See that spot of light? You know the one. Photographers and visual artists may wax on about light, where and when it’s the “best”, and have the world believe they see something more mystical than the average human can appreciate, but you know better. While some indeed possess a highly trained eye for the details, you’ve seen the spot of light too. And your appreciation for it is no less than the artist’s. You’ve been out walking the dog, feeding cattle or raking hay, fishing, golfing, hiking, climbing a mountain, working in your garden, playing with a child, walking in a park, traveling, or merely walking to your car from the office and you glimpse it – a concentrated brightening of something. It’s illuminated by a source of light you can’t readily identify.
I liken the search for the source to that of finding your way with the proverbial rope between the house and the barn in a blizzard or in my case being raised in Oklahoma, one of the dust bowl’s infamous dust storms. You discover there’s a crack the sun has snuck between. It may be a parting of foliage or a break between buildings. It may even be indirect in the form of reflection. Mysterious light is a joy to encounter. Every time I do I’m intrigued by what the tiniest bit of light reveals, from where it sneakily emanates illuminating that which would not otherwise be illuminated at any other time of the year.
This winter I caught a bit of stray light on a small tree carving in the backyard. The spot of light hit the carving on the opposite side of the setting sun. Perplexed I walked up to the carving and began examining it. Running my hand along the rope of light I finally traced the source to a reflection off a back porch window. The source was indirect! The setting sun struck the window of the house at just the perfect angle to reflect back and illuminate the carving. By the time I’d completed the treasure hunt, the sun had moved and the entire carving was in shadow. I prepared to photograph the highlighted carving the next day at the same time only to discover what Ruth Bernhard discovered with her famous photograph of the doorknob.
“The story goes that this glass knob, affixed to her garden gate, struck her one May morning for the riotous halo of refraction it displayed. She made a note to photograph it the next day around the same time. But revolving around the sun as we do, the knob refused to glow in just that way the following morning. Bernhard made a notation on her calendar and exactly one May later was at the ready when the knob did its annual ray-dance. This time she caught it, as is her preference, in one take.” — Women In Photography.Org
For the above picture I’d driven most of the day in 20 degree, windy, gray weather to find a spot suitable to shoot the Badlands at sundown. Actually I’d driven 14 hours the day before just to ensure I’d have this day to scout a position for a sunset shoot. In and out of the truck countless times to visit an overlook or hike down some path, without the sun to direct me I had to keep reminding myself if the clouds parted at all, what side of the desolate wasteland would be illuminated by that glorious light of the setting sun. The Park was deserted so no one noticed my repeated drive-bys, turn-arounds, and general appearance of lunacy.
I settle on a spot, park the truck, stack on layers of warmth, cinch down my hood, sling gear on my back and hike through creamy, slick, off white mud, set up my tripod and begin the wait. The wind buffets the camera anchored to the tripod. My eyes and nose flow from the sting of the cold air. My stocking hat keeps slipping down over my eyes from the parka’s tightly cinched hood. The friction of moving it back repeatedly all day has rubbed a tender spot on my forehead that now seems all the more raw and annoying in the cold. Yet I watch and wait.
Having been in the Park all day waiting for this, I will not head to the motel without giving every effort to the goal. The light changes. I look around to identify the source and then return to setting up the frame since I know the magic moment will be here and gone in an achingly quick instant. I take 3 frames. The scene holds. Again I pause to glance around for where the light emanates. There is no crack in the clouds from where I stand. Two more frames and the scene slips away into the monotony of dusk. Reversing the order of the previous actions I trudge back to the truck disappointed I’ve not captured the clichéd sunset shot. Taking several minutes to kick and scrape some of the muck off my boots, store the tripod, take off the heavy coat, stocking hat and gloves, I’m now so tired the thought crosses my mind to not review the photos. My heart bypasses that silly idea and in the warmth and safety of the running truck I switch on the camera’s reviewing screen. The 3rd frame takes my breath away. Happy tears come to my eyes at the ethereal capture held like magic in my camera.
There’s never been an instance where I could not follow the rope to the light source. Until this.
I choose to explain the light source as God’s Mirror. And that suits me just fine.
“The most beautiful object is not beautiful unless the light reveals what is there.” – Ruth Bernhard
“Light is my inspiration, my paint and brush… Profoundly significant, it caresses the essential superlative curves and lines. Light I acknowledge as the energy upon which all life on this planet depends”. – Ruth Bernhard