The Art of Observation

August 8, 2016

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.
— Henry David Thoreau

     How often do people look at things, but not really see them? Thoreau's quote reminds us of the ever important art-of-observation, and, in photography, this can certainly be the difference between a good composition and an astoundingly superb, take-your-breath away image.  Artists and photographers must constantly hone this skill as the selection of what we see in composing a piece will be what challenges the viewer.  This is especially evident when familiar or frequently photographed scenes are involved

     I was recently reminded of the art-of-observation during a shoot in Acadia National Park earlier this year.  The scene before me was the ever popular Thunder Hole - a well marked attraction on Maine's beautiful, rocky, cliff-laden shoreline.  A scene that millions of visitors have photographed over the years. The name is derived from the loud, thunderous sound emanating from the caves underneath the cliffs when a wave crashes into the shoreline, causing not only the roaring sound but also a potentially life-threatening situation:  several people have unfortunately lost their lives when swept out to see at this location.  So, how should I make a photograph of something that has been photographed so often?  Although the specific answer as to what scene I should compose did not appear quickly before me, I did realize that the answer to the question of how to go about photographing something differently was in my skill set. 

     I began by patiently employing the principles of the-art-of-observation; this involved not only walking around the cliffs and considering various vantage points but also involved silent and peaceful contemplation, i.e., seeing instead of just looking at the various sections of the cliffs.  After working the area for a while, I saw what resembled a face as part of a larger cliff.  I had found my subject and could now begin making the photograph.  I proceeded to set up various  compositions and long exposures with different ND filter and polarizer combinations.  Some people asked what I was capturing, and I told them about the face I was seeing in the rocks;  word quickly spread among the crowd about the "face-in-the-rocks," elevating the mood of those around me and adding interest to the shoot.  I named the composition "The Guardian of the Thunder Hole" as it appeared to guard the entrance  of where the waves entered the inlet of the Thunder Hole.  

The Guardian of the Thunder Hole, Bar Harbor, Maine                             © Brian Rivera Uncapher

The Guardian of the Thunder Hole, Bar Harbor, Maine                             © Brian Rivera Uncapher