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An alternative view…

A look at what else is there

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David Ward

David Ward

T-shirt winning landscape photographer, one time carpenter, full-time workshop leader and occasional author who does all his own decorating.

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I’ve just got back from a week in the Lofoten Islands in arctic Norway. Over the last twelve years or so this has become one of my favourite places to make photographs. It’s hard not to love the majestic mountain scenery, especially in a place like Reine where the peaks rise straight from the sea to tower over the houses and warehouses of a place once described as the “most beautiful harbour in the world”.

But, as always, my inclination is to look for things other than the grand vista to photograph, to search for things that speak to me more of what I personally consider the essence of this place. Typically these are things on a more human scale.

Kvalnes blowing snow 2048

Kvalnes blizzard

When I posted this image on Facebook a few days ago I received this comment from a fellow photographer:

Lovely, and quite possibly the most un-Lofoten image I've seen yet... if you know what I mean!

I took this as a great compliment but some might feel, at this point, that they had failed in their mission to bring back images of the Lofotens. If a viewer can’t recognise it as “there” then surely it’s not a very good photograph of “there”? That would be so if the sole purpose of the image were to illustrate a place. But if, instead, the photograph was made to illustrate a mood, or a kind of event, it is surely irrelevant whether the place is recognisable or not.



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  • herb1815

    Thanks David , a very thought provoking read. As someone who, i think doesnt have an artistic bone is his body i find looking at other photographers work gives me ideas and inspiration for my own work which i simply would not have thought about myself , but i hope i do then make my own images or at least try to that are inspired by rather than remakes of another photographers work.
    Andrew Herbert

  • Herb

    Excellent commentary-we have plenty of grand vistas. I like b/w and IR for the reasons you mention. A curiosity and then a feeling should come from a good photograph (painting, sculpture, etc)

  • tobers

    Very good article. Well written and insightful. I learnt a lot from your Assynt workshop, specifically on how you approach a scene or location, and it changed the way I think about my own photography. I found myself creating images that would never have normally crossed my mind and have some delightful pictures on my wall now as a result. Still though, I feel compelled to “get a shot in the bag” in before I start exploring. As an analogy, I think it is very helpful to take driving lessons before starting off on the road on one’s own.

    • Hi Tobers,

      I’m flattered that you say I’ve made such a difference to your approach. It occurs to me that rather than thinking of getting “a shot in the bag” you might treat the early images on any shoot as a warm up exercise, akin to those done by both athletes and musicians.

      I’m not sure where you were going with the driving lessons analogy… were you suggesting that you’ve been driving a camera for years without a licence? ;-)

      • tobers

        Ha ha! I think I have a driving licence for sports photography, but am only on a provisional for landscape. I do like your analogy of the warm up – nice one.

  • The key element for me is the section “the frame that best aligned with how the unique individual that is me saw the scene”. It is a confidence thing. Most people might see ‘their’ individual shot but don’t have the confidence to take it. Social media has a part to play in that as most images are seen on the internet within a few short hours and people naturally don’t like criticism (or silence) and hence post the pictures they know will be likely to receive a favourable reaction. Why the individual took up photography in the first place is also an issue but I’d be in danger of going on for ages and I quite fancy baking some scones.

    • How were the scones? I assume there are none left now as you posted your comment yesterday! ;-)

      Confidence is the key, as you and Michéla so rightly point out. Social media tends to turn photography (or any other kind of content) into a competition. We all compare our likes to see how we’re doing – and by this measure you’re doing a lot better than me Mark! But likes aren’t a measure of artistic success. Rather, they’re a measure of popularity.

      In the widest sense, artistic success is impossible to judge in the short term; the lens of history will be the arbiter of how insightful or interesting any artist or piece by them is. More importantly, the expression of our personal goals is unlikely to be achieved if we’re courting approval from a large group of other people. That way lies boy bands rather than something with a bit more personal integrity!

      Anyway, it’s brekky time in France now and I’m ready for a pain au chocolat!

  • An enjoyable read David, and much that I relate to. I agree with Mark about confidence – we have to give ourselves permission to find and use our own voice rather than simply follow the herd. It gets a little easier over time (age or stubbornness?) and certainly with practice.

    • Hi Michéla,

      In my case it’s almost 100% stubbornness! For many years I tried to avoid looking at other photographers’ work to avoid being influenced. In retrospect this was both pointless and artistically limiting as we need the food that other artists provide.

  • Creating original work is probably a lot harder these days with the popularity of digital and the abundance of pictures of anywhere only a click away, you could become overexposed in style without knowing it. When I travel to new or popular places which doesn’t happen very often I withdraw from the idea of looking at other’s work of like Flickr to avoid any influece in respect to location and framing. Like you said artists need influence as fuel to progress but not to imitate. A bookshelf of the masters would probably be adequate. Landscape photography isn’t strictly about the landscape more so about what the photographer gets out of the landscape.

  • Richard Earney

    This is a great ode to turning your back on the bigger view! Something I love. There is so much out there that isn’t photographed. Thank you for writing it

  • wytchwood

    Hi David, Cutting to the hart of things as ever. I’m struggling to achieve some originality up here in Assynt and this will spur me on tomorrow. Looking at the images of Lofoten I am struck by the analogy that while the Reine grand vista image is like looking at a grand library the Kvalnes image is a like a book from that library that tells a part of the story in a more intimate fashion. Both interesting but much harder to intrigue the viewer with the grand vista. Kind Regards, Omer Ahmed.

    • A nice analogy, Omer. I hope you were spurred to greatness!

  • Lynne Ceeney

    I am curious – why can’t popularity equate to artistic success? Are we saying that if many people like something it cannot be artistic?

    • There’s no reason at all why popularity means that something cannot be considered artistic. That wasn’t the point I was making; just consider Monet, Van Gogh, Turner, Constable et al… although their work generally wasn’t popular in their lifetimes, it took the lens of history to show their genius.

      Fundamentally art has to involve a transformation via the hand and mind of the artist. The more literal a photograph the less transcendent it is. A degree of illustration does not entirely preclude it functioning as art but there must be an emotional charge. There must be room for the viewer to create or discover a story. Photographs of grand vistas don’t often allow this room for interpretation because of the weight of description they contain.

  • You have such a way with words, David – always love listening to or reading your thoughts… You’re not too bad with pictures either btw! ;0) Over the last few years I have found myself increasingly drawn to the smaller views, and the ones of nowhere (so to speak) – various influences have led me that way – photographic and otherwise – you would certainly rank high amongst the former.

    I do sometimes worry that I may lose touch with the bigger view as well, though – so I am trying not to neglect it! ;)

    What I find really interesting, from a personal perspective, is looking again at your Merced evening image. I remember watching the video of you and Joe discussing each other’s work a couple of years back. At the time, i really didn’t get this image – I now love it! It’s funny how we move on…

  • valda bailey

    Beautifully written and every bit as thought provoking as we have come to expect from your words.

    The T.S. Eliot is a favourite and oft-used quote. I can also relate to your point about remaining open to possibilities and avoiding expectations. “Try to go out empty and let your images fill you up” – as Jay Maisel is fond of saying. One of the greatest joys about photography for me, is not knowing where I’m going and allowing myself to be surprised. However, as you point out, this invariably comes about after a huge investment of time – time spent thinking and looking (which leads to the obvious conclusion that the most important equipment is actually between our ears). An intimate connection with our subject can only be achieved after time spent observing.

    It’s very difficult in these days of wall to wall social media not to want make images to please others but I think the overriding objective has to be to produce work that answers our own questions and furthers our own artistic progression. Even if those images don’t make Explore, generate any ‘faves’ or (God forbid) receive a clutch of sparkly flashing banners.

  • A great thought provoking article. Definitely struck a cord with me as I struggle to ‘stay on my bus’ and ignore the want to shoot for others. Don’t get me wrong I like to get good feedback on my images but the process of finding the images means more to me now I think. If I think I’ve found/created something original, interesting or different I feel I have achieved something. If I see something but feel it has not complexity I will often walk away….something you gave me a photographic kicking about at the weekend ?

    I’ll continue to wrestle with it I’m sure but for now I’ll stay on the bus.

    Alex

  • Giles Stokoe

    That last Ansel Adams quote is genius.

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