Sometimes an image contains some kind of symbolism. Well, perhaps they always contain some kind of symbolism, whether it's a privately held feeling or view, or perhaps something a bit more literal that an audience can interpret.
I would certainly agree with this. I know myself that I have learned a lot in my initial years of photography by following in the footsteps of those that I admire. For example, I remember my whole reason for going to Patagonia back in 2003 was because I had been so inspired by the work of the late Galen Rowell. He had made one particular image of Lago Pehoe that just made me want to go there badly and when I did, I sourced out the location where Galen made the image you see on the right.
I know my influences: Galen Rowell first gave me the motivation to use strong colour when I first started out. Through his writing and emotive images he taught me to embrace the adventure. Even today, his book 'Mountain Light' is perhaps my most favourite book on travel photography which I often return to when I feel I need to re-connect to my roots of why I got into this whole thing in the first place.
Michael Kenna was and still is a great influence on me: I've learned so much from Michael's work over the decades that I have followed him (I've been a fan since the late 80's). He himself has said in many interviews that it is quite normal to follow in the footsteps of your heroes. By working in the places that they worked, you learn a lot about how they made the images they made.
But there must come a time when your work should diverge from your heroes as you begin to find your own voice. Some of us have a long journey ahead of us to get there, and indeed, some of us never do. It is my hope though that we should all, at some stage, get a glimmer of who we really are underneath all the hero worship that is, I believe a normal stage of development.
In this age of high proliferation: it is hard to be an individual. Indeed, I often feel that many people go to the same locations because they wish to capture similar shots that someone else has captured. We are bombarded with many shots of the same view, endlessly repeated on image sites that I think it is hard to step away and find your own voice.
But that can only go on for a time. You have to become your own person after a while. But it won't happen if you are always following the herd. You will only be part of a crowd and not an individual if you do this and quite frankly, you won't be giving yourself the respect you deserve to find out who you really are.
I see a lot of copying going on. It's not a problem so long as those that do it acknowledge their influences, or at worst, realise that their work is not unique and has been derived from someone else's. But I don't see this happen a lot. Many people go to the same locations to make similar work, and seldom is there recognition of where the influence came from. The work is passed of as one's own.
To be true to yourself, you need to pay credit where credit is due. I remember noticing that Kenna had gone to some of Bill Brandt's locations and he rightfully name checked his influence with titles such as 'Bill Brandt's Snicket', as you can see below:
I myself have openly thanked Kenna in turn for kindly providing me with his guide's details for Hokkaido and the work I created there - I made sure to namecheck him as I need to be in-tune with which parts of my creativity are truly my own, and which parts I've borrowed from my heroes. It's vital that I know who I really am and to do that, I have to recognise and understand my influences, and to thank them for what they have given me.
Following in the footsteps of one of my heroes, even now.
Photography is a personal journey into finding out who we really are. That is what makes it so special; it is our own private universe, a place where we get the chance to express ourselves in whatever way we wish. But we need to understand and acknowledge our influences if we wish to have a clearer insight into who we are as artists, and to understand better where we are going.
Great photos aren't about pixels. Neither are they about resolution. They aren't about technology and they aren't about plug-in's or software. Great photos aren't about the camera we used to make them.
Great photos are about engagement. They are about having a great idea, a strong composition to start with.
Much like a good story, good photographs don't need to be supported by gimmicks. Just as good songs don't require expensive production techniques to make them good, great songs can be played on simple instrument because the strength of the idea behind them carry them along.
Good images just need a good idea. They shouldn't need much more to make them work.
Yet we live in an age where we can become lost in the technology. Where we are convinced we need another software-app, HDR, Focus-stacking or to blend images to produce good work. This is not true. We just need our images to be strong ideas to begin with. An ill-conceived image will always be an ill-conceived image, no matter how much gloss we apply to it.
Jon Hopkins shows us that some very simple chords on a piano can bewitch us. Strip it back and it still works. It's a reminder that great ideas have a knack of carrying themselves.
Jon Hopkins performing "Abandon Window/Nightfall/Autumn Hill" Live on KCRW - YouTube
When I'm out making images and selecting which ones to use later on, I always respond to how I feel about them. If they are strong, I usually know because strong work tends to let you know what it wants. Like strong song ideas that tend to write themselves, good images tend to come from nowhere and dictate to you what needs to be done.
Weak work on the other hand doesn't. Weak ideas often lack conviction and send confused muddled messages about what they are and where they want to go.
If you want to improve your photography, then I would suggest you dump your technology. Put to one side the HDR, focus-stacking, blending, software-apps for a moment, and instead, go out and listen to your intuition as it's the best photography tool you possess.
When I first started out running workshops and tours, I found it difficult to coordinate the group. If I said that it was time to go, some of the group would stay and I wasn't sure what I was doing wrong. Well, being British means that we often tend to skirt around the issue. We're don't say what we mean.
I learned that rather than saying 'I think it's about time to go', which is a British way of saying 'we are going now', I had to be more direct. Some of my mainland european friends wouldn't understand and they would assume it was just an observation and would stay, or would say 'oh? It's so lovely, let's stay a bit longer'. I've now learned to say 'it is time to go' now, or 'we are going now' as that is a much clearer way of telling others, especially if they are non-native English speakers.
So, if you are planning a trip to Britain sometime soon, or perhaps you are coming on a tour / workshop with me, then this is a little card below to help you translate the Brits and of course myself.
The same location can be much more simple to photograph when the background disappears. Using fog, snow showers or rain to obliterate the background can reduce the complexity of the image and it's something to consider when you visit a location. In fact, I love to repeatedly go back to a location under different weather conditions because the whole scene will be transformed if parts or the whole of the background disappears or comes back in to view.
Below I show you three images: the first two are variations on the same subject but both have varying degrees of success in removing the background for the scene. In the third and final image the background is evident and the picture is a little more complex as a result.
Before you look at the images below, I would like to stress that I am not saying one image is better than another. Each and every one of us will have our own preferences. So let's get beyond comparing them from the point of view of which you like most and instead, it would be ideal if you can just consider whether the image is more complex or less complex when the background disappears.
Again, I wish to reiterate: I am not saying that one image is better than another. I am saying that when you remove more elements in the frame the image may become less complex or quieter. It's up to you which you prefer.
Going back to the same location and trying it again under different conditions can yield surprising results and it just goes to prove that the tired mantra of 'it's been done to death' is never true.
I've just finished the 'first round' of editing my new Hokkaido Images. They are now up on the gallery.
I find I have to go through the films a few times. There's always something I miss, so I know there will be more images added. I'm just a bit saturated with Hokkaido right now, so a few days away from the editing will do me good.
Photographs are much more intriguing if we aren't told anything about them.
No words, and no titles.
Intriguing images have the capability to cast a spell upon us, and the beauty of that spell is that it's a highly personal one. Through a lack of explanation, each and every one of us attaches our own personal thoughts and feelings about what we are looking at.
Conversely, being told exactly what the picture is, or what we should get out of it robs us of being able to attach our own emotions and thoughts.
I remember looking at some of Paul Wakefield's wonderful landscape images on his website. There were no titles, nothing to give away where the images had been made. I thought I recognised one of them as a place I frequently visit but there was something new about it, a different perspective that made me think again. So I emailed him to ask if it was where I thought it was, only to get the reply "don't you think an image is more compelling when you aren't sure where it is?".
Not only are they more compelling, they are also free to be whatever you wish them to be.
When Paul finally published a book of his images several years later, there was a page at the back of the book that told me where the locations of each image were. By this time I had become so familiar with Paul's beautiful images that I had attached my own impressions to his images, so much so, that finding out that they weren't where I thought they were - meant that my attachment fell into question and I found myself having to revise my thoughts about them.
It was more beautiful when I hadn't known, when I was free to create my own ideas and impressions of where his images were from.
We attach so much to an image upon first viewing, and as we go back to our favourite images we keep reinforcing our own emotions into them. We make up dreams and ideas about images that we love, the same way we make up dreams and ideas about songs we love. This is why I have never enjoyed watching music videos because they often force me to discard my own personal interpretation of a song and instead force me to take up the view of the video.
Describing, or giving emotive titles to images gives less freedom to the viewer to take up their own view. But what about images of anonymous places? Do they hold similar appeal?
I think they do.
Rather than shooting the iconic well known place that everyone knows of, we are left to wonder - 'I don't really know for sure but there are aspects about the picture which make me think it could be Scotland, but then again, there are other aspects that make me think it could be Norway'...... Anonymous places have so much power to bewitch us.
Don't you think this makes the images more compelling?
Special thanks to Dorin Bofan (a fantastic photographer in his own right) for the kind use of the image of me in the landscape photographing a rather snowy, frozen tree, and to Florin Patras for putting together the trip where this photo was made.
More later, once I get my films back from the lab!
I'm holding another exhibition later this year (November 24 - December 13), to coincide with the release of my Altiplano book (which will be announced later this year also).
The last few weeks I've been working on the image selection for the forthcoming book, and we have now completed this, along with the text that is going along side the book. Currently I am awaiting Spanish translations as I feel that since this is a book about a region of South America, it should honour the landscape by also having a Spanish translation.
What I found last year about preparing my book, was that I really needed to print each image out to ensure they were optimal. When I did print them out, I noticed that some of them didn't have the 'sparkle' that they seemed to have on my monitor (even though my monitor is tightly calibrated). Some things needed to be pushed so that I was using the tonal range of the paper. It was a fascinating thing to do, as you can so often think the image is finished on the monitor, only to notice discrepancies in the tonal range once printed.
Once I had completed the printing of all the images that were to be contained within the book, I then replaced the original files with the optimal ones. So in essence, the images that were contained within my 'Colourchrome' book were the result of fine-tuning by print-review. Most important and I would urge you to do the same for any image you work on: print it out and evaluate it. Sit with it for a while and see how your impressions of it changes over days if not weeks. You'll be able to notice problems in the image that you weren't aware of on the monitor.
And so it comes to which images to prepare for an exhibition?
If you are considering doing an exhibition (I highly recommend it : everyone of all abilities should exhibit their work: it is the final stage in photography in my opinion), it's a good idea to go into the exhibition space and take measurements. My dear friend Alan Inglis suggested this to me when I was in the initial stages of looking for a location to exhibit. He came in with me and took measurements of the walls and also made some iPhone photos of the walls too (the images you see here).
Once we'd done that, I could set up mockups of the actual frames, all to scale of course, so I could experiment with a layout.
This is what you are seeing on this post today. I have chosen a selection of images and laid them out whilst trying to give them sufficient space, while at the same time maximising the number of images I can display (the more you show - the more value and interest to the viewer).
Last year's exhibition was terrific. I really enjoyed the experience: I got to meet so many people from past workshops and tours who came in to say hello. I also got to meet people that have had me on their radar for sometime, yet I was not aware of them. And the exchange in discussing your work is not to be underestimated.
Once I'd finished the exhibition, I was sitting around thinking 'now what?'. What do I do next? So I asked my favourite Photographer - Michael Kenna that, and he said:
You should have a show every year - include a few classics and show new work. It will keep you on your toes. Sales may not increase - that remains to be seen. But, it’s a good way to measure your own progress. Specific goals and deadlines always make us work a little harder."
Well, you heard the man. He knows a thing or two about exhibitions. So I chose to listen to what he has to say and decided I would do another one this year.
About the mockup's : that is exactly what they are. They have given me the opportunity to see what the final exhibition may look like, and I have been able to move and swap things around till I get the 'flow' right. What is most inspiring of all though, is that by visualising the final exhibition this way, it all just begins to take on a more 'real' aspect. You feel you are one step closer to your goal! I always try to use visual pictures to help me see where it is that I am wanting to go, whether it is mockups of exhibition spaces, mockups of books I want to produce, or even mockups of future workshops I hope to hold.
I think all great artists at some point lose their audience. Through pursuing what they feel is all about the art, they move beyond what their audience find accessible.
Because accessible often translates to 'conservative' or perhaps 'already understood and accepted'. Accessible means that the audience know where they are, because they've been there before. There is you see, great comfort in knowing what you're dealing with.
When something comes along that we have never experienced before, some are able to see it as the great wonder that it may be while others find it hard to take the new step on board.
Now let's mirror this in what we do as creative people. If you are always creating work that you can accept, then I would like to suggest to you that you are only treading water. You know where you are because you've either been here before many times, or someone else has.
Conversely, if you venture into an area that is new to you, or something you've never encountered before elsewhere, I would suggest that you are growing.
it can feel like you might have gone too far. You may be scared, or uncertain because you are now in unfamiliar terrain. If you feel this way, then that's great, because when you're riding the crest of a wave, you should feel scared (and dare I suggest - alive). Being somewhere you've never been before is good for you.
When you get there, you may feel that what you have created is too weird, or strange. Maybe you don't feel you get it yourself. This is normal. Like trying out a new style of clothing, something that you had never thought would suit you, you may find after a while that it was a natural progression.
If you manage to get to this point, you should congratulate yourself, because I don't think this happens very often. In general, most of us stay within our comfort zones and create the derivative - we see what else is around us and we replicate it. Without thinking about what we're doing, we may be fitting in, but we're not standing out. We've lost our individuality. We conform.
Great work comes from going it alone. To make a mark, you have to be different, and to do that, you cannot follow others. You have to find your own path. One way to do that is to not give a damn about what others are doing and to give your creativity the freedom it deserves. This can only come from some kind of confidence or self-belief, and that only comes if you give yourself the permission to experiment. You need to give your creativity the freedom to be what it needs to be. You know this is the right approach. Control it too much and you'll be right back to producing something bland and derivative. Sure, everyone will get it, but they only get it, because everyone else is doing it too.
If we only keep within the realms of what others think is cool, then we are in danger of becoming lost. We won't be pushing the boundaries of the medium, and most importantly, we won't be finding out who we are, or what we are capable of.
Instead, we will simply be losing ourselves to someone else's story, to someone else's idea that has already been tried and tested so many times before by so many others, that it can't possibly be yours.
So what is it to be? Do you want to reach the levels of the work created by others you admire, or would you much rather find out who you are?
I've just completed the image selection and sequencing for my Altiplano book, which is due out later this year.
As part of checking the images are ready for publication, I've printed them all out. There are a number of reasons why I've printed the images but it's mostly because no matter how calibrated my computer monitor is: no one should trust what they see on their computer screen. The only way to validate and prove that your images are as good as you think they are, is to print them out.
You should invest in a daylight viewing booth to verify your monitor is calibrated (by comparing a print target). And also to evaluate your prints.
There are a number of reasons why you should print out your images:
1. The human eye is highly adaptive. Stare at a computer screen for too long, and your eye adjusts to discrepancies in the white balance and also in the tonal range.
2. I've often noticed things in the print that I never noticed on the monitor. Yet, when I go back to check if the problem exists on-screen, I now see it. See point 1.
3. Loss of highlights or blocked shadows become more obvious once printed. It takes a lot of time and skill to be able to 'read' a computer monitor and know what it's telling you. See point 1.
Mostly it's all about point 1.
I'm a big fan of Charlie Cramer, the American landscape photographer and once protege of Ansel Adams. I was fortunate to meet Charlie a year or so ago and listen to him talking about the value of printing and in particular how the human visual system works (and deceives us!).
The most memorable point that Charlie made is this (which I am paraphrasing):
"An image can look good on screen, but not good in print. But if you get it to look good in print, it will also look good on-screen"
I agree entirely. Printing *should* be part of your editing process. When you are dodging and burning areas of your picture in Lightroom or Photoshop, you should be printing it out to verify your edits. Editing and printing are therefore highly iterative. You should be circling around between them as you continue to edit your work.
Here is Charlie's talk from the On-Landscape conference I attended. There is a lot of wisdom in what he has to say so I would stay with the video to the very end:
Charles Cramer - On Landscape Meeting of Minds Conference 2016 - YouTube
If you want to create great images, then you need to optimise them. The only way to do that is to print them out and evaluate them with a daylight viewing booth. If you're not printing your images, you're not really finishing your work, and it most probably still has a long way to go to being complete.
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