Choosing Between Two Masters
In The Slow Approach, we share individual perspectives on what it means to slow down, and how doing so can have a positive effect on our experiences as well as the images we capture.
I recently had a conversation with a fellow photographer in which we discussed the merits of personally expressive, creative images, as opposed to those that are more objective or representational in nature. In other words, images that say as much about the person behind the lens as the subject in front of it. While he admitted that the former should be the goal of any photographer, he felt that there was no reason why a photographer couldn’t make both types of images. While I didn’t respond, I knew that doing both would not be possible for me.
Like most landscape photographers, I reached a point in my development where I became technically competent enough to routinely produce quality images similar to those published in landscape photography magazines. The bulk of my work was wide-angle scenics in which the goal was an objective, literal depiction of the scene. The buyers of my work reflected the types of images I was making, and were primarily made up of magazine editors, calendar publishers, and stock agencies.
Over time I gradually came to the realization that while my work was good enough, it didn’t feel exceptional to me because it was not unique. Any photographer of similar skill could have produced the same images. It was telling that friends and family, looking at the back of a calendar in which I had a photo or two, couldn’t identify those that were mine. The majority of my photographs weren’t creative or personal. They didn’t represent a personal vision.
While there was nothing wrong with producing those types of images, I knew I wanted more from myself. I realized I needed to move beyond producing photos in which the primary goal was aesthetic appeal and start to create personally expressive photographs that represented my thoughts, feeling, and sensibilities. I wanted my photos to make visible my relationship with my subjects, how I see the world. Photos that came from the heart, free of ulterior purposes and motivations.
In time I began to notice the change in my photography, not only in appearance, but also in approach. No longer was I planning and researching my next photo. No more rushing to be at a specific location in time to capture the light, frantically shooting as the light was rapidly changing, or worse, feeling disappointed if the light failed to materialize. I now head out the door with no plan or outcome in mind. Free of time constraints I wander leisurely, my senses in tune with all that surrounds me. When I am compelled to make a photo I can work slowly and deliberately. The quality of the experience has been greatly enhanced. In time I have discovered that the lack of preconceptions allows me to see beyond the obvious, I am not honed in on one particular image at the expense of others.
In time my photos began to reflect this change in approach. My attention turned inward to more personal and intimate subject matter. Through my choice of subject, composition, and processing I challenged myself to elevate the mundane and to make the ordinary extraordinary. I noticed a far greater sense of fulfillment and accomplishment in making creative photos with very simple and ordinary subjects.
This change in direction came with some financial consequences, as more expressive images are less suited for editorial purposes. Many have said to me, why not do both? It seems like an obvious solution, but one that doesn’t work for me for multiple reasons. I don’t really care about my legacy, but while I’m alive I want my work to be authentic and truly reflect who I am. I feel producing more conventional images would dilute my body of work, and maybe even my artistic sense of identity.
More importantly, pursuing other kinds of images while out in the field would pull me away from the important task of growing and developing as an artist. Making the best personally expressive images requires full and sustained concentration; anything less and the work will suffer. Spending time on quickly captured “eye candy” images can allow one to be lazy, and can hinder growth. If there is no growth, then what is the purpose in continuing?
A turning point for me was Guy Tal’s book, More Than a Rock. It taught me that living the life of an artist should mean more than simply producing the work. The images should not be the primary goal. It should really be about meaningful experiences, about living the life, as it were; this was a novel idea to me. Those experiences, that life, is different for every person, but the unifying truth is that for all of us it is about much more than the photos. The images are the means, not the end. Making photos that weren’t a true reflection of who I am meant that I wasn’t doing what I really enjoyed, so what was the point? I may have been able to make more money from it, but that was not the reason why I became an artist.
Ultimately, it boiled down to a choice between chasing financial reward (modest as though it may be) or seeking the fulfillment that comes with realizing my artistic potential. For me, the path was clear.