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.