It feels like so long since I wrote a blog. For a while I was pretty good at it,but then facebook became a thing, and I started shortening — sort of 😉 — my stories and posting photos there. Now keeping up with both facebook and instagram… it feels like I’m doing so much computer time. Add to that changing websites and changing technologies and blogging just kind of fell by the wayside. But I miss writing some of this stuff. So…I’m starting my blog over.
So much has changed! Where to even begin. I have left my beloved mountains in Northwest Montana. I have relocated to Vero Beach, Florida and although I miss the incredible wildness of that remote part of the West, I am swiftly falling in love with the ever changing sea.
This week I took part in a photography contest and thanks to facebook likes and comments I learned something quite valuable about assumptions I make as a photographer/artist.
Every year at the UPAA (University Photographer’s Association of America) there is a challenge called the Nikon Shoot Out.
“The Nikon Shoot Out brings together creativity, interpretation,
and timeliness into a fun and competitive exercise. Each year
at the symposium the Nikon representative gives an assignment
that must be completed in a specified place and time. All those
participating are on equal ground as they make one image and
submit it without post processing for judging by the Nikon
Representative in attendance.”
I did not do a great job of reading the instructions. The photo had to be shot before 8 p.m. (I only took one of my photos before 8 because I had a 7 o’clock book club). And the deadline for turning the photo in was 1 a.m. (I could have sworn I read that as 11 a.m.) I slept through the deadline. Oooops.
The theme this year was “flowers.” I had to chuckle at that because one of my early photography teachers always said, “Photographing flowers is cheating, God does all the work.” He also said that about photographing cute kids. The context of that was challenging student photographers to think about their subject matter. He didn’t want us to be lazy , going only for the easy shots. Flowers are naturally beautiful and children are naturally less self-conscious — making them “easy.” Why not choose a harder option, challenge yourself. Like photographing an old woman, beautiful in her own right, but maybe less confident about that truth. Or taking on a project with people who intimidate you. Children are a lot of things, but intimidating (to an adult) usually isn’t one of them. Based on that early challenge, I have seldom photographed flowers in my career. The challenge of this event was to photograph in an unexpected way, in a visually interesting fashion, doing more than recording just a pretty picture.
And that is where I started to fall into the trap of “pro” thinking.
As a professional photographer, the visual world dominates a large chunk my life. This has been true for decades, yet as never before I see the world is changing around me. Phone with cameras, instagram, flickr, facebook, snapchat, photos are become a part of a visual language that is accessible to just about accessible to anyone, anywhere. The good news is, there are amazing photos that can be seen from places I had never dreamed of visiting. There are causes, with passionate advocates, that are getting their message out by brilliant means with the help of campaigns that rely on packing a visual punch. There is an amazing array of talent and drive and passion and commitment to be found in unexpected quarters. And there are a lot of really, really, really bad images to sort through. How then to curate one’s own work? By what standards?
For a competition, it seemed easy enough. I was mentally preparing to go up against 80 or so fellow professionals. These are talented artists, people I admire and respect. Because I misread the instructions, I didn’t get to enter, so I shared my photos on social media. And that is when I got the truly unexpected lesson.
Here in Vero we are lucky enough to have a growing climate that orchids like. Before living here, I had only ever seen them in green houses. Technically this is the end of their growing season and the blooms are past their peak loveliness, but that seemed like nitpicking. This orchid is planted on the branches of an oak tree near the Riverside Theatre. To get to it, I had to duck under branches and skulk about avoiding the other tree-dwellers that I dislike most (spiders). It was not easy. But isn’t that the fun of a photography challenge. It pushes you out of your normal bounds?
Not satisfied with only the one, I went looking around for other options and found this sad looking wilting rose. I almost didn’t take a photograph of this one at all, but the lights from the Vero Museum of Art in the background made the situation too good to pass up. Not to mention that I have a soft spot for roses because of the Little Prince.
Technically I could have stopped here. But the challenge of what else might be found pulled me on. Vero Beach is divided into two parts by the Indian River, there is the Island – which is where I mostly work for the newspaper, and the Mainland – where I live. The houses and gardens on both are often spectacular, but on the island there is greater wealth and a more concentrated collection of exquisite gardens. It’s 9 o’clock at night or so, and I decided it was a good idea to go drive around some of the wealthy lanes to see if there were any orchids I could stop and photograph without getting arrested for trespassing or getting stopped by the cops for seriously suspicious behavior.
On one of those roads I happened to spot a lady walking her dog for the last time before bed. I have years of practice at approaching strangers to ask them about photos (such is a life in newspapers) and yet each time it is a challenge. What I love is the way so many people surprise me with a simple yes. I explained I was in this contest and even though it was pitch black I asked if she’d mind if I spent about 20 minutes or so photographing her orchids. She’s the one who told me they were past their prime, but honestly, I thought they were lovely. She smiled at how happy I seemed and said to make myself welcome.
This was such a great moment. I was thrilled. With my light, plus the landscape lighting she had, I knew I could get a photo I was happy with. These two are from her yard.
Both of these felt like strong candidates to me. I like the vertical because of the way orchid flows into the creeping vines beneath it. And this horizontal I liked because palm trees are a favorite of mine (I grew up in a desert and remember palm trees very well). I thought I would likely enter one of these.
Content with my options I drove home. But just as I was about to pull into my driveway I kept driving. There was one last image I wanted. A local architect has a Bird of Paradise bush outside his office right on US 60. I pass it almost daily. And I knew it was in full bloom. So I took my light and got one last photo for the night.
The rules of this contest are that the photo must be straight out of the camera, no cropping, no adjusting, no photoshop, no filters. I’m still pretty happy with these. But the favorite of all I uploaded to facebook is the most ordinary of all. It’s the first I took, a photo of a lily on a small pond.
When the theme was announced I had only minutes to get to the McKee Botanical Gardens before they closed. The garden closes at 5, but the last ticket is sold at 4. I couldn’t go in, but I knew they had a small pond out front – I had seen it only a few days prior. So I took the longest lens I have, a 300mm f2.8, I laid down on the ground and I shot this image.
The picture is decent. The composition is off-center. The low angle is good. But the light is boring. There is no drama. And in terms of “creativity” this image is too classic to be considered creative.
Wouldn’t you know it, this one, the one I rejected as not good enough, as boring, as predictable, this was the favorite.
I really wish I could have competed in the contest, but I think that the lesson I learned from the night far outweighs what I would have won or lost by entering. I was reminded that a simple challenge is a great way to clear mental cobwebs. It was FUN! Such fun. To be out, chasing an image in my mind, at odd hours and seeing they way world opens to one who is looking.
And I learned an important lesson about my own biases. There is a reason “classic beauty” is enduring. Sometimes it is worth pushing oneself for creative or profound or unique. Sometimes there is also value in simple truths and quiet moments easily taken for granted. Sometimes those reach people more deeply than all the flash, bang, pop or sparkle.
Thanks for reading. If you care to leave a note about which is your favorite and why, I’d love to read it.
As a thank you to the woman who let me photograph her yard, I printed these photos as a set of 5x7s and gave then went searching for her home in the daylight. About a week had passed by this point. She remembered me, as did her pup, and the look of joy on her face at being handed these literally made my day. That was my win. I am very pleased with the work and the results.