Great photographs transcend place and time. Celebrated American photographer Minor White well understood this concept when he wrote about photographing “things for what else they are.” While there are numerous variations of this quote attributed to White, the message is definitive: Powerful and timeless images occur when the photographer reveals something about his subject that we cannot or might not see with our own eyes. This concept underscores why a photograph like Edward Weston’s Pepper No. 30 is regarded as one of photography’s masterpieces. Although it literally is, critics, curators, and viewers concur that this is no simple portrait of a bell pepper. Similar is Weston’s portrait of a toilet. But is it merely a toilet?
Photographing things “for what else they are” has become a fundamental aspect of my work. After spending a sufficient number of years chasing locations and light, I essentially grew tired of the formula and my subsequent results. It was too easy and creatively unfulfilling: Pick a scenic location, point the camera reasonably well, and hope for sweet light and clouds to transform it into something more meaningful. Yet I would repeatedly return home and develop my film only to realize that the photographs I’d made did not live up to or even remotely equal the experience of simply being there. Location-based photography leaves most everything to chance – find an awesome landscape, scramble for a foreground anchor, and pray for clouds and light – but little for your viewers to ponder and contemplate. One eventually yearns for more when the most common refrain regarding your photographs is “oh, that’s pretty”.
Have a poke around some of the web’s most popular photo-sharing forums to see how well you can differentiate one photographer from the next, or if you can differentiate one Icelandic or Patagonian landscape from another. In his ‘Letting Go of the Camera’, Brooks Jensen suggests that “[a] great deal of what passes as fine art photography today is not based on vision, talent or craft; it is based simply on access.”
I’ve had life-long love for the geology, plants, and animals that make up the grander landscapes about which I am passionate. I have studied academically all of these subjects and at one time even fancied a profession in wildlife biology or geology (someone once mistakenly told me that photographers were better paid). I’m enthralled by geological processes, interrelations of plants and animals, and the way they have all adapted to each other (and to other forces), so it’s no accident that I spend a lot studying and photographing the smaller and deeper details. Most everyone already knows how beautiful and extraordinary our planet is. I feel no artistic compulsion to reinforce the obvious, so I’ve focused my work on sharing the unusual and fascinating aspects of my world. Not everyone can or will share my love for my subjects and photographs, and I’m perfectly okay with that. This is precisely what defines ones work as personal and unique.
Photographers that are sensitive to the environments and subjects which they photograph create images that offer opportunities for insight and contemplation, and great photographs should always tell us something about their maker. When the photograph is about location, we often learn more about geography and the quality of light and clouds than we do about the photographer. Make your photographs about you. Show us something about your subjects that we might not perceive with our own eyes.
Guy Tal and I invite you to join us for inspirational and in-depth discussions on style, creativity, and other philosophies during our Nov 2012 Visionary Death Valley workshop. Only a few seats currently remain…
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