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Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Highland Sheep in Snow

Virginia's Little Switzerland

As my car snaked around an icy hairpin turn in Virginia’s northwest mountains, my mind was focused on concepts. Terms such as “visualization,” “anticipation” and “decisive moment” spun through my head. I had a spot staked out that needed just the right amount of snow and ice to complete the image I held in my mind. For two years, I had been waiting patiently for the elements to be as near to perfect as possible. This was the day. Six inches of fresh snow, continued flurries and gusts of wind were what I needed to complement the Highland County barn and split-rail chestnut fences that had caught my eye.

Much of my art begins with long-range planning. Lighting and other variable elements are seldom right when I initially spot a potential subject. In my mind’s eye, I sort through the numerous possibilities. Would the image be better on a cloudy day or a sunny one? What time of day and what season would best express my artistic mood? Eventually, I know exactly how I want the finished image to appear in print. Then, when all the elements are perfect, or as near to perfect as possible, I go back to the site to record a happening that may never again appear to me or to anyone else in this form.

Of course, there is also the spontaneous moment—that sense of being in the right spot at the right time and being able to make a quick judgment about capturing that occurrence on film. Many artists encounter a situation such as this. The key is recognizing a decisive moment when it presents itself. A second or two can spell the difference between a successful image and one that is rather ho-hum, or a total loss.

That day in the snow I was heading to my predetermined site when I saw another potential image in the making. This was fresh, unexpected subject matter that demanded a closer look. A group of sheep had begun to make their way, single-file, down a hill near an old barn. I slid to a halt. Grabbing my pack and tripod, I jumped from my car and immediately fell hip-deep into a snow-filled ditch by the side of the road. A glance told me that I had to hurry, as the lead sheep was about to make the turn by the barn.

My next barrier was a four-strand barbed-wire fence. Using my tripod (with my medium-format camera attached) as a hiking stick, I attempted to vault out of the snowdrift and over the fence. Most of me made it. My trousers didn’t. Try as I might, I could not free myself from the fence. In desperation and disgust, with the sheep in near perfect position and my trousers firmly secured on the fence, I lunged forward and jammed my tripod into the snow. Out of my mouth came some colorful language as I tried to focus the camera and read my light meter.

I do not remember exactly what I said that early winter morning, but whatever it was stopped the line of sheep dead in their tracks. One sheep turned and stared right at me for a moment. It was long enough for only a single exposure and then the sheep fled in panic. That split second is what is referred to as the decisive moment.
Highland Barn, the image I was initially pursuing, would have to wait until another day.

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