This article was created from notes I prepared for a talk about my evolution as a photographer. I hope it may be useful to those pursuing a similar journey.
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Landscape: only your immediate experience of the detail can provide the soil in your soul where the beauty of the whole can grow. ~Dag Hammarskjöld
Like most photographers, art was not on my mind when I first picked up a camera. The transition occurred slowly, without deliberation or sudden epiphanies. For much of my life, art was a distant notion: I never played a musical instrument, never painted, and only visited museums on school trips. In school, I focused on grades; in the military on maintaining my sanity; in the academy I had no focus at all; and, as a young adult, my primary preoccupation became whatever job I happened to hold. With one glaring exception, I convinced myself that I loved whatever I happened to be good at and that earned me praise—being a good student, a good teacher, a good technologist, a good manager. The exception? I was never a good soldier.
I feel like I have been different people at different times. Still, one thread ties everyone and everything that I have ever been: the awe, fascination, and peace I always feel in wild places, away from the pettiness and banality of so many human endeavors, away from the cacophony of cities, away from the odd rituals of society. These places and my experiences in them remind me of myself, and allow me to be myself. They are where I go to heal, to set aside the bothersome tasks of life, to contemplate big questions and important decisions. Whatever forces dwell in such places never fail to provide me with solace when I need it, always elevate my spirit and allow me to think clearly and to feel without reservation or pretense.
For more than three decades, I’ve been making photographs on solitary explorations. Early on, I sought to just share with others the things I came across that I considered beautiful or interesting. I recall, after each trip, placing my exposed film in a paper envelope and slipping it through the night deposit slot at the local photo lab. After a day or two of nervous anticipation I’d pick up the developed slides and rush to find a quiet place to review them. For many years, other than my times in the wild, those were the most pleasurable moments of my photographic process. The wait sweetened the joy, and the slides were their own reward.
Along with a stressful career and the rise of what later became “social media,” came a dark age of creative adolescence. The frustrations of corporate life would not be contained to time spent at the office and, for more than a decade, bitterness infected almost all aspects of my life. Photography, practiced hurriedly and in short spurts, became a trophy hunt focused on the outcome rather than the experience. Despite insisting that photography was my “creative outlet,” in fact it was a means for commanding attention, for competing and impressing and making others envious. Perhaps some perversion of logic in my mind believed that if others thought I lived a meaningful and purpose-driven life, that was a good enough substitute to actually living a meaningful and purpose-driven life. The value I placed on my forays into the places I loved became dependent on the images I was able to bring back. I no longer “wasted” time idling in thought, admiring intimate subtleties, or contemplating life, as I have in my younger years, roaming alone in places that no longer exist. I was consumed by an incessant and insatiable quest for the next “keeper.” On any given outing, I was in a mad rush to get to the “right” place at the “right” time for the “right” light. And, sure enough, I got the “right” photograph, but I came back no more inspired than when I left. My images in those days were aesthetically pleasing but meant little as works of creative expression. Their appearance—bold and sharp, but lacking in grace, subtlety, and nuance—reflected the uninspired person I became. At times, I would come home from the most sublime of places feeling angry and bitter if the sunrise was not picture-perfect or if clouds did not materialize as I had hoped. In fact, my anger had little to do with photography and more with the visceral sense of the diminishing hours separating me from the Monday morning commute and the work week to follow.
But, on occasion, I still experienced meaningful moments. These often correlated with the rare opportunity to spend prolonged time away from the office, with times of great sadness or happiness that overshadowed for a period the nagging of mundane concerns, and with the pondering of important life decisions and significant events. Those images were of a different nature—they were distinctively quiet and somewhat abstract, the circumstances of their making infinitely more memorable.
I realized, not for the first time, the destructive effect of attempting to live as someone that I was not, forcing myself into the expectations of others, blindly accepting the imperatives of competition and one-upmanship dictated by the ever-rushed result-driven corporate life that consumed most of my waking hours. It took me some years to finally admit to myself that in my pursuit of financial success, I had strayed from the path I vowed to pursue after I left the military and my homeland. More important, I suppressed the memory of the reasons for these decisions—perhaps the greatest and most hard-won life lessons I ever learned.
One memorable Saturday, tired and frustrated after a long week at work, I sat on my basement floor with a large trash bag and several filing boxes filled with slides. Some hours later I had culled several thousand of them. As I studied page after page, memories came to life—times, both happy and sad; people and places and events and discoveries. From among the thousands of images of generic sunrises and sunsets and iconic postcard compositions, emerged the few that filled me with pride and sent my heart soaring; that reminded me of moments and lessons and experiences I cherished, and of everything that was important and memorable in those years. They were not images of grand scenes or majestic feats of geography and light. Rather, they were private mementos—simple and honest and quiet and profound. They were also reflections of someone that I missed—someone that I used to be and whose voice still echoed from the far recesses of distant memories. By the time I had gone through all the boxes and purged them of everything that was not me, I was in tears. With these realizations came a paralyzing fear that life as a professional adult may mean losing, for the rest of my days, the essence of the proud and defiant person who was willing to risk all for a chance at a meaningful life. I felt an overwhelming desire to return to the wild, humbled and grateful, in search of peace and answers and courage.
Shortly after, I resigned my lucrative corporate job and went to live in the desert. The (now considerably repressed) cynic in me is well aware of the myth of a thinker going into the desert for answers or redemption, and you will be well within your rights to stop here and dismiss it as a cliché. But if you are still reading I will give you at least one reason to continue, which is this: it worked.
I stopped photographing the same things that others did and began to venture into anonymous places—places that harbored secrets and quiet beauty, where new lessons awaited and where I could be by myself. On many such excursions I made no photographs at all, but I always gained from the experience. I sought remote settings where I could just sit and contemplate in quiet reverence. I spent nights under the stars for the sheer joys of looking out into the universe, listening to the sounds and silences of the wild and letting my thoughts wander. I ventured out in every kind of weather and terrain, not for the chance of “good” light, but to indulge in primal wildness, to exercise and saturate every sense as intensely as I could bear, and to savor the intoxicating taste of freedom.
More and more, my images reflected moods and stories, rather than places and things. I lost interest in all social and competitive aspects of photography and, instead, found my life enriched by the mere practice of it. I sought to learn about the things that made images meaningful and how I could better express the depth of emotion I felt when making them. It was then that I began to refer to my work as art without the nagging sense that it may not be worthy of the term. In embracing art, I gradually began to understand its power in articulating and expressing my most intimate and personal stories, to myself before anyone else.
I was a writer before I became a “serious” photographer, and I knew how much more expressive writing can be when the writer is versed not only in the descriptive powers of words, but also in their aesthetics. A good metaphor can express more in a sentence than didactic prose can express in an entire page. I already knew how to express myself creatively in words; and despite an ever-increasing interest in photography, writing still seemed to me a more distinguished medium for personal expression. In order to consider photography as important as writing, photography needed to transcend the limitations of language (for the philosophically-minded: yes, Wittgenstein had something to do with that realization): it needed to be able to express things inexpressible in words.
When I realized that I wanted to do more with my photographs than to document the places I’ve been to and the things I’ve seen, I found myself at a loss for direction. I knew the power of expressive images from previous encounters with great photography, and I set out to decipher what it was that made them so moving—the visual language in which they were expressed. In the beginning, I was like a toddler learning awkwardly to communicate my desires. I knew how to utter simple nouns and adjectives—tree, colorful, sunrise, pretty, rock—and, like a toddler, I also knew how to crank up the volume and demand attention through extreme perspectives and retina-scorching colors. But, these were not expressive of the intimate interactions I have with the wild. Like anyone learning a new language, I did not know how to express subtlety, complexity, and nuance; how to extend the scope of my visual stories beyond momentarily satisfying anecdotes. I wanted to widen the plots of my stories beyond simplistic utterances like “look at this view,” or “here’s something pretty.” I needed to expand my visual vocabulary—I needed to learn the visual equivalents of grammar and punctuation, symbols, metaphors, rhyme. I knew what a visual depiction looked like, but what does a visual poem look like? a visual novel? a visual haiku?
Of course, I knew how to make beautiful records of already-beautiful subjects. I also knew that I could impress with feats of skill and technology and artificial visual effects; but those were still far removed from the emotions, thoughts, and revelations I experienced and wanted to relay in my images, and that made them my stories, distinct from those of others who may have also visited the same places.
Searching for insight, I studied the journals and biographies of artists I admired, and academic texts about art history and composition and visual perception. Most of these were not specific to photography, and so I also learned a bit about the mechanisms of human vision, and bits from disciplines sometimes grouped together as “cognitive science” (particularly philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience). The more I read and researched, the more the language of images began to take shape. I discovered how visual relationships can translate into emotions, how the direction of lines can affect mood and imply motion and force, and how colors and angles and shapes and patterns and textures and visual relationships assume weight and meaning.
With the knowledge I acquired, I strived to create images that were more than just pleasing or interesting—images that could speak to my subjective impressions of, and in, the land, beyond just superficial aesthetics. I wanted to make images that reflected the lasting and complex relationships, evolved in the course of decades, that I have with places—a relationship as meaningful to me as any I’ve had with another person. I realized that I had to separate my own stories from those inherent in the things I photographed and to look inward.
My goal became to evolve my relationship with wild places; to experience and then to express in photographs the dimensions of my experiences that I found worthy of expression—moods, revelations, discoveries, inspirations, musings, and lessons arising from my encounters and interactions with the wild.