Story and image by Don McGowan
In reflecting on the teaching of the photographic process as it relates to the composition of images, I have understood that what is involved distills itself into two primary aspects: elements and principles; and that within these primary groupings there are a number of sub-groupings, all of which are rightly to be considered in the moments prior to the release of the shutter.
Under the heading of “Principles,” of utmost significance is the principle of “Relationship;” and if you pause for a moment, it quickly becomes clear that every image you will ever create has at least one relationship, that of the subject to the frame of the image.
The idea of relationship carries through to so much of how we perceive and understand the world around us. Take, for example, the forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If the Smokies are known for any particular feature, it would have to be the great diversity of its plant life, and more particularly its native forests. Heck, without the forests there would not be sufficient respiration to generate the blue mists which give rise to Shaconage.
There are six forest types that describe the Smokies woodlands, which are defined by the tree species that comprise them and to some extent where they are found; and this, of course, is expressed by relationships. To say what a forest type consists of is to describe certain characteristics of the organization of the representative species—what the canopy, the crowns of the tallest trees, is comprised of as well as what other species may make up the sub-canopy, shrub and herbaceous layers. This is nothing more than the expression of relationship.
Widespread throughout the park below 4000 feet is a type of forest known as “mixed hardwood.” As its name would suggest, a mixed hardwood forest lacks a truly dominant species, but it shows real diversity and a high representation of oak and hickory. One of the typical members of a Smokies mixed hardwood forest is the stately and beautiful sycamore (Platanus occidentalis); and since it is a water-loving species, it is found along streams or in moist areas; and this is, again, relationship at work in the world around us.
Relationships create our world, but even more compelling, relationships help us define the world we see; and when I see broad serrated, lobed, maple-like leaves lying on rocks in Big Creek, and along the bank I see an almost-barkless trunk of mottled white and green, it’s a pretty good indication that the image I am about to create will include a piece of the old ghost tree, the American sycamore.
Don McGowan owns and operates EarthSong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.