November Reflections

“After all, there seems to be no objective meaning in human existence; life has only whatever meaning you choose to give it.” ~ John Keats

Overnight the first snow of the season fell where I live. While only amounting to a heavy dusting it clings to the trees despite the gusty winds. As the dark of night gives way to the drab, gray light of morning I remind myself that we have yet to reach the half-way point of fall. Yesterday I heard Christmas music playing outside a shopping plaza, no doubt intended to fuel the holiday shopping craze. But, it’s still fall, and will be for several more weeks. One of the tragedies of adulthood is our inability to focus on the present, we so often are thinking of tomorrow, or worse, dwelling on the past. It is November 2nd. Winter is coming, but not today.

I hope to return to the mountains sometime this month to experience the woods in transition, “stick” season as some call it. It seems to me an almost vulgar name for such a quietly beautiful time of year. There are trails I have been meaning to explore for years now, this would be an excellent opportunity. Where I would stay is nestled in a quiet valley along a river, well away from the hustle and bustle of the larger towns. I try to encounter as few people as possible when I visit, just as I aim to deprive myself of news from the outside world. It is cathartic in ways I cannot explain.

Photography is easier this time of year, my attention no longer divided by the glitz of the fall foliage. I am reminded of a quote by Erich Fromm, “Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” November offers no such guarantees, and for that I am grateful. I have found that many of my most meaningful images are made under such circumstances. I am sure some photographs will be made, but that is not the point. Wandering the woods with no particular destination, observing and listening, that is what it is all about. I find it difficult to maintain that mindset in the early weeks of fall when trying to make photos in between workshops and other obligations and I believe my photographs suffer for it.

Several friends and family have expressed dismay over the coming winter and the isolation it will bring, especially in these times. It may be an overstatement to say I am looking forward to it, but I am certainly not dreading it. Each season brings with it opportunity, and for me winter is a time of reflection and preparation. There is a new presentation in my mind that I would like to put together. I would like to get back to writing. It is November 2nd. Winter is coming. There is time.

Called Out

In my workshops the focus is on making creative and personally expressive photos that go beyond merely literal recordings. To that end I discuss the rewards of photographing ordinary subjects and elevating the mundane. During a workshop of mine last year we were photographing one morning at one of the most iconic locations in the Adirondack Park. I observed that one of my students seemed a little displeased, and when I approached her about it she politely called me out for essentially “talking the talk, but not walking the walk.” She found visiting such a grand and iconic locale to be incongruous with my teachings. The nerve! Actually, I had to hand it to her, it was a fair and shrewd observation. It also made for a wonderful learning opportunity.

One of the most important and at times difficult tasks of a workshop instructor is dealing with expectations. The objectives of those attending workshops can vary greatly. Some are there for trophy hunting and look to the instructor to take them to places that offer the biggest bang for their buck, reducing the role of instructor to that of a tour guide. For others the focus is on learning, although there is still an expectation of visiting iconic locales and the hope of returning home with at least a few very high quality images. In time I hope to cultivate a reputation such that people who attend my workshops understand that it is more about the creative experience in nature and expressing oneself through their images. If they go home with a handful of great images to boot then that is a bonus, but not the objective. For the time being I try to manage expectations as best I can.

I explained this to her, but more than that I pointed out that just because we were visiting an iconic location doesn’t mean that one is obligated to get the iconic shot. In fact, seeing beyond the obvious first (or second, or even third) impression can be a great exercise in learning to not settle for the first thing you see. Often the first thing that catches our attention doesn’t make for the most creative or expressive photograph because it’s not the thing that makes us feel. Art is more about feeling than it is seeing. If you stand at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley the first thing you will see is what everyone who visits there sees. Brooks Jensen, artist and editor of Lenswork Magazine, advocates for first capturing the iconic shot just to get it out of your system so that you can begin to see other things. Whatever your way of working the important thing is to see and consider multiple opportunities for photo making and not be blinded by the glitz of the obvious. The best photographs are made with our heart, not our eyes.

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The Brett Effect

I am still trying to figure out the kind of photographer I want to be. I’m not talking about my photos, that I’ve worked out. I’m talking about my identity as an artist. Do I want to be the sage, the photographer who speaks of all things related to creativity and living that life? Think … Continue reading “The Brett Effect”

I am still trying to figure out the kind of photographer I want to be. I’m not talking about my photos, that I’ve worked out. I’m talking about my identity as an artist. Do I want to be the sage, the photographer who speaks of all things related to creativity and living that life? Think of Guy Tal. Or, do I want to speak solely through my photos and embrace the nonverbal? Photography is a visual medium after all. Have you ever noticed that? For those who have been following me the last few years it would seem I’ve chosen the former. I suppose I have, but I’m not certain it’s truly me. I admire the photographers who have taken that role, but is it who I am?

I recently read the book Interviews With Master Photographers, which was published in the mid-1970s. It was fascinating to learn of the differences in philosophies between several extremely talented and accomplished artists. In particular I was struck by Brett Weston’s complete and utter refusal to discuss symbolism and philosophy when it came to his work, repeatedly stating that “I’m just a photographer, I’m not too verbal.” In this way he was the polar opposite of Minor White (also interviewed) and his Zen approach to photography and belief in Equivalence. And yet, Weston’s photographs clearly speak to his own unique vision. Why talk about that which can be so clearly seen? Here were two incredibly talented and unique artists who in certain ways couldn’t be more different. The lesson here obviously is that there is no right or wrong, only what is right for the individual. Which is precisely the point of this piece. Which is right for me? Which is right for you?

The good thing is I know who I am not. I know I have little interest in talking about the technical side of photography. That’s what Youtube is for. The are a million different ways to do this and that, and just as many photographers willing to tell you how. I am grateful for them for I too have benefitted from their knowledge. But, I have nothing new to offer that conversation.

Lately I have found myself growing weary of inspiring quotes and other reflective prose that accompanies many photos on social media. I have been one of the prime offenders. Are we intellectualizing too much, making all this out to be something more than it is? Taking it all so seriously? I still believe that the right text and image combination can elevate the whole to something greater than either of its parts. When it comes to all things creative I believe less is often more. Perhaps it’s simply the cycle of things or mood these days, but I find myself attracted to Brett Weston’s way of thinking. Stop saying so much and let the photograph do the talking. 

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Immersion

This was the scene recently outside my kitchen window. I was feeding the cats when I noticed it. I was not looking to make a photograph or even consciously thinking about photography at the time. And yet, I saw it. The contrast between the soft, scalloped curves of the snow and the hard, vertical lines of the fence as well as in tonality riveted me. I threw on my boots, grabbed the camera, and made the 10 foot trek out the back door into the wildness of my backyard. It occurred to me afterward that the experience is a perfect example of always living and thinking creatively.

Living the life of an artist is just that. It is a lifestyle, something that we live and breathe on a daily basis. It cannot be something we do on occasion, when conditions or time allows, otherwise being relegated to the back of our mind. The weekend warrior mentality does not work if we wish to grow creatively. We must always be thinking photographically. This doesn’t mean we have to make photos on a daily basis, which of course is unrealistic. Thinking creatively is a mindset that goes beyond the act of making pictures, although that is obviously an important component. Reading about art, reflecting on our own art, looking at the work of other artists, all of it is part and parcel of the creative lifestyle. The more we engage a creative mindset the more we train ourselves to think and see like an artist. In time seeing and thinking photographically will always at the forefront of our brains, even if we are not actively engaged in it at the time. 

It is doubtful I would have noticed this scene a few years ago, especially given that it is a departure from my usual “style”. (A man-made object in one of my photographs? Horrors!) That I did notice it at a time I was involved with other tasks is a direct consequence of having trained myself to always be open and receptive to things that stir an emotion within me. It is rare than an hour will pass that I do not at some point think about something related to photography and the act of creating. I used to think of it as an obsession, I now regard it more as an immersion into a creative mindset that allows me to always be seeing and feeling.  

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Anniversary

This year marks 25 years that I have been passionately practicing photography. 25 years! Right now you’re probably thinking, “Really, and he’s not any better than this?!” On the wall in my home office is the first photo I made that was worthy of framing, a sunset over Lake Murray (no relation) in South Carolina. It’s actually not a bad photo. Good job, Mr. Murray. But, I digress. The first twelve years of picture making for me was a very on/of venture. Due to the limited vacation that comes with entering the corporate world and living in a place that was less than inspiring (save for two months of the year) weeks and often months would pass without the click of the shutter. My camera was very lonely then. Still, I thought about photography often. I subscribed to the major outdoor photography magazines of the day, gazed longingly at the beautiful photos wishing they were mine, and practiced when time allowed. Each spring as the wildflowers were blooming in the rolling ranch lands an hour outside of Houston I would mysteriously become ill with “bluebonnet fever”. After calling in sick to work (cough, cough) I would head out the door with camera in hand to spend the day in photographic bliss. I cut my teeth photographing the wildflowers those few years. I was not, however, a model corporate employee.

It wasn’t until my wife and I moved back to our home state of New York in 2007 that I began to make images in earnest. Two years prior I had quit my corporate job (I could maintain the charade for only so long) and began to work part-time as a consultant, an important step on my path to eventually becoming a full-time artist. It was also when I switched from film to digital (I was a late bloomer). My photos began to look better, a consequence of practice and digital technology. Still, after a few years I felt I was stagnating. Four years ago Guy Tal swept me off my feet and my photography changed forever. I haven’t looked back. 

I have now been a full-time photographer for almost three years, a culmination of a dream that began 25 years ago. And to think, it only took me 22 years! (Let that be a lesson for all you kids out there!). The past three years have seen many challenges, some expected, others not. Fortunately, I can say with all honesty that those challenges have been surpassed by the rewards. I am interested in seeing what the months and years ahead will bring. Will my photography continue to evolve as it has these last few years? Will the Dolphins ever win another Super Bowl? Will my cats grow up to become upstanding members of society? Time will tell.

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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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