The Risk of Guarantees

The recent issue involving the killing of a beloved lion during a $55,000 African safari “hunt” has all but consumed social media for the past week. For the record, I am not against hunting. I used to be a hunter. I think it fulfills some sort of primal instinct within many of us. However, this was not a hunt, it was shopping. A purchase. A guarantee (nobody pays that much money for a chance). It was done with the expressed intent of coming home with an ego-enhancing trophy to be proudly displayed on the wall with the requisite bragging and bravado.

Sound familiar?

Photography has become about trophy hunts. We want guarantees. All too few seem willing to explore, or to take a chance, or to discover. Instead, we want to be taken by the hand and led to our prey: the Moulton barn against the Tetons, cars in Cuba (enough already), noon time slot canyons, midnight milky way, sunrise arches, and sunset mountains.

Why? For the guarantee of a pretty picture to impress our Internet friends. No other reason.

Those of you who read my blog know that this is a common theme. Mindless photography. My pet peeve. When I am asked how someone can improve their photography, my answer is always the same, avoid clichés. Avoid guarantees. Take chances. Be creative. Be different (not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of not being the same).

I encourage you, I implore you, to let go of the dependence on guarantees and to explore.Take chances. Find your voice. Be free.

But most of all, I encourage you to not be so blind by guarantees that you miss the obvious (like a tracking collar, maybe?).

Of Outties and Innies

I have a couple friends in town who are a photojournalists. Newspaper photographers. As many of you know, I spent more than 15 years doing that same job. My friends are good at it. Very good. I wasn’t. Not that I was horrible, mind you, but I lacked the requisite passion to be anything more than average. Adequate.

So, why was that?

Well, at least for me, being a photojournalist (and subsequently a university photographer) meant I was documenting other people’s lives. I was not part of the plot. I was on the outside looking in. A mere spectator peeking through the insulating and protective window of a lens. Relationships with my subjects were, for the most part, fleeting. I got the required photographs and moved on to the next assignment. There and gone. Quick click, thank you Dick!

Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for photojournalists and documentarians. Many have a deep and sincere passion for it and thrive within its limitations and possibilities. They play a crucial role in enlightening our understanding of the world in a way that words could never convey. For them, being on the outside is good. But for me, it simply wasn’t a good fit.

Landscape photography (my brand of it, anyway) is different. I do not feel like a spectator, outsider, or an intruder. I feel welcome and relaxed, and the relationships I develop with my subject matter are long-term and affectionate. I feel as though I am a part of the scene and part of the plot. An integral part, and my presence is not only accepted, it is crucial. I belong. It is that acceptance, that connection, which fuels my passion and, if I may be so bold, elevates my photography beyond the average.

The time I spent in photojournalism was an amazing experience. I covered a couple Super Bowls, an All-Star Baseball game, World Series, Stanley Cup, an airliner crash (less than five miles from my home in Pittsburgh), a major flood, many minor floods, many dozens of accidents, fires, shootings, chases, breaks, sprains and scratches. I made hundreds of portraits, found hundreds of feature photos, and even helped rescue a collapsed firefighter and a dog who almost drowned. Mostly, though, I just covered life. From the outside.

Photojournalism may not have been my calling, but it created a pretty sturdy foundation for finding my passion.

I hope you are fortunate enough to find yours.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

The Moab Photo Symposium ended a few days ago (if you were not there, it sucks to be you!) and it was an amazing experience. I truly enjoy presenting to, and talking with, participants who are striving to bring meaning and depth to their work. I get as much inspiration from their journey as I hope they get from mine.

As importantly for me, was the chance to hang out with the other presenters. I all too rarely get a chance to “talk shop” with other photographers who share my basic photographic philosophies. Landscape photography can be a lonely pursuit, especially when working in less-visited areas, so it’s nice to be reminded that we are not alone in the proverbial wilderness.

150428_Morning Glory Natural Bridge_UtahMorning Glory Natural Bridge, Negro Bill Canyon, Utah

A highlight for me was getting to hang out for a couple of afternoons with someone I consider a true, modern master of photography, Charles Cramer. We explored a couple of canyons as potential workshop locations and had a great time doing it (at least I did). Bucket list item . . . check! I only hope my puppy dog eyes of adoration and longing stares didn’t freak him out too much  :)

Presenting alongside Charlie, as well as Guy Tal, Colleen Miniuk-Sperry, Jeff Foote and the symposium god, Bruce Hucko, was a humbling, inspiring, and invigorating experience.

However, as will all things good (and most things bad) it had to come to an end. In the case of the symposium, it was quite an interesting end. When Bruce announced the conclusion of events, a couple dozen of the participants spontaneously began, without prodding or begging, to stack chairs, fold tables, and collect trash off the floors. It was a wonderful sight and proof positive of the family-type atmosphere Bruce has nurtured over the dozen, or so, years of the Moab Photo Symposium. Within half an hour, we had the three main rooms cleared and swept and the front doors locked. Even a vendor pitched in to help with floor sweeping. I mean, where else does that happen?

While it is good be home, it is also bitter sweet. Already I miss the camaraderie and discussions about photography, as an art. But, the photo-do and honey-do lists are long (they got longer while I was away) and neither includes writing a blog post.

So, with sweet sorry I must leave. But, before then I encourage you to consider attending this even next year. The location is spectacular, the atmosphere inspiring, and the micro-brew beer and plentiful snacks are free.

Moab Photo Symposium


On Second Thought

Half a dozen years ago, I was driving home after a commissioned photo shoot in rural North Dakota when, many miles in front of me, I noticed a long line if distant and compelling clouds. They were moving fairly quickly from left to right so, if I wanted the peak of the clouds above the roadway, which I did, I had to move fast. I stopped (duh!), jumped out of the car and quickly set up the tripod and camera (which is why it is important to intimately know your gear) and, waiting a few seconds for an important cloud shadow to move further down the road, made this exposure. I knew I had something special.

080613 RoadCloudInitial cropped version of “Road to Eternity”

While I remember, clearly, what I was I was thinking when the shutter snapped, my motivations for processing and cropping are lost forever. What I do know is that I removed the top 40% of the frame. What I do not know is why.

I became reacquainted with this photograph while making image selections for a magazine submission (fingers crossed!). I have always liked it, but over the years it had lost some of its appeal. When I saw it in the files last week, I realized why. The crop. The crop was drastic and, while it served to emphasize the juxtaposition of the lyrical, textured clouds and the straight-edged road, it failed to include enough atmosphere. I call this image “Road to Eternity” or, alternatively, “Road to Infinity”, depending on my mood. However, the initial crop removed the bulk of the negative space, and with it the illusion (reality?) of “eternity” or “infinity.” The long, horizontal shape became more about the flatness and emptiness of the surrounding plains rather than the straight, seemingly endless, roadway receding into the clouds.

080613 RoadToEternity_NorthDakotaNewly uncropped version of “Road to Eternity”

So, I took another crack at it. This time I left the frame uncropped and gave a bit more presence to the foreground roadway. Now, with the added space at the top of the frame, it says “eternity” or “infinity”, depending on my mood, of course. It is a much more powerful and vast image and, I think, one which compels the viewer to think of things much greater than us.

I encourage everyone to revisit older images. Use your refined vision and improved techniques to present older work in a stronger light. Never be afraid to say you were wrong. It’s just one way we can prove that we are better than we were. And that is a very good thing.

My Privilege

130606_FourPolesNoWire_LaramieCountyWYFour Poles, Laramie County, Wyoming

I don’t think it’s much of a secret that I am speaking at the 2015 Moab Photography Symposium this spring (April 30 – May 3). Lawd knows I’ve mentioned it enough over the past few weeks both in social media and on my website (and once to a lady standing in line at the grocery store). This is a big deal for me. Not because I am a speaker, I have given lots of talks and enjoy large audiences, but rather because I will be presenting alongside esteemed photographers whom I consider friends—Michael Gordon, Guy Tal, Colleen Miniuk-Sperry—and someone I consider a true modern master, Charles Cramer. I have never met Charles face-to-face, but owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Many years ago he reviewed some of my work, a small portfolio of northern plains images. The 30 short minutes we spent talking on the phone, my first ever professional review, was intensely educational and inspirational and had a profound effect on my photography. I owe him a great deal.

And now I am presenting alongside him. That is insanely cool.

But there’s more. I had know of, and truly respected, the work of Guy Tal and Michael Gordon long before I ever met them. They are both as approachable and wonderful as their work (which is a good thing as butthole photographers make it hard to appreciated their work). It will be an honor to be on stage with them.

I don’t yet personally know Colleen (although she flirts with me all the time online) or Bruce Hucko, master of the symposium and the poor guy who had to endure my pathetic sobbing as I begged to participate in the symposium, but am sure we will become good friends.

It is always an honor to be asked to speak to a group of photographers, but this event will be even more special as I will be among fellow landscape photographers whom I have admired and respected for years.


Reading is Fundamental

What if esteemed landscape photographer Michael Kenna did a wonderful interview and nobody bothered to read it? Well, it happened. In part, at least. The Curious Animal website recently interviewed Kenna about his life as an artist, in which we were offered some very good insights and observations about his life as an artist—sacrifice, connection, solitude, inspiration, passion, self-influence, spontaneity, spirituality, etc. However, the simple minds of the Internet, of which there are many, latched onto a single comment from the entire interview: “I just don’t believe anything I see anymore” and a single word, “reality.”

120518_PatriotTrailer_MedicineBowWYPatriot Trailer, Medicine Bow, Wyoming

The filmers raised their shutter fingers into the air in solidarity and support, the pixelers raised their fists in defiance and derision. Few could be bothered to read between the lines or to try and understand what he was really saying, and why. Instead, reactions were irrational and hasty, the rest of the interview forgotten. They argue biases and semantics, as if either is concrete or true, and learned nothing.

I doubt any of this bothers Kenna much, if he is even aware. He’s one of the most successful landscape photographers working today, and he accomplished that status with his photography, not marketing prowess. A great rarity, nowadays. He’s above the din. Above the pettiness.

I encourage you to either read, or reread the interview. Glean what you can about his creative process and his life as an artist—the sacrifices, the connections, the passion. Become inspired. Become enlightened. Become appreciative. But do not, under any circumstances, become focused that one, single, unimportant, meaningless, and useless sentence.

Peter Worship

150128_SevenFencePosts_Nevada_1Chuck “I almost died getting this picture” Kimmerle

After reading the recent New York Times article about Peter Lik, I would like to offer him some friendly advice: it’s time to put it back in your pants, Peter. Your rhythmic, self-manipulative ego strokes were enjoyable to read, but uncomfortable to ponder. I mean, a god? Really? What on earth would make you think you are a god? For starters, your basic skill is knowing how to push a camera button. Zeus can control lightning. I hardly see these as equal talents, you know what mean? It’s not like Jason and the Argonauts ever had to fight their way  through a growling bunch of photographers on their quest for the golden fleece. I mean, maybe if they were on their way to the Grammy’s, yes, but they weren’t.

And speaking of unequal talents, what’s with the dismissive attitude towards old Ansel? Granted, it could be argued that his talents were eclipsed by contemporaries such as Paul Strand and Edward Western (both were photographers, if you hadn’t heard), but his contributions to photography are unequaled in the 20th century. And, he could play a mean chopsticks on the piano. Is that not worthy of at least a modicum of respect?

Look, I know you must be marketing genius. To be so well-known and awarded armed only with a portfolio of loud, derivative and insignificant work proves that. I bow to you. But I gotta tell ya, and this comes from a place of love, you owe Ansel, and perhaps the rest of use mere mortals, an apology.

So buck up, zip up, and do the right thing.

Of ABBA and Barry Manilow

010415_FencePostAndHill_ShirleyBasinWYFence Lines in Ground Blizzard, Shirley Basin, WY

Because of where I typically photograph—plains, prairies, agricultural areas—a lot of driving is involved. Hiking just isn’t practical. And a lot of driving means, for me, a lot of music. So what do I listen to when I am hunting for photographs?

I like ABBA . I also like Barry Manilow (did some of my best work in the Grand Teton NP listening to Barry). Add to that list: Yaz, R. Carlos Nakai and some country folks like Johnny Cash, John Denver, The Marshall Tucker Band and George Jones. If I am in the right, quirky mood, I might also play some Yello or Bach.

As I am drawn to scenes which are simple and quiet and reticent, I like my music to be the same. I find older, often more melodic and more peaceful, music (70’s, 80’s and 90’s) to be a better fit with my mindset. Heavier rock, especially the newer stuff, just doesn’t work for me and is actually a major detriment.

I remember driving around with friends Olivier du Tre and Aleks Miesak a couple of years ago listening to what I think was thrash (trash?) metal. It was horrible—loud, fast, and indecipherable— but I was out voted 2:1 and, with tears in my eyes and tissue wads in my ears, I went along for the ride. Someday, however, I will get even with an afternoon drive and a 2-CD set of Barry Manilow’s greatest hits. Someday.

We are all wired differently and, when it comes to creating our work, we have to do what works best for us, be that at Daybreak, Somewhere in the Night, or at a Weekend in New England.

Feel free to share you favorite photo music.


A Changing Perspective

Five Crosses at Sunset, South Dakota

I’ve been a photographer, a professional photographer, my entire adult life. I spent the better part of 20 years as a newspaper photojournalist and, at that time, my contemporary inspirations were primarily other photojournalists: the Turnley brothers, Salgado, Brian Peterson (Mpls. Star-Tribune…freaking amazing photographer and a really nice guy), etc. Since I left that daily grind and transitioned into the more tranquil, relaxed and fulfilling field of landscape-ish photography, however, I haven’t much thought about them. Not that I still don’t respect their work but . . .

I’ve changed.

During much of my photojournalism tenure, as well as the next decade working at a university, I photographed landscapes. A casual pastime. A hobby. In that pursuit, I had another set of photographers whom I considered photographic royalty. These were people whose work was, to me, beautiful and intriguing and well beyond my capabilities at the time. But, over time that list has been changed. Rearranged. Some photographers were removed, and some were elevated. Why? Because . . .

I got better.

And smarter. More insightful. More heartfelt. More serious. Less naïve. And as I grew (grow!), the chasm which separated me from some of the aforementioned “royalty” narrowed or, in some case, closed altogether. Of course, there were those who retained their rightful places on their respective pedestals—old master such as Edward Weston, Steiglitz, André Kertész, Sudelka, etc. and those still around like John Sexton, Michael Kenna and Stephen Shore. But others faired not so well.

And that change is good.

Because it means I am still growing as an artist. But it’s not only my work which has improved. My abilities to think critically about art and to analyze and appreciate the work of others has also progressed and matured. I have a better understanding of the history of photography, and a stronger grasp on where I fit into the (pardon the pun) picture. In simple terms, my perspective has changed and my understanding has become more refined.

I’m sure the same can be said of many of you. Try and recall those you greatly admired when you first started in photography. Or, look at the differences between the books and magazines you peruse. Compare those with the ones you admire now. I am sure the differences are many.