Time in the desert is a great catalyst for creative thinking. This is the first of a series of photography-related musings from my recent trip to The Maze.
Among the many things that occupied my mind on this last excursion was a realization of how my own goals and reasons for making images had evolved over the years. The more I thought about various and seemingly unrelated concepts around photography, the more I came to realize how interconnected they are. All seem to converge around one simple yet profound question: what do I hope to achieve with my images?
In my early years the answer was simple: I wanted to amaze my viewers. I wanted to elicit the “ooh”s and the “wow”s. I wanted friends and family and complete strangers to be impressed with where I’ve been and what I’ve seen and the trophies I brought back with me, and yes – I wanted them to envy me for it. The more praise I got the more driven I became, until a grim truth dawned on me: the driving force behind my forays into the wild and the value I placed on the experience became entirely dependent on the images I was able to make. I lost my sense of awe, and the ability to appreciate the simple pleasures of just being there. I no longer “wasted” time idling in thought, admiring intimate subtleties, or contemplating life lessons. It was all about the incessant search for the next “keeper”. I was devoted to recording superficial beauty and failed to appreciate deeper meanings, complexities, and details. I captured memorable anecdotes but missed the underlying stories. My work, though well accepted, was no more meaningful than a fashion shoot. In my quest to express my love for the wild, I lost my ability to experience the very things I set out to photograph. It was time to reset priorities and to rekindle the fire.
Chalk it up to age or to life experiences, but I have since come to learn that the missing ingredients to personal satisfaction with my own work were never missing to begin with. As I wrote in a previous article: “…you are there to make images of beautiful experiences. Make it a beautiful experience first, and you will have something to photograph.” Indeed, my works of the past seven years or so have been exactly that: reflections of memorable experiences. Looking at any one of them, I can recall the crackling of a small campfire in the desert with the Milky Way bright in the night sky; the reverence and humility of standing on a lofty perch, looking into the distance, breathing the sweet scents of wet earth and sagebrush after a desert rain; or watching the dawn unfold with a warm cup of coffee in a fragrant alpine meadow, observing as the first rays silently melt away thin frost off delicate blades of grass.
I realized I am more attuned to the quiet intricacies of the natural world. I found that I enjoyed creating images that speak softly and have a compositional complexity that invites exploration beyond the initial impact. I no longer feel the need to command attention from my viewers through fiery skies or staggering scale. Instead, I like to invite them politely to study shapes, patterns, subtle relationships, and graceful lines. Ironic as it seems, finding satisfaction in my own work was, more than anything else, about defining what I like… to myself.