That is a vague and ambiguous question, I know. I’ll attempt to answer the question by saying something about how I came to making photographs and eventually pictures.
I started like so many with the photography class in school. The alchemy of seeing an image appear in the darkroom tray was magic. And then there was my emotional reaction and attachment to the magic of a print and the subject of the photo. In my mind I could recreate the circumstances when I took the photo, but the ability of the photo to elicit a response with an audience was a hit or miss proposition. That didn’t matter to me at the beginning of making photos. The process itself was amazing enough.
But there was the rarified air of Ansel Adams photos that I became more aware of.
I had the chance to study Ansel Adams photographs in the Lodge Dining Room in Yosemite. I was a rock-climber, as I have been for most of my life, and the dining room had 50- 20×24 inch Adams’ prints lining the walls. I’d sneak in to look at the work for as long as I did not feel like an unwelcome visitor. The images filled me with an emotional response, as did the presentation of the work. Viewing the work did not inspire me to become a photographer. Rock-climbing was my mistress at the time. But as my time in the mountains took on more importance in my life, and I saw more photos in climbing magazines, and elsewhere, I wanted to try to connect what I felt with a photo.
The adventure in my life that changed my life was a 211-mile winter ski of the John Muir Trail. The trail travels from Mount Whitney in the southern Sierra Nevada to Yosemite Valley. My friend and I spent 33 days making the traverse and I carried my Dad’s 35 mm Kodak camera with the goal of making a trip journal. I’d seen the work of Galen Rowell and I thought the stories he told were compelling. I went to a slide show of Galen’s at the local high school. There were a dozen people in the dark classroom. It did not register with me that this was a tough way to get a message across and that the message required graphics and communication at the same time. What did register was the excitement of the told and displayed story.
I made a photo diary of the John Muir Trail ski trip, did some slide shows, and had fun telling the story. But there was only one photo that distilled the trip for me. There would probably have been more if I knew what I was doing. But the idea that one image distilled the entire trip for me, stuck. From that point on, I wanted to make singular images in much the same way Adams photos affected me.
There was also the fact that looking at my photos from the trip I had hit or missed with composition, or focus, or lighting.
My skills were lacking and that gave me great pause as I started to try to make pictures instead of taking photos.
With the premise of making more meaningful photos I commandeered my Dad’s tripod and started developing the process that has guided my photography to this day. I wandered and looked and thought about possible compositions without making exposures. Here’s where the photographer in me emerged.
More precisely, the person.
I’d always had a fear of failure and as a youngster, would do things like go to a playground to try things I’d seen other kids do, when there was no one around. And the same type of behavior happened with my photography.
I’d look at a possible composition and wonder not, what was right, but what was wrong. Which led to very few photos getting made. Conversely it led to the photos that I did make feeling important. To me at least. And if they failed for some reason I was mortified. My reticence led me to study technical and artistic matters intensely. I looked at the work of Steve Solinsky, Joel Meyerowitz, and Richard Misrach. Over and over trying to figure out what were the components of their images that made them objects of amazement. Pictures.
Formal training, art school, at this point would have helped. But then, maybe not. What I did not do, was try to recreate the work I was studying. I remained wrapped inside my head. I could have used some technical help but even that may have led to paralyzing over-thinking on my part.
It would seem inevitable that I’d pick up a large format camera. The camera operation and my desire for image quality was a fit with the 4×5- inch camera. That this became my primary camera with only one lens for 30 years seemed totally natural. The one exception was my trip to the West Ridge of Mount Everest in 1983, where the streets of Kathmandu, the trek to basecamp, and taking pictures at 25,000 feet, were more easily made with a 35 mm camera. I still used a tripod. And I still kept my distance, and set myself apart, in a self-conscious way, from the action. I wanted to consider if a photo would fail or succeed in my comfort zone.
After quite some time large format camera operation became a non-issue. As it turned out, I developed a simple methodology with the 4×5 that instilled great confidence in my ability to set the camera up and make an exposure in very little time. This was important as it freed me up further to work out composing a photo.
One of the best tools I employed to compose was the use of a 4×5 inch viewing card. I get close to my camera and tripod position then fine-tuned the spot with a 4×5 inch presentation cut-out. I still use a card. Even though I use a zoom lens these days I don’t experiment changing focal lengths or changing where I am positioned. I found that making those changes turned my thinking into a back and forth, what about this, what about that, waste of time.
As I am working out a composition, I’m running through the technical questions that may be important. Where to focus chief among them. And reminding myself to check that settings on the camera are correct. Easy with the 4×5. There wasn’t much to the camera. Not so with the modern digital camera. I have always employed exposure bracketing. Always one-half stop under exposure. Blown highlights are my concern.
I also ask myself if the potential image is something important to me. A pleasing composition with exceptional light or a pretty picture of a place is not worth it to me. The composition needs to have strong movement through the frame. If the composition is a simple front to back or a simple symmetry side to side, I need to feel that my camera position reveals something exceptional and does not become a tried, true, and trite photo. I have found that small movements with these types of photos are important. Often referred to as the little bit of something that gives an image the “vision thing”. A great deal of strength can be revealed with deliberate and thoughtful camera position.
In my home range, the Sierra Nevada I worked hard figuring points of view by way of reading maps. Where I might stand to get a view up or down a river drainage, how might I best frame a ridgeline of peaks, how could I anticipate lighting. I still look for and imagine what I will see on my trips through the Sierra Nevada. The topography of the Sierra and the monotone gray of Sierra granite has meant that I make few photos. Even though it is known as the Range of Light there are long stretches of blue cloudless weather where the light is well, boring. But other mountain landscapes have changed the number of potential photos I at least look at. The Brooks Range in Alaska is a landscape with constantly changing light and a labyrinth of mountains. And the Brooks bursts into brilliant fall color. The color is short lived but utterly spectacular. I still don’t make many pictures in the Brooks but there is more to look at photographically than the Sierra.
When I first got to the Brooks in 2004, I was excited by the landscape and light. I was almost frantic about making an image. I quicky realized this was not going to be an easy place to photograph. Big flat expanses of tundra meant there was little in the way of forms and shapes in the landscape. The light changed constantly, and that is what in the end revealed compositions I wanted to make. Pictures in the Brooks still take a lot of time to perfect.
I find it satisfying to know who I am as an artist. I recognize that for me to change my photographs, I must change where I am photographing. My methods and the way I see will be the same, but what is in front of the camera will be something different.
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