Scott Tansey: Intimate Portraits of the Inanimate

Scott Tansey has been taking photos for over 40 years. In the mid 1980s, he was submitting panoramic images to a stock agency and his photos have been published in a wide range of media including Consumer Reports and Audubon Magazine. In the mid 1990s he switched careers and attended law school. Although he still loves and practices law, his passion for photography has steadily increased as has his confidence, and his ability to create memorable images that transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Here is the compelling story of how Tansey created a portfolio of images that capture the beauty and cosmic dimension of rocks on the iconic “rocky coast of Maine” with the Leica S-System.

Q: You last appeared on the Leica Blog in June 2013. What have you been up to professionally since then?

A: I was working on large panoramas of the Los Angeles Area. I had an exhibit and lecture at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles last August. One of the images was 24 feet long and you can still see it at the Leica Store in Los Angeles. As a side project, I took images of the Bay Area near my sister’s house. You can learn more about them here.

Q: Can you provide some background information on these images?

A: I took these images on a Fall Color Workshop given by John Paul Caponigro at Acadia National Park. I had recently completed a huge five-year project taking panoramic images of Los Angeles (my home town). It was time for a change, and I needed a creative spark to do something different. As I mentioned previously I had attended a printing workshop given by John Paul Caponigro, which changed my photographic direction, and I thought his workshop would give me kick-start on my creativity. It did, but not in the way I intended. I was going to shoot the fall colors. Southern California is not as noted for its fall colors as Maine is. However, when I went to shoot the fall colors, they did little to inspire me. The light was lousy, and we missed the peak by a few days. On the second day of the workshop, after much frustration, I went to our last stop that was a rock pile. Oh, wow! The evening light and the colors and the patterns of the rocks spoke to me. For the rest of the trip I focused mainly on taking close-up images of rocks on the Maine coastline. Most of the images were taken in the Schoodic portion of Acadia National Park.

Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?

A: They’re intimate portraits of rocks. It was almost as if they were alive. I wanted to show the amazing colors and shapes of the rocks. Like most of my other work there is a panoramic element where the images were at least twice as wide as they are tall. I consider an image a panorama if the ratio of width to height is at least 2:1. The other aspect is that these are intimate images. I was close to the subject matter, and I mostly used an ultra-wide-angle lens and used a wide-angle lens for the rest of the images.

Q: What specific camera equipment did you use to shoot them?

A: I used the Leica S2 and a borrowed S as my bodies, and I used the 24 mm S lens (19 mm 35 mm equivalent) most of the time. The other lens I used was the 35 mm S lens (28 mm 35mm equivalent).

Q: What made this equipment particularly suitable for this project? In other words, why did you choose it?

A: As I told you in our 2013 interview, the Leica S2 is the best camera I own. The images are amazing, and I can work on the RAW images in Lightroom and Photoshop easily.

Q: Why did you decide to present the majority of these images in a panoramic format with a 2:1 aspect ratio, and what are some of the reasons you choose this format for most of your other work? Since most of these images are, as you say, intimate images shot at fairly close distances how do you see the esthetic or expressive advantages in using the wider format and shooting with ultra-wide-angle and wide-angle lenses?

A: I have used the panoramic format since 1977. Somehow making one look from side to side has appealed to me for over half my life. I started to shoot intimate panoramas in 1991 when I took a photo workshop with John Sexton and Philip Hyde. I was thrilled that the panoramic format worked for intimate panoramas as it does for looking at a large-scale scene.

I wanted to use the extra-wide angle and wide-angle lenses so I would not get a compressed perspective. I wanted an exaggerated perspective where the elements in the images would change dramatically depending on my viewpoint. Also, I wanted to exaggerate the relationship between the elements in my images more than I could if I had used medium telephoto lenses.

Finally, I found it much more difficult to make images with the ultra-wide and wide-angles lenses than it was when using medium telephoto lenses for my Patagonia images. I had to check the frame of the images much more carefully with the wide and super-wide-angle lenses than with the medium telephoto lenses. Also, I did not want to have too much going on in these images. It is extremely easy to overwhelm the viewer with too much information. So much of photography entails eliminating elements to make a statement.

Q: You mentioned some of the technical advantages of shooting these images with your Leica S2 and a borrowed Leica S, but what were some of the operational advantages that made these cameras especially suitable for this project? Incidentally, what were your impressions of the performance of the 24 mm and 35 mm S lenses in terms of objective performance and subjective image quality?

A: I have had the S2 since 2010, and using the camera is automatic for me. I do believe that the operating system of the camera is intuitive and easy to use. There are only four main buttons on the backs of the cameras. I have used the 35 mm lens since 2010, and there is little or no distortion in the lens. The 24 mm lens is amazing with no distortion. In fact, someone thought that I used the 120 mm lens (100 mm equivalent 35 mm) for these images, because there was so little distortion. The Leica S system is a 3:2 ratio system. I converted these images into panoramas by cropping the images. The quality of these cropped images is better than my images taken on a 6×17 film camera.

Q: While most of the pictures in this portfolio were evidently shot at the shoreline, only a few of them include water along with the rocks, and these seem to have a different feeling from the others. Do you agree, and can you say something about that?

A: First, you are correct that I shot these images at the shoreline. In fact, a tremendous number of images I shot included the ocean. However, for this series, I concentrated on the rocks. This shot was taken after a rainstorm looking away from the ocean, so the water must have been captured rain.

Q: Some of these images are especially compelling because of the size disparity between rocks and pebbles, and that engages viewers and draws them into the pictures. Was this a conscious decision on your part? Also, when confronted with such a vast array of picture possibilities how do you decide which subjects were worthy of preserving and presenting to the viewer?

A: Yes it was a conscious decision. In many of the images, I was taken with size and color differentials between the larger and smaller rocks. One of the things that attracted me at this location was the contrast of the shapes and colors of the different rocks.

Q: Many of these images here are beautiful and memorable because of the subtle colors and color differentiations among the rocks. Do you agree, and what was your thought process when you created these particular pictures?

A: Capturing the RAW image is only the first step of creating an image. Ansel Adams was quoted making a musical analogy “that the negative is the score and the print is the performance.” The same is true with digital photography — the RAW image is the score and the print is a performance. As with Adams’ black-and-white photography, I used post-production to realize what I saw when I captured the image. I did what black-and-white photographers have done for years by dodging and burning. In addition, I was able to make color corrections and adjustments to realize my vision for the images. Digital post-production is much easier than darkroom development for color images.

Post-production is as important or even more important than RAW image capture. I was able to realize the subtle colors and the color differentiations with my RAW image capture and post-production efforts. So in summary my thought process was first to visualize an image, then to capture a RAW image, and finally to use post-production skills to realize that vision. Also, as I stated earlier, I cropped every image from a 3:2 ratio to the 2:1 or greater ratio.

Q: While it’s clear that your approach to shooting the pictures in this portfolio was thoughtful, and many of the compositions are masterful, how would you reply to someone who said, “Anyone could create images like this along the rocky coasts of New England or the West Coast.” In other words, what do you think it is (aside from their exquisite image quality) that takes these images beyond being “snapshots of my favorite rocks?”

A: I had the same issue with my Patagonia images. I was in a beautiful part of the world. It definitely helps to be in amazing locations to make amazing images. However, there are some skills that have to be mastered. First, how to translate a three dimensional scene to a two dimensional image within the four sides of the image. The other is to have the right number of elements in the images. Most of the time that means taking elements out of the images. I took these images on a workshop with good, experienced photographers. Most of the time, I was shooting images alone away from the other photographers. The final skills are post-production skills. Thank you John Paul Caponigro. My vision is unique, and I was able to express my vision.

Q: You’re working on a set of images from Point Lobos in California. Do you plan to follow the same approach as you did for your Maine Rocks project? And how do you think your images will be different from the many iconic images shot at Point Lobos over the years?

A: Many years ago, I bought a book in the Time & Life Photography series called “The Great Themes.” The last chapter was dedicated to images of Point Lobos. I sure was inspired to go there and see what was special about Point Lobos. I have been to Point Lobos dozens of times over the past 25 years and I have taken standard panoramic images. I have even shot black-and-white film there. However, until now, my most unusual images were my aerial images of Point Lobos taken in February 2012 from a zeppelin. I only had thirty minutes to take the images. So far, in the current project, I am taking the same approach I took in Maine by concentrating on the rocks. In fact, I learned some lessons in Maine that I had to use a smaller (numerically higher) f/stop to achieve greater depth of field. Since I started working on this project, I have discovered that Point Lobos does not have the same amount of pebbles or the same color palate. In the Point Lobos project, most of the images have a beige cast. However, I went to Point Lobos after a huge California storm that made the rocks redder and more orange than normal. Also there was a lot of standing water that had not yet evaporated, and there are more patterns in the rocks, rather than a contrast of different rocks, as there were in Maine. I would like to believe that my new images add something new and different to the images of Point Lobos.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you have any other projects in the works besides the one you mentioned, or do you plan to explore any other genres such as portraiture or classical landscape photography going forward?

A: I want to continue working on coastal rock images in different locations. Late this summer, I am going to Svalbard to shoot high Arctic images. I hope to learn some of the lessons from my Patagonia images and the current rock images to come back with some special images. In the future I would love to go to India and Israel. Then, I hope to be fortunate to go to Antarctica. Since I live in Los Angeles and I don’t have unlimited resources, I will be working on projects of local images. Last summer, I spent time taking images of Century City. Earlier in the year, I spent time in Downtown Los Angeles shooting pictures. I will explore other areas in Southern California. I worked on a Los Angeles Harbor project last summer, where I took two cruises within the harbor. I find harbors amazing, and I would love to obtain access to different areas of the harbor to capture more images. As for portraiture, I will continue to drive my children crazy and take their pictures.

Q: Do you have any specific plans (exhibition, book, etc.) for the photos in this portfolio?

A: As mentioned, I am currently working on a set of images from Point Lobos here in California. I was thinking of an East Coast-West Coast project. Of course, I would like to exhibit and most importantly sell these images.

Thank you for your time, Scott!

– Leica Internet Team

To see more of Scott’s work, visit his website.

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  • Great article, as usual. Thie Leica blog is a never ending source of reading for me. Coming from NZ I can really appreciate the work Scott has done around costal and river systems! They were the subjects that go me into photography in the first place.

    I have been on the dark side (big dslr) of photography for a number of years now shooting landscape and nature photography. My great uncle was a kiwi pioneer of the Leica system shooting early NZ back in the 1950’s. Lately the weight of a big full frame DSLR with a full range of zooms is getting me down. As I have seen Leicas used so much in both Street and Landscape photography I am seriously on the verge of jumping. Unfortunately my uncle has donated his kit to a NZ museum so I have yet to try the system.

    Are there any serious words of advice that someone proficient in using the Leica system could give me aside from the usual “quality” comment that could help me jump?

  • WOW! These are amazing photos. I find it fascinating that the inanimate can be so intimate. You have succeeded so admirably in animating the inanimate world and bridging what might seem to be a huge gap. The relationship amongst the various elements of nature is strikingly intimate and palpable!!!! THis is a brilliant series. At the risk of repeating myself, let me say WOW one more time!!!!!

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