When I shoot large format film, one of the great challenges is being picky with the photos I ultimately expose. Certainly there are benefits to shooting this way, namely that the rate of “keepers” is higher with this format. But there are also drawbacks. One of the biggest is being unable – or perhaps a better word is unwilling – to photograph a scene when I’m unsure if it will work.
In my photography, this has led to some missed opportunities over the years. For example, I have come across beautiful woodland scenes that I intended to photograph, only for them to vanish due to a freak storm before I can dedicate a sheet of film to their capture.
It’s impossible in an article to highlight all the missed opportunities I’ve experienced as a photographer. Partly, it’s because there have been so many over the years. Partly, too, it’s a lack of evidence (photographs) on my part, since most of these subjects disappeared before I photographed them at all!
In lieu of that, I have chosen to highlight a few photographs I’ve taken which could have been missed opportunities, had I not followed my gut feeling and captured a photo before they were gone. Two of the photograph in this article involve trees which were felled (one naturally and the other by man), which ultimately destroyed the composition. The others involve transitory subjects – one a paint brush, one a deer skull – that were gone shortly after I took their respective photographs.
Back in the glorious year of 2020, my girlfriend and I decided to drive up to my family’s cabin in northern Pennsylvania rather than our usual trip to Acadia (for obvious reasons). It was while walking along the road leading into the property, looking for ferns or other intimate subjects to photograph, when I came across two trees, each leaning quite heavily to opposing sides. The scene was interesting and I felt as though the composition would make for a fine photograph, though I wondered if something was missing. Knowing I had a finite amount of film and no way to restock it at the cabin, I decided against making the photograph.
I don’t recall how many days I allowed to lapse before changing my mind. Even if I remembered, it wouldn’t matter, would it? All that I remember is how terribly I wished for fog to roll in with each passing day. Fog in Pennsylvania is a rarity, it seems, and though it occurs more frequently at the cabin thanks to the lake, this fog has a tendency not to spread very far. Even had it come along, there was no way it would reach these trees, so I had to deal with the scene at hand.
At the time, my greatest concern was not whether the composition would exist a year later, but instead whether there would be ample separation between the primary trees and the utter chaos going on in the background. I had only been using a large format camera for a year at that time, and I was very leery of taking risks.
Regardless, something told me to try using a wide aperture to aid in separating the subject. Instead of stopping down to my usual f/32 with large format, I chose an aperture of about f/8. Worst case, I lose a few bucks on a sheet of film; best case, it provides some of the effect that fog would have done. Lucky for me, it worked out rather nicely, allowing for the background trees to gently fade toward a blur. Fog still would have been my preference, but at least I took a photo that I like.
Less than a year had passed when I noticed the leftward-leaning tree had lost its grip and fallen, forever altering the composition, killing off the connection I initially felt to the scene.
“2.5 Inch Shipmate”
Just over a month later, I found myself at the cabin once again. For one reason or another, while walking around behind the cabin, searching as always for interesting intimacies in the woods, I came across a paintbrush casually lying upon the stump of a long-gone tree. Why was it still there? What was even being painted in the first place? I believe my grandmother had been using it and hadn’t put it away, although for what purpose, I couldn’t know.
Yet despite this, there was something about the brush which intrigued me and pulled me in. It’s not often I come across man-made objects in the woods, nor is it often – especially at that time – that I would photograph them. But we constantly change as photographers, just like the world around us, and this paintbrush struck me as worth capturing.
With this odd gut feeling, I went inside, grabbed my camera, and set it up. Then the first problem with the composition arrived: my camera had to be about six inches taller than myself, which meant there was no way for me to look down upon the ground glass to compose and focus the scene.
Knowing the paintbrush was not about to go anywhere – though seeing it disappear at random would make for an interesting story – I walked to the garage and grabbed a ladder. It wasn’t the most stable ladder, and I may have caused my family some concern when standing on top of it at an awkward angle to compose through the ground glass, but compose I did. Once set, I clambered down the ladder, glad it had not collapsed beneath my weight.
Unlike the first photograph discussed, the scene which makes up 2.5 Inch Shipmate was not dismembered by Mother Nature. Rather, my grandmother simply decided to bring the paintbrush back inside to wherever it belonged. Still, this is another of those scenes which is gone forever, never to be completely replicated. Even if I were found this same paintbrush and placed it upon the same tree stump, the flora and other intricacies of the scene would be different.
Let us head back to October 13th of 2019. That was just a few months before my view on photography changed drastically thanks to the reading of Guy Tal’s More Than A Rock, and a solid five months before the world itself changed.
Again, I found myself at the family cabin – have you noticed a theme yet? – with my father and grandparents. We were visiting with the goal of dragging logs down from the mountain (those from the western states would likely call it a small hill) to cut up for my grandparents to use during the incoming winter season.
So long as you wake up early enough during the summer and start of the fall season, there is a reasonable probability of fog forming over the lake and drifting a hundred yards or so into the woods just off-shore. Knowing this, every time I am up at the cabin, I try my best to wake up early, checking for fog before either heading out with my camera or disappointingly crawling back into bed.
On this morning in particular, waking up early rewarded me with a thick layer of fog making its way off the lake and into the woods surrounding the house. I grabbed my camera bag with joy and walked onto the porch, facing the lake. Slowly – everything is slow with large format – I pulled out my Intrepid 4×5 Mk. IV and began setting it up. Thankfully no one else was awake yet, as any movement on the porch or even in the cabin could shake the tripod, ruining the sharpness of the negative. It was nice, though, being able to sit at the table and watch the fog roll through after exposing this sheet of film, not worrying about making any other photograph. The result is a favorite of mine.
My solitude was broken a short while later, however, by the opening of the door as my father came outside, the cup of coffee in his hand steaming like the lake in front of us both.
In a way, this solitude was further broken when, in July of 2021, my grandfather made the executive decision to cut down the trees in the foreground of the composition. Though I cannot say I agree with the decision – his reasoning made little sense to me – it does make this photograph, which I titled Forbidden, just a bit more special in my eyes.
Much like the photograph of the paintbrush upon the stump, Memento Mori is another composition which I likely would not have photographed just a few years prior. The thought of photographing the remains of animals was not something which intrigued me. In a way, it felt wrong, as if I was disgracing the animal by photographing it in such a manner. Though I knew the practice of photographing dead things – whether remains such as this or the fresh carcass itself – had been done by a number of photographers in the past, it was not something which I felt the need to contribute to. Further, who in their right mind would ever hang a print of a dead animal upon their wall?
It was not until stumbling across the work of Chuck Kimmerle and his In Memorium gallery that my mentality toward the subject began to change. The manner in which he photographs the remains of dead animals – the little that he does – can easily be seen as beautiful, as if he is honoring their existence, both past and present. In his own words, he writes, “I mean these photographs as tributes rather than mourning. I often talk with these subjects. It makes me feel less like I am using them simply for a photograph, and more like I am saying a final goodbye.”
Seeing how he has managed to find beauty in such stereotypically “grotesque” subject matter, I began to wonder whether I could manage to do these creatures justice in a similar fashion. Yet finding animal remains is not the easiest thing in the world, oddly enough. Despite the number of deer found on the property surrounding the cabin, it is rare that any carcasses or bones are seen scattered about. Really, that has to be a good thing; I could not imagine walking around or riding the four-wheelers on the property and coming across so much death. It would be unnerving.
In April of 2021, however, my sister made mention of having found a deer skull on the property, not far from the house. At that point in time, I was still unsure how I felt about photographing of such things, primarily due to the societal reputation surrounding death and remains. Still, I decided to make my way to where she found it, if only to see it. Per usual, my camera was strapped to my back, just in case something else caught my eye or my mentality altered.
Upon seeing the skull lying in the thick spring grass, I could not help but begin seeing the beauty Chuck sees in such subjects. There was something so intriguing about the deer skull as it lie there, so far removed from whatever had initially hunted it down. For me, and many others I am sure, the beauty is not immediate in the photograph (at least, not in the same manner as photograph of a colorful sunrise over the lake).
More important to me than the beauty, however, is the story of the skull and the questions it begged. How old was the deer when it met its end? Who was the final decider of its fate? For how long had the skull been sitting there, and for how much longer will it continue to be there? And, when it is gone, what will have taken it?
The light faded as I pondered these questions, and I had to make a decision. Was it worth pulling out the camera and making an exposure, despite still being unsure of how to feel about such a subject? Or would I leave it be, risking it disappearing and this opportunity not arising again?
Thoughts still circling, I found my camera setting itself up upon the tripod as the light dimmed. I did my best to meter the scene so as to protect the shadows, though I knew they would be darker than usual in the dying light. With a single sheet exposed, the light now all but gone, I made my way back to the cabin.
The next morning, I awoke early and made my way back to the skull, figuring a second sheet would not hurt. Luck have it, nothing had moved the skull overnight, and I was able to expose an additional sheet of film. Which of the two you now see, I cannot recall. Yet I can say for certain I am glad to have come across the work of Chuck Kimmerle and been shown the potential beauty in what others may find unpleasant.
There is something to be said about the disappearance of things and the uniqueness it brings to the world. The idea that nothing lasts forever is not something which should be feared but, rather, embraced. Try as we may, we likely will never find the cure to death. And in the blink of an eye – at least, a blink in the grandest scale of things – it will be as if everything we know, everything we have created, will be wiped away, gone forever.
This should not be seen as scary, however. As photographers, especially, we have the special privilege of being able to immortalize fleeting moments – moments which few others may even notice, let alone remember. Rather than worry whether someone will hang a photograph of yours upon their wall, it is much more important, in the long run, to use your skills to photograph whatever it is you find intriguing. So, the next time you come across a subject which pulls at you, rather than deny it, allow it a bit of time. Allow it to be graced by the presence of yourself and your lens. Photograph it as honestly as you can, because at the end of the day, you never know when it will be gone forever.