Tag Archives: 2014

Developing a Personal Style

Great Sand Dunes National Park, No. 5. Colorado, 2014.

Wow, I’ve read a lot of stuff online and elsewhere about how photographers can and should develop a personal style.  As a preliminary matter, my understanding of personal style (I’m sure different people have different opinions on this) is that it is a way of making photographs, such that viewers readily recognize them as being the product of a particular photographer.  Having a personal style seems to have become a sort of “holy grail” among photographers, as if having one will be synonymous with success, creativity, and fulfillment.

So how do you develop a personal style?  Don’t try.

If you think having a personal style is important, I’d get over this.  Don’t listen to the advice of people on how to develop a personal style, and don’t have it as an agenda item on your “todo” list for improving as a photographer.

Instead, just photograph what you want in the way that you want to, honestly and humbly.  Photography, to me, really is a simple thing:  you see something in the world that moves you, and you try to isolate what moved you, first by capturing it with a camera, and later by editing your capture with whatever tools you choose to use (e.g., a darkroom or a computer).  Notice that this process does not include a step of making sure that what you capture and how you edit conforms to a personal style, or indeed any other agenda point to tick off in the photographic process.

If you practice photography in this way, I suspect that your personal style will find you.  I can’t tell you this from firsthand experience, though – I don’t even know if I have a personal style, and I’m pretty unconcerned about it.

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Endovalley Fog Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Endovalley Fog
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

To be honest, all my life I’ve felt like an outsider in most things, and photography is no different.  I feel like an outsider among photographers – for some reason, I just don’t fit in when photographers get together and talk photography.  I feel like an outsider with tools and process – I don’t have formal training, professional experience, or even a lengthy amateur background in this field.  I even feel like an outsider with my subject matter  – particularly when it comes to landscapes, since I’m not and never have been much of an outdoorsman.

If there’s one advantage to being an outsider, though, it’s perspective.  Being an outsider inherently places you a certain distance removed from the thing from which you are outside.  This allows you to consider that thing from a place of detached observation, which in turn allows you to interpret it free from the influences and biases that come from being more wholly immersed inside of it.  Stated more succinctly, you gain a perspective that most others don’t have.  This can be a valuable tool in creating work having a unique appeal.  In at least some aspects, it seems to me a good fit for photography.

I write these thoughts having read the writings of other photographers who assert that value in artistic work comes from familiarity and intimacy with the subject.  With landscapes, it seems to be the idea of spending weeks, months, or years living in close relationship with the landscape sought to be photographed.  Maybe so.  But there’s value in having an outsider perspective as well.  There are, in fact, many paths to achieving artistic value, and they will not be the same for everyone.

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The Pull

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

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

There’s lots of things in life you have to push yourself to do – paying the bills, going to the dentist, picking up groceries.  Often, even when people tell me about things they do for fun – participating in sports, playing music, practicing photography – I get the feeling they have to push themselves to do those things as well.  These are the kinds of people who play their sport once or twice a year, or haven’t picked up their musical instrument in six months, or who only dust off their camera for vacations or special occasions.

The people I know who are really in to what they do feel a compulsion to do it.  They don’t have to push themselves, the activity pulls them in.  For me, the pull is all about the process – seeing something interesting, capturing it with a camera, and working on the capture to realize a print.  I don’t even hang my own work on my own walls – not because I don’t like it or think that it’s not good, but because the pull isn’t about the finished product, it’s about the feeling of being engaged in the process.

Just one person’s observation, of course.  In your own life, what is it that pulls on you?

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When Your Projects Find You

Moon and Shadowy Clouds Over Longs Peak Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Moon and Shadowy Clouds Over Longs Peak
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

I didn’t really start out to make a project of photographing Longs Peak, in general I don’t consider myself to be a project-based photographer.  However, having spent a fair amount of time in Rocky Mountain National Park (well, at least in the Trail Ridge Road area), I’ve really became drawn to these vistas of the peak.  I say drawn, because I don’t push myself to go to them, rather, they really do draw me in like magnet.  Over time, I’ve amassed many iterations of these views, but I’m still not tired of them and feel compelled to keep on photographing them.  I find it fascinating the way you can keep one element of the composition the same – the peak – and still get nearly endless compositions by varying the other elements in the image.  And in this manner, a project was born.  I didn’t go looking for it, it found me.

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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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Still At It

Cottonwood Trees, Two Stands

Cottonwood Trees, Two Stands
Near Greenland, Colorado, 2014

I started writing this blog in February, 2013, which means I’ve been at it for just about 2 1/2 years now.  I’m still doing it, and I plan to keep on doing it, but lately I’ve been asking myself why.

When I started this blog, the idea was that it would be about 1/2 an exercise in marketing and 1/2 an exercise in personal expression.  On the marketing side, my thinking was that having a website with a blog, wherein the content was updated about once every week or two, would provide those interested in the content with a reason to keep coming back, thereby driving traffic to my website.  On the personal expression side, I thought it would be fun not only to post my images, but to provide (hopefully) interesting remarks and observations to go along with them.  Personally, I really enjoy reading the blogs of photographers who regularly provide inspiring images and well-written content, and I hoped my website and blog might provide a similar resource for others, at least maybe in some small way.

In practice, neither of these goals seems to have to come to pass.  On good days, traffic to this website peaks only in the double digits, which seems kind of low.  Moreover, based on the paucity of comments and offline feedback, I don’t think this blog is getting much readership (although I really value those of you who do read it – thanks so much!).

So why do I remain committed to doing this blog?

I’ve been puzzled by this question, since, as mentioned above, this blog really is not hitting the goals I set for it.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I think I found my answer when I listened to a podcast by Brooks Jensen at Lenswork Daily.  The podcast was called “Your Next Deadline,” and the basic premise was that having a deadline to work under is a good thing because it provides motivation to get things done.  For photographers, of course, this means creating new work.

Now, I don’t have an actual deadline for this blog, but I do start to feel a bit edgy if I don’t get a post out about once every week or two.  I don’t know why, maybe I just like seeing the unbroken line of archived posts stretching back to 2013.  In any case, writing a post means needing an image to share, and needing an image to share provides motivation for me to create new work.

It’s as good a reason as any to write a blog, I suppose.  With any luck, it will keep me at it for the next 2 1/2 years.  If so, I look forward to seeing you in February of 2018.

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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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The Art of Photography

Wiry Tree, Wire Fence. Weld County, Colorado, 2014.

Wiry Tree, Wire Fence
Weld County, Colorado, 2014

Few art forms get conflated with their tools as much as photography does.  No one claims to be a painter simply because they own paint brushes, or to be a writer simply because they own a word processor.  However, the popular perception of photography seems to be, to paraphrase a remark I once heard, that if you own a camera you’re a photographer, whereas if you own, for example, a violin, well you just own a violin.

There is an art to photography, but it’s not in the operation of a camera.  Learning how to work a camera – and all of the other tools of photography such as computer software or wet darkroom processes – is relatively straightforward.  With a relatively minimal amount of time and effort, just about anyone can become competent at these skills.

Rather, the art of photography lies in recognizing and capturing visually compelling images in a chaotic and unruly world.  Truly, it’s not easy to consistently make good photographs out of the visual clutter that constitutes the everyday world.

This, then, creates the paradox of photography as an art form.

On the one hand, it’s probably among the easiest of the arts in that there is a modest technical barrier to conquer.  Where it may take years to master, say, a musical instrument before one can make art with it, the skills required to master the use of a camera are so minimal as to be virtually no barrier at all.

But on the other hand, this makes photography one of the most difficult of art forms at which to excel.  Because the technical component is so minimal, the artistic value lies almost entirely in the vision of the artist.  One who photographs cannot hide behind technical achievement, such as the attaining of technical competence on a musical instrument that’s difficult to play.  Rather, the quality of a photograph stands or falls based almost entirely simply on how well the photographer visualized and expressed the image.  If you enjoy a photographer’s work, essentially what you are enjoying is a fairly pure expression of how that photographer uniquely sees the world, and what could be more quintessentially called “art” than that?

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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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Overthinking and Other Dangers in Photography

Tangled Tableau Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Tangled Tableau
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Some degree of self-awareness is a good thing in photography.  By this, I mean an awareness of who you are as a photographer, what it is you want to photograph, and why you pursue photography.  Taking some time to reflect on these points is a good thing, and revisiting them from time to time can help keep you focused and grounded as you pursue this discipline.

Unfortunately, photography is an area that seems to lend itself to overthinking.  Perhaps this extends from the technical nature of the subject, which certainly encourages research and study when one is looking to improve their technique.  Or it may be the manner in which photography fits into the larger world of fine art, where the traditions of art history and art philosophy provide a deep pool of study upon which to draw.

Whatever the cause, it seems to me that overthinking can be a dangerous and destructive tendency if not kept in check.

Overthinking can take many forms.  It can be an obsessive compulsion to learn and follow “rules” of composition, camera operation, printing, and the like.  It can be slavishly following and imitating the work of others, be they old masters or contemporary social media stars.  It can be adopting inflexible philosophical or procedural approaches, such as rigidly using specific alternative processes or producing only photographs that have methaphorical or other kinds of secondary meanings.

The end result when photographers succumb to overthinking – and I believe I have seen more than a few photographers affected by this – is that their work becomes stilted and straight-jacketed.  It’s not enough to produce a good image anymore, rather, all images must adhere to whatever mental agenda they carry around in their minds as a result of their overthinking.  Their work begins to suffer because of artificial obstacles they create for themselves – this image can’t be good because it is composed incorrectly, that image can’t be good because it’s not enough like the work of an admired photographer, another image can’t be good because it fails to carry a metaphorical message, and so forth. In the end, the photographs they produce indeed may meet all the compositional rules, or have all the elements of a sought-after style, or may communicate a metaphorical meaning, but they often lose the dynamism and vitality of simple and strong visual communication, which is hard enough to achieve as it is.

The simpler – and I daresay better – approach is to practice photography with a degree of spontaneity and open-mindedness.  There comes a point where it can be beneficial to throw caution to the wind, engage the process with feeling more than intellect, and proceed by doing rather than rationalizing.  It avoids the perils of overthinking, and is a lot more fun, too.

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