New ideas, new projects, and learning to trust the creative instinct

As you may recall my grousing in a couple of previous blog posts, it’s been a challenging couple of years for me, photographically speaking (and as a result, my blog posts have dwindled much more than they should have).  Circumstances sharply curtailed my ability to go out and shoot, even in relatively nearby locations; simultaneously, I was feeling an almost overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction with what I was shooting.  I was stuck and frustrated.

But, as circumstances usually do, things smoothed out a bit eventually.  As I was gearing up to resume more frequent photography trips earlier this year, I spent a great deal of time taking a good, long look at my work of the last two years.  The quality of my work wasn’t really off or in decline, but it was different in a way that didn’t make sense to me.  I looked at library after library of image files trying to figure out why I’d photographed the things I did, and the way I did.  I needed to get inside my own head.

There wasn’t a single “aha” moment, but it was close.  More accurately, I kind of distilled what I was seeing in my work and concluded that I seemed to be gravitating to two specific landscapes–shorelines and California hillsides.

Okay.  I’ve always enjoyed shooting those areas, but why was I so drawn to it now?  I actually turned down a few chances to shoot more dramatically iconic spots–even a trip or two to Yosemite when I concluded I just felt no desire to go there, right then–choosing instead to head for the central coast for those hills and shorelines.  If you know me at all, the oddness of that is obvious.

So I kept thinking about those two landscapes.  With very few exceptions, they’re not showy landscapes–no big icons, no noticeable focal feature to chase–although they’re certainly beautiful places.  But they can be difficult to photograph in a way that results in a compelling image.

Poppies and Oaks, Tehachapi Foothills
Poppies and Oaks, Tehachapi Foothills

As to the appeal of those places?  The hills to which I refer are almost entirely chaparral ecosystems or transitional ecosystems where chaparral eases into oak woodland or forest areas or even high desert.  Chaparral, a name fully evocative of the West, is almost entirely and solely a California ecosystem.  Parts of it touch southern Oregon and Baja, but chaparral covers more acreage in California than any other ecosystem, and hosts an impressive number of critical species of plant and animal life, much of it unique to California.  Curiously, chaparral is also one of if not the most unloved ecosystems in California, because it’s dense, and scrubby, and is often (and often incorrectly) considered a fire hazard.

If you’re at all familiar with my Owens Lake Project, then you already know I’m drawn to, shall we say, difficult landscapes.  So my attraction to those rolling hills of chaparral began to make a little more sense.  To me, chaparral is beautiful.  It can be surprisingly varied in appearance.  It’s tough to photograph in a way that conveys this beauty–but that’s the kind of challenge I’m up for.

As I continued to consider what I’d been shooting, I started to like the idea of this land/sea juxtaposition.  The shoreline images, though, still stumped me a little.  I can certainly shoot a traditional, showy landscape image of a sunset at the beach–I have and do and probably always will–but I was finding myself much more interested in these kind of intimate studies of the shoreline–the intertidal zone.  The fragile area between the high tide and low tide lines.  Not only does it serve as a sort of nursery area for sea life, but it has a very primal attraction for us Homo sapiens.  This was where life for us as land mammals began, and I think because of that we have a kind of collective instinctual attraction to the place where land and sea meet.

Blue Swell, Big Sur
Blue Swell, Big Sur

The intertidal zone is also under ongoing threat because of a deadly combination of development and loss of habitat, pollution, and climate change.  The Pacific coast saw a devastating sea star die-off the last few years because of a previously unknown virus that spread like wildfire most likely because of rising ocean temperatures.  Pollution from the Pacific garbage patch and Fukushima constantly bombard our beaches, and habitat loss thanks to coastal development is pushing more and more species to the brink.  The intertidal zone is a critical ecosystem–but we’re doing a number on it right now and we need to take better care of it.

I seem always driven by narrative–it’s all wrapped up in my work over the years as a writer and journalist, and it extends to my photography.  So when I notice a pattern in my work, I pay attention.  And look for the story.

At the same time I’ve been shooting these two ecosystems, I also noticed I’ve developed a keen preference for images in a 1:2 panoramic aspect.  I don’t think there’s anything particularly deep and meaningful about this preference; for me it seems to most accurately mimic the human field of vision, which works well for me in taking in these two kinds of scenes.

That long preamble is to introduce what I’ll call my Land/Sea study.  I’m going to limit these visual studies to that 1:2 aspect ratio, and use them to build a narrative on chaparral and the intertidal zone.  This certainly won’t be what I shoot exclusively–I’m greatly enjoying photographing wildlife more now, and will always photograph “traditional” landscapes, such that they are.  But I seem to have gravitated rather naturally to this set of ecosystems, and I’m going to see what sort of body of work (and resulting narrative) it yields.  This project isn’t really even a project in any formal sense–and it’s not documentary or even photojournalistic in nature.  My goal is to show off the beauty of these two places in a way that’s perhaps a bit nontraditional.  It’s certainly a creative challenge for me, and one I look forward to.

3 replies on “New ideas, new projects, and learning to trust the creative instinct”

Thanks, Mark! Now that I (think I’ve) figured out what I’m doing with these images, I think it’ll be a fun and rewarding direction to pursue in my photography.

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