Tag Archives: vision

An Open Question

Three Bins, Old Snow Weld County, Colorado, 2016

Three Bins, Old Snow
Weld County, Colorado, 2016

I have a theory that if you have an artistic vision and you follow it honestly, then your work will always look like yours and not that of someone else.  I think this is true because one’s vision directly follows from who one is, and we are all unique individuals with our own unique ways of seeing the world.  For this reason, it doesn’t matter what we photograph because, assuming we stay true to our visions, our photographs can’t help but look like they’re ours, no matter what the subject is.

Well, I think I’m really putting that to the test with this image.  Grain bins are a very popular subject among photographers, and have been photographed in countless manners and iterations.  Is there really something in this image that is uniquely mine?  Does it really have some attribute or characteristic that reveals the evidence of my own hand?

Perhaps you’re expecting an answer from me to my own question.  It’s true that I often set up questions and answers, but here I really don’t have one.  I do like the image, though, so it just will have to remain an open question.

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How to Approach Photographing a Popular Location

Longs Peak, Rock Cut, Angled Clouds Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Longs Peak, Rock Cut, Angled Clouds
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Here is an image of Longs Peak (the flat-topped peak in the far distance) photographed from Rock Cut in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Longs Peak is a very popular subject for photographs, and Rock Cut is a very popular (and very accessible) location along Trail Ridge Road from which to photograph it.

Photographing subjects that are very popular seems to engender much discussion among photographers.  One school of thought seems to treat iconic subjects much like trophies to be hunted and bagged.  In the same way that a trophy hunter might have a collection of stuffed animal heads on his or her wall, this approach tends to suggest that a photographer’s portfolio is not complete without a collection of iconic subjects that have been stalked and captured.  The criticism to this approach is that it lends itself to producing cliched, repetitive photographs lacking in creativity and originality.

Another touted approach is to ignore subjects that are very popular.  The thinking seems to be that great photographs can be found anywhere (which is true!), and photographing subjects that are very popular is at best a crutch in producing compelling photographs, and at worst a substitute for true artistic expression.  The drawback here is that much compelling subject matter is passed over in order to avoid the risk of producing derivative and repeated imagery.

So what’s the right way to approach photographing a popular location?  Myself, I just don’t think about it one way or the other.  My personal feeling is that a photographer with a strong personal vision and the discipline to follow it honestly will inevitably produce images that have his or her unique stamp on them.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time photographing Longs Peak.  I don’t do so to be part of the crowd (indeed, I’ve passed by and have no interest in photographing a great number of very popular subjects).  But I also don’t avoid Longs Peak just because it is popular.  I photograph Longs Peak because it speaks to me on a personal level.  In this way, it’s no different than any other subject I photograph, and I treat it no differently when I photograph it.  To me, that’s the best way to approach photographing a popular location.

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Red Filter, Blue Filter

White Trees, Series 1, No. 7 (Keep the Watch)

White Trees, Series 1, No. 7 (Keep the Watch)
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2012

Here is an image that was being worked on in one state or another since shortly after it was captured in the summer of 2012.  This stands in contrast to many of my images, which I only begin working on after an extended period of time has passed, often several years.  Unlike those, however, I had a strong vision at the moment of capture for how I wanted this image to look, and got to work with unusual diligence to make it happen.

As with all of the White Trees series, my vision here was of a very white tree against a very dark background.  Key to that vision was a very dark sky, perhaps black or nearly black.  I tried on and off for nearly two years to achieve this, but never could quite pull it together.  No matter what I did, the end result just never looked right.

During that time period, of course, I was working on other things.  I continued to photograph, continued to edit, continued to post.  I learned new skills, and got new ideas from looking at the work of others. My artistic tastes evolved.

And then one day it hit me. I had been conceptualizing this image all wrong.  The white tree/dark background concept was solid, but it didn’t necessarily require a uniformly dark sky.  I had been using a red filter (in digital editing, not on the camera) to take the blue sky and make it dramatically darker, basically black.  This was pretty routine practice for me two years ago, when I would take all blue skies and make them black as a matter of course.

Since that time, though, I had also begun using blue filters (again, in digital editing, not on the camera) in some situations to dramatically lighten blue skies, introducing more light greys and white highlights into images.  I realized this image would be a perfect candidate for this. Following my realization, things fell into place pretty quickly, and I arrived at the image in this post in a matter of days.

It got me thinking a bit about the idea of previsualization.  This is the idea, as I understand it, that upon viewing the subject to be photographed, a photographer should have a definite and complete vision of what the final print will look like even before the shutter is pressed.  With this knowledge, the photographer can optimize each step of the photographic process along the way towards the goal of achieving the previsualized print.  Previsualization is largely attributed to the giant of American photography, Ansel Adams, and is championed by many as the gold standard of how a photographer should operate.

I used to think I was a firm believer in previsualization, but the more I photograph, the less certain I am about this.  I certainly don’t believe in randomly photographing things with the hope of “getting lucky” with one of the end results.  Some degree of forethought is absolutely necessary and desirable.  But neither does perfect preconception of the final print seem to be an absolute necessity to me either.  The process I described for the image in this post certainly doesn’t fit that mold.

For me, at least for now, my process seems to be paying attention to the things that catch my eye in the field, and doing the best I can to capture that initial impression with the camera.  The closer I understand what it is that caught my eye, the more definite idea I have for what I want the final image to be.  Often, though, the idea is not perfectly formed, and there is room for exploration, and excitement, with the captured image after the fact.

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Are You In Your Art?

RE/MAX Building No. 2, Denver, Colorado

When someone views your art, do they know it’s yours, even without seeing your name on it?  I’ve heard this standard posed as one measure of being successful as an artist.  It’s been called having a style, having a voice, having a vision, but really it all comes down to the same thing – have you put a piece of yourself into the art you make, recognizable and distinguishable from everyone else out there?  Are you in your art?

There’s a lot of advice floating around on how to achieve this.  One piece of advice I’ve heard is to pick something and become known for it.  What that thing is could take a nearly infinite number of forms.  For example, you could choose to become known for a particular kind of subject matter – landscapes, portraits, documentary, whatever.  Or, you could become known for a certain kind of process – printing on crazy materials, using homemade cameras, employing really obscure darkroom methods, and so on.  Maybe you could become known for a unique approach – photographing only at certain locations, or certain times of day, or under particular phases of the moon.

A lot of photographers who struggle with putting themselves in their work take this kind of advice seriously.  And I don’t necessarily dispute that it may be effective, but to me it seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse.  I would like to think that if you simply stay true to your own vision of the world, then that vision will come through in your work, no matter what kind of work you to choose to make or how you choose to make it.  I have no problem with any of the techniques I’ve described above, but using them should be in the service of your vision, not something that you impose upon it.

The image in this post, “RE/MAX Building No. 2,” is the latest in a string of architecture images I’ve been posting.  Before that, I was posting a lot of landscape images.  On this website, I’ve also posted several abstracts, and even a color image or two.  It could be argued that these different kinds of images don’t have much in common, and that I may be diluting my work by failing to be consistent.  Instead, I sincerely hope my personal vision for each piece I’ve made comes through in my body of work as a whole.

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Shoot the Icons!

Recent Work

I’ve encountered a line of thinking in landscape photography that argues against shooting iconic scenes or locations.  The thought seems to be along the lines that you will never be able to capture an iconic subject as well as the photographer or photographers who made it famous.  Who’s going to capture the Yosemite Valley as well as Ansel Adams?  Or the California coast like Edward Weston?  If a subject has been captured many times by many photographers under many conditions, what can you possibly add to the accumulated body of work that will be new or interesting?  Isn’t anything that you do simply going to be repetitive or derivative of what others already have done?

No, I say.  There are many reasons and much value to be gained from shooting the icons.  It’s probably fair to say the mountain in this image, “Longs Peak, Rising Clouds,” is an icon of Colorado’s Front Range.  Do a search for Longs Peak on Google Images and you will find countless images of it.  Here are a few of the reasons why I don’t hesitate to shoot it again (and again, and again!):

  1. No one sees the world quite like you do.  Everybody has a unique vision.  The subject matter of an image is just the building blocks by which this vision is expressed.  If people get in trouble shooting the icons, it seems to me it’s because they’re simply trying to copy what’s been done before.  Every subject, big or small, iconic or mundane, has limitless possibilities for interpretation and expression.  If you’re in touch with your own vision of the world, it will come through uniquely regardless of your subject.
  2. Shooting the icons trains the creative mind.  If you’ve ever been to an art museum, you’ve probably seen art students practicing sketching the masterpieces of the collection.  As photographers, it’s probably not very profitable to set up your camera in a gallery and shoot someone else’s photograph on the wall.  However, it is valuable to set up your camera and shoot the iconic landscape, in the same way that it is valuable for artists to sketch copies of masterpieces.
  3. There is no preemption in art.  Just because Ansel Adams became famous for his images of Yosemite, and Edward Weston for his images of the California coast, does this mean other photographers are preempted from ever shooting there again?  Of course not.  Did authors stop writing literature after great works by Tolstoy, Dickens, or Hemingway?  Did composers stop writing classical music after great works by Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven?  Every artistic field has limitless opportunities to be explored, and the potential of iconic landscapes are not exhausted by the great photographers who have worked there before.
  4. Icons are marketable.  Yes, it’s true.  People relate to well-known, iconic landscapes and may give your work a second look if they recognize the subject.  It may or may not be an important consideration to you, but it’s something to think about.
  5. Why not?  Especially for digital photographers, there’s really no downside to trying your hand at the icons.  In fact, I might suggest that any opportunity to practice with your camera, especially when faced with the challenge of capturing a well-known, iconic landscape in your own way, is good practice for your photography skills!
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Having a Vision Beats Being a Technician

Longs Peak, Indian Summer

I’m excited to share that five of my images are being shown in Denver this month, including the image above, “Longs Peak, Indian Summer.”

This image is one of my personal favorites.  It was my first image ever to be accepted into a juried exhibition, and has since proven to be one of my more popular images.  But that’s not why it’s one of my favorites.  It’s one of my favorites because it embodies the idea that having a creative vision is more important than being a master technician.

This image was literally among the first captures I ever made when I started pursuing photography back in 2006.  It was taken with my first digital SLR camera, a 6.1 megapixel Pentax *istDL with a Pentax 75-300 SMC lens.  As might be expected from a novice, it had a lot of technical problems.  It sat on my hard drive for six years before my technical skills caught up to my vision for what the image could be.  In 2012, without any advance planning or forethought that I was going to work on it, I suddenly opened it up one day and over the course of several hours created the image above.

Did technical skills play a role?  Absolutely.  A fair amount of work was involved, including sharpening up some blurry edges, evening out the contrast in the foreground, and creating a tonal gradient in the background.  Perhaps most importantly, cropping to the 3.4:1 aspect ratio emphasized the long horizontal lines of the composition in a way that the initial 3:2 aspect ratio did not.

Am I therefore a master digital darkroom technician?  Certainly not.  I know just enough to get me by, and that’s enough.  Don’t get me wrong – I value technical ability and am always striving to improve my technique and skill.   But technique should not get in the way of vision, and skill need only be good enough to communicate the vision underlying an image.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist by nature.  If I had demanded perfect technical ability in the making of this image – both in the initial capture seven years ago and in the digital darkroom editing last year – I would never have made this image at all.  Instead, once I realized my technical ability was sufficient to communicate my vision for the image, I was happy to do so.

For those who are interested, here are the other four images currently being exhibited:

Spire at Rock Cut

Clearing Storm, Mummy Range, Colorado

Longs Peak, Curtain of Clouds

Touch the Sky

You can see them at Alpine Fine Art, 826 Santa Fe Drive in Denver’s Santa Fe arts district.  There’s plenty of other nearby galleries you can visit too, including the John Fielder photography gallery across the street and the Denver School of Photography a couple of doors down.

While you’re in the area, you may as well stop by the Denver Art Museum as well.  The Georgia O’Keefe exhibit is up until April 28th, and I was inspired in particular by a small pencil and watercolor (if memory serves) of an adobe studio doorway I had not seen before.

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