Concrete Retaining Wall

The Scene

While working as a university professor, I had limited time for personal photography so I often combined photography excursions with work-related travel by adding vacation days when work was finished. An opportunity to do this occurred during a consulting trip to Switzerland one late October.

I traveled to Zurich in northern Switzerland to work for three days and informed my Swiss coworkers that I planned to photograph mountain scenery for eight days after our work was completed. They enthusiastically provided much information about various locations and emphasized driving south into the mountains that border Switzerland and Italy. They cautioned that heavy snow in the mountains normally made travel more difficult by late October but I was fortunate that winter had not yet arrived.

I left my Swiss friends and eagerly departed for the mountains. The scenery was beautiful and I captured numerous wonderful photographs while winding through southern Switzerland and northern Italy.

When I crossed into Italy the first time I thought the light somehow became more luminous and full. Its beauty caused me to think that the light may be partly responsible for Italy producing so many great artists. I wound down a two-lane mountain road near the border and decided to photograph a tree in the wonderful light. There were no places to pull off the road and my enthusiasm led me to risk getting in trouble by pulling only slightly onto the tiny shoulder. My parked car blocked most of one lane but I thought little harm would be done since I had seen few cars on the road.

I had barely set up my big view camera when I spotted a small car coming down the mountain. As it approached, I noticed that it was a police car and a sick feeling developed in my stomach. All but the two right tires of my car rested on the roadway and I had visions of being jailed in a foreign country where I could not speak their language. I continued working as the car slowly made its way toward me. When it arrived at my stopping place, I was delighted to see the policeman smile and continue driving as he waved hello. This caused me to think that such tolerance for “bending the rules a bit” helps Italy produce so many great artists.

While capturing many fine images during my visit to Switzerland and Italy I remembered my Swiss friends warning me that heavy snow might fall at any time so I tried to be ready to escape the mountainous terrain quickly if winter weather arrived. There was little hint of snow until the last morning of my trip when I woke in a tiny Swiss town that was surrounded by mountains to see enormous snowflakes falling from the sky. Snow had already begun to accumulate and I feared that it might prevent me from returning to the airport for my flight home.

My returning flight to Tennessee departed later that day and it was necessary to be on the flight since I had classes to teach the following day. I packed as rapidly as possible and ran to the car in an attempt to hurry over the mountain pass before it was closed by the snow. I drove north to work my way up the mountain but was disheartened to see cars stopped on the road to put chains on their tires. It didn’t take long before I couldn’t proceed much farther without getting stuck in the snow so I turned onto a different road in hopes that the snow had not reached that high pass yet. However, it too was impassable.

I thought that I was in trouble. I had pushed my boss pretty hard to get permission to spend so much time on my trip and knew that she would not tolerate me returning to work late. The snow had already become so deep that I had visions of not returning to work until it melted in the spring.

When I arrived back in town I saw a road sign which showed a railroad flatcar with automobiles driving up a ramp onto it. An arrow pointed down a road to the right so I turned and saw a railroad station a few blocks away. I learned that a train departed daily for a short trip through a mountain tunnel to emerge safely on the other side where a multi-lane freeway would easily get me to the airport. The train was scheduled to depart in two hours and I happily purchased a ticket for the car and me. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to worry about loosing my job after all…


I had already photographed much scenery during my trip when I arrived after sunset at a hotel in a Swiss mountain village called Klosters. I had been photographing for several days and went straight to bed a tired man.

I arose at sunrise and anxiously walked to the car in anticipation of another day of great mountain photography. I loaded my things into the trunk and slid into the drivers seat. While starting the car, I looked straight ahead to see an extremely beautiful concrete retaining wall only one foot in front of my vehicle. I hadn’t noticed the wall when I arrived after dark the previous night so I paused to admire it before deciding that it needed to be photographed.

The wall was old and covered with wet stains, cracks and mineral deposits. Early morning blue sky illuminated the wall with light that was not bright but provided enough directional illumination (from above) to avoid a flat image. I took a few readings with a light meter and realized the light was fine since the brightness range of the wall was quite good. Dark wet areas were placed on Zone II (very dark with slight detail) and the bright mineral deposits fell on Zone VII (very light with good detail) so normal film exposure and development were appropriate.

I selected a slightly long lens (210 mm) to include an interesting area of the wall in the image without showing other structures because I wanted to prevent viewers from placing the image in a meaningful physical context. Thus, the image was to be a “straight” photograph of a wonderfully textured building structure that was without context so the image would be somewhat abstract. One sheet of Kodak Tri-X film (ASA 320) was exposed for 0.5 sec at f/16.

I was excited about the image and hoped the exposure was good. On the flight home, I reviewed exposure records for the things I had photographed and chuckled because my favorite photograph from an area full of natural beauty was a black & white photograph of an old concrete retaining wall in the hotel parking lot!


I scanned the 4inch x 5inch negative with a drum scanner by capturing 5,000 ppi with 16-bit pixel depth. Tones on the negative were good so it was unnecessary to make any adjustments during scanning. The digital image viewed on a computer monitor was quite similar to my vision of the retaining wall so I was pleased with the exposure and development choices that were made at the scene.

My editing goal was to produce enough dark, broody tones and enough crisp, bright tones to lend an abstract feel to the concrete wall. Minor levels and curve adjustments were used to obtain these tones globally.

A few local areas were burned (darkened) and dodged (brightened) to produce better eye movement through the image. Specifically, areas near image edges were burned to push the eye inward from the edges and bright mineral deposits near the center of the image were dodged to pull the eye toward the center.

The large cross-shaped mineral deposit near the center of the image was a key feature. Most of the cross was brightened but the disjointed line that falls vertically all of the way to the bottom edge of the image was progressively darkened as it approached the edge. Comparison of a pre-edit test print to a post-edit test print showed that these edits were important for managing viewer eye movement effectively.

I have printed this image at several different sizes and it looks especially good at a fairly large size (e.g. 27 inch x 21 inch) because the large print size seems to add to the abstract nature of the image. This is especially evident when the print is hung on a wall and surrounded by similarly sized landscape prints since many viewers initially believe it is an areal landscape image.


The subject of this photograph was a simple concrete retaining wall. The image was composed and edited to be a rather abstract representation of the wall. Any comments you might have about the image, the photographic approach used for it, its composition, or image workup will be appreciated. For a larger view of the photograph, visit the website here.

Randall R Bresee