In my earlier post recounting some thoughts about the year that was, I mentioned realizing that my thoughts on photography and art required a few course corrections last year. This is certainly not the first time and I thought it might be helpful to further elaborate on some of the ones that made a significant difference in my work.
Recognizing that some of these may be touchy topics, I would like to state that they are personal choices guided by goals I set for my own work. It is not my intent to proclaim them universal truths, nor to suggest that opposing opinions are any more or less valid in an absolute sense. My intent is to share milestones in the evolution of my own thinking, in the hope that others may find them interesting or even helpful, whether they agree with me or not.
One reason 2012 was a pivotal year for me is that, after decades of holding on to stories and notions I was not quite prepared to share, I finally decided to “go there.” I stood on stages and delivered presentations revealing aspects of myself I never have before. To my surprise, the response was both favorable and cathartic. Prompted by a suggestion from a former magazine editor, I also began working on a book around the same themes.
Each of the sections below deserves much broader discussion than may be appropriate for a blog post. I hope to do them justice in the book.
I Don’t Want to be Ansel Adams
It was nearly two decades ago when, along with a few would-be friends and colleagues, I participated in early versions of various photography forums. It was a turning point for many of us, having recognized that our photography transitioned from being merely a hobby into a “serious” hobby. We shared an appreciation for the wild, for the beauty of natural scenery, for hiking and exploring. We pretty much all did the same thing back then – incessantly pursuing aesthetically-pleasing renditions of scenes from our outdoor exploits, pursuing sunrises and sunsets, checking off the same scenic locations, occasionally trying to find new views, arches, hoodoos and canyons not yet photographed, mostly for bragging rights.
We each wanted to be the “Ansel Adams of color” despite having little knowledge of Adams’ actual methods or philosophy and not quite realizing how nonsensical the very expression is. All we knew was that he was a successful photographer and, at the time, that seemed as high a goal as any to aspire to. Years of study resulted in a deeper understanding of Adams and many others, and the recognition that there was much more to photography than being “like Ansel Adams,” or anyone else for that matters. Ansel Adams was like Ansel Adams, and that’s enough.
It is interesting and inspiring to me today to see the different directions taken by some of the friends I made in those days, and how some of us found our own voices in our work. The fact that, to this day, we remain friends and are as passionate as we ever were, and continue along a journey of discovery and evolution of our individual paths – in life, in photography and in art – is a testament to the power of the medium to enrich lives and to serve as an inexhaustible source of inspiration and discovery. Without these, I surely would not be an artist today.
I don’t want to be Ansel Adams. I want to be me. I’m glad to be me. This wasn’t always the case.
There’s no denying the sheer power of the grand landscape, and the immense temptation it presents to a photographer. Just be there at the right time, with the right lens, and let the scenery do the singing. And who can remain oblivious to a heaping dose of sheer majestic magnificence?
To me, though, grand landscapes always presented a dilemma: how do I make my own voice heard? I’m an introvert by nature. I favor quiet solitude over social interaction. I find more joy and insight in quiet conversations than in parties. Despite my great love and reverence for wild beauty, I found that telling my stories in such images was like trying to recite a poem in the midst of a Rock concert. No matter what I wanted to say, the response was always: wow, this is beautiful! And the more nuanced story? What story? Was there a story?
Yes, there are exceptions. Still, few photographers I know truly immerse themselves in the experience when photographing grand landscapes. You can see it in their work. For too many, though, such bombastic compositions are easy means of impressing without taking the time to develop deeper relationships with the places they photograph.
Discovering Eliot Porter’s Intimate Landscapes was a revelation to me. Here were images both quiet and powerful, containing subtle beauty and nuanced personal narrative. Not a “wow, look at this!” but a “hey, let me tell you a secret…”
I still very much enjoy grand landscape images done well. But, I no longer feel compelled to pursue them myself. I don’t need to. Others do a much better job at it. Realizing that I can tell my own stories in a way more consistent with my own temperament was immensely liberating. So what if there are great clouds over the mountain? I’m much more interested in this pattern in the rock, that fascinating arrangement of lines, the dazzling colors in a canyon pool, or the ephemeral warm glow among the trees. I’m just that kind of person.
Photographing the Experience
Few things will stop a photographer in their tracks as simply asking them why they photograph. For too long, I reached for the easy answers: because I enjoy it, because I want to share the beauty, because it’s my job. I always knew it was hogwash, but I did not have better answers. Not ones I wanted to share, anyway. How can I compress into a quick retort my life’s journey, my painful inadequacies, the torment I escape by coming into the wild?
I photograph because it’s the one visual medium I was ever any good at, and because I need to. I touched on this in a previous post. I photograph because I would be in a deep dark place if I didn’t; and I share it with the world because I find that my experience is enhanced and in some way validated by doing so.
In truth, photography is a very small part of “it.” It’s the greater experience of communing with the wild, of feeling like I belong in the grand scheme of existence and wanting to understand it better through deliberate explorations. Being socially awkward, it’s my way of being social.
It’s not about photography. It’s not about telling the world where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. It’s about the things that make my life worth living. I no longer go out in search of images; I go out looking for meaningful experiences to inspire me, and I photograph them as I find them, or, as they find me.
For many years, I referred to myself as an artist. A lot of people I knew did. It didn’t mean much. We were artists because that’s what you call someone who produces beautiful things and wants add a little prestige to their work.
I took some art classes in the past. I forgot most of it by the time I became a “serious” photographer, though. As my interest in photography grew, I began to read and study. My first encounters were with the hero-genre of outdoor photographers – people who photographed to document their passion for extreme outdoor sports, or for remote destinations or other feats bordering on the superhuman. These are people whose lives I envied. To this day they are among my most admired role models.
But, I realized that my own photography is rooted in something different. Reading Ansel Adams led me to Edward Weston and to Minor White and to Alfred Stieglitz and others. I found a deeper understanding of landscape photography – photography motivated by things other than impressive outdoor feats or sublime natural phenomena. I became fascinated with photography practiced as an expressive medium, inextricably linked with the artist’s emotional core, interpreting their world and evolving their understanding of it by engaging in creative work.
It was hard to admit, but at that point I felt that much of my own photography until then did not live up to such lofty goals, let alone worthy of being called art. With this renewed understanding of art, the word itself became something to be revered, to be earned and aspired to, and not to be used in vain. I felt a deep desire to live and work more deliberately, to tell my own stories in my work.
I did not stop with the writings of photographers. I began reading about painters and musicians, art critique, art history, and the science of visual perception. And all of a sudden “art” was so much more than just a marketing buzzword and more than just a touch of prestige – it became a means of engaging with life itself.
During that period I discarded large volumes of images; thousands, all told. It was a painful gut-wrenching realization, to a point where I felt that I needed to start over from scratch and create more meaningful work. In hindsight, I’m glad I did. It not only made me a better artist; it made me a better person.
Sell Your Work, Not Your Soul
This is a hard topic to broach. Being “in the business” opened my eyes not only to the many benefits of living a creative life but also to the the fact that for many, it really is just a business. In my years of practicing my work I have seen more hypocrisy, narcissism, and acrimony than I would have expected for a profession rooted in beauty. Between ego, competition and the almighty dollar, I have seen otherwise good and caring people become angry, dishonest and mean-spirited. In truth, without noticing it, I was close to being consumed by such forces myself when the warning signs hit me like a ton of bricks. I did not want to become that person. Becoming an artist was a profound life decision for me, and I was not willing to let it become just another job.
I admit, there are aspects of the business that do not appeal to me. Among other things, I do not believe in limiting print editions; I do not want to profit from copying other people’s work and don’t like it when others copy mine; I do not believe that there is real value in competitions and awards. It used to anger me until I realized the wisdom of not wasting my time worrying about what other people do. If it does not fit my own values, I will not do it. Even if it costs me business.
One thing I find especially difficult to teach, especially to budding photographers is that “just because it’s pretty doesn’t mean it’s art.” In fact, the dominant paradigm today makes beauty a kiss of death for anyone wishing to make it in the “art world,” though that attitude, in my opinion, goes too far.
Still, the more important point is that in order for an image to make a lasting and meaningful impression, beauty is not enough. Important, certainly, but not enough. There has to be more. Minor White famously suggested photographing things “not for what they are, but for what else they are.” There has to be an “else.”
The “else” is not inherent in the subject, no matter what it is or how aesthetically pleasing it is all by itself. The “else” comes from the artist. The more meaningful the “else,” the more of the artist is in the work, the greater the investment they put into their choices, and the more they put their own soul on the line.
Beyond aesthetics is the relationship the artist has with their subjects, the degree to which they are willing to share bits of themselves, the sensibilities, thoughts and beliefs that make them who they are. Don’t stop at aesthetics. More importantly, don’t favor aesthetics over substance.