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We all begin our journey in photography fascinated by the magic of capturing exactly what we see. We look for things we want to “shoot” according to our interests and circumstances. As nature photographers, we focus on landscapes, rocks, tress, lakes, and everything else we feel drawn to.

We often assume that if we simply react to nature and have the right gear, viewers will respond with the same enthusiasm we felt at the time of capture. However, it isn’t long before we realize that there’s something missing.

The camera has faithfully captured exactly what was in front of the lens, but we slowly notice void; a gap between our initial perception and what we now see on the monitor or print. We don’t recognize in the image what inspired us to press the shutter button. We may remember what that was, but it’s absent in any visible way.

This is a disorienting phenomenon because often simply looking at an image reminds us of the experience of making the image. And we might falsely conclude that the image does in fact convey a sense of the emotions we experienced. This happens more often than we want to admit, especially when we’ve invested lots time and energy in the field.

I certainly know what that feels like.

There have been times when I’ve visited a specific location day after day for five or six days straight, determined to capture a magic moment. The longer this goes on, the more susceptible we may become to a kind of confirmation bias. It’s a way of thinking that leads us to interpret things based on how we feel; what we want to believe rather than what reality tell us.

“I’ve put so much time and effort into this image, struggled to be in the right place at the right time…there’s no way this can’t be a good image.”

Another type of confirmation bias is when we witness an unbelievable scene; colors that seem unreal, magical light, rare cloud formations. We know these moments all too well because we wonder how anyone will ever believe our images haven’t been doctored or artificially enhanced!

“Did it really look that way? Did you add those incredible colors? Is this real?” My favorite is “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Once again the danger is in thinking that because of the unique experience, the image must contain some of what it felt like to be there. And if you add some good photographic skills, it’s even possible to make such an image. But how do we know that we’re not falling under the spell of nature and the emotions it created in us? Are we simply projecting those onto an image that is perfectly executed technically but still fails to engage a viewer emotionally?

Is the actual subject matter more important than than our feelings about the subject?

The question really becomes, did circumstances provide perfect conditions for a successful image, or can we as photographers and visual artists make successful images consistently over time? These are questions I have struggled with for over a decade, and for over two decades if I consider my music career.

Resting Place

This is where I think a particular definition of “art” can be helpful, one that resonated with my own experiences.

“An artist is someone who creates something that is meaningful to himself/herself and to others.” Maria Popova

That definition completely encapsulates what I have searched for and experienced in my own life. The crucial part is that if you only create meaningful things for yourself, then the opportunity to make a difference is lost. The gift of generosity is forsaken. And if you only create meaningful things for others, your inner creative fire is compromised and eventually dies out, as it did for me in music.

In order to feel whole, we need to feed both our inner sense of worth and our instinctive drive to be meaningful to others.

And so to return to photography, while me may feel an emotional attachment to an image because of our experience, it’s only when we see a reaction from others to that image that we feel whole as artists. At least that’s the way I want to use the precious time I have on earth, by trying to make things that are both meaningful to me and to others.

I’m not suggesting that we need others to validate our work, because that would be tantamount to placing our creative vision in the hands of others to shape for us.

It’s the work that we find most meaningful to ourselves that will resonate the most with others.

And so it starts with a deep sense of conviction in what we have to share. Then and only then can we start to tease out small bits of it through our growth as photographers; first through our mastery of the craft, and then through a life long exploration of our personal vision.

How does that translate to making individual images? An image that is too literal relies on identifying what the subject is. I tell my students that the names are just labels. Look at the what’s actually happening with light and shadow, colors, shapes, and the forms.

Then you will see more than just the landscape, you will start to identify the elements of visual design and strong composition. That is the beginning of capturing what you feel in a photograph. That’s also when other begin to resonate with your images.

“Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” – Robert Irwin

Questions or comments – please share. I always enjoy and encourage conversation.

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This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Wow, Robert, that was powerful. After I graduated from an art conservatory, I spent the next three years painting for commissions: creating pieces that were meaningful for others, but not for me. By the third year, I was burnt out and haven’t created another painting since.

    I don’t want to repeat that mistake with my photography, but I needed an anchor that you just provided: creating images that are both meaningful to me and that evoke reactions in others would make me feel whole as an artist.

    Thank you

    1. Thanks Craig for your feedback, and I appreciate your honesty. Don’t worry, much of my writing is a form of self-therapy, so you are not alone. We all need an anchor, and that can take many forms. The feedback I get here is a very powerful one for me, so I should thank you as well.

  2. I too have experienced the phenomenon of seeing something I think would make a good photograph only to be disappointed at the resulting image after transferring it from the camera to the computer. Heck, sometimes the disappointment comes as soon as I check the LCD on the back of the camera.

    But I have found the disappointment to be a starting point. There is a reason the scene resonates. Perhaps the emotional connection that sparked our response, colors our perception in such a way as to give us a peak of what the scene could yield if we did the work. The lens selection, aperture/shutter speed, composition etc. are the elements we use to influence the perception of the scene. If we aspire to be artist isn’t it incumbent for us to make a statement and evoke an emotional response?

    Yes, the camera will faithfully capture exactly what is in front of it and that works well for photo-journalists and documentarians who take a more reactive approach to shooting. But as a fine art photographer creating an image can be a journey unto itself. Sometimes you see the destination and sometimes you get a surprise.

    1. Thanks Mark, thanks for the feedback and your thoughts. Yes I agree with you completely about failure being the start of the journey – the things that makes it something worth pursuing. My point was that it’s only when we see past the “objects” that we can start to express ourselves in an images. As Ansel famously said, “the most important part of a camera is the 12″ behind it.”

      Many people are too focused on the things they capture instead of the the feelings they have for their subject, if any.

  3. Hi Robert, You have perfectly summed up a situation that I have often, and still do, fall into. The image stirs up memories and recollections of the time and place but nobody else has those memories and recollections. I have learned to be wary of “falling in love” with and image because the indifference of others can be quite hurtful and puzzling. On the positive side I now try to look at a scene and see what others could share. It’s not easy!



    1. Thanks Jake, it’s never easy for sure, but the meaningful things in life are always difficult to attain. Patience and persistence do pay off, and it’s the best investment you can make as a photographer by far.

  4. Hi Robert,
    Your articles are very insightful and useful. You are very generous sharing your expertise. After reading this last one in particular, I couldn’t resist the temptation to present you the following idea. I don’t know how much Spanish you know but if you do, I wish you could also think about sharing a Spanish version. I wish Spanish-speaking citizens around the world had the opportunity to have access to your thoughts on paper. My point is to invite you to think about the opportunity to write/translate your articles into Spanish (I wish more languages). If you agree with the idea, I could do the translation for free. I only want to receive credit for the translation. That is all I ask for. What do you say? Thanks for sharing your expertise. Arturo

  5. Creating a commissioned work is fine, whether you like the subject or not, because it offers you a challenge; something you can use as a learning experience.
    Creating something for yourself is preeminent because it is your personal growth as an artist. You set your own challenges and hope to obtain them. I think “seeing” is the hardest part of being a photographer. To see and successfully record something from a new angle is a never ending goal.

    1. Hi Doug – thanks for the feedback. While I totally understand your point, I would suggest that our greatest responsibility is to ourselves, regardless of whether we are working or hire or not. It reminds me of a great quote by Seth Godin:

      “If it doesn’t align with the thing that is your mission and you say yes then now it’s their mission. There is nothing wrong with a wondering generality instead of a meaningful specific but don’t expect to make the change you seek if that’s what you do.”

  6. “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.”
    This reminds me of Martin Buber’s book, I and Thou. Buber teaches that there are two basic relationships we can have: I-It and I-Thou/You. When we relate to something as “a thing or an it” we use names, concepts, categories, etc. When we relate in the I-You mode the relationship is not that of objects, but of direct experience and intimacy. I-You is a gift given to us. While we can try to grasp that relationship;it is a gift. Much like a Zen state of Satori.
    However, we can act in a way which invites the gift. Practice, technique, equipment, training etc. all place us so that we occasionally be given the gift of “I-You”. As Marianne Williamson suggests, if you want to be hit by a truck, you would stand in the road, not in the woods. If you want to give the gift of a photograph which communicates, place yourself in a mental/spiritual/Godly/-whatever place with your camera in hand.
    Thank you for your gifts to me.

    1. Thanks for the insights and basic ideas put forth by Buber- it is what I have tried to convey in my writings without getting too philosophical simply because once we are in the presence of a “gift”, there is only “presence” that is needed. While that sounds simple, it is in contradiction to our human nature to constantly think and “label.”

      Thanks for the kind words, always happy to help 🙂

      1. You are right.
        I think it like when your are musically “in the Groove” and someone in the audience connects with you. What a feeling! What a gift.

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