The English language is well known for its colorful idioms and entertaining colloquialisms. One of my favourites is “if it were easy, then everyone would do it”. Unfortunately, when it comes to landscape photography, this expression seems honoured more in the breach than the observance. No matter where I go, there always seems to be a horde of shooters clustered around the local photographic “classic”; those tried and true compositions made famous by photographers in the past, which by now have been copied thousands upon thousands of times. Truth be told, most of the photographic classics are easy, since someone else did all the hard work to find them and develop them to their full potential. As a result, everyone does them.
Take the easy path and you will end up with photographs that look like everyone else’s. More to the point, you will end up with someone else’s photographs. But ask yourself this: do you merely want to replicate the portfolios of famous photographers who have come before you, or do you want to make photographs that instead are representative of your own artistic vision and voice? I am guessing that, by framing the question this way, probably now you are leaning towards the latter; as well you should.
Another famous expression is “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. Now this is a motto all landscape photographers should learn to live by. I think it is fair to say that most of the “easy” photographs have been taken already. If you really want to create photographs that are unique and original, get used to adversity; be prepared to take the long road, and to challenge yourself to push past the proverbial low-hanging fruit.
The photograph I present here is one of the tough ones. Even to reach this location, I had to kayak twenty miles through desert wilderness on Glen Canyon’s Lake Powell, then leave my kayak behind to proceed on foot through a narrow, and at times flooded, canyon. I hiked through knee-deep mud. I swam several hundred feet through cold water in a narrowly-carved sandstone slot, where I encountered an enraged beaver which refused to let me pass. After a long standoff, eventually we settled into a state of wary mutual indifference, allowing me to swim by without altercation. I then had to scramble over several large boulders to reach what appeared to be dry ground, only to find knee-deep quicksand which seemed to go on forever. Running out of time, and with the quicksand getting deeper and thicker with each step, finally I turned back; I can only imagine the wonders I missed farther up the canyon. The timing was perfect, however, to photograph this section of flooded canyon, its walls glowing with light reflecting down from above. In my opinion, the prize was worth the effort.
Do not get me wrong: you do not need to foray deep into the wild to find something unique and personal. You just have to be willing to take some chances, artistically speaking. Photographer Brett Weston once famously said “anything more than 500 yards from the car just is not photogenic”. Of course, I suspect his quip was meant facetiously; clearly there are many photogenic things more than 500 yards from the car. Even if you take his literal statement as gospel, however, you can still choose to walk the difficult path, figuratively speaking, ignoring the tried and true classics in order to find something that belongs to you. The obvious and famous compositions can be seductive, but I really believe you will be a better artist if you strive to do something new instead. Always be on the lookout for new perspectives, new angles, and rare convergences of light and composition, and do not give up easily when waiting for the right moment to bring it all together.
As for me, I remember my trip to this remote canyon fondly, even, perhaps especially, my confrontation with the beaver. To me at least, the resulting image is a rare combination of something that is simultaneously personally meaningful and artistically compelling. More often than not, photographs such as these can be made only when the going gets tough, and the tough get going.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 23 of Landscape Photography Magazine.