One of the things a photographer should do if they want to be an artist is to show the public things they are not used to seeing. The novelty of something that is not immediately recognizable is often magical and often takes up a lot more attention than maybe it even deserves. What really matters is when a photographer can show you something new but it is also lasting.
Most of the new directions don’t work. That is the nature of experimentation. Most don’t work, but occasionally there is a spark and a match ignites and the fire can be used to light a stove. In these cases, where we end up cooking, there is a lot of energy for the project until it too becomes well known and unsurprising.
Any photographer who chooses the natural world as a subject can tell you that there is always something new and surprising even in a place that you have photographed a thousand times. The sunset continues to stun us with its awesome qualities because every time it does something spectacular it feels like it is brand new.
That is one of the great lessons to learn from photographing the same place many times: the dynamism of light and life. Everything is constantly changing and the moments that make the most magical photographs may only happen for a few brief seconds.
The other night as I was hiking, I came upon a great horned owl sitting on a post. It was totally unaware of me as it was focused on the grass in the last light of the blue hour. I got out my camera and lens and set up my tripod and just as I was focusing the owl plopped down into the grass, belly-flopping onto some rodent in the field, which it took away up into a tree for its meal.
I didn’t get a photograph of the owl at all, but moments like that are why you go out into the field looking for anything and nothing in particular. I almost always get the shot. That is one of the reasons why I decided to write about missing this one. The exception underlines the rule.
I have this thing that I have felt as an artist for a long time, but Norman Locks helped me to realize it as a photographer. That is, you want to meet things eye to eye. You have to have the integrity to believe that you and your subject are equals and that this moment is going to make a photograph because you and the subject are coming together out of the flow of life for a split second of connection.
This means that you have to have purpose out there, too. If you are only hiking to find the animals, then they have the leverage and you have positioned yourself more as a hunter than as an artist. The artist doesn’t need the animal to have an experience, so if the animal becomes a part of the experience then it just so happens to be. It is not forced, though.
In order to do this, it helps to give yourself some sort of difficult goal that impresses even you when you accomplish it. I have been pushing myself to hike long distances on a regular basis and that gives me the gravity to just go out there and whatever comes across my path will be part of my experience. I’m not chasing images. I’m cultivating the strength and the patience to be out there enough so that when it happens, it happens. It is what it is. Nothing forced, nothing faked.