The Story Behind the Image Impermanence
Every summer, my family likes to spend a week or so at a beach somewhere. We try to mix things up and not go back to the same beach each year, so we’ve been to many of the beaches along the east coast from Maryland to Florida. And, like many photographers, I’m usually packing a backpack full of camera gear along with the suitcases and coolers.
We are not always fortunate with the weather. Oh, we’ve had some trips where the temperatures were perfect and the humidity not too extreme, but brutally hot and muggy are the norm on these trips. We had a stretch of really bad luck for a couple of summers where our vacations happened to coincide with either hurricanes just off the coast, or storms that would kick off in the early afternoon and last well into the night.
During a break between late-afternoon storms during one of these vacations, I found myself sitting on the balcony of my hotel room, watching as people ventured out to walk along the surf. Due to the storms there weren’t many out at this time, but there were a few.
I’m not sure why, but I started to focus my attention on the footprints left behind as the people strolled along the beach. For those walking closest to the surf, their footprints would last only as long as it took for one or two waves to smooth out the sand, erasing evidence of their passing. I wanted to capture that in an image which spoke to the impermanence of man’s impact on nature.
After checking that the kids were fine and assuring my wife that I wasn’t crazy and would be back before the next round of storms hit, I grabbed my gear and tripod and headed out of my hotel and onto the beach.
I knew intuitively how I wanted to create the image I had in mind: I would take an exposure long enough for a person to walk through the image and hopefully end the exposure before the waves had the chance to wipe out the footprints. Because the person would be moving through the frame during the long exposure, and because the light levels were low due to the early evening clouds, I knew they would not appear in the image, but their footprints would, assuming the waves didn’t wipe them out immediately.
And this is where I discovered an odd fact: when you don’t want someone to walk in front of your camera when taking a picture, people will come out of the woodwork to do just that, but when you want someone to walk through the scene, a photographer’s body apparently emits some sort of pheromone that triggers an area of the brain that makes a person want to avoid walking in front of the camera at all costs.
I honestly had to convince some poor woman that it really was perfectly OK for her to walk in front of my camera. Just before she entered the field of view of the lens, I triggered the shutter for a 10 second exposure. The waves happened to stop short of the footprints during those 10 seconds, and I had my image.
I love how the long exposure has rendered the waves with just enough movement represented that you know they are headed for those footprints and nature’s perfection is about to be restored.