I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
Ever since I moved to California I’ve been edging closer to something with my photography without articulating it or settling on something definitive. I’ve been improving technically and focused on the natural world as subject matter, but that doesn’t seem enough anymore; I want to express something of myself in my photos and approach it as an artist. When Ansel Adams created ‘Monolith, the Face of Half Dome’ in 1927 he fulfilled his vision and truly expressed himself for the first time. I’ve been trying to do the same, but my recent photograph of Black Sands Beach is the first time I really felt like I put something of myself into the image. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to progress, but this isn’t an artist’s statement — I need to create to the work first — this is simply my attempt to distill my ideas into a clear vision and a path I want to explore in 2017.
There are two aspects to my ideas: my visual style and my voice. Inevitably, though, the two are intertwined. The last time I wrote about expressing myself I concluded that as an immigrant a big part of my photography was building a relationship with the place I live, so that’s framed much of my thinking and provided the traditional landscape as a starting point. Stepping into years of tradition comes with an in-built sense of belonging and provides direct access to a shared cultural experience. Ultimately, however, I need to evolve or defy that framework to express what is uniquely important to me about this place.
I choose to photograph the natural world because I think it’s beautiful, but, if I’m honest with myself, the reasons why are more complex. There’s a sense of loneliness in being a newcomer anywhere, but bizarrely it’s more acute when surrounded by people and the city. In those situations you have to face up to the disconnect, but in the wilderness if feels somehow appropriate and as an introvert I can embrace that solitude. I need to capture that mixture of loneliness, joyful solitude and belonging in my landscapes.
It feels like I have contrasting emotions in the outdoors, but there’s an inherent duality in all aspects of my life. I’m from one place but live in another, and while I spend most of my life in the city I feel at ease away from it. With the recent election, a deep division in this country is ever-present too. There are a couple of methods I aim to capture that in my photography. The first is through timing. The transition from day to night, night to day often brings the most interesting light but it shows a place caught between two states. The second way found in ecotones. Focusing on the natural transition between two biological communities — land to ocean or forest to meadow — can highlight duality.
As I study the landscape before me I’m often faced with vast and epic scenery. Traditional landscape views often strive for grandeur and frame as much as possible, but I find myself trying to get closer to the details. To build an intimacy with a place means feeling its textures and filling your senses with everything it has to offer. Positioning myself and the camera low to the ground is another way to get closer to the land and force a depth into the frame. Selecting a depth of field that focuses on the immediate sometime adds to the dual lines of tension while capturing the intimate quality I’ve been looking for.
The role of people in my photography are significant by their absence. Two of the artists I admire the most have an interesting take on the subject. Edward Hopper’s landscapes were visions of the frontier: a fundamental part of the American identity. Civilization and nature meet, but they exist to provide a juxtaposition. Hopper famously said, “What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house” but a significant part of that quote is the clause the preceded it, “Maybe I’m not very human”. His paintings contain isolated people and buildings as evidence of humanity, but there’s an uneasy relationship and inherent tension. I like that.
By contrast, people are often missing from Ansel Adams’ work entirely as he photographed landscapes that appeared to be pristine and untouched. Other photographers, like Roger Minick, have poked fun at that myth by showing the same landscapes with tourists in frame. But the interesting thing is that he was striving for beauty through a vision of wilderness, but by today’s standards that can receive a different interpretation. In National Geographic, Timothy Egan recently described how inner-city kids saw an iconic view of Grand Teton National Park, “bathed in glorious evening light”, but thought the vision was “scary … Empty. Forbidding. Not welcoming. They said, ‘Where are all the people?’” When I see a deserted landscape I’m happy, but I also embrace the notion that a place which makes my heart soar could strike dread into someone else’s. I want my landscapes to be free of people, or failing that, I want any trace of civilization in my photography to feel adrift or isolated.
Space is a big consideration for any photographer but I’ve also been thinking a lot about time. When I look at a landscape I like to imagine it as untouched. Maybe I’m looking for something that’s not there, at least not any more, but if I imagine it to be virgin then it doesn’t come weighted with the identity other people have given it. Trying to capture something with a timeless quality uproots it from the moment and I can lay as much claim to it as anyone else. Long exposures have become a common feature of my photography because those shots aren’t just about the fraction of a second when I opened the shutter. It’s one way to uproot the scene in time. I find something comforting about a scene that’s not anchored in one frozen moment. And what I capture is real, everything in the frame is there–stars are trailing overhead, tides come and go, light is changing–but it’s a different kind of seeing.
Maybe there’s an element of mid-life crisis in my thinking as I try to control time, to slow it or stop it, but I don’t think so. For my whole life I’ve felt out of sync with the rest of the world. I’ve always sympathized with the Brian Wilson/Tony Asher line, “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.” I feel a tension between modern life and the natural world and that relates directly back to the idea of ecotones, and as Timothy Egan wrote in the article mentioned above, “What could be a better antidote to our 8-second attention span than a landscape that is nearly 2 billion years old?”
Finally, in terms of personal aesthetics it’s no surprise that I think like a designer. I’ve come to realize that I’m drawn to simple and graphic compositions, so deciding what to frame is also about choosing what not to frame. I make an effort to remove anything distracting. I’m searching for something minimal because it’s an extension of how I think about the natural world and timeless landscapes. It also allows me to focus on the feel of a place.
When it comes to color I’ve tried a range of palettes and been pleased with many, from vibrant to muted, but the system that seems to make sense is something natural but selective because it relates directly to everything else I’m trying to accomplish.
Working through all of these aspects hasn’t set me apart from every other photographer or broken new ground, but arranging my thoughts has allowed me to work out how I can create photos that are consistent in terms of style and concept, and most importantly, an expression of myself. That’s what I’ll be working on in 2017