Tuesday, February 28, 2017

On Cave Photography - 1. An Introduction

Cave Photography: Working With Light in Total Darkness
An Introduction
Ryan R. Maurer – NSS #65509 – Photographer, Under A Rock Photography
Edited and revised by Deirdre A. Conroy
With significant input from Hope Brooks and Tara Cross.
    Chances are, if you are reading this, that you have either been in a cave or are interested in visiting a cave.  Let me try to describe an experience that you have, or might, know well:
    While gripping the rack with your left hand, the rope is in your right, and you’re carefully backing over the lip.  You look up and realize that you’re standing/sitting/leaning out over what looks strikingly like the open mouth of some monster, lying dormant in the middle of an open hillside.  A thin strand of nylon hangs into the maw of it, on which you now descend. A few feet into the depth, the heat of the summer sun is replaced by a refreshing coolness.  The smells of Earth- the trees, soil, and moss of the terrestrial- they are replaced with a smell not unlike that of a basement, maintaining a clean and inviting air nonetheless.  Around you, the sun is shining into the misty air, shooting beams of light as if God Himself is reaching out to you. You glide down through the air, and for a brief moment, your fears and anxieties are swept away. You realize that although you know this place is not meant for man, it feels strongly like home.  
You’re crawling along, the cold earth pressed against your chest and back.  Your helmet is not on your head but pushed in front of you to save space. You push towards the small orb of light your headlamp shines ahead of you, a small warmth to cling to in this area of eternal darkness. You grow increasingly more aware that your presence in this place is limited.  Nonetheless, you push onward.
    While walking up and over boulders the size of cars, you stop to take a break.  Moving over this irregular surface, with its changing tractions and slopes, is tiring.  It requires you to analyze every move, or risk slipping through the literal cracks.  It wears on you; it becomes mentally tiring.  So you allow yourself a moment to stand and stare at the passage around you. Its large, and stretches both ahead and behind – the walls disappearing into that same darkness as from the crawlway, now grown familiar.  Where it goes is somewhere you yearn to reach but cannot yet see.  You can not envision the passage snaking through the ground, as might a trail through the mountains.  It beckons on, insisting mysteries and wonders lie ahead.
    As you walk, the rocks become smaller and are increasingly coated in a covering of velvety cream-colored rock formation known as flowstone.  Above you, long spires of rock hang as though the rock just melted away and then refroze in some act of cooking.  Around you stand monuments, testaments to the instability of the ceiling above.  Waterfalls of stone cascade around you, in sections glistening with water, in others exploding in rainbows of color.  
    If you have never been underground, you may have a hard time imagining what those scenes feel like, what they really look like. That is exactly what many photographers try to do; replace written words with a graph of millions of dots, depicting color and light.  There is more, however, to those paragraphs depicting scenes familiar to cavers: the emotion of those trips.  There is a feeling, a drama, a characteristic of the experience that transcends mere words.  To capture that in a photograph…  well, that is the goal.  Few achieve it, and those who do only do so rarely – myself included.  Over the last three and a half years I have probably shot over a thousand compositions underground.  That is pennies compared to the hundreds of thousands shot by cave photographers with much more experience than myself.  Of those thousand, I would wager to say that fewer than twenty have ever made me feel the scene.  Fewer than twenty have made my heart sing, or take my breath away like the real thing did.  That is, and always will be, my goal: to shoot the cave how I would want to remember it and how I felt it in my body and soul.  
    In those three and half years I have become quite good at what I do.  That was never my goal, but it happened nonetheless. What drove me was that desire to capture the moments of magic and inspiration. It could not have happened without the help and support of hundreds of individuals, ranging from other cave photographers, to my family, and numbers of friends.  In my position as a college student at West Virginia University (I am studying for my bachelors in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering) I do not have much to offer in return for those who helped me – and I have little of material to give who would like to follow my footsteps.  What I do have to share is the knowledge and lessons that I have learned along the way.
    I am convinced that no one can be an expert in any genre.  That’s because there is no one way to do anything.  In photography, the photo either works, or it doesn’t.  I can, and will provide only what has worked for me.  In the end it is up to you, the photographer reading this, to go out and shoot.  Shoot until the camera breaks – and then shoot some more!
    As for cave photography in particular… I’d like to mention one thing only. There are two broad types of photography conducted in caves: scientific and aesthetic.  The differences are in their purpose, execution, and characteristics.  Scientific-based photographs taken within caves are often for geological, cultural, or biological records.  They usually require lighting that is as accurate as possible on color and angles such to provide adequate representation of a surface’s luster, color, and other characteristics.  They are, generally, simple photographs, and can be taken by most anyone.
    Aesthetic photographs, on the other hand, are the ones that I and most other cave photographers shoot.  I am not afraid to manipulate light, scale, and angles to produce the photo that I want, with the feeling and emotion that originally inspired me.  Even if that means the image is not perfectly accurate to reality (which in a cave is utter blackness), they are the photos that catch the common eye, that stir the hearts of other cavers, and the ones which we will discuss.
    As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

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