There are a million valid approaches to photography and any of them can lead a dedicated lover of light to a path of making successful images. The goal of all photography is the same, however: it is to be seen. The experience of looking at a photograph is the thing that we are contributing to the public. What kind of looking experience are you hoping to create?
I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between photography that is inner directed versus externally stimulated. This is a key distinction and I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but if you want your work to have style and vision then you might need to think about this nexus. It always comes down to the question: why are you taking the photograph? What is your motivation?
When you photograph a product or a lifestyle shot you have certain goals. You are trying to please a client and to create beautiful images that they can use confidently to represent their brand. You want to tell a story about the experience that they are offering. This helps you to understand how to direct the elements of your photography. When you do work for a client, you start with the purpose of the shot.
You can do the same thing for yourself, too. You just have to think about it as though you are your own boss, because you are. There is a tremendous urge in the era of social media to create images that are pleasing to the public. Sunsets, puppies, etc. Are these things genuinely your interests or are they just an effective way of getting your work seen? They say that is one of the first rules of marketing. If you want to sell lots of stuff then choose something that people already like. Some things are more appealing than others, even though it is really up to the public to decide. If you are making things that people like, where is your point of view being expressed?
That is why it is important to do personal work as well as the work that is going to pay the bills. If you spend time scratching your own itch, if you figure out what it is you really like and why, then your work will grow. The thing is, you can still like the things that other people like. You don’t have to avoid the sunsets just because they are popular. That’s not what I’m saying. I think that it is important to carve out your own inner driven photography, too.
What does it mean to do inner driven photography? I guess it is easier to explain the opposite. Yesterday morning I was writing and finishing up my coffee when I checked the window in the kitchen that faces the ocean and I could see the clouds already starting to light up. At that moment, I could tell that if I didn’t move quickly I would miss my favorite part of the sunrise light. So, I got my stuff together and met the morning light ready to get those shots. This was not motivated by my feelings about where we are as humans, well not entirely. Maybe it is just how you think about it, too. But it was the indication of color in the sky that alerted me to the possibility of an amazing shot. And, since we are in the business of getting things seen it is important to be there to get those shots, too.
The shots that I am working on that are more inner driven and personal are portraits of Madison that we do on our hikes. Those are more meaningful to me because of our connection. We are in love and we share some amazing areas of overlap in our interests. She is a beautiful woman and a model so when we work together our personal feelings are enhanced by our professional skills. By combining these elements, my hope is to create images that will be profoundly individual but also universal. Love is one of the great powers that humans have access to and this is a project that is based in love.
Since it is flu season, however, not every morning is available for hiking into the cold to get a beautiful photo. So, I have been going solo. And yesterday morning it was obviously going to be an amazing day. The sunrise was mystical as any day breaking over the sanctuary of Monterey Bay has ever been. Huge sets bringing high tide steamers through crashed against the cliff and increased the drama and energy of the morning. The sunrise is a symbol of hope and renewal. At least it is for me. It is also an amazing show. My love for sunrise and sunset is genuine as anything ever has been. As a painter, I am continually amazed by my own capacity for shock.
The qualities of light in the morning are varied. First of all, you have the blue hour. This is when the darkness of space gradually gives way to the day’s illumination in silver blue tones. We read color symbolically, so this time of day is often a mood that invites calm and reflection if not melancholy, but if there is the right amount of clouds in the sky, then that blue is violently interrupted by shocking hues of red and pink that are brighter and more gauche than any neon artist’s dreams. In fact, there is something so lacking in subtlety about the sunrise that it is extremely tasteless. No rich person would ever choose to paint the sunrise the way it happens on those most colorful days. No, that kind of color is too much for old money. It begs too much attention. It is narcissistic. It is a performer on the stage. To some people, the sunrise is a dancing bear working for peanuts.
Not for us, though. For us, it is inspiration. It is courage with color. It is aggressive happiness. The sunrise is a message of more than hope. It is screaming at us. This is your essence. You are this beautiful, crass, dramatic extreme moment of wild untamed energy. The sunrise is our true calling. We are eternal, we are infinite, we are light. When you see it and recognize it your entire being fills with that energy. And then the first five minutes of light after the sun crosses that horizon line are the softest most golden rays of light you will ever have access to. There is no softbox in the world, no reflector, no strobe, no led, no nothing that can compare to the beauty of that light. This is a subtle light, though, and it is exactly the kind of light that old money loves. It is gold, it is finite, it is rare. This special light can be used in a number of valuable ways. It is only five minutes past sunrise and you have already experienced three radically different kinds of light. This is what it means to be a photographer to me.
Some days the light is amazing. Some days the ocean offers you a dynamic swell that you could just chase and watch all day. Some days you get both. This is when it is very difficult to do anything but feast. It is an embarrassment of riches and you feel like you are shooting fish in a barrel, but they are still fish.
When the waves are good, Santa Cruz focuses on the ocean. Most people are trying to get in position to get some waves. For me, I get as much satisfaction from a great photograph of a wave as a ride on one, and I can use the photos afterwards, so I stick with the camera. I think that some people can do all kinds of things, and I do work in a lot of different media already. But, I like to keep my obsession squarely directed towards the act of making photos. I don’t dilute any of my drive. I focus it on photography and let making images be supremely important to me.
Also, it gives me the opportunity to photograph professional surfers or my friends who want photos. Photographing surfing is difficult. You need the right equipment and a lot of knowledge. Angles and timing are even more important when you are trying to capture the act of riding a moving ramp of water that wraps around the reef hitting moments of light and reflection that create magical sparks of interest in the photos.
Yesterday my friend Sasha hit me up mid-day with a report of some good waves and so I met him somewhere cool and got a few photos. Standing on the beach looking through a 400mm lens watching the sets and trying to pick out my buddy from the pack of non-descript wetsuit-wearing surfers is a challenge for sure. There are so many distractions from the birds to the people walking by and the waves themselves are constantly drawing your attention. As you wait for someone to take off on a peak you see a grinding barrel down the beach. It takes a lot of timing, patience and self-control to stick with one surfer and try to get them shots. Yesterday, we got some good ones. Sasha is a brilliant lawyer who also happens to love surfing and art, so we get along well and laugh at ourselves as often as possible. It’s so important to me to not take myself too seriously. You have to laugh at yourself. It is mandatory in my book. Out in the morning watching the sky painted with crazy colors that would make a hip-hop artist blush and you are standing there with a tripod and a camera. It’s funny.
Due to the popularity of surfing, there is often a lot of tension in the water. The best way to deal with this increasing tendency is to be respectful, but you see a lot of conflicts going down. There are limited amounts of waves each day and sometimes people fight over them. It happens and if nobody gets too hurt, it is funny. Of course, it is much, much better to be cool and respectful and to enjoy your time in the water peacefully. There is definitely the potential in the water to achieve a powerful state of equanimity and equilibrium. It is good for us. But, the stress of trying to compete for waves can get the best of us, too.
Yesterday was a day that couldn’t stop giving. The sunset was just as dramatic and powerful as sunrise. The cliffs were full of people watching the sunset and it was a great scene. Instead of just getting the color and the landscape I enjoyed portraying the whole scene including the sunset watchers and the guy with funny santa pajama bottoms on. You see a lot more people watching the sunset, which doesn’t make it less valuable to me. I just like to get them in the scene sometimes. That is one of the great things about living here. We see sunrises and sunsets over the water.
We are in the middle of an amazing run of weather and waves and so busy is the way to be, but I’m looking forward to a slower time coming up when I can refocus on the work that we are doing up at Wilder, which is much more inner driven and important to me. It’s all important, but I feel like that work is the greatest contribution that I have to make. You have to be the judge of your own work. You have to say what you think is good and important even if nobody else likes it. You get to decide what you put out there and what you leave behind. What other people think of it is not yours to control, and that can be difficult when people don’t see what you do, but that is the nature of art and photography.