A well known spot...
Well, after two days trekking through the wilderness, getting stuck and getting lost, we finally gained our permits from the BLM and were allowed to enter photographic "heaven", Coyote Buttes North. Well, perhaps not exactly heaven but certainly somewhere rich with photographic potential.
The image was made at The Wave, perhaps the most famous site in Coyote Buttes. Heavy rain just 10 days before we arrived had transformed this side canyon into a beautiful reflecting pool. This portion of the wave was made famous as the cover image on Jack Dykinga's wonderful book "Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau" but I was very conscious that I should make my own interpretation. It seems to me that the task of an artist is to express how he feels about his subject and to do this in as original a way as possible.
There is a dubious, and perhaps unhealthy, obsession with the naming of locations in photography. Particular places have acquired an almost holy status: Bryce Canyon, Point Lobos, Yosemite or even Dunstanburgh or (the Grandaddy of them all) The Sea of Steps in Wells Cathedral. The Wave is also just such a place. A criticism that was repeatedly levelled at my book, Landscape Within, was that I didn't name the locations of the images. My reasons for this was not because I wished to be protectionist. I wanted the viewer to interpret the image based upon just what they saw – how I had composed the image, my choice of perspective lighting etc. – rather than what they think they already know about a place.
Why the obsession with Place? Perhaps it's because of the strong, ineluctable, bond between the image and reality. A good picture was made at a particular place therefore that's the place to make another good image. The key word here is "another", not the same but a different image.
But I think that this is only part of the reason. This problem of "location worship" had been forcefully brought home to me on a recent workshop when a participant had shown his portfolio of a dozen or so perfectly executed landscape images. The only problem is that they weren't his images – they were technically excellent copies of other photographers' compositions, often shot in the same lighting conditions and same season as the original. I asked him why, when he was obviously a technically competent photographer, he was repeating other people's work rather than making statements of his own? His answer was that his time was short for photography, fitted in between work and family commitments, and that he needed to be sure that he would be able to make an image when he ventured out. This, for me, is no reason at all.
I make images as personal statements and don't wish to redundantly repeat what somebody else has already "said".
There is another side to this location fetish. Many photographers jealously guard information about their favourite locations, something that I suspect some readers of my book thought I was doing by not naming the places. This secrecy, this hoarding of locations, strikes me as extemely paranoid. Both the workshop participant and these hoarders are suffering from crises of confidence, one worries that they can't find images without inspiration from an external source (another "better" photographer). He thought that he couldn't find images of his own because he lacked the confidence to wander, receptive to inspiration, and let the images find him. Whilst, ironically, the location hoarder worries that a "better" photographer might make a better image in "their own" Place.
Self criticism is a vital part of the creative process, we all need to look at the compositions we've made and assess whether each has made the grade. But this necesary self analysis can turn into a deep seated lack of confidence in one's abilities, even amongst well-known and feted photographers. The hoarder shouldn't worry about anyone making a better image. Photography, like all Art, is relative. We can compare one image to another and decide that we prefer one but we cannot say with absolute certainty that one is categorically superior to another. Indeed we may well change our mind, on a different day with the wind blowing in a different direction. Perhaps what the hoarder fears in a profound way is that people will prefer not simply another photographer's viewpoint (and all the elements of composition, light and serendipity associated with that) but actually prefer the other photographer's view of the world. This is a pointless waste of energy for beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln "You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not please all of the people all of the time."
Workshop at Linhof & Studio
Paula and I will be running another LF workshop in Leigh on Sea in spring 2008. Details will be posted on the Linhof website in due course or if you just can't wait contact Paula on +44(0)1702 716116 for further details and to reserve a place.