Photographic Point of View

Anyone can do the craft. Only the individual has the unique personality to build a point of view. Al Weber

My good friend and extraordinary photographer and writer Guy Tal recently interviewed me on his blog. Mine is the second installment of interviews Guy is conducting with photographers he considers “creative and innovative” (he’ll also need to interview himself in a future installment). Guy’s questions are unlike the typical ones you’ll find in interviews with photographers; they’re thoughtful and in-depth, and I had to dig deep for my replies.

The most important question Guy asked pertained to my treatment of my images as “expressive art rather than purely a medium for capturing natural beauty“. Before I proceed any further, I’d like to have you reread the quote at the beginning of this entry. Indeed, anyone can do the craft – more so today than ever before. Even amateur photo hobbyists now own 16-18mp D-SLR’s purchased from Costco or Sam’s Club, and if they point them reasonably well, they, too, can produce “professional quality” photographs. But simply owning a high resolution D-SLR and Lightroom 3 makes you no more a photographic artist than me describing myself a writer for owning an expensive keyboard and a WordPress blog. No matter how technically stunning your work – and despite rationalizing that it’s “your unique take” – you can’t own your photographs when they are composed of common subjects and grand views captured similarly by others from the same viewpoints and perhaps with better gear and possibly even under better light. Alternative or derivative? Indeed, but unique it will not and cannot be. The trap of becoming involved in the landscape photographer’s “circuit” – whereby a number of photographers shuttle around North America photographing mature subjects during their peak seasons (hopefully with “epic” light) – is that you’re not likely creating images for yourself or for your audience. You’re instead likely involved in the photographer’s rat race of one-upmanship: “I can do it better”.

I’d like to share a secret: buyers of photographs don’t care about location-based photography (photo-stock excluded) nor do they care about how close you came to dying or how you lost a camera and lens while producing the photograph. Buyers buy because a) they are too moved by your photograph to not buy it b) they have a direct connection to the subject or particular elements within it. It doesn’t matter that you have the very finest Moulton Barn photo of the thousands that are out there (millions?), and it doesn’t matter if you’ve captured the most epic light ever over Coyote Buttes. If your audience has no connection to these places, you simply cannot sell them a print no matter how hard you try.

Instead of trying to separate yourself from the photographic herd only by way of technical excellence (which, by the way, does not matter to buyers), consider building a point of view to share with the world. You’ll first need to develop this, of course. Everyone is quite aware that nature and natural landscapes are beautiful, so sharing the beauty of nature and landscape is not sharing your point of view; it merely affirms what is already celebrated. Dig deep into your collection of photographs; find common threads through the work which you can claim as your photographic voice and yours alone; and continue to develop photographs and themes that reinforce your unique point of view. You do have one, and the world is interested in it (if this were not the case, every nature/landscape photographer post-Ansel Adams would be a complete failure).

I am far from being the first (and last) landscape photographer to shoot the places I do and using the tools that I do. I am not the first to photograph the Mojave Desert, Joshua trees, or the Sierra Nevada, but I am the first to present my point of view of these subjects and places. It is the only way I know how to work, and it is the only work that I believe is worth doing. I don’t need to run about North America photographing its most photographically mature subjects, and I have little reason to outdo other photographers. I work in my own arena. I care only about making photographs of subjects I love and can portray in a way that I can say is uniquely mine. When I do this most effectively, compelling photographs emerge. Epic light and icons be damned – I can even sell prints of busted vehicles.

Stop paying attention to what other photographers are doing. Photograph anything you want. Do it with your voice and your point of view. If you can do this with love and conviction, success will be yours.

PS: I am judging Guy Tal’s Ten Weeks of Creativity contest this week, and I want to see your unique point of view! Guy’s got great prizes lined up for each weekly winner – enter your photographs now.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

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23 thoughts on “Photographic Point of View

  1. This is a really timely and thoughtful post, Michael. I think many serious landscape photographers cut their teeth on the “circuit” you talk about because they are still developing their own unique voice. The challenge, then, is to break off of the track, and go cross country, so to speak.

    I’ve been learning (the hard way?) that to truly discover your own voice is a journey on which you can really learn a lot about yourself and your way of seeing.

    Thanks again for this inspiring post.

    Cheers,
    Greg Russell

  2. Right on, Michael! I started doing the “famous spot” routine, but it quickly lost its luster. I continue to be amazed at how many times I see the same re-hash of the same spots from “famous” photographers. Seeing a workshop of 20 photographers lined up at Mesa Arch in the morning, all taking the same epic shot, is a real wake-up call.

    Still not sure where I’m heading, but I know where I’m not.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Great article, Michael. Have you ever considered that the ingestion of far too many habaneros might have skewed your point of view…? But seriously, it’s called “Personal Vision” for a reason. I’ve literally have known photographers to carry a book with them in order to replicate the visions of others.

  4. From the title of your post, I was hoping that you would elaborate more on what in your opinion constitutes a “point of view”, rather than trying to do broad generalizations of what I assume is your experience in the photography business.

    In my experience, buyers of photographs do care about location, if only because the location can be an integral part of what you call the subject. It is something you seem to acknowledge, when you write “if your audience has no connection to these *places*..”. In my experience, buyers do care about technical excellence (which you are probably acknowledging by using a 4×5 instead of a cell-phone to produce your art). You may have seen thousands of images of Coyote Buttes, but most of the non-photographers are simply not aware of the location.

    While every nature landscape photographer post-Ansel Adams is not a complete failure, don’t you think they have generally failed to attract the interest of the contemporary art establishment ? Is it because none of them had a “point of view” ?

  5. THANKS for the comments!

    Greg: For what it’s worth, my view of photography is that it is entirely a journey of discovery and self-discovery. I wouldn’t call it the “hard way”; I’d call it the “good way” ;)

    Tuan: While the dictionary definition of POV is readily available, I suspect that’s not what you’re looking for. I cannot offer suggestions to anyone regarding how find their POV any more than I can suggest direct paths to creativity. As mentioned by Greg, this is a journey of discovery, and the reason why two photographer who shoot side-by-side can produce entirely different views from similar camera positions.

    It should be a given, but in writing on my blog I am only speaking of my experiences and my insights, which do not obviously hold true for all photographers – you being a perfectly good example. Your work is quite location-based, and someone doing a web search is much more likely (for numerous reasons not within the context of this article) to land on your website than they would mine. We have both photographed extensively in Joshua Tree NP and Death Valley NP, yet our photographs look nothing alike. When someone wants to buy a photograph as memento of their trip to Joshua Tree NP, they are undoubtedly going to choose yours over mine. Your photographs of JTNP are considerably more representative of the Park as a visitor would see it than are mine. We offer very different POV’s of this place and others.

    While I do have concerns with my technical execution, not once has a buyer asked for or required technical details to qualify a purchase. Although some buyers (usually photographers or those with knowledge of processes) do base their purchase on medium and materials (thinking Pt/Pd, Bromoil, and other historic processes here), I’ll forever argue that it is the image that matters most.

    Regarding the contemporary art establishment (oh gawd): I think you have some direct experience here, and Guy Tal has just made a relevant post (http://guytal.com/wordpress/2011/06/the-absence-of-humans/). This establishment simply does not recognize nature/landscape photographs that do not include the contemporary activities of mankind on the landscape: Consumption, marginalization, and destruction. Witness the successes of Chris Jordan (http://www.chrisjordan.com) and Edward Burtynsky (http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/). While they both make beautiful photographs from difficult subject matter, it’s unlikely that they sell photographs to people who see and enjoy nature and landscape from very different points of view.

    THANKS for the comments!

    • Its definitely the good way, but its not always the easiest way, simply because self discovery involves more than technical knowledge and the ability to travel to a location. Perhaps I should have clarified better :-)

  6. Michael, thanks for the follow up. My asking you about your definition of POV instead of just looking it up in a dictionary, and then concluding with the last question were not coincidental. The establishment does actually recognize nature/landscape photographs that do not include the contemporary activities of mankind on the landscape – if they are by Ansel Adams. Post Ansel Adams photographers are another matter. Correct me if you think I am wrong, but my guess is that despite stylistic differences between your desert work and mine, for them the big picture is that we simply both share with Adams the POV (as in the last sentence of your reply) of celebrating nature/wilderness, and our connection to it.

    Although it is a peripheral point to the discussion, note that because buyers don’t ask does not mean they don’t care. If they saw the print in a gallery, then they knew that the quality is there, so the point is moot. On the other hand if they ordered the print from the internet, they will return it if it doesn’t meet their standards.

  7. Pingback: Today’s Shared Links for June 8, 2011 – Chuqui 3.0

  8. Michael, for the most part I am in complete agreement, but am having a problem with the assumption that a point of view can be purposefully “developed”. A POV is entirely personal and internal. It is vision that, through time and effort, is to be discovered rather than developed.

    As for landscape images, they are, in fact, included in the realm of the ART world, but only as narratives (groups of photos which look all-too-similar in both subject matter as well as composition) supporting a single, tightly constructed concept (think MFA candidate’s final project). Sadly, most of the contemporary landscape exhibits I have visited are great on concept, but lack in compelling images. Style of substance.

  9. Tuan: Thanks for YOUR follow-up. I am in complete agreement. Sadly, celebrating nature and wilderness is deemed trite by establishment, yet today’s banal and often diaristic work (as Brooks Jensen refers to it) is heralded. Go figure.

    Hi Chuck: I did not mean to imply that a POV can be purposefully developed, although I recognize that the title of my post could be a little misleading. Hopefully the content is sufficient enough to make this clear. One can no more purposefully develop a POV than they can develop creativity or style. Indeed, these need to occur organically through time, experimentation, and discovery, or the results can look contrived (like much MFA work).

    Thanks, guys.

  10. Michael – I have been reading your blog for 18 months and to my mind, this is the most meaningful post you have written in the time I have been reading. Your phrase “… consider building a point of view to share with the world” hit me right between the eyes. Although I have been working hard for several years to perfect my ability to express how I feel when in nature, I have not yet developed a unique point of view. You have zeroed in on an obvious and important direction for my (and all nature photographers’) continued path. This quest deserves serious attention.

    ….Steve N from Canada

  11. Many people, not just photographers and artists, spend very little time or energy examining their motivations. Despite what some say, art can be taught, photography can be taught and many other sciences and arts can be taught, what can’t be taught is soul, purpose, meaning, depth, introspection, a quest for quality over financial rewards. Photographers who spend most of their time copying previously well-known images may be taught to change, but only if they have something on the inside. If they are hollow either in the head or heart, or missing either of these, they won’t get what you are saying about point of view anyway. Many people who pick up a camera or any other creative instrument in our current society never think much about it. Our civilization does not reward self-exploration, but history usually does. It is only the work of those who do develop a point of view and their own voice that does endure over time. The mass print buying public are primarily attracted to pretty pictures, while the sophisticated photography collector is looking for a very different type of image, those that will endure and last from one period of trends to the next and beyond.

  12. Without a doubt, this is one of the best entries I believe I have ever read on any blog, bar none. Noe excuse me because I really need to spread the word about this.

  13. Thank you for this. It is inspirational. Sometimes I find myself wanting to “chase after that shot” and missing what is right in front of me. I know though that I do so much better when I search with my heart, my vision. I took this blog personally, and I thank you for it.

  14. “Dig deep into your collection of photographs; find common threads through the work which you can claim as your photographic voice and yours alone; and continue to develop photographs and themes that reinforce your unique point of view. You do have one, and the world is interested in it”

    This is the part that really got me going and where I could spend some time with myself and my images. I know it’s there. Other people even tell me they see it in my images. But I could go further with it if I become more aware of it myself. Thanks for the post Michael. It is an inspiration and encouragement that may help me take a few more guided and intentional steps on my journey.

    (we met in Torrey at Guy’s and went up on Boulder Mt. together)

  15. Great post MG – enjoyed it a lot.

    I think the bleating by nature photographers over the ‘lack of respect’ from the ‘art world establishment’ is a bit overwrought.

    First, art critics lack the benefit of perspective and history. Which is to say, the stuff that will really matter is probably yet to be decided.

    Second, history – or maybe just art historians – tend to celebrate innovation. That is, a new or truly novel way of imagining the world.

    So, yeah, Ansel Adams gets some respect for the idea that photographs can be interpreted. I say some respect because my read is that many view Ansel’s work as a bit over romantic. At any rate, he is celebrated for the idea that photographs could be subjected to a degree of interpretation. And of course, he applied this interpretation in a meaningful way.

    I think it’s true that the ‘art elite’ favor commentary on human concerns. But really, the whole idea of a ‘point of view’ just validates this perspective. Is the ‘art’ the ‘thing you photographed’ or the ‘way you photographed it’? Well, if it’s the latter then you are ‘making a comment’. It’s wonderful to comment that ‘nature is beautiful’ – but that’s hardly new news. Still a wonderful message to share, just not a novel insight. Certainly not for anyone who has been out there!

    So, we should get over it. I’m pretty sure none of YOUR buyers (if that’s the measure) care about it. They are indeed buying the images because of the emotional connection it creates. And that’s a beautiful thing.

    Cheers,
    Eric

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