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…?