In the Steps of Jervis McEntee

Do you go into mourning once the fall foliage season has ended? Is that it for photography until next summer mercifully cools to an end or, at best. until a blanket of snow adds some brightness to what’s often referred to as “stick season”?

That needn’t be the case. I’ve contended that “there is beauty in bleakness” ever since my trips to Arctic Sweden in the 1990s, and that includes the bleakness of November par excellence. One of my most enduring and endearing photographic memories is of a shoot at Copperas Pond in the Adirondacks a number of years ago. The subdued, diffused light provided by the pale sun made the delicate red berries — I’m not sure what they are, but here’s a photo of some similar berries from last winter in the Catskills — stand out.

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But what about the wider landscape? Is it possible to extract a usable photograph out of the vast, brown sea of bare trees that confront us as we survey a wide-angle landscape during that time between the colorful leaves and the white snow?

I found the answer in two exhibitions of Jervis McEntee, the 19th-century landscape painter who worked mostly (if not exclusively) near or in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Even McEntee was unusual in admitting that November was his favorite time to paint. Fortunately, both exhibitions — one in Kingston and the other (open until December 13) at SUNY New Paltz — and their catalogues carried examples of the works he created at this visually challenging time of year, so I was able to study them before going out on my own November shoot.

The secret, I think, is to work with the bleakness, not against it — that is, to accept it and decide how to make it an advantage rather than try to “correct” it by (for example) enhancing the values of your Vibrance or Saturation slider or going too heavy with filters. For illustrations, here are two of the images I made from my November shoot at Ringwood Manor in Northern New Jersey. Ringwood is one of those places that offers photo opportunities in every season and in almost every kind of light. What could I do with it on a late, rather heavily overcast afternoon in November?

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The first thing the above image needed was a dialing down of the green grass; having been a loyal Fuji Velvia shooter back in the film days, I tend to keep the setting on my Nikon DSLRs on Vivid, which gives that characteristic saturated green. Then, the browns in the image needed the reverse: a bit of enhancement. Finally, to get a hint of a “painterly” look I used the BuzSim preset in Topaz Simplify 4 and increased the detail just a bit.

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This image also benefited from BuzSim and an increase in the detail, as well as an overall dialing down of the saturation.

I think I succeeded in getting what I wanted from these images. I learned from McEntee’s paintings, not because I wanted to “imitate” them and turn my photographs into paintings but because I wanted to see how I could produce what are still recognizably photographs, but ones that show the November landscape to its best advantage and that it is possible to do this.

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