I’ve had a photographic couple of days. I’m visiting San Francisco, one of the most photogenic cities on Earth, even when shrouded in fog, and home to the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most iconic images in the world. Yesterday I spent the afternoon and early evening at SFMoMA, where the special exhibits include a retrospective of fashion/portrait photographer Richard Avedon and a comparative exhibit of Georgia O’Keefe’s boldly colored paintings and Ansel Adams’s austere black-and-white photographs of the natural world. (Meanwhile, my travel companion gave me a primer on how to actually use my new digital SLR. Let the experimentation begin!)
At first blush, the visual medium of photography and the cerebral activity of writing may seem to have little in common. But two of Adams’s photographs from the exhibit—or, rather, the stories behind their making—offer parallels to writing.
The first, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (one of Adams’s most famous images), is a picture of the lunar orb peering down at a scattered collection of shacks and graves.The photographer happened upon the shot on the way back to Santa Fe after an unproductive day in Charma Valley. As he scrambled to set up the camera and tripod, the sun was slipping past the horizon, and he couldn’t find the exposure meter. Using what he knew about the illumination of the moon, he clicked. Before he could insert another slide, though, the sun set, and the light on the crosses went dark. Adams got the shot by mere seconds.
Moonrise is the product of pure serendipity. Only for a split second did the light and elements perfectly align. A photograph captures such moments in time, never to be relived, gone as soon as they arrive. There’s no procrastination in photography—it’s now or never.
Writing’s not like that. Writing can be put off to whenever. Or can it? Perhaps “the moment” is just as fleeting for the writer as it is for the photographer—it’s there and then it’s gone. Strong motivation for keeping your eyes open, camera/pen at the ready.
Adams’s other picture, Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California, is also a landscape with large swaths of land and sky, snowcapped mountains soaring over black foothills and a ray of light illuminating a lone horse grazing in the valley below.Whereas the taking of Moonrise had been a fluke, a stroke of mad luck, Winter Sunrise was carefully composed. The photographer set up the shot, but the horse, oblivious to having its picture taken, wasn’t facing the camera. Rather, Adams’s view was of the animal’s rear end. So he waited for the horse to turn around. And waited. And waited. All the while, as the sun rose, the light changed. But finally, the horse moved into profile, and Adams got his shot.
For writers, it’s not just when inspiration strikes that we need to be ready. We need to set up the shot, like Adams did, and if the image isn’t perfect, wait patiently until all the pieces fall into place.
In writing, as in photography, be ready and be patient—that’s how you capture the moment.