Art For Whose Sake?

In a recent post on social media I admitted to at times feeling discomfort with the routine of posting images and the drawing of attention to myself. A couple of replies stated that I should look at it more as a showcase of nature rather than a showcase of Chris Murray. I understand what they’re saying and agree that for many photographers that is how they view their work, as a celebration of the beauty of nature and a vehicle for sharing it with others. I look at it in an entirely different way.

A question I sometimes pose to myself is, why do I do this? It’s a seemingly easy question to answer, which is why it’s surprising that I struggle with finding the words to express why. I do love nature, so that has something to do with it. I also love the act of creating something that hadn’t existed before, and wouldn’t were it not for my own unique (twisted?) mind. With the creative process comes a focus and mindfulness that is not present in my life otherwise. Ultimately, however, I view it as an act of personal expression, a way of communicating how I see the world. In the end I do it for me. First and foremost my images represent my thoughts and feelings, with nature serving as the inspiration. I am not interested in literally documenting the natural scene, there are countless other photographers doing that beautifully. Providing the same types of images would add nothing to the conversation. My hope is that my photos say as much if not more about me rather than what’s in front of the lens.

I am not a believer in art for art’s sake, I do think art can have a meaning or purpose. If my images can be used for conservation purposes (and some of them are) then all the better. Just as important to me is that they connect with the viewer and evoke the same emotions as they do in me. Even better is that my images serve to inspire others. My art exists to enrich not only my life, but hopefully the lives of those willing to appreciate it.

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Temptation

This fall I’ve made a few too many “pretty” images. Well executed, yet creatively lacking.

For the past few years I have been striving to make more creative and personally expressive images, those that say as much (and ideally more) about me, my thoughts and way of seeing than the subject or scene itself. While pulling together images recently for a presentation I was working on I noticed that the season in which I had the fewest creative photos was fall. I didn’t give it much thought at the time. Then, a colleague and fellow photographer mentioned that in some ways fall is the most difficult season for him to make more creative images. I knew exactly what he meant and was interested to find I was not alone. But, why is that? What is it about fall that makes us struggle with making creative photos?

Making creative images that go beyond a literal, objective recording of the scene requires looking deeper and seeing beyond the obvious. As Albert Szent-Gyorgyi is quoted as saying, “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” I think more than any season fall presents an overabundance of photographic opportunities, all of them so beautiful that it becomes very difficult to ignore. They’re almost like a siren song, they can’t be denied. The scenes are low-hanging fruit, there for the plucking. However, in falling prey to capturing the easy and obvious shot I forgo looking deeper and fail to make images of greater meaning and personal expression. I think it’s precisely for this reason that winter is the season from which I have created many of my most favorite and creative images. Winter is often stark and not particularly beautiful, finding interesting and creative images requires effort and time, there is little low-hanging fruit to distract and tempt me.

As with all temptation the answer, of course, is discipline. I must remind myself of the reasons why I make photos and what is important to me. Making images that are literal recreations of the scene as observed are what I hope to avoid. It sounds easy, but knowing that that beautiful scene would make an excellent calendar image or magazine cover it becomes much harder to pass up. Even simpler than that, those types of scenes almost beg to be captured as a memento of their beauty. Many would say (and have said to me) why not do both? Some do, I choose not to. But, that’s a discussion for another time. In the meantime I will strive to make the most honest images I can and not be tempted by the obvious. For me, creative images should not be made in the absence of obvious scenes, but rather in spite of them.

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Has Everything Been Done Before?

“Most expressive discoveries are made in old familiar subject matter.” ~ A. Hyatt Mayor

I came upon this quote while reading Robert Adams’ Beauty in Photography. Adams goes on to say that “Photography is by nature on intimate terms with old familiar subject matter; all that remains now is for us to create new illusions in the service of truth”. It set me to thinking about originality in photography and the subject matter we choose. In a way these quotes reinforce the old mantra that “everything has been done before.” It doesn’t take someone with a keen eye to observe that most landscape and nature photographs we see today are from tried and true subjects, be it a place, an object, weather phenomena, you name it. Can you name the last landscape photo you saw with truly original subject matter? I know I can’t. I look at my own body of work and see little if any truly unique subjects. But, is that a problem? I think not.

I am in agreement with the belief that most landscape photographs fall into either one of two categories. There are those that are objective, meaning that the image is a literal recreation of the scene as observed by the photographer. Fidelity to actual appearances is the goal with these types of images and very little if any of the photographer’s personality has been projected into the image. Think of a grand landscape scene. Then there are subjective images, those that go beyond mere appearances and reflect the photographer’s thoughts, feelings, and personality. These are creative, personally expressive images in which the object in the photo is not the subject. Granted, rarely is it as black and white as I have described it here, for most objective landscapes have a subjective element to them and vice versa. Still, there are differences between the two, not only in appearance but also in approach and intent.

When it comes to landscape photography it is entirely possible that everything has been done before. But, what do we mean by “everything”? Do we mean all subject matter? Or could it mean all the ways of seeing, which is in reality infinite. It doesn’t take original subject matter to make an original, unique image. In a creative, personally expressive image the subject really only matters to the photographer, serving as a catalyst for inspiration and perhaps even a metaphor what what the photographer is trying to express. The real subject is the photographer’s response to the literal object or subject in the scene and what she/he is trying to say. The challenge for the landscape photographer is not to find new subject matter, but rather to discover new and original ways of expression.

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The Confident Artist

“Photography is the easiest medium with which to be merely competent. Almost anybody can be competent. It’s the hardest medium in which to have some sort of personal vision and to have a signature style.” ~ Chuck Close

Critical in the growth of every artist is developing the confidence and courage to follow one’s own creative path. A confidence not only in our abilities, but also the manner in which we practice our art. We must find the courage to lead a creative life that is often contradictory to current popular trends and practices. Together, confidence and courage enable an artist to practice their work honestly and without regard for popularity or marketability. Without this confidence and courage we will not be able to create a unique body of work that is true to our convictions and the ways in which we see the world.

Insecurity in artists is a common affliction, even in those who have “made it”. Bouts of self-doubt are normal and it may not be possible to banish them completely. At its worst insecurity is that feeling of being a phony, an impostor. Compounding matters, we are in the age of social media where it is easier than ever to compare and rank ourselves among a seemingly infinite number of other photographers. Speaking as someone who has never suffered from an abundance of self-confidence, it has been a years-long journey to believe in myself enough to practice my work with conviction. A recent experience provided a litmus test of how far I have come.

This past autumn I was one of three leaders on a photo tour in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. The final evening found the group on the summit of a mountain to photograph the sunset, a unique opportunity since the toll road leading to the summit closes well before that time (we had been granted special permission). It is an iconic location that has been photographed countless times, including by one of the leaders of the tour, the most accomplished and well-known photographer in the region. Despite the beautiful sunset I declined to make any photos myself, content to watch the beauty unfold and be of service to the participants. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and relished the opportunity to simply watch the splendor unfold without feeling the need to photograph it.

Later over dinner the other leader asked if I had captured any good photos. When I told him I hadn’t even take my camera out of the bag he looked at me utterly bewildered. A rare opportunity squandered! I proceeded to list my reasons for such unusual behavior. I explained that I avoid iconic locations, figuring there is little of myself that I can add to a place that has seen thousands of other photographers. On this particular evening I shared the summit with 20+ other photographers; was I really going to make an image substantially different from the rest? His retort was that we all see something differently, a common belief that I find more true in theory than reality.

I am not inspired by such popular locales. I find the experience of making a meaningful photograph in an ordinary location far more fulfilling. More than that, however, I strongly prefer to photograph alone. I find the presence of even one other person incredibly distracting, let alone twenty people as was the case this evening. I do my best creative work when my attention is completely focused on the subject in front of me. But, it also has to do with the ways in which I prefer to interact with nature. Having other people around spoils the experience, and I am a firm believer that meaningful experiences count more than results. I have not become a landscape photographer to simply accumulate pretty photos, I love the experience of one-on-one communion with nature and the inspiration it provides. Despite my explanation the look of puzzlement never left his face and it was clear he was unable to understand my reasoning.

As recently as a couple years ago I would have been racked with self doubt had my methods and practices been questioned by a more accomplished and respected photographer. Not anymore. Instead, my question for him, one I did not ask, was how he could find something truly novel in a place with which he was so familiar and had photographed many times before? This is not to imply that his methods are wrong, simply that our approaches are very different. In a way, my confidence was buoyed by his lack of understanding. If everyone “gets” you then most likely you’re not being true to yourself.

So what had changed for me? In my former career I was a geologist. Growing up I was good in math and science and thought that was my path. I have no formal education in the arts and believed that I had no natural aptitude. As a photographer I am completely self-taught, which I believe is a big reason why I have struggled with confidence. Who am I to call myself an artist? I realize of course that a formal education is not a prerequisite for becoming an artist and that many iconic photographers were and are self-taught. Nonetheless, for me it created doubt and the feeling that I was not qualified. With time and practice I became technically competent enough to routinely produce quality images similar to what I was seeing in the landscape photography magazines of the day. Back then it was having my work accepted by magazine editors, calendar publishers, and stock agencies that began to build my confidence. Still, over time I gradually came to the disturbing realization that while my work was good enough it was not not exceptional. Worse, it was not unique. Any photographer of similar skill could have produced the same images. The majority of the photographs weren’t creative or personal. They weren’t me.

I admit to being somewhat old-fashioned in terms of my subject matter and the way I approach it. I have little interest in astrophotography or video. I will never own a drone. I prefer simpler photos that rely on creative expression rather than those that require almost herculean feats of technical wizardry. I favor subtlety and prefer quiet and intimate images over grand landscapes. I avoid iconic locations. I don’t view photography as a social endeavor and I strongly prefer to shoot alone. I am certain I am far from alone in my preferences, but still, I often feel alone in thinking this way.

A turning point in my development as a photographer was becoming a student of the medium. This is what built my confidence. I am ashamed to admit this, but for too long I trudged through photography with little or no sense of its rich history.  My work suffered for it. I was technically competent, yet creatively adrift. Once I began to learn about the work and philosophies of the photographers who paved the way it was like an awakening. Much has obviously changed over the years, but the core principles of photography as an art form have not. In particular, the work of contemporary artists such as Guy Tal and Chuck Kimmerle have had a tremendous impact on my confidence. It is as if they have given me permission to pursue my work on my own terms, however different they may be. I believe anyone familiar with Guy and Chuck would agree that they are a breath of fresh air in this environment that seemingly favors technical solutions and stunning landscapes to improving one’s photography over the refinement and development of expressive skills. The answer lies within.

I’ve quoted Chuck Close at the head of this article because there is no more succinct and accurate description of photography. Creating a body of work that is original and consistent in vision or voice (or whatever you call it) is the most difficult challenge facing any photographer. The only way to do that is to produce honest work, work that truly is a reflection of your own sensibilities and relationship with your subject. That ability to be completely honest is derived solely from inner confidence. Confidence begets honesty because we are free from outside influences and pressures. It used to frustrate me terribly to miss photographing a stunning sunrise, regarding it as a missed opportunity to make an image that would prove popular and marketable. I realize now that such images, as beautiful as they may be, are, for me, a dime a dozen and creatively bereft. I have been there and done that. I now have the confidence and courage to seek something greater, something more personal and infinitely more rewarding. I am seeking myself.

Droning on About Drones

I recently had my first encounter with a drone. I was traipsing across a snowy field looking for where to plant my tripod when I noticed a car pull up behind mine. Minutes later I heard a strange buzzing sound overhead; it didn’t take long to realize what it was. It was not a pleasant experience. Aside from the obvious intrusive noise was the fact that I couldn’t help but feel as if I was being watched, even though I knew the person was there to photograph the same scene and certainly had no interest in me. Regardless, the entire experience was disquieting. The presence of a drone buzzing overhead was a distraction I could not overcome.

My position on drones and photography has been evolving over the past year. Initial indignation has given way to a tempered acceptance. That they are intrusive due to their noise is an obvious and significant problem and one that I believe is beyond debate. It is clearly noise pollution. Noise notwithstanding, I can see the allure, and yet I know I will never own one.

A recent magazine article on drones and nature photography offered much food for thought. A photographer interviewed for the article stated that one of the reasons he purchased a drone was that it was the future and he feared he would be left behind had he not. Okay, fair enough, I understand his fear, even though I don’t agree with his supposition of being left behind. However, another reason was that he became “frustrated with the paucity of perspectives on the ground.” The quote floored me. Mind you, he always photographs in extremely beautiful places, how in the world could he feel limited? I can’t help but liken his view to that of the photographer who, having grown tired of easy and obvious compositions in a given place, goes somewhere else to find new and obvious compositions rather than explore more deeply and creatively where he already is. When the low-hanging fruit has been picked from one tree you go on to the next one. Drones, like any new gadget or technology, can be the easy yet ultimately misguided answer to the question of how to advance one’s photography.

It would be easy and unfair to dismiss drones based on the perspective of one photographer. My decision to never own a drone is based more on the types of images that inspire me than the noise factor, though that alone is damning enough. Ultimately it comes down to the art produced. That beautiful photographs can be made with drones is without question. But can images be made with drones that go beyond pretty and are subjective, creative expressions of the photographer rather than objective representations of a place? Is there more to drone photography than the cool factor? This is the question with which I struggle. Ansel Adams once stated that means and methods often hold an unbalanced dominance over creativity. Could drones be an example of the means and methods of which he spoke?

Skill vs. Talent

As an artistic medium photography is unique in that it relies so heavily on technology. And it is precisely this reason why it is so popular and why so many people are “good” at it. It’s a matter of skill versus talent. Skill is a learnt ability. It is acquired or developed after much time and hard work. If one has the desire to make good photos and puts in the time to not only learn their camera but also the theory of exposure they will in time produce aesthetically pleasing photos. Technology these days has advanced to the point where it is easier than ever to get to that level. Talent, on the other hand, is innate; it is a natural ability that one is born with. You either have it or you don’t. No matter how much I may love to be a painter it will never happen regardless of how much I practice because I wasn’t born with that ability. But one can be born without a natural talent for photography and yet still produce nice images because they have learned the technical side of the medium. This is what makes photography unique, but also greatly hindered its being recognized as an art form. A great many images that landscape photographers create (myself included) are feats of skill and not talent.

Well then what about composition? Isn’t that where the talent lies? In his book More Than a Rock photographer (and personal hero) Guy Tal asks the question “is there anything easier in photography than making a beautiful photo of a beautiful subject? It requires little in the way of imagination and creativity and is in fact a low form of art”. Granted, even I have to admit that he may be a tad too harsh here, but I agree with his point. When presented with stunning scenery it is very easy to compose a beautiful photo. Nature has done the bulk of the work; the photographer simply needs to be there. This is not false modesty, just simple truth. Being in the right place at the right time is a matter of having done your homework and/or luck and not talent. Manipulating camera settings to achieve proper exposure is a skill earned through time and practice and not talent.

A far greater accomplishment is making beautiful something that is ordinary. Talent lies in recognizing those ordinary things that most others do not. Talent lies in being able to creatively express our own unique thoughts and feelings about a subject. Anyone can make a pretty photo of beautiful scenery, not anyone can create something truly unique and different using the same visual elements available to all of us.

Milky Way Fatigue

Yesterday I greeted the arrival of the new issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine with a groan and a sigh. The issue is dedicated to night photography, and has oh so many photos of the Milky Way in various settings. The current issue of Adirondack Life also has a cover photo of the Milky Way. Please, enough with the Milky Way photos. Despite the setting every photo looks the same. Why? Because the Milky Way always looks the same. The shot has become as cliché’ as a sunset over water. The photos of the Milky Way in this issue look exactly like those of another photographer featured a year ago in the same magazine. In fact, I assumed it was the same photographer until I saw the byline. No originality or creativity at play. Enough.

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Two issues a year apart. Look similar much?