This is the blog of Steve Burkett of Italy, Our Italy

Separating Emotion from Content

As a photographer, it is often difficult to separate emotion from content. I’m going to give you a real-world example that will really bring this home in just a moment, but let me explain right here what I mean.

The Emotion

Is a professional photographer immune to the emotion involved in the time and place of an image’s capture? Not at all.

You’ve taken photos of family/friends, special events, and favorite vacation moments. Those photos have special meaning for you. There was an emotion involved when you took the photo, and that emotion manifests itself when you go back to look at those photos. Whether they are Christmas photos when the kids (and you!) were younger, wedding photos, photos from Disneyland or the beach, you have positive (hopefully) emotions when you see the photos. Photos of parents or grandparents when they were still alive? That’s full of emotion. Your newborn while still at the hospital? Ditto.

But if you go back and look at those emotive photos to evaluate the composition, color, lighting, etc., you may find that those photos were not of the highest 'quality'. But does that matter? Not at all! What is important is the emotive quality of the photo and the memories that are embedded on the photo paper. You weren’t taking photos to win awards and exhibit in galleries! You were taking them to etch memories.

The Dilemma

So, let’s move to fine-art photography. Is that any different? Is a professional photographer immune to the emotion involved in the time and place of an image’s capture? Not at all. And there’s the rub. Is the photo that a photographer produces actually what one might call a ‘quality fine-art photograph’? Or, is the photographer’s evaluative eye held captive by the emotion involved when capturing that photo?

Here's and example. I have a friend who loves photographing the desert southwest – as I do. When you look at his photos, you see beautiful rock formations, dry gulches, twisted trees and many other things which epitomize the southwest. But as you look at his photos, you have no idea of the effort that was required to capture those images – the long, long, bumpy, and circuitous roads that had to be traversed and the vehicle modifications to do so, the treacherous and arduous hikes that had to be made, the uncomfortable experience of sleeping in one’s car because an unexpected snowstorm collapsed your tent. What you see when you look at a beautiful and enchanting photo of a Anasazi pictograph, and what the photographer sees when looking at that same photo are completely different emotions. You are thinking, “That’s really nice!” While the photographer has a myriad of emotions that run the gamut from joy and elation to sometimes negative thoughts brought on by what might have been a real ordeal. It’s the same photo, but it is seen by eyes of a different perspective.

So, that’s what creates this dilemma for me as I look at some of my photos and I wonder if they might, or might not, be of interest to you as a prospective client. Is that really the fine-art masterpiece that I think it is, or does that feeling exist in just my own mind?

So, with that in mind, today I will be transforming a somewhat dismal winter scene for you. As you will see, it was a pretty simple transformation. It is a photo which has enchanted me ever since I created it --- and I know why it enchants me, and I’ll explain that. I think that this is a good example of what I discussed above as I try to separate emotion from content as I strive to bring you fine-art photographs that you will enjoy.

The Transformation

The original photo is a group of trees in winter – December 30th to be exact. It was blustery out and snow had been spurting off and on for most of the morning. It was now mid-afternoon. Here is that photo.

[click on an image to get a larger view]

The original, blah, uninteresting snapshot

As you can see, it is a very overcast day. The flags of New Mexico and the United States can be seen at bottom left, as well as a street lamp with Christmas decorations. [OK, I know this is an Italy blog and this isn’t a photo of trees in Italy, but please forgive me as I try to make a point]

You see the next iteration of the transformation here.

First change to the photo by cropping

First change to the photo by cropping

About all I’ve done here is crop the photo into a panoramic format.

The next step was to add some moodiness to the photo, as you see here.

A bit of mood created by emphasizing the atmostpherics

I brought out the atmospherics by darkening the sky a bit and by applying a warm sepia look to the photo.

So now I have a warm photo of trees that is just a tad moody. To add a bit of character, I went to my archives to find a photo of birds in my ‘birds collection’. I inserted three blackbirds, which are ubiquitous to northern New Mexico, into the photo. Darkening the image even more emphasized the atmospherics and gave it the sense of cold mystery that I was seeking for the photo.

So, here is the final image.

The final image

I really like this photo. I’ve liked it from the moment I created it. I think I dubbed it "Last Flight from Taos" or something. But I know from experience that it doesn’t have wide appeal to others as a fine-art photograph. But I know why it appeals to me so much, and here’s the story.

Its Personal Appeal: The Story

My daughter Alyson was pregnant with her second child and was visiting us in Denver. As usual, we went to dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant, Il Fornaio. While at dinner, our friend and waiter Jose Naveja was suggesting names for the new baby. Knowing it was a boy, and Jose being Jose, he suggested the name ‘El Diablito’ – loosely ‘Little Devil’. We had a good laugh as we added that name to the list.

Fast forward a year and El Diablito is now about 8 months old. After Spending Christmas in Denver, the family went to our cabin in northern New Mexico, a few miles outside of Taos. While spending the day in Taos and while having lunch, I snapped this photo of my darling grandson, Braeden – aka Diablito. But, he looks to be more an angle than a devil doesn’t he? El Diablito? No way – El Angelito? Yes!  

Isn't he adorable?!

But while I was taking photos, his mood changed a bit and El Diablito finally joined the family! Hellooo!

Same great kid – two opposite moods: one Angelito and one Diablito.

After lunch, we wandered out to Taos plaza, where I saw the trees with light snow, and where I snapped the photo you saw above.

So, does the final photo of the trees with birds above have emotions that may cloud my judgement as to its worthiness as a fine-art photograph? Yes it does. It involves my friend Jose, my favorite restaurant Il Fornaio, my daughter Alyson, my favorite grandson (OK, he’s the only grandson), Christmas, our cabin in New Mexico in a town where I met my wife, a fine meal in Taos, and a bit of moody atmospherics.  

All this has been to show you how hard it can be for a photographer to separate fact (of a worthy fine-art photograph) from fantasy (of the emotions clouding the moment).

So, that’s it. If you feel my pain, please leave a comment, below.


Ciao for now,



p.s. Here’s an added bonus – at absolutely no extra charge – of another version from the same initial snapshot. In this version, I focus more on the web of branches, while I added just a touch of blizzard to winterize the scene even more.

And finally, I just couldn’t resist giving it a smudged-pencil look.