A path to the discovery of self. We’ve all seen it. Photographs pour fourth like a never-ending stream as wave after wave of photographers visit the same tired spots trying to put down their mark. Every photo seems to literally vibrate with dramatic lines, amped color, and skies ablaze with crimson light. Enough already!
It’s both funny and tragic. It seems that because images have become ubiquitous, we are losing our ability to discover and think. It’s like we’ve seen a certain style succeed, so we find ways to reinterpret with even greater impact. It’s so easy to copy. We copy locations; we copy cameras, focal lengths and increasingly…style. I’m so old I remember images that were the result of pure discovery and waiting for the right conditions. Images created by many early landscape photographers actually represented the first time certain places were ever seen and published. I can’t begin to enumerate the number of times people ask: “where did you take that?” Not “what a magical place, or why is the area threatened,” but instead: “how do I get there!”
I confess to being guilty of stealing ideas, locations and I’m definitely a gear head, but the difference is, recognizing that other people’s images are merely signposts pointing the way. They’re a step on the way to developing a personal style. Copying is part of the learning process. However, what was once part of the developmental process is now commonplace. Maybe it’s because “everyone” is a photographer and with todays cameras, anyone can make high quality photographs quite easily. Could that be the problem? It comes too easy?
There’s something to be said for “suffering for your art.” That brutal process of trying, failing and only sometimes succeeding, is at once a taskmaster and teacher. My failures at times have been truly epic. Once I chased a subject across Illinois to make a quite simple photograph, but in the heat of the case, connected the flash to the wrong synch plug. The result I feared would end my photojournalistic career. I learned much from that failure: perseverance, humility, grace, forgiveness, tenacity, and perspective. A year later, I won the Pulitzer Prize.
But perhaps the most important thing I learned was to take chances and risk failure. By revisiting the same subjects with the same angles we’re playing it safe, we’re staying at the shallow end of the pool. We need to dare to risk it all.
Digital cameras foster the sense of “playing it safe.” Technology makes speed possible. The down side is that our interaction with our subject is often superficial and our photographs are merely “glancing blows.” There’s no real contact or connection. We can snap the photo, check the playback and move on.
I would argue, that a single deeply connected, well-thought image is worth more than a week’s worth of blazing away. Of course you could get lucky and get that incredible moment just because you live under some lucky star. But, more likely your finger will suffer fatigue from hitting the delete key.
Digital photography gives us the ability to know we “have the shot” before we head home. I believe that’s both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, we head home with supreme confidence. On the other hand: that edgy gnawing in our stomachs…thinking we might or might not have the shot, but not absolutely sure; made us really concentrate on “getting it right.” I personally feel I’ve gotten a little too comfortable and a trifle over-confident with my Nikon D810. When I really connect to my subject, I reclaim control and direct the camera instead of the camera directing me. That means abandoning the preconceived notions, and setting the camera to “manual.” For example: if I go into the landscape with a wide angle lens ready for the “big sky” look and suddenly a macro detail jumps into my consciousness, I change direction, lenses and approach.
My direction is often the product of “get acquainted walk through.” The simple act of walking slows me down and forces concentration and connection. It’s really that simple. Travel slowly. Look around without a camera. Walk and open your eyes, heart and mind. I like to ask myself: what if? What if I get closer? Where does my eye travel? I imagine what conditions brought this unique situation into being.
I resolved to return to part of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument where I explored many years ago. I wanted to dissect the petrified sand dunes into intimate compositions. By boring into the scene before me, I began to notice each layer of sand, laid down over eons and frozen in time. It was a record of events just waiting for a photograph to inform of this simple miracle. I looked at this simple pattern as something more…I made a connection.
There was a time when this type of image would not have interested me in the slightest. However, with age comes a certain amount of wisdom (work in progress.) I have learned that simplicity IS the highest form of sophistication. Phil Hyde’s incredible insight was to make an image, then make a test print and live with it for a month. If he still liked it…he committed it to print.
Imagine that progression today with photographers filling countless gigabyte flash cards with thousands of images. I wonder how many images will endure and represent connections to the photographer’s heart…?
The process of discovery I read in many of the wonderful comments about Jack’s amazing work are beautifully summed up in a short radio (with video) essay by Ira Glass. It’s from his NPR Radio show called “This American Life”. It’s called “The Gap”. Everyone struggling with creativity and originality in their photographic work should watch this 2 minute essay. My favorite version on Vimeo has the message illustrated with various media like silkscreens and words spelled with alphabet soup letters! Really, it sums up the creative struggle and the only real solution in such brilliant brevity, it must be heard (and seen) several times. Google it, watch it, and take his message to heart. You won’t be disappointed.
I’m so pleased to read this. I have felt this way for a long time. It has seemed to me that Photo Tours and Workshops have become a part of what Edward Abbey called “Industrial Tourism” and iconic landscapes like the big game trophy of African hunts directed (choreographed) by a professional hunting guide (but at least nothing dies and awareness is probably raised). I have been content to find out how many species of dragonflies, butterflies, birds and frogs live in the back river-edge side of our local soccer park or to walk along the banks of the Chattahoochee River and see what pictures are lying around down there. I have certainly done my own photo trips to a couple of iconic places, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Big Bend National Park and Acadia National Park, for example but on my own and to discover, not to “get”. If I’m being honest, I am very much a copy-cat too except rather than copying the Magenta-sky heroes I find myself guided more by the quiet work of Eliot Porter (though I have made some magenta sky pictures too). I’m not going to be a famous photographer but by photographing in this way, I have made so many wonderful connections both to people and places. To me, that’s the magic carpet ride of photography. I will soften my comments by admitting that I know not completely of what I speak since I have never been on one of these big time (very expensive), multi day photo tours to iconic locales and maybe I might learn a lot. Someday I will probably try one but when I do I will select one where the emphasis will be on learning about the place, its flora and fauna and about photography, not returning home with trophies (hypocrite alert: nobody celebrates more when they come home with a new species of dragonfly than me but I believe the celebration comes from the feeling of discovery.)
I like and agree with your comment as much as your original article, maybe more! I’m very pleased at the reaction to the little piece from a confirmed curmudgeon. Image making is very important to me and not something I waste time doing. I have a mission to use images to speak for the land. Our National Monuments are under assault by an administration that is questioning their National Monument status. For me, this fight is personal, since I’ve been fortunate to work with real heroes in both Government and environmental organizations who helped create: the Grand Staircase-Escalante, the Vermilion Cliffs and the Sonoran Desert National Monuments. The more photographs have a reason for being, the more powerful they become. Honest depictions of the land will endure, but I fear amped colorized, over saturated, super stylized images speak more for the photographer than for the land….” There’s lots of places that need defending and if we only photograph the icons, that’s all that we will end up defending. “Stand in the place where you live” -REM.
Ooops, I failed to add the open quotes when I began quoting Jack but I did get the close quotes in there. Sorry.
Agreed Jack. Generally men in the industrialized civilization identify too much with what they (we) DO and HAVE . Women are generally a step ahead at this stage, expressing their identity more, or say deeper, from an innate knowing who they authentically ARE. That translates into how we express ourselves creatively into this world. Slowing down and engaging more consciously, with more awareness, is essentially the “oppsosite” to consuming scenes through the lens onto our digital cards, or film for that matter.
Thank you for sharing your observations!
I agree completely. I find that when I’m teaching workshops, if the group is all men…the emphasis tends to be gear. When just one woman is added to the mix, conversations shift to “feelings” an image evokes and the critiques are more nuanced….
Thanks for sharing this. I’ve designed a course assisting men to step authentically into their more balanced role, we start this coming monday. What I wasn’t aware of was the extend of the influence of one woman in a group of men but that makes a lot of sense to me, since the real power comes from BEING. Would be interesting to observe a single “gearheaded” man’s influence in a group if women photographers. My guess would be that he probably wouldn’t carry the same power and influence into the group. He’d probably kindle interest in equipment related aspects but not influence the “creativity level” to the same extend?
Mr. Dykinga, thank you for your contribution to Photography Life. It is a joy and a privilege for one of the contemporary greats of our craft share his thoughts and philosophy on the visualization process. I enjoyed your article, and I am a big admirer of your work.
“Photographs pour fourth like a never-ending stream as wave after wave of photographers visit the same tired spots trying to put down their mark. Every photo seems to literally vibrate with dramatic lines, amped color …”
Your two pictures pretty much follow the crowd.
Apparently, I touched a nerve. Your vision is your vision.
Not to bring politics in here but there is a chance that Vermillion Cliffs National Monument might lose its status because of the review initiated by Trump’s EO. That would be a pity. Losing even a single national monument is one too many …
Excellent and very valid points raised in the article and in the posts. However, what troubles me is the utter disdain for, boarding on lathing of, the amateur hobby photographer merely taking photos and/or documenting his/her vacation just for the sheer fun of it. What harm are they doing? Do they wear away, or otherwise degrade, the scenes they photograph and thus somehow diminish them for a later visit by you. Why can’t we just respect one another’s likes, dislikes, avocations, and enjoyment. This makes me think of the famous line from an Eagles song: “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy.”
I absolutely and without reservation agree with the views expressed here. I hope to be on the same path myself as I come back home having taken less and less photographs as time goes by. To think that, this year, Man will take more photos than have ever been taken in all the years before since photography was invented, is somehow a chilling thought.
Yes! Yes! Yes! thanks…
As you are one of my photographic “heroes” I am delighted to see your posting here. Have studied your images and always note their strong graphic content and their distinct way of seeing a subject–thanks for being an example, and I totally agree with the point you made here.