You have a great camera and you practice precise photographic techniques. You explore desirable locations and shoot beautiful subjects but still your photographs leave you less than excited. What next?
“If you want to make more interesting pictures, become a more interesting person.” Jay Maisel
The formative years for most photographers involve a lot of study and learning with much trial and error. Many spend a good deal of time learning about and poring over technical specifications of camera equipment, chasing after the fastest lens, best bokeh, or some other vaunted features. Aided by YouTube and an infinite supply of online tutorials, many more quickly learn how to use a variety of software and digital darkroom techniques. There is no question that the learning curve of the digital world is infinitely shorter than the film world. Back then we lacked instant feedback and easy access to scores of experts. We just kept photographing, evaluating and trying again. Today, the sheer volume of equipment, software, processing techniques and websites to learn from makes it possible to obsess over equipment and techniques to the degree that little mental energy remains for creative artistic development.
I wished I’d had a photographic mentor in my early years who guided me toward considering my photographic future instead of the immediate present. Experienced photographers are acutely aware of just how easy it is to learn photographic fundamentals. With the right instructor and/or instructional materials, committed students can easily grasp subjects like the exposure triangle and histogram evaluation in half a day. Another half day or so of study with Lightroom or other software and most students can produce good quality inkjet prints in rather short order. The technical end of photography has been democratized – it’s no longer the sole province of committed crafts people who have been working at it for decades. Despite how it is often portrayed, learning the mechanics is the easiest part of photography. Many photographers fail to move past this stage in spite of wishful thinking. A particularly strange modus operandi is buying new equipment to create new and more exciting photographs. But nothing could be further from reality. The most difficult part of good photography has little to do with equipment or techniques and everything to do with good ideas. It’s odd that we photographers pursue our medium in a backward fashion. Painters don’t keep buying and trying different brushes, oils or easels in order to improve their art or craft. They just keep painting, developing their craft and their art simultaneously. Few photographers stop developing the craft for long enough to consider creative artistic options.
This article is aimed at photographers who want to move beyond the documentary or representational photographs to fine art photographer, if you will. But as it is a contentious identifier, I leave further explanation to others in other articles. By my definition and for purposes of this article, the fine art photographer synthesizes the external event (the thing worthy of having your camera pointed at it) with the internal event (the intuitive recognition of an idea or concept related to the thing). Credit is due to Ansel Adams for these terms, the internal and external events, along with a host of other concepts and ideologies he brought to fine art nature and landscape photography. Those who are familiar with Ansel’s oeuvre recognize his career transition from representational to fine art. He not only wrote the book but he walked the talk.
“Visualization is the most important factor in the making of a photograph. Visualization includes all the steps from selecting the subject to making the final print.”
In short, Ansel’s visualization refers to our ability to see the finished photograph in what we commonly refer to as the “mind’s eye.” This is a critical skill to develop for the fine art photographer. Finished photograph meaning not just the composition or placement of objects within the frame, but the entire visual and emotional aesthetic: the subject andcomposition; the look and feel of the finished print; as well as the feeling or state that may be aroused in the viewer. The representational photographer depicts physical appearances as found and doesn’t typically interfere with the subject or the light. In contrast, the fine art photograph may be entirely the result of interference. The finished print might scarcely resemble the found state.
Visualization is not a technique learned and shelved; it’s a continuously evolving process that takes shape over the course of an entire photographic life. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines visualization as “the formation of mental visual images.” In my photographic practice, this is the synthesis of my entire life experience, knowledge, imagination and desires. Growth in all these areas should be a ceaseless quest for any artist.
I had one distinct goal as I began my own photographic journey many years ago: to create unique and distinctive work that anyone could look at and (wishfully) recognize as mine. To be sure, it’s a lofty goal for an amateur photographer but one I brought forward from a previous life as a performing musician. To my way of thinking there is no faster path to artistry: aim for excellence, eschew mediocrity, be authentic and original, and have good ideas. The first two are really easy.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to sit with a respected publisher whom I sought to impress during a portfolio review. I was proud of the work I was doing and thought I had a good idea about where I was going with it. I attended the portfolio review to learn, experience, connect and impress. I sat with many gallerists, curators and publishers, but that one publisher made the biggest impact. Not because he lauded and then decided to publish my work, but rather because he was brutally honest about it and rejected it. The worst thing an artist needs is an outsized ego and an unwillingness to learn and grow. I possessed neither and returned home defeated but resolved.
I carefully studied my work, no longer searching for my greatest hits (random photographic collections of beautiful things and beautiful places) but rather consistent themes and budding concepts that I could develop into rich bodies of work. Although a preceding generation of film-based Zone System photographers had largely made excellence in technical execution their goal, it wouldn’t suffice for me. The expressive qualities of my photographs and ideas became paramount.
I prefer breadth over depth as both a maker and consumer of art. In music I prefer full length albums over singles (even better if thematic or conceptual); in photography I prefer themed books or exhibitions over hit singles like Instagram. When they are done well and sequenced in the right way, the viewer (or listener) is often transported. Whether music or photography, “singles” always leave me wanting more.
I decided to specialize in my own environment and habitat (self-imposed constraints can prove artistically liberating). Travel photography is fun and exciting but my best and most important work would more likely come from the places and subjects that were easily accessible, that I knew intimately and loved deeply. Why would I travel elsewhere to photograph what other photographers already have when an untold amount of fascinating untapped potential existed in my own backyard? As a lifelong explorer and adventurer of California and western U.S. deserts (Mojave, Colorado, Great Basin and Sonoran), I hold a passionate interest in regional geology, flora and fauna. I study the natural history, I know intimately the plants and the animals (often by their Latin name as well), and I know the human history. Every bit of this is important to me. Every bit of it plays a part in informing my photographs. There was little about “the weird solitude, the grim silence, [and] the great desolation” (The Desert, 1901, Van Dyke) that I was not fascinated by. No one had yet made the kind of desert photographs that lurked in my subconscious. I knew exactly the work I would be doing, most likely for the remainder of my days.
You can find Michael E. Gordon’s column, “The Inner Landscape” in the Medium Format Magazine. Michael is an award-winning fine art landscape photographer and sought-after teacher with an “intimate relationship with the natural world yielding quiet images of depth and discovery.” His fine art prints are held in private collections around the world including the United States Embassy. Michael’s commitment to the preservation of California and the American West has earned him a President’s Gold Volunteer Service award.
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