My first “nature photography” experience occurred nearly thirty years ago, when for reasons I can’t even remember I borrowed my father’s old Minolta and went to play outside. Not a single image from that roll of film turned out, but the joy of seeking photogenic subjects and fitting them into the finder frame was intoxicating. My memories of that day include colorful beetles, the scent of wildflowers, warm sunshine on my face, watching a tortoise slowly chewing fragrant clover leaves, stalking large swallowtail and monarch butterflies, the diffraction of late afternoon sunlight through wild thistle heads, and the occasional pause, setting down the camera and just soaking in the experience of being in a quiet place, away from the din of the human hive, with all my senses on high alert and savoring the magnificence of a perfect spring day.
As my interest grew, I also became an obsessive reader and collector of photography books, the coffee-table variety, as well as the stories and biographies of notable photographers; and, to a lesser extent, technical references, as long as they were accompanied by noteworthy images. There always seemed to me to be an interesting schism in the way that photographers described their images in these books. Some opted for the dry technical data – camera, lens, exposure. Others described something of the location and technique used. But those that fascinated me most were the ones describing moving and emotional experiences associated with the work, a love for a subject or place, a reverence for natural beauty, the awe in the face of serendipitous circumstances, the merging of a passion for the wild and rare revelations with the expressive abilities of the photographic medium.
“I seek out places where it can happen more readily, such as deserts or mountains or solitary areas, or by myself with a seashell, and while I’m there get into states of mind where I’m more open than usual. I’m waiting, I’m listening. I go to those places and get myself ready through meditation. Through being quiet and willing to wait, I can begin to see the inner man and the essence of the subject in front of me… Watching the way the current moves a blade of grass – sometimes I’ve seen that happen and it has just turned me inside out.” –Minor White
Those were the experiences I sought and which made photography so fascinating to me. The descriptions were visceral. Since my earliest childhood, I spent much of my time alone in fields and could easily transport myself into these experiences, adding in my mind all the missing dimensions of being there: what it smelled like, what sounds were in the air, what the temperature was like, the quickening beating of my heart when encountering a rare sight. Still images animated themselves in my imagination and I could feel what it was like being the person behind the camera taking it all in with great gratitude.
I can distinctly set aside a period in my life lasting more than a decade in which my own images failed to live up to such experiences. I was in pursuit of the “keeper” often in a rush, on a short break from a corporate career. My images failed to capture such emotional depth because, I can admit now, I did not actually experience it. I would leave home early, rush to beat the sunrise, spend the remainder of the day rapt in an incessant and at times frustrating pursuit for something – anything – that may yield an appealing photograph before rushing back. In my mind then, the only difference between what I was doing and those wonderful experiences described by other photographers was merely in the time I had to dedicate to it. I went to the same places, used the same equipment, went through the same moves and came back with good images. But it did not feel like the real thing, because it was not.
When I finally decided to leave the urban corporate world to pursue a life of creative writing and photography, I looked forward to finding those deep and moving experiences I remembered from my own childhood and from the accounts of naturalists and adventurers I read in books. For a while, though, I was still unable to accomplish them. There was a period of transition. I still worked in the same rushed mode, favoring images over experiences. But, slowly, things began to change. I found myself daydreaming again, leaning against rocks and tree trunks taking deep breaths and smiling for no apparent reason, savoring smells and warmth and the dance of light on water. Slowly, I began to trust that images will present themselves in time without me seeking them out, and that my being there was more important than anything I may record. Gradually, the barriers came down, the rush gave way to quiet contemplation; the beauty and magic that seemed like manufactured tales in other times became real and visceral again as I remembered them from my youth. Being in these places that inspire me stopped being about sunrises or sunsets or “secret” spots and became about living and feeling and being the protagonist of a story that captivates me as much as any work of fiction.
Where for years I took very seriously the how of making images, with time and peace to savor and interpret and study and be fascinated, the why became a far a more serious and rewarding aspect of what I do. The poetic and emotional descriptions of images that once captured my imagination are no longer flowery platitudes; they are real and every bit as beautiful as I always hoped them to be.
I am currently in the midst of writing a new book, tentatively titled A Life of Quiet Inspiration (a play on Thoreau’s assertion that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”). In it, I have a placeholder for a would-be chapter titled “Should You Quit Your Job?” It is a topic that caused me much hesitation. In the past I answered such questions with a politically correct dismissal, saying that I could not answer it for anyone but myself. Indeed, I still believe I can’t, but in the book I will offer insight into the thoughts and meditations that led me to quit mine, and the rewards that followed.