Navajo Sheep Camp by Chip Thomas
From Navajo Sheep Camp by Chip Thomas
From LensWork #35
© 2001 Chip Thomas. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the photographer.
Butt shots. My goodness we see a lot of them in the submissions to LensWork. As a rule, we immediately reject any travel photos that include people walking away from the camera. I think I understand why they are so ubiquitous — they are safe. Butt shots do not require any permission nor participation from the person being photographed. The photographer can remain perfectly anonymous, invisible, surreptitious — sneaky. Unfortunately, the resulting photographs feel as though they were made by a photographer who was being sneaky.
For every rule, however, there is an exception — and this image by Chip Thomas is the exception. The power and intensity of this woman's stride differentiates it from the typical example we see photographed from behind. This is not made from the vantage point of safety and anonymity, but rather from the very best angle the photographer could have chosen to capture the mindset of this subject. If Edward Weston was correct in his assessment that "composition is the strongest way of seeing," then the challenge is simply finding where to place the camera so as to most effectively capture the essence of the moment. As a short mental exercise, imagine you are Thomas and you are interested in making a photograph of Minnie chasing her sheep and goats through Navajo creek. You have your choice of any coordinate in a 360° circle around Minnie in which to stand and point your camera. Can you imagine any angle more suited for this moment than the one he chose?
It should also be noted that Thomas was not using this angle to avoid detection. This photographic project — and I think that's an important concept in this discussion; it was a project, not a grab shot — was undertaken with the full cooperation of these shepherds. In other words, he didn't select this position for reasons of anonymity because he didn't need the safety of invisibility. He already had permission to photograph, which implies some sort of agreement and relationship with the subject. As viewers, we know this, too. That knowledge changes the way we view this photograph.
One small, but I believe important, detail that helps this photograph succeed is the motion blur in her skirt and foot. We can't help but see this in contrast to the lack of motion blur in the sheep and goats. This gives us, in this still photograph, a sense of relative speeds. I could easily imagine that on Thomas' contact sheet there may have been several other frames to choose from. Again as a mental exercise, imagine that he has another image from this scene in which her motion blur has been completely eliminated through fortuitous timing or perhaps a slightly faster shutter speed. Some might argue that more effectively freezing the moment would be a photographic virtue. But wouldn't that have significantly diminished the sense of life captured by her energetic movement?
So, we have here a somewhat blurry butt shot that might far too easily find its way into the reject pile because it breaks some of the standard rules. In my way of thinking, the image succeeds precisely because it breaks those rules.
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