I was born on a cold January day along the banks of the White River in northwestern Colorado. After leaving the small town I was born in, the White meanders into northeastern Utah, paralleling the Yampa to eventually join the Green River, which itself is eventually consumed by the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park. For millions of years, the Colorado has herded her children—the rivers of the West—carving her way across the sandstone heart of the Colorado Plateau and Southwestern United States before finally working its way toward the Gulf of Mexico. In the same way that the Colorado River binds the Western United States together, the people who live here are joined by a common thread, despite superficial political and ideological differences.
Biologists speak of an organism’s life history, a complete description of what makes it unique: its anatomy, physiology, natural history, evolution. All of the things that make up the life history of the West, so to speak, come together to transform space into a place, and roots here run deep. I grew up rooted in the West, and find my sense of place here.
It is only natural that a photographer would want to express this sort of connection to the land in his or her images. However, it doesn’t always come naturally. Moving beyond the camera’s inner workings and towards an understanding of your own photographic vision, voice, and motivations is key to growth.
When I visit a new place for the first time, I might be in awe of the beauty of the place, but often feel a bit of chaos in terms of composing my photographs, scouting locations, etc. This is probably natural—you need to do your homework in order to succeed (a little luck doesn’t hurt either), but familiarity and connection often trump homework when it comes to making an intentional image. When you feel connected to the landscape, images flow much more easily.
A sense of place results gradually and unconsciously from inhabiting a landscape over time, becoming familiar with its physical properties, accruing history within its confines.Kent Rydon
Knowing your subject is key to producing personal, intentional images.
Knowing that my roots are buried deep in the West, when I first started photographing, I visited many of the region’s iconic vistas. Icons are icons for a very good reason: they are beautiful. What’s more, with a little research, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to make technically competent images at these places. In other words, many resources are available that outline exactly what time you need to visit the location, etc., for best light. This is cookbook photography, and it highlights the difference between a technically good image and a personal meaningful image. The major difference here is the depth of your own self-discovery.
Early in my photographic career, a trusted friend pointed out that my own portfolio had its share of these so-called cookbook images. Receiving his email was a bit of a difficult pill to swallow, but I needed a push to take a hard look at what my photography was saying.
Although these images were pretty, that was the only reason I was hanging onto them. They weren’t meaningful in any real sense, and although it was painful, I culled them from my website and portfolio, essentially starting from scratch.
An example of making meaningful images based on self-discovery may help to illustrate what I am saying. Fourteen years ago, I moved to southern California to attend graduate school. At the time, photography locations seemed nearby enough: Joshua Tree, Death Valley, the eastern Sierra, Yosemite. While I still enjoy being close to all of these amazing places, I’ve also learned to appreciate the way winter storms break up over the peninsular mountain ranges that ring inland southern California. Early summer fog rolls through the coastal hills, creating moody layers and temporarily obscuring the urban sprawl that characterizes this part of the state.
Hiking those mountains and hills over many years gave me time to learn the landscape; changes in my life over the last fourteen years—the birth of my son, divorce, new relationships and jobs—have given these events meaning, something to calibrate my internal compass by. Part of my story lies here in southern California, and aligning these events with the landscape has made my photography more meaningful.
Being honest with myself about what I wanted my photography to say was probably the single hardest but most valuable thing I’ve done as a photographer.
Volumes have been written about how to create technically competent images, but there are no Lightroom plug-ins for your own vision and voice. There are no shortcuts here; there are also no recipes, which is why I’m somewhat intentionally not telling you how to do this. Take the time to be honest with yourself: are you creating images that are personal, intentional, and true?
If the answer is “no,” put down your Photoshop manual, and go for a walk outside.