Lowell Wolff began making photographs in the early 1990s. Early publications included seven community profiles for the Chamber of Commerce of Fargo Moorhead several of which received national awards. In addition to exhibits at the Nemeth Art Center, Watermark Art Center and MacRostie Art Center, his photographs have appeared in national publications such as The Artwork of Luis Jiménez, as published by the New Mexico Magazine Artist Series. Now retired, he lives in Park Rapids, Minnesota and Manzanillo, Mexico.
His works include a wide range of genres including street photography, natural-light portraits, night photography and landscapes from northern Minnesota and the west coast of Mexico. His images most often feature bold colors and dramatic composition.
I was once asked to give some suggestions to a photographer who was bilingual. As we talked about her images, I used the term “taking a photograph.” I noticed that she was referring to the same act, but describing it as “making a photograph.” I learned a great deal from her. What a difference a single letter made!
To “take a photograph” is simply to capture the subject in front of you. With today’s smart cameras, capturing what is in front of you is not the act of an artist, but the act of a technician. Taking a photograph invites the viewer to literally identify the image and move on. “Oh, a waterfall. Next.” This is in contrast to experiencing other art forms in which the viewer studies the image in great detail leading to an enlightened cherishing of the subject.
However, to “make a photograph” declares an intention to use artistic elements to create an image far more nuanced than the simple, literal identification of the subject. It employs the artistic elements of the visual arts such as lighting, patterns, shapes, textures and composition. It blends those artistic elements with the tools of the camera: fast/slow shutter speed, deep/shallow depth-of view. The results invite the viewer to appreciate a waterfall: the contrast of the smooth wisp of water with the sharp angular rocks that confine and shape it.
Unlike other forms of art that start with a blank piece of paper, blank manuscript paper or a blank canvas, photography begins with a chosen subject together with all the detracting visual elements around it. The challenge of making a photograph is often the elimination of detracting visual elements to distill and simplify the main subject in a way to make it so engaging, so alive, that the viewer is compelled to stop and appreciate it at a deeper level.
It starts with finding the most compelling aspects of the subject and playing with light to enhance those elements. It may be using techniques to bring out lines, shapes or a color or even capturing a decisive or unique moment. It could be anticipating when the light is just right to accent a shape or produce a complimentary shadow or highlight stunning colors in a portrait. In a landscape, it may be waiting for a certain temperature to melt the snow on the ground, but not the snow on the tree branches. It could be as simple as isolating a pattern, unique lines or a texture.
For me, a successful photograph is one that engages and invites you see the subject as if for the first time – in a new light.