On Inspiration

Standing Wave Over the Mummy Range Rocky Mountain National Park, 2015

Standing Wave Over the Mummy Range
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2016

It’s that time of year again, when there is enough daylight to allow me to drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park after work.  For example, if I leave my house in Fort Collins at 6 p.m., I can be at this spot by around 7:30, and still have a good hour and a half of light to work with for photographing.  I’ve been making these trips in June and July for the past four or five years.  They began as an exercise to help me practice my outdoor photography skills, but have since developed into a cherished summer ritual.

Truth is, for a while now I’ve been pretty uninspired when it comes to landscape photography.  But I plan to continue my visits to the Park if for no other reason than that I’ve come to enjoy making the trip so much.  I’ll bring my camera along too, because that’s part of the ritual.  Inspiration is a flighty thing, it comes and goes without much rhyme or reason.  But I believe that so long as the underlying passion remains, the inspiration will return, and I’m not yet prepared to concede that the passion is gone too.

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Tools of the Trade

Steel Staircases.  Near Eaton, CO 2015

Steel Stairs
Near Eaton, Colorado 2015

I believe in keeping things simple, so for the last few years I’ve been carrying only two lenses – a Canon 24-105 L, and a Canon 100-400 L.  Between the two, I can cover the range from 24 mm to 400 mm without fumbling around with a lot of lens changes.  I realize zoom lenses with long ranges come with an image quality trade-off, but the convenience of keeping my workflow simple in the field is worth it to me.  I would rather spend my valuable field time seeing, reacting, and shooting, rather than having to make a bunch of lens changes. And, in fact, I would guess that well over 90% of my images are made with the 24-105 L (and probably half of those at either 24 mm or 35 mm), so my workflow in the field really is straightforward.

Still, I do think the 100-400 is worth keeping around.  There are some situations where the reach really comes in handy.  This image, for example, likely would not have been possible with the 24-105.  It was made with the 100-400, at 400 mm.  This enabled me to: 1) shoot from across a busy highway; 2) isolate this pattern from its surroundings; and 3) create a very flattened perspective (due to the telephoto effect), accentuating the graphic aspects of the composition.

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All Talk

Two Posts Near Carr, Colorado, 2015

Two Posts
Near Carr, Colorado, 2015

Some time ago I read about a study that determined people experienced similar levels of satisfaction upon stating their intention to do something as they did in actually doing it.  For example, a person stating their intention to go on a diet to lose 10 pounds apparently experiences a similar physiological response of satisfaction as someone who actually goes on a diet and achieves a 10 pound weight loss.  The study went on to reason that talk about achieving a goal is a disincentive to actually working toward achieving that goal, since a level of satisfaction similar to achieving the goal already has been experienced simply by talking about it.  The conclusion of the study was that if you want to achieve something, it’s better not to talk about doing it before it is done.

I’ve found this to be true in my practice of photography.  At any given time, I have at least a few photography ideas or projects floating around in my head.  Most of them don’t go anywhere, but some do.  The one thing I’ve noticed, though, is that those that I’ve shared with others, prior to my actually starting them, uniformly still remain unrealized.  For me, there really does seem to be something about sharing an idea prematurely, before I’ve really committed to it in some fashion, that takes the wind out of the sails of doing it.  So I think I’ll revert back to my general practice of not talking up my projects that I would like to do, but instead simply having completed projects that speak for themselves.

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The Other Colorado

Seven Cars and Twelve Tanks Eaton, Colorado, 2016

Seven Cars and Twelve Tanks
Eaton, Colorado, 2016

I’ve lived on the Front Range of Colorado for a number of years now.  When you mention Colorado to someone who doesn’t live here, my observation is that most people tend to think of pristine, snowy, mountain-filled landscapes.

I love that Colorado.  But there is another Colorado, too.  Roughly half the state is flat plains, having more in common with places like Kansas or Nebraska than Vail or Aspen.  That’s a Colorado worth knowing as well, equally compelling in its own way.

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Feels Like EDM

On the Low Road to Taos, No. 2 Near Taos, New Mexico, 2016

On the Low Road to Taos, No. 2
Near Taos, New Mexico, 2016

I’ve been listening to a lot of EDM lately (that’s Electronic Dance Music – check out Deadmau5!).  It fascinated me to realize how much that kind of music makes me think of photography.  The way the music works there feels to me like the way light works in photographs.  The steady beats feel like the visual rhythms in the composition of an image, like the earthy, shadowy areas in a landscape.  The rises and falls of the crescendos and drops feel like the way light spills from one corner of the frame to another, like a dramatic backlit sky on a stormy day.  The way the bass kicks after a quiet break feels like the abrupt transition of a dark tree rising above the bright line of a distant horizon.

Maybe it seems like an odd connection to make, but to me it’s perfectly logical.  I think creativity is something that resides within you.  You bring it to bear on all of the things you do in your life.  Creativity doesn’t seep into you from the outside, it’s something from within that colors the way you perceive the world.  It’s an internal logic all of its own, personal to you, that allows you to see connections where others don’t.  That’s one thing about it that makes it so wonderful.

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Good is Good

RE/MAX Building No. 3 Denver, Colorado 2013

RE/MAX Building No. 3
Denver, Colorado 2013

I used to hold the opinion that “good is good.”  Specifically, I think there is a branch of criticism in the photography world (really, the art world in general) that cliched photographs of cliched subjects are per se bad, even if done very well.  Think photographs of sunsets over beaches, the Milky Way at night, or iconic locations like the Grand Canyon, which all have been photographed over and over again to the point where even the best executions of such images mostly really do tend to fade into a sea of duplicate, derivative, and look-alike imagery.  My counterpoint always used to be that good is good, so even a cliched photograph of a cliched subject can be good if done well.

Truthfully, I think I still largely stand by that opinion, but I’m beginning to see the merit in the other side.  I look at a lot of photography, and if you look at a lot of photography, you can’t help but notice the repetitive onslaught of the same depictions of the same subjects done in the same way over and over again.  For example, I think I’ve candidly reached the point where I don’t need to see another long exposure seascape, unless it’s done by Michael Kenna or perhaps another of a handful of photographers who really pioneered or otherwise contributed to this genre.

It’s become a relevant consideration in my own practice of photography.  I think a conscious motivation behind making the image in this post was to try and reach past photographic cliches.  Which, on balance, I think is a good thing.  I just need to remember, for myself in my own work, anyway, not to sacrifice fundamentals – like strong light, strong composition, and a conveyed a sense of emotion – that always make the “good” so “good.”

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No Such Thing as Talent

Rock Cut, Storm in the Valley Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2016

Rock Cut, Storm in the Valley
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2016

I wonder if maybe there is no such thing as talent.

Bear with me here.  Talent, in the dictionary I checked, is defined as a natural aptitude or skill.  It’s something you’re born with, you either have it or you don’t.  A talent for photography, for example, suggests that it would take less effort for one with the talent to become accomplished in the discipline than one who has no talent, because the presence of talent supplies a natural aptitude or skill that can be developed and that is lacking in one with no talent.

But what if the operative force is not talent, but interest?  To have an interest in something, say photography, suggests to me a capability to invest time pursuing it.  One with an interest in photography, for example, might enjoy viewing many photographs, reading books on photography, and generally thinking about photography a lot.

It’s the capability to invest substantial time that’s important.  Having the interest means you’re more likely to stick with it because your interest keeps you going, even when things aren’t necessarily going well or otherwise become difficult.  Naturally, the more time you invest in something, the more likely it is you are to become accomplished at it, so it follows that those who become accomplished in something may well do so simply because of a driving interest in that thing, rather than some innate aptitude or skill for it thought of as talent.

Okay, I’m not really sure I fully believe this myself.  Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  I find it interesting food for thought, though.

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Stepping Back

Windmill, No Horizon Near Carr, Colorado, 2015

Windmill, No Horizon
Near Carr, Colorado, 2015

It’s virtually impossible for me to view one of my own images without bringing along a lot of baggage.  By baggage, I mean the fact that I was there when the image was captured, I was there for all of the editing of the image, I was there for the first test print of the image and any and all thereafter – in short, that by the time the image is done, it’s spent a lot of time being on my mind.

As a result, at that point it really has no mysteries left for me.  One of the joys of seeing the work of other photographers is that I come to it completely fresh.  As a general rule, I don’t really know, with any precision or specificity, where they made their image, nor what they did to edit the capture, nor how many evolutions a print went through before it was finished.  Such images essentially are all mystery me.   I get the impact of seeing it as the artist intended, without being burdened by the backstory.

By way of contrast, when I look at my own images, they’re all backstory to me.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, since creating an image comes with a set of rewards and satisfactions all their own.  But the mystery associated with seeing an image fresh and new for the first time, without knowing the full backstory of its making and creation, is not one of them.

So I was surprised recently when I went back to look at some of my older images that I hadn’t looked at in a while.  Briefly, very briefly upon first viewing, I would get the full impact of the image because I hadn’t thought about it in a while and the image’s backstory would take a minute to return to me.  For that brief interval, it was like I was a stranger to my own work, able for just a moment to experience the image like I imagine someone else might.

It was pretty cool.

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Memento

White Trees, Series 2, No. 7

White Trees, Series 2, No. 7

One use for a camera is to create pictures as mementos – objects to keep as reminders of persons, places, or events.  In fact, I suspect that this is the most common use for cameras.  In the past, people kept photo albums precisely for this purpose, though today I presume image files on computers or posts to Facebook probably have taken their place.

It’s a perfectly good use for a camera, but I think holding onto the idea of photographs as mementos creates problems if you are trying to use photography as a creative medium.  When I read about photographers commenting on their own images, I often come across the statement, in one form another, that the photographer likes the image because it reminds him or her of something like the chill in the air, or the crashing of the waves, or some other attribute of the experience of having been there when the photograph was made.

This is treating the photograph as a memento, and the problem with this kind of thinking (to me, anyway) is that the measure of the photograph becomes, at least in part, how well it serves to capture the experience of having been there.  Essentially, the photograph is “good” if it makes you feel like you could have been standing there beside the photographer at the moment of capture, seeing what he or she was seeing, experiencing what he or she was experiencing.

I have nothing against having great experiences while out photographing.  For me personally, the act of photographing is a wonderful way to engage with the world in a manner that transcends the ordinary, and I have gained many immensely satisfying personal experiences simply from taking my camera out into the world with the intention to photograph it.

But I don’t confuse the experience of photographing with the art of the photograph.  To me, the image lives separately, apart from the experience of capturing it.  When I edit captures, sometimes the resulting image reflects the experience in some direct or indirect way, and sometimes the image reflects something completely different.  The experience of making the capture is one thing, but the capture itself is just raw material from which an image is made, the meaning of which may be something else entirely.

It’s not a trivial point.  Like all art, photographs are a communication between the maker and the viewer.  If your photographs serve partly or wholly as mementos to you, then isn’t the message you are communicating to your viewer simply, “you should have been there?”  If you make photographs as expressions of creativity, shouldn’t they say something more meaningful?

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Price Discipline

Decorated Cross Truchas, New Mexico, 2016

Decorated Cross
Truchas, New Mexico, 2016

I gave away for free a small print of the image in this post to a good friend of mine who voiced a special connection to the subject matter.  I do that kind of thing from time to time, and as the creator of these images, I’m happy to be in a position to do so.

However, it’s the exception, not the rule.  I do price my work and if people want to acquire it, I generally expect them to pay for it.

It’s not that I’m after the money per se.  I sincerely appreciate it when people take an interest in my work, and part of me would like to provide everyone who sincerely enjoys one of my pieces with a print to enjoy.

But I just can’t do that.  Why?  Put simply, it’s because I value my work.  Whatever other functions it may serve, a price at least demands some level of acknowledgement of the value of the work.  If I were to give my work away for free, or even for less than I think it’s worth, that would be tantamount to me saying my work has no value.  And if I signal that I don’t think my work has value, how can I expect anyone else to think it does?

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