Monthly Archives: June 2015

Chasing the Light

Two Stars Over Sprague Lake Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

Two Stars Over Sprague Lake
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

As has been mentioned before on this blog, I really enjoy reading the blogs of other photographers.  I don’t have many photographer friends myself, so it often becomes the principle way in which I get information about how the rest of the photography community practices this discipline.

I just was reading the blog of one landscape photographer (whose work I really like, by the way) who described how their practice of landscape photography has changed.  This person’s principle method used to be “chasing the light,” which apparently involved road trips of hundreds or even thousands of miles at a time, crossing state lines and studying maps and weather reports to try and line up iconic locations under epic conditions, often in compressed periods of time between a day job or other responsibilities of life.  If I understood correctly, this person’s opinion was that “chasing the light” was the principle – and perhaps most widely practiced – way to practice landscape photography.

Their new approach was to spend several weeks at a time living on the road, bringing their day job responsibilities with them and working them into a more relaxed schedule of spending a week or more at a given location.  While perhaps sometimes missing the alignment of iconic locations and epic conditions, this approach allowed more time to become familiar with the location, often yielding quieter, more personal images than were achieved under the chasing the light approach.

Both good points for sure, but neither of which really resonates with the way I work.

Here’s a typical way that a photography outing works for me:  I’m at my day job (Monday through Friday, 9-5, with limited options for flexibility in scheduling) and I keep an eye out the window on the weather.  If it looks like interesting conditions are developing – or often even if they’re not – I’ll head out after the workday to a location within an hour’s drive.  Since I live on the Front Range of Colorado, this means I have the flexibility to end up either up in the high mountains or out on the sparsely-populated prairies, so I’m fortunate to have access to a diversity of landscapes.  There’s usually no real plan for a subject, I just drive around and look for interesting things that catch my eye.  Photograph until there’s no light left – which often is well after the sun has gone down – and call it day.

Or try this:  I’m up in the mountains doing something non-photography related.  In the winter maybe it’s skiing, in the summer maybe it’s hiking.  Throw my camera stuff in the car just in case I see something interesting.  When the day’s activity is done, if there’s still an hour or two of light, maybe drive around a bit and see what catches my eye.

Or here’s another example:  at the end of the work week, maybe I  just feel like getting out of town.  So I take off on a last minute road trip to a location within an evening’s drive away.  Maybe it’s somewhere I’ve been to before, maybe I try something new.  Usually I’m going for the sightseeing and novelty of being away from home for awhile, but I always bring my camera along and plan some time to do some photographic exploring as well.

Or something else:  it’s a family vacation, with much time, effort, and planning expended to go somewhere really interesting.  Most of my time is accounted for with family or sightseeing events, as it should be.  But I always keep my eye on my surroundings, and here and there I steal a few minutes to follow up on something that seemed photographically interesting.  Maybe it works out, maybe not.

It’s a very pragmatic, time-available approach to practicing photography because 1) given my real-world schedule, it’s unrealistic for me to be able to chase the light for hundreds of miles at a time, and 2) given my real-world schedule, it’s unrealistic for me to be able to spend weeks at a time away on the road.  If you’re serious about photography, then it’s important to make time for it, but if you can’t chase the light or invest weeks away, you work it into your real-life schedule as best you can.

I suppose the thing that got me on about all of this is the between-the-lines implication of this photographer’s blog post (and those of many others as well).  The implication seems to be that if you can’t chase the light, your photographs won’t be as good, and that if you’re unwilling to invest an inordinate amount of time, you’re not serious about photography.

I disagree.

Going to great lengths to get photographs is unrelated to the quality of those photographs.  It’s a crutch –  just like obsessing about expensive camera equipment is a crutch – that people substitute in the place of practicing good photography.  Good photography is about possessing a strong, personal vision about the world around you, and having the ability to translate that vision into compelling images.  This can be done both within a radius of one mile or 1000 miles from your home, and it can be done both within a time period of one minute or one week.  It’s in the mind of the artist, not where you are or how long it took you to get there.

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About Knowing a Place

Still Snow in June Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

Still Snow in June
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

For the past few years, I’ve been in the habit of spending a few evenings each week during the long days of June and July at my “local” national park – Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, which is anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half from the front door of my home in Fort Collins, depending on the traffic in Big Thompson Canyon and through Estes Park.  It began the first year as an exercise designed to give me regular fieldwork practice with my camera, but since then it’s become a treasured rite of passage to mark my summers, the way some people might look forward to baseball, hot dogs, and swimming pools.

We had an unusually wet and cold spring this year, meaning the Park got an unusual amount of late season snow.  But I certainly didn’t need any weather reports to tell me that.  My first trip up Trail Ridge Road this year was all about discovering familiar places with unfamiliar appearances.  About seeing snow in places where I’ve never seen it before.  About knowing where to park the car after going around Rainbow Curve, and about knowing where to hike in order to pick out this fine view.

I’m sure many visitors to the Park think it’s covered with snow like this year-round at the higher elevations.  A few spots are, but most aren’t.  Knowing a place like this is all about the privilege of being able to appreciate the difference.

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Keeping Secrets

Triptych, Flow No. 4

Triptych, Flow No. 4

Sometimes photographer antics amuse me.  In reading the blogs of other photographers, I’ve become aware that apparently there is a practice among some photographers of keeping their locations secret, and among other photographers of sleuthing those locations in order to “out” them.  To me, this smacks of insecurity, as if the quality of an image depends on its subject, and images that otherwise are compelling somehow become lessened when their subjects are frequently photographed.

The quality of a photograph doesn’t depend on the subject, it depends on the photographer.  Consider one wonderful subject, the Eiffel Tower.  It’s been photographed to death, and the vast majority of those photographs are both incredibly banal and incredibly derivative of one another.  But then consider Michael Kenna’s images of the Eiffel Tower, which are remarkable both for their excellence and for the fact that they were executed more than 100 years after the tower was built, well into the saturation overload period of Eiffel Tower photography.

In general, I don’t keep secrets about my work.  The one “kind-of” exception I make is for abstract images like the triptych in this post, where I don’t publicly disclose the subject of the image.  I say “kind of,” because really I don’t think of it as keeping a secret.  If you want to know the subject, just email me, I’m happy to tell you (indeed, I take a bit of perverse pride in how mundane some of these subjects are).  I only don’t make it public because I assume the abstracts have an element of suspended disbelief, and that some viewers would rather not dispel the illusion by knowing what the subject is.  All photographs are basically illusions, after all, but abstracts even more so for not having a readily identifiable subject.

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Why Photography is Such a Personal Medium of Expression

Architecture Study, Series 1, No. 8 (Julie Penrose Fountain) Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2014

Architecture Study, Series 1, No. 8 (Julie Penrose Fountain)
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2014

I tend to think that art is quite an intimate form of communication by an artist.  Done honestly, it really is a very personal expression of something dear to the artist, be it an idea, a concept, a point of view or the like, conjured from nowhere else but the artist’s own well of personality, thoughts, and experiences.  This is why it can be frightening to share one’s creative efforts, because it is not about simply sharing the thing itself, but rather a piece of who one is.

To me, photography is a particularly personal form of expression because of the inherent realism of images captured by a camera.  Two people can stand in front of the Julie Penrose Fountain in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but it is likely they will each perceive it in their own way.  For example, one person may experience the fountain as part of its broader environment and setting – the green grass of the park, the people climbing on its base, etc.  The other may experience the fountain in terms of its form and structure – its curving lines, the way it reflects light under a clear blue sky.  And so on, ad infinitum, for the number of perceptions of the number of people who each may see it.

When I photograph and make images, what I’m really doing is memorializing and sharing my particular way of seeing the world, and that is why photography is such a personal medium of expression for me.

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