There is a remarkable experiment on display in the gallery space of the Paul Smith’s College Visitors Interpretive Center (VIC). Twelve area photographers were invited to come out to the VIC between April 17 and 21 to capture images of the property. Then they had a couple of days to review their efforts, print, mat and frame them for this exhibit, which was hung on April 25.
The experiment was actually my idea. I absolutely love the challenges of plein air painting – hauling my paints and easel out to a view I like and spending a day creating a painting. I find it’s a wonderful way to totally immerse myself in that specific environment and put the rest of my life out of my mind for those enjoyable hours, not to mention the fresh air and (hopefully) sunshine. It’s like the difference between an impromptu talk and a rehearsed speech; you have to produce – right there – on the spot.
I have friends and colleagues who are outstanding photographers and I wondered if they might enjoy this kind of a challenge. Most of the time, photographers and painters choose when they go out and work and where they go. This “paint-out” or “shoot-out” presented a unique set of restrictions, however. For one thing the weather is no obstacle. It could be perfect, miserable, or anything in-between. There are also usually limitations as to the location and a limited number of days, so for many artists it’s like going back into a classroom. The bell rings and you’ve got to produce!
For this shoot-out the following regional photographers were invited: Burdette Parks of Tupper Lake, Karla Brieant of Paul Smiths, Jim Bullard of Potsdam, Jon Chodat of Malone, and Russ Hartung of Morristown; along with Phil Gallos, Barry Lobdell, Mike Lynch, Eleanor Sweeney, Jill Wenner, and Brendan Wiltse of Saranac Lake. Ed Murphy of Vermontville was invited but had to withdraw after slipping on the icy trails during the first day of shooting. There are many more talented photographers, but the entries were limited for this first go at the concept. I also wanted each photographer to have the opportunity to exhibit two or three photographs.
When I contacted the photographers and described my idea for a shoot-out, their responses were unanimous. YES! Great! It didn’t seem to matter that we were in the midst of one of the longest, coldest winters ever. As a volunteer, I’ve been scheduling the monthly “New Moon” exhibits at the VIC, which change along with the cycle of the moon. With the New Moon set for April 18th, I set the dates for shooting as April 17th to the 21st, with framed work due April 24th.
A lot of people will think this is not a very attractive time of the year. Most of the plants are dead, the only green are the evergreens, there are piles of debris and dirty snow all over, and in 2015, cold temperatures and fresh snow in late April. But you will be surprised at the beauty our shoot-out photographers captured.
I have been painting as well as taking my own photographs at the VIC for 20 years. Some of the shoot-out photos looked just like my paintings! So I wondered, did I make the art, or was it already there? Are there certain images that just have visual appeal? Many people will see a cute little child hugging a puppy and go “ooooh, how sweet”…. does a particular view or landscape evoke a similar “I love this so much I must paint or photograph it” reaction?
There is a particular view along the Barnum Brook Trail at the VIC that anyone who’s walked by it will recognize in several of the “shoot-out” photos. It’s one of those places that has just the right balance of natural elements – there’s the brook, a rocky outcrop (usually reflected in the water), classic lichen covered ancient boulders, an asymmetric tall white pine tastefully surrounded by smaller evergreens, a wetlands behind it and in the distance, the summit of St Regis Mountain – behind which are created beautiful sunsets.
On a clear day you can even see the fire tower. The sun passes from left to right, just about always providing interesting lighting conditions. It’s a picture postcard perfect view!
Of course it helps that the trail goes right past this spot and the area is cleared with a viewing platform and benches. So theoretically we owe this esthetically pleasing view to whomever designed the trail system at the VIC in the 1970s. There’s no telling how many times it’s been photographed and painted, in all four seasons. I know I’ve probably painted it 25 times – every one different. Would someone from another part of the world, who was accustomed to an entirely different kind of environment (like a desert or jungle) find this Barnum Brook view attractive? Do children think it’s pretty or just adults, who’ve learned to appreciate the composition, colors and textures of the natural elements?
I was also pretty familiar with the work of all the participating photographers. I wondered if their characteristic styles would come through or if the VIC landscape would have a stronger impact on their photographs. Would Barry Lobdell, who’s been known for his striking panoramic views provide us with a VIC panorama? Would Mike Lynch, an author and outdoors writer, produce photographs that tell a story? You’ll have to visit the VIC exhibit and see.
Although I didn’t take part in the shoot-out, seeing all these photos of one of my favorite haunts has opened my eyes in a surprising way. It’s interesting to see the differing viewpoints and interpretations. There are panoramic and close-ups. Sunrise, mid-day, and nighttime photos. Abstract compositions, creative manipulations, and beautifully cropped pieces of natural and man-made detail. Sometimes the only way to understand the larger world is to totally explore a small part of it.
Illustrations, from above: “The Island, Nightscape” photo by Russ Hartung, recipient of a Judges Choice Award; “Collecting Sap on the Skidder Trail” photo by Jill Wenner, recipient of an Honorable Mention; and “Barnum Brook Lament” watercolor by the author.