Go Where You Wanna Go

June 15, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

If you're familiar with pop music of the mid- to late-1960s, you might recognize that as the title of a song written and recorded by The Mamas and the Papas (also covered by The 5th Dimension). 

It came to mind after one of my students showed me a short video posted recently by a photographer who was giving viewers a look at a location he'd chosen for a workshop and discussing his strategy behind the selection. Though near a very popular national park, he said he intentionally avoided taking his group there. This was an exercise in training the eye to see creatively. The way he described it, the park was okay for the postcard shot but not for what he wanted to teach. If his students wished to shoot there later that was fine - but they wouldn't be doing it with him.

I understand the concept - and naturally, it being his workshop, wherever and however he wants to teach it is up to him. Especially given the part of the country in which he was working, there is indeed much to photograph outside the confines of the park he referenced.

Still, I took issue with the way the message was conveyed. He talked about the fact that he'd photographed iconic subjects within the park, but that was then - and this is now. Meaning what, exactly? It was good enough for him at one point, but not for you?

Does he consider the park he once photographed passé? Of no interest to the more enlightened photographer? 

That isn't what he said, but it's what the listener might have heard. Case in point: my student, having seen that video, asked whether he should even bother trying to shoot inside national parks any longer. Suddenly filled with self-doubt, he was second-guessing himself - not just about where he was shooting, but whether he was shooting the right things

Oh dear.

I doubt that's what this photographer meant. After all, he's created many excellent images from a variety of national parks. His own artistic output clearly indicates he doesn't believe the best one can do in an NPS property is to create a few unimaginative, standard postcard shots. 

I believe he was suggesting that planting a tripod in the same holes countless others have already used to create the same exact shot of an iconic subject that's been made thousands of times already isn't doing much to advance one's creativity. (True.) Choosing not to conduct this workshop inside the park was his way of encouraging students to think differently and see more imaginatively.

This does not mean it's impossible to make unique images at well-known locations. OF TWO MINDSOF TWO MINDSThe sunny disposition of Arrowleaf Balsamroot blooms is juxtaposed with towering storm clouds moving into the valley.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The student I referred to at the top of this post is local; like me, he lives near two of the crown jewels in the NPS system. Should he avoid Yellowstone and Grand Teton because they've been photographed by so many others? Of course not.

Neither should you.

There are very few destinations in this world that haven't already been photographed. Some are more-often visited than others, but wherever you're working, you're likely not the first to be there with a camera. How you experience it, though, is unique to you.

The things you find interesting, subject matter that strikes your eye, what you want to convey with the photograph, how much you're willing to explore, the conditions while you're on site - that's all yours. There are many ways to creatively capture what you're seeing and feeling. 

As for iconic subject matter, by all means photograph it. Why would you not? Maybe you'll start with that standard shot from the overlook everyone flocks to. Once you've made it, though, challenge yourself to consider what else you can do to re-interpret that scene.

If there are future visits, each one will be an opportunity to tell a different story. Of course you're not going to want to make the same photograph over and over. 

Make it a habit to look more deeply into your surroundings. Take your time. Listen to what the landscape has to say. That's when you'll start to notice all sorts of things, many of which have nothing to do with those iconic landmarks.

You probably won't do anything with some of the images you make. That doesn't matter. Experimentation is a good creative exercise.  

(The photographs I've posted here were made within Grand Teton National Park in the last few weeks. These aren't all destined for later use; I made some of them to demonstrate what you might find when getting off the beaten path, looking beyond the obvious, and improvising with conditions such as fog and incoming or outgoing storms.)

Another note regarding iconic subject matter: if you progress to the point where you're selling your work, you'll likely want to include such imagery in your portfolio - with your own interpretation. My commercial clients often gravitate toward landscapes featuring recognizable local scenes. For example, medical facilities and hotels here in Eastern Idaho want images of the Tetons. 

Don't doubt yourself; take your camera to locations that interest you. So what if other photographers flock there? Aspire to create something other than the same photo "everybody else" makes, but shoot where - and what - you want. 

Go Where You Wanna Go.


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