Over the past few months I’ve been trying desperately to figure out a big idea for my own artwork. I’ve come up with a variety of very satisfying projects for school, but I’m looking for some massive driving idea behind my landscape photography practice and I’m coming up frustratingly short because it’s a big thing to tackle. I’ve poked blindly around the borders of it in several recent posts, but my approach has felt too detached. I figured while out shooting this set (which I’ll talk more specifically about at the end of the post) that it would be worth examining and writing about why I take the kinds of pictures I do.
My life through middle school and high school was spreading a great amount of energy thin over a variety of topics and pursuits until I found something I really enjoyed and felt like I could entirely throw myself at, which ended up being photography. I remember the first time I considered taking up “serious” photography, was on a trip when my friend brought his Canon T2i. He showed me a bit about how to work it and what some of the numbers meant. I was thoroughly fascinated and took a few pictures. After the trip, I asked if we could hang out and go for a drive in the countryside to take pictures.
I was raised for the meaningful parts of my life in Harrisonburg, Virginia which sits in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley. It’s a rich farmland which falls between two mountain ranges within Appalachia. My friend and I drove around and took pictures of farms, of fields, of cows and corn and of each other. My photos were terrible, but I took them myself and I loaded the RAW files onto my computer and figured out a way to play with them in GIMP (which is, I guess easily put, a gimped Photoshop) and I thought I’d made some fine work.
It was a hell of a lot of fun.
Over the course of the summer I borrowed cameras from my friends and went out and shot and couldn’t get enough. It was a gratifying experience, I was turning out work that people said they liked, and I thought it looked cool, and my friends did it, and I enjoyed it. It was part experiential, part technical, it was a way of doing things and going places and showing something for it.
I worked all summer and saved up and on the last day of summer bought a Nikon D5100. I spent nearly every dollar I had and I actually tried to hide that I’d bought a camera from my parents for a few days (I remember they were at first somewhat shocked when I said I was planning on spending “around $800” on a camera). But, they found out, and they of course were reassuring that they weren’t mad and were impressed that I’d worked for so long and saved for this.
Over the next year and a half, I basically explored my surroundings with my camera. I was drawn out to the countryside because that’s what seemed interesting to me. Of course I brought my camera around other places, I shot in downtown Harrisonburg and Staunton, I took pictures of my friends, I made some money from senior pictures and later print sales, but essentially I used the camera as an excuse to explore my surroundings. I had liked driving through the country before I owned a camera and did photography, but I saw photography as a way of actively exploring the countryside and making a visual record of experience.
Through all of this I sort of developed a sense of craft slowly and informally. At first I was vehemently opposed to editing photos in any way. I suppose I was reacting to over-editing nastiness I saw online and didn’t want my photos to look so synthetic, and felt that leaving photos the way they came off the camera was the best way of accomplishing that. As would be my trend with many things in photography, I was only opposed to it until I learned to do it decently well and apply it with some taste.
It’s also worth noting that photography was an emotional escape for me, and still is. Looking back at my photos, if I were to catalog everything I’ve ever shot and try and line it up with the comings and goings of women in and out of my life, well, let’s just say I’m prone to better work when I’m already feeling something else strongly. Good mood, bad mood, wanting to impress someone, it’s all moved my work in some way or another. The simplest explanation I can find for this is that these drives through the country, even before the camera, were a way of getting my mind off things. I guess the easiest way of putting it is that emotions give me a sort of raw energy which gives a nasty feeling when I sit and let it stew, so photography has been one way of sort of channeling that into physical output and giving me some degree of relief and distraction.
Thematically, it’s difficult to trace a line of thought through my work other than “I want to make pretty photographs and the countryside is the prettiest thing near me”. My family always liked to camp, my dad forced my brother and I on hikes and I don’t think I could adequately thank him enough times now to offset the groaning and eye rolling at the time because it’s another practice I thoroughly enjoy. I guess my attitude towards nature which I was raised with was that it’s something to respected, protected, admired, and enjoyed. It’s best done in solitude or in good company (my dad likes to hike by himself and always preferred less travelled campgrounds with good trails nearby) and something I sort of came to on my own is that it’s a beautiful, yet powerful and dangerous thing.
When I was just a bit shy of 17, I took my car at the time, a 1993 Dodge Spirit, out for a drive after school one day in search of pictures and a bit of adventure. I drove towards the mountains on a road I’d been down once or twice, and saw to my left a sign that said “ATV trail, six miles”. It was a brown sign, which meant public access land, and six miles meant there was a whole lot of road. I always had to avoid private land and was grateful to find a scenic stretch of secluded public road, so I figured I’d have a go at it.
For those that might not know, there are trails which run through the mountains between Virginia and West Virginia (and, well, likely a lot of the mountains in populated Appalachia). These roads are varying degrees of maintained, and the first six miles were switchbacks up the side of the mountain were packed gravel with only slight washout here and there, nothing too treacherous. However, after the turnoff for the ATV trail, there was another road which led deeper into the mountain which was essentially an off-roading trail which led to private land and a hunting lodge. For some moronic reason I decided to keep going. Two miles down the road I decided to turn around after a great shake of my car. Attempting to turn the car around it felt like the transmission was slipping and I could barely get power to the wheels. I coasted down the hill, and at the bottom I stepped on the gas and nothing. No gears were getting any power to the wheels; my car was stuck.
I ended up having to hike eight miles back to the main road and used my last bit of cell power to (miraculously, under shoddy cell reception) text my dad where I’d turned off what road. It was late October and the sun set halfway through my walk. It was probably the most scared I’ve ever been, and it was entirely a result of the pursuit of photos and adventure. As a result of that trauma, I’ve gained a great respect for the indifference and power of nature. I have an apprehension of pushing myself past reasonable limits of my own endurance, the extent of daylight, my ability to navigate, or the abilities of whatever vehicle I’m in. However I also have that rush of seeing how close I can get to these limits, to explore and take risks and use photography to document this sense of trying, in a small way, to “tame” a small portion of what I feel is wild territory. Photography, too, can be thought of as trying to tame light into an artistic composition.
The end of high school and summer
In the spring of my senior year of high school was when I decided that I couldn’t think of anything that would make me happier than pursuing some career in photography. I started studying photography on my own, pursuant to personal development in my medium. Although I planned to go to school for photography, I’m a firm believer that the most meaningful learning comes from self discipline and willingness to engage material on your own. For me, this started as studying the first and best photographer that sprung to my mind, Ansel Adams.
I’ve talked at length about Ansel Adams, and I will a bit more in this context. I believe I began to study him because he was, in my mind, the pinnacle of success of what I was trying to do. He made outstandingly beautiful landscape photographs, and in reading about his life and his work, he made a name for himself as a great artist, and the public absolutely loved his work and by the end of his life he was a millionaire. In reading his biography, I believed that he had spent his whole life developing and refining what I was just beginning to stumble over; a reverence and great admiration of nature and a photography practice which was driven by celebrating the beauty and the sublimity of his familiar landscape.
This struck me as exactly what I was trying to do without knowing it, or as sort of the logical end of the thought processes which I started. Although I never picked up my camera and said, “I want to make pictures like Ansel Adams”, it is perhaps most telling that almost every single picture I took during the late spring and summer while I was studying on my own was black and white.
I also bought a large format analog camera at this point, which, again although I probably didn’t consciously think at any point “this will allow me to take photos in the same manner of Ansel Adams”, actions are probably most enlightening, and I did buy and pour over The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, Adams’ three book technical set primarily for large format photography.
I’d picked up analog photography in the fall of my senior love and it was essentially the same joy in a slightly different form. The process of developing my own photos, solving the problems old cameras presented, and working in new systems, were all essentially extensions of the original joys of exploration photography presented.
I’m still in the Art Foundation program at VCU and won’t start in the photo department until next year. However I’ve applied a lot of what I learned in other classes into personal photographic study, used photography in assignments, studied with a bit more intentionality and modern context, hung out in the photo department to find out what they’re doing and learning, and I met Heather.
I first talked to Heather online as a result of poking around for someone to ask questions about the photo department. She works as a tour guide for the school and is a senior in the photo department. I met her after I moved to Richmond and became good friends with her over the course of first semester. By an equal measure of being impressed by her work and trying to impress her, Heather was extremely influential in helping me sort of realize the current scope of and trends in contemporary photography and realize that, although I may have come in as a talented freshman, I still had a long ways to go and my current line of thought was nostalgic and slightly divorced from contemporary practice. We’ve discussed the details of this at length, but Heather has been instrumental in helping me think about my work in contemporary context.
And that, among many other things, is the main thing I learned in first semester of my freshman year: my approach to the landscape over the last three years is something that worked a long time ago but isn’t so interesting now. I think what I’ve learned about my own photography practice can be most clearly and concisely summarized in this quote from landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky from an interview in the preface of a book of his work, Manufactured Landscapes:
“I began by photographing the ‘pristine’ landscape, but I felt that I was born a hundred years too late to be searching for the sublime in nature. To me, pursuing this would have just been an expression of nostalgia. I didn’t see how I could bring new images into the world with that line of thought. I wanted to do what [Carleton] Watkins had done, but to be true to my generation, to the world that I lived in.”
I end on this photo because I think that it (and to a lesser extent, all prior photos) most represents where I currently am with landscape photography. I love this image. I think it’s a well crafted image, it makes me feel the same way as when I took it, and I think that feeling carries inherently in the photo and doesn’t simply evoke personal nostalgia. I am very happy with how this image turned out, but it doesn’t mean anything because I didn’t want it to. It’s simply an image I tried, and succeeded, in creating.
This doesn’t mean I can’t take photographs with meaning, but unfortunately it feels like the most comfortable thing for me right now is still trying to dig meaning out of making well crafted images from the environment. I’ve tried with varying degrees of success over the past few posts, but I don’t think I’ve yet claimed to have found some great, unique, meaningful thing.
This, again, falls under the category of over thinking the problem. Whenever I’m too down on myself, it’s useful to remember things in the manner of this post. I’ve only been doing photography for about three years, a little less. I suppose currently the most useful thing for me to do is keep practicing, keep studying, keep feeling, and keep thinking. I’m not going to stumble on “the idea” for my life’s work one night in the library, and I feel like approaching it like an assignment prompt (which I have been able to come up with “the idea” for in a stroke of inspiration) has only brought me immense frustration.
I hope that this account has served as entertaining and the photographs as enjoyable. This was, for me, a nice experience in recounting my time spent practicing photography so far and has helped put things in context.