Polarizing Visions
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, June 2000

Exactly a century ago, John Muir accepted an invitation to join a private cruise to Alaska with a select group of talented interpreters of the natural sciences. His benefactor was Edward Harriman, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, who was under doctor's orders to take a break from his stressful lifestyle or die. Over dinner on the return voyage, Muir thanked Harriman, then made a startling statement. He said that he, Muir, was the richer man, for he knew exactly what he needed in life and Harriman did not.

While Harriman had amassed material wealth, only to finally venture out in the sunset years of his life, Muir had used the prime of his life to explore the wilds of the American West, including Alaska, with minimal gear.

In the course my own travels, I seem to meet more Harrimans than Muirs in terms of nature photography--people for whom it's more about acquiring all the right stuff versus people who realize that directly experiencing the natural world, with or without a camera, is the catalyst for all worthwhile outdoor photography.

While I get as excited as anyone over technical innovations that may give me better images in special situations, I'm very aware that many of the images selected by critics as the best of the twentieth century were made before SLR cameras, before autofocus, before high-saturation films, and before motorized access to photographic hot spots on the seven continents.

Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson worked wonders with very different styles and equipment precisely because they avoided letting technology complicate the simplicity of their vision. With view camera and 35mm rangefinder respectively, their images embody personal visions made with their feet planted firmly on the ground. Their best work did not depend on wowing their audience by pushing the limits of the technology of their times to show off extreme wide-angle or telephoto views, artificial lighting that draws attention to itself, or vantage points from under the sea or up in the sky. Their work endures in contrast to early sports and flash photographs that have become historical curiousities, like snapshots in the family attic. We look at them to see different times and perhaps techniques, but not for inspiration from the photographer's personal vision. I'm all too aware that I have not emulated their restraint.

Photography isn't about ever sharper or bigger pictures, nor is it all about art or all about science. It's about communicating visual messages. While there's no denying that photography is highly scientific, many of those most slanted toward that pursuit in the past clearly understood a deeper esthetic mission. The late, great Edwin Land who had 535 patents centered around optics, light, and the first commercial polarizers and instant film described photography as "an extended continuum from science to beauty."

In his inner world of scientific creativity, Land frequently made use of what he called "orthogonal thinking" to take the opposite path of a concept that he couldn't make work. Polarizers, known long before he was born, offer an example of one of his most significant mental about-faces. Before Land, they were considered useless for photography.

When I began collecting minerals as a boy, one of the first specimens I bought was a clearer piece of calcite than I ever thought I'd be able to collect myself. I'd read in a textbook that calcite was dichroic, and that its well developed natural cleavage in two planes allowed parts of large crystals to be broken into flat-sided rhombohedrons through which letters and lines appeared double. I amazed my friends holding it flat on paper, though I couldn't see distant objects through my cheap piece.

The old common name for clear calcite was "Iceland spar." Icelandic sailors used to treasure cleaved chunks of calcite that cut the glare from rough, sunny seas when held up to their eyes. Nineteenth-century scientists figured out how to cut calcite into a compound prism to deliver a beam of polarized light, but the natural material was so unsuitable for camera filters that no one before Land had considered that idea. Some scientists had sought other large polarizing crystals to no avail.

Edwin Land had a powerful personal vision at the age of 18 that led him to drop out of Harvard to pursue optics and found the Polaroid Corporation in 1937. He had been all-consumed by the idea of creating an optical-quality polarizer by growing some kind of synthetic single crystal, but no material proved suitable. One day, his thoughts drifted in the opposite direction. He thought of orienting millions of tiny crystals into an optical soup by means of a magnetic field and a stretching process. Seeing it work before his eyes was the happiest moment of his young life. The rest is history.

Land's style of "orthogonal" thought is no less important at the beauty end of his photography continuum. One of my most recent experiences relates to a feature I wrote elsewhere in this issue about testing Image Stabilization on an African photo safari. It really works, but am I going to rush right out and buy a whole system of Canon IS lenses or use Nikon's VR "Vibration Reduction" zoom almost exclusively when it comes out later this year? No. That feature article focuses on technology that works wonders some of the time. This column focuses on creative visions, without which all photographs of the natural world would fail to communicate beauty.

My favorite Africa photograph was not made with either of the extreme telephoto systems that I was testing. Though I had an arsenal of the latest lens technology beside me as a long herd of zebras passed single-file through the grass after sunset, I found myself agonizing between two options destined for mediocrity. I had a camera body preloaded with Fuji MS100/1000 film. If I rated it at the full ISO 1000 and had it push-processed, I could shoot the Nikon 400mm f2.8 at 1/60th on a tripod. If I used the Canon IS zoom wide open at f5.6 at 400mm, I'd be at 1/15th, too slow for Image Stabilization and slower yet if I factored in the 0.7 stops underexposure I'd bench-tested with that lens wide open.

By either choice, the best I could hope for would be a zebra in grainy midstep before an out-of-focus forest with shadows smoked from black to gray by over 3 stops of push-processing. Instead, I thought about what would happen if I did just the opposite. If I used my slowest ISO 50 Fuji Velvia with my f2.8 80-200mm zoom closed down to f16 I could shoot a 10-second exposure. Outside of a national park, I was where could get out of my safari vehicle and set up my sturdy carbon-fiber tripod for a tack-sharp landscape with a wispy ribbon of zebra stripes weaving through the grass.

Like Edwin Land, I learned early on to think different when outcomes seem doubtful. For me it may be as simple as exposure, composition, or not bringing all the equipment I thought I needed, but its usually more subjective. My best shots of polar bears did not come from the good days I found dozens of them in a tundra vehicle, but from parking by a mother with cubs on a day when no one wanted to go out in a blizzard. Most everything that can go wrong with outdoor photography can be turned into a compelling photo by creative orthogonal thought—blizzards, haze, rain—with the exception of running out of film or giving up.

For more of Edwin Land's philosophy and a fine explanation of his counter-intuitive retinex theory of how color is created in the mind rather than being part of the external world, read Victor McElheny's fine 1998 biography, "Insisting on the Impossible."

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