Catching Sunlight: musings on farming, photography, and seeing

When I first started farming (my first job, in my junior year of high school), I became fascinated by the way the weather changed.


I was working outside for hours on end, full days — from seven in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon — I was in the full elements. The sun, the wind, the gray, the rain. I met this truth abruptly — I remember on my third day it poured, the sky opening up and just dumping on us, as we crawled in the mud planting peppers and eggplants — a whole day of it, the dirt turning sticky and clinging to our fingers, and if our hoods weren’t up, we got soaked. I didn’t have rain pants, and my jeans got wet through, caked with mud, so thick they never really recovered, but I didn’t care. They were farm jeans now. They’d been baptized. I wore those jeans for a whole season, until they ripped through.

That third day it was extreme. Most days were quieter.

But the changing weather was ever-present — gray clouds slowly moving across the sky, dropping lower as a front moved through. The slow transition from sunshine to raindrops. The way a gust of wind moved slowly across a field or an orchard, the stirring of the leaves advancing.

On hot days I watched the humidity slowly gather, watched the sun move in its slow arc across a relentless, heated sky, watched afternoon come and thunderheads begin rising and rising in the west, forming towers.

I’d always known weather changed — of course I’d known. I spent large amounts of my childhood outside, getting sunburn and freckles and playing in the rain. But there’s something very conducive to observing the changes of the weather when you’re on your knees in a field, or on a ladder in an orchard, hands busy with hard work but your mind and your eyes freed up to watch the world around you.

I’d never realized a day spent watching a front slowly advance across the sky could be so beautiful — a clean-cut line of clouds slowly covering the sky, and by the time the dusk comes, masking it completely.

Or, the morning after that same front’s rolled through, when the air’s completely stripped of humidity and the wind blows so strong across the earth, breathing it clean — my God.

I fell in love with the patterns of the weather almost as deeply as I fell in love with farming — and farming something I kept doing for three years, felt sad to leave when I finally quit and moved on.
. . .

There have been other times in my life when I’ve begun immersing myself in something new and become fascinated by something I didn’t expect.
Becoming a photographer was one of those things. I started taking pictures and suddenly I was becoming aware of the light, in the same way I became aware of the wind and clouds — suddenly seeing it everywhere.

If you don’t need it, you never notice how the light illuminates a face. You never notice the way the colors richen and dim depending on the sun, the way the light catches, bends, breaks. It doesn’t matter, and humans have a tendency of not noticing things that don’t affect of us.

But once you start seeing it, you realize you’ve been looking at the world with an absence of awareness your whole life, and that absence is a deficit.

One of my favorite things about being a photographer is the way it forces you to get in tune with the light. You have to be so aware of the sun, have to know where it is at every given moment. Even when you aren’t taking pictures, you start to track its movement. You notice it everywhere — the way it highlights and illuminates, turns something flat and ordinary into something contoured and alive. The magic it works on the human face — the way flesh and shadow make angles and art.

The job of the photographer is so counterintuitive — capturing something as fleeting as human motion, as transient as sunlight, and turning it into something solid and stationary, a single image that, if caught correctly, speaks volumes.

I became baptized in the realities of light with the same harshness that I became baptized — nearly literally — in the reality of the rain. The sun became a very real thing in a sudden moment, a moment of shock when suddenly it was working against me and it was winning and I realized I didn’t know how to frame a photo in the way I wanted to and utilize the light.

I realized how much I didn’t know. And in that moment, I started to see.

Not knowing induced study, which induced more seeing, and more understanding.

A backlit portrait makes a face soft. Sunlight on chin and cheekbones brings its form to life. Turn into the sun, very slowly, and watch the angles move. Learn how to capture something beautiful by learning how to see.

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