How much of your photography is about getting the picture, and how much is about the experience? Photography should be (my opinion) about more than just pictures. It can be and should be, an experience and even a lifestyle.
The picture verses the experience was often pretty even for me, but I never lasted long with a photographic subject, if the experience didn‘t match the images. I was able to immerse myself in nature. I enjoyed “being” in nature, and being around my subjects, as much as I enjoyed getting the picture. Even back when I was an auto racing photographer, the speed, the competition, the color and sound of car racing was equal to my desire to get the picture. I also love old things like old cars, trains, boats and especially buildings. I’ve photographed a lot of old buildings in my life. Those times were great experiences. When I photographed weddings, outdoor portraits, and things like silver wedding anniversaries, my heart was never in it. I did a decent job, but I didn’t want it to last forever the way I did when I was in nature. In fact, I usually couldn’t wait for it to end.
The great thing about loving your subjects just as much as you love creating pictures, is that you are never disappointed for very long. You always have the experience, no matter what your photography results are. You know that if your images do not turn out the best, there will another day, because you want to be there, with or without a camera.
There are photographers who do good work with subjects that they could care less about. That might mean they are great photographers, but it might also mean that their image making, is all about themselves. I believe in injecting a part of yourself into your pictures, but I also want to believe in the subject.
There is no better scenario, than the marriage (please America, do not take that literally) of a photographer and the subjects he/she photographs. You give to your subjects through your fascination, reverence, and gentle kindness, and they share with you their power, their beauty, and a glimpse into their life. For me that is true, whether your subject is a bird, a snake, or a rock.
I miss my subjects themselves, just as much as I miss interpreting the essence of those subjects, with my camera.
One of the great things about photography, especially nature photography, is that it motivates you to get out, if not to travel. That journey may be to the other side of the world, on a 5,000 mile trip around America, to a wildlife reguge 100 miles away, or to the field across the street from your house. Whatever destination beckons you, you can thank photography (and often nature) for a reason to go.
I’ve divulged on these pages before, that I made my first pictures when I was a kid on vacation with my parents in Yellowstone N.P. They were nature photos of a Black Bear mamma with her cub, and then of Yellowstone Falls. Wildlife and a landscape in my first attempt at photography. I returned to Yellowstone at 20 years of age with my wife. I of course showed her all I knew about that great place but I especially wanted to make the short little trip around the top of Mt. Washburn. The last time I was there, my Dad did the driving now it was my turn. The road was as I remembered it although I believe they’ve tamed it down now. You make (or made) a spiral turn around the top, to come to an open road. The road was narrow (thankfully one way) and it not only did not have a shoulder, but weaved in and out towards your car, as the edge was left the way the mountain (God) formed it. I carefully, but joyously drove my beloved Candy Apple Red 1968 Mustang around Mt. Washburn. It was a very brief drive but long enough to leave my wife in tears, which was probably my ulterior, or better said my interior motive, all along. I admit I enjoyed scaring my wife with side trips like that. My point is, that journeys bring you excitement and photography drives you to make those journeys.
As an aside, my wife needn’t of worried about that mountain jog. There was no way I was going to let that car tumble over the edge. As a second aside, a few months later, in a careless moment, I wrapped that same beloved Mustang around a fire hydrant in the city of Milwaukee after the master cylinder for my brakes failed. I knew the car had brake problems but there’s nobody quite as dumb as a young man in a bright red car.
Somewhere in or around the year 2,000, I was alone on a photo journey in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and decided to car camp in the Porcupine Mts. Wilderness. It had just gotten dark and there was nobody around so I pulled off next to a small stream. I took care of some necessary business and broke out the food and drink for supper. I was very tired and decided to abandon a plan to sleep outside to car. It was a cloudy night and there was rain in the forecast. When I sleep alone in places like this I sleep fairly well, but I do wake up at the slightest sound. I must have been pretty tired because when I did awaken, it was already getting light out. I got out of the car to take care of the same sort of business I had taken care of the night before, and low and behold, there were fresh bear tracks next to the car. On the passenger’s side of the car, there were also muddy bear tracks on the windshield. I followed the tracks to the little stream, and could see them appear again on the other side. I must have been really tired. I guess my deciding to sleep indoors worked out pretty well. It was the pursuit of images and adventure that put me in the right place at the right time, to have that experience. Even if I never actually saw the bear.
Pictures that tell stories are great, and one of photography’s first purposes was photojournalism. Whatever images might say to others, you can bet they remind the photographer about the story, or better said the experience that surrounded its creation.
I had one brief opportunity to photograph a wild Badger in the late 1980s while I was in Minnesota. No useable pictures resulted, but I never forgot the experience and always wished I would have another chance. In 2006 a friend and I were driving on a remote, dirt, mountain road in Colorado when he spotted something as we passed it by. We returned and there was nothing. I restarted my car and a North American Badger poked its head out of a roadside hole. We got off one or two brief pictures and as it disappeared. I fired the car up to leave and once again it appeared in the opening to the den. I was beginning to sense an pattern. For then next five or ten minutes, every time it would retreat, I would just start the car up again.
We got only serviceable pictures that day as there weren’t any great poses or action to be had. Yes we both knew that we could have moved the car for some distance, and kept restarting it, and when it reappeared, we could have likely gotten images of our friend doing things, or at least out in the open. We felt that we had invaded its world for long enough, so we (silently) thanked him/her and moved on. The memories of the experience are as fresh as if it happened yesterday, I only need to look at the pictures.
In 2007, within fifty miles of where the Badger pictures were made, I drove into Arapaho N.W.R. and quickly spotted my first White-tailed Prairie Dog of the trip. The more common Black-tails are cute (and chubby) but I love these little guys. I stayed in near-by Walden, Colorado for a few days and each morning I worked Arapaho. I photographed Jackrabbits, Pronghorn, Swainson’s Hawks, Grebes and a wide variety of other wildlife, but it was the B.T. Prairie Dogs that stole my heart. There were three or four among the thousands that I actually got to recognize and know. Every picture tells a story, if not to the world, to the photographer.
As many of you know, I spent a great deal of time, over a three year period with four different families of Red Fox. The kits you see below were from the one family I got to know the best. It is always an honor, to be allowed (by the animals) to work with one family of wildlife repeatedly. In the dead of night, Dad and Mom decided to move their babies to a more secluded place. I was sad but I certainly understood. Neither I nor my friends attempted to follow them. They had given us countless “experiences” of joy and it was time to let them be foxes.
Life on the road of photography is a sequence of experiences that that bring us pictures, and much, much more.
Monument Valley is heavily photographed and a world famous location. I had only one day, pretty much from sunrise to sunset to do what I could with MV. The Lord shined a light on me and I had a sunrise and a sunset, I had clear blue skies, blue skies with white puffy clouds, and storms filled with clouds. If it would have snowed, I would have had a year’s worth of variety in just one day. The one thing I did manage to do is photograph areas of MV, and the specific rock forms that I found there, that it seems everybody misses. The lesser known scenes of MV. With that said, your not going to a location like this, and ignore the most iconic landforms such as the Mittens. I did however, manage to juxtapose some of those legendary monuments, in ways I have never seen before or since from other photographers. How you photograph a place, will have much to do with the memories you create of your journey. It is those images, that will bring back the feelings and emotions that you felt at the moment of conception, or better said the clicking of the shutter.
White Sands New Mexico is a reasonably well-known location, although most landscape photographers skip it, or work there once and are disappointed. Unlike Monument Valley, I’ve worked White Sands three or four times, and it is my favorite landscape destination of all the National Parks and Monuments. Most people would say I’m crazy. I’ve never visited White Sands with another photographer. It’s always been me, and the sand.
There are many wonderful and impassioned straight up landscapes to be made here, and just as many total abstracts. I’ve done both of those things but I must admit, I fell in love with the “semi-abstract”. There’s little doubt in this picture that we’re seeing sand and sky, yet the application of contrast through my chosen exposure at the time I made the picture, reduces this to light, shadow and form……with a touch of sky.
All sand dune locations are wonderful, and I always suggest that photographers, be they landscape, wildlife or macro shooters, or like me those who photograph everything, will be enchanted after 30 minutes or so of visiting these places.
Experiences garnered through photography, and the memories kept by those experiences, can be right near home.
The morning had not been one of my best. I wandered around the region near home for a couple of hours. The sunrise, was a bust, no birds of prey to photograph, there’s never an abundance of landscapes to be made here, not even any worthwhile insects to photograph. Nothing but a few scraggily old flowers. Then I looked at those same flowers with a “fresh set of eyes”, and within a few moments I felt great about my day. Nature takes days that lack in meaningful experiences, and turns them into a reason to be alive. Always stop and smell the roses, or the Purple Coneflowers.
As much as I love nature to lay in, to play in, and to create in, human history and what it leaves behind is a close second for me. It’s not always about the design of the building or car or plane, it’s about the feeling I get about those who lived there, or played there, or worked there. I am old enough that sometimes it’s about my personal memories.
When my parents and I were on our way to Yellowstone N. P., we stopped first at the Badlands (later to be a favorite of mine as a photographer) in South Dakota, and then moved on to Custer State Park. Instead of traveling as the crow flies, so to speak, my Father found a little dot on the map, called Scenic, South Dakota. It was out of the way but we wondered what visual wonders existed in a town presumptuous enough to call itself Scenic. Every single inch of the road traveled to get there was dirt. That included the streets, well, street, in Scenic. Now, Scenic was not created as a tourist trap that looked like a wild west town. Scenic was just what it was. One tiny little slice of Americana. A vanishing Americana. It had a gas station/general store ( no chain stores), a bar (saloon) of course, about eight houses and jail. The jail was made of stacked stone, a metal door, and a barred window. That one cell was the whole jail. We laughed at Scenic and told its story for years to come. It was an experience.
In 2005, I was making one of my many trips to the Badlands, and upon completion of my Badlands photography, I decided to rediscover Scenic. The trip and location was the same but alas, the road to and the street (now two streets) of Scenic were paved. The jail was gone and there was about three more buildings and maybe two more houses. I could see a failed attempt to make Scenic a tourist destination. I could also see the old saloon and general store, and both were out of business along with a feed (livestock) store. I spent maybe 15 minutes in Scenic, photographing those buildings. Scenic was now more of a real western ghost town than it was all those years earlier.
My journey to Scenic and the brief time I spent with her making pictures, was well worth it. In fact, you might say it was the greatest experience of the trip. Never drive around the Scenic’s of your life, they may be gone the next time you pass through.
Photographing lighthouses is considered by many to be a cliché. I never pay attention to such things, so I have photographed a lot of historic lighthouses. I believe, and yes it is unprofessional not to know via some files, that this one is in Door, County, Wisconsin. I do make traditional style pictures of lighthouses, but I’ve always found that the way most are constructed, with at least a building connected to a tower, they lend themselves to unique interpretations. Often they become studies in shape, texture and color. We’re back to semi-abstracts again. While I will admit, that my thoughts of making this specific photo are absent from my memory, dozens of great experiences still live in the recesses of my mind, only because of the experiences I gained while searching for and photographing, lighthouses.
All through history people have been saying, I grew up in a simpler time. I’m not sure if that is accurate or not, but I do know that the experiences you live on your photographic journeys, will take you back to what at least seems like a simpler time, and you will have pictures to help you relive it with others.
This old pavilion sits in a county park, next to a river and a waterfall, a few miles from the nearest (small) town, in Wisconsin’s North Woods. These simple and humble pictures that I made pretty much sum up the era they come from. If memory serves me, the building was built right after World War ll, and was used into the 1960s. I can imagine all of the ice cream, lemonade and hot dogs that were bought here. I remember pavilions like this. Memorial Day, The Fourth of July, and so on, made these places special. On this morning, I had the waterfall, the park, and the pavilion all to myself. Having the waterfall to myself seemed appropriate and proper, as I have experienced many of them in solitude. But at the pavilion? It seems to me that the sound of children pushing and shoving for a chance to get some popcorn or a popsicle, would be appropriate. I guess yesterday is just that. Thankfully, I took photo trips, and one way or another, I won’t forget.
The pursuit of image making brings us so many experiences. I can see, hear and smell those moments. Some of those experiences helped make me who I am, be that good or bad. Those roads to nature photography subjects sometimes had people on them, and many have become special memories to me. I believe God brought me to nature and photography. I was never going to be a world traveler, and I wasn’t necessarily the sort to meet lots of people. Those trails into nature made me a national traveler, and while the people I met might be few in numbers, they bestowed me with riches more important than money.
Next time your out with your cameras, think about everything the act of photography has given you. Make sure the experience and the journey, are at least as important as the pictures.
God Bless, Wayne