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Composition

During our writer’s retreat last week, my friend and writing partner wandered down to the water to snap some photos to share with her family. When she returned to the house, she told me it took her far too many shots to get the right one, and she still wasn’t happy with the way her pictures appeared. I was so happy to hear that.

I didn’t delight that her photos were bad (they weren’t). I didn’t rejoice that she was frustrated by the composition or the lighting. I was filled with an overwhelming relief. I’ve been wandering down to that shoreline for over 15 years trying to get the money shot. I fail every single time.

I’ve used different cameras. I’ve tried different seasons and angles and times of day. I step over the white, time-blasted rocks crowded into the red earth at the edge of water and land, choose my shots with care. I have lain down on the rocks to get what I thought would be the perfect composition. I have zoomed in and out on the horizon. I have focused, or tried to focus, on birds resting on distant shores, or oddly shaped low hanging clouds. I have attempted to capture the sparkling diamond surface of a lake at sunrise. I have tried to grasp in digital format the gentle roll of tiny waves undulating inward from the boats of anglers standing mute in their stillness.

Not once have I taken a photo of that lakeshore that looks like what I see. Not once. Is it a matter of perspective? The lake is so large, the trees surrounding it so vast, that perhaps one little amateur camera is ill-equipped to handle so large a view. When I’ve tried to get the land at my feet, the lake stretching out toward the opposite shore, and the trees climbing the farther hills, the image is flat, wan, drab even. When I try to get just that one funky rock or the gnarled root of a felled tree, I find the same result.

What I want to see in the photo is what I see with my eyes. This weird phenomenon seems only to apply to this shore, this lake, these rocks and hills. If it were only the idea that photos conjure memories, I could dismiss it. I have as many fond memories at this lake as at others. If it were only the idea that inanimate objects evade capture, I could dismiss it. The photos of rocks and lakes set in Pennsylvania appear as they do in real life. Why is this lake so elusive to my meager photographic attempts?

Is a photo merely a visual reflection of what the human body intakes as information: what we see is what we get? Or is a photo more? Is it a visual memory of actual objects coupled with the sounds, smells and feelings of those present? Is it an image with a soundtrack provided by the viewer? In either case, why can’t I get the image I want to get at this lakeshore?

Perhaps I am simply frustrated with technological limitations. I can’t put the lake and its suggestion of peace onto film, into my camera. I can’t actually capture the entire slice of prescribed meaning. I can only try to cup my hands around it, water slipping through my fingers.

And try again.

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