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I recently spent two weeks touring around Switzerland with my wife and our one-year-old daughter. It was a magnificent trip — one of those get-it-out-of-my-system-now kinds of trips while Varenna is young and portable. Ha! That’s at least what we thought when we booked the trip in January. She’s a bit more … mobile, shall we say.
But we had a very good time, and ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised with the images I returned home with. In the moment, we both were a bit distracted trying to keep our daughter entertained, engaged, and safe. We worked hard every hour of the trip, just not on photography. Or so it seemed.
Switzerland is a lavishly colorful place. Blessed with ample rain, fertile soil and some of the most chiseled mountains on this planet, it’s hard to take bad images. And if you are the type who comes home with 2,900 images on an external hard drive that need sorting, correcting and categorizing (I am raising my hand as I type this), an unfortunate thing starts to happen. You become numb to emerald green, cobalt blue and buttercup yellow.
Since Tanager Photography started in 2007, I’ve maintained that I am a color photographer. Tanagers are colorful birds, and they travel great distances. But I found myself appreciating a new aesthetic with my Swiss images, and it surprised me — desaturation. It’s nothing revolutionary, and believe me, I’m not acting like I just invented the iPad here. But as I edited my images and adjusted them, I couldn’t help but get excited seeing some of them transform as I moved the saturation slider to the left.
Our trip took us to four distinct places, each with their own photogenic qualities: Lucerne, with its wooden chapel bridge (above right and below); the Berner Oberland with its hulking glacier-clad peaks and lush pastures; Zermatt with the mighty Matterhorn (top); and Zürich, where scores of clock towers seem to suggest that the Swiss are punctual or something.
I’ll devote a later post to where and what to shoot in Lucerne, but its really all about that picturesque wooden bridge with its colorful flower trellises and multi-hued riverfront. I must have shot every conceivable angle on that bridge, but what rounded out the collection wasn’t a fresh angle so much as it was a treatment. By desaturating, the textures of the wood rose to the surface, making my collection of images on the bridge a lot more three dimensional.
The same thing occurred with my images from the Berner Oberland. Here you have the towering, snowy triumvirate of the Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger graced with these verdant green fields — truly one of the most spectacular scenes on earth — and yet, the temptation is to point a wide angle lens on it and turn the saturation up to 11 because that’s how it looks. In hindsight, one of my top pictures from the area was a simple shallow depth of field portrait of a pine-cone decoration hanging on the door of a house in Wengen (second from the top). Easiest shot in the world, and yet, when paired down and drained of its color, it just seemed to complete the other, wide-angle, saturated shots in my collection.
In Zermatt, where the landscape is drier and more harsh, adding a black-and-white treatment here and there seemed to give the land a new interpretation — that of a hostile moonscape covered in ice. I felt that the mountains surrounding Zermatt had been tamed by too much man-made activity (trams, trains, gondolas, cables, roads, girders, pipes, everywhere). Extracting that brutal harshness in the glacial landscape seemed like a nice counterpoint.
Ultimately, what gets me excited about travel photography is the whole collection from a place. Does it tell a story? In Switzerland, that story is buried in the textures of the land, the buildings and the people, and its not so easy to see at first. It wasn’t until I was at home in Denver, working in Lightroom, that I started to see these images come together in a way that was exciting as a whole. It took draining the color from select scenes — an act that defied my style as an artist — to make sense of the Swiss story.
Coming up: mountain porn, waterfalls, tilt-shifting Switzerland and shooters guides to Lucern, Zürich, Zermatt and the Berner Oberland. The Tanager Blog will be a busy place for the next few weeks.