I have photographed Fort Clinch on Amelia Island around a dozen times. I’m fascinated by the light and architecture—the many tunnels, windows, doorways, arched ceilings and worn, handmade bricks. I usually go with my tripod, camera and one or two zoom lenses on lightly overcast (preferred) or sunny days.
Earlier this week, I was on the island and it started raining. I ditched my plans, grabbed my camera and drove to the fort. No tripod, no zoom lenses, no filters. Just a 50mm lens and an umbrella. The rain tapered, but it was still wet, drizzly and moody.
Shooting in different weather wasn’t my only motive for returning. I wanted to try looking at the fort in new ways. Handholding allowed me to be more playful. The 50mm lens required me to zoom with my feet—physically moving closer to or farther away from my subject.
I noticed some things had changed at the fort. Furniture had been rearranged; some windows had been opened while others had been closed; the pantry was open in the kitchen; white barriers had been randomly placed along an exterior staircase (above); a different (interpretive) soldier was on duty.
When you find a subject or location you like to photograph, keep going back. See what has changed. Capture different moods by photographing in different seasons or light. Push yourself creatively by focusing on something different, using a different lens, or experimenting with a different technique each time you go. Be open to the serendipitous—the interaction of people or animals with a place or each other. One time think broad views; another time think intimate details. Look for opportunities to tell different stories about or reinterpret a place.
Is there somewhere close to your home or a place you travel to often that you could photograph regularly? Why not start building a portfolio of images about that place? If you do, I'd love to hear about your experience.
sharing images in new ways
Do you ever get the urge to do something different? I’m not talking about dramatic life or career changes, here. Just changes that shake up your routine, change your way of seeing, or result in new work that feels fresh.
One of the ways I’m addressing that urge right now is by playing around with paired images: diptychs, triptychs and short, visual stories of five to eight images. It’s sort of like writing haiku when you’re used to writing novels, so it requires a different way of thinking. It's fun looking for relationships between images that not only hold them together, but also result in a sum that is greater than its parts—images that tell not only their own stories, but also help shed light on each other; images that, perhaps, feel more poetic when paired.
Here is a diptych from Great Cranberry Island. The boulder was shaped by the ocean's waves and, in addition to their physical relationship, I loved the waves of blue in the rock.
What about you? Do you ever pair images to create a diptych or triptych? Printing a number of individual images first is a great way to play with pairings, as it allows you to shuffle them around on a table. It can be done on the computer screen, too, but for some reason, it’s just not the same. Why not give it a try and see what happens?
One of the key concepts in creativity is that of combining seemingly unrelated ideas to come up with new ideas or looking to other fields for strategies that might work in our own.
In photography, this can be as simple as approaching one field of photography like you might another. For instance, a landscape photographer can benefit from thinking like a portrait photographer. After all, every place, whether a bustling city or a remote patch of desert, has its own personality and unique characteristics. This can inform the elements and composition, the angle of view and the kind of light in which we photograph the landscape.
When I photograph plants, I often bring them into the studio and set them up much as one might for a portrait session. I spend time studying each plant carefully, looking for unique characteristics or gestures that give it personality. And that’s what I emphasize through lighting, composition and depth of field.
I was reminded of this while listening to an interview by Chris Orwig with noted photographer Keith Carter. Carter has spent much of his life photographing the people and places of East Texas and approaches all of his subjects as portraits. It doesn’t matter whether they are people, dogs, houses, landscapes or objects. His work is insightful, engaging and often mysterious. It is filled with soul and magic, and he says that's because he gives his subject intense attention and respect. If you want a good example of portraiture concepts applied in non-traditional ways, spend some enjoyable time with his work.
What happens when you begin to think of the photographs you take as portraits? How does it change your way of seeing and relating to your subject?
Although artists and writers need connections and benefit from collaboration in many ways, creating the work itself is generally a solitary act. And it requires shifting into a creative “zone” in which we are totally focused on our work, oblivious to our surroundings, schedules and other obligations. Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. Cell phones, the internet, appointments—they all get in the way.
Sometimes it is helpful to just get away from it all. To eliminate the distractions, reset, reflect and focus on the work. Artist residencies offer a way to do that, and it is one of the reasons they are so coveted. They offer a change of environment, a quiet place to work for an extended period, and various forms of support—usually housing and studio space, and occasionally other amenities such as meals, transportation or access to specialized equipment. Some offer a community of other artists with whom you can build relationships and share experiences with over meals; others are solo retreats. Most provide an opportunity at some point to share your work with their local community or offer greater visibility for your work in some way. But mostly, they offer a quiet place to work without interruptions.
I am doing my first artist residency this summer through the Heliker-LaHotan Foundationon Great Cranberry Island, Maine. Located just off the coast of Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park, it is the largest of five islands in the Cranberry Isles, measuring roughly two miles long by one mile wide. It is accessible only by boat, and beyond a general store, café, library and local history museum, there are few amenities on the island. I do not expect to have cell phone service. Internet is likely only available at the library (though the island is in the process of adding a broadband system). But that's okay. There are rocky shorelines; a large, protected tidal pond; a log boardwalk through a bog; trails through a spruce-fir, birch and red maple forest; and excellent views of the sunset over the mountains of Acadia National Park.
I will be at the residency for four weeks following two weeks of teaching at the Maine Media Workshopsin Rockport. I will have both a place to stay and a private studio overlooking the water. While there, I will lead a three-day photography workshop on landscape and place. (You are invited; see details below.)
Preparing for a residency is an interesting process: How much to plan versus how much to leave open to the experience? Will I work on a current project that needs some deep attention, focus on a new project based on the island, or some combination of the two? What equipment and materials should I pack, knowing I have to get everything there by boat and will not have local access to additional supplies? Should I take my own backdrops or make do with what I can adapt? Take a small lighting kit for studio shots or rely on natural light? Should I post as I can about the experience while I'm there or totally disconnect? What needs to be taken care of at home before leaving on a seven-week journey (as I am also driving to Maine and back)? If I’ve learned anything about travel over the years, it is to prepare, but to be open to the unexpected and change of plans, so that is how I am approaching this adventure.
I will likely take a break from posting my newsletter and on social media while away, but I will keep you posted on preparations over the next few weeks and share my challenges, discoveries and experiences in some way when I return. I am extremely grateful to the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation for this opportunity to take a deep dive into my creative work and look forward to the journey.
Why make photographs? Not just “take pictures,” but why take the time to create a compelling, memorable image? What compels you to pick up a camera—whether a digital SLR, a 4x5 field camera, or the camera in your phone—and create a photograph?
I believe this is an essential question that every photographer should ask, whether they are a working professional, artist, avid enthusiast or someone new to photography. Doing so and exploring the answer is part of what separates photographers from everyone else with a camera, which is just about everybody these days. Of course, that doesn’t mean the answer comes easily, or that it doesn’t change and evolve over time.
In exploring this question, you may find that there are both easy answers and more difficult ones—those more general in nature that many other photographers might identify with and those that are very specific and unique to you. Those unique to you are the most valuable. They provide the motivation. They bring focus, clarity and consistency to your work. The more you understand your “why,” the more compelling your images are likely to be.
Some of your answers may have to do with how the process affects you. Others may have more to do with what you want to share with others. They may have to do with recording your life, telling stories, expressing emotions, documenting change, exposing injustices, teaching others about a subject, sharing what others often overlook, or so many other reasons. Even within a particular genre, you have a unique perspective that is driven by your why. What is it?
Even if you’ve answered this question dozens of times before, why not take some time this week to think about it again—to see if the images you are creating are consistent with your why, if your thoughts on the subject have evolved, if the answers are helping you to grow.
There is a difference between taking pictures and making photographs. The first is a casual act; the latter is a contemplative one. It is possible to produce interesting images either way, but making photographs is done with much greater attention and intention.
Last week, I asked about some of the ways you go about slowing down and making photography a more contemplative, creative act. Today, I’d like to share a few of my own approaches.
- Set the camera aside. Just sit for a while or take a walk and become more aware of your surroundings. I believe this is especially important in nature, but may be equally important and insightful in other surroundings, as well. This can help you slow down and become more in tune with a place. It can also allow you to see things you might otherwise miss.
- Notice your first impressions. Sometimes they are the most important impressions; other times they are misleading. It is your job to discern the difference.
- When something attracts your attention, think about why it does that. What compels you and how might you best emphasize or translate than photographically?
- If possible, move around your subject and look at it from all angles. Notice not only the subject, but how the light falls on it, what is behind it, and what is beside it that might be encroaching on your image. This can apply whether you are photographing a flower or garden, a stone or a mountain, a doorway or a building.
- Focus more on making one great photograph than taking lots of shots.
- Stop often to look up from what you are photographing. Notice how the light is shifting, what may be falling in or out of shadow, and what is taking place around you. If you are shooting close-up, observe the overall scene. If you are photographing a broad scene, take a look at the details around you.
- Eliminate distractions. Might you need to turn off your phone? Get away on your own for a bit when traveling with others? Go to a quieter location?
- Pay attention not only to the subject, but how it makes you feel. Can you bring some of that emotion into your photograph?
- Let go of expectations (both your own and those of others). Instead of worrying about how to get a great shot, allow the scene to speak to you.
Do any of these resonate with you? What would you add to the list?
Photography helps us see the world around us in new ways. For this reason, the camera can be a powerful creative tool. But it is just a tool, for how we choose to see the world through that viewfinder is entirely up to us. We can use it to expand our vision and see things we’ve never seen before; to share our unique experiences and way of seeing the world; or to express our thoughts, ideas and emotions. And yet, when we look through that viewfinder, we naturally narrow our focus and often miss important things around us. We can even hide behind it, using it as a shield from interacting with the people around us or fully engaging with our environment.
There was a time when photography, by its very nature, was a contemplative act. Large, heavy cameras on tripods with bulky sheet film holders forced photographers to slow down and be more conscious of their actions. They had to compose images upside-down on glass plates, calculate proper exposure without meters, and process their own negatives and prints in a darkroom. They had a limited supply of film holders and expensive film, limiting the number of photographs they could take. Trips into the wilderness required extensive planning and, most likely, packhorses to carry the gear. It was a slow process, at best—one that required attention to detail, a command of the scientific and technical aspects of photography, and patience. But even then, the camera was just a tool. The photographs produced varied greatly from one photographer to the next.
The process of slowing down to take a photograph is just as important today as it was then—even though our cameras fit in a pocket or small bag, have meters that help calculate exposures, and capture hundreds of images on tiny digital cards not much bigger than a thumbnail. Photography still requires looking, seeing, thinking, interpreting and expressing. For that, we must become more in tune with our surroundings, our emotions and our intentions. What are some of the ways you go about doing that in your own photographic work?
Artist statements get a bad rap. And if you've read many of them, you know why. Too many are written with the intent of sounding impressive, when their purpose is to simply and clearly communicate the what, why and how of our work. An artist statement should clarify, not mystify.
Even though we usually write artist statements for others to learn about our work, they can be equally beneficial to those of us writing them. Sometimes, their real value is not so much in the finished product as it is the process of articulating what our work is about. It helps us clarify what we do and why. It brings our intentions into greater focus and forces us to think deeply about what matters, what we hope to accomplish or communicate with our work, what processes are important to us, and what sets our work apart from the work of other artists.
Pausing from time to time, maybe every year or so, to revise or rewrite our basic artist statement helps us think about where we are, how we have grown, and where we are going. Hopefully, we’ve gained some clarity in our work since the last version was written.
Writing artist statements for each new project, series, or body of work helps us clarify what that work is really about. Doing this early in the development of that work can give us direction, keep a project focused, and help us communicate with others what we are doing. Of course, sometimes we need to spend time with a project before we know that. In such cases, writing an artist statement later helps us to reflect on the work and perhaps see things we were not aware of when we launched the project.
When was the last time you wrote an artist statement—either a general one or a project-specific one? Is it time for an update? Are you delving into a new body of work that would benefit from greater clarity?
If you are cringing at the thought, remember that it’s only one paragraph—just a few sentences. Try answering the following questions in one sentence each, in your own conversational voice: What do you do? Why? And how? If necessary, add another sentence or two to fill in any important gaps. Sleep on it, and then polish it the next day. Let me know how it goes.
There were many special moments during my recent tour of Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu. Among them was discovering her rock collections scattered about the house, both inside and out. I’ve done a little research and it appears that she loved the shapes of these rocks, as well as rocks in general. She gathered them on her walks, as well as during her trips to other places, such as Oaxaca, Mexico. One, later deemed her favorite, she "stole" from the home of photographer Eliot Porter and had a photograph made of her holding this black stone. Her gardener sometimes rearranged rocks in her collections; she moved them back without saying a word. It became a game they played for years. For a time, she painted individual stones in addition to the magnificent rock formations in the landscape near Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch.
“I have the kind of mind that sees these shapes. I know what some of them are from. Many have realistic landscape or natural bases, but others are just beautiful shapes that I see in my mind.”
-- Georgia O’Keeffe
I am a photographer rather than a painter and I see shapes in the things around me more than I imagine them in my mind, but I do identify with O’Keeffe’s passion for shapes. It is what draws me to architectural subjects, to unique land and stone formations, to leaves and other details in the natural world, and even to abstractions. It is what I love most about the adobe architecture of Santa Fe and surrounding areas, whether Pueblo, Spanish Colonial or Territorial Revival in style. I like to simplify images so that their shapes become a dominant feature in the photograph.
Visually, which are you more drawn to: shapes, lines, textures, colors or some other element? How do you convey this through your photographs or artwork, or even through the way you decorate your home, the clothes you wear or the artwork you choose to hang on your walls?
We fall in love with photography. And yet, it is about more than cameras and lenses, depth of field and exposure, or image processing and printing. It is about learning to see. As photographers, we must figure out what it is that we are meant to see, to experience, to share. We must find stories to tell, places to document, subjects to delve deeply into, curiosities to investigate, emotions to express, ideas to share, or events to record. We must fall in love with something, or be moved, inspired or motivated by something beyond photography itself. We must focus our energy not just on learning to operate our equipment, but on understanding and investigating our subject or ourselves.
“A camera is a tool for learning to see without a camera.”
What do we photograph and why? How can we dig more deeply into matters that mean the most to us—that inspire us, anger us or intrigue us? How can we use our photographic tools to more fully explore that which piques our curiosity? How can we turn our cameras on ourselves—if not literally, then figuratively? What are the themes that run through our work and through our lives? What has shaped us into who we are and what we hope to become?
When we can answer these questions, or at least embrace and pursue them, and combine them with our sense of visual style, then we can begin to find our voice. Not that it is missing. It is simply buried deep within us and must be excavated. How is your digging going?
Earlier this week, I read an article that said it is good to have lots of books on your shelves that you haven’t read yet. I laughed, and thought surely this must be fake news. But the source (Inc. magazine) was legitimate and the story was based on research by bestselling author Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The thinking is that having many unread books (assuming that you do read some of them, of course) both fosters a sense of curiosity and reminds you of your ignorance.
I guess this way of thinking falls into the same category as the more you learn, the more you realize how much you’ll ever know. Whenever I take a deep dive into a subject, I find this to be true. It was certainly the case with gardening. Just when I learned how to prune a hydrangea, I discovered there were other types of hydrangeas that had different pruning requirements. As I quizzed myself relentlessly to learn the names of plants in nurseries and botanical gardens, I discovered that there are more than 350,000 known plant species, not to mention cultivars and hybrids. I even discovered that gardening wasn’t just about growing plants; it was also about garden design, landscape architecture, horticulture, botany, arboriculture, environmental sustainability and even meteorology.
Photography is that way for me, too. I’ve been taking photographs and learning about photography since I was a kid. And yet, no matter how much I read, shoot, and take or teach workshops, I can never begin to grasp even a significant portion of it all. I discover that it's not just about taking pictures; it's also about art, storytelling, lighting, science, computer technology and so much more...yes, even meteorology. (Landscape photographers obsess over the weather just as much as gardeners.) There are so many photographic processes, both new and historic, I’d love to try. So many photographers I’d love to read about. So many exhibits and photo books I’d like to spend time with. And then I realize, there will never be enough time to take it all in. The field of photography, like nearly everything else, is changing rapidly and growing exponentially.
So I’m glad to know that it’s okay if I haven’t read all of the books on these shelves and that it’s natural to discover how much I’ll never know about the subjects I’m most passionate about. It helps to both tap and satisfy my sense of curiosity and gives me something new to look forward to each day, even if it does remind me of my ignorance.
Most of us are familiar with negative space, or the space that surrounds a subject within a frame. Much less contemplated, but equally important, is the space between subjects. It may be the space between trees in a forest, boulders on a beach, people standing in a park, or stems in a bouquet of flowers.
Choosing subjects with interesting interior spaces (above) or carefully positioning the space between subjects (below) can result in graphic, eye-catching images. Sometimes it is just a matter of moving your camera a hair to the right or left, up or down. Or perhaps you move your subjects—shifting a stem or person just a bit so that they don’t overlap visually with the others.
With people, the space between them often reveals a great deal about their relationship—whether they are intimate or distant. Even inanimate objects can take on almost-human characteristics based on the way they relate (leeks, below right)—though the space between them usually has more to do with clarity and distinction. Sometimes that space or the way your subject is highlighted by that space can create a sense of rhythm in the image (willow branches, below left).
Even when elements overlap, as they typically do in nature, minimizing the overlap can make a big difference. In addition to moving around a subject, sometimes you can move in closer to eliminate distractions. And a simple background—whether a solid wall, field of grass, sky or blurred area—can help highlight these interior spaces.
Learn to look for that space between—especially when shooting objects with points and lines. This week, when you go for a walk, look for groups of subjects. Walk around them, seeing how their relationship changes as the space between them changes. If sitting at a desk, try rearranging the pencils in your pencil cup or a glass as an exercise in seeing. Can you find arrangements that work better than others based on the space between them?
Some concepts are most easily defined by what they are not. Simplicity may be one of those.
Simplicity is not confusing, complicated, intricate or ostentatious. But neither is it plain or boring. Perhaps, instead, it is just enough. Just enough to tell the story. Just enough to catch your eye or take your breath away. Simplicity done right can leave a lasting memory.
Simplicity is not the same as minimalism, though minimalism may be a form of simplicity. Simplicity is a way of seeing and communicating. Minimalism is a style. Simplicity has more to do with capturing the essence of your subject than minimizing design elements, though it may do both. Achieving simplicity should look effortless (though it often is not).
In a world that has grown highly complex, simplicity appeals to our soul, as well as our senses. It has the power to give our eyes, minds and hearts a moment of pause. It has to do with clarity of thought, vision or emotion. You know immediately where to look in the image. Distractions have been eliminated and the composition leads you right to the point. To create a simple photograph is to remove the clutter and confusion—to edit out everything that isn’t essential to the message.
There is no one way to achieve simplicity in photography. In fact, the various ways in which photographers do this tends to be one of the key elements of their style. But if you are struggling to simplify your images, just as most photographers do when learning their their craft, here are a few strategies to help along the way:
- Know what compels you. Make that the clear focus of your image.
- Clarify your message. Edit out everything that doesn’t contribute meaningfully to that message.
- Seek out what Edward Weston called the strongest way of seeing. Change your perspective Explore different points of view. Move around your subject. What works best?
- Search for simple scenes with fewer elements—more masses, fewer points and lines.
- Move in closer. In complex or chaotic scenes, focus on details rather than the big picture.
- Move back to give your subject breathing room. This can be especially effective if you have clear blue skies, a field of green, a sea of water or a solid wall as a backdrop. It's a great way to work with fog.
- Minimize your depth of field, blurring undesirable or distracting backgrounds.
- Simplify your color palette. Soft color harmonies, a single spot of color in an otherwise neutral scene, or bold color contrast can make a greater impact than a rainbow of colors.
- Shoot in black and white. It eliminates color as a distraction and allows forms, shadows, strong lines or tones to shine instead.
- Clean up your edges. Look around the frame before you click the shutter and again when you are editing the image. Make sure there is nothing there to pull your eye back out of the image. Keep your focus where it matters most.
Do you have other strategies for achieving simplicity and clarity of vision in your photographs? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
We don’t get much snow here in the South and having a big snow before New England has its first snow is, well, pretty much unheard of. But it happened this year. Here in North Georgia, we had 6 inches or more, with some locations reporting as much as 12 inches, before the storm headed on up the coast. It was a beautiful, heavy and unexpected snow. (The forecasters said “an inch at best” and “it won’t stick.”) For the most part, roads were clear in a day but the snow lingered on lawns and shrubs for all to enjoy. For most, it added a cheerful note to the holiday season. With the days so short, it was nice to have them so bright with all of the reflected light.
I wandered around our neighborhood with my camera the morning after the snow. I didn’t shoot much—just trees and a few snowmen—but it was wonderful to be out in the crisp air and to see what the neighborhood children were up to. I hope that during the holidays, you can take a break to get outside for some fresh air and to take a look around. The bare tree canopy is especially revealing and birds are much easier to spot as they fly about looking for food. I also love the textures of dried flower heads, ornamental grasses, and seedpods in the garden this time of year. If there is snow on the ground, be sure to look for tracks while you make your own.
I’m off to the mountains of North Carolina for a few days to spend some time with family. I hope you enjoy your own celebrations in whatever way you find most meaningful. Happy holidays!
Creative opportunities come in many shapes and forms, not just in art. For me, one of the most satisfying of those is teaching. My workshops are as much about exploring the creative process and developing a personal vision as they are about photography. I especially enjoy the five-day intensive format—workshops in which you have an opportunity to take a deeper dive into a subject. There is something very magical about this format that you just can't experience in a one-day or weekend workshop (though they, too, have their place). With a weeklong workshop, you have time to learn, practice and get feedback on new skills; to develop your eye and explore your personal vision; to bond with and learn from classmates; and to take your work to the next level.
I have set the dates for my winter/spring workshops and hope to announce my summer/fall workshops soon. Here's what's on tap so far:
NATURE REVEALED: Photographing Plants and Nature in the Studio
January 28 - February 2
Why put your camera away just because it's cold outside? You can photograph flowers, seedpods, shells and other items collected from nature year round in the studio. In this workshop we’ll explore easy ways to setup a small studio in your home; working with natural light, continuous studio lights and other creative lighting techniques; locating and using backdrops and props; arranging still life settings and more. We'll also discuss collecting and preserving materials throughout the year to photograph later in the studio. This is a small workshop for no more than six students, held in my own studio, with access to my props, materials and equipment. In addition to my own botanical and nature collections, we'll bring in fresh flowers to photograph. In addition to group instructions, there will be plenty of time for one-on-one support and daily image reviews. There is a logical progression to the introduction of studio and still life photography skills, but creativity, personal expression and work on a personal project are encouraged. Come prepared to play!
THE INTIMATE LANDSCAPE: Amelia and the Southern Sea Islands
Fernandina Beach, Florida
Explore your personal creative vision amidst quiet beaches, expansive marshes, shady maritime forests with windswept oaks, a charming Victorian town and unique historic sites such as Fort Clinch and Kingsley Plantation. Discover new ways to connect more intimately with the landscape and capture a sense of place. Amelia Island, our base for the week, is the northernmost barrier island among Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Along with Big Talbot, Little Talbot and Fort George Islands, it forms the southernmost of the Sea Islands that run from the Santee River in South Carolina to the St. John’s River near Jacksonville. We'll shoot each morning and late afternoon/evening, with image reviews and classroom discussions mid-day. [Note: Only a couple of spaces remain in this workshop. All rooms must be booked at the Amelia Seaside Inn before January 15. If you are interested, sign up now!]
Tap your creative potential and explore your personal vision in Santa Fe—the country’s most unique city—and the surrounding high desert of New Mexico. Experience the richness of Native American, Hispanic and Anglo culture; explore the ruins of historic Puebloan communities that date back to 100-1600 AD; discover the magical light in slot canyons formed by wind and water; and delight in the colorful hillsides and adobe structures that drew O’Keeffe and other artists to the high country. With Santa Fe as our base, you’ll have ample opportunity to roam the streets of America’s oldest capital city. Home to hundreds of art galleries, inspiration abounds. We’ll visit photography galleries, feast on southwestern cuisine, and photograph both iconic and lesser-known natural and historic sites. [Note: This workshop is full. I am exploring the possibility of adding a September workshop in Santa Fe, so please drop me a line if you are interested.]
I would love to see you at a workshop in 2018. And if you know someone else who might be interested, I hope you will share this email with them. Thank you for your continued support and interest.
What others are saying about the workshops:
"Thanks again for all your efforts last week. You have an uncanny skill to tune into individuals very quickly and to offer insightful comments and observations. Of course, your teaching skills and approach are fabulous. We were all amazed at your boundless energy and enthusiasm as well as your personal attention to everyone and details, large and small." - Janet Bly
"Thank you for another fabulous workshop. Your workshops and teaching make me a better photographer and artist. The combination of technical information combined with a focus on the creative process elevates my skills and approach to photography. I returned home with a revitalized sense of seeing. I am seeing images I did not see before, and I have a heightened confidence to photograph in the studio. Moreover, I felt freedom and inspiration within the environment that you created for our workshop group. We thrived under your direction! Thank you so much!" - Ruth McCully
"The workshop was without a doubt one of the best things I've ever done for myself. This opened up a whole new level of thought and ideas with me which is exactly what I was hoping for. Your direction and teaching skills were just great. What I liked most was how chill you are with everyone and how your patience never waned." - Lori Carroll
Among Edward Weston’s best-known images is Pepper No. 30. In other words, this was not the first pepper Weston photographed. There were at least 29 pepper photographs that preceded it. According to his journals, he actually photographed in the ballpark of 50 peppers over a period of several years. Fifty pepper sounds ambitious even in today's digital age, but this was the late 1920s and Weston was shooting 8x10 sheet film. One of the things I find interesting is that Weston thought he had exhausted his options before he took Pepper No. 30. But then he came across a tin funnel, thought it might make an interesting container for the pepper, and decided to try again.
Single-subject studies are sort of like small projects. They are a great way get to know a subject thoroughly, to photograph it in many different ways. Each step of the way, we hone our skills and way of seeing our subject. And when we think we’ve exhausted the possibilities, it is important to continue working. We can’t make breakthroughs if we simply stop at the walls. We must keep pushing through and exploring other ideas. We must ask questions such as, “What if?” and “How else?” Often it helps to take a break, as Weston did. In doing so, we have a chance to relax, to begin to make new mental connections between unrelated ideas, or to stumble upon something else that might work (much as Weston stumbled upon the funnel).
I’m down on Amelia Island this week, and one of the things I’m doing is a study of sand patterns. I’m finding they vary greatly from one beach to another, in different light, and at different tide stages. Patterns formed by the wind are found more often in or near the dunes, while those made by waves are found on the beach. The key to emphasizing most patterns is strong side lighting, which can be found when the sun is coming up and going down. And there is significant room for interpretation when it comes to exposing and processing images—as long as you hold detail in the highlights.
The more I photograph sand patterns, the more I learn about them, the more easily I see them, and the more proficient I become in capturing them in my own way. What kind of study might you work on, even if it is just for a day?
I’d rather shoot one fine photograph than 100 mediocre ones. The catch is, we sometimes must take 100 shots of something before we nail it. Okay, perhaps that is an exaggeration. Then again, Imogen Cunningham reportedly took 100 shots to produce her iconic magnolia blossom photograph.
However many photographs it takes, the point is that if something is worth photographing, it is worth taking the time to photograph it right—to get an image you are genuinely pleased with. Too many times, we take a shot or two and then move on without having fully explored the possibilities of our subject. Far too often, we leave the best shot behind: We’re in a hurry. There are other shots to get. Someone is waiting on us. We’re hungry. We were intrigued, but distracted and not fully engaged. And then there are things like clouds, light or people that aren’t as cooperative as we'd like. I know, it’s hard to wait on clouds to or people to do their thing, but it can mean the difference in a publishable and non-publishable shot, something you hang on your wall or stash in the trash.
We need to slow down and study our subject like a painter might. We need to look at it from different perspectives—taking time to walk around it, move closer, move away, look underneath and look down from above, as possible. We can try photographing it with different lenses or at different shutter-speed and aperture combinations. We can add a filter, alter the light, or change some element of the composition.
And that’s just the beginning, because then we have at least as many choices for how we interpret the image during processing and printing. But you’ve got to nail that image first. I challenge you: For the next week, for everything you photograph, photograph it ten different ways. If you like photography because it helps you to see the world around you in new ways, you should love this exercise.
One of the take-home assignments I gave to my recent workshop participants was to identify three to five photographers or other artists whose work inspires them. They were to study the work of these artists in detail to determine what, exactly, resonates so strongly with them—whether subject matter, color palette, emotions conveyed, approach to composition or other element. I believe that looking more closely at work that resonates with us can help us to explore and develop our own sense of style.
Are we drawn to more traditional, contemporary or painterly styles? Do we prefer work that feels spontaneous or painstakingly executed? Are we drawn to black-and-white images or color? What kinds of color palettes or toning? Straight, realistic photos or more artistic images? Do we find soft, subtle lighting or bold, high contrast light more appealing? What kinds of moods conveyed resonate most deeply with us? Do we get more excited by the simple or complex? The real or metaphorical? The architectural or organic?
As we begin to answer these questions, I find it is also helpful to explore the why of our responses. Why are we drawn to subtle, moody lighting? Why do we prefer primary colors on white backgrounds? Why do we find contemporary urban landscapes more interesting than grand landscapes in nature? This is a chance to explore our own experiences, personal tastes and responses to the world around us.
And eventually, we need to explore the how. If these are elements and approaches that speak to us, how can we better work those aspects into our own photography? Do we need to shoot more on overcast days? Have our models wear different clothing? Develop a new color palette for still life subjects and backdrops? Print on a more textured paper? Give cyanotypes a try?
If you’re looking to refine your visual style, give this exercise a try. I’d love to know if you find it helpful or make any interesting discoveries.
I used to think that the act of taking a photograph itself forced you to slow down and take a closer look at things. While I still believe it is one of the key benefits of photography, the automation of camera operations and the proliferation of camera phones has changed this dynamic. It has become easy to grab a shot or even a video on the go.
Still, I believe most of the best photographs come from an immersion in the process, from paying greater attention to our subjects—no matter what kind of camera we use. When we slow down, we experience a place more intimately. If we are photographing people, we have the opportunity to make a real connection that can lead to greater understanding, empathy and insight. When photographing nature, we not only see things more clearly, we begin to discover the magic and mystery of plants and animals, the wonder of nature's design and the interconnectedness of everything around us.
“Only the obvious is seen quickly and clearly. “
- Rafael Rojas
Moving slowly through this fast-paced world we live in is not an easy thing to do. Even when we take time off and go on vacation, we have a tendency to do too much and do it too quickly. Most of us see how many different sites we can visit rather than slowing down and spending time in one place. When we move through a place quickly, we tend to see things from the same point of view as other tourists and photographers. It is only by slowing down, experiencing a place and getting to know its habitats and inhabitants that we begin to gain true insight and understanding.
In landscape photography, it takes time and a conscious effort to capture a sense of place—to photograph not only what a place looks like, but also how it makes us feel. It requires slowing down long enough and looking deeply enough to get beyond first impressions. In fact, I believe it is about more than seeing; it is about experiencing a place with all of our senses and our full, undivided attention.
If we want to create unique landscape images, we must slow down long enough to see what others have missed. Can we capture not only the physical elements of a landscape, but also a particular moment in that landscape? Can we photograph not only the broad views, but also seek out the details that, together, make a place whole? Can we shed light on the history and culture of a place?
Like others, I move too quickly through the world and through my days. I once thought the goal was to see how much I could experience, but these days I'm seeing greater value in slowing down and trying to focus more deeply on fewer things. It's not easy, but it is enjoyable. I'm seeing more things by going fewer places.
Alexa is 10 years old, although she told me she only looks like she is eight. I disagree, but I also digress. At a recent art festival, Alexa visited my booth three times. Each time, she studied my encaustic photographs. She asked about my process, why I photographed plants, how long I had been taking pictures and what the stories were behind the images. "There are always stories behind pictures," she said.
I told her about how I thought plants had personality, and that I approached plant photography as a form of portraiture. I shared my nicknames for a few images—the runner, the mad scientist, the ballerina and birds in flight. She liked that.
Just out of curiosity, I asked what she saw when she looked at my photographs. Without skipping a beat, she talked about how the "veins" in a photo of a big-leaf magnolia leaf looked like roots, and that these roots were grounded, creating a feeling of calm and safety. Not exactly what you'd expect to hear from a 10 year old. And yet, it served as a powerful reminder of two things:
First: I believe 10 is the perfect age. As a camp counselor, I once had a cabin of 10-year-old girls. They constantly surprised me with their insights, ideas and determination to act grown up. Five minutes later, they'd want to hold my hand on the way to the dining hall.
And second: The photographer or artist is not the only one with a story. Viewers bring their own insights and interpretations to work. They may see something entirely different from what the creator sees. And that's not only okay, but good. It means viewers have forged their own connection with a piece—connections that are often rooted in memories and emotions. And it is why we should not be so quick to explain our work unless queried.
Thank you, Alexa, for that reminder and for making my day.