Is it a Barrel, or a Sculpture?



Is this a barrel, or is it a sculpture of light and shadow, texture and curves? And is it simply an attractive planter, or does it have a living presence of some kind?


When my wife and I are in Sedona, Arizona during the rainy months in Oregon, we have breakfast every few weeks during warm weather at a creekside restaurant in Oak Creek Canyon, a few miles upstream from Sedona itself. It’s a beautiful spot, and after we eat we sit and read or just enjoy the morning light and the beautiful landscape. I gaze at the trees, the red rocks, and the garden that surrounds us, enjoying the beauty of it all. I also begin to look around with my “photographer eyes” to see if there might be a good subject for a picture. Since I always have my camera (my iPhone) with me, I begin looking for compelling subjects for a photo. One morning my eyes were drawn to the interplay of the light and shadows curving across the weathered wooden planter by our table. I loved its curves, the grain of its wooden staves, and the curving contrast of its steel hoops. I decided to make a fairly close-up shot in order to highlight these aspects, rather than taking a picture of the whole planter. I felt that taking a picture of the whole barrel and the flowers in it would have simply documented a “thing” rather than creating a portrait of the unique blend of the barrel’s weathered wood, the contrasting curves of the grey steel bands, and the soft morning light that was drifting through the leaves above us. There would have been little magic in the image. By focusing just on the light and wood and curving hoops, I felt I was making a portrait of its more interesting essence, rather than simply making a pretty picture of the whole planter and its flowers.


The famous street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the expression “the decisive moment” as a way of expressing how he would seek to make an image that captures the essence of the people he photographed on the streets of Paris. How is it possible to explain or teach this? It’s a mystery. But many photographers recognize that intuitively capturing “the decisive moment” is one of the main capabilities that a camera can offer, even with a still life. You keep reframing the image in your viewfinder until something inside says “now!”


To return to this image of wood and steel and a beam of sunlight, I encourage you to reflect on how you experience both the “worldly” elements of the photo and a mysterious “something” you might experience as you sit quietly with it. How does seeing in this way begin to nudge you into experiencing your world in a deeper way?


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Since I imagine that many of you have an iPhone or other phone/camera, I also encourage you to use it to explore the world around you with the intent to see the light, shapes, shadows, textures, and colors that make up your world. Play with getting closer to your subject, or looking for interesting light. Cultivate the inner sense of when something inside says, “now!”


If you want, you can post one of your own photos below that you feel captured “the decisive moment” and say something about how you recognized a mysterious “something” in it.



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