The Photograph Versus The Experience

Trees, Three Tall and Three Crooked Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014.

Trees, Three Tall and Three Crooked
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Here’s a question for you:  which comes first, the photograph or the experience?

In my observation, most landscape photographers tend to answer that the experience comes before the photograph.  I’ve heard the same story over and over again, where one begins by enjoying the outdoors, then starts to bring along a basic camera to document his or her outdoor experiences, and eventually graduates to higher end gear and an interest in developing some serious photography skills.  Not that there’s anything wrong with this, of course, but in this progression, the interest in photography follows from and is secondary to the outdoor experience.

My background is just the opposite.  My interest in photography preceded my interest in getting out into the landscape.  Whereas I’ve always been fascinated with photographs, I’ve not always been an outdoor enthusiast.  Truth be told, I probably began spending more time in the outdoors as a result of following my lens to where the photographs are, rather than the other way around.

For example, this photograph was captured on a weeknight after working hours in Rocky Mountain National Park.  If seeking out and capturing a photograph hadn’t been the primary motivator to get out of the house that evening, I doubt I would have made the hour or so drive just to have an hour or so of daylight to enjoy the (admittedly spectacular) evening.

The difference between the photograph and the experience is a real one.  When I go into the field, I’m unabashedly seeking out great photographic opportunities.  My goal is not so much to enjoy the outdoor experience as it is to have my creative eye stimulated by the natural environment, and to translate that stimulus into a tangible photographic print.  I suspect that many would say this approach gets things backward, that the purer approach is simply to be in nature, appreciate the landscape, and then be moved to create a photograph of it.

So be it.  My opinion is that there are many equally valid paths to achieving great photographs.  It is a no less valid path to approach the landscape simply out of a desire to photograph it than to photograph the landscape simply as an incidence to being in it.  Being in the landscape for the purpose of artistic expression is no less valid than artistic expression that follows from a desire to be in the landscape.

If anything, photography has opened the door for me to enjoy the natural experience in a way that I probably would not have acquired otherwise.  In the same way that some outdoor recreationists discover a passion for photography they might not have known but for bringing a camera into the field with them, photography has opened the door for me to an expanded appreciation of the natural world I otherwise probably would not have but for my interest in exploring the world with a camera.

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