Photography and Place

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.

Seasonal Effect

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10 thoughts on “Photography and Place

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  1. “…attending to the challenges and frustrations of traffic…”. Okay, yeah, I know the article is not about that, but it made me laugh. In your town of Torrey with its 2016 census of 241 people… (And yes, I know you used to live in bigger towns, and yes, I know what the drive into SLC is like, but coming from the disgraceful traffic I drive in every day, this made me laugh.)

      1. Previous mayor- but had me chuckling and spilling my coffee. 🙂
        Enjoyed this piece- photography as a balance to inner emotion and keeping life distractions at bay. A tough challenge but worth every cent when the moments of inner peace come together in a place. An added bonus when there is a photograph to remember the experience.

      2. As Krista says, that’s our now late last mayor. Sadly…his bro (who can’t rely on crack or alcohol as an excuse) is running for provincial premier (equiv to state governor). And could possibly win. I may have to run away to the desert after all.

  2. It was a pleasure to read this at the start of a day! You’re not alone. For me, photography is mostly an excuse for being where I want to be.

  3. You write: “… I’m always interested to know the context in which [works] were created: the motivations, the thoughts, the emotions, and the sensibilities that brought [them] into being.” I infer that you mean this in a general sense based on reading some of your blog posts and your book, “More Than a Rock.” As one who learns from example, however, I can’t help but yearn for you to do this for an individual photo or set of photos. In other words given a photo what specifically were you thinking and trying to convey. Given where I am in my development it seems like this would be useful. Of course given where you are in your development you may know better. Regardless I enjoy your writings and find them helpful in my travels.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Josh!

      I actually wrote about this very topic for an upcoming article in LensWork. If you are a subscriber, watch for it in the coming editions. It is titled, “Lost in Translation.”

      The gist of it is that some things that are expressible in photographs are not necessarily expressible in words, and to limit one’s range of either making or appreciating art to what can be described in verbal or written language can be a barrier to a more complete understanding. Art is understood first intuitively, and only second factually.

      My thinking is that one can gain greater understanding of art (both factual and intuitive) by knowing about the artist. To know an artist is to become familiar with as much of what he/she chooses to share, and in whatever media (i.e., not just a single image or a single article but an entire body of work). To separate the art from the artist is, by necessity, to eliminate some dimensions of the work that may be critical to understanding it.

      I think Bill Jay expressed it well:

      “The more intensely the photographer struggles to place emphasis on subject matter so, paradoxically, the photographer reveals a personal attitude to life itself. This is never revealed in a single photograph. However, a body of work by a photographer begins to reflect back to the viewer the author’s relationship not only to the subject but also to a unique life-attitude.”

      1. This resonates with what I’ve been thinking about. You hear that “a good photo should tell a story” and when you hear Rafael Rojas talk there seems to be a significant story behind each of his images. I have begun to believe that this is actually very personal and that for me “More Than a Rock” is a better way to think of it. For some there may be a concrete story or set of thoughts that bring about a photo but for others it may be something incredibly hard to classify except to say that somehow the photo is about more than just what the subject matter is and in these cases understanding the person can shed more light on the photo.

  4. What you have written about being in the outdoors as opposed to doing has really touched me. As a resident of Utah, I have access to many stunning wild places. Typically, I like to visit my favorite places alone in the “off season”. Inevitably, when I return from such trips friends and family ask what I did and ask to see photos. I’m not a photographer, but sometimes feel compelled to snap a few photos. One of my annual rituals is a trip to Canyonlands and Arches over the new year. The silence of the vast empty Canyonlands is as deeply healing and peaceful as anything I’ve ever experienced. I cannot explain how completely I feel I belong to the land and the sky. I take short hikes but mostly listen and watch for hours. I am never bored no matter how many hours I stay in one spot. When I was younger I pushed myself to be a doer of hiking, backpacking, climbing, and snowshoeing, Now I usually don’t do much but a bit of hiking or snowshoeing when I am in the wilderness, and I always assumed I was just becoming lazier. Almost everyone around me is an avid doer. After reading your thoughts, I will treasure the experience of being in the wild even more, I think.

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