Learning to See: Confessions of a Copycat Photographer
The title of this article alone will surely make many of you think: “Please don’t tell me this guy is going to tell me how to go chasing tripod holes or even think about advocating it….” Well, I’ll let you decide in the end, but the intent here is to simply share with you one of those moments where one’s photography made a transformation – or as I now refer to it as my “light bulb moment.” And part of that moment for me includes a confession; and if at least one person can learn something from this, then my trip to the confessional was worth it.
To start, it should be clear that in my opinion there is a difference between photographing popular, iconic places and capturing images that have been done thousands of times before you, versus actually setting out to “copy” someone else’s work. When a photographer visits a place for the first time and even perhaps a once in a lifetime chance, it’s quite natural that they will want to capture a classic or iconic view. You can be sure that when and if I get to visit Zion National Park, I will undoubtedly come across many of the scenes that have already been done to death. The difference here being that I am not setting out to copy a scene – if it’s beautiful, dramatic or catches my eye, I’m likely to try and capture it.
Much has been written about finding one’s own “vision” or “style.” One example is an article written by Michael Gordon called "Towards a Personal Style." In it he talks about a number of things a photographer can do to “step out of the box,” and learn to find their own vision. I certainly agree that one should seek to make their own path, be different, and try to find their own photographic and artistic voice. And whether stated or implied, we also should know that we don’t develop our vision in a vacuum. The influences in our lives, our culture, upbringing and the visuals stored in the recesses of our brains will always influence the direction we take with our art. We see countless images of the slot canyons, Half Dome, Mesa Arch and the Subway. And when you visit one of those iconic places for the first and perhaps only time, there’s little or no way to get around those influences; creating something unique and different will be a difficult chore. It’s probably why we see so many similar images from these iconic locations. And that’s OK. They’re iconic locations for a reason.
Familiarity breeds creativity
Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? It could be taken that way if you consider how many images you’ve seen from Tunnel View in Yosemite, or the same viewpoint from the bridge over the Virgin River in Zion, or the Snake River overlook in Grand Teton. Familiarity can create clichés and breed boredom. So how can it breed creativity? In this case, familiarity means an intimate knowledge of your subject. The once in a lifetime trip to Denali or Victoria Falls doesn’t come with the familiarity of knowing, understanding and experiencing all the nuances of a place over time. Of course you can circumvent that by paying a guide who has that knowledge and experience, but in general when you may only have a few hours or a couple days at an unfamiliar, yet iconic location, you are bound to come away with classic views and little in the way of originality. And that’s OK.
Being knowledgeable and familiar with your subject is nothing new and is probably the most obvious in wildlife photography. Knowing the subject’s environment, eating, sleeping and breeding habits are key to any successful wildlife photographer. The same is also true for the nature and landscape photographer; understanding the light, weather conditions, times of day, seasons, etc. all play a key role in helping you as a photographer step beyond the ordinary and begin taking those steps towards a vision and style you can call your own.
I consider myself fortunate to live only a few hours away from Yosemite Valley. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to travel half way across the globe to see some of nature’s most beautiful and inspiring creations. The same can be said if you live in Southern Utah, the Great Smokey Mountains or within a short car ride to the Columbia Gorge or Olympic National Park. Then again, you don’t have to live next to one of these natural wonders of the world; beauty and inspiration are all around us, no matter where you live. For a great example, make a visit to Dan Baumbach’s website and take a look at his Portfolios: "Breaths." Great example of creative work minus the icon status.
You don't need an iconic location to produce great and creative work. I’ve been photographing in Yosemite for over thirty years and I guess by default, I’ve become pretty familiar with the subject; especially Yosemite Valley. I’ve even come to the point where I can walk the El Capitan meadow and not even look up at that giant monolith (update for 2018 where most of El Capitan meadow is now closed off for restoration.) Been there, done that. Over time, I’ve learned when the morning light hits certain parts of the valley, or how long other parts will remain in shadow. I know that autumn doesn’t really kick in until early November and the dogwood starts coming out in late of April. Oh, the Redbud in the Merced River canyon, back in late March, early April. I know that if it’s raining and about 40 degrees or colder at my house on Friday night, there’s a very good chance there will snow on the Valley floor Saturday morning.
Has my familiarity of Yosemite made me a better photographer or given me my own style? I don’t know, but I can say that my photography has certainly evolved and hopefully improved over time. It’s a lifelong journey and perhaps I’m still looking to identify what my vision is. I do know that my familiarity, or more accurately, my love and passion for the “Incomparable Valley,” have allowed me to “see” and photograph things that I would not have seen ten or twenty years ago.
It’s inevitable though, that I have become so familiar with Yosemite Valley that when I see an image taken in Yosemite Valley I can usually figure out where it was taken. Such was the case in winter of 1998. I made my way to Yosemite right after a winter storm. And as I usually do, I took a break mid day to grab lunch at Degnin’s Deli in Yosemite Village and take a short stroll to see what was hanging at the Ansel Adam’s Gallery. For those of you who have never been, the Ansel Adam’s Gallery is more of a gift shop than a dedicated art gallery. Sure, you’ll find original Adam’s prints, copies and the works of William Neill, Michael Frye, Keith Walklet and the works of Galen Rowell and his famous image of Horsetail Falls. But this is also a place with glass showcases of jewelry, pottery, Indian crafts and of course hundreds of photo books, note cards and poster prints. Every couple of months they rotate photographic and other art works of renowned Yosemite artists. It so happened that at the time of my visit they were exhibiting the works of Charles Cramer.
Just up the steps and hanging next to the bookcase, was a print that caught my eye. It must have been 32”x40,” and I was awestruck. The color, lighting and most notably the detail of this huge print was incredible. Now I’m not a well traveled man and my visits to galleries of any note are quite limited, but this was the most incredible print I had yet to see with my own eyes.
With permission from Mr. Cramer, you can see this image on his website here. Of course the small web sized version doesn’t do this justice, but it’s being able to see it is at the crux of my story.
I didn’t come to Yosemite seeking out to copy anyone’s image, but the moment I saw this image, I knew exactly where it was taken. Familiarity. The conditions were right as it had just snowed the day before and snow still clung to the branches of the trees. I knew the location was on the Southside drive which stays in shadow longer and there would still be snow. I took it as a challenge to see if I could find the exact location.
With only the image pressed in to my mind, I found the location and did my best to frame the same composition. The light was favorable. I attached the 210mm lens to the 4x5 and moved the tripod several times trying to gain the same vantage point. Under the dark cloth composing and focusing, a feeling of violation started creeping in. What was a challenge, a game, now became the uneasy feeling that I was simply copying someone else’s work. I stepped back and thought to myself, “This isn’t right.” I placed the film holder in the camera anyway and then tried to justify it. Maybe the challenge was to see how much detail I could get from the scene; a test of my own abilities and those of the camera, lens and film. I pressed the cable release and captured this image.
Who would ever know unless I told someone? Well, I’m telling you now. I confess.
Feeling guilty, I packed up the camera and decided to take the short walk down to the Merced River in hopes I could find something different and unique. Kind of a wakeup call you might say. Not more than fifty or so yards from where I had just tried to copy someone else’s image, I came upon a beautiful oak tree all dressed in its winter coat; snow layered on top of every single branch. I started thinking about composition options, what was attracting me to the scene and how best to capture what I was now seeing. Familiarity was breeding boredom however. El Capitan loomed large over the scene and I didn’t need another wide angle scene with El Capitan. It was at this point that I started looking at the scene within the scene. It wasn’t just the snow on the branches; it was the light and glow of El Capitan showing through that was so striking.
Familiarity was now breeding creativity. I could use the famous landmark as a backdrop, an accent and not as the main subject of a photograph. And remembering back only a few minutes earlier, it was the light on El Capitan that gave Charlie Cramer’s image such a wonderful glow. So in perhaps an unconventional and dubious manner, I was beginning to “see” things differently in Yosemite. Smaller and perhaps more mundane subjects were becoming whole scenes composed of lesser elements, yet no less beautiful; not just images of a landmark subjects, but images that played off them or influenced by them . El Capitan was no longer the subject. Not only did El Capitan become an accent, a back drop and even a giant reflector of light...It became the canvas upon which other images could be created.
Learning to see in new ways to more complete and hopefully unique images in a place that has been overrun with photography for over a century is what makes photographing in Yosemite an unending and joyful journey.