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Literal truth…or psychological truth?

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Until the advent of digital tools such as Photoshop, and now AI, the average person believed that what they were shown in a photograph represented the truth of what stood before the camera at that moment. Never mind that even noted photo documentarians such as the Civil War era photographer Matthew Brady were known for tampering with the scene they were presenting as ‘found.’ Brady was called out several times for arranging guns and dragging corpses this way or that to arrive at a more pleasing composition.

In 1975, photographic historian William Frassanito published a groundbreaking book on Gettysburg photographs titled Gettysburg: A Journey in Time. In his study of Brady’s “sharpshooter” photograph, Frassanito identified the body of this man in its first location and estimated it was moved 40 yards (later revised to 72 yards) to this stone barricade.

The fact is, every time a photographer is called upon to present reality via a camera, he or she must make multiple decisions—framing, lighting, choice of season, type of lens, etc.—all of which invariably leave the final result with the non-objective fingerprints of that photographer all over it.

I spent an afternoon at a historic site called the wading place in modern Laurel, DE looking to capture the feel of it for “Delaware Before the Railroads”. As you can see from the historic marker, this spot is an ancient ford for both Native Americans and colonial settlers. It’s no surprise that the modern bridge crossing the spot is literally at the heart of the town that grew up around the ford.

The challenge I’ve set for myself, both in capturing this locale, and throughout the book as a whole, is to keep the modern world as much as possible at bay. I don’t want to show my reader power lines, traffic jams, Walmarts, suburban sprawl, or any of the other trappings of modern life. These things detract from the way I want to tell the story. Like Brady, I want to give my reader the feeling of the situation, if not the exact literal presentation of it. Most of the time I’m able to use judicious cropping and framing to keep modernity just outside my image, but there are times when I hit a brick wall.

The wading place is a perfect example of that. First of all, there’s the fact that the crossing is now covered by a modern bridge. Makes perfect sense for today’s engineers to select that same low spot in the river to put a bridge across. No need to built the bridge supports higher than necessary. Very cost effective.

And because the town of Laurel grew around this spot from the 18th century till now, the surrounding landscape is heavily developed: there’s a restaurant on one corner; a sprawling housing development on another. A park abuts the spot, but is manicured, with modern brick walkways. As you can see from my first three attempts to photograph the spot, below, every resulting shot simply looks like a document of a modern bridge, albeit from different angles.

First shot. Wires, modern bridge. Can’t imagine much wading going on here.
I moved to the other side of the wading place bridge. Nope. Cars, cluttered upper right side. Still not there.
I thought maybe a drone view would help. All the same problems. Manicured lawns, asphalt. NO. NO. NO!

I just wasn’t getting the correct feel of the place. I thought to myself “I’ll just circle back on a different day and tackle it fresh.”

I had supper at a restaurant conveniently located overlooking this exact spot (right behind that tree on the left), and as I was munching away, my eyes drifted over to a rock wall at the edge of the water.

Of course!

If you’re a traveller in 18th century Delaware confronting this spot, chances are good it’s not going to be pristine. You might very well have to drag your wagon across rocks, or logs, or other things that might have dropped into the river. And that pretty sunset? That might simply mean that you’ve got to pick up the pace and find your way soon to a shelter for the night, before continuing on your journey the next morning.

I put away the drone, got my feet wet, got down low, and tried to see the wading place the way a traveler crossing it would. This view puts the bridge to my back.

Finally! Sometimes you have to work a photographic subject till the right image presents itself to you.

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