Simplicity Inside and Out


Snow Color, Hudson Valley / Olympus E-M1, 1/100sec @f/8, ISO 400, 100mm, no filters

“If you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity.” – John Daido Loori

For any given situation, a nature photographer is faced with a myriad of visual choices, yet there are usually only a few that actually correspond to what really excites and inspires. By that I mean that we look more than we see, and by doing so are often tempted to make images that are just images, which doesn’t correspond to what we feel.

Simplicity for me is trying to capture what matters, leaving the rest out of the frame. 

How do you know what matters? Pay careful attention to your emotions, to the way you react and respond to your surroundings. Then try not to filter them out with all of the self talk that often inhibits creativity – doubt, fear, self-judgement, distraction, and expectation. 

That’s the simplicity that can really offer a window into your personal vision without the baggage that fear brings with it. Of course that’s difficult to accomplish—I work at it constantly—but not impossible.

The complex is both the chaos of the landscape and our mental activity. Mastery is essential in both areas so that the creative side we all possess can grow and flourish. 

The Process of Starting

The process of composing a captivating image has to start somewhere, yet so often we’re not quite sure where to begin. The temptation to capture everything often leaves an image feeling isolated and detached from the original experience that inspired you. Consider that as photographers we are taking in information through all fives sense, sometimes consciously, but more often than not subconsciously.

One technique I use and recommend to help you gain some clarity about where to start is to ask yourself the following questions as you explore a location:

  • What do I notice?
  • What am I wondering about?
  • What does this remind me of?

You can also phrase them as statements:

  • I notice…
  • I wonder…
  • It reminds me of…

This type of exercise can often help to clarify your vision and start to notice what really interests you at that moment. The idea is to become aware of what you’re really seeing, and grab hold of any idea that might lead to stronger, clearer ideas.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says that curiosity is the key to that creative spark that we value and seek.

“But in that moment, if you can pause and identify even one tiny speck of interest in something, then curiosity will ask you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look at the thing a wee bit closer.”

How often have you turned your head to look at something just a bit longer, but decided it wasn’t worth the time to explore? It may not yield anything visually captivating, but it might also be the beginning of a compositional “thread” that leads to something meaningful.

Never underestimate your own sense of intuition and curiosity, it’s what makes you different from everyone else.

Twilight on the River

“The pictures which do not represent an intense interest cannot expect to create an intense interest.” – Robert Henri

Familiar landscapes can seem limiting, and they often are if approached in the same way. But light is always dynamic, with infinite possibilities for tonal and color variation, and for discovering the undercurrent of a place or subject. 

The undercurrent is something famed painter and teacher Robert Henri talked about often, contrasting it with surface appearance which may be “novel and attractive at first, but soon grows  tiresome.”

He suggests that every potential subject has this undercurrent, which comes from the personal experience of the artist, the emotional attachment to the subject or moment. It’s this moment that I refer to often, because it’s the only thing I think matters for any real connection to the viewer.

Light continually generates new and exciting experiences for me regardless of where I am. And it’s that combined with study, curiosity, and living life fully that makes an image captivating. 

 

The Creative Habit

 

Creativity is an act of courage. If it’s not, then nothing of value is being communicated. At least that’s always how I’ve tried to approach my work as a photographer, a musician (in a past life), and a writer. In fact, it’s what convinced me that it was ok to call myself an artist.

That didn’t come easily. I resisted that term for a long time because it sounded lofty, an ideal I couldn’t possibly live up to. But slowly I learned what it really means to be an artist, something I didn’t fully understand before.

I’ve learned that as an artist, what matters most is not how good the art is, but rather that I’m living a creative life. That’s the thing that keeps me going, keeps me inspired, makes me feel I’m using my precious time wisely.

If an artist must create, then that’s what I am, because it’s been the single driving force in my life. What I create changes, evolves, is sometimes fleeting and other times more permanent. But it’s really irrelevant to the act of creating, which is where the drive continuously leads me.

I think that’s why I write, and photograph, and draw, and teach. Each practice opens another door, or leads me further down the unknown path I must explore. But that’s what I enjoy the most—the surprise, the experience, the knowing that I’m doing exactly what I must do—for myself and more importantly for others.

You could say that an artist is someone who has made creativity a habit. What results from the habit is sometimes good, sometimes disappointing. Every once in a while there’s a spark and a creative fire takes hold.

The habit is where we can discover what it means to be an artist. It’s where your purpose is born. Do you have a creative habit?

“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” – John Cleese

The Privilege to Share

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While I approach every photo shoot with equal amounts of creative energy and dedication, the work I am most proud of is that which contributes to conservation and protection of the environment.

It’s hard to describe how grateful I am for the opportunity I have had over the past eight years to be a part of the amazing team at Scenic Hudson. In operation for over fifty years, Scenic Hudson is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the natural resources in the Hudson Valley, where I’ve lived for the past twenty years.

My journey with Scenic Hudson began when their publications manager saw some of my work at a local art show, and asked if I could share some of my images for online promotional purposes. A few weeks later I handed them a CD with most of my Hudson Valley photography.

You might be thinking several things at this point, such as “that was crazy,” or “that was an awfully risky thing to do.” I know because these thoughts crossed the back of my mind as well. The most important question for me at the time however was, is this the right thing to do? And on every level that I could think of the answer was a definitive yes.

Many of my most visited and photographed locations existed in large part to Scenic Hudson’s efforts. That alone seemed a good reason to share.

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I also felt profoundly passionate about their values and their efforts to conserve the environment in the Hudson Valley, both for the aesthetic and practical benefits. It’s something I wanted to be a part of, where I could donate my time and energy to benefit current and future generations, starting with my children.

Study after study has shown the benefits of spending time in nature for individuals and communities. Scenic Hudson also helps support the local farming industry, which create jobs, provides whole food for local communities, and is beneficial for the environment in general.

Finally, my decision also hinged on the integrity of the staff members I interacted with at Scenic Hudson. On this point there is no doubt—they have been some of the most dedicated and professional people I have ever interacted with, and I am extremely proud and grateful to call them friends.

That’s not a title I give out lightly, and eight years later I continue to appreciate how valuable that is in this world of wide but shallow human connections.

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Scenic Hudson publishes a yearly annual report, and it features many images showcasing the farms and landscapes they’ve protected. It includes images I capture on specific assignments they give me throughout the year. 

They are often hard to access, visually challenging, and have limited time constraints either because of deadlines or weather. While I’ve used drones more frequently to help in very hard to access locations, a camera in hand is still my preferred way to approach any landscape.

For me it’s still the best way to become familiar with a location and achieve the goals that Scenic Hudson has for the images; to celebrate the beauty of nature and make an emotional connection with the viewer. That helps with critical donations, the necessary requirement for any non-profit.

While this places a certain amount of pressure on me and the images I need to capture, I use the same techniques I share here and on workshops; light first, strong composition, and an emphasis on conveying the story of a place.

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Why is this location special? What is essential and what is not? How can I best convey the details within the overall setting? And finally, what do I see and feel as the photographer?

Doing this kind of work on a regular basis has been hugely influential in my ability to eliminate the excess, and focus on the essential in terms of gear, my creative mindset, and in composition. The creative limitations have forced me to become more creative, and that has been my greatest teacher.

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I will be sharing and discussing many of the ways this work has helped me become a better photographer over the years, and hopefully they will fuel your own creative work. But more than that, I hope they inspire you to consider donating your time and energy as a visual communicator to a worthy cause.

There’s no better feeling from my perspective.

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