on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Dodging the Burn

Remaining true to who we are

Matt Smith

With many interests that involve photography, if not working alongside his wife on their classic car, you’ll often find Matt immersed in one of Australia’s wilder landscapes.


It's February 2015, and I'm perched on a crumbling sandstone cliff trying to organise a somewhat different composition of one of Southern Australia's classic viewpoints. For some reason, I’m failing to be inspired. The light may have been a little ordinary for my liking, but that wasn't the problem, the real issue was my heart wasn't in it, and it certainly wasn't the location that was lacking, maybe it was the constant hubbub of activity behind me?

Like the Southern ocean rolling in before me, every ten minutes busloads of visitors fell upon the boardwalk in a hive of frenzied activity. Arms held aloft like yardarms with mobile phones attached, and three legged bandits jostling for position attached to the combined fiscal figure of a of a small car, all pointing at the same view. All for what? Five minutes worth of photographic and social media orientated bragging rights (my assumption); then the disorganised scurry back to the bus. Not one really paused to absorb the raw power of the scene set before them, nor I thought, did they really care, preoccupied as they were with their technology after image capture, rather than the spectacular scenery before them.

Ok, maybe I’m satirically generalising too much, but all this commotion behind me was certainly making it difficult to get into the frame of mind. But then, does the world really need another image of London Bridge? Am I by being here contributing to the very same thing in which I accused the above? Won't my image end up in the same place, on a .com site for the world to see? Some attitude adjustment may have been beneficial but at the time, deep down, I really thought that I was losing interest in photography big time.

As the sun dips lower the light steadily warms, the last of the hordes disappear, and only an isolated few remain. Finally, there is peace, the only sound the reverberating roar of the Southern Ocean. Salt spray, backlit by the warm tones of a setting sun hangs in the air, its tang tantalising my sense of smell as a cool breeze plays with my jacket. This is why I'm here, but why do I feel I've lost my edge? Is this burn out? I go back to our accommodation imageless, and deep in thought.

Under normal circumstances, we wouldn't have chosen this time of year being Summer and school holidays, but it seemed the natural thing to tag on after travelling so far to see a one of a kind international airshow. It just didn't occur to me that half the world would be doing the same thing. But why not, one spends all that money to be at a particular event, why wouldn't you tag on a holiday to see some spectacular scenery? At that stage in my photography there’d been questions brewing like, what am I doing? Do I really need to get the camera out of the bag to photograph something that I'm not really tuned into? Do I really need to make another mediocre image of a place just to feel photographically satiated? As if clicking the shutter makes it worthwhile, regardless of whether I connect with what I see or not? It's almost as if I have to take home something for the effort and expense expended. There was a time when it wasn't like that, when I used to just enjoy being there, camera or not, but lately, it seems like I’m just going through the motions.

A little over a year ago I shut down my website, closed all my social media accounts, even sold some of my equipment and bought a classic car. The first part might be a bit drastic you think, and what’s the car got to do with a landscape photographer? Well, the first part was a decision I eventually came to as an answer to a symptom I’d like to call photographic burnout. I’d been gradually slipping down this slope unawares for a while, where after years it felt as if photography just wasn’t what it used to be anymore. Maybe it was a little extreme to shut down everything, but at the time my creative capacity and enjoyment just weren't there, and I felt a clean break would allow me to recoup and rethink about photography and me. Well, it certainly did, along with a Pandora's box of stuff that also worked its way to the surface.

But first I wish to point out, that in no way am I advocating that this is what happens to everyone, this is my personal view on events and things that occurred along the way.
As to where the car fits in, aside from landscape photography, I have other interests, don't we all? Old cars being one of them, and this seemed an outlet that could rekindle my enthusiasm, a therapy of sorts. Some friends have called it a midlife crisis, and in some ways it probably is, but it's a crisis I don't mind having. So below is a conjunction of my thoughts and experiences during the period of my photographic demise, no one being the single defining factor, more I think a combination of all over time; and although I seem to point out one main culprit, all featured a contribution of sorts. It’s also disjointed in context as that's what it felt like looking back.

But first I wish to point out, that in no way am I advocating that this is what happens to everyone, this is my personal view on events and things that occurred along the way. Also, photography is not my bread and butter, but something I enjoy and combine with my love of the 'wild' landscape. Back in those heady film days. From small beginnings, I grew into large format (thanks in part to a few articles I read in a magazine by a certain Mr Cornish). LF in time became my choice of camera, in fact, my only camera. It taught me so much about my subjects and I really enjoyed the process. Kind of like being still in the landscape and becoming a part of it, a process that dovetailed very well with my enjoyment of being out there. I switched to a second hand digital medium format system about seven years ago, still using a technical platform, and hadn't looked back. I haven’t a problem with normal digital cameras, I just find them not as interesting to use, that's just me, I guess I like the challenge of a totally manual process, without the temptation of automatic options. So this was the system I was using on that cliff edge in 2015. But for all my allegory in describing the scene, the issue was not the equipment, nor the crowds, the problem was internal.

Since digital media has emerged, photography has changed. I'm not talking about the process or the tools we use, even though they have too, but the perception of and how it's communicated has and is changing at a rapid rate. This is not a bad thing, quite the contrary, it opens up a plethora of new opportunities, but also a Pandora's box of sorts. In our search for the photo, have we lost something in between being out there and an obsession with social media? It can be all consuming to the point of obsession, and maybe to the exclusion of care of the very thing we photograph, the landscape, and all in which it is and means? It certainly gave that impression from my perspective that sunny February day in 2015. Social media, or even technology, if you will, If not checked, can lead to reduced patience and the tension span of a newborn babe, and that is not a good thing in my view if you're a landscape photographer; not to mention the bad manners and discourtesy that I'm sure you’ve all witnessed in the places we subject ourselves to within society. But being old fashioned, that's just my personal view, but nonetheless, one I find disconcerting.

Going back a while, I found as social media took off, my website took fewer hits and the enquiries dropped off, almost quite dramatically. So I joined FB, reluctantly. I'm just not into spending time playing with gadgets, I'd rather be out there, but they appear to be a necessary evil (forgive my sarcasm) if you wish to be noticed or join a 'community'. Over time I noticed that the images I felt had some meaning, usually the ones without the punchy colours that require consideration; to my virtual 'friends' rated hardly any response; while the sunrise/sunset standard garden variety RoT images gained quite a following.

You see, I'm a bit of a traditional landscape guy, trying to work with what nature provides
You see, I'm a bit of a traditional landscape guy, trying to work with what nature provides; But, as has been mentioned before in this magazine, there appears to be a following in some photographic social media circles that favours the over processed image, putting the 'make up' on as it were, or tarting up something to appear as one wanted it to look, rather than reality. There is nothing wrong with that, but if it doesn't represent as it should in the reality, then don't try and pass it off as reality. Nature certainly doesn't look as continually vivid as they seem to in some of these sites (bad grammar intended).

Over quite a few months my work began to change, drifting more towards the mediocre, less engaging of image types, basically overly flashy or run of the mill; a little more post processed than my normal self. I wasn't aware of this till much later, it sort of crept into my workflow, yes, even the workflow of a technical camera. It's the mind that forms the image, the camera’s nothing more than a dumb terminal that follows the mind. It (FB) also began to absorb quite a lot of my time. What was once scanned or processed and then uploaded to the website, also had to be processed for social media, I'm sure I'm not the only one that abhors this mundane of tasks. As you know it takes time, but the real issue that gradually dawned on me was, how much time is soaked up responding to those who have responded to you, who have responded to someone else ad infinitum; or just aimlessly wading through the superfluity of similar visual content.

Once, I realised, I spent three hours of my day, responding and reading comments on various devices. An hour that I had reserved for post processing, four days of the week, suddenly vanished looking in social media, the end result being a backlog of post processing, but a satiated feeling that I had accomplished something, hadn't I? Don't get me wrong I'm not about to start a photographic anti social media rant. It just seems to me there's an awful lot of similar looking images, that receive a whole lot of meaningless similar commentary that suggests they're extraordinary, on the pages, I was involved with anyway. One could spend a whole day trolling through imagery and in reality, not achieve a great deal, or for that matter feel less than enthusiastic. A lot of this, of course, is due to the endless volumes of images that are presented, which needless to say becomes overwhelming, a sign of the digital times we live in. At least it felt that way to me. But, for some reason I persevered, thinking that things will improve, and more will be accomplished.

You might say I'm one of those loner photographers that hate crowds. I tend to prefer photographing alone. I just can't connect when there's a flock of other interested parties darting around in the scene, not to mention scrumming around your tripod position as if there is safety in numbers. and I think the same goes if you get caught up in the daily grind of photo media sites. You can lose your individuality. I'm not meaning we shouldn't post, but the question is why are we posting? Are we trying to blow our own trumpet or get some ego stroked? Or do we really have something to show, something we've discovered about the subject or about ourselves and how we perceive the subject? And for what it's worth is there really a right answer to these questions?

So, after feeling flat and purposeless for some time, I began to yearn for getting out there, get some fresh air away from the backlit screen. So I did, going to iconic views more for me than the camera, but nonetheless, the subsequent images although appealing, lacked presence. Still, I uploaded them, just to say look where I've been. The usual oohs & ahhs came flooding in, no doubt stroking the ego, and more time was spent not post processing. I now have a substantial backlog of work to process, and considering the theme so far, not many will make it to the gold star label!

Ahh yes, and then there is the etiquette factor while at a location. So many times I’ve arrived at such a grand spot and there’s a dumped burnt out car, or piles of rubbish left behind. I mean really?!! They certainly aren’t going to the place to look at the view so what’s the point of being there if they don’t care for it? At times it drives me to the point of why do I bother trying to show the beauty or awesomeness of a place when people do that? Somethings I just don’t understand. Of course, you may have sensed my frustration at the beginning of this article with a certain kind of photographer; which surprising or not, I do believe contributes, maybe in a lessor sense, to my case of burnout. It just seems that the majority of photographers I see around when I'm about are image baggers and not contemplators of the environment they photograph. Although I didn’t have to take that on board, nevertheless as I mentioned before Its disconcerting.

Accessible, and I use that term loosely, for the photographer only at low tide, unless of course, you trend towards adventure photography. One has to scramble over and around jagged volcanic strata before finally appearing on a stretch of beach surrounded by cliffs.

There is a certain place near Bermagui on the South East Coast of Australia, that has a striking unique rock formation. I first saw it in print by a local Australian photographer Brett Thompson, who captured it in B&W in stormy conditions, my kind of place, and to this day it leaves an impression. Five times now I've visited that place, only once have I come close to capturing how I feel about it. It's not an easy place to get to either. Accessible, and I use that term loosely, for the photographer only at low tide, unless of course, you trend towards adventure photography. One has to scramble over and around jagged volcanic strata before finally appearing on a stretch of beach surrounded by cliffs. Much like Skye’s Old Man of Storr, its photographic appeal has become that of legend in Australian circles, at least on social media anyway. Finding oneself alone to contemplate the place there these days though is a rare thing, finding a unique composition even rarer.

The very first time I made it around those sharp volcanics, I set up for the iconic sunrise view and waited. Fifteen minutes later two tripod lugging 'gentlemen' appeared around that same volcanics, and erected their tripods one metre on either side of where I was standing, lens pointing in the same direction. Now, I'm a friendly bloke but that takes the cake, in fact, I was a little miffed, so I clicked the shutter and went in search of something else. Not that I'm perfect mind, but I would never impeach a person's photographic space, even if the light was spectacular I'd personally go find another composition a great way off. There's nothing wrong with wanting to photograph the same subject, but there is a certain photographic etiquette that seems to be missing these days, whether young or, err not so young as I found out the next time. Which leaves me wondering if this is a by-product of social media too?

It was here at this unique rock formation four years ago, that I began to wonder if I was losing my edge. I seemed to be composing by default, rather than, assessing what the landscape had to say and work a composition to suit. It's certainly a spectacular place, but my images of that time seem to look, well... similar to everyone else's on social media. If there was ever a feeling of photographic despair I certainly felt I was heading that way. I began photographing less, (photographing less is one thing but beginning to do so marked a change in my view), depending on holidays or non photographic outings for inspiration, sometimes this worked, mostly it didn't, fading away back to emptiness. Always returning to my social media page for a pep up. Sounds pathetic I know, but as the change was subtle I wasn't realising what really was going on. Even Saturday mornings, those quintessential mornings of getting up early eager to photograph, were spent in bed till after sunup.

I made a concerted effort that February after the airshow, where my wife and I tacked on a driving holiday through Victoria's Great Ocean Road, to really concentrate on achieving something unique. Whether I did or not, it was just great to be out in such 'wild' conditions with my camera. It was certainly inspiring the majority of the time, as some of those images attest to. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this article something wasn't right. What was I doing, why am I here? kept voicing itself, like a broken record. I was pleased with the results of the trip, albeit a less touristy season would have been more fruitful, as the noise and frequent interruptions were off putting, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, when the holiday was over, the excitement of those images waned and that nagging feeling of photographic despair resumed. Why?

Months later, while talking to a photographic friend who shared the same feeling we came to the conclusion that we had a serious case of post traumatic social media image overload, maybe you could call it burnout. Constantly keeping up appearances in the social media world had left its toll on my creativity. Not only creativity but my addiction to it, that's right addiction, had led to all but forsaking the editing work that I really needed to do. My friend closed all his accounts a month after our initial discussion on the topic, and upon talking with him months later on the topic he said he doesn't miss it. In fact, he' s relishing the freedom were his exact words. He sold his gear and now relishes just being in the wilds cameraless.

Months once again pass and I'm still photographically deflated, yet telling myself that it will pick up, I just need another holiday. And then the final straw. It was roughly 11 pm, a weekday, and I was responding to a FB question/comment on my page. Megan, my rather astute and better half came in and demanded, when are you going to sleep, for work beckoned early tomorrow and my health (mental?) had been suffering in recent months. She had noticed my depressed moods and apparent nonchalance. During that week we had a chat, and the subject of my obsession with 'that' computer came up. This obsession with social media was not only curbing my creativity and affecting my personality but unknowingly it was driving a wedge in a relationship in which I cherish. I was spending more time with social media than being social with my wife.

How had this happened? Somehow I had become a slave to my own devices. Was it social medias fault? No, not in essence. The answer to the question lies within, both creatively and socially. Yes, there is also that self glorification, that pat on the back, that seems the root of all social media evil no matter what the subject. But at sometime since starting with social media, I went down the slippery slope of changing reality for virtuality. I had stifled who I was creatively to blend into the photographic mediocrity. I liked the attention you might say. Not once did I ever see constructive critiques of any work, mine included ( even when I asked for it), most of it was much ado about nothing. And yet I got hoodwinked, and instead of trying to remain integral to what makes me photographically who I am, I sold my photographic soul to mediocrity. Don't get me wrong, there are some great images on social media, fantastic actually, but most are in my opinion, overworked or simply too much of the same due to the pure volume that one sees. I'm not sure how it affects anyone else, nor am I suggesting that it affects all the same way, but it had a dampening effect, almost self destructive to the extent the real me wasn't in the picture; I was becoming photographically, and at times humanly, a Mr Hyde. Dr Jekyl had seemingly gone missing in action.

Ever notice that pro photographers in any field mostly choose to go off alone in the landscape, or do something contrary to their work life, to soak it in rather than take? I needed to break the mould. So here's where the classic car came in, and in saying this I'm not suggesting that this is the fix, rather a diversion. As I mentioned photography is not my day job, it's an activity that mostly provides great pleasure, in the above circumstances it had lost its allure, become a chore and to some extent, the fault laying at my feet, created a certain angst in relationships. Something had to give, and this is when after much thought I shut down the website, including the domain name, closed all my social media accounts, and even sold some equipment. This may sound drastic, and in no way am I advocating this is what one should do, as each situation is always going to be unique; but for me, I had to make a clean break.

It's fortunate to have other interests to divert to. The classic car is now part of the family, it's something Megan and I can do together, as while she is photogenic, she's not in anyway inclined towards photography. She enjoys looking at the end result, but a camera in itself to her is as attractive as a house brick. Do we understand how much we put our loved ones through? She's endured endless cold/heat, biting bugs, waiting, carrying tripod for endless miles, waiting, holding an umbrella for hours in sleet, rain, and hail. Been up to her knees in Tasmanian mud, ticks, leaches, woken up at 3 am, did I mention waiting? Truly, It gave me something else to focus on while photography was put in the cupboard. Once I made the decision, I couldn't believe how much freedom I had. .

All through this ‘spare time’ I had time to think and process what happened, and what went wrong. You’ve heard the saying change is like a holiday, well that pretty much sums it up in my case.

I guess it was a therapy of sorts but I did a lot of things that I normally would anyhow, its just they took on a new profound meaning when I shelved photography. I read books that had sat on the shelf awaiting a sunny cloudless day, now I could read them in inclement whether and feel relaxed. I walked, drove, spent a whole day cleaning and polishing the car and enjoyed it; drank coffee and spent more time with family. I was having a ball and didn't miss carrying that tripod one little bit (who wouldn't, even in normal circumstances?)Of course, the car was just one aspect of therapy. Just being alive and doing normal things like getting up early and sitting in the garden, or just walking, going to the beach for a surf, made a world of difference to my mood. Megan even said it’s nice to have me back again. Everything and I mean everything before had a photographic motive. obsessed? Maybe. Sure I saw images when walking thinking if only I had my camera, but I learnt or taught myself to just enjoy the experience like it used to be ohh so long ago, when I first picked up a camera. It was like I had reset, a control alt delete, I had to find and run the old programming.

All through this ‘spare time’ I had time to think and process what happened, and what went wrong. You’ve heard the saying change is like a holiday, well that pretty much sums it up in my case. The clean cut away from what had become the norm, or should that read abnormal, brought the focus back to a wider view, and a more acute understanding of my motives. The question during that time was do I, would I, ever want to pick up a camera and head off on a shoot again? Had this burnout really done the damage to my whole perception of photography?

While confronting Darth Vader and coming out from the dark side I could definitely see a positive in not picking up a camera. I didn’t even read anything photography related during that time. Nope, no magazines, even my grand landscape photography coffee table book collection just gathered dust; although, interestingly, I didn’t cancel my subscription to On Landscape. Having been caught up in it for sometime it was going to take time to level out, so although I had drastically shelved photography, I tried to remain positive about it and keep an open mind, rather than allow the experience to tarnish my view of it in a bad way. Through this journey, the car helped immensely in refocusing that sense of loss. When you give up something you’ve been doing for a long time, there’s an empty hole that needs to be filled. It's not so much about filling in the time, but the sense of purpose lost during that time. So having another interest to divert to while I assessed my thoughts and reasoning on photography was invaluable. And of course that other interest was a bundle of fun, and that helps the process rather than dwelling on the negative that I have lost something I loved doing. It became a form of relaxation like the old days when I used to photograph., and amazingly it also rekindled the interest in photography. Creating images of the car became part of a process that showed me that photography isn’t and doesn’t have to be the centre of attention. We enjoyed getting up early for a drive to a nice location, taking a few photos, and then off for breakfast. I began to enjoy taking those photos and didn’t feel like a slave to a device, it was just fun, how it really should be as after all, I don’t have to strive to a deadline.

So, where am I now?

It's been well over a year since I pulled the plug, the car is almost complete and I'm only now getting the proper urge to look at gear again, not that I need any mind; I still have a camera that will allow me to 'be' in the landscape, albeit it's not a technical camera. I just started a Flickr account to act as my web presence and have decided to limit my social media capacities. Not that I fear going down the same path, but rather the whole experience has shown me I don't need it.

I'm not absconding from this technology, just choosing not to partake of it nor partake in it. Purely because I got by without it before, and as my photography is not my source of income, but rather a form of pleasure, I don't need the extra hassle that it brings.
And I don't mean that in the 'holier than thou' sense. I've grown out of it a different person and learnt something about myself through it. I'm not absconding from this technology, just choosing not to partake of it nor partake in it. Purely because I got by without it before, and as my photography is not my source of income, but rather a form of pleasure, I don't need the extra hassle that it brings. And while I do agree that you can learn/grow from other like minded people, I can choose other sources (like this magazine for instance), where the hype and constraining mentality of social media are wonderfully absent, and in it's place the skies the limit, or limitless if you like.

Has it changed my photography?

Yes and no. The whole scenario has changed my priorities, not depending on photography for a living, it’s easier for me to put the tools away and do something else to pass the time, but the whole scenario has brought something to them for that may have been deep seated for a while. Do I really need to be doing this, do I want to be doing this? My answers to those questions are respectively no and yes, but differently. I’ve changed. My interest in photography is not what it was, but its still there so only in time and in immersing myself back into what I love will I understand where it will lead. As I mentioned I'm using a camera of sorts but it's not technical so the enjoyment/challenge factor isn't what I like for landscape, but it's ideal for my other interests. Being out of the game for such a while I feel a little rusty in my abilities, but I do believe I've changed internally and of course that is where the vision comes from. Where this will lead I'm not sure, but I guess you could say I've widened my outlook to include my other interests, but am concentrating on finding the way, or my way. I still enjoy being out there, but I guess I'm asking myself now I'm not actively promoting me, what am I doing it for? A question yet to be answered let alone understood.

Lots of the stuff which I've been talking about in my view could have been avoided, or filtered to fit in with a creative mindset. Somewhere along the way instead of reigning myself into that mindset, I allowed myself to change, conform if you like, to something less than who I am. Its one thing to try and work to a job spec, but if your trying to change who you are to impress others it comes across less than impressive. If I'd not succumbed to self interest I may have avoided that slippery slope; and If I hadn’t pulled the plug when I did, I could have eventually been one of those mindless photographers that I find disconcerting. It's all about balance, we need to remain true to who we are and not a slave to technology or social fads and fashion. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try different methods and ways, just realise who you are and adapt the method to your creative way. Creativity is a very personal thing and something to be nurtured, not squandered.

Not long ago, Megan and I awoke early and drove to Kanangra-Boyd National Park, to witness a sunrise over the Kanangra Deep. And yes the camera came along. But most inspiring of all, the very thing that generated all those years ago the purchase of my first camera, nature itself! A Lyre birds song of mimicry echoing from the valley mists, of forested mountains unfolding in the fading twilight; the fragrance of the Australian bush, pungent, wafting on a cool gentle breeze, coaxing the sheoak needles to whisper. Yes, this is what it's about for me, something technology can never deliver nor transcend.

It's been quite a journey since I decided to pick up a camera, something now I don't think I will ever be parted from. A friend once asked do I go into the wilds to photograph, or do I photograph to go into the wilds? Now that I'm back on track and not lost in virtual reality I would have to say both. Nature, weather, light and photography for me are mutually inclusive, but all my interests share photography, because it's a part of what each interest represents within me, and photography is a way of learning about and expressing that interest. After all, that's why I picked up a camera in the first place, and its good to be back in that frame of mind.

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