Monday, August 08, 2016

"Drive-by shooting" in Skye

"Who forces time is pushed back by time;
who yields to time finds time on his side."
-  The Talmud

What is a "fine art" photographer (meaning: a photographer whose bills are paid by activity not directly related to photography) to do when, faced with extraordinary visual/compositional opportunities, but only relatively short bursts of photography are allowed? Or, to ask the question more directly, how does one balance a family vacation (with two teenaged boys in tow) with fine-art photography?

The truth is that the "constraint" I have just alluded to (of having only short bursts of photography) is mostly illusory. Certainly, in my case - and I've been taking photographs for well over 40 years at this point - the truth is that I take photographs whenever and wherever I can for as long (or short) a time as I can get. A few minutes here, a few hours there; and on rare occasions, day-long dedicated safaris (such as when I took a full day off work to have Luray Caverns all to myself). This has been my method for as long as I can remember. Whether I'm on my own, prowling around with my camera at a nearby park on a lazy Sunday, hiking around with my younger son (who is an SX-70 photographer), or on vacation with the entire family at some remote part of the planet, my process of doing photography is essentially the same. It is opportunistic and quick (well, "quick" in photographer's parlance, meaning - objectively - anywhere from a few moments to a few hours, as recorded by non-photographer-observers), and is seldom, if ever, shaped by specific "goals." I capture what captures me, so to speak. 

The overarching meta problem on Skye was that I was captured by everything! Skye's breathtaking beauty made it virtually impossible to look away, and not take pictures; impossible to just slow down and wait for the picture to reveal itself (my preferred method). Our stay in Skye can be best described as a continual struggle to maintain a balance between capturing Skye's Wagnerian-scale landscapes that the eye is inevitably first drawn to - particularly in a place seldom frequented and that has such dramatic mountainous forms and displays of light and shadow to offer - and yielding attention to the quieter, more intimate - often only subtly visible - elements of those same landscapes. Time was hardly ever sufficient to do real justice to the second - and as far as fine-art photography is concerned - most important class of images (if something beyond simple "postcard" impressions of a place is being sought). As my dad taught me throughout his life as an artist, one cannot hope to find (and reveal, whether by traditional means using  a canvas, in his case, or via photography, in mine) anything of lasting value in nature if one is not on the most intimate terms with her. Whenever my dad would encounter a meadow or forest or one of his beloved "болото" (Russian for "swamp"), he would spend hours, often entire days, just wandering around, hands clasped behind his back, and easel, paintbrushes and canvas quietly tucked away in the trunk of his car. This was his "getting to know a place" meditation time; his dialectic with an - as yet - unknown/uninternalized environment. Only when my dad gained a sense of unity with - of a belonging to - a place, a Goethian-holistic "feel" of the dynamics in play around him (and an implied - soulful - invitation for him to engage with the dynamics of a landscape), did he finally set up his easel and start to paint.

Of course, the ability to engage in these dialectic meditations is not always possible. On Skye, "drive-by shooting" was the norm: while cruising along some one-lane road (there is a detailed etiquette on dealing with approaching traffic on one-lane roads in Scotland), just "enjoying the sights," I'd suddenly exclaim something like, "Whoa, the light! We've got to stop!" My ever patient wife (who did all of the driving) would just as suddenly screech to a halt at the first available side of gravel, and - jumping out of the car with camera and tripod already in hand (an instinct honed and nurtured over years of practice) - I'd proceed to look, look again, run towards some spot my visual cortex deemed "best" (as I automatically extend the legs of my tripod), set up my camera, rifle off a few shots, and run back to the car with a thanks to my wife (and an apology to the kids, who would invariably still be rolling their eyes in the backseat at the temerity of "yet another stop for dad"). Run the clock another 20 or so minutes and repeat.

Though this "process of doing photography" may appear either silly or unrewarding (or both), in truth, with only minor variations (the major ones being that, when not traveling, I'm usually the one both driving and stopping and the kids are back home playing their video games), it is how most of my photographs are captured. To be sure, there are times when I do have the luxury of time to "get to know a place" before training my lens on it. But more often than not - for what I consider my "best" images - I "get to know a place" not by wandering around for a few days without a camera, as my dad once did without his brushes; rather, by repeated visits, accumulated over a long time, months, years even, enabled simply by virtue of living close enough to a place of interest to be able to do so. And it is the wisdom (if I can call it that) that these repeated visitations to local places has instilled in me that - when traveling abroad, with far less precious "getting to know a place" time available - I rely on to instinctively guide my eye to parts of an otherwise unknown environment most prone to harboring "quiet secrets." I am not always right, and I certainly prefer to discover these secrets in a more deliberate, circumspect way. But 40+ years of keeping my eyes and soul receptive to nature's gifts goes a long way; or so I keep telling myself as I rocket out of the car with my tripod and camera, and run toward what I'm sure is another "special, quiet place."


Cedric said...

I know your predicament all too well Andy. It's a difficult balance to strike between one's wish to capture those moments that capture us, and the good will of our family members. I have found myself at times a little envious of a friend who's wife is also a keen photographer though their mutual agreement to stop anywhere and anytime means that they are often late getting to where they are going. Even as far as being late for planes or ferries.

I did go on a holiday with my wife recently, to a very picturesque part of Australia known as The Great Ocean Road and having not owned a camera in well over a year, I went sans-camera. It's a very different experience I must say, to be captured without capturing in return :)

I hope you will have more photos of Scotland coming Andy. I am very fond of Scotland and I do like how you capture it.

Roy Money said...

I have been looking forward to hearing about and seeing results of your trip. I was on Skye myself in May and would love to go back again.