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Knowing the Metaphor Before Photographing the Subject

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

Never ones to over-think, we photographers merely respond to subjects that interest us. The idea of Photograph as Metaphor—if it occurs at all—typically comes much later, and only upon reflection. Our recent waterfall abstractions are an exception.

The boisterous energy of this chaotic torrent is evident from this small section of Triple Falls. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The good news about the weather during our recent tw0-week trip to the mountains of North Carolina is that we had warm temperatures, clear blue skies, and lots of sun. The bad news about the weather, from a photography point of view, was that we had harsh sunshine, bright highlights, and inky shadows.

We were in the waterfall area of the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina. Rain falling on the mountains runs down the granitic Blue Ridge escarpment in a series of steps to the Piedmont below. The numerous drops over bedrock create countless water slides and waterfalls.

The more orderly patterns formed by sheeting water in this rock slide suggest a different energy. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

We visited many of them. There are four major falls in DuPont State Forest alone. The falls themselves were lovely and full of water, but the harsh sunlight during our visits made their surroundings difficult to photograph. Triple Falls, for instance—a spectacular, three stage waterfall—was in full sun. The path to the falls was also on the sunny side, so the falls themselves were bright and backlit, and the neighboring forest was in deep shade.

In order to successfully photograph the falls and the neighboring forest, we would need to blend multiple exposures. Yet even that would not be successful because the exposure for the forest would blur the very bright water and interfere with blending.

Normally, we would approach a photographic subject, see a composition we like, and begin to photograph. Often, we refine the composition by moving closer to the subject and eliminating things that do not add to the photo. The result is usually simpler, and simplicity is often the key to clearly communicate the "why" of a photograph.

Chaotic individual paths of myriad water droplets form fractal-like patterns when viewed over the of a long exposure. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

If we are fortunate, usually in retrospect, the photograph communicates an idea or feeling. to the viewer. But it is rare that we begin to photograph with a clear idea of our metaphoric intent. Those concepts, if they ever occur, are arrived at much later and only after reflection.

Restricted as were to the watery highlights—in this case the powerful cascades—we rather quickly thought about what our photographs might communicate. We were undoubtedly influenced by our situation. We were within feet of the cascade and just above the first big drop of the falls. The roar and the force of the rapidly moving water was simultaneously exhilarating and frightening, and we were very mindful of where we stepped on the slippery rock.

Not ones to over-intellectualize our photography, we nevertheless were confronted by the water's speed and power, and couldn't ignore our emotions. Even before we looked into the viewfinder, we knew we wanted to communicate our feelings—a rare case of knowing the metaphor before photographing the thing.


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