Some visual experiences are so compelling, they are vividly remembered years later: a deer bounding across the path and through a field; majestic columns and stained glass of a gothic cathedral, rising above our upturned eyes; a barn burning in the middle of the night; morning fog lifting from the surface of a pond where a great blue heron is fishing.
Photography derives from taking a second look. It comes from spending time with a person, place, or event, until something telling is revealed. That revelation is manifest in an image, written with light. Good photography can bring the viewer inside the photographer’s experience. In this column, to be published occasionally, we will take a second look at images published in The Herald during my 25 years as staff photographer.
We begin this column with a photograph from the front page of the Herald exactly 24 years ago, published in the issue delivered just before Christmas. Sitting above the fold, this image of a sled, graced by a bow and fresh snow was framed by a border of red. Uncharacteristically, there was no cutline. I remember Gordon Harding, photography editor, saying the image needed none; it could speak for itself.
Gordon was right. The photograph won first place pictorial image honors for weekly papers at the New England Press Association that year.
Let’s take a second look at this image and see why it may have fared so well.
Early in that week of 1987, I was riding area roads in search of material for the paper. The skies were grey, there had been a storm the night before and big flakes, signaling the tail end of the precipitation, were still falling. Fields looked as though they’d been smudged with an eraser. Passing slowly through Pond Village, Brookfield, I saw a sled propped up on the porch of the Green Trails Inn. I stopped, climbed out of the car, and began the process of taking a photograph.
I can’t recall how many thousand times I’ve seen possible photographic subjects and not stopped to record the scene! That initial vision isn’t enough. What follows is the hard work of carrying cameras and lenses into the cold, walking through knee-deep snow to view and record from many perspectives.
I shot perhaps 20 frames in about 15 minutes that morning. My first images included much of the inn and foreground of snow. In this final frame, all that is non-essential has been stripped away. Left only are the snow-flocked sled and a bit of surrounding architectural detail. The scene is a study in texture and tone. The tuxedo-crisp contrast of beribboned sled is framed by dark and light of clapboard, shutter, doorframe, the blur of falling flake and slurry of ice and snow at the floor.
Making this image a fit Christmas present for Herald readers are the bow and a fresh dusting of snow. Note that the snow animates the bow’s shape; while everything else in this intimate scene is flat, the bow pops off the surface, adding depth and interest to the image.
This is a balanced composition. The width of the sled is equivalent to the space on each side. The clapboards of the Inn are, in turn, framed by equal measures of light and dark, the door-surround to the left and window shutter on the right. This balance quiets the eye; there is no hurrying here, no sound save that of falling snow. The sled and scene are very much at rest. A space for contemplation is provided in the midst of holiday whirl.
The invitation to stop and rest is deepened by the subject matter. This gift has no bells and whistles. There are no batteries, there is no assembly required. This simple, quiet sled is a powerful icon, especially for adults viewing the image on Christmas, 24 years ago, a time when disco music filled the air. This is no plastic creation, but a sled like the ones we used as children in the 1950s. We are taken back. Like Citizen Kane, we have here our “Rosebud,” and are sledding again on the hills of years gone by.
Finally, this is a Vermont image. It is a scene as New England as Currier and Ives. We feel here the presence of parents and grandparents past; we taste again the cocoa and feel the warm fire waiting inside.
This is the view which drew me from my car, camera in hand, to take “a second look.”