Occasionally, I’ll publish posts that describe my recent travels and some of the new and meaningful photographs I have captured along the way. This week, I’m writing about a trip I took to the Chattanooga and Chickamauga areas over the July 4th holiday weekend. My friend, Kristi, got me interested in visiting Chattanooga. She had been passing along the good things she was hearing at work about it for awhile and managed to entice me along on a trip with promises of new adventures and great photographs.
We pretty much decided at the last minute on Saturday morning to head to Chattanooga. With my dog Dexter in tow, we loaded up Kristi’s SUV with our camera gear and what seemed like enough stuff to stay a week, and hit the road. I quite enjoy the feeling of anticipation I get when I set out on a journey to a new destination, especially when the trip is about fun, photographs and the outdoors. I also just love road trips. Traveling down unfamiliar roads to unknown destinations has been imbued with romance for me since I saw my first Greyhound bus as a child and imagined where it might be headed.
I know it’s an old cliché, but sometimes the most exciting things really do happen along the way. Apart from several near misses involving errant motorists, the trip down was pretty uneventful until we got closer to the Chattanooga area. Kristi drove while I sat in the passenger seat with my camera ready to capture anything interesting. Dexter woke up in the backseat and began to fidget with boredom just as we were heading into a storm. There’s something very compelling about the power and moodiness of dramatic thunderstorms. The cloud formations were at once ominous and spectacular as we drove through the worst of it and emerged into the light southeast of the storm.
Chattanooga is a city of about 175,000 located on the Tennessee River in southeast Tennessee near the border with Georgia. It’s in the southern Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by impressive mountain tops and cliffs. The most famous of these is Lookout Mountain. It straddles three states (Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama) and promised some great photos.
Sunday morning was overcast and foggy. The clouds hung low in the sky and the air was already uncomfortably warm and muggy. As we drove up Lookout Mountain, we entered the clouds. I really didn’t mind the impact they would have on the view from the top – I’ll take landscapes with dramatic and atmospheric clouds over skies that are clear and blue, but featureless, just about any day of the week.
Since neither of us had been to Lookout Mountain before, Kristi and I didn’t realize that we were headed into a huge tourist trap near the summit called Rock City. We found parking lots, Starbucks, gift shops, and masses of tourists where we had anticipated a simple nature hike topped off with beautiful vistas. So, I’m going to skip over our experience of this place and get right to what we found to photograph at the summit.
When we finally made it to the point called Lover’s Leap, I was really glad to see that the clouds had not lifted too much. It was exhilarating standing at the cliff edge looking over the railing down into the valley a thousand or more feet below. The view was somewhat obscured by the clouds, but they really added to the grandeur of the experience.
I think that most people’s instinct when confronted with a dramatic vista is to photograph out into the valley below, not realizing until later that these photos don’t capture enough of the context to really convey and preserve the experience. I found instead that my most fruitful compositions combined several elements with the help of a wide angle lens: the lookout points with people standing at the rails to provide scale, the cliff faces to provide unexpected color and texture, along with the clouds and valley to capture the drama. I really like the first shot looking back toward the cliff face where people are enjoying the view at a slightly lower elevation. The angle of the clouds extending from the cliff top across and down into the valley really pleases me.
In the second photo I am looking back across towards the higher cliff face at Lover’s Leap. Once again, there is scale, color, and texture in this photograph, along with low, atmospheric clouds. But the 140 foot human-made waterfall plunging into the black pool below adds unexpected motion to the scene. Both of these photos do a good job of communicating my experience of this place on that particular day. I prefer the first photograph. Although it’s missing the engaging waterfall, the composition capturing the angle and movement of the low clouds is unique. The vision in this image is uniquely mine.
The other photo of the cliff face, valley, and waterfall has surely been snapped thousands of times under all imaginable conditions, much like Horseshoe Bend out in Utah. Perform an image search on Google of this bend in the Colorado River and you’ll pull up a hundred beautiful, nearly identical pictures taken by a hundred different people. It’s difficult to create unique and original images of iconic locations.
The photographic opportunities at Lookout Mountain were new and different for me, but this isn’t where I took the most important photograph of the trip. The next day we drove down to the historic Chickamauga Civil War battlefield. This national park is about 15 miles south of Chattanooga in Georgia and encompasses around 5600 acres of fields and woodlands containing multiple monuments, statues and historic structures. I’m not a Civil War buff, but Kristi likes to photograph canons and monuments, so we headed down. Plus, the park has some wooded hiking trails which Dexter loved.
The thing I really must emphasize about this outing is that the day was incredibly hot and humid. It has to be said, because my discomfort colored the whole experience along with my creative process. We absolutely had to stay in the shade as much as possible while we were out walking around, which meant we were in or near woodlands most of the time. One of my goals for a while has been to get better at capturing woodland landscapes. I find it difficult to create pleasing and interesting compositions in the overgrown forests near where I live. However, the woodlands at Chickamauga are more open. There is more light filtering through the trees and a lovely carpet of grass beneath. It was beautiful, but even with my wide angle lens, I couldn’t do the expanse of trees justice. So I decided to shoot some scenes by taking two overlapping photographs instead of just one. Just two, because I didn’t want a panorama; I wanted to recreate the breadth and depth of the scene before me without distorting it into a long skinny image. This turned out to be a great idea.
Back at home later that evening, I pulled up the pair of woodland photos with the most potential and started working on stitching them together. It took some time to create a flawless transition, but when I did, I felt moved by the simple yet rich composition. The photos overlapped significantly, so the final image is not two full frames wide, but I imagine that it captures the field of view a soldier might have seen as he watched the enemy advancing through the trees. Because of the dimensions, the final photo has more of a cinematic look.
I also worked a little on the color temperature and the tint of the light falling through trees to bring out the soft, warm glow of the scene. It was important to me to try to convey the feeling of being there in the final image. Now, when I look at this photograph, I remember being there in the oppressive heat of the day, the closeness of the air saturated with moisture and the swarm of insects looking for a meal.
If one can say that the soldiers who fought and died at Chickamauga were lucky in any way, it would be because the battle was in September rather than July. Even so, only the Battle of Gettysburg resulted in more casualties. I’d like for people to remember that as they look at my photograph depicting summer at Chickamauga.
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-- Angela Martin
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