Abraham Lake and A Sense of Place

A few weeks ago I went out to Abraham Lake with my good friend and fellow photographer Olivier du Tré for a couple of days of landscape photography. The day prior to us leaving, the forecast looked dismal and all but guaranteed that we would not catch a glimpse of the Rockies during our time in the area. As a guy who tends to like shooting “big landscapes”, my initial reaction was to suggest to Oli that we consider postponing our outing until the mountains were again visible. Olivier was pretty quick at saying we should go anyways. But then he’s a minimalist – he thrives on using very few compositional elements in his photographs. Eventually I decided to go along for the ride, thinking that conditions would force me out of my comfort zone (and secretly hoping that at some point the clouds would part and give me a jagged skyline to work with!).

I’m really glad I went. The weatherman was right: it was a cloudfest. Not the type of well-defined, textured clouds that quickly swirl around peaks. More like a “big white wall” really. Occasionally we got to shoot more “traditional” landscape scenes but most of the time the mountains were nowhere to be seen and you could have been anywhere in the country really. Or could you? The conditions got me thinking about sense of place. Why would a scene become of lesser interest to me because of those conditions? Over the last couple of years I have shot a lot of commercial work where it is imperative that the images convey a “sense of place”. In that context it means that the shots have to show a topographical feature that allows one to readily identify the location of the photograph. I found it interesting that that way of thinking had perhaps overflowed onto my landscape photography and that I had gotten to a point where if a scene did not have that sense of place, it became less interesting to me. That was until I noticed that my interpretation of “sense of place” was strongly biased towards the topography. But there is so much more to a place than its topography. It’s also very much about the typical light one finds there, and of the character of the weather that passes through. If a person who has never been to Abraham Lake was to browse through the web to get a sense of what the place is like, they would probably come to the conclusion that the lake is perpetually frozen, its surface free of snow and filled with mesmerizing bubbly formations year-round. In reality, a typical scene at Abraham would probably include open water, wild winds and tormented vegetation.

How many images does one need to take to convey sense of place? Do wider shots provide more of that sense of place than tighter ones? Can one capture sense of place when shooting weather conditions that are atypical of the location? Those are questions I had in mind over that weekend, and that I have enjoyed thinking about at other locations since.

Not only did the trip to a healthy dose of questioning the purpose of my landscape images, it also allowed me to see Olivier at work with his Mamiya RB67 Pro-SD and compare our approaches. I found it interesting to see how we both went for very different things upon arrival at a location. A few times I looked at him and thought: “What the heck could he possibly be working on over there”? Eventually I found out when I saw the fantastic images, a few of which he allowed me to share on here:

As for me I tried to get out of “wide landscape mode”, let go a little of my usual approach and embrace the type of conditions I would have stayed home for in the past! I had a fantastic time and was again shown that there are no bad conditions for landscape photography. If anything we were able to document a unique side of Abraham Lake. Perhaps we were able to show that the place has more to it than the winter bubbles! Here’s a sample of what I ended up with.

Thanks everyone for visiting!

5 Responses to “Abraham Lake and A Sense of Place”

  1. Ian McGillvrey

    Great write up on this topic Paul! I find myself completely agreeing with this line of thinking. Especially your comment, “there is so much more to a place than its topography”. Truly capturing the sense of a place to me, doesn’t mean that you simply announce where you are. That’s nothing more than locating the place. Sense has so much more to do with how if felt, sounded, smelled, etc. As in, how your senses, well, sensed it ;). Awesome images as well, you guys definitely told your own story of Abraham Lake on that trip and came away with some really great stuff.

    Reply

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