Featured artist: Reflection in a Pool photographySeptember 16, 2016
Layers of bubbles frozen under ice. A calico butterfly balanced on a spiky thistle flower. A bronze sunset. There’s art all around us, but it takes a true artist to show what most of us take for granted.
Thanks to Jesse Thornton, the majestic Mountain State comes to life through photography.
“When the preview comes up on the camera’s LCD screen and you see what you’ve captured for the first time, it’s hard to describe how cool that feels,” he said. “It’s almost like you’ve discovered a secret that no one else knows.”
“We have much more than just the resources that can be extracted from the ground,” Jesse said. “We have some of the most diverse landscapes in the country packed into our little state. We have highlands like Dolly Sods that are akin to an Irish country side; sweeping mountainous vistas such as those found at Germany Valley or the Highlands Scenic Highway near Hillsboro; Blackwater Canyon and the New River Gorge are reminiscent of sections of the Grand Canyon, carpeted in lush greens; and there are the peat bogs of Cranberry Glades, resembling bogs found only in the Canadian tundra. We have 100s of waterfalls all over the state and some of the darkest skies for stargazing that you won’t find anywhere else on the East Coast south of Maine.”
If anyone can make such claims, it’s Jesse. Armed with a Pentax K-3 camera and tripod, he’s travelled extensively throughout the country. His wide-angle lenses have captured pelicans and pastel skies in Florida and lavender mesa arches in Utah. But this Point Pleasant native keeps coming back to his beloved state.
Though it’s tough to single out a favorite spot, Jesse is particularly drawn to Southern West Virginia.
“I can never get tired of the New River Gorge,” he said. “It feels like there are always new discoveries to be made there.”
Though you wouldn’t know it by Jesse’s wide collection of photos, he only discovered his calling a few years ago. His childhood habit of sketching signalled an artistic bent, but he didn’t pursue it.
“I was good at drawing copies of things when I was a kid, but not at making original art,” he said humbly. “I think it’s because I have trouble thinking in the abstract, but maybe I have some inherent skill in making copies of what I see in the world that translates to photography.”
At Marshall University, he earned a biomedical sciences degree— far removed from his eventual career. But it’s hard to escape your true calling. Despite the satisfying demands of scientific research, papers and complex data, he felt incomplete.
“It felt like I was burning out and missing something important,” he said.
After finishing his thesis, Jesse had a rare break: a chance to explore the country with his friends. Not wanting to miss a moment, he borrowed his mom’s point-and-shoot camera. Until then, he had rarely taken pictures of anything. But this vacation would open a door he had never opened.
“For the first time, I was seeing the Pacific Coast, the Rockies, the Grand Canyon,” he said. “I had ventured all along the East Coast and even into Canada and, for all I knew, it might also be the last time I saw these things.”
He snapped photos every step of the way. Not sure what to expect, he shared his favorite shots on social media. The positive feedback surprised him. Maybe, he thought, this was something he could do— something he was naturally good at doing.
Not long after the trip, Jesse bought a DSLR camera. Photography had found him. Now he was going to chase after it.
“It became my excuse to get out on my own and really see my home state for the first time,” Jesse said. “My photography just evolved from there and I’ve poured myself into it, learning and absorbing everything I can.”
University training came in handy. Because of his biomedical experience with CCD cameras and x-ray film, Jesse easily took to the technical side of photography. Now he’s studying the artistic elements of his profession: composition techniques by master painters, color theory and balance. For finishing touches, he relies on Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.
Jesse displays his best pieces in his online gallery, Reflection in a Pool.
“I’ve always been a wallflower rather than an attention seeker, so for me, it’s a little horrifying to see my name on anything,” he said. “I thought maybe having a pseudonym would sound more intriguing, and it gives me room to grow this into a business larger than myself if I make that decision in the future.”
He settled on “Reflection in a Pool” because it seemed like a natural fit. After all, light and nature are Jesse’s media.
His gallery features contemplative scenes of still ponds, softly glowing marshes and puddles formed by tossing waterfalls. Jesse approaches his craft with a scientist’s appreciation for natural structures and an artist’s sensitivity to color and harmony. But if there’s one pool Jesse studies the most, it’s the night sky.
“It’s estimated that over 2/3 of Americans have never seen the Milky Way,” he said. “How many times do we look up at night, anyway? Within the dome of a city’s lights you might be able to make out 20-50 stars— that may seem like a lot, but get away from the light pollution and you can see a few thousand stars with the naked eye, and that’s still a tiny fraction of a fraction of what’s up there.”
Fortunately, Reflection in a Pool shows us what we’re missing. A lemony orb in “Blue Moons and Endless Walls” hovers above a blue slice of New River Gorge. “Igloo Sky Glow” shows swirls of stars above the cauldron of a TNT bunker in Point Pleasant. And “A Frozen Dream” portrays swarms of constellations caught against the New River Gorge Bridge.
Jesse wants to preserve these endangered nocturnal landscapes.
“It’s great that we can still see the Milky Way in West Virginia,” he said. “That’s the same sky that has inspired ideas and culture throughout history, but I bet our ancestors never imagined that one day it might be gone. If enough people know what we’re losing, perhaps it will help curtail the expansion of unnecessary and wasteful lighting systems when there are better and more cost-effective alternatives. There is such a thing as being too well lit.”
Jesse remembers the moment he first captured the Milky Way. He was at Spruce Knob, the highest peak in West Virginia. Photographers, campers and astronomers gather there for unimpeded views of the night sky. Even though he was a new photographer at the time, the Spruce Knob image is still his favorite.
“I barely had a handle on how to operate my camera,” he said. “It’s out of focus, the color isn’t right and the composition is horrible, but I thought it was the greatest thing I ever did at the time.”
He loves sharing that magic moment with others.
“Everybody that I’ve taught to shoot the Milky Way since then has had the same reaction when, for the first time, they see on their own LCD screens those dense bands of stars and dust clouds that populate the center of our galaxy,” Jesse said.
He’s just as generous when it comes to revealing special locations. Every photo in the Reflection in a Pool shop comes with descriptions and GPS locations, so you can try your luck, too. Above all, Jesse hopes West Virginia’s natural beauty, artists and photographers gain more attention.
“There’s one comment in particular that I still remember and I think distills the general sentiment that I see on a near daily basis,” he said. “It came from a woman born in West Virginia who had moved away. She mentioned that she has spent thousands of dollars traveling overseas to see the kind of scenery shown in my photos, never knowing what she had when she lived here.”
“I think that sums up what I hear repeatedly, and it’s unfortunate that leaving the Mountain State is such a common goal and often a necessity to make a living,” he said. “Yet this is a state where the people who live here have so much pride in where they’re from. It’s a strange and unique dichotomy that I’ve never really seen anywhere else. Granted, most folks have some pride in where they’re from, wherever that happens to be, but there’s something different with West Virginia. That pride is always mixed with some regret for leaving or a strong desire to get back.”
His gorgeous photos can definitely inspire. Always uplifting and often sublime, they give us a deeper appreciation of our surroundings.
“I feel that you’ve beat the game if you can find great pleasure in a sunset, a waterfall or a night sky,” Jesse said.
Getting people to connect with the land is something Jesse prizes above all else. Look twice at what you have. Travel your state.
“I’ve never really understood until now what it meant to have a passion for something, but I’ve learned that passion is a thing that you are compelled to pursue,” Jesse said. “It’s not something that you can stop one day, and I can’t stop what I’m doing. I don’t know where this will ultimately lead me, but I have to continue to pursue this. I’m just glad that there are people who find value in what I do.”