Using long exposures, Diamond records motion, light, fireflies, and starry skies in his images. All photos by Julian Diamond
Photographer, meteorologist, and Dutchess County native Julian Diamond portrays the hidden beauty of our region in his landscape photographs.
Since the inception of photography, the medium has been inextricably linked to painting. Cameras made paint obsolete as a tool for documenting reality, prompting painters to expand the art form in concept and aesthetic. As they were off exploring new, non-objective frontiers, the Young Turks of fine art—photographers—sought to subvert the notion that the camera is merely a representational tool, unable to reach beyond the apparatus of vision. Famously, in 1933, when Ansel Adams met with the Dean of the School of Fine Arts at Yale, he could not believe that Adams’ prints were not paintings or drawings.
For all their disparities throughout art history, today, it is evident as ever that photography is a legitimate sibling to its painterly predecessor. Notably, both mediums afford an artist the ability to represent realities that are invisible to the naked eye. Such is the case with Julian Diamond, a Dutchess County native who draws from his education as a meteorologist to capture celestial landscape photographs in the Hudson Valley. Using long exposures—the photographic technique of opening a camera’s shutter for extended periods of time—Diamond records motion, light, fireflies, and starry skies in his images.
“You’re never very far from civilization here in the Hudson Valley, so when shooting photos at night, conversations with police and nearby homeowners are not uncommon. Standing in a dark field for hours on end tends to draw attention.”
To learn more about his photography practice, we sat down with Diamond to discuss local art history, light pollution, and making landscapes in the Hudson Valley.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you arrive at photography and meteorology?
I’m a Dutchess County native. Photography has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I’d come home from summer camp toting an armful of exposed disposable Kodaks, each containing a couple interesting photos flanked by around 25 duds. I was interested in finding out why some pictures were good, but most weren’t. Spoiler alert: It’s usually the light.
This passion evolved in parallel with my lifelong interest in meteorology, which I would eventually study in college, and which continues to drive my art. For me, the two pursuits are now inseparable. I take photos to document and analyze the weather [and] to find subject matter for my photos. It’s hard to say when my photography became more than just a hobby, but today it’s my primary source of income.
Many of your photos include starry night skies. What are the unique challenges of making a photo like this?
One of the biggest challenges is finding an adequately dark location. Skyglow from nearby population centers makes it hard to see the fainter points of interest in the night sky, so I tend to seek out sheltered places in the quieter corners of our region. Astrophotography is difficult along the Hudson River, where only the brightest stars are visible on most nights. That said, interesting starscapes aren’t just about the darkest skies and sharpest nebulae. Sometimes the urban influence is part of the story.
When capturing starry night skies, the technical tolerances are much lower than for traditional daytime photography. Narrow depths of field are susceptible to tiny focus errors, while long exposures can be ruined by wind or an accidental nudge. Even a glance at a screen can ruin dark-adapted vision, so I try to minimize use of my camera’s LCD. There’s also the inexorable movement of the stars as seen from a rotating planet. When the shutter opens, each pinpoint star begins to trace a trail of light, imperceptibly at first but soon prominently enough to notice in a print. Sometimes I fight that motion and sometimes I embrace it, but I always need to be aware of it.
There are societal challenges to navigate. Many parks and preserves lock their gates when the sun goes down, immediately shrinking the list of eligible locations. You’re never very far from civilization here in the Hudson Valley, so when shooting photos at night, conversations with police and nearby homeowners are not uncommon. Standing in a dark field for hours on end tends to draw attention.
You’re a self-taught photographer. How has your style changed as you’ve learned more about the camera and its capabilities?
Learning about photography has fundamentally changed the way I view the world, and I think that’s been reflected back into my work. I’m constantly attuned to the properties of light and form around me. Even when not actively practicing my craft, I feel that I’m still refining my style as I make subconscious selections about what would make a good photograph. Looking back [at] the early years of my digital archives, I notice that my work has changed in some ways but stays the same in others.
Then as now, I sought natural landscapes with hints of human influence. Medium focal lengths have always been my preference over ultra-wide, so as to maintain a perspective most natural to the human eye. My work has always tended to showcase high-contrast scenes. Notably among the changes, I’ve become more comfortable making artistic choices that deviate from technical perfection, like deliberately under- or over-exposing, selecting a stylistic white balance, or accepting blurry vegetation on a windy day. In landscape photography, the best choices are often not the most objective ones.
I started experimenting with advanced photography techniques quite early, having attempted my first long exposures before I could really explain what an exposure was. I was captivated by some of my camera’s tricks, like magically making a waterfall look silky-smooth with just a few settings tweaks. For a while, much of my work was focused on these novel effects, to the detriment of creative expression. As my style evolved, I realized that a successful photo doesn’t exist just to demonstrate technical prowess, and that the vision should drive the method.
A large portion of your portfolio comprises images of the Hudson Valley. What is it about our region that compels you? Are there any visual characteristics that stand out to you in particular?
I love how the Hudson Valley acts as an interface between urban and rural environments, bridging the gap between wild mountain ranges and the country’s biggest metropolitan area. That contrast adds an uncommon dynamic which I use to my creative advantage. Our bridges, historic structures, and other landmarks can strongly anchor compositions without overpowering them.
I think people connect most strongly to the images of mine that have both familiar and extraordinary elements, such that uncommon emotions are evoked but the viewer can still easily imagine themselves becoming immersed in the scene. Too abstract, or too mundane, and I run the risk of losing the viewer’s attention. The Hudson Valley provides ample opportunities to straddle that middle ground.
I’d be remiss if I sang the Valley’s praises without commenting on the Hudson River, that central corridor bringing continuity to a diverse series of landscapes. The river’s constancy also helps ground me when I’m out making art. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by the conditions or struggling to find a satisfying composition, I’ll often head to the Hudson’s banks to clear my thoughts and plan my next move, even if it takes me out of my way.
You name Hudson River School painters as well as American masters of photography like Adams, Muench, and Mangelsen as inspirations. What do you admire about these artists, and how does this inform your approach to photography?
I’m just one of many photographers who derives inspiration from the Hudson River School painters. Their creations depict grand landscapes bathed in sublime light, with vivid colors and strong leading lines. Some reflect on the interaction between human activity and the natural world, [which] I also try to capture in my work. The messages in our art may differ; Cole’s The Oxbow, for example, is usually seen as a celebration of land development and manifest destiny. Despite changing principles, there’s still much to learn stylistically from these early works.
One photographer influenced by the Hudson River School was Ansel Adams, whose own teachings have helped shape my style. His ideas on pre-visualization help me maintain clear direction through the creative process. Another personal favorite, Galen Rowell, fleshed out some of these ideas; he stressed the importance of seeing as the camera does so the artist can accurately predict how a scene will translate to a photo. In this way, the success rate rises.
I’ve spent many hours perusing the portfolios of David Muench. I admire his approach to choosing and composing foreground elements, and I constantly aspire to see the depth in each landscape that he would see. I’ve also found value in studying the works of wildlife photographers, although I don’t dabble in that genre very often. The insights gleaned on principles like patience in the field and being prepared for the decisive moment translate well to landscape photography.
Which is your favorite season to shoot in the Hudson Valley?
Winter, without doubt. I love its capacity to instantly transform a landscape, as well as the soft light that accompanies clearing winter storms. Hudson River ice is very possibly my longest-running photography project; I’ll never tire of the endless shapes and textures that form when our estuary enters deep freeze.
Having said that, winter isn’t necessarily my most prolific season. Much of the season can be challenging for landscape photographers. This past winter featured long stretches of bare ground under cloudy skies. That’s not exactly uncommon around here and, while it’s still possible to create worthwhile content in those conditions, my inspiration tends to run low. When the conditions are good, though, they’re excellent, and my most treasured memories of photography through the years have typically been in winter.
Do you have a favorite place to take photos in the Hudson Valley?
The Buttercup Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Stanfordville is just a short drive from home, so I’ve photographed it in all seasons. After dozens of visits, I’ve become intimately familiar with the preserve’s features and how they interact with different kinds of light. The preserve has forests, meadows, and rolling hills; ponds, streams, and marshlands; panoramic views and charming historic structures. A perennial haven for fireflies, it offers surprisingly good views of the night sky. In spring, abundant wildflowers are the perfect foreground for storm clouds cresting Stissing Mountain, visible prominently from Buttercup.
It isn’t the most impressive spot in the Hudson Valley, but it doesn’t have to be. Perfect as a quiet, low-stakes environment for honing my skills, it’s my trusty spot to fall back on when other plans hit trouble, and it shows up numerous times in my portfolio.
We know that light pollution is an issue dear to your heart—and detrimental to your artistry. Can you speak a little to how light pollution affects the Hudson Valley?
Light pollution is one of the most insidious forms of pollution, and also among the hardest to reverse. When the unchecked glow of towns and cities washes the constellations from the night sky, that view is generally gone for good; stargazers and artists are forced to travel ever farther from home to study and document the cosmos. While many parts of the Hudson Valley still have a beautiful view of the summer Milky Way, those “dark sky” spots are in constant retreat, and several of my favorite locations for astrophotography have been lost to light pollution in recent years. In my view, this isn’t just an incidental side-effect of modern society, but a major blow to quality of life.
If light pollution is damaging to us, it’s devastating to wildlife, since countless species rely on dark nights for foraging, migration, and reproduction. As an example: Over many nights spent photographing fireflies in the Hudson Valley, I’m always struck by how sensitive they are to passing car headlights, and even my camera’s blinking indicators. When you scale that up to today’s brightly lit neighborhoods and industrial centers, it’s easy to understand how the firefly population, and entire ecosystems, might suffer.
The International Dark-Sky Association provides some guidelines on responsible outdoor lighting practices. There are lots of simple steps we can all take to minimize unnecessary light pollution without compromising safety or convenience.
Do you have a favorite of your own photographs?
It’s hard for me to say, since I’d like to think my work is stronger as a body than as individual components. I could single out “Lunar Lookout,” which features the Stissing Mountain Fire Tower silhouetted against a full moon in extreme forced perspective. It’s one of my simplest compositions that nonetheless required precision and extensive planning. This photo, my best-selling to date, has been especially well-received by friends and neighbors from the Pine Plains area. For them, the fire tower is an instantly recognizable symbol of home, but it’s been captured in an uncommon way that invites a closer look. That’s a balance I try to strike whenever possible.
I’m also very fond of “Old Man Winter,” a more traditional landscape shot of Kaaterskill Falls that employs many of my favorite elements: layers, strong framing, soft light, and winter quietude. If I had to pick just one photo of mine to hang in my home, it would be this one.
Speaking of, do you sell prints of your work?
I sell prints on my website. I can accommodate many different formats and mediums, but the metal print has been an enduring favorite among my collectors for its vividness and ease of display.
Lastly, we want to know: What makes a great landscape photograph?
Landscape photography excels when it emphasizes change across time and space. I always seek a dynamic energy that comes from ongoing transitions like shifting seasons, transforming weather conditions, changing tides, and ephemeral light. The more dramatic and fleeting, the better; stasis is an enemy of successful landscape photos.
Related: Photographer Ryan Rusiecki Makes a Muse of the Hudson Valley