When you are photographing are you exercising your gear muscles or exploring your favorite subject?
I've been thinking a lot about photography for the past week. And I've been wondering what it is that makes photographs really, really good and really, really interesting. I think, because I've discovered more photographic stuff that I should be thrilled to have photographed but wasn't, that I've divined the difference between people who actually create art and those who are fixated with showing off their skills and the last iota of potential in their cameras and lenses. See: Most camera reviewers...
I've looked at a lot of landscape photography as I've dug into photography in general over the years and I'll have to say that there are some people (Ansel Adams comes to mind --- even if you don't like his style, or Elliott Porter...) who have done it incredibly well and there are multitudes of people who have no real point of view, no real appreciation for the land in front of their cameras, but who love go out and make sharp, saturated landscape photos. When the later group talk about their photographs they don't generally speak of their love or reverence for the land they snapped, instead they want to discuss which apochromatic lens they used, or which yak leather the craftsman who made their view camera used for the bellows, or lately, just how many pixels live on their best camera's sensor.
It's almost binary. You can tell the people who have a reverence and appreciation for the actual geographic areas in which they shoot. There is a deeper understanding and a more complex relationship between the space in front of the camera and the user behind it. When I see work from someone who is in love with, say, the west Texas Desert (James Evans) I am able to see and understand that he's dedicated his adult life to learning the code of his chosen (and cherished ) landscape and that his photography is powered by a lust to share his vision of an almost sacred place.
It's a feeling I see very rarely as I look through galleries from famous workshop photographers who market their "knowledge" on the web. This different set of photographers seems to chose random landscapes based on how well they will photograph and how adroitly the land can be exploited as an anonymous canvas for the photographer's technocratic image construction. Their goal is to maximize things. Even to the point of essentially destroying whatever magic crept into the image by mistake. They extend dynamic range until the images become comically flat and then attempt to salvage whatever is left with mid-range contrast boosts, intense saturation or arcane compositions. Their goal has little to do with sharing their vision ( vision = an interest, attraction, affinity, lust for the subject as opposed to the manipulation of the subject for audience approval ) and everything to do with showing off what they understand to be their skills.
It's the same thing with architecture buffs. Some see the beauty of a design by a fellow artist; one they appreciate and admire, and so they undertake to showcase and interpret the subject. But there's a second group who seem to have settled on architecture since it doesn't require the subject's willing collaboration, or the time commitment of truly exploring a landscape, etc. They are experts in researching, selecting and showing off optical mastery through their collections of "state of the art" perspective control lenses, and high resolution cameras. They would have you believe that all the latest stuff is critical to their mission. It makes one wonder how they ever created the legacy images they put out in decades past. And all the while the real masters can use just about any camera because they're busy finding the perfect angle and returning again and again to find the perfect interplay of light and the design created by the architect (and his team).
So, what the hell does this have to do with a commercial photographer moored in Terminal 4 of the JFK airport?
Well, in the last few decades I've photographed landscapes with all sorts of cameras and for all sorts of clients. I mostly suck at it. I can get the general technical stuff right; you can learn that in a book or off the web without breaking a sweat. But I have no real appreciation for any one landscape (if you exclude the urbanscape of my home town.....) and what I generate is pleasurable eye candy the selection and execution of which is well within the skill set of just about any knowledgeable and attentive amateur. My Interest in the Subject is lacking and the result is obvious to any discerning viewer: A Kirk Tuck landscape is ...... no big deal. And certainly I've never been able to define a style that's my own. Why? It's not a subject I'm keenly and passionately interested in. I love to photograph the landscape of people.
As a thoroughly adequate professional photographer I was invited to accompany a group of photographers for nine days in Iceland, ending yesterday. I could give the participants advice about using optimum apertures, figuring out the correct exposures, how to investigate different angles, points of view and, via different focal lengths, how to play with perspective. Some of the advice was good and general; like using foreground and mid-ground objects juxtaposed against a more distant background in order to create depth in a shot. Probably the best skill I shared was how to cheat a landscape image in Lightroom in order to create more dramatic skies without actually having to composite a new sky into the scene..... (Hint: HSL).
But what I could not impart was the thing I don't possess: A true and abiding love of the subject. And it made me look to my own shortcomings since we were competently placed in front of many absolutely gorgeous natural wonders. Iceland was foreign yet familiar to me. As a non-landscape oriented generalist I have the subconscious belief that is probably shared by the techno-boys: that all mountains are pretty much the same and it's our job to tame them with brutal and efficient technique. All lava beaches are similar; if you've shot one you've shot them all. I generated a lot of landscape images but I've yet to see one in my voluminous take of images from last week that perks up my attention and makes me long to re-visit the scene. I am not compelled when looking at one of the images to fall in love with the subject. The actual reason to take the photograph = the exploration of a subject that we love. You don't create the appreciation for a subject with a formula of graduated neutral density filters, contrast taming layers and all the other dodges..
There were two people on the tour who were obviously in love with nature and the land. They dove into their imaging tasks with big smiles on their faces. When they shared their images at our dinners they spoke of the beauty of an ice formation, the particular majesty of a particular mountain peak or the way the soft light played across harsh cliffs being dusted with sleet, rain and snow. Their love for the subjects was palpable and the difference in quality between their work and mine was a stark contrast. Mine was....efficient. Formulaic. Predictable. And the ultimate put down: It was colorful. But from my companions there was a visual poetry that glorified not the camera and lens --- or even technique but a hunger to show us what they saw when they looked at something they loved. They were glorifying the subject, not the process.
This is the reason I'll never be a first rate landscape photographer. It's largely because I am not in love with the land or the experience of being out in nature in the same way the two from the workshop were. I might enjoy standing quietly with my camera hanging down by my side, just soaking up the entirety of a wonderful site. Smelling the salt spray of the sea while looking up at monolithic cliffs and feeling the cold wind try to wend its way through layers of warm clothing to touch my skin. But it never touched my soul the way other subjects do.
I put a photograph of my friend, Heidi, on the top of this blog. It's a symbol for what interests me in life; what drove me to be "a photographer." I love connecting with people and trying to interpret and share the beauty I see in their faces. I could work endlessly with the people I find fascinating and never tire of the exercise. If I photograph a landscape or a cityscape or a coffee cup it's probably because there are no people near by who are ready and willing to be photographed in the moment but make no mistake, I feel the superficiality of my efforts every time I pick up my camera and aim it at anything that doesn't have eyes, and the ability to smile in some way (this includes dogs.....and a few very noble and evolved cats).
It's somewhat embarrassing to admit that I'm not a good photographer at all subjects. I only have a fighting chance of creating something I consider to be really good when I'm making a portrait or documenting something with people. I can photograph a technical product, get everything in focus and well lit but I never feel as though that kind of image I've made sings any sort of song to people. The images mostly just sit on the page. But in the theater, and with people in a dance of portraitist and subject, I feel as though, with diligence, patience and collaboration I can make something I can revisit again and again. Something I'm happy and proud to share.
Maybe, if you've hit the wall and you are bored or unsatisfied with the photographs you've been producing it would be a good exercise to sit quietly and consider what subject first drew you in to photography. Divine what is was that made you sit up, take notice and become enthralled. It could be that you've been mistaking mastering a skill set with the real magic of being a photographic artist and coming to grips with interpreting the subject you love. The only power I think photography really has is to share a vision of what you love with other people who will appreciate the same subject. Whether your camera is more or less sharp, or whether you can get more or fewer degrees of tonal differentiations is so very secondary to whether or not your audience can really FEEL that you connected with a certain subject and were enthralled to the point where you felt you had to share what you saw with other like minded people. Everything else is just like playing scales over and over again on a piano. Your fingers may fly over those keys but don't fool yourself into thinking you are making music....
I get that practice is good and nice gear is fun to have but I'd wager that Glenn Herbert Gould could have sat down at that old, untuned spinet piano in your living room (after you take the plastic off the couch so you can sit down and listen) and bring you to tears because it would be obvious that his subject was the music he played and not the instrument upon which he MADE music. Think about it before you load up and go out looking for random pictures in the near future. A little time spent divining what genuinely drives your Vision could free you to be a great photographer. Much more so than deciding on which camera might best show off the skills that --- let's admit --- we all share. The appreciation of a subject and your way of visually honoring that subject ---- now that's the real skill. Passion drives art, not technical skill or even mastery. Jan Saudek > go look him up. You'll understand.