By Sean Patrick Hill
Whatever nature means — and it is a difficult concept to simplify to anyone’s satisfaction, let alone reduce to a straightforward definition — it has long been the realm of photographers. Photography has its many genres, whether it’s portraiture, architecture or abstracts, but what constitutes the “natural” image can be contentious.
Take landscape, for example. Should a landscape include humans? In his many Sierra Nevada photos, Ansel Adams carefully avoided that. Then there is the question of whether to use color. Many photographers abhor color, imagining black and white to be somehow more authentic and artistic.
“I think black and white can simplify a subject and evoke an emotional response,” Ackman tells Insider. Her views of nature range from landscapes and still lives to, essentially, wildlife shots — in this case, water birds.
Take “Egret Abode,” for example. This is a bird many in Kentucky are — or should be — familiar with, as they are often easy to sight, even from downtown. The shot distinguishes heavily between the black and the white so that the birds, bright with light, seem to leap from the darkness of the print.
The birds are afforded a dignity that is not evident in, say, a typical field guide or an average webpage shot. The nesting and the nestling in the image portrays a sense of both intimacy and affection rarely relegated to animals.
The landscapes speak equally to an incredible quiet one might encounter outdoors, as well as to the ever-present rhythms of form one might find there. “Tracks and Shadows” presents a weaving back and forth, through a subtle gradation in tone, of the simplicity of sand dunes, and the tracks across them offer as much a counterpoint to that rhythm as a narrative of a human interaction with it.
“Point of Rocks Beach,” too, in its rippling, reflected light, punctuated by boulders, leads the eye toward the horizon and ultimately to the empty sky.
“Moraine” is more complex and finds its tradition in the abstract nature shots we find in Edward or Brett Weston. The image is a precarious balance between the irregular lines, the incredibly detailed moraine and the rippling water. It invites us, as all good photography must, to look deeply — and not just merely to look, but to see the various forms inherent in nature, which are rarely discernible at a careless glance.
Two still lives of leaves are reminiscent of the photographs of Imogen Cunningham, a photographer Ackman admires. As with the landscapes, the interplay of tone and line is at once simple and complex.
The sharp edges of “Unfolding” are different from the softer touch of “Fan Dance.”
Plants are a remarkable source of inspiration for many photographers, of course, but Ackman’s photos, as with her brooding birds, go far beyond mere botanical documentation and into the concerns of the expressive. Her leaves dance. Her birds are reposed and fierce.
“I don’t consider myself strictly a nature photographer,” Ackman admits, “but it is one of the more enjoyable genres to shoot. Watching the birds coming in to nest in St. Augustine was fascinating. It is so chaotic all around, but with the help of a long lens, you can focus in on the individual birds and watch them build their nests or feed their young. It becomes a very personal experience. Capturing that split second in time and being able to share it with others is what I think is so special about photography.”
Ackman captures the “personality and character” of her subjects, as she explains — trees, for example, which is a favorite subject for her, whether it’s the snow-bent evergreens of “Wind Blown” or the lone, cliff-edge pine of “Petra Overlook,” an image collected in Jordan.
Whatever the subject, Ackman’s black-and-white digital photography of the nature about us becomes a personal experience for the viewer, as well.
“Shades of Nature” opens Friday, Dec. 7, with a special reception from 5 to 9 p.m. It continues through Jan. 26. First Light Gallery is located at 1009 E. Main St.