First, I am now well settled on the West Coast – time to get back to work and thank you for hanging in there with me. Second, you don’t need to be a long-time follower of this blog to know that this photograph is a departure from what I typically share. There was a lesson in this one for me.
This was shot from Steptoe Butte, overlooking the Palouse, In Washington. Since this was my first visit to the area, I arrived two hours prior to sunset – and had the place entirely to myself. The silence was astounding. As sunset approached, other photographers started arriving and setting up their cameras and tripods. I already knew I would likely not be shooting – no real foreground to work with, the hills quickly falling into shadow, sunsets alone too cliche for me as a photographer and artist. But as a person, these clouds fascinated me, shifting and moving in front of one another, the light bouncing off their edges, that column of rain. I saw several bolts of lightning in that column, though not enough to be able to catch it in a photograph.
I’m enjoying the show when another photographer disrupts the mood. He stands a good distance away but he’s talking on his cell phone so loudly that I hear every word. He’s an instructor, his students somewhere up the hill behind us. I had a number of thoughts about the situation, none complimentary. The sun set, his students began to gather their things. The instructor is still talking on his cell phone. He says – Well, there’s no miracle that’s going to happen here tonight, I should pack up.
I was dumbfounded. I understand photography is many things to different people. For me, though, photography is primarily about feeling delight, awe and amazement at what I experience. Would I love to come back, every time, with something for my portfolio? Absolutely. Am I just a little disappointed when I don’t? Sure, I am human. I love this art and the rush I feel when everything falls into place. But that does not happen every time, or even most times.
And yet, I can and do still enjoy the experience of something like this. I took this photograph seconds after he announced there would be no miracle this night. In fact, I took it because he determined there was no miracle before him as if to prove just how wrong he was. Is my photograph art? Not to my mind. Was this sunset glorious? Most definitely.
I hope that, if I ever witness something like this and judge it not miraculous, someone will say to me – Step away from the camera.
Some of you may remember that I visited the Oregon coast last September – a phenomenal trip that had far reaching consequences. I was standing on this jetty one morning, having the time of my life. For me, quite possibly the best part of photography, is being out in the world doing it – everything falls away, there is just me and the setting, and often there is no sense of ‘me’ either. The feeling reminds me of what athletes call the ‘zone,’ absolutely and thoroughly caught up in the moment. A little voice interrupted and said to me – You know, I could do this all the time. Some other little voice wanted to chime in and say, no, you can’t. You have a job, you don’t live here, you’re just on vacation. My tendency is usually to listen to that last voice, the one of reason and practicality, the one that squashes ideas before they hatch.
Not this time! This time I listened. And I began thinking about it, playing with the idea. And now I can say – I will be moving to Oregon in two months, following that voice that spoke to me on this jetty. It is both exciting and scary at the same time but I am looking forward to the adventure.
(Note – this also explains my sporadic posting here and why it may stay that way for the next several months. Cross country moves are major projects!)
I find it strangely beautiful that the camera with its inherent clarity of object and detail can produce images that in spite of themselves offer possibilities to be more than they are … a photograph of nothing very important at all, nothing but an intuition, a response, a twitch from the photographer’s experience. – Joel Meyerowitz
Every year, in December or early January, I like to make a book of my best, or favorite, images from the past year. And, while reflecting on the last year and where I have been, it seems a good time to consider the coming year and what I would like to make of it. I haven’t been photographing such a long time – three, now almost four, years. If I had to describe my experience of those years, it would look something like this – that first year was easy and great fun, the second year a bit more difficult, and the third year (last year) felt nearly impossible. Ask me to describe last year and I would say it was more struggle than anything. Reviewing photographs for the book taught me something different about this last year – and what I might do with this next one.
– I traveled more than I thought and not nearly as much as I would like.
– I pushed myself more, probably too much at times. I like to think that Thoreau said this best – “In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.” And so I do – I could be more accepting of the failure part.
– Perhaps no surprise to you but I love black and white. While occasionally I shoot for color and can appreciate a color photograph, black and white is what makes my heart sing. Only a few color photographs made the first cut for the book, not enough to justify including them. Black and white is what I want to do.
– Most importantly, having just the best work of the year in front of me, I realized that there was more good work than I thought – and it’s better than I thought. We, I spend so much time with my rejects and outtakes, that it can feel like that’s all there is. I still fail more than I succeed – and I fail a little less and succeed a little better than I used to. And for me at least, that seems to be the nature of this art.
A year in review – or a review of some kind – can be an illuminating process and mine this year has been most beneficial and instructive. It has me thinking about new directions and how I define success, among other things. I highly recommend it or something similar – perspective is a wonderful thing.
As an aside – and on the question of success – Robert Adams’ Why People Photograph arrived this afternoon. Just browsing the first few pages, I’m sure I’m going to love reading it. In one of his first essays, he writes, about how he likes many photographers and attributes this to a quality they share, animation. He writes, “They (photographers) may or may not make a living by photography, but they are alive by it.”
That is the standard of my success, how I want to experience my photography and judge my photographs. By that standard, 2013 was a very good year – and 2014 promises more of the same. I hope all of you enjoy many, many hours of similar success in 2014.
… the ocean seems to me to carry a promise – no matter how enigmatic its terms are. – Robert Adams
My apologies for my extended absence, it wasn’t planned, just things, nothing earth-shattering. I hope you all enjoyed a happy holiday and wish you a very Happy New Year. May the new year bring all the promise – enigmatic and otherwise – that you can imagine.
“Art makers are not people who use a camera to record life so that they can see it in detail later. The art maker is the person who specifically chooses to engage life more directly, most intimately, most intensely, and they use the camera to reproduce or record that feeling … ” – Brooks Jensen, Single Exposures
If you ‘do’ photography, you cannot help but run up against the question, But is it art? I have written in this space before that I think it’s a bogus question – Jensen’s quote goes some way to demonstrating why the question is essentially meaningless. The key lies in the intent.
I often draw parallels between writing and photography. Think about words – we all use them, to serve a multitude of purposes. We make lists to help us remember. Maybe we write reports as part of our jobs. And every now and again, perhaps not often enough, we write a love letter. Words are common to all of these, but it is our intention, what we are trying to do, that sets one apart from another. Hopefully, we aren’t so incompetent with words that a love letter reads like a grocery list or that report for work sounds like a love letter.
Is photography art? It depends – what were you trying to do? I have said before that I struggled my first few days on the Oregon coast. I righted myself, but understand better now what I was doing and why it wasn’t working for me. I was taking photographs but honestly I was simply making a list of what I saw, so I might really look later when I had more time. I certainly looked like I was doing photography – and it was not photography the way I want to do it. I wanted to make my art, not a grocery list of what I saw. I still walked the beach, carrying the same camera, but being clear about my intention changed everything about my experience, how I approached the subject, and how I used my ‘tools.’ (My enjoyment also increased exponentially.)
So what are you trying to do? Is it working? If not, it might be a matter of being clear about what you want to do and making certain that your methods serve your goal.
On several occasions, people have asked me how I learned to photograph the way I do. It always surprises me – not that they ask (though that is a little surprising) but that I don’t have a quick or easy answer for them. There isn’t a book I can point them to, or a workshop I took, or videos I watched, though I have done all of those things. My learning ‘process’ is more haphazard and much less straightforward. Mostly, I stumble on things – sometimes when I can use them, sometimes I can’t because I’m not that far along.
The answer I would give is generally not the answer someone is looking for – it takes time, lots of time and much study. I study a good number of photographs, those made by others and my own. I ask myself what it is I like – or don’t like – about a photograph, what works, what doesn’t. I ask myself how it was done – then I begin the trial and error process (more often error than not) of creating those elements I like in my own photographs. Recognize too, that people have different ways of learning – mine works for me, it might not work best for someone else. (more…)
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. – Scott Adams
This became one of my ‘dilemmas’ in Oregon. I had six, short days – I felt that I needed to be ‘productive’ and could not afford the luxury of mistakes. Yet mistakes seemed to be all I produced the first few days and my ‘art’ was telling me none were worth keeping. Remembering two, related ideas helped me right myself.
One, ‘productivity’ is not an absolute virtue. Sometimes it’s good to be productive. Other times, it can be unproductive – times like the middle of my creative process, when I am trying to find my way.
Two, making mistakes can actually be productive – learning from them, and, from that new vantage point, seeing the next step.
That, I believe, is exactly Scott Adams’ point. In the end, I made a lot of very productive mistakes during this trip.
Just returned from a week of photography on the Oregon coast, a place I had not visited before. If you know the area – and know my work – you might easily imagine how excited I felt making this trip. I had hoped for a marvelous week of shooting. I got a bit more than I bargained for – a week of revelations about myself and my process.
My first reaction to the Oregon coast was to feel overwhelmed – so much to see and only six days to do it all. Number one mistake. The first day or so, I started early, shot most of the day, in multiple locations. No time to absorb my surroundings. No time to recharge after shooting intensely for hours. And only enough time to move images to my computer, more for backup than review.
I was, of course, curious to know if I was ‘getting anything.’ I could not be sure but I had a sinking feeling – the photographs I was coming back with were boring, at best. So, the next day out, I repeated the process but determined to work harder. Number two mistake, with similar results, boring images. I began to panic, feel frustrated and then said to myself – Wow, you must really be bad at this, to come here of all places and produce awful photographs. Now, I don’t know whose voice this is but she can be cruel and not especially helpful, a bit of a bully.
In meditation, one method is to count your breaths. You will lose it from time to time, become distracted and ‘fail.’ The trick is to gently, and without judgment, bring your attention back to your breath – ‘back to one’ the reminder – and do this as often as you need to. The next day out, this is what I did – I simply went for a walk with my camera. If I felt myself pressing or forcing something, I reminded myself – it’s just a walk, you can do that. There is no pressure taking a walk. And it worked – I began to see better and more clearly. I made fewer, and better, images. When I made a mistake – and I did – it was not the end of the world but something to understand and learn from. Best of all, I started to enjoy myself.
So if you see a photographer on a beach somewhere, muttering to herself – “It’s just a walk, back to one.” – you will know who it is. 🙂
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