Highway 762 is different things to different people; just another road on their way to somewhere else, a destination for cyclists and motorcyclists, a place to drive slowly while viewing the scenery, the route for an annual cattle drive; and probably more besides. I intend to peel back my familiarity with the subject in an attempt to reveal what I see as the essence of this short, 22 km highway.
Meet Chris Bone. Chris is someone who travels Highway 762 a lot – whenever he wants to get anywhere from his home, in fact. While there may be more iconic stretches of pavement in the world, 762 has its own particular charm. But if you are setting a mentored project for yourself, and you want to push yourself to see something… deeper than scenery, more unexpected than cliché, is a road a good subject matter to choose?
It’s certainly not an easy choice! That’s Chris’ project statement above, and his portfolio of ten images below. In some ways, Chris was easy to mentor: he needed little guidance on goal-setting, articulating his idea or curating a final collection. We think he has come up with a very thoughtful story about Highway 762 as portrayed in his photo essay below. We suspect Chris will continue to travel everyday roads and come away with something unique to say about the experience.
For previous students’ mentored projects, click here.
I recently had the chance to go camping with family. Now, I have chosen not to have children, but I have lots of nieces and nephews so I can easily get my ‘kid fix’ when I need it. I’m always amazed by parents. It seems to me a tough job some days.
Unlike photography, there’s really no manual to guide you. But it struck me that, in some ways, parenting and photography are alike. Using some of the things I’ve learned from my parents, and from watching other parents, I’m going to make the case that photography is like parenting…so here goes.
Eat Your Broccoli
Remember how your parents were always telling you to eat that healthy, green stuff on your plate? “It’s good for you,” they’d explain. Well, even though we knew they were right, it was still hard sometimes to choke down those veggies. Photography has veggies too – those things you should do to become a better photographer that you don’t really enjoy doing. Like, for example, photographing frequently around home rather than planning exotic photo trips. Sure, traveling some place new is exciting, but you’ll have stronger skills if you practice often in your local area.
Don’t Stay Up Too Late
We know that staying up late and watching TV is bad for us, but we do it anyway (until we get told to turn off the light and go to bed). It can also be tempting to go hard, guns blazing, with your photography. Chasing the sweet light can mean you’re up late photographing star trails after sunset and still upright when sunrise burns up the sky. You don’t want to miss anything of course, but one thing I’ve learned from long photo trips is the need to pace yourself. There’s nothing worse than hitting that creative wall and having no energy to stand up let alone make a good image. Stay in it for the long haul and respect your body and mind’s need to recharge.
Respect Your Elders
There are many, many talented photographers out there and so much to learn from studying the work of artists who have created before us. In the photo industry I’ve seen a tendency to self-aggrandizement, the belief that you and your work is unique and ‘never been done before’. True creative vision is actually pretty rare, so it’s a good idea to stay a little humble and maybe take some time to review the images and art works of photographers and artists whose work has stood the test of time.
Mind Your Manners
One of the tasks of parenting is to teach your children how to behave with other people. Sure you want that toy, but pushing that other kid out of the way and stealing it from your sister is not going to make you many friends. Parents succeed at teaching manners to varying degrees. But as adults, we really have no excuse for bad behaviour. Why is it then that some photographers feel it is just fine to trespass on private property to get a better position? Or scare wildlife away by getting too close? Or yell at tourists who get in their way? I think one of the most remarkable stories from Darwin’s 50 at 50 eBook relates to the incredibly bad behaviour of a bunch of photographers at iconic Delicate Arch. It seems some photographers need to go back to kindergarten to learn some manners.
Pick Good Friends
We’ve all seen this…a nice, sweet kid falling in with ‘the wrong crowd’ and turning into a swearing, pierced, slouched creature. How does this happen? Apparently, parents are right to feel concern over who their children hang out with. Your peers will either elevate you – or bring you down. Finding a mentor in photography can be one of the best things you can do to take your images to a higher level. Consistent, clear, caring feedback can do wonders for your artistic ability. So make sure you pick good friends who not only support your creative efforts but also give you a little challenge sometimes.
Well, I’ve come up with five points. Can you think of some ways in which photography is like parenting?
When I was a kid one of my favorite things to do was to head out in the woods alone and sit quietly and look around. I would see and hear birds and squirrels going about their daily business. I would watch ants carry loads three times their body size. I would marvel at the architectural wonder of a spider web. The miniature world of the forest floor came alive when I lay down and looked at it at ground level. In short, everything around me was fascinating and magical. As a six-year-old it seemed the perfect job for me would be a forest ranger so I could watch and guard all the animals and plants I loved.
I followed a path of learning about nature through school and university and got a Master’s degree in biology. But making a living as a biologist was more about people and politics than it was about being in the field with the animals. The dream of the six-year old was shattered. Why couldn’t I just hang out in the woods and watch critters and get paid for it?
In university, as part of my studies, I needed to take pictures to add visuals to my presentations on my studies to obtain grants. I soon discovered that photography allowed me to be that wonder-struck six-year-old once again. With photography I could photograph the birds and the squirrels and the ants and the lichen-covered forest floor and take home that amazement in the form of photos. I was hooked! This ability to record my amazement of the natural world remains at the heart of why I still love photography today. Photography is a way I connect with myself in the natural world. I don’t need photography to be amazed, but photography allows me to record my amazement and relive it every time I look at my photos.
The other thing I love about photography is that to do it well you need to learn how to see. You learn to remove labels from things and just see the way that light plays across a subject. You learn how to organize this interplay of light into an aesthetic display of design and composition. In short, learning to see helps you be an artist and being an artist gives you the depth to see the beauty in the everyday.
The longer I am in photography, the better I learn to see and the less I need novel or fresh experiences to feed my amazement. Indeed, I get more amazed now by being able to artistically render ‘something from nothing’. I love discovering the magic in the mundane, and seeing amazement in the overlooked. I am less interested in the obvious and the easy grab shot. I am keen to continue to explore seeing deeper and more personally. And so photography for me has not lost its challenge because photography is so much more than equipment or technical mastery. I think those who get bored with photography were in it for the wrong reasons (the gear, the cool factor, the technical challenge) and not for deeper ‘feeding the soul’ reasons.
I also like that photography with all the advancements in technology has made it easier to make photos that are about personal expression. If you shoot from your heart and are true to yourself then you can make images that truly represent your connection with the world. More and more the cameras are taking care of the technical stuff so we need less concentration on that aspect of the craft and we can have more concentration on the artistic side of photography. For many photographers, the love of gear and technique gets in the way of personal expression but once that geek adoration is outgrown, then we can move on to make images that reflect who we are and what we are interested in. I like that photography can become art if we allow ourselves to become artists. And I am enjoying becoming an artist as an adult just like I was when I was six-years old!
What is it that keeps you in love with photography? Share your thoughts below in the comments!
Lately, we’ve noticed photographers posting and writing about a need for more inspiration to fire up their photography. Do you suffer from the deadly blahs sometimes? Is everything around you dusty and dry to the senses? Do you long for a deep, cool drink of refreshing creativity?
One of the reasons we have the Inspirations category on our blog is to build up a store of high-end work that stimulates our (and hopefully our readers’) creativity. It’s the collective well of creativity that we all reach into for a germ of inspiration when we’re just plain ‘ol out of fresh ideas.
And it doesn’t always have to be about photography either. In fact, we highly encourage our students to develop wide-ranging and voracious appetites in several artistic arenas. From the auditory delights of your fave tunes to the sensual pleasures of fine food, it’s all grist for your sometimes grinding creative mill. One of the inspirations we are stoked about recently (and hope to share more about on the blog in the future) is a Calgary-birthed magazine for visual creatives called Uppercase. Not only is it painstakingly edited and thoughtfully put together, but it’s a rarity in today’s magazine world because it’s gloriously ad-free. That’s right, no garish splashy ads lining the columns of an article you thought was informational but turned out to be advertorial. No trashy, simplistic headlines screaming at you that your life will be so much better if you only purchase Product Amazing. Just aaaah! a clean, refreshing drink of creativity to recharge your visual tastebuds! Check out Uppercase. Consider a subscription if you like it. As photographers getting sick from the equivalent of ‘fast food photography’, we need some visual nourishment to sustain us and encourage artistic growth.
Where do you turn to quench your creative thirst? Share your secret (non-photography; let’s be creative here) sources and ideas!
If you gave someone a scalpel, does that qualify that person as a surgeon? If you handed the keys to a Maserati to your best friend, would she become a race car driver? Then why does the mere act of pressing the shutter button on a camera make one a photographer?
I think there IS a difference between Someone With A Camera (SWAC) and a photographer. Or in today’s world, a SWAP (Someone With A Phone) or even a SWAT (Someone With A Tablet). Ok, I have to admit I still find it a bit strange to see a SWAT taking a picture. That giant screen held aloft, a giant barrier between the person and the very thing he came to see… talk about stepping out of the moment! Gives a whole new twist on the phrase ‘reality tv’. But I digress.
It’s not that I believe photographers are superior even if I am being a bit cheeky with my descriptions here. Really, we’re all SWACs at some point. I think there are two things that make a photographer a photographer. No, it’s not at all about the gear (SWACs can have the most advanced and expensive systems), it’s not about the subject matter the person is shooting, or where she is, and it’s not about how much money she makes. A photographer is a photographer because she intends to make something expressive with her image and because of her ability to see the world around her as, in essence, light. Let’s take a closer look at the first distinction, intent.
A Photographer is a Photographer Because of Intent
What is your intent when you press the shutter? Are you recording a precious moment as your child celebrates a birthday? Is it a selfie of you and your spouse at a romantic dinner? Have you finally snapped a full-frame shot of that buck who steals from your backyard bird feeder? If your intent is to make a record, then you are not a photographer. You are engaging in the important role of preserving moments in time – you’re an historian and explorer and family preservationist. Always be proud to be a SWAC because these kinds of images produce a link between people and between generations.
A photographer is a SWAC with a different intent. A photographer is not interested in obtaining a record exactly, although documenting may be part of the intent. A photographer inserts more of himself into the expressive act of making an image. It’s not about records or objective truth; it’s about an idea, emotion or germ of a story that the photographer felt when he observed an object for what it truly looked like. This may sound confusing, so let’s move to the second factor that differentiates a photographer from a SWAC – seeing light.
A Photographer is a Photographer Because He Sees Light
Photographers work with real objects existing in real time. Even a photographer in a studio controlling the lights, directing the model and moving props, only has that one capture, that one moment plucked from the stream of time, to work with. Even a re-take on a shot taken seconds before is terra nova: in subtle ways, the model and photographer have moved on, been affected by the interaction with each other, and are different than they were a second ago. Outside of the movies, no moment in time ever repeats.
So how do photographers interpret this reality, then? By seeing an object for how it actually is rather than how she thinks or believes it is, a photographer becomes intensely present, stepping away from her conscious mind and existing at a level of pure, sensory interpretation. Andy Karr and Michael Wood in The Practice of Contemplative Photography call this moment the flash of perception. In that moment, the human tendency to name, categorize, and judge is suspended and the photographer sees not an apple, but a reddish-green mottled sphere with a waxy, reflective skin. Seeing this way is seeing light. We can only observe the world in light, and it is light that creates tones and colours and all the other secondary visual elements that make up an image such as pattern, texture, lines, shapes. A photographer is someone who sees these elements existing, shifting, morphing and evolving in real time, all times, and tries to express her subjective experience of such seeing.
The reason why I think it’s important to make this distinction is because we live in a world of unprecedented access to visual media. We are documenting every second of our day, from what we choose to wear to work, to our lunch with friends, to a selfie during a night out. We are making records of data at incredible rates which is a fascinating process to observe and ponder: where will our fascination with record-making take us?
For photographers, and for those who wish to become photographers, all you have to do is take your camera, phone or tablet, and think about why you are making an image. What is your intent? Can you see the world before you for how it actually is, and how does that make you feel? What can you and your camera say about this world of light?
A Note About the Images in this Post
As many of you know, shortly after Darwin and I arrived at Aurum Lodge for our Photographers in Residence creativity program, a wildfire erupted not far from the Banff National Park border where highways 93 and 11 meet. The Spreading Creek fire, as it’s being called, has tossed up billowing clouds of smoke, obscuring the mountains and turning the fresh mountain air into a smoky screen.
For a SWAC, this is a disaster. Recording the iconic peaks and lakes of the Canadian Rockies will be difficult in this grey soup! But for a photographer, there is no judgment. There is only this filtered light, turning the world into a murky nightmare-world of indistinct shapes and dying trees. We spent some time photographing the area, and these images are our interpretations of the light and how we felt about it.
I’m always up for a good challenge and when I heard that Sam and Darwin were aggressively cleaning up their backlog of unprocessed files, I first thought they were both crazy for committing to a file bankruptcy day. Why would anyone artificially delete potentially great work simply because of time.
My second thought was… hmm, it’s probably worth playing along too. Several months (maybe a year?) ago, I started reorganizing my image library with the daunting task of cleaning everything up. I quickly became side tracked with more exciting projects and my images remain in an unfinished state.
So I’m going to join the bandwagon but with different goals. I will not be processing any files and I will not be deleting everything untouched come July 1st. What I will attempt to do, is finish cleaning up, keywording, gps tagging, adding meta data with everything neatly organized into categories. The only files that I will be deleting are the clearly bad frames. If there is any hesitation at all, the file stays and is appropriately filed away.
The Current Structure
To kick things off, I feel it’s probably necessary to explain how I manage files with the use of Adobe Lightroom. My images fall into 3 distinct categories.
- Fine Art & Stock. My first catalog contains all of the images that I consider my “artwork”. This is mostly my landscape and nature work and are the images that I license for use or make decor prints from. This body of work contains all of the images that I share with the public.
- Personal. This catalog contains all of my family photos. It’s a catch all from my camera, my wife’s camera, occasionally my parent’s camera, our phones, etc. This is a large collection of every day photos that are primarily a documentation of my life.
- Assignments & Events. Each commercial job or event that I’m hired for, I create a new Lightroom catalog. All of the image files from that project live here in isolation and once the files are delivered to the client, the catalogs are archived. These catalogs will not be part of this challenge.
The 30 Day Goal
For both my Fine Art and Personal image libraries, which combine to approximately 100,000 files, I will clean up the many folders titled “sort” and “fix these” and “missing XYZ data”. I will delete what’s clearly trash and move the rest into a well structured catalog, rich with keywords and location gps data.
I’m a bit obsessive with organization but at the same time, I don’t necessarily need to process or finish an image file until it’s needed. Especially considering that if I need a file created 5 years ago, there is a decent chance that I’ll want to reprocess the file again with newer raw conversion software.
So we’re now all at the starting line with a goal in sight. This clearly contradicts my desire for less computer time.
This week is the eighth anniversary of my first date with Samantha. Our first date was a comedy of errors, all of my best laid plans went south fast – think of me as a male version of Bridget Jones, only more hairy. Looking back all I can do is shake my head and laugh. Frankly I am surprised Sam agreed to a second date!
So what does all this have to do with photography? A lot… trust me it will all come full circle.
When Samantha and I went out to do photography together I noticed something kind of weird. Sam spent a lot of time not shooting. She seemed to be just standing around. I would ask, “How’s it going?” “Perfect,” she would reply. I would continue madly scurrying about shooting this and that and Sam would still be in the same spot looking around. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Oh, I’m just watching the clouds roll by.” I thought to myself that she just was not into photography that much. But back home, I would see her photos and they were amazing. She found stuff I never even noticed (were we in the same spot?) and she made images that were so uniquely hers. No one could ever copycat a Sam image. There was something about her images that showed a deeper connection between her and the scene. Something at times I’ve felt missing in my photos. What’s going on?
Over the years I’ve learned that Sam standing around does not mean she isn’t doing photography. On the contrary, it means she is actually looking around, connecting with the scene first and only then capturing that connection with her camera afterwards. Most photographers I know, myself included, rush headlong into the world with their face buried behind the camera. The camera comes out first, questions are asked later. Sam approaches a scene the opposite way. The questions are asked first. “Why I am attracted to this spot? How does this subject make me feel? Why is that animal doing that? What is it like to be grass in this windy field?” Sam asks a lot of whys and only after really looking and pondering a subject will she pull her camera out.
What I have learned from Sam is that the act of photography is not really important; actual seeing and understanding the subject is the key. Immerse yourself into the subject and not into the mechanism of making a photo. Too often photographers are so worried about the gear, the technique, and the results they hope to get that they forget about asking themselves about the subject and about how they feel about the subject. To make meaningful images there has to be a connection between you and the subject you are photographing. Too often that connection is not made and superficial meaningless images are the result. Once I started to actually look at and think about my subjects and stopped just rushing in to make photos, my photography improved significantly. The slow, thoughtful approach really works. I started watching the clouds roll by too.
So back to our first date… although almost everything was a disaster (from the meal to the movie) Sam just sat back and watched (and laughed). But she took the time to watch the clouds go by. She liked the potential in the scene and so she revisited the location many more times and finally decided that she could make a meaningful photo there. 🙂
To learn more about learning to see check out our eBook on the subject.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot about art. Maybe its just a mid-life crisis… or maybe because I make pictures, play music, do writing and finger rub foggy mirror hieroglyphics in the bathroom, I should know what constitutes art.
So what is art and what is an artist? Well… defining art is like trying to define soul… or spirit… or love. Entire books have been written on the subject. Several definitions are currently in vogue and are passing through the internet ether. “An artist makes art” and “Art is something made by an artist”. Hmmm….
When the idea of art is discussed further, the one thing that all the discussions had in common was the idea of connection. The art books I have read suggest that a creation is not art unless it meets an audience. Art has to be experienced by others for a connection to be made. Without connection there is no art. An example often cited is that a musical composition is just notes on paper. It isn’t art until it is performed for an audience. The extension for photographers is that our digital images, negatives, or prints are not, nor can ever be, art if we hide them away from the world. Creations you make must be shared. If, when shared, your work makes a connection with someone then and only then can it be judged as art.
So… if I make a drawing, write a song, compose a poem and just keep it to myself, it’s not art? The inner connection, spirit and joy of pure creation is not enough for a piece to be art? Does this mean that I can’t enjoy my own pieces as art because it’s not art unless I share? What about connecting back to yourself, does that not count? Unless I make an external connection with others with my creation, I will never produce art?
Author, Seth Godin has said “Art is the unique work of a human being, work that touches another.” According to Seth, art is personal (reflects the artist), is untested (original), and is intended to connect. My question lies in the third premise: is connecting with your self enough?
What do you think? Do creations need an audience beyond the creator to be considered art? Or should we just create for the joy of it, just like kids play… for pure joy? If we feel like sharing our creations then so be it. If we don’t then that’s just as valid. Do we even need to worry if what we do is art or if we are an artist? Are labels worth anything?
I would love to hear your thoughts – but be careful – by sharing you could be making art 😉
Well, Darwin’s in the first real stages of the 50 at 50 project and broke a sweat the other day when he realized how many folders and how many images he had to weed through in order to select his 50 images for the final eBook. After 25 years as a photographer, I was curious to know how many photos he actually had…turns out he’s digitally archived about 15,000 plus there’s thousands and thousands of slides and negatives gathering dust in our basement.
Luckily, after a couple of days of skimming, it looks like he’s got this project by the horns and has wrestled down the initial selects to 355 images. Whew! We sat down on our couch for a little Q & A. At one point, I asked him if it was hard to choose just 50 shots for this project.
Yeah…first of all, I was surprised by, out of…nearly 15,000 images that it was pretty fast just to get down to 350 which tells me there’s a whole lot of filler in there…. I think something that Ansel Adams once said and I’ll get the quote incorrect but the idea close is that you’re lucky if you make ten good pictures a year. So that tells me then if I’ve been shooting 25 years and I got it down to 350 images that’s just over ten a year. So, I’m doing great!
Although I’m interviewing Darwin for this project, the choice of which images end up in the book and which will not is totally up to Darwin. We talked a little about how even curating a collection is a selective exercise that colours the final result.
If you gave 14,000 pictures for people to edit through and pick what they thought was the strongest work…you’d probably get very different answers…. I think that’s a difficult thing for photographers to do, is to be objective about their work because there’s always subjectivity involved in terms of, you know, what was your emotional state, why is this picture important to you… So these are very personal pics and may or may not represent the best art or the best craft of photography that I’ve done, just these are important pictures to me and ones that have stood the test of time that I don’t get tired of looking at. There’s also some new images in there that have been overlooked over the course of time that never have really seen the light of day or been published or shared and there were some surprises in there.
And where did the idea for this project come from? Here is its origins….
A couple of years ago now, I turned 50. And I realized that…I’d been in photography…since 1986 and it happened to be 25 years in. I was turning 50 years old, seen a lot of changes in the industry, and I thought it might be kind of a nice time to show a bit of retrospective…a retrospective of my work over those 25 years and so I just decided on the number 50 images to fit the 50th birthday.
I wonder which images will make the cut! I know I look forward to discovering the stories behind the shots over the next few weeks. The final word to Darwin:
All artists create work that ultimately needs to be shared. I think that that’s part of what an artist does is they create things that they share with somebody. And so, you gotta put it out there.
Below is a small sample of five images from Darwin’s initial select of 355 images.