The Eye Has It: Jim Graham’s Elegant Landscapes Examine The Beauty Of Isolation


A moored boat was rocking from the passing of another boat, and Jim Graham photographed the aftermath from the Rockport, Maine, dock. “I wanted the photograph to be a metaphor for someone being part of your life, and then not being there, and the effect the person had on your life by moving through it.”
All Photos © Jim Graham

We assumed the first thing Jim Graham does in order to create his elegant landscape images is decide how to isolate his subjects from distracting backgrounds to achieve the always-desired single subject, clearly defined.

We were wrong. The first thing he does is ask himself: What do I see? Then he asks: How do I use the camera to communicate the feeling I have about what I see?

The answers, coupled with his skill at the striking use of color, form, and light within the frame, often result in symbolic representations of personal stories and feelings far beyond the literal subject in the frame.

Simply put, Jim Graham is out to say a lot more than “Isn’t this a pretty picture?”

Graham says he got lucky with this image, taken in Nantucket, Massachusetts. “Not with the fog or the stillness of the water, but by getting to the boat before they painted all the identification markings on it.” The island is a comfortable place for him, and he knows the kinds of scenes early morning and fog can bring. “When I go to Nantucket, I’m out the door with my camera at five in the morning,” he says. “Possibility creates opportunity.”

“This was near Ellsworth, Maine. The sun had just started to come up when I saw this scene. I was on my way to somewhere else, but I gave myself 15 minutes and got out of the car. I was lying on my stomach, playing with framing the grass and the streaks as the water moved and reflected the sun.”

The Aurora Borealis and Bjarnarhafnarfjall Mountain, near Grundarfjoerdur, Iceland. “This is what you get when you walk out onto a smelly beach at midnight and set your tripod among the fish parts the fishermen leave behind,” Graham says. “It was a 30-second exposure and I ran the ISO up to 4000.”

Speaking For Themselves
“Getting to the story in an image comes from my newspaper background,” Graham says. “I had a job to do: get across an idea or a feeling that would draw viewers in. I had to be a visual communicator. I was not in the business of taking photographs that had to be explained.”

Graham tells of a class he took with Bob Gilka, the legendary former director of photography at National Geographic magazine. “Gilka said that if you’ve got to explain a photo, you might want to go back and reshoot. You can translate that idea from my newspaper work to the feelings I try to portray in my landscape work today.”

His class with Bob Gilka is indicative of the way Jim Graham thinks about photography, and how he strives to keep his images far from the merely pretty. “I’ve had people who see my work ask me, ‘Why do you take photo workshops all the time? You should be teaching them.’ Okay, I’m flattered by that, sure, but I still believe I can always learn.”

Graham doesn’t take workshops to find out if he needs plus-one exposure compensation for a particular situation. He doesn’t necessarily need to know how the instructors make pictures; he wants to know how they think about making pictures. “I want to know Bob Gilka’s ideas about storytelling; and John Paul Caponigro’s ideas about art; and Greg Heisler’s about light; and Eddie Soloway’s about seeing color.”

On Nantucket Island, near Gibbs Pond. “A frost the day before had turned a lot of the ground foliage a bright red, and I had the advantage of soft, late afternoon light. I boosted the saturation a bit, trying to channel my inner Eliot Porter. Then I set off to explore the dark unknown off to the right.”

“This valley is in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, on Brandywine Conservancy land. I’ve been going there for over 25 years. What I saw was a photo about isolation and separation, and I used a 70-200mm lens at 200mm to compress the image. I composed it to stack three layers: the tree, the tree line behind it, and the hills in the distance.”

“I took this image on a workshop in Spruce Head, Maine, right after a breakup,” Graham says, “and only later realized that it represented smoothness and calmness on one side, tumult on the other, and a line of demarcation in between.” A pivotal image, it led to Graham’s evaluative question: What do I see?

Line Of Sight
And because everything we do isn’t a conscious decision, a workshop once revealed something about Graham’s own expression of style and technique. “Caponigro told me something I wasn’t aware of—that there was a line I worked with all the time. I mean a literal line, an arc of light, shape, object, or reflection. It’s almost always there, and it leads a viewer’s eye into the scene or directs it within the frame. The line is movement, and I think I instinctively, and unconsciously, search for and include it.”

A viewer following that arc stays in the image, notices other elements, and comes back around on the arc. “And if you can keep a viewer looking at an image for more than five seconds,” Graham says, “keep him thinking about it, maybe asking a question or coming up with a story about the image, you win.”

When Graham saw the image selections we’d made for this story, he said, “Thematically, most of the photographs you’ve chosen are all talking about isolation. That was the answer to the first question: What do I see? Once I knew that, I knew what to include, what to exclude, and how to use everything else—the camera, the lens, the framing, the composition—to speak for me.”

Graham took this photo at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, at about 6:30 in the evening, and benefited from light from the setting sun and the rising moon. “The sunlight was also reflecting off the surrounding dunes; there was a lot of light kicking around. This is all about line and texture, and my arc is in there, too.”

A portion of the Falljökull glacier in Iceland, late in the day. “Sometimes if I see the color blue, I may not only bracket my exposures, I may also choose a specific color temperature as well, but here I simply set the white balance to tungsten to get an even richer blue.”

You can see more examples of Jim Graham’s fine art landscape photography, as well as his corporate and wedding images, at his website: