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.
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.