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With apologies to Mr. White.

On my way home from work yesterday, my attention was caught by a fallen branch. The branch sat at the top of a gentle slope up from the Channel park to the East 8th sidewalk. I would not have noticed it — in fact, I probably walked past it for days or weeks without doing so — except that I happened to be off the path.

As a result, there was a brief moment in which the branch was silhouetted against the late afternoon sky, revealing a strange and compelling shape. And also a familiar one — the branch twisted in on itself is a common element in Minor White’s photography, and some of his most striking and enigmatic images feature them. That brief glimpse stayed with me through my commute, and I resolved to see whether I could make something photographic of it.

Branch, Three Views (C)

I knew there was no way I could convey anything interesting about the branch if I photographed it in situ. There was quite a lot of clutter in the area and in the skyline beyond; even if I got down on the ground, there was no way I could get the thing silhouetted against the sky — my initial view of it depended on the eye’s ability to immediately discard visual clutter.

So, during my lunch break today, I did something which I do not normally do — I moved the damn thing. (I usually prefer to document things where and as I find them.) I dragged the thing down next to the channel, leaned it against a bench, and propped it up (to prevent it from rolling) using the card wallet I use to hold my business cards, bard tickets, and bus pass. (I managed not to forget it when I left, although it was close.)

I made many different exposures with three lenses (35mm, 105mm, 400mm), varying my camera position extensively. My two main considerations were the relationship between the shapes within the branch, and the relationship between the branch and the rest of the scene. The primary factor in determining these relationships is camera position; the secondary is the choice of focal length and aperture.

The image at the beginning of this post is the last one shot, using my 400mm f/5.6 to fully isolate the branch from its context. In this shot, I chose a camera position such that the rear fork of the branch crosses behind the forward main segment. This preserves the three-dimensionality of the object despite the flattening effect of the long-range perspective and shallow depth of field.

Branch, Three Views (B)

Proceeding in reverse chronological order, the middle image to survive the culling process was made with my 105mm f/2.5, with my tripod legs fully extended and the center column somewhat extended, so that the camera is looking down past the branch. This permits the shapes of the background to come through, but no detail. In this vantage, I was able to capture birds moving in the air or water in several shots. (These are my normal lunchtime subjects.) In this one, two egrets perch on the far bank of the channel, just above forked end of the branch, while two others fly, one with cupped wing mirroring the penultimate curve of the branch.

Branch, Three Views (A)

The first surviving image (there were a few other test shots before it) was made with a normal lens (35mm on crop sensor), stopped down to f/11 or f/16 for depth of field. The result does not render the background sharply, but does allow a degree of detail to come through. This, together with the flattened background and foreground created by the square-on camera angle, allows for useful juxtapositions in the composition, with the branch bracketed between the four bare trees, the two lower works cupping the boundary between the far bank and the channel, and the top of the tallest tree becoming another fork of the branch, extending from the vertical segment.

For each image, I adjusted the saturation and color cast of various segments, warming the branch and cooling the background, or the opposite, and then applying a blue- or yellow-filtered black and white conversion in Capture NX.

These images are, as suggested earlier, derivative to a greater or lesser extent (or, put more favorably, they are a reference or — for the ultra-mega-douches in the audience — “an homage”); I consider them basically an exercise in composition. And while I wouldn’t blame anyone for being unimpressed by them, I consider them a success, and a well-spent forty-five minutes…

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