This is the story of frame number 10,525.
I took 14,976 pictures for my coverage of the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, and frame 10,525 is the one that made it to the opening spread of Edge of the World in the January issue of National Geographic Magazine.
From the time I wrote my original Hebrides proposal, through the research and photography in the field, and finally to hammering out layouts at headquarters in Washington, D.C., I faced myriad paths and detours, each offering possibilities and failings. Out of this maze of blind luck and essential insight came one moment, one photograph, that somehow rose to claim the layout's prime position on the story's opening page.
Today and in the days to come, I'm going to tell stories about all the pictures in the Hebrides story, detailing the circumstances that brought each to the page. Some stories will be about photographic technique; more likely I'll be talking about walking the knife edge of the creative process, with success and ecstasy on one side and failure and doom on the other.
It is this uncertainty -- and hope -- that drives me every day I'm in the field.
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There was a reason I was on a ridge overlooking the Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye. It was because of the story proposal to National Geographic that I had written 2 1/2 years ago. I could almost recite it by heart.
Here are the opening paragraphs:
"For countless millennia the North Atlantic has raged and stormed against the oldest exposed rocks in the world. This epic battle has forged one of the world’s great archipelagos, a brave band of islands, battered and scarred on the outer front lines, towering and defiant in the inner keep, by turns alluring and heartless, yet always revered for their sheer tenacity.
"It is landscape in places, seascape in others. Fjords slice deep into the towering mountain islands while the low-lying islands remain barely afloat, waterlogged and pock-marked with thousands of lochs. Names betray the races of men who have tried to claim them: Barra and Eriksay, Coll and Tiree, the Uists, and our romantic favorite, The Isle of Skye. On his island sojourn composer Felix Mendelssohn was enchanted by what he saw and he wrote a haunting overture. What else could he call it?
So: With a few words, long before I had ever set foot in Scotland to begin shooting, I had fixed a very specific idea in the minds of National Geographic editors. I had to come back with an image that showed that idea. It had to look wild, a bit primordial, with great geologic forces at work, fresh and alive, like some battle being waged by the rocks. A pretty landscape wouldn't do -- not for the story's opening spread. Grandeur would be all right, but the image also needed a raw-toothed, almost brutal, quality to it. It need to speak to the Earth's monumental forces at work.