. . . Stranger than Fiction

140425_PlayHouse_CoalMountainWY_1Doll House of Horrors, Natrona County, Wyoming

As a photographic artist (as opposed to a photojournalist), I don’t often manipulate the scenes in front of my camera. Sure, I will move the occasional offensive stick or gum wrapper, or brush aside an errant tree branch (without breaking it!), but I want to show the world as I experience it, so I try and keep such alterations to a minimum.

However, my latest project, tentatively entitled “Trash Lands” is different for me. It’s a more purposeful series of images, and what I am witnessing does not always translate into a compelling or meaningful visual message. So I have, on a small handful of images, manipulated the scene. I created a new reality, but a reality based on what I was actually witnessing.

For instance, during one of my first outings with this project, I found a cigarette butt and a crayfish claw lying mere inches from each other. Sort of interesting, but not overly compelling. So, feeling dissatisfied with the photographic results, I did something new, at least for me, and placed the cigarette butt in the claw (see previous blog post). The resulting image was, IMHO, quite powerful in its juxtaposition of natural and man-made discards. It meant something, and I was happy . . .

. . .  until Friday.

On Friday, while revisiting a site I had photographed earlier, I came across a bizarre scene. A discarded child’s plastic playhouse on a hillside, surrounded by bleached deer and pronghorn bones (lazily supplied by hunters), with a doll’s head propped up in one of the windows. It was surreal, and may have even impressed the likes of Tim Burton.  Of course it wasn’t a scene of happenstance­—two kids were using the doll’s head for BB gun practice and generously let me interrupt. But it was a scene as I “found” it. Unfortunately, as I have already admitted contriving other scenes, this one is now suspect. And, for a while, I was worried. But, does it matter? No, not really. Not in the bigger picture, anyway. I am trying something new, taking a chance, and hoping to grow, which is all that really matters.

Stop Worrying About People Liking your Work and Create, Dammit!

140405_TrashCan16
Trash Land  #16

I read a recent photography-related post which said that people don’t have to like your work. I wish I could remember who wrote it, because it is all too true and is, IMNSHO, one of the biggest mistakes made in landscape photography today: Pictures are made with the sole purpose of appealing to others.

Hey, we all like affirmation. Hell, I like affirmation. I admit to a small sense of pride when someone “likes” my Facebook page or sends me a complimentary email. We are only human, after all, and we like to think what we are doing is appreciated by others. As the great sage Stuart Smalley so succinctly said “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!”

Stuart, though, was not an artist.

And for artists, especially photographers, the surest path to mediocrity, the GUARANTEED path, is to let that external validation affect and influence our work. By doing so, we give control of our art to others. We lose our voice, and we lose our points of view. We stop interpreting the randomness we may witness, instead reproducing what we think will be popular. Our art becomes generic and bland and meaningless. Welcome to mediocrity.

What bothers me most, though, isn’t that the average hobbyist falls for this trap, but that supposed leaders in the industry, some of the most successful photography workshop instructors, are the worst offenders. To bolster their business model ($$$), they pander to the amateur hoards with over-saturated portfolios of slot canyons, long-exposure ocean scenes, arches at sunrise, mountains at sunset, and the Milky Way at midnight. None of it clever, none of it creative, and all of it done before . . . ad nauseam. Their fans eat it up, though, because the pictures are pretty and they simply don’t know any better.

Look, it’s okay if nobody likes your work, as long as you find meaning in it. I know it can be discouraging. I have been there and, in fact, am currently working a project photographing litter which is falling flat with a lot of people who usually like my work. Even my usually supportive wife is having a hard time liking this body of work, although it is growing on her. Regardless of everyone’s opinion, I like the images and find the project worthy and I plan to continue.

Going against popular opinion is often part of being an artist, a photographer, and is the only way we will ever find our voice and our personal style. So, embrace it. Learn from it. Grow from it. And Create, dammit.

Until Death Do We Part

131101_WhiteStopSign2_ShirleyBasinWYThe White Stop Sign, Wyoming

Two-years-ago this day, April 4, 2012, my much beloved Nikon D3x – the camera I still use today – was officially discontinued. I’ve owned mine for almost five years. Even now, at that advanced age, I have no desire to replace it. It works perfectly, has survived more than a couple drops onto asphalt without damage, creates amazing images and feels perfect in my hands. I consider it an old and dear friend.

It’s not perfect, mind you. It has poor high-ISO performance by today’s standards, and can get heavy on longer trips. I’m strong and don’t do much night shooting, so neither issue is particularly relevant to my work, and lawd knows the world does not need another high-ISO Milky Way photo (really, I mean it. Enough already, my eyes are freaking bleeding).

Throughout my many years as a photojournalist and educational photographer, I have known too many camera jockeys who were more interested in buying the latest gear than getting the best images. Kinda sad. I’ve often wondered how many people dumped the D3x when it was discontinued, and how many of those bought it the day it was announced. A fickle bunch they be.

I dunno, maybe I am just sentimental, or perhaps I’m a cheapskate. My car is 14-years-old and has 250,000 miles (and one rather large door dent), my camera bag has holes and multiple repairs, and my carbon-fiber Gitzo tripod has duct-tape holding one of the legs together.

I use my equipment hard. I often don’t have the time or the patience or the attention span to be gentle. So, when I find a piece of gear that can withstand my abuse, I keep it. Despite being outdated, replaced, and scoffed at, my D3x will continue to remain my primary camera.

My friend deserves that much.

Photo Promiscuity

140301_F_EvansvilleWYThe F Lot, Evansville, WY

A lot has been written recently about the practice of photo celibacy, which can be loosely defined as the attempt to avoid, or greatly diminish, looking at the photography of others in order to protect one’s personal vision from unintended influences. In other words, become re-virginized (wouldn’t THAT be cool)

I have no problem with those who attempt this. We each have to walk our own path or we would all be the same. But I go a different route, that of promiscuity. The more, and the more often, the better. Sometimes it’s once a day, sometimes three times. Rarely do I go more than a week without. My wife rarely complains and is, in fact, quite supportive of my needs. She’s a great gal.

And last Saturday I got lucky. Really lucky. FIVE times lucky, and it only cost me $10 (beat that, Hugh Grant). Needless to say, I walked away quite satisfied.

Alright, I am getting a bit off topic and . . . umm . . . distracted. I went to the book sale at the local library. HAPPY? I know I was. In what was usually a dismal and barren photography section, filled with bad how-to books, old magazines, and the usual Time-Life offerings, I found some real gems:

1. An “Aperture Masters of Photography”  book of Henri Cartier-Bresson (I have other, much larger of his monographs, but this was in perfect condition)

2. “Photographs” by Wijnanda Deroo, a wonderful monograph of balanced and formal images. Right up my alley.

3. “The Idea of North” by Birthe Piontek

4. “Moments” by Claire Yaffa

5. “Photography Until Now” by John Szarkowski (my favorite find of the day)

All of them are in wonderful condition. I have given each a quick scan as I do all my newly acquired books and will, in the near future, read and study each in detail. Do I expect them to influence my work? Of course I do, but not in any direct or overt way. Instead, what I glean from each book, from each author, will be added to my already vast archive of life experiences, each of which have combined to make me the photographer I am today. So any influence will be very slight, almost unnoticeable. But it will be there, none-the-less. And that is, at least in my mind, a very good thing.

Told ya I got lucky.