For this week’s installment of “The Creative Journey” I’m excited to feature Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa. Sarah and Ron are landscape photographers from the Western United States who spend a significant portion of the year traveling and photographing across the country in their airstream trailer. Their images and approach showcase a very thoughtful and intimate connection with the landscape and an awareness of their own personal interests. They run the website “Nature Photo Guides” where you can find their e-books, blog posts and portfolios. Make sure you visit their website, or check out their FB pages (Ron, Sarah) to view more of their work!
You both made significant changes in your lives in regard to careers and direction, which ultimately led to meeting one another and pursuing your current “semi-nomadic” lifestyle. How big of a role did photography play in your decision to make changes and do you think you would have taken a similar path without it being a part of your lives?
For context, we spend about half our time traveling around North America in our Airstream trailer, working from the road. Ron works a fully remote, full-time job as a software engineer. Sarah runs our shared photography business and maintains a few small contracts that have continued from her time as a self-employed consultant. We have been traveling in this way for about a year and a half with the intention to continue for as long as it makes sense. We are (unfortunately!) not on a permanent vacation nor are we independently wealthy, so we spend weekdays working from our trailer. Given our proximity to scenic and often wild places, we photograph around sunrise or sunset, hike, or otherwise enjoy nature on most days.
Sarah: Around 2009, I had a stressful full-time job that required significant travel and was in graduate school full-time as well. Getting outside was the one respite I had in my life and I started taking along a camera to document the trips. In what seems like a common progression, I quickly became enamored with pursuing photography because it was a source of meditative calm and introspection in an otherwise maxed-out, often unhappy existence. As photography developed into more of a serious hobby, the idea of living on the road for six months or a year became increasingly appealing but the person I was with at time had a stack of excuses for why it would never work (including that our two cats, who are happily sitting next to me in our Airstream as I type this, could never adapt to such a lifestyle). Seven years and many changes later, I am living the life I daydreamed about back then. Our main motivation to travel like this is to live a more fulfilling life and photography is one of the ways for us to accomplish that goal.
Ron: There were multiple factors that led me to quit my software development job back in 2011 to take a sabbatical but the desire to photograph and travel were by far the primary reasons. Three weeks of vacation a year wasn’t cutting it, and I didn’t like having to be tethered to a cell phone connection or pager on the weekends. The prospect of waiting 20 to 30 years until retirement wasn’t appealing either. After I quit and stretched my 12-month sabbatical into three years, my bank account balance told me it was time to get a job again. I made sure that the job I took would allow me the flexibility to travel more by being able to work remotely. I was fortunate to find such a position and together Sarah and I travel about half of the year despite working full-time.
You both have been involved in landscape photography for a number of years, and even though it’s not yet a full-time career, it would certainly be fair to say that you both pursue it “professionally”. Looking back on your journey, what were the biggest misconceptions you had about being landscape photographers compared to how you view and value it now?
Sarah: On the photography side, I didn’t have an accurate concept of how much time and dedication it takes to develop a meaningful, creative portfolio of work. It has taken years, with significant time in the field, for me to develop a body of work that represents my goals and while I am getting closer, I am still not there. This process has been intensely fulfilling and because of the inherent challenges associated with creative pursuits, has kept me interested and motivated for longer than most other things in my life.
On the business side, being a successful professional photographer today often requires doing things that we just do not want to be obligated to do, like living online to build a brand, running a continuous schedule of workshops to the same popular places, and always being in marketing mode. In many ways, building a landscape photography business today feels a lot like shouting in a room full of people who are often shouting even louder. It all takes away from the reasons we pursue photography in the first place.
When we decided to start using our photography to develop a business, we agreed that the passion side of photography had to stay as the top priority. In my case, I am transitioning away from a career I really enjoyed to build our photography business. For that decision to make sense, I need for photography to be a better path than that other career. This means that we skip some business opportunities that might be good financial decisions but would require untenable compromises. We photograph what we want and when we want, and find income opportunities along the way but do not seek them out at the expense of our other goals.
What were some of the early struggles you faced in your careers, do they still exist today and how have you managed them over the years?
Sarah: Self-doubt is my most significant challenge with regard to my photography. I have confidence in and am proud of my photography when I am viewing my own finalized photographs. Self-doubt creeps in when I start comparing myself to others. Social media and photo sharing sites have ingrained judgment and competition into what I want to view as a personal creative pursuit. Now, when I share a photo online, I can see exactly how it stacks up, at least in terms of popularity, when compared to the work of others. The feeling that something I am proud of may not resonate with others often keeps me from sharing my photos online or even on our website. I probably have about 200 processed photographs that have never been shared anywhere, mostly because I do not want to subject myself to the feelings that sometimes come along with social media – not being good enough, that my quiet work is viewed as boring, or just feeling like I am shouting for attention in a massively crowded room. While none of this prevents me from taking and processing photos, it definitely prevents me from sharing my photography.
Ron: My early struggles were liberal editing (posting and processing too many photos of subpar quality) and photo processing (not paying enough attention to small details, and rushing through photos). When I started out, I would let any photo through the editing process. After realizing the flaws in that strategy, I went to the other extreme and only let the greatest hits through, which is also problematic but for different reasons. Only recently have I found a balance where I try to process photos as collections, where the total effect is greater than the sum of the individual photos. Not every photo has to stand out and shout on its own, but it can complement a group.
Early on, I would photograph anything – natural landscapes, wildlife, cityscapes, zoo animals, or whatever happened to be in front of my camera. I then narrowed my focus to be exclusive to natural landscapes. I believe that narrowing helped me quite a bit in terms of improving the quality and consistency of my work but proved to be somewhat limiting over time. I expanded my focus again to include abstracts and macro work (of natural subjects) and I am currently happy where I am.
Consistency and self-doubt seem to be two of the biggest road blocks stopping people from reaching their true potential. How do you push through the periods of time where you’re lacking both creative and emotional drive?
Ron: There are two ways to look at consistency: one is producing quality photographs at the same rate and the other is producing photographs at the same quality. I don’t think achieving the former is actually possible, but the latter should be possible. Landscape photographers specifically have to deal with weather and other ephemeral conditions that can hinder and help photographic output, but even if we didn’t, photography is like any other creative pursuit in the sense that some days/weeks/months are better than others. With experience, I have learned that the highs will balance out the lows over time.
I haven’t discovered a magic recipe that will instantly break me out of a creative funk; I just have to wait it out.
If I am not feeling particularly motivated, I will leave the camera behind and just enjoy nature for the sake of enjoying it, and that is rewarding enough in itself. I also do not judge the success of an outing by the number of quality photos that result, but rather the experience itself, since the experiences are what drew me to photography in the first place.
As for self-doubt, I am confident enough in my own work that I do not feel the need to compare myself to others or get validation from others. Of course, I prefer it when other people enjoy my photos, but I do not photograph for their approval or their praise. It is enough for the photograph to mean something to me. If I see an inspirational photograph from another photographer, it does not make me feel bad. It actually makes me feel the opposite! Photography is not a zero-sum game where the success of others takes away from my success or vice-versa. When I first started photographing, praise was a key motivator, but with time and experience it no longer is. The fulfillment from external praise turned out to be hollow and short-lived, so it became less of a motivator over time.
It can be easy to look at other photographers who are successful or popular and think that everything came easy for them, when really, that couldn’t be further from the truth. How important do you think failure is when it comes to growth?
Ron: I think failure is key for artistic and creative growth. Failure isn’t the end goal of course but is a necessary side effect of the willingness to take risks and try out new things. Failing to come away with a good photo from a single outing is an insignificant failure and the benefits of coming away with something new, creative, or personal is a great reward. Still, many are unwilling to look beyond the iconic photograph or known tropes and try something different, even if failure might be the result.
For landscape photographers, many are discouraged when the conditions aren’t what they pre-envisioned, and instead of looking at this for an opportunity to try something different and work with rather than work against the conditions, they give up or shoot a mediocre version of their pre-conceived photograph. This is failure too, but the detrimental kind that comes with playing it safe and getting nothing rather than taking a risk and either learning from it or coming up with something better.
Sarah: I like to think in terms of adaptability and learning rather than in terms of failure. While I am happy to experiment extensively and take risks, I try to avoid failure on a big scale by prototyping and testing big ideas rather than going all-in at once. On the other hand, micro-failures, like missed opportunities with marketing our e-books, a blog post that falls flat, or a photography outing that didn’t result in any creative output, are all part of daily life. I want to learn from these experiences and adapt my future practices in response.
A good example of how I am trying to grow as a photographer relates to some of these micro-failures in the field. I have the habit of wandering around and always looking for something better when out photographing. In reviewing years of photos, I think I am actually best served when I focus on one or two things that catch my eye instead of allowing myself to wander without committing. So, in response, I am trying to adapt my field practices for better results. I do not see my past experiences as failures but instead as learning opportunities. If I can identify a place where I could improve, I have the opportunity to adapt and be more successful in the future. The ability to learn from and move beyond setbacks is essential, both in pursuing photography as a form of personal expression and in building a successful photography business.
Social media and the desire for acceptance and recognition can have such a huge impact on photographers and the direction they take while creating their images. What are your thoughts on authenticity and why is it important for people to embrace their own creative vision?
Sarah: With liking and commenting mechanisms built into most photo sharing platforms, competitiveness, popularity, and out-doing the feats of others can easily become more motivating than seeking out photography as a form of personal expression. While it might be natural for a photographer to want positive reinforcement and encouragement from strangers online, letting the tastes of the masses dictate the direction of one’s photography is often a creative dead-end. And, given the power of these influences, it can be difficult to even find one’s own creative vision in the first place.
One of the reasons I dislike most photo sharing sites is the tendency for a dominant style to be elevated as the definition of successful or worthwhile photography. This encourages conformity over creativity.
I think one of the most important steps in being authentic is to understand your motivations and then consciously and deliberately work to use those motivations as a guiding principle.
I see one of my purposes as a photographer as showing the beauty and intricacy of details in nature because these aspects of the natural world are fascinating and awe-inspiring to me. These photos are appreciated but not popular online so when sharing them, I have to remember that they are meaningful to me and that is what matters first and foremost. Over time, I have been able to develop an audience that appreciates this kind of photography so I can get both internal and external validation. It just takes time to get to that place and diligence to ignore the pull of social media to conform along the way.
Your book “Beyond The Grand Landscape” focuses on what the two of you call “smaller scenes”. How instrumental has that style of photography been in your growth as artists and what do you think influenced you to pursue it?
Sarah & Ron: For your readers who are not familiar with Beyond the Grand Landscape, we consider small scenes to include intimate landscapes, abstract renditions of natural subjects, and creative portraits of plants, trees, and flowers. In putting together our photography portfolios, we want our work to convey a more complete story of a place. Small scenes, combined with grand landscapes, help tell stories with more depth and nuance than one or two grand landscape photographs could do on their own. At least for us, one of photography’s major gifts is an improved ability to observe and appreciate nature’s details. Since we find inspiration in seeking out these details and want to include them as storytelling elements in our photography portfolios, photographing smaller scenes is an essential component of our work.
What is one piece of advice that you would give other photographers when it comes to creating for themselves? How can they ignore the “noise” and stay true to themselves?
Sarah: This is a hard question for me to answer because I have not been able to consistently do this for myself. When I am out photographing, I am really good at spending time on the subjects and scenes that interest me most. The idea that “this photo will be popular so I should take it” almost never runs through my mind. However, the noise does get to me when I choose which of my photographs to process and share, or when I think about the state of landscape photography today. As I have developed a more cohesive body of work, I have started feeling more confident in what I have to offer and share as a photographer, which helps cut out some of the noise because I am now more comfortable in pursuing photography for personal reasons and not external validation.
Cole Thompson, a Colorado-based black and white photographer, practices something he calls photographic celibacy (http://www.photographyblackwhite.com/tag/celibacy/). He avoids viewing the work of other photographers because doing so impairs his ability to pursue his own vision. While I do not go as far as Cole does, I think his idea has a lot of merits and I apply it in how I spend my time related to photography. For example, I try to stay away from things that I find demoralizing (like the 500px popular page) and instead focus on the things that inspire me. While it might be exhilarating to engage in the many online debates about hot topics like photo manipulation, doing so only leaves me feeling deflated so I avoid those discussions as well.
Ron: Compare yourself with yourself and not with others. It’s easy to ignore the noise if you turn down the volume (or possibly, depending on your level of discipline, turn off the station entirely). There’s no law of photography that says to be a producer you must also be a mass consumer. I enjoy looking at the photography of others but I think it’s key to diversify sources beyond the small world of online photography. For Sarah and I, it also helps that we do not do this as our primary source of income, so it is not our goal to please the masses or compete with other photographers.
As outdoor photographers, how important is it to build a strong connection with the wilderness and what are some of the ways that the connection influences your work?
Sarah & Ron: We both took up landscape and nature photography because we started with an interest in nature and wilderness first. Without natural landscapes and subjects, it is likely that neither of us would have taken up photography in the first place. Now that we have both pursued the nature and wilderness photography for years, the experiences are still the primary driver but photography has changed the way we experience places. Photography has deepened our interest and knowledge of the natural world. We both notice details that we might have previously walked right by before honing our observational abilities through photography. And, because photography is a true passion for both of us, we get out into nature more because we enjoy combining two of the things we love the most. Visiting a place often brings out a sense of wonder and awe in both of us and the desire to capture and share that feeling through photography is motivating.
A lot of us have certain expectations when it comes to locations, weather and light. This can leave us consumed with pre-conceived ideas which often leads to a lack of true connection. How do you make sure that the process doesn’t kill the experience when you’re in the wilderness?
Sarah & Ron: Expectations for locations, weather, and light all serve as blinders. With pre-conceived notions in mind, it is a lot harder to see all of the opportunities that a landscape is offering. Our diversity of interests typically helps us get out of the negative cycle you describe in the question. Because we both are happy to find subjects on clear days, appreciate the colorful light of twilight on clear days, and both enjoy photographing smaller scenes, we do not depend on “epic” conditions to make photographs.
As we have photographed more, we just are not as disappointed if fall colors are late to an area or if clear skies stick around for weeks. We generally take what nature offers and find subjects to photograph given the conditions.
There are three places where expectations can creep in for us and we have to work hard to control them: 1) when we are working on a project that would benefit from a specific kind of photo, 2) when working on a portfolio that is missing a particular photo that one of us has in mind, and 3) when we are visiting a place that is hard to access and have less-than-ideal conditions (like the 40-mile backpacking trip we did in the Canadian Rockies that was almost a total bust in terms of weather). On our last trip to Death Valley, we tried multiple times to photograph sand verbena wildflowers at a remote field of sand dunes. It is a long, bumpy drive and a long, monotonous walk to get to the base of the dunes and our multiple trips to the location never panned out for wildflowers due to wind and timing. While it was disappointing not to get the photos we had in mind, especially after putting in a lot of work, we were both able to redirect our focus to what nature had to offer and came away with different but still worthwhile photographs.
It’s often easy for people to get tunnel vision when it comes to photography and the pursuit of becoming “successful”. Unfortunately, this can often lead to them ignoring all of the other amazing gifts that come from being a photographer. If you had to pick one thing that photography has provided you with that you consider the most rewarding, what would it be and why?
Sarah: Photography served as the motivation to make some big changes that have helped me live a much more fulfilling life. In a practical sense, photography has helped me become a much more keen observer of nature and I now have significantly more knowledge of and appreciation for the natural world.
Ron: Photography has motivated me to travel more. As an example, before I was a photographer I had hardly visited the desert and now I can’t get enough of it! Photography has also given me the ability to appreciate nature more deeply and observe it more purposefully. I notice patterns, the effects of light, flora, subtle differences in seasons, and the effects of weather, time, erosion on natural places, all things that I wouldn’t be doing, at least to this degree, without being a photographer.
Pursuing a passion can easily consume a person, leaving them feeling like there are not enough hours in a day to accomplish their next goal. How do you balance your photography careers with the other areas of your life and how important is that balance?
Sarah & Ron: Achieving this sort of balance is a work in progress for both of us, but we are headed in the right direction. As we have spent a considerable amount of time photographing the last few years (including Ron taking almost three years off), we do not feel that we are missing out like we used to. We are more patient and happy to take the opportunities as they present themselves.
Recently, we have also been trying to get more focused on achieving a certain set of goals rather than directing our energies in scattered directions. We are essentially following some advice we read in an in-depth article about the habits of accomplished people – write down the top 25 things you want to accomplish in your life and then prioritize the list. After you have the top five things, they become your primary focus. The other 20 things on your list become the “ignore at all costs” list. Even for the most prolific and productive among us, pursuing every opportunity and accomplishing a long list of goals is impossible so focus your energy on the things that are most important.
Overall, we think the most important aspect of all this, and the part that people skip too often, is making deliberate choices. It is easy to fall into a rut or set of habits that do not accurately reflect a person’s real priorities. You have to go through the process of deciding what you want your life to look like and where you want to focus your energies to make that life and those goals possible. With your priorities identified, it is a lot easier to find a balance because you know where to focus your energy and can start making more deliberate decisions to give something up or pursue something more vigorously because you have identified it as a priority.
What is the best advice you can give anyone looking to make big life changes, follow their dreams or pursue their passion more seriously?
Sarah: For most people, there is no perfect opportunity to make big life changes so stop waiting around for things to neatly align. In our case, I made the decision to scale back on a career I really enjoyed to make it possible to spend more time on travel and photography. In making the choice to spend my time differently, I distanced myself from a community of friends and colleagues that I had been part of for more than a decade. Making that kind of choice is incredibly difficult but without taking such a risk, our current situation would not be possible. Start by making the small choices that cumulatively make big changes possible. This, in addition to making deliberate choices and figuring out your true priorities, is really helpful in eventually creating the reality that you want.
Ron: I think financial flexibility and the removal of debt is key (our blog post on this topic can be found here: http://www.naturephotoguides.com/travel/financial-freedom) to make any important life changing decisions. It also doesn’t have to be all or nothing, it’s possible to make a series of small but important decisions over time that will add up and position you for major changes in the future, or just put you in a better place in the present. The key thing though is that if you want your life to change, you have to actually start making changes. Unless you are extremely lucky, the life you want will not just happen for you. You have to take the initiative.
Here at Image & Rhythm we’re all about showcasing like-minded people with the goal of inspiring others to chase their dreams and become more successful photographers. Who would you like to see us interview next and why?
Alex Mody – Even though Alex is only in his mid-twenties, he has assembled an inspiring portfolio of work and offers a lot of insightful observations about landscape photography and living a creative life.
Jessica Johnson – Jessie is a fellow Airstreamer and photographer. She experienced some significant life challenges and decided to reset her life through full-time travel. Her journey has been an inspiration to us and we think she could share many insights with your audience.
Charles Cramer – Charles is one of our favorite photographers. So many photographer profiles focus on emerging photographers, ignoring more established photographers who have so much to share and teach.