Surface Tension

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

It’s all about breaking the surface.

I’m always reluctant to talk about my photography. Somewhere, deep inside, I suppose I think no one is interested but I keep getting requests asking me to talk about my photos so I guess I should. I thought today I would talk a little more in depth about an image I love and why I love it.

My fly fishing photo library contains almost 400,000 images. That’s a lot to get your head around. Think of it this way, in my office there is a safe containing over a dozen external hard drives. Each holding between two and six terabytes of data.

There are a great many different kinds of photos in there. Hero shots, scenics, moments of epic timing as well as failed experiments, half baked ideas and photos of my drunk friends. Some of them puzzle even me and I live with the uneasy idea that the best photo I ever took may be just lost in all of that data.

One thing seems to be true about this mountain of work. The cream does rise to the top. Over time certain images just continue to catch my eye. Some I love at first sight, but others I fall in love with over time. I find that those are the images that end up meaning the most to me. The ones that take time to love and understand.

Here’s the tricky thing. Time is not a luxury that photographers enjoy. Time is more of an adversary. Here’s what I mean. If a person sees a painting, and they don’t understand it, they will invest quite a lot of time trying to sort it out. Most folks will assume that the artist saw something they did not. Photographs do not get that kind of attention.

It’s understandable. Photographs are very literal by their nature and people tend to take them at face value. There is often much more there, just below the surface. As photographers we know that we have your attention for about eight seconds. I learned that in school a hundred years ago and it seems to be pretty accurate. Most people will look at a good photograph for about eight seconds. That’s not very long to make a point.

As a result, most of the photographs you see are fairly direct and to the point. We photographers however, spend hours staring at images. Thinking about why they work. Training our brains to see the magic so that when it happens the finger twitches at exactly the right second. We fall in love with images that most folks breeze past.

I think this is one of those images.

It’s not that people don’t like it, they do. The color is beautiful. You can feel the cold morning air and see the first gold light on the mountains reflected in the water. The fish is a beautiful Colorado rainbow with blushing fins. It’s a scene any fisherman can relate to. But for me there is another level to this image.

When I took this photo I was thinking about surface tension. The exact point at which the fish’s fin breaks the surface of the water. The invisible barrier dividing his world from ours. The unseen force that lets a mayfly dance on the surface or makes a nymph struggle to break through.

We are such powerful creatures. Not just in our physical strength but in our ability to bend creation to our will. We see the moon in the sky and we go there. We know nothing of barriers or divisions. Nothing of walking on the surface of one world or breaking through to the next. Or do we?

Maybe that’s all we know. Maybe we are the mayfly dancing on the surface of the water. Walking on the edge of this world, knowing that one day the surface tension will break. Waiting for the rise.

And what of the fish? When we lift him from his world into our own, what does he see? Who are we, to him?

Any way, that’s why I love this photo. I hope maybe now, you love it too.

Check out more cool photos at

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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14 thoughts on “Surface Tension

  1. I am fascinated by the creative process; what makes photographers and artists and writers tick. I am especially struck by how that process is similar across all of the disciplines. The only difference, when you come right down to it, is the medium.

    Thanks for a peak into yours, Louis.

    • On the flip side, Mike, I’m of half a mind to say that the more we understand something, the less we tend to value it. With that in mind, I think it’s okay to simply give a photo our complete and undivided attention, for however long it holds us, and revel in the image. Sometimes it’s better to hold our conscious mind at bay.

  2. Poetic and beautiful, Louis. Taking worthy photographic images at face value is a sad and uninspired way to go through life. I prefer to conjure artistic intent or my own stories from images like this. Nature and the sportsman’s life can inspire powerful and beautiful stories.

    Thank you for giving me your insight into this beautiful piece of art. It may not have been my path for understanding the photo, but it was one well worth taking with you, especially since you created the work and selected it for display to the world.

  3. You raise an excellent point – fish are aliens to us, and we are aliens to them. I think about this often when I am out there, messing about on the edge of their universe. When you raise a fish out of the water to unhook it, that could very well be the highest above water that fish will ever make it, the farthest sojourn into ‘space’. It’s not a transition to take as lightly as we often do, and your picture is an excellent example of understanding that moment is actually quite special. Thanks for sharing a bit of yourself with those of us that also care.

  4. Wonderful image and thought inspiring post on several levels. I’ve bookmarked the single image and have been looking at it about 5 minutes and will return over a few days.
    Developing a deeper understanding of anything takes time and focus. Photos are certainly no different. On The Online Photographer blog, longtime photography writer and editor, Michael Johnston has written extensively on his self-editing process:

    “Look at real pictures. Don’t imagine. Don’t edit in your mind. I personally think the best way to do this is to use an Editing Board, a place where you pin up prints of pictures you’re trying to sort out your feelings about…in fact, I recommend this so often that my face turned blue a long, long time ago.

    The Editing Board is a mystery and a delight, definitely one of the more cool things about photography. If I take fifteen work prints that I just shot and put them up on the board, I might think at first that all fifteen are of roughly the same quality. Then, after looking at them for a week, I find that I really like three of them and couldn’t care less about the other twelve. I can’t tell you exactly how this happens. It’s like, I don’t know, cream rising to the top or something. It takes some time, but once that separation occurs there’s little doubt in your mind as to which is what. Try this. I can’t guarantee it will work for you, but it might. And if it does, it’s a powerful, powerful tool.

    But however you work, whatever your method, just make sure you look at the actual pictures.”

    More on “Editing and Portfolios” on TOP:

  5. Louis, I’m glad you shared your thoughts about your work and time. I think I’d be really overwhelmed knowing I had that many photos in my safe. How do you organize those so you can find what you might be searching for? I always felt that time was my enemy when shooting in the field. I’m an amateur at best and your suggestions on studying photos to help when the next opportunity appears was helpful. Thanks Rob

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