A Way of Seeing: Learning to Make Photographs

                            Headed toward Stressa on Lago Maggiore (Ross Peters)
          In advance of a trip to Italy two summers ago, my wife bought a entry level DSLR camera.  We were going to be there about a month, so the idea of having a decent camera with us made sense.  I never felt much interest in the aspect of travel that involves documentation–being there always felt like enough.  However, something happened to my perspective during that trip that fundamentally changed the way I viewed the purposefulness of carrying a camera along.  The camera redefined my way of seeing what was around me.   The camera became something beyond a means by which we would document our trip  (though it served that purpose well enough too).
                         On the day we left from Milan to head home (Ross Peters)
In the late eighties and early nineties as a climbing instructor at a summer camp in Western North Carolina, I had a somewhat similar experience of having my way of seeing the world altered.  I found that the physical intensity and the logistical challenge of climbing and belaying others intensified the beauty of the panoramic views from Devil’s Courthouse and Looking Glass Rock.  My appreciation for being in a beautiful place increased as I recognized the effort necessary to reach these stunning locales and the privilege borne of that effort.  I came to associate the big view that moments of reflection between climbers and peanut butter sandwiches allowed with the Big View in my life.  For me, the Big View is the one where I can begin to see my life and feel its meaning and relevance beyond the engagement in and at times, static of my daily life.
          This summer, while hiking with a former colleague of mine from Asheville School, Ed Maggart, on Black Balsam and Tennent Mountain—spots high enough that I could identify virtually all the major ridges and mountaintops relevant to my time living in that area—my mind went back to 1989 and 1990, and even better, my mind went to what amounts to the Big View for me.  From up there in one of the rare spots in the Appalachian chain above 6000 feet one can feel as if that is where the weather is made, as if somehow that altitude allows one to stand above day to day-ness.  The life I lead, most of us lead, is far below–so standing at those heights amounts to a full Time Out of sorts.  My experience in that Pisgah region of North Carolina helped recreate my way of seeing, and this summer the echo of all that time re-centered me.  The day also gave me this photograph:

Photo: View from Tennent Mtn. June 2011 (Ross Peters)

           If climbing and being in those mountains gave me a way of seeing the Big View, photography taught me and will continue to teach me how to bring the scale of what I witness into my own internal sense of balance.  I taught Louise Gluck’s latest collection of poetry, A Village Life last spring as part of my 21st Century Short Fiction and Poetry course, a senior English elective I designed at Hawken School.  It is an amazing piece of work, and in the first poem, entitled “Twilight,” she includes this line: “In the window, not the world, but a squared-off landscape/representing the world.”  I find this an accurate encapsulation of the way I have come to see photography.  With a photograph one is able to both “square-off” the “landscape” and “represent the world.”  When this is done well, in particular by hands and imaginations far surer than my own, a photograph can be a uniquely powerful tool.  A friend and classmate of mine from Sewanee, has made a career of making just such photographs.  The work of Stephen Alvarez (www.alvarezphotography.com), now a renowned photographer with a long resume of projects for National Geographic and other publications, provides a unique example of creating a new way of seeing, particularly his photographs of some of the world’s largest rooms in caves.  Stephen figured out how to light these giant rooms, some far larger than the Super Dome, and as a result, gives others a way of seeing what has not been seen before.  Stephen is now working on a project to create panoramic photographs of some of the great cities in Europe.
          While Stephen’s work reaches a world-wide audience, for me the trip to Italy with my new camera—it quickly became mine as I became more and more obsessed—was a personal revelation of what it means to “square-off” the “landscape.”  Through photographs, I could take an experience of a place and a time and represent it through a photograph. Note that I did not say capture it.  Because capturing it would be impossible in all its fullness and scope, a photograph gives me a way of “representing” the truth of that place and time, and thus with a camera in hand I found myself seeing what was around me differently.  It made me more observant because I think I was looking for what framing would best allow me to symbolically hold what my wife, daughter and I were seeing and experiencing.
          I have a great deal to learn about photography, and I have an ever-increasing respect for the people who do it well, a group by the way which includes my father, John O. Peters, whose latest book, for which he wrote the text and provided all the contemporary photography, is entitled, Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery and my sister, Margo Millure, who has a travel site called “The Travel Belles”.
          This summer I had several moments when I actively sought a particular photograph.  At those moments I was hyper-aware of the weather and the light.  My choice for the best of the bunch are below.
View from above Norris Lake, TN after one storm and before another, July 2011 (Ross Peters)
           Another view above Norris Lake between storms, TN, July 2011 (Ross Peters)

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