Why do we love pictures of iconic subjects?

picture of Old Rag during a passing rain storm
Passing Storm, Old Rag Mountain

I’ve been thinking this week about my recent trip to Shenandoah National Park, when I couldn’t resist taking a picture of one of most recognizable icons of the Park, Old Rag Mountain. I wondered why it is that we can’t resist taking and making pictures of iconic subjects. 

Old Rag Mountain is certainly iconic to anyone from northern Virginia who has visited the Park. It appears from several turnouts along Skyline Drive, and it also appears prominently from the roads down in the valley in Madison County, Virginia. Unlike many of the peaks that sit in this part of the Blue Ridge, Old Rag is a solitary old thing, making it easy to identify. Kinda like the big dipper. For many of us northern Virginians, the profile of Old Rag symbolizes all that is beautiful about Shenandoah NP.

The 3300 foot summit of Old Rag is known as a great hiking destination. If you live in northern Virginia, you may have made this hike at some point; millions of people have.  For many Virginians, the hike up Old Rag is an annual pilgrimage. It’s a popular hike for young couples who, apparently, are testing the mettle of each other.  Those who make it to the top together, I guess, get to take their relationship to the next level. Apparently.  And people have even asked to be buried on Old Rag, according to a good friend of mine. 

Because of our feelings for Old Rag Mountain, you’ll find lots of pictures of her on the internet. 

Natural icons like Old Rag rarely excite me as a landscape photographer. I have only a few iconic subjects in my portfolio, like Purple Mountains Majesty (Grand Teton NP) and Yellowstone Drama(Yellowstone NP). 

By definition, taking a picture of an iconic subject means that you’re not the first to do so. In fact, the more iconic the subject is, the more it’s had its picture taken. Who hasn’t seen the hundreds of variations of Ansel Adams’s picture of the Snake River? It’s an iconic scene. But today any picture from the same vantage point is also common, cliche, and even boring at this point.  But still, if you’ve ever been to this vista over the Snake River valley and didn’t take a picture of it, well, you’re the exception to the rule đŸ™‚

Driving up and down Skyline Drive on my many trips to Shenandoah NP, I’ve probably passed Old Rag Mountain hundreds of times. Until my most recent trip, never have I stopped to take her picture. I didn’t feel I had anything new to say about her. I don’t want to be boring. 

On my most recent trip, I witnessed a rare face to iconic Old Rag, and I knew I had to share it with you. I found this moment to be quietly dramatic, with heavy foreboding clouds and rain storm, and with the forest all wet and dark, but through it all, Old Rag catching the proverbial silver lining.    

Pictures of icons like Old Rag Mountain are important to us. They remind us of important experiences and make us nostalgic about those moments. And the fact that a mere image can do that for us is nothing short of amazing. And that’s what I love about photography!

Before leaving, I wanted to ask if you’ve seen the trailer to my new book  “At Water’s Edge?” If you’re interested in helping me support the children under the care of the Marland Children’s Home in Ponca City, OK, you can order the book directly from Blurb. Thank you in advance!

Until next time,

PS. Clicking the image of “Passing Storm, Old Rag Mountain” will take you to its place in the gallery, where you can explore the details and see how it might give you just the right place to go when you need a bit of quiet drama.

Did you enjoy this edition of Friday Foto? Feel free to share this email with someone you think might also enjoy it, and invite them to subscribe to “Under the Darkcloth.”  And please leave me a comment or ask a question by replying to this email. 

Copyright J. Riley Stewart, 2018, all rights reserved.

Are we just a bunch of sun-worshippers?

I’ve been thinking this week about how something so common in our lives–sunset– always compels our attention, and why that is.

I just returned from a short visit to Shenandoah National Park. I’m lucky to live within an hour’s drive of the Park, or as I like to say the Park is “within 15 degrees cooler” from where I live. And during August, that 15 degrees can make a world of difference.

One evening I happened to be at the Skyland Lodge just before sunset, and something happened that made me ask myself: “Why do we (humans) do that?”

Skyland Lodge has a large picture window facing west, and just outside the window is a narrow deck running the entire length of the window. As the sun began to set, minute by minute, people calmly migrated from inside to outside, each person quietly finding a spot to stand along the deck to watch the sun set. 

I wonder, is it just the mere beauty of a sunrise or sunset that attracts our attention, or is there something more to it?  Why is it we might experience hundreds of such moments in our lives, and, still, the excitement for one more is just too great to ignore? I’m convinced there must be a “sunset” gene in our DNA that programs us to seek and witness as many as we possibly can during our lifetime. And in the iPhone era, being a witness to a sunset requires we also take a picture of it. 

I have to admit something. When I’m out taking pictures, sunrises and sunsets are way, way down on my list of priorities. In fact, I tell myself to purposefully ignore chasing such moments. I tell myself that there are far more interesting subjects to capture than just another pretty sunrise or sunset. I tell myself that the interweb is chocked full of sunrises and sunsets, and I don’t need to contribute further to the clutter. 

I tell myself these things, but when it comes right down to it, and when I find myself standing before an exciting sunrise or sunset, I have no other choice than to set up my camera and get ready to capture the most beautiful moment I have ever seen. Again, I think it must be something in my genes making me do this. 

Sometimes, I’ll even consume several sheets of film on a single sunrise or sunset. Sometimes, I’ll return to the same spot on different days, or capture the same “moment” in both color and B&W.  I just can’t help feeling that I must remember what I’m about to witness, and therefore take its picture.

Are you this way as well? Do you chase those moments as the sun rises or sets?  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised– because I know you’re human !

I’m sharing one of my recent sunset photos with you today. Clicking the image of “The Rapture” will take you to its place in the gallery, where you can explore the details and see how it might give you just the right place to go when you need to satisfy a compelling need to witness a sunset. 


Picture of J. Riley StewartIn the meantime, if you want to connect with me on Instagram just click the Instagram button in the footer of this email and follow along. I’ll do the same for you.  I’m doing my best to post a photo-of-the-day, and having a lot of fun seeing what my instagrammers are up to. 

Copyright J. Riley Stewart, 2018, all rights reserved.

Escaping the noise of summer: Do you have a “quiet space?”

Quiet Evening on Lake Moomaw
Quiet Evening on Lake Moomaw

Do you have a “quiet space?” It’s fascinating how an artful image can become that place. 

We’re having quite a strange summer here in northern Virginia. I made a resolution to get out more this summer and experience nature, but early July was blazing hot and muggy, which kept me close to the AC.  Then a tropical weather pattern decided to sit over the top of us, giving us almost daily rain storms. It’s been here ever since. I’m actually enjoying it though. And it hasn’t kept me from getting out. 

If you live in an area where the weather is intolerable this summer, I hope you’re doing okay, and remember that it’s only temporary. Winter is just around the corner.

There’s few things I enjoy more than heading to the Appalachians during the summer. In early July, my son and I went camping in the Bolar Mountain Recreation Area, way down in southern Virginia on the border with West Virginia. We both needed a break from the daily hubbub. And even though I had my camera gear with me, this trip wasn’t about making photographs as much as it was about enjoying our time together camping, canoeing, and enjoying the peace and quiet. 

Along the road to the campground was a turnout overlooking the lake and the surrounding mountains. “Quiet Evening on Lake Moomaw” is the only photograph I took during our trip, and it was taken from this turnout. We spent many hours parked on the turnout, usually just reading, watching the sky, and talking quietly between ourselves (there was never anyone else on the turnout with us). It was a great spot to really get to know the lake and see its many faces. 

Spending a lot of time in one spot is the only way to really know a place. I don’t sit still often enough. Usually I’m more anxious to capture a photograph and run off quickly to get the next one. Afraid I’m going to miss something I guess, or maybe it’s just in my nature to be a ‘spring butt.’ 

But, as I said, capturing photographs wasn’t my mission on this trip, so I didn’t feel compelled to chase the light. In fact, I didn’t feel compelled to chase anything. 

So it was that we spent hours up on that turnout overlooking the beautiful lake and mountains. During the day, power boats and jet skis were a constant threat to the senses. But something both I and my son noticed was, after sun down, this place became profoundly quiet. Not just human-quiet, but nature-quiet as well. Not a bird tweet or a bug chirp. Nothing but quiet; for hours. Both of us living in urban Virginia, we found the quiet to be almost surreal. And peaceful.

It was this profound quiet that I wanted to remember from our trip to Lake Moomaw, and that I wanted to share with you in “Quiet Evening on Lake Moomaw.” 

I hope you enjoy your August, wherever you live, and I hope you have a place to go when you need some peace and quiet.

Do you have a “quiet space?”  Art can often become that place. A quiet scene in your own living room, a “place” to lose yourself in and escape all the noise and stress, if only for a moment, can make all the difference. 

Until next time, best regards,



Why are we so drawn to trees?

Oak Among Pines Skyline Drive
“Oak Among Pines” from the new Woodlands compilation.

Today’s featured image comes from my new compilation called “Simplicity of Woodlands.” 

I love walking in the woods. Do you?  Over the years, I bet I’ve hiked through woods more miles than any other type of terrain. Walking up and down mountains doesn’t thrill me. Walking down a city street….too many distractions. And pastures even grow old after several hundred steps. 

But woodlands? They never get boring.  Each tree has its own character, the smaller bushes, ferns, and grasses growing on the forest floor seem to change with every step I take. And there’s always the rocks and streams and animals and…. well, you get the picture (no pun intended).

As a photographer, though, finding simple woodlands compositions that I like to feature in my work can be very difficult.  There’s just far too much CHAOS in the woods. Oftentimes, it really is hard to see the trees through the forest.

But every now and then something within the chaos catches my eye, and I just stop and relax for awhile until I am able to see its best face, at a particular moment.

It may be a quaint scene of an old log cabin harbored amidst the trees. Or a woodlands path taking me from a small bright clearing into the shadows of a dense canopy of the forest. Or perhaps an interesting tree sitting along the banks of a stream or lake or at the edge of a clearing.  And sometimes it’s a glorious old oak tree stealing the show with its full autumn colors!

Even if you’re not the woodsy type, the human attraction to trees and woodlands is strong. Over thousands of years humans have developed a type of kinsmanship with trees. They shelter us. They hide us from danger. They feed us. They shade us when it’s hot. They even reward us with their beauty when we’re lucky enough to see it.

I’ve compiled my favorite woodlands scenes in my online gallery. Go Here, or just google “J Riley Stewart woodlands.”  I hope you enjoy it.

Until next time, and I hope you’re loving the autumn season as much as I am.


PS. Clicking the image of “Oak Among Pines” will take you to its place in the gallery, where you can explore the details and see how it might give you just the right place to go when you need to rekindle your human desire for trees.

The Romance of the Carolina Lowcountry

I didn’t know what to expect. But a wedding hosted by good friends in Charleston, SC was a welcomed opportunity to see a bit of South Carolina’s Lowcountry for the first time.

My wife and I did the things all the guidebooks tell you to do when visiting Charleston: we walked the streets (stop it, now!), visited the local plantations, ate great food, and took a carriage ride.  But there was so much more I wanted to do, photographically speaking.

If you want to photograph Charleston, the best time is before 9 am. At 9, the parking meters become active and fill up pretty fast. Parking in Charleston is a challenge after that time. As it happens, early morning is also the best time to photograph Charleston, so you’re in luck. The summer sun came up around 6am, so I had plenty of time to photograph the city uncrowded.

Most of what I really wanted to see, though, happened out in the rural Lowcountry: salt marsh, spanish moss hanging from the old oaks, historic plantation gardens, and the ocean, of course.

Folly Beach

Folly Pier

The Folly Beach pier is probably photographed as much as the Statue of Liberty. There aren’t many ways to depict this structure that haven’t been tried already. I happened to catch this scene just at sunrise, so I had good light. Using a slow shutter speed to soften the waves and really bring out a sense of motion was important to me, and I purposely timed the wave movements to reveal the wet sand reflecting the lights from the end of the pier (which was tricky using a 1 sec shutter speed). The reflection was important compositionally.

A visit to Magnolia Plantation. Here’s another big tourist attraction, but if you look closely there are really great treasures to be found.  One of the most interesting sights I found at Magnolia Plantation were the cypress groves. “Lowcountry Cypress” is full of light and shadows. Near the center of the frame is what appears to be a circle caused by a large arching limb and its reflection in the river that perfectly frames the brighter visual destination downriver. Along our visual journey, large cypress trees full of rich details entertain us.

Magnolia Plantation along the Ashley River, SC
Lowcountry Cypress

Characteristic of the Live Oaks found in the Lowcountry are the huge limbs that like to arch close to the ground. Spanish moss seem to love these limbs, and you often find it just hanging out there. The path is clear, under the arching limbs, and it’s a walk we must take. Spanish moss is very delicate, and I rarely found it just hanging still. The slightest breeze would send it dancing about. I chose to capture that motion in “Lowcountry Walk” because that’s part of the story, isn’t it?

Lowcountry Walk
Lowcountry Walk

South Carolina Landing State Park

Long before there was a Charleston on the peninsula, there was a vibrant settlement across the Ashley River. It’s now a beautiful natural area with lots of large oaks and spanish moss. I got there late morning and the sun was already making it difficult to photograph, but I think I made the trip worthwhile. There was far too much green in this scene, so I did what I typically do when I find that situation: I shoot it in B&W and emphasize the shadows and penetrating sunlight.

Lane to the Ashley River

Edisto Island and Botany Bay Plantation

By far the most interesting site I visited on this trip, and one I’ll definitely return to again. A nature photographer’s paradise, this old plantation site has been turned into a protected wildlife management area.

A 1/4 mile walk through the salt marsh takes you to one of the most interesting beaches I’ve ever seen, Botany Bay beach.  As a WMA, there are heavy fines for taking shells from here, and the pebbly beach is therefore covered with them. Many of the shells are intact and large. You almost never see these on public beaches. So what do people do when they can’t take their beach trophies home? They hang them on the numerous dead trees that also cover the beach. On another day, I might have found that sufficiently interesting to photograph. But not that day. My eye caught this lone, dead tree just waiting for the inevitable: it was a story that had to be told.

One lone dead tree awaits its inevitable demise at the hands of the ocean.
“Inevitable” – One lone casualty awaits its inevitable demise at the hands of the ocean.

Also on Botany Bay are many dirt roads and trails. If you’ve been following me very long, you know I love tiny dirt roads. Perhaps it’s the relative solitude I find when traveling them, or maybe it’s that I really like driving at 15 mph. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that along one of these roads I found “Spanish Moss and a Palmetto.”

Botany Bay scene
“Spanish Moss and a Palmetto” – Botany Bay, Edisto Island

At first glance, this scene appears busy and chaotic, but the more you look, the simpler  it gets. The main characters in this story are the soft, swaying moss bending slightly toward the right side of the frame, seemingly leading us to find this little Palmetto tree hiding in the shadows. You rarely see Palmettos in a shaded place like this, but there he/she is, seemingly content to be dominated by the oaks and a cloak of moss.

There remain a few buildings from the time when Botany Bay operated as a farming plantation. I love historic architecture. It’s easy for me to imagine the stories of those who occupied and/or worked in these old spaces, and I often find myself wondering about such things when I stumble upon them.

I didn’t know what this structure was when I found it on Botany Bay Plantation. Its highly decorated facade led me to believe that it must have been something special and probably close to the main manor, but I didn’t know. As it turns out, it was the icehouse: definitely special and definitely near a family dwelling, when it still stood. Now it sits alone in a clearing, surrounded by encroaching trees and the ubiquitous spanish moss.

Plantation Icehouse, Botany Bay
Plantation Icehouse, Botany Bay

Angel Oak

No visit to the Carolina Lowcountry would be complete without a visit to the Angel Oak on John’s Island, SC.  Words that describe this particular lifeform include “magnificent,” “ancient,” and “Godly.”  This old fellow has been sitting on this spot for 1500 years, and since healthy oaks never stop growing, that’s a long time to get really huge.

Most photographs you see of Angel Oak include the whole tree, often with a person standing next to it. That perspective makes one get very far away from the tree because it’s so big.

But the story I wanted to tell about Angel Oak was more intimate:  The story of how Resurrection Ferns take rook on the ancient branches-life from life. How the past loss of a limb still reveals the scars from that loss. How its branches bend and turn as events during its long life forced new directions, much as events during our own lives do.  And how, like old people, its skin is heavily furrowed and worn. I offer  “Enduring Arms” and “Neverending” as examples of these intimate portrayals of Angel Oak.

"Enduring Arms" - Angel Oak, John's Island, SC
“Enduring Arms” -Angel Oak perspective
Angel Oak
“Neverending”- Angel Oak, with its branches seemingly extending to the heavens.

I hope this little travelogue has stimulated an interest in visiting the Carolina Lowcountry. The Lowcountry is much more than the city of Charleston.

Technical and Ordering Information: I captured these images using a 4×5 large format camera with either color (Kodak Ektar or Portra) or B&W (Ilford FP4) film, scanned the negatives to high resolution using my drum scanner, then artistically interpreted them.

Pigment prints on heavy cotton rag paper are available from 16×20 up to 32×40 inches, framed or unframed, with the surface varnished to provide protection and enhanced vibrancy and texture.

To order, go do Lowcountry photographs