Clichés Can Kill (and have)

Last week I decided to earn some Wyoming street cred by photographing Grand Teton National Park, something I had put off since moving to Wyoming more than three years ago. It’s a place of grand beauty, stunning landscapes, and enough photographic clichés to kill a healthy adult male….really.  Of course, clichés exist because certain views are spectacular and many pretty images have been made of such scenes, and people want to be able to recreate those pretty pictures …over and over. And that, my friends in the problem. Too many photographers (and I use that term loosely) are content to simply recreate, rather than create. It’s the easy way, the path of least resistance, and for anyone claiming to be a serious photographer, the wrong path to take.

140116_Moonlight_GrandTetonNP 140117_TreesAndPeaks_GrandTetonNP 140117_Fog03_JacksonLake_GrandTetonNP 140117_Fog01_JacksonLake_GrandTetonNP

So anyway, I was in the park and looking for images which, while perhaps iconic, were not cliché or, at the very least, not TOO cliché. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was downright hard. Much of the park is closed in winter due to excessive snow, restricting visitors to the one major north/south road which cuts a path through the park, paralleling the mountain range. Due to the winter season, visitation was light overall but, a couple days after the full moon, the “photographers” were out in droves. This must be in some photo guide book, because a lot of out of state folks were there, but at that time of that morning the setting moon nestles between the mountain peaks as the first rays of the morning sun light the peaks….and I was standing ignorantly beside them. When I realized what was happening, that I was about to take part in a group photo grope, I packed up and left. A guy wielding two tripods and three cameras yelled to me that the best was yet to come, but I doubted it.

In two and half days of exploring the park I shot a handful of decent images but for me that is enough (with some trips I come back empty handed). I am not after frame count nor copies, but instead want to find images that are unique, powerful in their simplicity…..and meaningful,  even that means I have to work hard for them. That is why I photograph.


The Experience Deficit

Hilltop Snow Fence, Natrona County, WY    

Making a living wage as a fine-art photographer solely on print sales and commissions is quite difficult, nearly impossible, I dare say, and always has been. (Sure, a select few make it, but many of them (re)create images specifically to sell, visiting popular photography destinations and copying much of what has been done before in all their oversaturated goodness. In essence, they do meaningless, pretty pictures for the masses*). But for those of us, the serious photographers, the artists, who do pictures solely for ourselves, it’s often a losing battle. So, we look for other ways to supplement our meager income, often teaching workshops.

In the not-too-distant past, photography workshops were led by primarily by experienced and talented photographers, many of whom were considered leaders in the field, masters. These people were, first and foremost, photographers. Artists. They believed in photography as art, and as a way of life. Notables such as Ansel Adams, Minor White and Edward Weston were among the leaders who taught workshops.

Nowadays, that tacit necessity for exceptionalism, respect and experience is often ignored. Instead, many workshop instructors start teaching with only a year, or two, experience as “professional” photographers (whatever the hell THAT means). To those individuals, there is no meaning in photography other than as a commodity to trade for cash. One new workshop leader even had the audacity to claim, in a recent post that, for success, personality is more important than talent. In other words, my words at least, photography isn’t important as marketing, sunshine and toothy grins. Such a shame.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are many good workshop instructors out there, but I feel they are in the minority. Some are well-known, some lesser so. Among them:  John Sexton, Charles Cramer, Bruce Barnbaum, Jay Dusard, Michael Gordon, Guy Tal, Olivier du Tre and the (rag) tag-team of Barclay/Sniffin. There are lots of others equally worthy of mention, of course, but these are some of the ones I personally know about.

I am often asked if I teach workshops and, when I reply in the negative, asked “why not?” The primary reason I have not taught in the past is simple, I did not feel as if I were, at that time, qualified enough. Now, however, after more than 25 years as a photographer of all sorts, from staff to artist, and some relevant teaching under my belt, I think I may be at least minimally qualified.

I’ll let ya know.

* words of warning…if a workshop leader’s signature images consist solely of slot canyons, arches at sunrise, sunset mountain panoramas, the Milky Way or Zion’s Subway…avoid them at all costs! These are among the most over done and least imaginative images you can find today.