I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Darwin and Sam for a few years now. They are two of the most dedicated, innovative and hard working photographers I know. Until recently, they each maintained an independent online presence but recently consolidated their work under a new brand: oopoomoo.com (you can find out what it means on the site).
Other than being superb photographers, Darwin and Sam do a lot to promote the practice of photography, offering insightful thoughts, spending a great deal of time teaching, writing and drawing attention to the works of others who inspire them. In an age of increased competition, I find this type of altruism both refreshing and admirable.
Darwin and Sam, you each found your way to photography having started down the path of different careers. Can you each say a few words about your personal history and describe the transition; what precipitated it, why photography in general and nature photography in particular?
Darwin – Many people ask me what inspired me to be a nature photographer. The easy answer is nature. Ever since I can remember I have been attracted to animals and bugs and plants. As a child I would spend hours just sitting in the forest watching all the life flitter and scuttle around me. As an adult I became a wildlife biologist with a degree in Zoology just so I could get paid to hang out with critters in nature. But the life of a working biologist is 80% office work and very little of what I loved to do – be out in nature. I soon tired of the desk and longed for more time in the field, so I took up nature photography as a hobby. My earliest influence was a book called “Photography of Natural Things” by Freeman Patterson that showed me that nature photography could be more than documentary, it could be art. After reading that book, I was hooked; nature photography became my passion.
Sam – It’s funny how early influences on your life determine lifelong interests. One powerful interest in my childhood was my mother who encouraged me in school. She always wanted to be a lawyer and I think I absorbed her dreams by osmosis. I was also always very interested in art, art history and being outdoors. Although teased for being bookish by my family, I spent a lot of time outside exploring by myself or reading about animal characters’ adventures in nature. These two seemingly opposite things, law and nature, have defined most of my life choices. It seems nature has won out in the end, and I think I am interested in photography because it satisfies my need to experience new places and create art while doing so.
One thing I always admired about your work is the consistency with which you come up with novel and creative ideas, and sidestep photographic clichés. How do you keep things “fresh”?
Darwin – The best way to keep things fresh is not to think about what you are doing but instead just reacting and feeling. It is self-destructive to think about being creative. You become creative by just being true to yourself and following your heart and your gut. As soon as you try to force being creative you sabotage yourself. So shoot what you love, don’t listen to what other people tell you about what and how you shoot, don’t get stuck in the trap of trying to replicate someone else’s style. Give yourself the time needed to evolve as an artist. Don’t sweat it too much and you will find your voice.
Sam – I don’t really worry about trying to keep things fresh because at this stage I am still learning so much. Many photographers worry about being different from other shooters, but I think the true artist does not or cannot worry about such a thing; you can’t help but express your true voice. If you feel out of touch with your artistic voice, then I can see how repetition and rote would bring a stale note to your work. But I find that this industry is so centred around the traditional male point of view that by just stepping into it I am different. Just think of the vocabulary surrounding photography: we talk about ‘taking’ an image, ‘capturing’ a ‘killer shot’. Or my favourite, “I nailed it.” This is very aggressive language where the ‘hunter’ slays the image which is almost like a foe. Then it’s all about strut. Instead of engaging in a meaningful discussion about creative voice and the artistic urge, it’s show and tell time with a lot of accolades reserved for the ‘trophy’ nature or landscape shot. I see this mentality often, in workshops, magazines and forums, and the result is often a lot of copycat-ism and repetition.
Nature photography as art seems a loaded topic, both among photographers and art connoisseurs. To what degree do you consider your work artistic. Is it an important distinction to you?
Darwin – Whether my work is artistic isn’t something I worry about at all. How people categorize my work is totally up to the viewer. Like the old saying goes, “What other people think of me is none of my business!” All I can do is be honest with myself and try and make images that are true to who I am and that represent what I was trying to say at the time.
Sam – Wow, we’re pretty different on this point, Darwin! I do think it is an important distinction, and I give it a lot of thought. Although part of why I photograph is to satisfy my need to make something creative (I also enjoy painting, cooking and making crafts which scratch that itch too), it is also important to me to make something good. I have no interest in so-called ‘documentary photography’ which I really think is a load of garbage believed by people who don’t understand enough about human perception. When you are trying to interpret the world using media, any media, that ability to interpret is the kernel or seed that leads to artistic expression. I try to be there with my work.
Both of you spend a considerable amount of time teaching and writing about photography. Other than basic technique, what values do you seek to instill in your students that go beyond just “getting the shot”?
Darwin – The photo industry, both teachers and students, want photo instruction to be like a cookbook. Here are all the ingredients, here is the recipe; the end result is a perfectly baked pie. And that is what we get, a whole bunch of perfectly baked pies that all look and taste the same. We try to teach students to take the ingredients and make their own version of a pie, to come up with their personal recipe. In other words we train our students to be chefs rather than cooks.
Sam – I have very little patience for the ‘get the shot’ mentality. That is why I don’t lead tours. I can appreciate that some photographers make good money taking their clients to places where a specific kind of photo is all but guaranteed but, to be honest, I think this service downgrades photography to a trade. It also helps foster the attitude commonly held that photography is a documentary science and not an art form. And for the rest of us trying to eke out a living in photography, having your art reduced to something that is reproducible and banal is unhelpful. Having said that, though, there sure are a lot of junk images out there masquerading as art! If you can’t make it good, print it big and go black and white! It really comes down to education, and we photographers are uniquely placed to provide this kind of information. Instead of selling an easy grab shot, encourage your client’s own unique voice. Instead of printing large images and telling the world you are great, seek to always better yourself as an artist. When it comes to values, I want my students to think for themselves, not believe what I or others say. I want them to listen to their own artistic muse and develop their unique way of seeing the world.
Darwin – I originally started off doing tours because I enjoyed sharing wonderful places with other fairly advanced shooters who were pretty comfortable with their own artistic voice. More and more, though, the industry seems to encourage people to grab a trophy shot rather than invest in their artistic skill as a photographer. I’m finding this trend dissatisfying as an instructor and guide and that is why we’re doing more workshops: it’s a creative and fulfilling experience for both me as an instructor and hopefully participants.
On your blogs you often highlight the work of other photographers who inspire you. I know this helped introduce me to some fantastic work I would not have seen otherwise. What drives you to do so?
I have always loved looking at other people’s images and find much inspiration in the work of others. If someone’s image really grabs me, I am sure others might also be moved by it and so it is only natural to share the gem with others.
I think the photographic community is much stronger through sharing and building positivity rather than the negativity so common on the web. And frankly, it gets tiring following a photographer who only publishes the “Hey look at me, I am so awesome” kind of blog posts. so we try to shake it up with posts that our community can learn from or be inspired by.
Tell us about your new site, oopoomoo. What was the thinking behind it and what can we expect to find there going forward?
Darwin – oopoomoo is sort of an antidote to what we saw as problems with the photo industry (and the world). The emphasis on consumption wreaks havoc not only on the development of the artist but has severe impacts on the ecosystem. We are trying to live better and softer and more artistically on this earth and oopoomoo is a chronicle of our attempts (both successes and failures). We want oopoomoo to be a community; we share these struggles and triumphs together, and we also want to be a source of great information about what truly matters in photography which is the artist and not the gear.
Sam – oopoomoo is a response to the direction photography has gone in the last five years. It is such a scrabble with everyone telling you that you have to join this website or get on this media, or churn out this app first. No doubt about it, running your own business is hard work. The trouble was, we wanted to do more than just photography but there was never enough time. So oopoomoo is our way of working our beliefs and values on how we want to live our life into our business. It’s a grand experiment. I think though that it is one everyone should be trying. Instead of trading your valuable time to earn money for a few weeks holiday with family, you should be living your ideal life every day. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky kind of stuff either. We’ve forgotten how to do this because of division of labour and specialization of skills. Societies used to be generally more close-knit and interconnected, and I think we need to return to this, even by using online communities (like the oopoomoo community), in order to be healthy and actively engaged in designing our ‘local’ communities.
About the Author (Author Profile)Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.
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