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Saturday, January 14, 2012


(Your Mission Should You Decide to Accept It)

St. Johns Bridge 01-08-2012

Bernadette told me about the class. It was advertised as a Paddle-sports Photography Clinic, organized by Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe, and presented by Neil Schulman (

It was also free.

I bring it up because in retrospect, I think the big take-home message I distilled from the evening might have helped me with my ongoing efforts to take a decent picture of the St. Johns Bridge, a bridge that demands - like a girlfriend on the third week of a rigorous diet - only flattering pictures.

I took this picture from my kayak several years ago on a hot summer day. I think it was the reflection that caught my attention. Blue is supposed to be a cool color, but on that day it was so bright it was blinding. If you turn the thermostat up to 95 and pour some salt water in your eyes, you’ll get some idea of what it was like. I’ll be damned if I understand how the picture can still come out looking refreshing.

This picture is also from that same day. I like how the off center bridge makes me think it’s trying to avoid me…
as if it’s trying to get around me…
…going somewhere important.

But if it sparks any reactions like that in you, it’s completely an accident.
I think I was just trying to make pretty pictures of the things I saw on a trip up the Willamette. Perhaps it’s like a travelogue, “Here we have the beautiful gothic tower of the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi (at least in 1931).

But that’s it.
Those two pictures.
The best shots of the St. Johns Bridge I could muster.

Last February, my corporeal friend Mr. T. accompanied me down the Willamette and I got another chance to try my hand at photographing the bridge, but ended up with yet another travelogue snapshot, “Here we gain some impression of the vast scale of the beautiful gothic towers of the St. Johns Bridge by purposefully using Mr. T as a foreground element.”

So the take home message? For me it was, “Evoke – Don’t Narrate.”
Mr. Schulman said several disparaging things about narrative images. That’s when I started feeling a little bit self conscious, cause…well you know…narrative images.
I slouched down in my chair a little bit which was silly because it isn’t like anybody was going to recognize me. I wanted to argue that telling a story with a picture is a good thing. But I decided to listen and what Mr. Schulman said started to make sense. As I think about it, I’m not sure he meant ‘narrative’.  Maybe a better word would have been ‘literal’.  On the other hand, he could have really meant ‘narrative’.
Never mind.
The point is, when we are out in the world, we can’t help but have emotional responses to it, and evidently good photos make people feel an emotional response. The question for the photographer becomes how to convey those emotions in a photograph.

Mr. Schulman thinks that maybe being thematically intentional will help one to make images that evoke feelings, because such images will have a subject or meaning. It’s hard to explain, but it’s something like what would happen if I approached the scene above as a metaphor for bridging the gap between two cultures instead of attempting a technical drawing-like representation of the structure of a suspension bridge.

I don’t really think it has been my practice to go out intentionally thinking of themes. I guess I just head out with a vague idea of maybe taking a picture of a bridge or something. It’s almost like I hope something will ‘speak’ to me.

One night I walked around cathedral park after dark, wondering if the St. Johns’ neighborhood was the tough part of town or not. Sometimes I feel pretty vulnerable trying to set up long exposure shots, bent intently over the tripod and fighting with my bifocals for a clean line of sight into the viewfinder.

I recently made a concentrated effort to get a satisfying picture of the St. Johns Bridge and found some pretty decent vantage points along the ramp to the west end of the bridge. But all of this occurred well before the clinic, so I wasn’t yet trying to be thematically intentional. Looking back with what I know now, I’d say this is just a narrative/literal snapshot.

Mr. Schulman said he thinks the language of composition is ‘hardwired’ into all of our brains. He didn’t even want to talk about it very much, insisting that if you go out and take a lot of pictures, you’ll automatically begin to refine your sense of composition.

Walking up the road to the bridge, I stumbled upon an entrance to Forest Park’s Ridge Trail. With all the deciduous trees stripped of their leaves, I managed to find a few viable vantage points.

The 200mm zoom lens I’m using here kind of compresses the length of the long middle span so that the arc of the deck is emphasized…which to me, kind of speaks to the principle of ‘suspension’. The lazy counter arc of the main cables belies the heavy work the suspension cables perform. Unfortunately, I’m not using a tripod so I’ve tried to hide how ‘not tack sharp’ this image is by over post-processing it.

Do you think people would get upset if I cut a couple of trees down so I could get a clear shot?

Off trail a little bit, I found what appeared to be a primitive hobo camp with a mostly unobstructed viewpoint. It’s sort of an uncomfortable feeling to lug camera gear into isolated areas that show signs of sketchy habitation. There’s no telling what’s in those plastic bags. It could be stashed blankets, or a Mexican drug cartel stash…or maybe your wife’s head. I ended up feeling a little bit like goldilocks, hoping the three bears didn’t come home too soon… or those banjo players from Deliverance.

I don’t know…I guess it’s the kind of paranoia that’s fostered from the sight of syphilitic mice shuffling away from moss covered stairs and incongruously placed books along the path leading into the dark woods.

At first, some kind of psychological compulsion required me to include the entirety of  the signature gothic towers in my attempted compositions. 

The St. Johns Bridge: Entrance to Oregon’s own Gotham City.

This was my favorite shot, but without a tripod, it suffers from motion blur.

On a subsequent trip with tripod, pepper spray, and other defensive weapons, I tried to re-create my favorite scene. I still struggled with whether or not to amputate the front tower or not. In the end, evidently, I kept zooming in closer. Don’t ask me why. Ask my hard wired sense of composition.

f-14.0,  shutter-60 seconds, ISO-100 

These pictures were also taken before the clinic. But it kind of shows what I mean about hoping something will ‘speak’ to me. For the picture on the left, I walked out onto the span, familiarizing myself with the shapes and the lines and the weight of them. I liked how the first tower framed the second (enough to stand stupidly in the road with my back towards traffic) and how the road rises and hides what may be coming. Doorways and portals just naturally reek with symbolism, and so even without Mr. Schulman’s advice about ‘evoking meaning’, I think these photos may still have captured something evocative. For the picture on the right, I meant to explore underneath the bridge, but as the bridge came into sight, I could see the setting sun was illuminating only one of the towers, and I thought maybe that might work like a really cool spotlight and so… I framed it.

Here, three intrepid sperm swim toward the cervix, but only Sparky (on the left) has had the foresight to bring alcohol beverages with which to seduce the egg.

So I’ll have to go back again with a theme in mind and see if that helps.
If you should happen to capture an image of the St. Johns Bridge that turns out to be evocative, I’d be happy to post it here. Maybe we could all learn something?


  1. Scott, wow...what fantastic photography. I think you achieved what you set out to do - evoked an interest in the this bridge from your wonderful pictures. I especially like your new opening photograph on your blog. Well done! Nancyd

  2. Nancyd,
    Thanks for your comments. I don't know if I was very clear, but I took all the bridge pictures before I took Mr. Schulman's class. After sitting through the class, I'm intrigued by his take on evoking emotional responses in the viewer, to the point that it makes me wonder if, after all this time, I really don't understand the term 'narrative' as it relates to photography. I guess I always thought the term 'narrative' was flexible enough to include metaphorical stories. I've sometimes used language like, "I want to take a picture that transcends the common snapshot," but I have no idea what that really means and I think Mr. Schulman's language might help me get a handle on what I'm trying to understand. In any case, I'm thrilled that you found some of the pictures evocative.

  3. I love the post and as always the photos. Your "narration" of them also makes me smile and I am learning a lot. I enjoy kind of studying your photos and your prospectives and frankly I'm impressed! The Bridge is quite an imposing structure to work to get that emotional response. I think you did well in many of your shots.

    1. MTWaggin,
      I started visiting your blog.
      Montana certainly has its moments of beauty.
      I was fascinated with the posts regarding teaching your dogs to swim. It never occurred to me that dogs might not know how to dog paddle. When I began to understand that you were making sure they would be 'kayak ready' it began to make a lot more sense to me.
      I'll be monitoring the lessons. I'm anxious to see if you will be able to teach them to paddle the kayak for you.


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