Two friends and I went on a photo trip a few months ago. We went to the Owens Valley to make landscapes. None of us is an accomplished landscape photographer. Our motivation was to have a good time together doing something we like to do.
Still, we were serious about it. We scouted locations during the day, figured out what where and when we needed to be to get what we wanted, got up well before dawn, got cold hands and feet, and didn’t complain. I took a digital camera modified for infrared photography, had a great time, and came home with some perfectly acceptable images.
Why the faint praise? I’ve never been much good with landscapes. Sure, I can assemble nicely-composed images, but so can lots of other people. The world is replete with wonderfully accomplished landscape photographers, and I’ve never been able to make images that rise to their standards. That’s OK; I make other kinds of photographs, ones with which I am deeply involved, and those don’t look like pale imitations of someone else’s work.
After I had returned from the trip and posted the pictures on my web site for friends and family, my son asked me what it was like doing landscapes after a long time away from them. As I thought about his question, I realized that the answer was complex.
Doing something for which I had low expectations was oddly freeing. Because I didn’t expect much in the way of results, the photographic stakes were lower. I couldn’t gain as much, but I couldn’t lose much at all. That left me free to enjoy the process unencumbered by worries about the outcome.
Working on a project that didn’t mean much to me emotionally or intellectually reduced the level of exhilaration and involvement, but there was still plenty of excitement. I didn’t notice it at first, but one of my friend commented on the sounds I would make while I was working on a picture, and how he could tell I was closing in on something good by the oohs and aahs. There is something stirring about putting together a composition, no matter what the subject, and just to be in the presence of the Eastern Sierras, still dressed in their winter coat of snow, got my blood pumping.
For the last three years I’m been the photographer for the Carmel Bach Festival. I’m about to start my fourth six-week stint. My work for the CBF has some things in common with my time in the Owens Valley. In both cases, I’m not trying to make great art, I’m just after pleasing images that, if they resonate with their audience, do so because I manage to get out of the way and let the subject of the photograph come through. It’s exciting for me to work with the musicians, and I get to hear some great music.
The surprising thing to me is that the how similar the process of trying to make pleasing images of beautiful, powerful, and dramatic subjects is to the process of trying to make art from ordinary subjects. It’s not surprising that the mechanics should be similar; in both cases my objective is to put a frame around the world, and deal with photography-induced variables like exposure, focus, and perspective, and well as distractions, mergers, color and tone in the world. But I wouldn’t expect both quests to yield the remotely similar levels of exhilaration, and both to depend so much on that feeling of tuning in to your subject and waiting for it to come to you.