The Benefits Of Not Knowing

Sounding I, Wiscassett, Maine, 2001 

What I don’t know makes this image more interesting.
Several years after making this image, I couldn’t remember whether I had captured the snow photographically or rendered it digitally or if the appearance of snow was created with a combination of both. It was one of the few times where I felt my experience of my images was closer to the experience others have of them. In this instance, I no longer suffered from the curse of knowledge. I was confronted with a mystery. Rather than quickly rushing to open the file and settle the question, as only I could, I chose to cultivate the question and see what useful insights I could find in doing so.
I looked very closely at the image and saw more than I had seen before. I looked more closely at other people’s images of snow and saw more than I had seen before. I looked more closely at snow and saw more than I had seen before. Because of what I didn’t know, I knew more. Because I questioned what I learned (and the ways I learned), I learned more. Not knowing, can be wonderful! You may be pleasantly surprised by what you don’t know.
Many people look to photographs to confirm what they already know or think they know. I prefer to look to photographs to challenge, expand, and enrich what I know. In works of art, sometimes the things that remain unanswered and remain open become more valuable than the things that are answered and closed. The life of a good photograph extends far beyond itself and our initial experience(s) of it.
How do you know what you know?
How many ways can you challenge what you know in order to experience more?
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Encourage Plans To Evolve

Oriens I, Death Valley, California, 1999

I missed the shot(s) the first time. When I got back from Death Valley a friend said, “Zabriskie Point? Again? Well, I’ll bet you could photograph it in a way that hasn’t been done before.” I knew what she meant, but her comment actually clarified another idea for me.
I had been deeply impressed by the way the light changed mercurially over time, continually transforming the landscape, from pre-dawn through early morning. It first lit the blue gray sky with pale pinks, then turned the far mountains from a cold brown to a hot coral, crept slowly across the valley floor to set Manley Beacon on fire (the crescendo in a magnificent symphony of light that most photographers favor), and continued to create moving pools of light in the foreground during a process that lasts for more than an hour. It is a wonder to behold and to fully appreciate it one needs to be still and vigilant for some time. Its full impact cannot be found in a single moment, I found it in many.
The solution? Make multiple exposures of the same composition throughout changing passages of light and then blend them together to create the impression of an extended moment in time.
I had made exposures of sunrise at Zabriskie Point, but I hadn’t made the ones I needed now. I had to go back. It took a year and a half. Knowing that so many unexpected things often happen, I prefer to make flexible plans, so I wondered if would return for an idea that ultimately wouldn’t work. I envisioned glorious light in every layer of the landscape. As I began making the exposures, I realized there was a flaw in my plan. If I selected the ‘best’ light in every area of the picture, all areas would demand equal attention. There would be no contrast. The final image needed shadow just as much as it needed light. I persisted, making exposures, without moving the camera, for more than an hour, of every significant change in light – and shadow. My original plan was useful but it needed to be modified as it was executed based on specific conditions, new information, and insight. To succeed, I had to listen not just what was in my head but also to the place and the process.
Later, as I looked at my transparencies the final solution presented itself. This new solution even highlighted my feelings about the place more strongly than my original idea. The result, different from my initial conception, but consistent with my intention, achieves a dramatic lighting effect never before seen at one time. Yet, throughout time, a similar sequence of experiences has been witnessed countless times by so many.
The light on the foreground is unaltered, or to be more accurate I should say is faithful to the transparencies that recorded it. The separate portions have not been modified substantially nor were they modified unequally – there has been no dodging and burning. Instead, the light has been reorchestrated with time, faithfully representing the existing light(s) but changing what can be seen in a single moment.
Nothing in the foreground, midground, or background has been added or removed. The sky, however, is an addition from another location. I found the smaller sliver of sky contained in the original exposures made the composition cramped. It lacked the vast sense of space found in the desert. The sky had in fact been the first indicator of the presence of the coming light, making a thousand transformations before its arrival. But the sky that morning was not particularly noteworthy. I could have spent a lifetime waiting for the perfect sky. I chose instead to incorporate another sky from another location that supported both the composition and the light. This sky I altered dramatically, both in tone and color. I did so to expressively complement the drama of the light below, to support it and not detract from it. While the lower half of the image is a matter of resynchronization, the upper half is a matter of recontextualization.
Neither method (resynchronization or recontextualization) yields a classically objective document. But the results of their application may yield artifacts that are truer to our experience of events than traditional photographic practices. If applied in specific ways, they can represent certain aspects of events more faithfully, such as the passage of time.
Making this image changed the way I think about and experience the essential elements of photography – light and time.
 
How many ways can thinking more predictively about change aid your creativity?
How many new ways can you think about fundamentals of your medium?
How can planning increase your creative success?
What can you do to encourage your plans to evolve?
 
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Read more The Stories Behind The Images here.
 

We Can See More With The Camera Eye

Resonance In Blue And Gold I A, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2000

The camera does not see as we see. While it can reproduce the appearance of human vision, it can do so much more. Only two percent of our field of vision is in focus at one moment time; it can focus one hundred percent of its field of vision. Our angle of vision is less than one hundred eighty degrees; its can be extended up to and even beyond three hundred and sixty degrees, in all directions. It can see microscopically and telescopically. It can see in brighter, darker or contrastier light – and even into other portions of the spectrum. It can see in a fraction of a second or over a span of hours, days, months, and even years. With the camera, we have made a marvelous extension of our sense of sight, one that continues to evolve.
I’m fascinated by photographs that reveal more than the eye human eye can perceive. Whenever photographs show me more than I saw, I feel as if a magic trick has been performed. This is one of those photographs. I saw the patterns the rain made in the water but I never saw them like this, until I made the photograph. They were too complex and fast moving to take in all at once. Because the photograph holds them still, I can spend more time considering them and my understanding of them grows over time.
While I celebrate the marvelous capabilities of the camera eye, I’m not unmindful of the challenging questions that our use of it raises. At what point do we modify our understanding of our own direct experiences to the documents we create? Which has greater authority? When does a photograph supplant memory? What do we consider to be more factual? What do we consider to be truer?
It’s often said that as you deepen your understanding of something the number of questions you have about it grows. Over time, I’ve come to love the questions even more than the answers. Sometimes revealing, usually stimulating, always useful, questions can have more than one answer and point the way to many new things.
How many ways can photography help you see and experience more?
How can the ways of seeing you learn through photography be extended to moments when you are not photographing?
Are there ways that photography limits your seeing?
Are there ways that what you have learned from photography limits your seeing?
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We All See Different Things

Exhalation I, Mosquito Point, Maine, 1996

I’ve collected more responses to this image than any other. While they use varied words, most people’s associations share some quality of breath and/or a divine presence. However, some people’s associations vary wildly.
One night, at an opening, a man reeking of scotch and smoke approached me and said, “I love your satanic icon!” Surprised I looked around the room to see which image he was referring to. He directed me to this one. Challenged by his response, it was very different than my intentions, I held to my practice of not sharing my responses to images unless I feel the viewer can maintain and possibly add to rather than replace their own.
On another occasion, a friend bought a print of this image and surprised his wife with it saying, “Look! Isn’t it beautiful?” She replied, “You’re not hanging that in here!” “Why not?” he responded. “Can’t you see? It’s dirty. It’s an x-ray of someone sitting on the toilette.” It took some negotiation and an extended session of sharing what they saw in the image for him to be able to hang the image, in his office.
The response I treasure most came from a four-year old boy, who stopped in his tracks and caught his breath as he crossed the threshold of the door to the room this image was displayed in. Then he raced to it, waving his arms in the air, “It’s a giant sneeze!” Touched by his spontaneous outbursts, I tried to reconcile them with my desire to communicate something general if not specific. I had given the image the working title of Avra, the Sanskrit word for breath. I thought, breath … sneeze … close enough. Everyone in my studio now refers to this image as ‘the giant sneeze’.
How can other people’s associations inform your work?
How many ways can you stimulate viewer’s association in your images?
Read more of The Stories Behind The Images here.

Finding The Right Words Can Help You Find Your Way

Arabesque I, White Sands, New Mexico, 2003

 In 2002 I went to White Sands National Monument, New Mexico. I photographed for an evening and a morning, exposing twelve rolls of film. When I returned I found two ‘keepers’ and counted myself lucky. It’s my feeling we’re lucky if one percent of the exposures we make are worth presenting.
This image was much more subtly surreal than many of my other images and didn’t fit neatly into the work I was currently developing. I found it presented a very useful creative challenge to me. Yet I was uncertain how to begin and take steps to resolve it.
I lived with the image in my dining room, looking at it both casually and seriously, several times a day for an extended time. I not only collected my own impressions but also the impressions other people share with me. It felt good when my father commented one day, “That’s a good one. You’ve managed to avoid all the west coast clichés.” But I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. Much later, my father-in-law squinted and asked, “Is that water?” Instantly I knew I had found what I was looking for. I wasn’t photographing grains of sand, I was photographing the waves that moved them.
I returned to White Sands to develop a body of work around this theme. As I moved through the dunes, I constantly returned to the word wave, asking, “How many ways can I make photographs of waves in this environment.” Photographing for the same amount of time and making the same number of exposures I found ten ‘keepers’; the clarity I had found in one word dramatically increased my productivity.
Walking out of the dunes I took shelter in the shade of a park sign that explained how “these dunes move three feet a month”. I had intuitively sensed this and it got into my work. Now my conscious mind had more information to work with and a direction to give it.
While looking at the new set of related images I quickly realized that they related both thematically and formally to another series of images – seascapes in fog, Condensation. This new body of work bridged my desert and seas work. One realization cascaded into another. Waves are a common theme that runs through a majority of my work.
This image reminds me of the power of words. When I first made it, I couldn’t put it into words. Words help me find out more about where I’ve been, where I’m going, and where I want to go. Words helped me understand what I had done and what I wanted to do next. Words helped me understand my life, my work, and myself. Time and time again, I’ve found the power of words to be extremely helpful.
How many ways can putting your experiences into words help you make stronger images?
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Read more The Stories Behind The Images here.

Discovery Can Happen At Any Point In A Creative Process

Illumination II, Sossusvlei, Namibia 2012.

In 2010, during my third trip to one of the oldest desert’s in the world, Namibia’s Sossusvlei dune field, I enjoyed one of the most sublime hours of my life, from a helicopter. Moments of grace like this fill you with reverence for the miracle world we live in and a deep abiding gratitude to be a part of it all. I was prepared for it, but nonetheless surprised.
Before arriving, to plan where to go and how to maximize my time this magnificent dune field, I had done a considerable amount of virtual aerial research with Google Earth, zooming and panning images made from the combination of thousands of satellite images at various magnifications, to familiarize myself with where it started and stopped, how it changed in character, and the relative location of landmarks such as the dunes Big Mama and Big Daddy and the famous clay playa Deadvlei.
None of that could have prepared me for the changing angle of light, we were on the second flight of the day, an hour after sunrise, and the atmospheric conditions, all week long, the air was filled with dust from far off sandstorms that scattered the rays of the sun, permeating the sky with a white gold light. On site, I had to assess the impact of current conditions.
Even at an altitude about 3,000 feet, twice the height of the largest dunes, I found I couldn’t fit the vast dune field into my viewfinder. So I improvised and started making multi-shot exposures for panoramic stitches. It seemed like a bold move, if the two or three shots did not merge successfully then both would be lost, until one of my companions, Paul Tornaquindici, made an even bolder move and requested we do a 360 stationary rotation so that he could make a panoramic image of the entire dune field. To my delight, this method worked.
The images lay simmering in my unconscious for more than a year before I found my final solution, to render an effect of light as if it were originating from within the land to complement the light that showered down outside it. Often, a period of gestation is necessary to distill the essence of rich experiences to their essentials and connect them to others.
New image processing features informed the final realization of this image. The body metaphors, latent in these images, were intensified with creative perspective adjustments, using lens profile corrections, designed to remove mechanical optical distortions, now used expressively. Quite different than a change of angle of view, which reveals and obscures information, these distortions offered complementary but distinctly different visual effects, changing relative proportions and spatial relationships within the image. This solidified my previous experiments to compare and contrast the two and so learn to fully utilize them in tandem with one another intuitively.
Unexpectedly, the dynamic explorations made during the creation of this image suggested an entirely new alternate solution – one not fit for print. Animations of progressive distortions made the images appear to pulse and breathe, an effect that is perfectly in sync with my view of land as a living thing with a spirit of its own.
Making this image required pre-planning and then allowing that plan to evolve while responding to new input at each step in the creative process.
How can planning help strengthen your creative efforts?
At what stages and in how many ways can you encourage the evolution of those plans?
When is it better to abandon an old plan for a new one?
What are the positive and negative effects of having no plan at all?
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Read more The Stories Behind The Images here.

Compare & Contrast Contemplative & Active Modes

Antarctica LIV, Plenneau Bay 2007

In 2007 I visited Plenneau Bay, Antarctica, which lies just past the famous La Mer Channel. This was the only Zodiac cruise where all the workshop leaders (Michael Reichmann, Jeff Schewe, Stephen Johnson, Bill Atkinson, Ian Lyons, Seth Resnick and I) rode together while Chris Sanderson recorded the event on video for Luminous Landscape. Locked out of this area by ice in 2005, we were delighted to have access to the area many people call ‘The Iceberg Graveyard” because the shallow bay frequently traps ice.
We found a floating sculpture garden made of ice in a stunning array of forms. We found frozen sea creatures, both real and mythical. We found Viking ships and space ships. We found pyramids and grottos. One iceberg impressed us above all the others. We first approached it from one side hoping to glide across the pool of water in its center and through an arch on the far side, but we discovered the arch was too shallow to pass through. Double backing, we then approached it from the opposite side. We gasped collectively when we saw what another angle had to offer. The ice had been sculpted in what appeared to be a Grecco-Roman façade complete with a central arch and accompanying rhythmically repeating columns. To this day we still have a hard time believing that this was a naturally occurring form and not man-made. This was one of those unforgettable moments that changes the way you see and think about the world as you become aware of possibilities you hadn’t previously dreamed of.
Despite the rich subject matter, it was challenging photographically, as we had hours in an area we could have spent days and consequently moved through it rapidly, which forced us to work like action photographers. At one point in our magical voyage, I teased Michael that he was encouraging very bad habits – shoot first, ask questions later. But I made the best of it knowing that I would never see this again and while I was doing so I realized that this push outside of my contemplative comfort zone would encourage me to acquire skills that would prove useful in other situations. They have been useful in many other unforgettable moments.
Which mode are you most comfortable in?
How can switching between contemplative to active modes help you?
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Read more The Stories Behind The Images here.
Learn more about Antarctica here.
Discover my Antarctica workshops here.