One of the biggest challenges a visual artist faces is capturing people’s attention — and then keeping it. Compelling art captivates people. It inspires them to look around and appreciate every inch. Most pictures, however, are lucky to get more than a few seconds of anyone’s time.
A key factor is how long it takes us to recognize something. We’re drawn to the mysterious. And with a lot of nature photography, there isn’t much of a mystery. As soon as we recognize the mountain or the bird we tend to move on.
To be fair, it’s not just photographers who struggle with this. A friend of mine who is a painter tells similar stories. In his works, the subject is sometimes hidden under layers of thick paint and loose brushwork. At galleries, some people view his art as if they were taking a test. They briefly look, make a guess or two about the painting’s subject and then move on when they think they got the correct answer.
While I have done some impressionistic photography (blurring the subject by moving the camera during the exposure), the vast majority of my images are sharp, so I’ve had to think differently about how to add some layers of mystery to a picture where the subject is in clear view.
This image of Sparks Lake in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon illustrates one of the processes I use. I generally try to have a well-defined subject in my images and carefully compose to show only those elements that contribute to the theme. But sometimes I think the image is more interesting if I reveal more. That’s the approach at work in this image.
The mountain at the top-left of the image is Broken Top, a volcano in the Cascade Range that last erupted about 100,000 years ago. While Broken Top is now extinct, it is surrounded by volcanoes that are very much alive. Close by is a volcano called South Sister, which in the past 20 years has shown signs of tectonic uplift — an indication another eruption is possible.
Broken Top is scenic and could work as an image all by itself, but I chose to include another element that could also be its own picture. The steaming pool at the bottom is not volcanic — it’s regular steam fog — but it almost looks as if it is erupting. The fact that the pool is an almost perfect circle, resembling a volcanic crater, adds to the illusion.
I decided to compose an image that tied the two together since they have so much in common. Neither are volcanic, but they appear as if they are. And together, they hint at how the land there is very much alive.