Fresh Eyes

"The question is not what you look at, but what you see." Henry David Thoreau

I recently wrote about a visit by my friend Laurie, from Michigan, and our wandering around a little of northwest Montana to photograph the local landscape. We spent some time in Glacier National Park, made a sunset visit to the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, and photographed in some other locations. A few weeks later we shared some of our photos via e-mail and the Web, as we often do, each providing something of a "peer review", or critique, of the other's work. Getting the insights and comments of other photographers can be a great help in the on-going process of developing one's art, but that's perhaps a subject for another article. After viewing a few of my pictures she said, "…it's pretty clear that we took some very different shots on that day in Glacier. Except for (one) shot, I don't have these same shots at all." I did not find this surprising. I spend a lot of time in Glacier; I've been photographing there for years — all seasons, all times of day, all types of weather, and in a great many locations throughout the park. This was Laurie's first visit; she was there for a day and a half, although in that limited time she did experience a variety of weather conditions, and we drove the length of Going-To-The-Sun Road so she could see the diversity of landscapes within Glacier's boundaries.

Still, I've thought about her comment several times since that e-mail exchange. Laurie's a talented photographer; her technical skill and artistry are unquestioned. For most of our time in the park we set up our gear fairly close together and made our photographs at the same time. Yet it's clear from her statement that we saw different things, or saw the same things in different ways.

You Say To-may-to, I Say To-mah-to

Yellow Boat #2, Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park

One of the rental boats in sunrise light on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. This is not typical subject material for me, although I've long been intrigued by the solitary yellow boat among those of other colors in Glacier's rental fleet.

I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking, "I've already got my shot here" when I'm in a place I visit often. Someone else, perhaps visiting that same spot for the first time, might make dozens of exposures, moving around to different positions, playing with composition, watching the light and shadows change, and then coming home with a handful of keeper pictures. While photographing a landscape, he or she may switch to a macro lens and get down close to the ground, or put on a telephoto lens to work the landscape in an unusual way. The possibilities are endless; that person is seeing the place for the first time. Can a veteran of a location see the place with a fresh eye? Is it possible to make something new in that same old location? I think Laurie's comment says the answer is "Yes" to both questions.

Laurie looked across Lake McDonald at sunset and saw the same big lake, stunning mountains, and impressive sky reflecting in the still water as I. She posted no photos from that location, while I got a nice keeper to add to my collection of Lake McDonald photos. (That doesn't mean she didn't get something nice there, only that if she did I've not seen it.) I also made photos of the lake's rental boats, of giant cedar trees along Avalanche Creek, of lichens on tree bark along the lakeshore; she posted nothing similar from those locations. She got a very nice photo of the St. Mary Valley from the parking area at the Logan Pass visitors' center, while I sat in the car and photographed nothing. She saw something there I didn't, and took home a great photo. As mentioned, we spent time photographing other locations, too. Laurie posted a beautiful, many-layered, golden-sky photo of the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuged at sunset, while I made no photographs of the refuge at all that evening. We clearly saw things quite differently.

Except when we didn't, of course. We have similar photos of Sunrift Gorge, close-ups of rough cedar bark, and fog-draped Belton Hills, all in the park. We have very similar photos of the full moon rising over the Mission Mountains.

I received comments from friend Dean, a photographer I've known for many years, and with whom I've worked on occasion. After viewing some photos from my summer, 2010, trip to North and South Dakota, he said he'd probably not have "seen" those images had he been there. While that could be interpreted in several ways, I couldn't hope for a more gratifying comment from anyone, especially from someone who consistently produces some of the highest caliber photographic work you'll find anywhere. When he's working in the field there's not much he misses photographically, but his comment is further proof we all see things in different ways.

Perhaps this means some pictures are obvious to anyone, while others are a matter of interpretation, presenting themselves only to a few. I think this applies when we're in a location and a picture jumps out at us, but also applies to images we pre-visualize and then hunt down later.

Vive la Différence

Life would be pretty boring, and photography would become much more pointless, if we all saw the same things in the same way, if we all came away from a place with the same perceptions. Fortunately we don't, and even our own perceptions are altered by time and familiarity. Visiting a place frequently, and perhaps regularly, it's easy to develop a been-there, done-that sort of approach to seeing what's there to photograph. The challenge is to find something different or to see the same things in new ways, to see with fresh eyes. For me, this is the very best aspect of photography and a large part of what makes it fun. Much of the anticipation of returning to favorite locations comes from knowing I'm going to be challenged to come home with something different.

Polson Bay and the narrows, Flathead Lake

Polson Bay and "the narrows" on a warm July morning. This is quite different from the multi-frame panorama Laurie made from about 60 feet (18M) away.

In February, 2010, I wrote about "Seeing Different". The article was about visiting the iconic locations, those photographed by everyone, and coming home with something new and unique, different from the rest of the crowd. What I'm talking about here, however, is coming back with something different from you, different from your own past work in that location. Forcing yourself, if necessary, to see something new, to bring back new and different photos, from familiar locations.

As I discussed in the February article, there are many techniques for getting your own take on the iconic scenes. These apply here as well, but to make fresh photos from locations you visit often, you must see them with fresh eyes. You must avoid the "I've got my shot…" attitude, and work the location again (and again), as if seeing it for the first time. Then can you consider the appropriate techniques or equipment to make something new.

Get Fresh

Depending upon where you live and your preferred subjects, you can work on this in your own back yard, nearby parks, local streets, perhaps even indoors. For this exercise it's not necessary to make an expensive trip to a far away place. Simply go to a favorite location and challenge yourself to see it as you never have. Perhaps even look for subject matter that's very different from your normal work.

Clay formations in Theodore Roosevelt National Park: The mask.

Wind and water erode the soft clay of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (north unit) into bizarre forms. An emerging golem? Melting faces? Looking for abstracts and other oddities in the landscape is great fun.

If you typically photograph in the natural landscape, find and study the hand of man in that landscape, and then force yourself to work those subjects. If you're a wildlife photographer, look beyond the birds and mammals and photograph the landscape instead. If you do architectural work, try some street photography. It may not be easy, and it may not come right away — your early attempts may leave you wondering why you bothered. But pushing yourself into new territory is guaranteed to stimulate your creativity. Everything you know about composition, color theory and tonality, exposure, and technique apply to photographing an old cabin just as it applies to the landscapes you may usually shoot. Applying what you know to subjects you don't can yield some amazing results, and if you're stuck in a creative rut, this is a great way to break out of it. Even if you don't use the resulting photos, you'll learn something and be a better photographer for having stretched beyond your same ol' same ol'.

Head out to a favorite place, put on your fresh eyes, and challenge yourself to see what's there again for the first time.

October, 2010