Autumn Thoughts

Today I returned from a few days of personal photography in the Adirondacks following a series of workshops. It was interesting to return to the same places I visited less than two weeks ago, witnessing the rapid change that occurs this time of year. Most of the maples had shed their leaves, while the beeches were just now reaching their peak, setting the forest understory ablaze in shades of deep orange and gold. Soon time will usher in autumn’s second act. The trees will have been laid bare, their naked limbs seemingly stretching upward as if awaiting the first dusting of snow. 

I am always struck by a feeling of deep melancholy when I say goodbye to the woods this time of year, knowing what is soon to come. The reason is obvious I suppose, a reminder of another year soon reaching its end. And while I am more than ready to bid adieu to this year of personal tragedy and difficulty, I find the speed at which time is moving to be unsettling. Walking with the fallen leaves crunching underfoot I can’t help but realize that I too am well into this life’s second act. What will the next few years bring?

Only two days ago I leisurely strolled along an old backwoods road in the bright sunshine, reveling in the sights, sounds, and smells of this most magical time of year. It had been a few years since I last visited this place, and I made a vow to return annually at this time. Every now and then I stopped to make a photo, but that wasn’t my objective. All that mattered that afternoon was the experience of being alone with nature, to see beyond myself and my problems, to see a world much larger than me. Soon the woods will be transformed once again, and I hope I will be as well. 

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The Eyes of a Child

“…innocence of eye has a quality of its own. It means to see as a child sees, with freshness and acknowledgment of the wonder; it also means to see as an adult sees who has gone full circle and once again sees as a child – with freshness and an even deeper sense of wonder.” – Minor White

This past week I taught a kids photography camp, my latest entry into the “What was I thinking?!” file of actions. Once I got over the shell shock of dealing with adolescent girls (mind you, I have no children of my own), there were a few interesting observations. Not unexpectedly they had little difficulty learning the technical side of photography. Unlike so many of the adults I teach they didn’t regard their camera as something that might actually hurt them. Processing their images in Lightroom was also a breeze. If there is one thing that doesn’t intimidate a child it is a computer. But the biggest and most important difference from adults was in their photos.

They were fearless when it came to making pictures. With no concern for failure, they shot everything and anything. Buildings, flowers, the sidewalk, benches, desks in a classroom. And they did it from every possible perspective. Lying on their stomach, on their back shooting upward, from this angle and that angle. Sure, many if not most of the images didn’t work, but that’s not the point. They did exactly what one should do when learning to make photos: experiment. And they had zero concern as to whether or not the images would be good, all they cared about was the act. Results didn’t matter, it was all about the experience for them. And every now and then some of them made truly wonderful images, a couple that I even wanted to claim as my own (fortunately they’re too young to know about copyright. Just kidding). 

One of the biggest barriers to seeing is bias. For adults a lifetime of experiences brings about good things, but it also causes us to have judgments, prejudices, and biases. We worry if this image has been done before, either by us or by another photographer. We ask ourselves if anyone will like it, or what use it may ultimately have. Children have no such concerns. At this age they are blessedly unaware or unconcerned with the likes and shares BS of social media. They haven’t seen a lifetime of photos with which to judge against their own and they have no body of work to compare the next image they make to. It is ignorance in perhaps its most positive form. As adult photographers it is a lesson for all of us. We need to strive to see with the eyes of a child, to regard the world without judgment and fear, but rather with wonder and joy.

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Who Are Our Peers?

I recently shared a podcast on social media in which the author discusses validation and challenges the listener to determine which form of validation is meaningful to them. For me it’s a very simple question to answer. I want my work to connect with people. I want them to be moved by it, to see it as something inspirational and special. But, it goes beyond that. I ultimately want the respect of my peers. The question that raises, however, is who exactly are my peers?

Like most artists I am prone to feelings of insecurity. Far from suffering delusions of grandeur, it could be argued I go too far in the other direction, believing myself not worthy to be considered a peer of those photographers that inspire me. They have a much greater following and have accomplished far more than I have, certainly I can’t consider myself an equal. It caused me to look up the formal definition of the word peer, and it’s this: one that is of equal standing with another. It means being the equal of someone, being on par with them. Having the same abilities as other people in a group.

I will never have the same abilities as a William Neill or a Guy Tal. My body of work will never be considered as meaningful or influential as John Sexton’s. They are simply working at another level that I don’t believe I will ever reach. That is not false modesty or self-doubt, just a healthy realization of my limits. They are that smart, that talented. How can my name even be whispered in the same breath? I most certainly do not have the same abilities that they do, how can I consider myself their peer?

A fellow photographer and friend ever so gently chided me for my way of thinking, saying that is exactly how I need to think of them: as peers and not superior beings to be put on a pedestal. It’s not a question of who is “better”. Another friend echoed that sentiment. While I agree that they should not be idolized, I still have a hard time seeing myself as their peer. It could be argued I’m placing too much emphasis on achievement. But, it’s what that achievement reflects: a body of work that stands above the rest.

The mistake in my way of thinking is in choosing to compare myself to the few photographers that have reached a level of which most of us can only dream. The vast majority are like me, talented individuals working to produce a body of work that is authentic and resonates with people. Some connect with more people than others, but that matters little. Whether or not we make a living at it is also irrelevant, money is not a factor. Most of us will never be a household name, even within the nature/landscape photography community. We toil anonymously, working hard at pushing the boundaries of our limitations, seeing just how good we can be and exploring our potential. No, I can’t consider myself a peer of Charles Cramer or Bruce Barnbaum. But, I do consider myself the peer of many other photographers whom I hold in high regard. Their respect is all the validation I need.

But an attaboy from Guy sure would be nice.

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The Role of Music

On the days when I’m not outside making photos or traveling I can be found working from home on the more mundane tasks of photography. Yesterday I was revamping the galleries on my website. When I get bored of that (usually after about five minutes) I’ll surf YouTube for interesting videos of any of my favorite bands (I can procrastinate with the best of them). As much as I enjoy photography, I would give anything to play an instrument well.

I didn’t discover my passion for landscape photography until my mid-twenties, and I’ve wondered if there were indications early on of where my life would eventually lead. Interestingly, the signs came from music rather than photography. Music has always played an important role in my life, even though my knowledge of it is rudimentary and I don’t play an instrument. Throughout adolescence and my teen years it was my escape, my solace. I would spend hours each week lying on my bed listening, usually intently, to my favorite bands. It was also a shared bond between my best friend (bgfay.com)and me that exists to this day. We were not casual listeners. We would (and still do) discuss the finer details of the songs, the nuances, their meaning, etc. We both wish we had a formal education in music so we could more fully appreciate the complexities.

What we listened to was not typical of boys our age. It took time to learn to appreciate the bands and musicians we came to love. The music was usually complex, sometimes overtly and other times in more subtle ways. And almost always rich in emotion and feeling. It was intelligent, creative, and original. I didn’t realize it at the time but it was an early indication of who I was becoming as a person, my sensibilities. It was a sign of the qualities I valued in life and would later seek to express in my own creative endeavors.

I’m certain I am not the first to notice a connection between creative mediums. Prior to dedicating his life to photography Ansel Adams was a very talented pianist. It has been said that his musical training deeply colored and influenced his photography. Parallels were drawn between the subtle tones in his prints and the phrasing of notes played on the piano. Paul Caponigro is another example, having enrolled at Boston university’s College of Music. While I am in no way equating my experience with theirs, I can say that my tastes in music and the qualities I look for are reflected in my own creative work. Even though music moves me in a way no photograph ever has, photography is the medium for which I am best suited to express and learn about myself.

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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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