Musings on: the making of ‘Ancient grass’

I am torn between whether this post should be a ‘musing’ or a ‘making of’. Perhaps it’s both, hence the ambivalent title.

As a ‘musing’, it would have been all about the need – well, my need perhaps – for some form of emotional connection with a landscape in order to make a tolerable image of it. As a ‘making of’, this photograph is simply some long, scrubby grass and a rather distant pair of trees against a late afternoon sky of limited excitement. That said, it’s emotionally far more exciting to me since I’d been imagining what could be made from these trees for a remarkably long time before I captured the image shown here. It’s the current culmination of several ideas held over many months, and as such it possibly feels more significant than it appears to anyone but me.

'Ancient grass'

I don’t wish to exaggerate this emotional connection, or wax overly lyrical about ‘Ancient grass’. I like the finished photo very much, but I’m not under the impression that it’s especially marvellous in its own right – this is more about how a particular scene can become greater than it really is, to its creator, through a combination of a long gestation period and a high level of familiarity with the landscape.

I pass this piece of moorland and these trees frequently; often enough to see the grass picking up the late afternoon light in a wide variety of red and golden glows. The isolation of the two trees against the rough foreground almost invariably draws my attention and I kept meaning to stop and photograph them, but was always heading for ‘somewhere more interesting’.

I finally made the the effort to go and do something about this a few weeks ago, and this lengthy association with various visualisations of how the image might look made the whole outing feel somehow like the completion of an extensive project, or perhaps like the tardy fulfilment of a promise to visit a friend, rather than merely ‘popping out to photograph a tree and some grass’. It simply felt more significant than it, arguably, should have.

There’s a distinct seasonal prerequisite for this photo. In summer the trees are a nondescript shape, just a large bush really, not obviously two intermingled trees. Autumn sees the grass turning a uniform yellow-brown colour. It’s only in late winter, when the leafless trees stand out starkly against the sky, and the grasses adopt the warm colours of a low Sun, that the composition comes together in the way I generally visualise it. This was such a day, albeit that it lacked any drama in the clouds, which is why I said earlier that this is the ‘current culmination’; I feel sure I’ll visit these trees again. Not that I was looking for a stormy sky, but what I have here is a little less variegated than I’d have chosen, given the chance to do so.

The actual process of framing the shot was very rapid; my long-standing pre-visualisation meant that I merely had to find a somewhat isolated tuft of red grass in the foreground to balance the trees on the forced horizon (the land drops away slightly behind the trees). I then spent a little time getting the plane of focus and perspective on the tilt/shift lens as I wanted them, followed by a solid half an hour waiting for the clouds to lift high enough to allow a frame of clear sky above the top of the trees. When they complied, I took three exposures in quick succession, and all was done bar some limited post-processing.

Having thought about this shot for such a long time, I was initially less than ecstatic with the result, but after processing the file I left it untouched for a few days. On returning, I found myself much better pleased than I had been at first. As usual – at least, as usual for me – the reality didn’t match the anticipation I had for the shot, though that was probably unsurprising given how long I’d toyed with making it. Viewing it does, however, bring back strong memories of what I imagined I could make, and that’s almost as good as if it had met my expectations fully. I feel convinced that, had I come across this scene and captured it immediately, I’d think it was a nice shot, but that it would have nowhere near as much emotional resonance as it now has. The elongated process itself meant that this was something akin to ‘the thrill of the chase’, with the final result never likely to live up to the best of the visualisations I’d formed.

I’m not sure exactly what I’ve learnt from this abnormally extended experience of making a single photograph. Perhaps it’s that, if something appears to have potential when first seen, then it’s worth pursuing; more likely it’s that the entire process of creating something is as valuable to me as the final result. Whichever of the above is most true, I can say with certainty that becoming ‘involved’, over a considerable time period, in capturing a particular shot does give the finished article more emotional impact than a more typical, shorter timespan from visualisation to completion.

So, in conclusion, I like this very simple and undramatic shot as much for the history of its creation as for the result, and I’m sure I shall continue to do so for a long time to come. Whether I need some form of emotional involvement to make worthwhile images is undoubtedly questionable, but I’m sure it produces better results, and it certainly improves my perception of the finished image and my enjoyment of the process as a whole.

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