I struggle to make meaningful images while traveling, especially in places that are new to me and/or where I feel like a casual visitor. In my images I strive to tell stories, and in order for me to be an effective storyteller I need to possess some intimate first-hand knowledge of my subjects – the kind of knowledge that can only come from an ongoing relationship with them. Without such knowledge, the best I can hope for is to produce images that illustrate the external veneer of subjects and places, and that rely on aesthetics or interesting anecdotes rather than deeper insight. Indeed, it likely is fair to say that the vast majority of photography of natural subjects is created in this mode, portraying objective facts from the perspective of an outsider, rather than the subjective personal narrative of one who is an active participant having a role in the unfolding story. To me, this is a very important distinction in defining what I do, and how it is different from other common uses of the photographic medium.
Rather than “Photographer,” I often introduce myself as a “Photographic Artist.” The main reason having little to do with either photography or art, but with the fact that most people have no preconceived notion of what a photographic artist is, and I get to explain. Yes, I use photographic tools, and yes, I approach my work with the mindset of an artist. But, a distinction often missed is how such an approach manifests in the end result: the image. In particular, what makes an image expressive of the mind of the photographer, rather than a trophy for their technical skill or the aesthetic qualities of the subject. In my mind, expressive images are distinct in that they are not pictures of things; they are pictures about things.
Expressive images transcend subject, location, light and technique. These are all important, but secondary to the goal of sharing something of the artist’s own unique mind. As Minor White put it: “One should photograph objects, not only for what they are, but for what else they are.” And that else is never inherent in the subject, it has to come from the creative mind and unique sensibilities of the person behind the camera; it’s what gives an image that elusive quality: aboutness.
Aboutness is what I struggle to express when working in places I am not familiar with; when working from the perspective of an outsider; when in a hurry or burdened by distractions. And yet, without it, it is unlikely that I’ll be satisfied with the result, no matter how beautiful, colorful, detailed or well composed.
After many years of practice, I find that I’ve become more and more specialized and less of a generalist. Indeed, I have become a firm believer in the value of self-imposed limitations. The more demanding I am of myself, the less likely I am to make images, and yet the greater is my satisfaction with the images I do make. Aesthetics alone no longer satisfy.
What may not be obvious is that such strict limitations also serve to liberate and enhance my experience as a person. When no meaningful image can be made, I am free to revel in feats of light and natural beauty for sheer joy, unencumbered by the camera. In the last few years I watched countless breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, spectacular vistas and abundant beauty, without photographing any of them. I learned to enjoy things for what they are, separating the rewards of witnessing beautiful things from the joy of creating beautiful things of my own, so I can enjoy both in different ways. When a meaningful image presents itself, I am ready for it. It takes more effort and discipline, it makes me less prolific, but when all the pieces fall into place it is a feeling like no other.
“Creativity… requires limits, for the creative act rises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.” –Rollo May