Going out with your camera on a regular basis is an important part of expanding your personal growth, creativity, and mental health. During this worldwide pandemic, it means exploring the world close to home. This is not something new to me, but it does require an open mind. There are countless opportunities to make pictures everywhere, regardless of where you happen to live.
During the winter months, I would typically be busy leading workshops in Mexico, Colombia, and Cuba. However, with the worldwide travel restrictions, I’ve found myself at home in Canada for the past fifteen months. This unexpected standstill in my regular travel schedule has allowed me a rare opportunity to explore the world on my doorstep — a familiar world that many take for granted. As a result, these circumstances have taken me back to my early roots in photography.
The best place to make photographs is wherever you happen to be! Having learned the art and craft of photography long before experiencing the privilege of traveling, it has been a joy to play close to home again. I have often stated to my workshop participants that if you cannot make meaningful images where you live then you will not be able to make expressive images when you travel. Travel is wonderful, of course, but it will not magically improve your personal vision. Having an open mind combined with passion and a willingness to explore and experiment with new ways of seeing will go a long way to developing personal growth.
My usual approach to photography is spontaneous and reactive — going out with no preconceived notion of anything, the blackboard in my head empty of yesterday’s thoughts — having the joy and freedom to photograph what excites me. I learned this wonderful approach when I began making pictures in the early eighties. I am grateful for that foundation in the art and craft of photography.
Personal projects are an important way to develop our vision, creativity, and craft. I have visited a nearby provincial park numerous times during the pandemic. There is always something new to explore as the seasons and weather change, presenting a wide variety of material to discover.
A quiet simplicity comes with winter, the interwoven branches of trees clearly delineated after a fresh snowfall. As I was searching for ice formations along a small stream in the forest, I was struck by the simplicity of the trees in the snow-blanketed landscape. For the rest of the day, I turned my lens to the graphic possibilities of natural patterns. The interlacing branches and stark trunks symbolize growth and relationship. The forest floor in winter is covered with these wonderful beech tree saplings, their delicate, graceful branches reminiscent of the Japanese aesthetic of beauty in simplicity. My goal was to explore simplicity on the forest floor and to practice the Zen of seeing. Finding these compositions requires commitment and keen observation as the forest environment is naturally complex.
For many people, winter is not the most comfortable of seasons compared to spring or summer, but it has its own sublime beauty. During a fresh snowfall, I am always fascinated by how quiet the world is. Gently falling snow has its own serenity.
The Art of Slowness
Practice the art of slowness in your photography by scheduling time for relaxation. Relaxation is essential to achieving clarity and energy. You can’t rush creativity and it’s no surprise that a hurried life can exhaust the creative mind. I often notice the effects of hurry sickness on workshop participants as they move restlessly from subject to subject, appearing stuck in fast-forward mode.
It is important to slow down and look beyond the obvious things so often etched in our minds. Most of the time you will be rewarded. Allow yourself to benefit from the habit of going out with no fixed agenda and a clear mind, letting the pictures find you. This approach has worked for me for several years now. My best advice when making pictures is to slow down and think about why you stopped at a particular spot to photograph. This will, in turn, help you address the central idea in your mind’s eye. By taking a slow approach and spending time with an open mind you may end up with a completely different idea than when you started. Many people have preconceived ideas (memorized vision) of how things should look. This is one of the barriers to creativity I have observed over the years during workshops and tours.
For creativity, originality, and imagination to occur in the context of photography, every effort should be made to free the mind of conventional ways of seeing and thinking. Back in the early eighties when I began to make images, I was fortunate to learn that rules would limit my creative freedom and I never fell into the idea of correctness, obeying in order to gain acceptance. Erasing rules from my mind early on has propelled my photography to its current state. Over the past thirty years when conducting workshops, I’ve often joked about opening a Rehab clinic for photographers.
I learned from Freeman Patterson in the early eighties that the art of seeing is the art of photography. When you start paying attention to little details, they start showing up everywhere. Seeing takes time. You must go beyond the everyday labels and let your eyes explore an object. Notice the light and the way it strikes the object; the highlights and shadows; the gradation of tones; textures and colours. It means noticing sharp lines, soft lines, the tonal shape of the object and the smaller shapes contained within. You must be aware of the depth and perspective inherent in what you are viewing.
When visual structure is present in a photograph it generally introduces order and helps determine internal relationships. Linear pattern, which provides the basic structure, can be considered the skeleton or bones of a composition, supporting the whole design much like the beams and columns support a building. We may have taken a photograph without consciously thinking of structure, but it is always present when there is organization.
In my initial days of image-making, I can remember hearing “not to place things in the center of the picture space.” I soon learned this was nonsense along with all the other so-called rules! My best advice is to make pictures from the heart, trust your intuition, and most importantly think for yourself. Consider it photography without borders.
Organizing these building blocks of design in the picture space to express a feeling is the key to visual expression. This should come completely without ridiculous rules or preconceived notions of how things should look. It should be intuitive and from the heart, never overthinking the process.
When we approach the process of photography as a meditation, we learn to react to what the eye perceives without our intellect causing interference (outside noise and memorized vision). Instead of the usual routine of looking, we begin to recapture the lost art of seeing and create a new awareness of the world.
Abstract expressionist painters have always believed in spontaneity. Personally speaking, spontaneity and a healthy amount of play is the secret sauce in my image-making. When I am out with my camera, I don’t have a plan. The main thing is to be free to express my passion now for whatever I am doing. Goals, agendas, and schedules are my enemies.
The image in this article is a result of slowing down, spending time relaxing in a familiar place close to home, and taking in the sublime beauty of winter during a fresh snowfall. There is something to be said about returning to the same place numerous times and making fresh discoveries. It is always rewarding and never disappointing!
In conclusion, make pictures of what excites you. Photograph what you love, what makes you happy allowing as much joy, freedom, and spontaneity as possible. Most importantly, don’t listen to other people’s noise. You are the original in photography! Make pictures for the joy of it!
The article is courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine. ELEMENTS is a monthly magazine dedicated to elegant landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Inside you will find an exclusive and in-depth articles and imagery by the best landscape photographers in the world such as Bruce Barnbaum, Christopher Burkett, Chuck Kimmerle, Christian Fletcher, Charlie Waite, Rachael Talibart, Erin Babnik and Freeman Patterson, to name a few. Use the PETAPIXEL10 code for a 10% discount off the annual subscription.
About the author: One of the earliest contributors to the ELEMENTS magazine, Richard Martin pursues photography as a medium of visual expression. He is best known for his unique vision with a personal style characterized by a strong sense of composition, colour and the use of light. His work combines an architectural love of geometry, pattern and texture with a painter’s sensitivity to colour, light and composition.
Well known for sharing his enthusiasm, creative vision and passion for the medium, Richard continues to inspire participants with his annual photography and visual design workshops in his native Kingston, Ontario since 1990. He also conducts workshops, tours, and seminars around the world, including Cuba, Mexico, Sicily, Venice, Tuscany, Provence, Ireland, and Morocco.