Interview with Alex Noriega: What Slow Photography Means to Him
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.
One of the aspects that I enjoy about the nature photography world is connecting with other photographers. While the slow photography process often finds us creating images alone in nature, it also leads to opportunities for collaborating with and meeting others dedicated to the craft. Landscape photographer Alex Noriega uses slow photography principles to create compelling imagery. I first met Alex a few years ago while photographing in Death Valley. Since then, we've had several opportunities to shoot together, and we have adventured in some unique locations out in the landscape. His imagery is the result of authentic connections, reading the light, and celebrating the smaller moments and details in the landscape. I recently sat down with him to ask him some questions on how he utilizes the slow approach in his photography.
Do you practice a slow approach to photography? In what ways?
I do, and increasingly so as time progresses. I used to make single-day trips from home to various locations to photograph at every opportunity. On these trips, I focused on golden hour, sunrise, and sunset photography. I chased colorful light and skies as they occurred, scrambling to find compositions before the light was gone. I usually had specific types of images in mind and tried to force them even when it simply wasn't working.
The way I photograph now is in stark contrast to this approach. I prefer to spend longer periods of time at each location, getting to know them via exploration and observation. I may have some vague idea of the subjects or types of images I might find, but I never try to force them. I simply explore, observe, and capture images as they present themselves to me, be it through discovery of a certain subject that intrigues me, or via a fleeting occurrence of light that forms the basis for a composition. I don't like to rush myself when I work. I prefer to dial in compositions carefully and slowly, getting them as close as possible to what I envision in-camera, and then waiting for changing light to do what I predict or hope it will do, sometimes parked waiting for hours on a single composition.
The Slow Photography Movement exists to present alternatives to photographers who feel the need to sprint from place to place to capture 'bucket list' type of images, often images that they have seen and are trying to recreate. What would you say to these photographers?
While I won't tell these photographers that there's a right or wrong way to photograph, I will say that it is immensely more satisfying to create original work. I say this as someone who previously had exactly such a bucket list. As I checked image after image off the list, and as time went on, I found less and less satisfaction in the process of making them. I was chasing others' vision and putting my own twist on it in post-processing. But that didn't make those photos mine - it was like painting someone else's sculpture. Occasionally I would shoot something I hadn't seen before, and I found that these images were those that I felt most connected to, those that I felt most compelled to share with others, and those that I was most proud to put my name on. Of course, when I use the term "original" work, I don't mean that it comes from a vacuum, or that it doesn't resemble anything that has ever come before it. Most great art is derivative - we all stand on the shoulders of giants. The key is to borrow ideas from all the artists that inspire you, be they photographers or otherwise, rather than to imitate a specific person's work. Mix your influences to create your own unique blend of decisions and preferences and attributes, and be sure to incorporate your own ideas as well. It won't happen quickly or easily - it takes time to come into your own. But it's ultimately worth it, both for the purpose of fulfillment and for standing out in an increasingly crowded field.
Are there some particular places that you have had to get to know better, before being able to capture them?
Absolutely. Death Valley National Park comes to mind, because at first glance it's simply a vast, brown expanse. It takes time exploring the different canyons, playas, and hidden nooks of the park to appreciate what it has to offer. It also takes time observing changing conditions, weather, light, and seasons. Its magic reveals itself to those who pay attention. I think it's relatively easy to show up at the popular locations and get similar shots, but to really, truly appreciate the place and to make your own unique images there, it simply takes time and a curious mind. For my part, I still have a lifetime of exploration left to do there - I've only scratched the surface, but I can see my progression since the first time I visited.
Another place is Olympic National Park. Unlike Death Valley's initially empty appearance, Olympic has almost the opposite problem. It's so dense with things to photograph that it takes time to make refined images there, particularly in the rainforest. The coasts and sea stacks make it relatively simple to capture grand scenics, but the forests teem with life in every square foot. It requires a lot of time to learn how to wrangle that chaos into cohesive compositions.
Of your images, which one would you say best exemplifies the practice of a slow approach, and why?
I'll go with my recent favorite "Apparition", from my trip with you to Yellowstone this past winter, Jennifer! That day, you and our friends had hit the trail snowshoeing for a basin relatively early in the morning. I had difficulty getting moving in time (being that I'm not much of a morning person), and told you I'd join the group later. This resulted in me making the snowshoe trip by myself. While I love exploring with my friends, and though we all practice slow photography, I usually make my best work alone. I feel no pressure to accommodate the desires of others by continuing to the agreed-upon destination, nor do I feel the pressure of needing to be somewhere at a certain time. This allows me to stop and focus on things that catch my eye, which others may not see or may not be interested in. Several of my favorite images have been made along trails, on the way to my intended destination. For this photo, while moving along the trail, I saw the steam from nearby geysers interacting with these three trees across a meadow. Nobody else was around, and it was clear from the lack of packed-down snow that nobody had stopped there along the way. I spent a good hour honing in my composition, trying a few different perspectives, and capturing many frames, waiting for just the right moments where the moving steam would play with the trees exactly how I wanted. This was in late morning, when the light would traditionally be ignored by many photographers, due to its lack of color and its relative harshness (not you guys, of course!) But since the sunlight was partially diffused by cloud cover, and since it had to pass by massive plumes of shadow-casting steam, it was actually pretty interesting and mysterious-looking within the tight framing of my telephoto composition. While I ultimately missed out on the excellent photos you all got at the destination (and the early-morning light,) I ended up making one of my favorite images anyway, due to my slow approach.
We promote a focus on quality over quantity. However, for photographers who are trying to get visibility, and establish a portfolio, this is easier said than done. What advice would you give to them?
I realize that I may be an outlier in this regard, but I have a strong belief in curation and quality over quantity—and I have also managed to accrue a fairly large following online. You don’t need to “play the game” to gain visibility! Sure, social media reach is often important in making a living on photography in this age, but it’s just as important that the people you’re reaching are engaged and dedicated. Remember that numbers on social media and the quality of your work aren't necessarily correlated. Some of the best nature photographers alive today have very small or modest followings online. Focus on putting out quality work that you love, and the business/visibility will come eventually in one form or another. You'll find your style and your niche, and that will set you apart from the crowd. You can force more visibility sooner by playing the social media game, artificially engaging constantly, releasing as many images as possible, chasing trends, et cetera - but then you're just diluting your good name and compromising your artistic integrity.
Say you have a unique and compelling shot that you love, and you've also got a shot of the same subject that you hardly even like, and that you consider to be worse, but you think it might do well on social media. Why put forth both those images? For the sake of visibility? What if a prospective art buyer, or an artist you admire, or anyone new to your work, discovers the inferior photo somewhere and never sees the better one? Now your name is associated with a photo you hardly even like in their minds. If you had only put the better photo out there, that's what they would see, and it wouldn't have to compete against your other work. It's the definitive and singular version of that shot. You elevate the way your work is perceived by others if you only show your best. I only have about 200 images on my website from nearly a decade of nature photography, because I routinely curate and remove images that are no longer up to my standards. Some images will stand the test of time and stay in the portfolio permanently, and some will be eclipsed by new photos you make or become irrelevant to you as you evolve as an artist. Don't be afraid to let go of images that aren't up to your standards, and always keep trying to raise your personal bar by learning and evolving.
Thank you, Alex, for taking the time to give us some insight into your slow approach!
The beautiful thing about the Slow Photography movement is that there is no right or wrong way to utilize the principles and techniques. It's always fascinating to hear how others approach subjects in the landscape and how their photography experiences are shaped by the methods they use. Every photographer's experience will be unique, but listening to Alex, there is a common theme: slowing down. Taking the time to hear what slow photography is to others helps us cultivate our own thoughts and feelings, which then spreads out to our imagery.
To view more of Alex's work, please visit www.alexnoriega.com.