A photographer's evolution

After years of capturing news, a former photojournalist relishes the freedom to manipulate the image.

John Nordell
'Brick and Windows'

Three years ago, after two plus decades working as a photojournalist, I joined the ranks of photography teachers. With no editors handing me assignments I wondered, "What am I going to photograph?" However, after a few months of working with enthusiastic students, creative colleagues, and visiting artists, the question became, "How am I going to photograph?"

Even the shift in question highlights the evolution of my process. Clear rules mark the photojournalist's trade: Do not alter a scene to deceive your readers, do not manipulate subjects, and come back with objective goods. Thus no question aside from "what" to photograph initially occurred to me.

Easing into the "how," I took baby steps. Intentionally shaking the camera during an exposure to create an impressionistic effect, or zooming the lens with the shutter open to create unnatural blurs.

One day, photographing the shadow of a stop sign on a wall, I moved a plant out of the way to make a clean composition. I reported this radical act to my wife. Emboldened by such creative freedom, I made a footprint trail, adding human narrative to a snow scene, and removed the lens and shot through a water bottle instead.

Two years ago, on a field trip to the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Mass., a student and I looked at "Mill in Autumn," by the German Modernist painter Lyonel Feininger. We noted the Cubist style in which Feininger depicted the mill, the multiple planes giving complex form to the building. We debated how to create such a look photographically.

I then discovered that I could program my digital Nikon camera to take multiple exposures, and subsequently embarked on a quest to capture the essence of a subject by portraying multiple views simultaneously. I also discovered that angular structures like bridges, or the buildings oft painted by Feininger, lent themselves as subject matter to this technique.

And while I use Photoshop to extract rich detail from the layered exposures, the image combining occurs in the camera, as opposed to after-the-fact compositing.

I have not, however, left behind my photojournalistic roots. Covering the groundbreaking ceremony of a shovel-ready economic stimulus project last April, I scooted through a back street in search of a higher vantage point. The graphic patterns and textures of an industrial building stopped me in my tracks. The result: "Bricks and Windows."

Last January, I made a pilgrimage to look at "Mill in Autumn" and was astounded to realize that the painting looked nothing like the image I had carried in my mind. It was far softer and more abstract. No matter, as inspiration is inspiration.

And no surprise that my favorite reality-based abstract work is titled "Mill Windows."

John Nordell is a former Monitor photographer.

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