Photo Essay

Storm Clouds Gather


I am not brave enough to be a street photographer, but I have always admired the spirit of those that are. For me, Henri Cartier-Bresson's notion of "the decisive moment" is a truth for all of life, not just photography. One must be receptive, especially during times of rapid transition and transformation, if that moment is going to be experienced, let alone captured for posterity.

Earlier this year, the Midwest experienced an unusual night of severe weather for winter. Tornadoes, flash-floods, thunderstorms, and hail pelted the Kansas City metro area and the small, rural towns to its south. Those of us to the north of the city were privy to a breathtaking view of the storm gathering it's power.

I was sitting at dinner with my family when I noticed the sheer magnitude of the storm clouds. With Cartier-Bresson's maxim - "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment" - ringing in my ears, I abandoned my food and family, grabbed my camera and tripod, and headed out. The sun was quickly dipping below the horizon, and I knew that the diminishing light and the speed of the clouds would give me thirty minutes to shoot at the most.

I shot a few test frames, adjusted the ISO and white balance, took a deep breath, and settled in for 30 of the most satisfying minutes of photography I've had. I shot the entire time on burst, resulting in 2-4 slightly varied takes on each of my 20-25 composed shots. I was thrilled to see that I had seven frames I was confident to show

Three things struck me as I shot:

1) If I were to stand in the same place, with the camera aimed at the same section of sky, and simply continued to press the shutter release for thirty minutes, I would still have captured vastly different scenes. The rapid pace at which the cloud formations changed was astonishing. So much so that every minute or so I had new choices to make about what to shoot and how to compose. I had no time to think about anything else. It was exhilarating, and I knew that I needed to stay focused in order to document this magnificent occasion.

2) The enormity of the cloud formations forced me to picture, in my mind's eye, all the frames of St. Ansel's time in the High Sierras, and do my best to flatter - I mean, imitate - the master. How do I draw the eye to the piece of cloud I want to highlight at this scale? Where does the cloudscape imitate the landscape, and vice versa? These were my questions. "6:43pm" is an attempt to answer them by drawing a connection between the shape of the clouds and the house.

3) I tried to be very conscious of the fact that I needed to use the landscape effectively if the magnitude of the event was going to come across. I had to utilize the trees and the houses to offer a cradle to the clouds, much as Edward Weston did with the funnel and the pepper. During post-processing I tried several crops in which I eliminated any reference to terra-firma, but it became quickly apparent that these shots needed to be a dance between the sky and the land.

Of the set, "6:29pm" (main photo, above) continues to be my favorite. The interplay between the frail branches, crisply rendered in the foreground, and the menacing cloud, slightly blurred in the back is haunting. It was a compositional choice I made in roughly 5 seconds. 10 seconds later, it was gone.

I may not have the audacity of a street photographer, but I like to think that my attentiveness to the decisive moment paid off this time. I only wish you could have seen it live.

To see more of Landon Whitsitt's photography, visit his website:

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