One axis of photographic method is the spontaneity of the image making. That is, some artists carefully design and pre-plan every image and some live in the moment and eagerly take what they find. I cannot say one method is inherently superior, but I am strongly on the “found along the way” side. Nearly all my images are found accidentally. Well, accidental but I was deliberately looking.
In the moment
My photography is almost exclusively “in the moment”. I am a hunter-gatherer. Planning usually does not go farther than “it should be stormy tomorrow. Maybe I’ll head east to see if I can find some good shots without getting caught in a tornado.” Literally, being aware of tornadoes, hail, or serious thunderstorms is a primary consideration where I live. But that makes for some great images.
Why do I do this? The simple answer is “it works for me.” I am generally happy with the results I get, even if I sometimes come back with nothing. The thrill of the hunt is reward enough. It is a percentage game. Win a few, lose a few. I try not to be impatient. I love the quote from Ansel Adams that “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.“
Perhaps I’m an endorphin junky. If I’m out and about my subconscious may recognize something, even if it it just a potential to be worked. It alerts me to it and this creates a burst of light/energy/warmth whatever. It is difficult to describe. But is is a joy and excitement of discovery. Each find creates a kind of high.
I’ve written about this before, but I still do not have good words to describe it. Luckily, I don’t have to understand it in order to be able to use it. It is the way I’m wired.
Wandering is a key part of my process. I never scout locations in any detail. I never go to famous, popular places to recreate a copy of someone else’s shot.
Instead, I meander through out of the way places. Places that would not be written up in any tourist guide. Ideally, places I have never even heard of. Most people would cringe at the idea, but it energizes me.
A problem with most of us is we have limited time and a tight agenda of places to go and things to see. Four countries in 3 days. This puts us in blinders. We get so busy working the plan that we do not have time for happy accidents.
The best training I had was when we owned a timeshare. Yes, I know, horror stories abound and most are true. I don’t recommend buying a timeshare. But ours had a wonderful effect on me. Trading for our slot gave us a week in a fixed location somewhere in the world. And our timeshares were generally in very out of the way places.
So we’re stuck in these weird places for a whole week. After a day or 2 to get familiar with the area we were bored and had to fill up time. So I learned to wander. To find the tiniest back roads we could (I won’t tell the rental companies about…). To head off, destination unknown and no goal in mind.
The benefits were incalculable. I learned that the more comfortable I got with a place the more new discoveries there were to uncover. A beautiful little country church, a tiny fishing village, rocky shores, lovingly tended farms, people in a obscure village, forest trails, and on and on.
We don’t have the timeshare any more, but I kept the lifelong learning of being able to find interesting, out of the way places.
Go out empty
I keep coming back to this quote from the great Jay Maisel: “Try to go out empty and let your images fill you up.“
This is gold. It is hard for most of us because we are brainwashed to believe we have to plan everything and know exactly what we want. Maybe that works for you. It does not work for me. I suspect it does not work in general for those wanting to make art instead of record shots.
Don’t have a preconceived idea of what you expect to shoot. Don’t spend your time at the landmarks where all the other photographers gather. Be on your own journey. Shoot what you are drawn to., not what someone else expects you to do. If you are looking for something you will probably find it, but you will miss so much else along the way.
It is an easy tradeoff for me. I have proven to myself that going out empty is my best plan. The images I find fill me up.
Journey of discovery
It sounds like I do a lot of aimless wandering around. That is true. It is a joy to me and it’s how I do my art.
I am energized by finding new places, out of the way discoveries, things few other people photograph. These call me and make my photography worthwhile.
It is said that life is a journey, not a destination. Wise words. It is how we journey through life that makes the difference. Are we head down, staring at our phone as we pass through beauty and wonder, or do we look around and appreciate it? Even stop and walk through it and really take it in?
If we learn to be open to really see the things around us, and if we get off the beaten path and break new ground, we can have a wonderful journey of discovery through our whole life. Do you want to just get to the end or do you want to enjoy the journey and feel rewarded? I have discovered that the things found along the way add a lot of joy.