Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

Finding the Dark Places

Muddy Wash, Zion NP

One of the things I’ve discovered about my own picture-making tendencies is that I seem to prefer images that are “dark”.  If I look at the photographs in my Lightroom catalog that are rated with 3 stars or more, I find that the majority are low key.  If there’s a bright spot in the picture, it’s probably a fading sun.  Or it could be an image that contains high, bright clouds.  Even then, though, I seem to like clouds that are more menacing in nature.  Bright and sunny does not seem to be one of my “themes”.  Maybe that’s why I live in western NY.  Bright and sunny it ain’t (at least not most of the time).

That probably explains why I look for these kinds of places.  If I find a path that heads down into a ravine or gorge or wash, I’ll take it.  I don’t normally look for the “high” path that takes you to the grand, scenic view.  Unless there’s no other choice.  If I’m at Arches NP, for example, I’m going to walk up to Delicate Arch.  For no other reason than that I like it up there.  But it’s not the spectacular view that I like – it’s the arch itself.  And the people that it draws.  It’s one of those places, I think, that everybody should see.  It should be on everyone’s “bucket list”.   At least that’s my opinion.

But given my druthers, I’ll head into the darkest area I can find.  For one thing, most everybody else seems to avoid the “dark places”.  For another, it’s always very quiet.  Once the local critters know you’re there, sound ceases.  Sometimes all you can hear is your own breathing.  It’s like the rest of the world disappeared.  You have to climb back out of the place to see if the rest of humanity is still around.  Sadly, they usually are.

But for a little while you can be totally alone.  No cars, no people, and no cell phones.  Even if you’re carrying one, it usually won’t work.  Not many cell towers in those places.  Not good, I guess, if you have an emergency.  But it’s worth it.


13 Responses to “Finding the Dark Places”

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, John. Yes, we all have a “dark, brooding” side, I think, and sometimes our photography works best when we give it expression. I suppose that’s when our camera becomes more of a mirror than a window.

  1. themiddlegeneration

    Paul, do you think the darkness of the areas you shoot lend to the reason most of them are edited in b&w? Like in this photo, the layers of silt and mud, the pools of water and the tree suspended over the wash look spectacular in that color mode. It looks more dramatic and boding than if there were greens and blues involved. What a great eye you have, even if it does go to the dark places.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Laura. Yes, that’s absolutely the case (for me, anyway). I think color would make this scene much too “cheerful”, and that wasn’t my intent. When I view this in black and white, I can almost “feel” the darkness; it’s palpable. Looking up the wash toward the fallen tree reminded me of a small child alone in their bedroom at night, wondering what was lurking behind the closet door. Yeah, that’s weird, I know. But that’s the metaphor that came to mind.

  2. oneowner

    I like this photo very much and it does illustrate the “dark” tendency. The bright reflection in the water at the bottom is actually a very important component to the photo. Without it, the photo would seem dull and less interesting.
    There was an instructor at RIT who gave each of his first year students a hypothetical challenge: to photograph a black cat in a coal bin at night. Now, a photo doesn’t have to have a full range of tones to be effective, but sometimes the only way to define a subject is with lighting, no matter who provides the source and a little contrast can go a long way. The reflection in the water is enough to raise this photo way above average and the B&W conversion is a great choice for it.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Ken. Yes, the bright spot was important. I’m still not sure of its placement in the frame, though. While I don’t necessarily like it right on the edge, I’m not at all sure where I’d rather have placed it. Photography is kind of like real estate, huh? Location, location, location.

      Speaking of RIT, I’ve often wondered if I should have spent my time there studying photography instead of statistics. Not that that would have helped my “career” much, however. Knowing how to play with numbers probably gave me more choices than knowing how to photograph black cats in coal bins at night. Still, it would have been a lot more fun……..

  3. meanderingpassage

    Interesting thoughts and comments here, Paul. I’ve been observing my own developing “likes” in photography, which also reflect in many of my life choices as well. My conclusions are still in the forming stages because I continue to surprise myself once in a while. 🙂

    Lovely photo…I especially like that fallen tree trunk in the background and can imagine the eroding bank over many years finally causing it’s collapse.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Earl. You raise an interesting question with respect to the “fallen tree”. While it may, in fact, have actually fallen right at that spot, it’s also possible that it fell somewhere upstream in this wash and was carried to this spot (where it became wedged) by some fast moving water. You really have to see water moving in these kinds of washes to get a feel for how powerful it can be. It can easily move trees this size, as well as rocks that are as big as basketballs. That’s why, of course, they tell you to stay out of these things when there’s a chance of even moderate rain in the area.

  4. Cedric Canard

    This looks like a most interesting place to explore and photograph. The photo really piques my interest but perhaps not as much as what you have written. I have to say I was surprised by your revelation of liking “images that are dark” (though later you describe your favourite images as being “low key” which to me means something different so perhaps I have lost something in translation). The reason for my surprise is that if I had been asked to describe your work I would not have used the word “dark” and certainly not “low key” (which I understood to mean restrained in quality and style but which I have since learned also means subtle and not trying to attract attention, with little or no fill light and high lighting ratio—I assume you mean the latter). In any case I went back through your posts to see what you meant but I am still unsure. While I see this photo to be on the dark side (especially in terms of subject matter perhaps more so than in terms of lighting), I feel that many of your other photos could not be described in this manner. But since no other commenter has pointed this out I suspect that my perception of your work might be off-key, so to speak. Or maybe my perception of “dark” is different to yours. I am truly intrigued.

    Anyway, another good post and wonderful image Paul.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Cedric. First, looking back through images posted on this blog is probably not the best way to illustrate what I tried to say here. Like most bloggers, I’ve tried to post stuff that I think people will “like”. You know, try to please the audience and all that. My reference in this post was to my LR catalog ratings, which, it turns out, does not track well with this blog. My personal photographic preferences seem to run strongly to the “dark side”. Which surprised me a little.

      As to “low key”, I think the term applies most often (and most directly) to lighting. Shadows are usually the most important elements in a low key image and there is usually fairly strong contrast. But I was also referring to the metaphoric meaning of the term. Gloom. Mood. Mystery. Menace. Those things that make an image a little edgy. Or maybe a lot “edgy”.

      I also think that my age has something to do with it. I remember reading an article once about Adams’ famous “Moonlight Over Hernandez” image. The author showed that as Adams aged, his “interpretation” of this photograph grew increasingly darker. I found that very interesting – like most, I believed that there was only one “Moonlight Over Hernandez”. Discovering that there was a series of interpretations by Adams was something of a revelation.

      Now, I ain’t no Ansel Adams, but I think that it’s probably true that what we see changes as we grow older. And while I still love the bright blue skies and red rock of the southwest, the images that I value the most were taken in conditions that were somewhat less than “sunny”. Like the one shown here.

      • Cedric Canard

        After making my previous comment I continued to think about this and I thought that perhaps you didn’t necessarily post the images you favoured but rather those that illustrated your point best and indeed, that is the case. That’s fair enough too as I suspect many bloggers (including myself) do the same.

        As for your comment about how interpretation of what we see changes with age, I started writing a post some weeks back which I haven’t had time to complete but I agree with you. As we journey through life we cannot but change how we see the world. That’s what keeps it exciting for me. Adams wasn’t alone. I have read about some painters who would go back to some paintings they had done decades before and painted over them to reflect their new view of the world. Sadly with paintings there is no “non-destructive” way to do that though it is now possible (with the aid of modern technology) to see the original paintings below the new. In any case this is definitely food for thought.

  5. Eyes wide shut « Plop

    […] else would be able to make sense of them but just as I was about to hit the delete button, I read a post by Paul Maxim which helped me bring my own post back into focus. So thanks to both Andreas and Paul […]

  6. For light’s sake « Plop

    […] Maxim wrote a post a few weeks ago called “Finding the Dark Places”. In it he proclaimed his preference for dark images shot in dark locations. I found this revelation […]


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