Moving Past the Repertoire: An Essay By Greg Russell
Landscape Photography Blogger Note: My photoblog friendship with Greg Russell developed over the last year or more through an exchange of many e-mails and phone calls on the state of photography today and yesterday, philosophy, and our development as photographers. This essay came out of our conversations. Concurrently on Greg Russell’s photoblog Alpenglow Images, he has posted an essay I wrote called, “Make Your Own Tripod Tracks.” For more background on Greg Russell see the blog post, “Monday Blog Blog: Greg Russell, Ph.D.” or his own short bio.
Moving Past The Repertoire By Greg Russell
In a previous blog post, I mentioned Katie Lee, whose songs and essays have undoubtedly made her one of the greatest advocates for the Colorado Plateau, and the Colorado River in particular. In one of her essays she talks about a photographer friend she once brought to Glen Canyon before it was dammed. He dropped his camera in the sand before exploring a much-anticipated side canyon. Instead of continuing up the canyonsans camera, he turned around, saying emphatically, “I don’t even want to see it if I can’t photograph it.”
Hmmm…that brings up an interesting question. Imagine yourself on the trip of a lifetime, possibly even knowing you’re going to be one of the last people to see a particular canyon before it disappears underwater forever. How would you react if your camera got filled with sand?
Personally, I would probably begin by using every curse word in my vocabulary. Then, I would probably pout, and I hope I would enjoy the rest of the trip, even without “that shot.”
Today on my blog, David Leland Hyde in his blog post, “Make Your Own Tripod Marks,” likens landscape photography to trophy hunting, with intense competition to get “the shot.” Indeed, despite the camaraderie, things have evolved into a very “me first” sort of culture. As a result, as soon as a new location is discovered (and its coordinates disseminated), it quickly becomes part of hundreds of photographers’ libraries. Mark Meyer has written an excellent article on the landscape photographer’s repertoire, which describes the mentality of this culture very well.
Rather than rehash Meyers’ comments (he makes his point much better than I ever could), I wonder to myself, can we move past the repertoire? Can we discover our own little wild places, places that inspire creativity based on our own discoveries, our own way of seeing?
As a beginning landscape photographer, it seemed logical and intuitive for me to learn about composition and exposure by following in the footsteps of photographers who inspire me. I visited the classic viewpoints—Mesa Arch, Tunnel View—and in all honesty, I don’t regret it. I think everyone should see sunrise at the Towers of the Virgin at least once.
However, I began to realize that by visiting these locations and making the same compositions as everyone else, my creativity was impeded. By photographing the repertoire, my technical skills matured, but when the time to look for unique, incongruous, compositions and to attempt to break the “rules” in an artful way, it was obvious to me. In other words, it was time to put down the roadside guide, to stop letting highway pullouts dictate what would make an interesting photograph.
In the search for my own voice, I quickly learned that for me, fostering a connection with the land—a sense of place—was the most valuable tool in letting me discover the landscape’s “unseen” beauty. As a result, my writing and photographs focus on the place, rather than the technical aspect of photography, see, for example, the blog post: “Overland Flight.”
It was my voice, not the voice of others, that I wanted people to hear; speaking for the land, in my opinion, is an important aspect of being an artist.
All of this isn’t to say you should avoid Yosemite Valley at all costs, or that you should never venture into the eastern Sierra in October.
What I am saying, however, is to enjoy the landscape for its own sake. Ask yourself, “If I forgot my camera on this trip, would I still be enjoying myself?” After all, the first step to moving past the repertoire is to foster a connection with the land, not to race everyone else in documenting it.