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Words Worthy

When is a pleasing photograph like a poem? When it tells a simple story that's meaningful to you.

February 14, 2018 Close Ups / Happy Trails

Not every photograph I make inspires my inner William Wordsworth. Lucky for that. But when an image does move me to write, I'd be silly not to make the poetic effort. Sharing it is another matter. A poem is a profoundly personal thing. But so is a photograph and how often do I share mine? More often than I share poems. You're welcome.

Wave breaks on beach stones

Wave On Stones


©Cliff Zenor

An Ontario breeze,

gulf-bound and bone-chilling,

blows through your corn silk hair.

A gust across the lake whips spray our way

and we brace ourselves for the next wave

as it washes up against our rubber boots.

Our toes straddle the space where sand meets stones

that are sorted over and over by this fresh-water sea.

Tumbled waves break on jumbled rocks.

They clatter like chattering teeth.

We bend and scoop the kaleidoscope stones

when Superior pulls back its wet covers

for a heartbeat or two.

Salt-and-pepper granite,

rose quartz,

caramel chert,

sky-gray slate,

sunset sandstone,

banded shale,

jasper, basalt, epidote,

agate, rhyolite and gneiss.

Wet and wave worn,

shaped by water, ice, friction,

freeze and thaw,

this is what a billion years looks like.

We keep a few stones and drop the rest in the next breaker.

It swallows, tosses, drags them along --

clanking bones unburied by

glacial fingers ten thousand years ago --

and grinds them again slowly to dust.

Over head, gulls scold

our plan to bring home

another bag of rocks.

But when winter comes

three hundred miles south,

I’ll idly choose one

from the cedar bowl on the kitchen table

and roll it around in my January palm

while a second pot perks.

Behind my obsidian eyelids,

our October day

will wash over me

like an inland tide

and carry me back

to this autumn beach.

I'm not a poet and I know it. By the loosest definition, my attempt could be regarded as prose. No rhyming, no counted syllables, no iambic pentameter. But it's not a rambling mess of disorganized free association either. Instead, I strove to shape the poem like a well-composed photograph -- a simple story that is meaningful to me.

David Middleton, a fine photographer, writer and teacher, brilliantly says a mediocre photograph is like a paragraph and a good photograph is a word or a phrase. He stresses that it's important to simplify a composition to its essence which could be summed up in a word or two.

His words have stuck with me since he shared them in a workshop more than 20 years ago. David likes to say you'll hear his plaintive voice in your head prodding you toward his principle when you're making a photograph. After all these years, it's more like a mantra than a plea.

Of the many photographs I made years ago on an autumn trip through the upper Midwest with my wife, Mary, the one above of the wave washing over the Lake Superior beach stones moved me to write about it. I wrote the poem for her for Valentine's Day that following February. And though I had distilled the image's composition down to a David-like description, the memory of the day was worthy of a few more words.


SUBJECT: Wave on stones, Lake Superior, Michigan's upper peninsula

CONDITIONS: Clear, windy, cool; 50 degrees F and gusty north winds

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon F4s, Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8, circular polarizing filter, tripod, ball head, manual cable release; Manual mode, Matrix metering, Continuous shutter mode

EXPOSURE: On Fujichrome Velvia 50; 1/30 sec. at f/11, ISO 50

I like poetry. Not every style rings true for me, but I'll read anything that paints a picture with words, challenges my beliefs, makes me wonder, makes me laugh. I appreciate the economy of words of a good poem. The brevity of a sentence that's thorough enough to relay a thought in an uncommon way without frills or verbal calisthenics appeals to me. I don't care much for the overuse of adjectives or flowery phrases. If a poem makes me roll my eyes, I'll turn the page. If it makes me close my eyes for a moment of reflection, I'll read every word the writer's got.

A pleasing photograph is like a good poem for the same reasons. Its economy of language is pared down even more than the briefest prose. The word or phrase David Middleton emphasized encourages us to whittle the image and its description down to its essence. "Simplify, simplify," as Thoreau said, is the refrain that rings in my ears when I'm looking through the viewfinder. And that's a good thing, because even a scene of chaos can be condensed to a simpler, meaningful composition.

As simple as the "Wave On Stones" composition looks, it's the trimmed-down view of a Lake Superior beach. It doesn't include the sky, the sand, the incoming waves, the gulls over head. It's simply rocks and a wave. Another composition including the other elements could be just as pleasing. But the moment I was enjoying was watching bubbly waves wash over the colorful stones.

My intention was not to make a photograph at the beach. My wife and I were rock hunting instead. But eventually our pockets were full of pretty stones and we grew fascinated by the way the waves broke on the beach. We both set up our tripods and aimed our cameras straight down on small sections of the rocks. The trick was finding the place where the waves finished their advancement toward the sand and were shallow enough to reveal the stones below their surface. We chose our spots while hand holding our cameras, then moved the tripods into position.

I wanted a diagonal wave in my photograph. So I watched for a spot where they broke that way and cropped it to a comfortable composition. Metering the scene correctly was nearly impossible as the waves washed in and out. So before I set the camera on the tripod, I chose the Manual metering mode, dialed in the shutter speed I wanted and metered the sand behind me. Since the sand and the wave-covered stones were in the same unchanging light and the camera's Manual settings wouldn't change until I changed them, a correct exposure on the sand would be a correct exposure on the waves and rocks. No matter if the subjects were lighter or darker, if they were in the same light as the sand, I'd get a correct exposure.

The sand was lighter than a grey card, which many photographers call a "medium" tone. I chose to call the sand's tone one stop lighter than medium, about the same tone as the palm of my hand which is a reliable "plus-one" tone. With the shutter speed at 1/30 second dialed in, I aimed at the sand and chose an aperture that moved the indicator on the exposure grid to the plus side of zero by one stop. (Remember: this was photographed with a film camera that used a plus-to-minus scale in the viewfinder -- not a histogram -- for setting exposures).

Before metering the sand, I chose a 1/30 of a second shutter speed from my experiences with moving water and Velvia slide film. I wanted the waves to blur a bit. A little faster or slower would likely have been pleasing, too, but in film days, there was always a by-guess-and-by-gosh element with metering some situations correctly. I had already attached a polarizing filter and had set it to erase some glare off of the wet stones and shining water.

When slide films ruled the world, the more you knew about how one or two films recorded exposures in all kinds of situations, the more correct exposures you could count on. There were no histograms to check and no camera-back viewers to preview. It was seat-of-the-pants metering. If you understood the light and you were confident with your equipment, techniques and your films of choice, you made exposures you liked.

After I had the exposure settings I wanted, a downward camera position that accommodated diagonal waves, a camera height that gave me the desired scale of the scene and a zoom-cropped composition that covered the stones I liked, the fun began.

Side by side, Mary and I waited for waves to break over the stones in our compositions. As the front edge of a wave came into the viewfinder, I fired off frames until the wave passed. I didn't mind having a range of compositions to choose from. It was better than believing I could click the shutter at the exact moment I wanted.

Every time a wave broke over the stones, we clicked away. Soon it was fun to hear when we each had a wave just right. We'd snap several frames and laugh. I can still hear the sound of the surf, the rattling stones, the gulls, the clicking shutters and our laughter. It was a sweet, simple afternoon. And each time I pick up one of those smooth stones and roll it in my hand, it's a touchstone to a golden day on an autumn beach.

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