Peter Worship

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Chuck “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

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Fence 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

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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.

Cliche, a four letter word

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All  Images from Joshua Tree National Park 

As many of you know, I recently completed a four-week stint as artist-in-residence in Joshua Tree National Park. It was a wonderful experience and, as in my three previous artist residencies, I think I am coming away a more refined and thoughtful photographer. That is, after all, the primary reason why I like to take advantage of these opportunities. Sure, the opportunity to make a handful of new, decent-quality photos is great, but I’m in photography for the long haul and am concerned more about the photographs I will make tomorrow than those I made yesterday. We are, as some have said, only as good as our next set of photographs.

Immersive opportunities such as artist residencies are also very good at inspiring thought and contemplation about issue relating to, at least in my case, the art of photography. And at each residency, the major issues occupying my thoughts and fears revolve around the word “cliché.” It is a dirty word, a vile word, and it signifies much of what is wrong with photography today. It is something I try to avoid like the plague (or like vegetables). But it takes effort. It takes consideration. And it takes sacrifice. Most of all, it takes commitment.

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Glacier National Park

The approaches I take to try and avoid creating overly derivative, or cliché, work, especially when working in areas much photographed, is to not attempt to define that particular area (the opposite of what photo guides books encourage us to do). What do I mean by that? Simply that I don’t care if viewers can identify where a particular image was made as long as I, personally, find that scene meaningful and compelling. That frees me from having to include location-based, recognizable detail such as Zion’s Subway, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, or Moonset over the Grand Tetons when I am in those particular parks. Instead, I allow myself to freely respond to whatever visual elements capture my interest, no matter how intimate or distant the scene, or how “generic” that scene may at first appear. After all, as an artist I am creating by and for myself. It is a liberating approach that opens up limitless possibilities and allows me to react with emotion and personal aesthetics, rather than limiting myself with preconceived expectations.

As an example, while visiting Zion National Park with my wife last week, we overheard a photo workshop participant say to a friend that he early found a scene which would have made a very nice image, but didn’t make an exposure because he realized it could have been made anywhere. In other words, he passed on a photo subject he found worthy because it did not scream “Zion.”

I felt sorry for him.

I am sure he came away with defining (and derivative) photos of scenes like The Temples and Towers of the Virgin, and of The Watchtower (hopefully not The Subway as that is off limits to photo workshops), but he passed on the scene he discovered himself, a scene which would have been a personal triumph over the mediocrity of usual.

We would all do more significant work if we would just open ourselves up to the limitless visual opportunities that the world provides, even in popular areas, rather than hobbling ourselves with preconceived expectations and derivative postcard-type images.

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Yellowstone National Park

So the next time you find yourself in a popular area, such as a national park, make the effort, the commitment, the sacrifice, to avoid what is expected, what has already been done, and give credence to the different, the unexpected, and the personal. In other words, be free.

Doesn’t that sound like a helluva lot more fun?

Photography is More Than Simple Observation

One of the oft-repeated arguments made against considering landscape photography as fine-art is that it’s merely a practice in observation, as opposed to a creative invention. In other words, landscape photography is a spectator sport, we can only watch, and we all see the same thing only from slightly differing angles.

Of course, those of us working as landscape photographers know the fallacy of such an argument. While it is true we have little, if any, control over the physical placement of our chosen subject matter, we a great deal of freedom with how those elements are presented. More than enough freedom, in fact, to allow individual photographers to create photographs of a specific subject which, despite being created at the same time and same place, are nearly unrecognizable from each other.

Consider the following two photographs of a small stretch of snow fence. The first, created by photographer and friend Aleks Miesak was taken within minutes of my version, below. Do they look similar? Do they look as though we were mere helpless spectators? The answer to both is a definitive NO. Each shows a differing view and style and vision which is reflective of us, as individual artists.

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© Aleksandra Miesak

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© Chuck Kimmerle

The simple fact is that landscape photography is no more a simple spectator sport than either documentary or street photography or even painting, and leaves the photographer (the artist!) with an extremely wide range of creative possibilities. The innumerable decisions and valuations which must be made—viewpoint, exposure, light qualities, composition, justaposition, processing and presentation, etc—allow us, as individuals, to develop and maintain distinctly unique personal visions and styles and create significant and inventive work. Art.

Print Sale! (discontinued)

Hi, folks. Just a quick not to announce my first (ever) print sale, going on through the month of August. It features four of my most recent images (shown below), which are among my favorites from 2014.

http://www.chuckkimmerle.com/gallery_printsale/display00.shtml

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Each image is printed is 15″ wide on premium, fine-art matte paper and is signed and dated on the front. These are exactly the same fine-art prints as my regularly-priced prints, except that these are being sold without mats. Each print is only $125, including shipping (prints to Canada and Europe are slightly more expensive to offset increased shipping costs),a savings of 40% off my standard prices.

I sincerely appreciate your consideration. Thank you.

http://www.chuckkimmerle.com/gallery_printsale/display00.shtml

Why I Will Critique Other People’s Work

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White Bus, South Dakota

I am often asked by other photographers to look at their work. While I do not always have time to oblige (I get busier every year), I think it’s important that, as a photographer with a modicum of success, I try to give something back to the photographic community. I would be lying if I said that I thought I was the most qualified person to provide a critique, but I would be lying if I said I were the least qualified. Let’s just say that I feel, in all sincerity, that I AM qualified.

As many of you know, I penned a blog post entitled “Stop Worrying if Others like Your Work and Create, Dammit!” and I stand by that statement. YOU are the ultimate “decider” of the value and quality of your work. Not others. You alone. However, that is, in no way, meant to imply that a bit of outside perspective or insight cannot be useful. Consider the Old Masters, the greatest painters in history. Did they achieve their status alone, or did they have mentors and teachers? Hint: they had the latter.

Professional critiques (or ANY critique, for that matter) should never be a value assessment about “good”, or “not good.” Not ever! They should also never be an insistence or command. Instead, they should a conversation whose primary goal is helping photographers better understand and communicate their own visions and styles and intents, and to help hone their craft. The goal isn’t to tell someone how to do something better, but to provide the insights and tools to allow them to discover for themselves how they can “improve.” Also, and this not to be understated, providing reviews and critiques forces me think about photography and art, and to consider my own work and my own vision. They make me a stronger artist.

In other words critiques, when they are done correctly, are not about lecturing, they are about learning.

And that is why I will critique other people’s work.

Note: I wrote this as a response to Cole Thompson’s recent post entitled Why I Don’t Critique Other People’s Work. In it, he brought up some very valid points which are hard to disagree with, but I thought I would proffer up a slightly different take. We actually agree on the major points, so our stances are not as diametrically opposed as our respective titles make them appear. Instead, it’s more of a personal choice.

The Myth of “Good” Light

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Barn Shadow, photographed in the mid-afternoon

As talented photographer Mark Citret wrote in his insightful essay entitled Where to Stand:

“The quality of light in a photograph is meaningless unless it helps to express something!”

Brilliant!

Those of us who are landscape photographers are extremely sensitive to the quality of light upon our chosen subject matter. Our sensitivity is based, in large part, on the fact that we cannot control that light but rather must react to it, work within its confines, gleefully accepting the crumbs we are thrown.

But much of what we think of light, much of what we were taught, is wrong. We have been given bad advice. Misled. Bamboozled. We have been told that the “quality” of light is, above all else (above even subject matter), our primary consideration. We have been too strongly encouraged to use only the warm, quiet light near sunrise and sunset, and to ignore the “harsh” overhead light of the noon hours, or the flat, “featureless” light of overcast days. And our photography often suffers for it.

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All photographs made in the mid-day sun which would have failed in any other light

The ironic thing is . . . we don’t actually photograph the light, rather we photograph how that light illuminates our subject matter. It is that resulting interplay of shape and form, light and shadow which, when combined with our vision and purpose, gives significance and meaning to our work. Despite what some may tell us, one size does not fit all. The various factors are too numerous for such a simplistic way of thinking—subject, personal vision, purpose, mood, what we had for breakfast, attitude, how tired we are, etc, all combine with light to, as Mark Citret wrote, “express something.”

So don’t be afraid of noon light, don’t fear overcast days, and don’t think you have to avoid morning and evening light, either. There is no such thing as bad light, only bad advice.

BTW, I own’s Mark Citret’s book, Along the Way, and can say in all honesty that it’s as exceptional as his insight.

I Have to Work on That

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Sinclair Refinery in Fog, Mills, Wyoming

I had this great conversation last week with friend, talented photographer, and inspiring educator, Jean Miele. I first met Jean when I took his photo workshop in Sante Fe a number of years ago, and we have stayed in touch ever since. (He and my wife both graduated from the same exclusive NYC high school. Whatter the odds?)

During our conversation—I forget the exact topic but it was definitely related to photography and things we didn’t do as well as we hoped—Jean paused and earnestly said “I have to work on that.” Hearing that surprised me for a couple of reasons. First, he really is talented and knowledgeable and I assumed quasi-omnipotent. Second, he and I are both in our mid-50’s and are far from inexperienced. Third, it’s just not something I hear a lot . . . from anyone. Hell, even when I was teaching a college-level photography class I rarely heard that from my students (and lawd knows some of them needed a lot of work). Nowadays, it seems everyone just assumes they know it all or they pretend they do, which is the same thing. All too few will admit to wanting, or needing, to get better.

“I have to work on that.”

It was an impressive admission for someone so established. I was suitable impressed. As photographers, especially in this day and age of digital ease, it’s easy to be competent but, as it has always been, it’s difficult to be good. Even harder to be great. It takes work. A lifetime of work. And that means always admitting we aren’t perfect and always working to be perfect.

The trouble with thinking that we know everything is that we lose our incentive to create better work, or even good work. We rest on our laurels, content in our assumed perfection which we gleefully share with the world, often with more effort and zeal then we put into our creating our images. The Internet is full of examples. (I don’t want to name names, but Peter Lik comes to mind. Just sayin.)

For mere mortals, though, despite our age or experience level, we can only improve by admitting to ourselves that we don’t know everything. That we still have much to learn and much to do. We should tell ourselves that until the day we die. Our tomorrows should see us smarter than our todays, and our next photographs should be better and more insightful than those we took yesterday.

Photography is a journey, not a destination. So take a cue from Jean, and “work on that.”

If you would like to learn from Jean, something I highly recommend, he’s leading a workshop at Maine Media Workshops in August: check it out