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Captive Leaf, Zion National Park, Utah

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 20 November 2010 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

Wandering Zion Canyon last week was pure joy, exactly the kind of experience I envisioned when I decided to make nature photography my livelihood. I was photographing what I wanted to photograph, simply because it made me happy. When I found this little scene beside the trail I worked it to death, experimenting with depth of field and composing close, far, horizontal, vertical, wide, tight, up, down, front, and back. I had no illusions that I was creating something that would make me lots of money or give me great notoriety--I just plain liked the scene, and the challenge of trying to do it justice.

This experience at Zion crystalized some thoughts that had been troubling me for most of the Utah trip. During our travels Don Smith and I browsed a couple of nature photographers' galleries in Nevada and Utah, photographers who are far more well known than Don and I are. The photography was very nice, though perhaps a little "souped up" for my taste. Browsing these galleries, then visiting each artist's website, I found myself particularly bothered by the pretense they use to present their photography. Rather than allowing their photography to stand by itself (something all good photography must ultimately do, and these photographers are capable of), they have gone to great lengths to manufacture the illusion of divine inspiration behind their work. This hyperbole seemed to extend to their images as well, some of which (but not all) stretched the bounds of credibility. It was clear to me that they had crossed the threshold separating a love for nature from the drive for "success."

I certainly can't fault their success, as each has achieved far more notoriety (and I assume wealth) than I've seen (so far). In fact, it's quite likely that their divine embellishment is the prime reason for their success. But at what cost? Even discounting the fact that a true relationship with God is personal and never a marketing tool, I wondered how these guys can live with themselves among their peers. The photographers most respected by other photographers are those who let their images do the talking, keeping their personal insights informative without being self-aggrandizing.

One of the great things about art as a livelihood is that, unlike most other professions, the work itself is the ultimate standard. Accomplishments, degrees, awards, and resumés may advance doctors, lawyers, professors, and so on, but in art it's all about the product. Those of us who do this for a living know the effort and skill a great capture requires and are frankly not impressed by inflated, self-congratulatory tales of hardship and spiritual whispers. What seems to motivate these photographers is a distorted definition of success that sends them seeking fame and wealth rather than respect and contentment. Of course this success distortion isn't limited to photography--we run into it in politics too, where far too often the politician who makes the most outrageous claims, with little or no regard for truth, becomes the politician who garners the most votes. (Sigh.)

Another unfortunate byproduct of this warped view of photographic success is the need alter an otherwise mediocre capture in a deceptive manner by inserting objects after the fact, altering color in post processing, or even by defacing Nature to get a desired effect. These tactics are analogous to the professional athlete who poisons his (or her) body with performance enhancing drugs to maintain a competitive edge. Not only does it damage the perpetrator, it damages the credibility of the entire industry. Regrettably, these distortions engender the attention they crave.

This mercenary approach to fine art photography isn't limited to these two photographers, not even close. Conversely, the nature photography profession is full of successful, albeit more anonymous, photographers who have earned the respect of their peers with the skill and passion demonstrated in every image--Charles Cramer is my personal favorite, but there are many others worthy of more recognition than they receive.

So how does the photographer who shoots for love of subject compete with the photographer who shoots for love of recognition and wealth when, regardless of skill behind the lens, the photographer with the most eye-popping images and outrageous marketing gains the most attention? Maybe I should start garnishing my images with inflated moons, meticulously positioned maple leaves, and vivid rainbows. I could further grease my path to "success" by channeling spirits, inflating my hardships in the field, implying divine guidance, and feigning humility. Hmmm....

Uh, I don't think so. My antidote for these temptations is recognizing that photographers who resort to such tactics have been lured by faux-success, a mirage that entices with the trappings of success without delivering the wellbeing. When I find myself envying other photographers for their wealth and notoriety (I am, after-all, human), I just remind myself that I am incredibly fortunate to make my living doing something I so thoroughly enjoy. I may not be able to impress people with the car I drive, the house I live in, or the toys I have, but I still get immense, solitary satisfaction from the images I create. And I wouldn't trade for anything the pleasure I derive from wandering places like Zion or Yosemite or Mono Lake in search of scenes that please me and me alone.

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

Julie from Easton, United States

I really love this shot! The composition, focus and colors are just spot on!

20 Nov 2010 6:06am

Soheil from Tehran, Iran

nice photo

20 Nov 2010 8:23am

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

Very beautiful capture Gary. I like the DOF and the beautiful colors. Enjoy your weekend :)

20 Nov 2010 10:35am

Don Smith from California, United States

Not sure what I like most - the narrative or the image. Hey, I like them both, well-said and well-captured. Hope you are having fun in Yosemite today!

20 Nov 2010 6:30pm

Barbara Lee from Oakland, United States

Hear, hear! I agree on all counts. Point 1: I got to take Charlie Cramer's fine art digital printing workshop in Yosemite last May. He is wonderful! And I have been to his current show in Carmel twice now. It was fun to see him again at the reception. You should get down there if you have a chance. Point 2: Let me see...who are you referring to? Hmmm...there is that guy with the big gallery just before the entrance to Zion....can't remember his name. Bet he is one of those hyper-inflated sorts. And I have a couple of other ideas.... But I agree with you. Point 3: It is the pure joy of wandering around, connecting with nature, losing yourself in the act of trying to make a composition. I lost myself at Point Lobos day before yesterday in just such a way.

You are right on, Gary! Yes! And I love your image here.

21 Nov 2010 7:06am

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

perfect DOF and wonderful composition! the colours look superb and natural indeed! interesting read and comments to go with this photo as well - very thought provoking...

21 Nov 2010 12:51pm

Denny Jump Photo from Easton, PA, United States

Hi Gary - I am sorry that I did not see this a few days ago when you posted it - I could not agree with you more on your narrative. I know artists, just in the Sacramento area alone, who honestly love their craft and continue simply because of that love. Your work exemplifies this love in all that you do. I feel privelaged to "know" you, at least through this blogs. Finally, I see you used that star thistle-like plant here..I really love that plant and the catch it made of the leaf (and the catch YOU made of it all) is truly magical. I love looking for and finding these kind of examples in nature myself, it is very fulfilling. Your words and images are prime examples of this joy of discovery. All the Best

22 Nov 2010 5:30pm

Angela from United States

What a most beautiful picture! And I couldn't agree more with you on your philosophy on photographers and how it is not cool to do a load of post-processing.
I love your little scenes like the one above, they are each so perfect in themselves. Keep doing what you are doing!
Thanks for sharing!

22 Nov 2010 6:25pm

julia from United States

your work just touches my heart <3 keep them coming <3

22 Nov 2010 6:28pm

Kelly Morvant from Lafayette, LA, United States

Very beautiful image! So I guess putting leaves into the shot is not a good idea? :-)

22 Nov 2010 8:24pm

@Kelly Morvant: Thanks, Kelly. We all have our own rules in the field--I won't add or arrange leaves, but others do. That doesn't bother me so much unless they pretend they found the leaves that way.

Jeff Longenbaugh from United States

Beautiful photo, Gary. Your essay rings true not only for artists but also even for the professions that you mentioned. Success has many definitions. Each of us chooses our own...and then lives with the consequences. I am reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson's "What Is Success?" ....To earn the respect of honest critics... ; .....To appreciate beauty. ;....To find the best in others. ;....To leave the world a bit better.....

22 Nov 2010 10:34pm

Jo from United States

As an artist, an oil painter among other things, I see the same thing in art galleries, so it's a common affliction. They don't let their work speak for themselves and those who are most famous by the world's standards are those who must justify their work with words.

23 Nov 2010 11:36am

Amy Smith from New Lenox, United States

Thank you for sharing all of your beautiful is very inspiring!

23 Nov 2010 3:09pm

Chris Bligh from Dacula, United States

Great narrative Gary. I have taken to reducing my "processing" for the very reasons you mentioned. I used to try to tweek the exact right contrast, color, or whatever, and in the attempt to get more interesting shots, I admit that I even added and subtracted from some shots to make them "better".
As you are getting out of the art show scene, I am thinking about getting into it. Many of my friends have encouraged me, and I could certainly use the extra income if they sell, but I just don't quite know how to break into it the right way.
Incidentally, as are a couple of your previous responders to this photo, I too am from Easton PA, so there are alot of folks from that area that are fans of yours!
Best Regards, Chris

28 Nov 2010 10:33pm

@Chris Bligh: Thanks, Chris. Selling prints is a pretty difficult nut to crack, no matter how good your images are. Website and gallery sales are rarely enough to justify the effort (the benefit is more in exposure); art shows are pretty good, but a lot of work. The best way to get started is to go to a few shows to get a feel for what works and what doesn't work, and for the show itself. It doesn't hurt to get your feet wet with an inexpensive, craft-oriented show, with no expectations of sales, before investing in the high-end, juried shows that are most likely to result in sales.

Magda from Vancouver, Canada

so pretty.... so delicate!

16 Dec 2010 3:51pm

Mike Uyyek from Seattle, WA, United States

I generally agree that digitally inserting something that wasn't there when you shot the picture or removinging things you don't want is often less than cricket, but I'm not entirely against it from an artistic point of view if it makes a stronger image. The caveats I would have are that you can't claim it was that way originally or that it's an unaltered image, that you tell everyone exactly what computer trickery you've done, and that it truly does something to improve the image. I've utilized what some folks call the "Magic Photoshop Telephone Pole Filter" to get rid of elements that just distract from the subject I wanted, but if asked, I'll tell you that's what I did. On the other hand, if you got a good shot of an interesting iceberg, say, and it would make a stronger statement if a penguin were standing on it, it wouldn't hurt much because a penguin MIGHT have been on it at some other time and you just didn't see it. Then, rather than just a photograph, you say it's photographic art -- you've taken a photo of something and made it more than it was before.

As for manipulating things in the field, that's sometimes a factor of whether or not you get the shot at all. I'll remove sticks and leaves that clutter an otherwise attractive shot, or move something so it's more in frame so I get the shot I want. I'll never do anything that affects the environment any -- no forestry/horticulture just so I get a shot with just the exact plants I want in frame -- but small, inoffensive changes I'm not above making to get a better shot.

4 Jan 2011 8:42pm

@Mike Uyyek: These decisions are all personal choice. While I agree that it's all okay if you're honest about the manipulation, I'd never do something like add a penguin to an iceberg because for me the pleasure of an image is capturing a special moment--if I don't see it, I get no satisfaction adding it later. And I'll never photograph something for pure financial gain.