Seeing things that aren’t there…until you look

Example of photographic seeing
Assimilation by J Riley Stewart

To appreciate today’s featured image, you have to STOP AND LOOK at it for a moment. You want to engage a bit in photographic seeing. Once again quietly: stop. and look.

I don’t mean to be yelling at you. Really.  But I did want to get your attention, because the story I want to tell you today demands some creative thought on your part. 

At this time of year, with the holidays fast approaching, we’re all going 100 miles per hour. And we need to just stop for brief periods to catch our breath. Or we risk missing something important.

The picture isn’t important. The things our kids say and do everyday: those are important. The holiday wishes we get from friends: again, important. The quiet planning by those busily preparing holiday meals: Important. Important. Important!

And my contribution to your busy-ness right before the holidays is merely this: an opportunity to stop for a moment and think about something …..else. A pleasant diversion, if you will.

Photographs are merely diversions, are they not?

But they can be very powerful diversions. In fact, photographs can permanently change the way you think and feel about things, if you let them. But to give them that chance, we need to stop and look at them for a few moments.  To buck the tendency to scroll rapidly past countless images in our Facebook and Instagram feeds.

The famous 20th Century American photographer Minor White said:

One should not only photograph things for what they are, but for what else they are.”

I try to do that, in my own way, when creating images. Admittedly, I often/usually fail. It’s not easy to communicate what else something is.

In “Assimilation,”  we see a quaint white church in the forest. That’s what it is, isn’t it? It’s got a steeple with a spire on top and a bell in the belltower. It must be a church.

But what else is it?

It’s up to each of us to answer that, assuming we want to.. And it’s okay that we all have different answers. Some of us will say “’s a place of worship (enter all the souls who have made it so over the years),”  Some will say it’s a relic of our history, representing the culture and the times from whence it sprang.  And still others may say, “…it’s just a drafty old building.”

To me, and what caught my attention when walking about the Mission Baptist Church site in Cades Cove, TN, was the way the church became a part of the forest surrounding it, if only for a few moments. During those moments, the setting sun was casting shadows of the trees across the church’s facade, and It became inseparable from the forest.  In those moments, the trees became the church and the church became the trees.

I thought “assimilation” an apt description for “what else” this little church had become, and this moment became something I wanted to remember. “Click.”

What else is this little church to you? I’d love to hear about it!

Until next week,


J. Riley Stewart in the field

Clicking the image of “Assimilation” will take you to its place in the gallery, where you can explore the details and, I hope, give you a moment to escape all the holiday busy-ness in your life, even if only for a brief, quiet few moments.

A Study in Luminosity: What photographers can learn from other artists.

A visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC yesterday inspired me to write about something that guides my own journey as an art photographer, and it comes from my favorite fine art painters.

Green River Cliffs, Wyoming by Thomas Moran

I’ve always had a powerful wonder-lust for the romantic, luminous landscape paintings from the 19th Century. While the romantics were busy at work in Europe, the luminism movement was underway by the Americans at the Hudson River School. Even as a kid, I remember being thoroughly captivated when looking at picture books of paintings by the luminists like Church, Moran, Bierstadt, and Durand: it was my secret pastime.

Luminism refers to the dramatic portrayal of natural bright light in a scene, particularly in landscapes and seascapes, where it appears as if God created a huge spotlight to illuminate the subjects.  Reflective surfaces like rivers, oceans, and pools often played a significant role in luminist’s paintings, as if to help scatter the light across the canvas.

Just as important is the luminist’s use of shadows. It’s the very quality of vast, open shadows that I really love and appreciate in works of the luminist style.  Their shadows are full of life and details that draw me in to explore what’s going on–to be curious–and I’m never disappointed.

But It’s the interrelationship between shadows and brilliant lighting that create the overall emotional effects one gets from the art of the luminists. The luminists were masters in creating a sense of luminosity. Luminosity gives us hope in the knowing; it enlightens us. Dark shadows are sublime; making us wary and uncertain. Without the substantial areas of shadow, the intrigue and mystery would be lost, and without the brilliant lighting, the luminosity would fall apart. The interplay between the two are critically important to creating such strong emotions associated with the art of the luminists and romanticists.

In my own photography, I’m always looking for situations that remind me of the luminists. One of the main reasons I still use film to capture my images is because only film retains shadow details and textures at exposures that also retain delicate details in the highlights. As with luminist’s paintings, having in my photographs something to explore in both the shadows and well-lit subjects is important to my creating the feeling of luminosity and intrique, something that I find personally rewarding.

Happy collecting!

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”The sun does magical things in the mountains. This scene along the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River surrendered to the magic and created a very real demonstration of that phrase in our National Anthem that we all know, but very few of us get to witness.”
Purple Mountains Majesty, copyright J Riley Stewart
One Morning at Liberty Furnace
“One Morning at Liberty Furnace” copyright J. Riley Stewart
Path to the Chapel
Path to the Chapel, copyright J Riley Stewart

Note: The National Gallery of Art is an easy walk from the Archives metro station in Washington D.C. The Gallery is a national treasure not to be missed if you’re in the area. Admission is free. Open most days 10 am – 5 pm. There you will find one of the largest collections of paintings by artists of the Hudson River School. Besides thousands of other exhibits, they have a marvelous art book store.