Few could have foreseen the fantastic ways current technology could enhance nature in photographic images. Alison Thomas, expert photographer and lover of all things nature, takes full and knowledgeable advantage of those ways. She uses that technology daily in her illustrational photography and in her digitally modified panoramas. To view her images of landscapes, buildings set in the Virginia hills, and awesome close-ups of wild creatures is to be there, or to wish you were.
Thomas’ compositions vary in size and format, as the subjects demand. The mountain panoramas stretch to a meter horizontally, and compress the wide, mist-laden ranges into no more than 10 inches in height. In these, the viewer positions himself atop a close up mountain, looking across or through foreground trees and shrubs. Those vistas bring to mind oriental compositions of mountain tops in atmospheres that only quiet hills can evoke.
The exactly opposite orientation shows up in dramatically vertical formats: single specimens of nature, grand and isolated. "Sunlight on Grass" for example, says much more than its title implies. The tall, thin spear topped by its seedpod against a brilliant sunset declares, by anyone’s standards, significance and confidence. Another tall vertical photograph, "Season’s Impressions/Winter," emphasizes the heavy but soft lumps of snow caught by a deciduous tree. The pockets made by the angles of the black trunk and its smaller limbs collect banks of blue-white snow as they mingle with the glimpses of soft blue background sky.
Modified only slightly, "Snowy Travel" depicts a seldom traveled road through winter woods. The digitalizing thickens and intensifies the forest’s wintry blues. Standing on their own as pure achievements of a gifted photographer and her reliable camera, "Golden Barn" and "Just around the Bend" show scenes dear to any nature lover. A lovely log barn from a century ago, and a wood fence beside a forest trail, respectively, star in these. In "Junk Mail," another unmodified image, a clean blue sky tops a derelict red barn in its isolated setting: the yellow and yellow-green grasses of a wild meadow. We become aware of a skillful use of the primary colors.
One of the most striking of Thomas’ modified images is "Sun Fire Tree." A colossal black tree is silhouetted against a sunset in intense oranges and red-oranges. The limbs interact to form patterns closely related to Dutch artist Mondrian’s signature divisions of space.
Thomas’ career path began when she was 19. She had been interested in photography, and when she came across a Time-Life series of books about it, she ordered them and read earnestly. She then resurrected a camera her sister had given her several years back. The two circumstances launched her career, and she began showing at art festivals in Florida, where she and her husband lived for 10 years.
The Florida era also gave the artist space for her own darkroom, but at the end of the decade there, she and her husband were delighted to return to Virginia and to the mountains she loves. "I’ve always loved nature and found peace in it. I loved the beauty of the mountains and the rolling hills of Virginia where I was raised. … This is my home and I find much more heart in my art now."
Thomas traced her steps into modifying her photographic images. "When I first started doing art shows I did straight photography. I soon found that there are a lot of photographers doing art shows and everyone’s photographs began to look the same, including mine. I started modifying my photographs using Photoshop and various filters and came up with a style all my own." She created her first panorama from a photograph "that was too light at the top and too dark at the bottom." She cut the middle out, discarding the extremes, and used that mid-section as a panorama. Multiple prints of it sold well, and she used the same technique in succeeding projects. Now she does primarily digitally modified panoramas.
Among the honors Thomas has received for her photography, her first-place prize at the 2010 Disney Festival of the Masters in Orlando was pivotal in her career and in her store of personal satisfactions. "In order to apply to the Festival of the Masters, an artist must have won an award at another juried art festival, so my work was competing against other award winners. It was a great honor to be awarded first place in my category," that of digital arts.
As to the kinds of cameras Thomas uses, she said she just bought two new Nikon D7000s. The D7000 is solid and sturdy (for use outside), and lightweight (for all of her walking). It has all the functions she needs. "I don’t like a real fancy camera. If I can change the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, I’m happy."
Regarding photography’s place in the world of the arts, Thomas said it is sometimes hard to gain acceptance by artists who are not photographers. She does, however, belong to some online groups whose members discuss their photography and their participation in art festivals.
About her work as a photographer, Thomas said: "Has a neighbor ever remarked upon your garden’s beauty and your response was ‘It needs to be weeded’ or ‘I should have chosen different flowers for that spot.’ Do you have a tendency to look upon a beautiful scene and only see the flaws?" Thomas said her work invites viewers to explore more deeply the experience of confronting beauty. Her technique allows her to remove much of the detail and "leave only the essence." As she manipulates a photograph, she can draw attention to objects "that can get lost in an ordinary photograph. I encourage you to look upon the graceful arch of a single stem, the shape of a barely discernible mountain in the distance, the form in a pile of rocks."
Thomas’ work is on view at Crossroads Art Center at Staples Mill and Broad Street. Also go to her website at www.SerenityScenes.com. FP
Ann Harmon, retired adjunct instructor of English at VCU, taught English and art in both secondary and higher education in this country and the Middle East. During her teaching years in the Middle East, she wrote art reviews regularly for two English language newspapers.