I seek out places where it can happen more readily, such as deserts or mountains or solitary areas, or by myself with a seashell, and while I’m there get into states of mind where I’m more open than usual. I’m waiting, I’m listening. I go to those places and get myself ready through meditation. Through being quiet and willing to wait, I can begin to see the inner man and the essence of the subject in front of me. ~Minor White
It seems to me that people who love the outdoors and spend considerable time in the wild fall somewhere between two extremes: those who go to places to do things in them, and those who go to places to be in them. I am the latter.
Among those who venture out intending to do things you will find mountain climbers and mountain bikers, river runners and trail runners, skiers and birders, and yes—most of those who may describe themselves as avid nature or landscape photographers. In common to all is that they often define themselves by their allegiance to some tribe founded around an activity: I am a climber; I am a hiker; I am a photographer.
Among those who venture to places to be in these places—a minority to be sure—you will rarely find such clear-cut allegiances. Here you will find more nebulous self-characterizations: mountain bums and desert rats, artists and wanderers, and no small number of those who eschew labels altogether: I am me; I do what I love; I am a member of the community of life; I am more than I can begin (or care) to explain.
Among the do crowd, there are those seeking the thrill of “extreme” activities, and among the be crowd you will find those satisfied with the mere sensation of deep peace that, ironic for a social species, can only be accomplished in disconnect from the human world—virtual and artificial even without the aid of computers. Here, too, I am among the latter.
I often wonder if the need for extreme thrill in concentrated doses is an inevitability for those who yearn for the wild but are forced by circumstances to spend the majority of their days in professional and/or urban confinement, and feel a need to pack as much as possible into short forays. I indulge in such “extreme” activities on occasion, but only as a means to an end. I am a mediocre and ungraceful climber, and can use a rope when walking is not an option; I can usually emerge upright from moderate river rapids in my kayak; and I can drive an off-road vehicle over challenging terrain. But I never partake in these things for their own sake, only as means to other experiences: ways to get to places worth getting to, so I can be in them.
Outdoor photographers, like other enthusiasts of wild places, naturally fall somewhere along the doing/being continuum, too. There are those who venture out primarily to pursue photographs, and are disappointed if an excursion does not yield “keepers;” and those who wander the wild with no expectation or plan, in hope of discoveries, revelations, and meaningful experiences, and for whom a photograph, should one even present itself, is a bonus—a fortuitous expression of an experience worth remembering: something felt, and not just something seen. You probably guessed it: I am the latter.
It may seem odd for a so-called “professional” photographer to treat making photographs as a secondary (at best) priority when going about the world. Indeed, I have heard the argument that planning yields results and that “photography by walking around” is an unproductive mode of work. Alas, while perhaps a handicap to my inner photographer, to me the walking-around part is considerably more important and satisfying than the photography part. And planning, I find, is perhaps the best way to deny myself the thrill of discovery—and the thrill of knowing that discovery is possible—without which my experience is greatly diminished.
Without the depth of thought and feeling experienced in the course of random wandering, punctuated on occasion by a surprise encounter with something unexpected, it is unlikely that I’ll be motivated to make photographs to begin with. I don’t want to make pictures of things; I want to make pictures about things—the kind of things that elevate my life. No experience—no pictures. At least not ones I find sufficiently satisfying to warrant the hassle of carrying a camera.
Such is the danger of labels. Those who consider me only as a photographer, let alone a “professional photographer,” may find some value in my work, which I certainly appreciate, but they will not understand my reasons for pursuing it. This is not to imply that there is anything “wrong” with such perceptions, only that they are incomplete, and in my opinion worth venturing beyond.
In appreciating the works of others that I find interesting and appealing, I’m always interested to know the context in which these works were created: the motivations, the thoughts, the emotions, and the sensibilities that brought them into being. Some in the so-called “art world” may bristle at such an admission. To them, a work is to be understood on its own merits, require no explanation beyond what is integral to it—art for art’s sake. But my experience is that such formalism ultimately is a severe limitation when it comes to the depth of meaning that one may find in a work of art.
To those concerned with the “professional” aspect of what I do, I suggest this: of the many reasons and ways to make a creative, expressive, work; whether or not the maker is a professional should matter very little to anyone other than the tax authorities.
I am a person who appreciates and does a lot of things, some to generate income and some to make my life richer and more interesting. Certainly, there’s a degree of overlap, but more important is how the two balance and feed off each other: what I do makes me a more inspired person, and being inspired makes me want to do more. And I know from experience that this cycle breaks when the two activities—those that generate income and those that enrich life—are not pursued in proper proportions or without sufficient investment of time and self.
It is a tragedy that our species, endowed with such depth of intellect and emotions, often is enslaved by our more primitive drives: competition, possession, tribalism, and so on. As a result, many measure the worth of their physical life by hedonic comforts, and live their emotional life vicariously through the experiences of (sometimes fictional) others. In realizing such things, rather than consider a change of course, some further handicap their living experience by extinguishing doubts and emotions with cynicism, and by accepting as given such things as anxiety, dissatisfaction, and conformity. It is becoming tragically clear that our intellectual superiority over other life has become a sword sharper than we can be trusted to wield.
It is Tuesday morning and these words come into my mind as I gaze into a canyon of astounding scale and beauty. I occupy a vantage point that no human has likely had in decades, perhaps centuries. The air is heavy with the sweetness of flowering cliffrose and mahonia; the silence interrupted by the occasional chirping of birds and the whispers of desert breeze among the pinyon pines. Such thoughts rarely occurred to me on other Tuesday mornings, en route to some office or store, attending to the challenges and frustrations of traffic and people trying to go about their day, set against the audible background of an ever-present disjointed cacophony, and the distinctive smells of a human city. Despite engaging the senses, such experiences to me always felt like sensory deprivation when juxtaposed against the magnitude of feelings experienced in the silence and peace of humanless places—the places where I feel I belong—more so than anywhere else—and that I occasionally photograph.