Serendipity: God’s Gift to Photographers – Part 1
In past articles, I stressed the value of research and planning in preparation for photography field trips. This includes allowing enough field time to capture those moments when everything comes together. However, there are other photo-worthy events that take place when we’re not looking for them and wish we had a camera handy. I’ve experienced my share of these. But in other such situations, I did have a camera and the resulting images made me feel that I received an unexpected gift.
Until a few weeks ago I hadn’t given those serendipities much thought. Then while visiting family in California, a hike planned by my younger daughter placed us in an environment rich with photo opportunities that resulted in many keepers, not the typical one or two. After returning to Sedona, I became curious as to how many of my past images are serendipitous and how they have influenced my body of work and approach to photography.
After reviewing my “best 600 images” I found close to 60 that are in this category and did some soul searching regarding their relative importance to my continuing work. For this three-part article, I selected 50 images, organized them by year taken, and recounted their underlying circumstances. Except for the digitized film image taken in 1993, the other 49 images are digital captures made from 2002 to the present time.
Part I: Years 1993 – 2012
While visiting our daughter in Rome, we were walking through an old piazza, and my wife pointed out this shabby unoccupied store in which an assortment of old doll heads was piled up in the window well. It was an eerie scene that reminded me of illustrations I had seen in an old edition of Dante’s Inferno. The title “Lost Souls” came to mind immediately. I quickly made a single exposure and went back to photographing city scenes. Several years later, I digitized the film image and added a Photoshop watercolor filter for a more dramatic impact. The consistent reaction by viewers has been: “Ooh, how eerie!”
Driving south on Highway 1 near Cambria Pines, we decided to turn east on SR 46 to stop at a highly regarded winery when we came across this highly textured yellow field. I used a 6 MP Contax N digital camera to record the scene. I am not sure what this vegetation was, though the dense uniformity suggested a crop like rapeseed. This was also the year that I switched exclusively to digital capture.
Our two daughters and their American Eskimo dog Igloo were visiting us during Christmas week when it started snowing late in the afternoon. They asked if I would take a picture of them outside. Zorro, my Great Pyrenees, decided that he wanted to be with his buddy Igloo as they all posed. The light was fading. So, I used a fill-in flash which highlighted the falling snowflakes. Thanks to my daughters, the result was a Holiday classic that I never anticipated.
We were touring Kauai’s North shore with friends and stopped at the historic Kilauea Lighthouse. While I was photographing the lighthouse my wife ran up to me and said “Come on over to this side of the park. There’s something you must see and photograph!”. As she has always been my muse with a near-perfect record, I didn’t hesitate. When we reached that spot she said, “Look Down”.
Just offshore, on the north side of the peninsula, there were two kayakers skirting what looked like a whirlpool. However, it was a spiraling depression in the water caused by the surging sea hitting the submerged portion of the lava cliff on which we stood. The kayakers were careful to keep a safe distance though it looked as if they would be drawn in and dashed to pieces with just one small mistake. They moved on safely, but not before I took a truly memorable image.
In 2008 I was in the early stages of a consulting contract for the development of an 800-acre planned community in Steamboat Springs, CO. Though I usually flew in for review meetings, that April I decided to drive and take my wife with me. Along the way, she requested that we stop if we were to see horses and take pictures that she could reference for a painting.
It was almost the end of the return trip when I saw a band of horses grazing on the far side of the road and saw a safe place to pull over. There were seven horses and three foals. I grabbed the compact digital camera perched near my seat and opened the window. That slight noise spooked the horses, and they took off in a brisk lope. My first thought was that I had blown the opportunity to take the requested images, but then decided to drive past them with the window down and wait for them to catch up.
Till then I had no interest in adding to my uninspiring horse image inventory. However, the sight of a running herd with foals was a different matter. So, I took an extra moment to grab my DSLR from the back seat and mount an 80-200mm zoom lens on it and preset it for shutter speed, distance and depth of field. Within 30 seconds I drove past them and searched for a scenic backdrop. I found one with red buttes and stopped in time to capture the evolving scene.
As the horses came in range, I took a series of individual exposures. Initially, they were bunched up. But, by the time I took the 15th exposure, they had spread out into a balanced formation, with five horses and two foals fitting inside the frame. I stopped shooting after that 15th shot knowing that I had stumbled into recording a rare tableau. That final image became my best seller during 14 years of gallery exhibition, accounting for more than $10,000 in sales.
My daughter Laura and her soon-to-be stepdaughter decided to pick flowers for a wedding ceremony to take place the next day at her future husband’s vacation home in Tuscany, several months before their actual wedding in California. I had taken a few images to record their preparations for their family album. However, something about their postures, activity and backdrop reminded me of early French Impressionist work and I made this exposure with the idea of achieving a similar style. Though atypical of my work, it captures a special moment.
After a productive four days of photographing Arches National Park, Bobbie and I headed home from Moab to Sedona the next morning. We hadn’t traveled for more than 10 minutes when we witnessed a cattle roundup to drive the herd to fresh pasture. Thinking that Delicate Arch had been my last capture for this trip, I had packed up my gear, and now had to unpack it and mount a 70-200mm zoom on my Nikon D3s. Fortunately for me, the roundup took considerable time, even for experienced cowboys, horses, and a Border Collie. Of my 20 exposures, this is my favorite, as the panoramic sweep maximizes detail and drama.
We spent a weekend with our son and his family at their Tahoe vacation home in Truckee, CA during which time he showed us two of his favorite Lake Tahoe beaches. A dozen Canada Geese flew in while we were walking resulting in this unexpected capture of migrating waterfowl taking exhilarating baths.
After finishing a sequence of medium format shots of several canyon formations, the light faded and I packed up my gear, once again too soon. When I turned to my left, I saw what I was missing. Only it was too late to unpack. Fortunately, I had a Lumix G 20 compact camera hanging from my belt and caught the last reflected light on the canyon formations beneath an incredibly brilliant sunset. This image was on exhibit at the Phippen Western Art Museum for more than three months.
Following an early dinner in San Diego County my son, his family, my wife and I took a walk along Solana Beach just before sunset. The row of small shorebirds amidst the colorful sunset reflections caught my eye. I had a small point & shoot camera that enabled this capture. While normally problematic, the blur resulting from having to use a slow shutter speed reinforced the mood of this scene.
In Hawaii, and particularly in Kauai, I learned to always keep a camera with me. I was enjoying the sun on Kauai’s south shore when I noticed a greenish blob on the lava rock about 60 feet away. As I walked over, I saw that it was a sizeable sea turtle munching on long strands of algae covering the rock. I was careful to not disturb it, though it really was only interested in eating, as wavelets gently washed over its shell. This was a gift, as it is rare to see sea turtles on land, though some often swam alongside me. If I were living in the Islands, my default carry camera would be waterproof to a depth of 50 feet.
While in Ouray, I walked to Cascade Falls in the morning to do some photography. Later that day, I took my wife and daughter not intending to take more pictures. Then a wind kicked up and started blowing the water and spray around changing the patterns. So, I made two more exposures and stopped. At home a few days later, my daughter looked over my shoulder and asked: “Do you know that there’s a face in the waterfall?”. I looked closer and, in the highlights and shadows of the falls saw a well-defined cougar with head, chest, and forelegs. It looked as if it was rising out of the mist, or out of the smoke and steam from a campfire. Despite not “seeing” what I was photographing, I got the shot. That’s real serendipity!
The above two images only happened because we were waiting in a long line to go through the tunnel leading to lower Zion NP. I left my car to stretch my legs and noticed two Desert Bighorn Sheep standing on the rocks 15 feet away. I noticed that the second sheep seemed to pose as it changed its stance each time after I clicked the shutter.
Standing on my rear deck, I noticed a long procession of three or four Javelina families crossing the street below. (Javelina are a type of wild boar found in the American Southwest.) Adult males and females were mostly in single file, while juveniles were paired up and placed between the adults. This is an effective way to protect the offspring from predation. I grabbed a camera and captured most of the group in the only exposure I was able to make. While such processions happen regularly, they are not often observed. I got lucky.
While photographing landscapes in New York Central Park I watched an enterprising young man who charged visitors a small fee for using his “equipment” and soap solution to create gigantic bubbles. Instruction and coaching were included in the fee. I photographed a few of the “customers” and their creations, taking care to capture their expressions. This young woman was highly pleased with her creation, as it was relatively large and long lasting. I can’t help but wonder if her glee had something to do with the somewhat phallic shape of the bubble, though her perspective would have been different than the camera’s point of view. In any case, there was no way that this scene and event could have been anticipated. Once observed, there was no way that I would not have taken the shot.
While photographing beautiful homes of the Old South, I caught up with an old and somewhat frail gentleman who navigated the streets bent over his walker. Before I passed him, he stopped and took out a camera to capture not the house, but the beautiful lilies protruding through the fence of the house next door. I suddenly lost interest in the houses, for here was the best image of that trip, a serendipitous event to rival all others.
While photographing landscapes in Zion NP, I spotted and followed a group of wild turkeys along a trail to where they paused to observe hikers along the Virgin River. They were so intent that they paid no attention to me as I made several images of them. They resembled a group of old men inspecting their neighborhood while making their daily rounds. This image was as compelling as any landscape that I took that day, though it wasn’t on my list.
Early in my review of “found images” it was obvious that they were well represented among my best images, accounting for ten percent of them, despite amounting to under one percent of my total exposures. Part of this is because optimal conditions for rare photo-ops usually last just long enough for one or two shots, whereas in planned outings I’m more likely to take variations and duplicates of the same scene while waiting for the “perfect” shot.
On the other hand, scenes and situations that are strong enough to draw one’s attention away from other involvements are likely to produce photographs with stronger eye appeal. Furthermore, I am beginning to see that occasionally stepping outside my preferences for landscape and wildlife images provide fresh perspectives, sharpens my vision, and broadens the appeal of my body of work.
By the time I lay out and write the remaining two articles, I will be able to articulate this more definitively. So, stay tuned for Parts II and III.
To see the scope and essence of Harvey Stearn's photographic art please visit www.CameraStops.com. Mr. Stearn began photographing Western landscapes and wildlife at the age of 13, spent 50 years pursuing his passion in the field and in the darkroom before fully converting to digital photography in 2002. He developed color prints as well as monochrome, but switched over to digital capture and editing in 2002. Though he was a top executive for two large scale land development and home building corporations, he always found time for his fine art photography which won many awards. His work was exhibited in art museums in Southern California and Arizona, and was also featured in billboard advertisements and published in magazines. Mr. Stearn served on the California Arts Council for nine years, including two years as Chairman and another two as Vice Chairman. In addition, he was the founding Chairman of the John Wayne Airport Arts Commission in Orange County, California. Mr. Stearn’s work was sold through Arizona galleries for 15 years. In recent years he wrote 21 illustrated articles for PhotoPXL.com and 14 articles for Luminous-Landscape.com. In 2013 he published a book entitled “In Search of the Old West” which has been widely acclaimed. He was a guest lecturer on photography on a cruise ship visiting Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and the Falkland Islands. His work was among the top 100 images printed in NANPA's Showcase publications in 2019 and 2020. Images have been edited and selected for two new books on Landscape photography which will be published in late 2022 and early 2023.