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Those Crimson Peaks Stir My Soul

Longs Peak, Cloud Crest.  Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015.

When you have an interest in photography, like I do, you tend to look at a lot of photographs.  It’s natural, I think, to begin to form opinions about what you like and don’t like, what works for you and what doesn’t, etc.  Eventually, you may find yourself asking whether certain photographs are “art” or not, or maybe if they are “good” or not.

I’m not even going to wade into that debate.  As far as I’m concerned, you could doodle a stick figure on a cocktail napkin and call it “art” and you probably would be right, and the question of whether something is “good” or not is largely in the eye of the beholder. 

But I will say for myself, having looked at a lot of photographs, a hallmark of the ones that stand out to me is that they tend to have a degree of nuance, subtlety, or sophistication in the way in which they communicate their message.  Photography being a visual medium, it’s a bit hard to describe what I mean.  But, by way of analogy, it’s kind of like the difference between the sentence

“Those mountains are pretty at sunset”

and the sentence

“Those crimson peaks stir my soul”

Okay, granted, neither of these sentences is a literary masterpiece, but the point I’m trying to make is that the second sentence (hopefully) communicates its message with more nuance, subtlety, and sophistication than the first sentence. 

Photographs are like that too, except of course that the language of photography is visual communication rather than written communication.  Some photographs simply are executed with more nuance, subtlety, and sophistication than others.  It’s something to perhaps consider if you find yourself asking whether something is “art” or not, or whether it’s “good” or not. 

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Make Something

Baroque Figures, Study No. 3. Asamkirche, Munich, Germany.

Baroque Figures, Study No. 3
Asamkirche, Munich, Germany, 2017

Do you know a writer who doesn’t write?  A painter who doesn’t paint?  A musician who rarely plays their instrument?  Maybe, a photographer who rarely gets out their camera to photograph?

I bet you’ve met a few folks like this.  There’s a lot of people out there who are more in love with the idea of being an artist than actually being an artist.

Real artists make things.  Writers make prose, painters make paintings, musicians make music.  And, photographers make photographs.

It doesn’t matter if your photographs are good or not.  If they’re not good, don’t share them, maybe throw them away.  I’ve made many, many photographs that have never seen the light of day.  The point is to be making them – if you’re making them, you’re being an artist.  If you’re not making them, well… you know.

Making something isn’t about numbers or time.  Some people will have a high output of work, some people will have a low output of work.  It’s also, of course, okay (and even desirable) to rest or take time off now and then.  There are no hard or fast rules, everyone is different.  In your heart, you’ll know if you’re making the cut or not.

Because ultimately, making things is where the rubber meets the road.  If you’re an artist – get out there and make something.

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Yin and Yang

Black Trees, Series 3, No. 1

Black Trees, Series 3, No. 1

If you’re reading this blog post, you may be familiar with my White Trees series of images.  I began that series back around 2012, when what had been a two-steps-forward, one-step-back interest in photography turned more serious.  The White Trees photographs began as part of a learning exercise designed to get me out into the landscape to photograph, and then to use the resulting captures in an interpretive and expressive process of image-making.  The basic concept behind the White Trees images are very white trees against relatively dark backgrounds.  I”m happy to report the White Trees project is ongoing, with new images continuously in development.

Over the years I’ve been working on the White Trees concept, I’ve produced a great many captures that, for one reason or another, are not suitable for the project.  Often, they end up making otherwise great images, and many of those images have become completed works in their own right that are now on this website.  After working with these “offshoots” of the White Trees project for awhile, I came to realize that a number of these images had their own hallmark characteristic – very dark trees against relatively lighter backgrounds.

And so, a new project has been born, the Black Trees project.  In truth, I already had been working with the Black Trees concept in other settings, and so a Black Trees Series 1 and a Black Trees Series 2 already exist.  However, I have not used the trees from the White Trees project as subjects for the Black Trees concept before, which makes a difference. So, I’m starting a new Black Trees Series 3.  I think it makes a nice complement to the White Trees project, kind of a yang to the White Trees’ yin.

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Proving Ground

Moon and Dark Sky Over Rock Cut

Moon and Dark Sky Over Rock Cut
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2017

Over the years that I’ve written this blog, I’ve come to realize that it’s become a kind of proving ground for the images I post here.  When I create my images, I subject them to a fairly intense process of scrutiny.  Naturally this includes reviewing the images on the monitor as they are being created, but also I make prints of every image I post here on the same grade of paper that I use for the sale and display of my work.  The printing often involves several iterations reflecting successive stages of editing, and often each iteration will sit on my desk for days or even weeks as I live with the print and gradually see what changes I can make to improve it.  In short, I invest a lot of time and effort to make sure I’m satisfied with an image before it is posted here.

Nevertheless, the act of posting seems to change the way I look at the print.  On more than one occasion, I’ve cued up a blog post with an image that I’m going to post, but before I post it I’ll see something about the image that makes me pull it back.  A couple of times, I’ve even done this after the image has been posted.  Usually I’m able to further tweak those images and they make it back on the blog, but sometimes those pulled images never see the light of day.

There’s just something about posting. The act of committing the image to public view creates a kind of feedback that I just don’t get when I’m editing an image in private. It’s a valuable kind of proving ground that I’m grateful to have at my disposal.

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Fill the Frame

Marin's Figures, Study No. 3 Denver, Colorado, 2017

Marin’s Figures, Study No. 3 (Equilibrista 90 by Jorge Marin)
Denver, Colorado, 2017

I generally don’t take a “rules” approach to photography, as in where some say that following certain rules or formulas are what it takes to produce compelling photography.  The one possible exception may be the “rule” that says to fill the frame with your subject.  Nine times out of ten, I find that doing this results in a stronger composition.

It’s been said that photography is a subtractive art – taking things out of the frame until the only things that are left are those that are necessary for the photograph, and nothing else.  Because the world is a visually chaotic and cluttered place, this is where much of the challenge of composing for a photograph comes from.  Indeed, I often have found it simply is not possible to compose a photograph that I want, because I cannot eliminate distracting and non-essential elements from the frame.

Filling the frame with your subject is one way toward subtracting out those kinds of distracting and non-essential elements.  Obviously, the more space your subject takes up in the frame, the less space there is for anything else.  It probably seems intuitive and simple to understand when I write it here this way, but I think many novice aspiring fine art photographers make the mistake of not filling the frame with their subject, and consequently having too many distracting and non-essential elements therein.  I know I did.  It really is a skill to learn just where to draw that fine line.

On a related point, filling the frame with your subject really requires that you pay attention to your background.  If you have filled the frame with your subject, odds are you are either standing very close to it or have zoomed in on it with a telephoto lens.  This makes it easy to change how the background looks, since slight shifts in camera position will have a big effect on what appears in the background.  So I rarely accept that the first spot in which I’ve chosen to stand is the best.  Instead, I move around and try out different camera positions to see how that affects what appears in the background.  The background is a critical part of a photograph, and is worth investing the time to get right.

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Landscapes are Landscapes, Photographs are Photographs

Longs Peak, Range of Clouds Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

Longs Peak, Range of Clouds
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

“My interest in photography did not begin with books or mentors, or with any burning desire to see the world through a camera.  It evolved from an intense devotion to mountains and wilderness that eventually shaped all the parts of my life and brought them together.”

— Galen Rowell

What an interesting quote by the great landscape photographer Galen Rowell.  It’s interesting to me personally because it is almost exactly backwards from how my interest in photography developed.  From a very young age, I remember being interested in photographs as objects in and of themselves.  I remember when my Dad would travel on business, I would ask him to bring me back a postcard from where he had been and spend an inordinate amount of time getting lost in the photograph.  Conversely, I did not grow up with much of an outdoorsy lifestyle, and to this day I have no appreciable wilderness skills to speak of.  Most of my landscape photography is done by the side of the road or maybe, if I’m feeling adventurous, down a well-marked, well-traveled trail in a National Park or somewhere similar.

This is not to say that I have no connection to the land or to landscapes.  To the contrary, I feel a photographer interested in producing expressive photographs should feel a strong connection with the subject matter he or she is photographing.  It’s just that my connection with landscapes has not developed as a result of lots of time spent in the back country or otherwise outdoor adventuring.  I love to travel and to see new places – most of my eyes on the landscape likely has come through the windshield of my car.

There’s nothing wrong with the Galen Rowell approach, of course, and indeed my experience is that most photographers who photograph the landscape come at it from this perspective.  I’m a little fearful, however, that the Galen Rowell quote may create an expectation that reverence for the landscape is all that is required to photograph it expressively.  It is not.  It my opinion, it’s far more important to have an interest in photographs – what makes them work, what make them fail – to produce expressive landscape photography.  Being an accomplished outdoorsman is admirable, but landscapes are landscapes, and photographs are photographs.  It is being an accomplished photographer that is required for photography.

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Like the Germans Do

Death Figure.  Ulmer Muenster, Ulm, Germany, 2018.

Death Figure
Ulmer Muenster, Ulm, Germany, 2018

I came across this cheery fellow in a small alcove of the Ulmer Muenster, a gothic church in Ulm, Germany.  Nobody does gothic like the Germans do.

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Meeting the Challenge

Bright Cloud Over Longs Peak

Bright Cloud Over Longs Peak
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2017

I never get tired of the views of Longs Peak from the Trail Ridge Road area of Rocky Mountain National Park.  I have a number of images collected together on this website of the peak photographed from this area, and probably a dozen (or more) pretty much finished images of it that I haven’t gotten around to posting yet.

After a few years of doing these kinds of photographs, I began to realize that many of the images I was making were looking alike.  The profile of the peak is more or less the same, and the big topographic features of the terrain remain the same too.  Given these limitations, the challenge of the project has become to see if I can keep making photographs of the peak in such a way that each given image says something unique about it and the collection as a whole does not become duplicative or boring.

This image was taken well after the sun went down over the horizon (I’m always surprised at how many landscape photographers pack it up after the sun goes down – some of the best light remains for a good 20 or more minutes after sunset!).  As I recall, the sky conditions were pretty flat and I wasn’t sure if I could make something interesting out of the scene.  There was a bright spot on the clouds above the peak, though, that with the longer exposures required in the dim light produced the interesting elongation of the cloud that shows up in this image.  In the end, I think it fits the criteria I set for myself in keeping this series of images going.

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I Make the Photographs I Want to See

Baroque Figures, Study No. 2. Asamkirche, Munich, Germany.

Baroque Figures, Study No. 2
Asamkirche, Munich, Germany, 2017

There’s a lot of photography being done out there these days, and a lot of reasons being given for making photographs.  In the art community, in particular, it often seems to me that a photograph is not seen to be complete without a small treatise of theory and explanation to accompany it.

Introspection in an artist is a good thing.  I like to think about the reasons I do what I do, and certainly I encourage anyone engaged in an artistic discipline to do the same.  But it can be taken too far, I think.  Getting too wrapped up in the theory and explanation of photography takes away from its practice.  It can get in the way of producing work or, even worse, compromise the purity of the work being done.

There are many reasons I practice photography, but only one that underlies them all – I strive to make the photographs that I want to see.  I think this both helps to keep me grounded in my approach to photography and keeps me true to my own internal vision in my practice of it.

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The Photograph, and Me

White Trees, Series 3, No. 4

White Trees, Series 3, No. 4

In my last post, I mentioned how I feel that when you put a person in a photograph, the photograph tends to become about that person and not whatever else may be in the frame.  For this reason, I tend to avoid putting people in my photographs.

But there’s even a little more to it than that.  I can speak only for myself, but I feel like when I see a person in a photograph, it tends to take me out of the photograph.  To me, a photograph without people in it has two participants – the subject of the photograph, and me, the viewer.  When a photograph has a person in it, it feels to me like the number of participants has grown to three – the subject, the viewer, and the person in the photograph.  Human likenesses exert such a powerful influence, that the depiction of a person in a photograph is almost like having another actual person in on the viewing experience.

I find this inhibiting.  When another person is around, maybe subconsciously I put my guard up.  Even if that person is just a likeness in a photograph.  I feel much more free to really “inhabit” the photograph as my own experience when there are no people depicted in it.

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