a little uncomfortable.
I should mention here that the road up to Los Alamos has little more than a low guardrail on its exposed side, certainly not enough to create confidence among those of us who don’t embrace the thrill of heights.
On the way up the mountain, the rain subsided for a moment. I happened to look over and see the scene shown in this photograph just as I reached the only place in the road where you could actually pull over and not careen into the canyon. I pulled the car over and took this picture, which shows the view back across several ranges of mountains. My feet got soaked and it started pouring again. But as you can see it was a beautiful sunny day just across the canyon.
What original caught my eye about this scene were the red rocks of the two buttes in the foreground. It wasn’t until months later that I even noticed that there were ranges of mountains in the background and a whole cloudscape that I’d completely overlooked.
Two Buttes, Los Alamos, 2006


  1. I was just noticing that too - that you can focus so intently (mentally, and, I suppose, literally with your camera) on one thing, that you don't notice other interesting things going on in the frame until you've taken the picture. Sometimes I think I should leave my camera at home so I'll see more.

  2. Wow! That's some kind of view. Magnificent. I've never been there. Thanks for taking me. I was thinking about your comments, and I remembered the British painter John Yardley saying, in his book, that he once painted an interior of a room once, and he really liked what he'd done, but when he showed it to his kids, they evidently looked at one of the sort-of abstracted shapes in a small area of the painting and laughed. He asked them why they'd laughed, and they replied that that area of the painting looked, to them, like some famous British cartoon character. He said he could never look at that painting again without seeing that damn thing there! In fact, he said forever after, his eye instantly went there and annoyed him. I thought that was pretty interesting...