Everything in nature has an essence, an unmistakable core that makes it what it is, and not something else. Many photographers (including myself) often speak of simplifying a subject, of “reducing it to its essence.” I think that most confuse this process of reducing a subject to its essence with simplicity of composition. A simple composition, however, does not necessarily reveal anything of the truth of its subject—nor, for that matter, does a complex composition necessarily obscure that truth. Rather, as nature photographers we must tune ourselves to our subject matter, and learn to discern its bottom line, its core, its decisive point—its gist, heart, kernel, matter, nitty-gritty, substance, or any other synonym you can find in a thesaurus. In other words, our job is to find our subject’s idiomatic meat and potatoes, and reveal it to the world.
I have always been fascinated by the curvaceous, almost sensual shapes of Patagonia’s windswept lenga trees, also known as southern beech. Over the years, I have photographed them many times, but I have always failed to capture their essence in a compelling way. On my most recent trip to Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, I found a grove of lenga that fired my imagination. Out came my camera, and I wandered around, trying to get it right this time.
A lenga forest is a chaotic place, choked with broken branches and dead fallen wood, packed tightly with swaying tree trunks twisted by the Patagonian winds. After attempting many different compositions, I felt like I wasn’t getting any closer to the lenga’s decisive point than I had in previous failed attempts, and I feared I wasn’t going to be able to solve the forest’s chaotic visual riddle. So I paused for a moment and started to think: what makes lenga trees so special to me? The answer came easily: their crooked shapes. What I needed, I decided, was a unifying structure, something that both told the lenga’s story and helped to visually anchor my composition.
And then I realized: the solution was there, right above me, right in front of my face, right in front of me this whole time, staring down at me, almost screaming to me “HERE I AM!” It was a lone curving lenga branch reaching over my head, encircled by a canopy of live trees tinged with autumn’s first blush, reaching for the freedom of the endless blue sky above. The sun was peering over its shoulder, giving me an encouraging wink. I fell to my knees, as much in gratitude for the forest’s offering as to find a position that allowed me to properly frame the scene. I had finally discovered the essence that had eluded me for the past three years.
Meat and potatoes sure taste good—especially when served on a silver platter.
Technical details: Canon 5DII, 14mm, ISO 100, f/14, 1/6 second.