Hunter-Gatherer or Farmer?
Just recently, I went on a trip to the Washington coast with Chuck and Laura Downs. A trip to one of my favorite spots on the planet, with good friends, for the sole purpose of photography - can it get better than this? Naturally, there was quite a bit of talking about photography.
During one of those long discussions, Chuck raised an interesting idea - that photographers (and I'm discussing landscape photography, here) fall into two camps. There are those who travel widely, often on long trips - stop in Texas for the bluebonnet bloom, then visit the Skagit valley for the Tulip festival, then off to yet another far-flung location for yet another unique photo opportunity - Chuck called them photographic hunter-gatherers, always nomadic and on the move to the next location, and at each location, they're looking for that one 'killer' image. In contrast, the other camp (which we'll call photographic farmers) seem to return to the same spot, again and again, plumbing new depths in the material they find there.
Early in my photographic life, I was one of the former - a photographic hunter-gatherer. I'd go on longish trips, tooling along in my photo-mobile, stopping when something caught my eye. Quite a few miles were put on various cars on such trips. I remember one group photo trip, which resulted in perhaps 10 hours of driving across the state of Washington, and perhaps 45 minutes of actual photography. You can do a lot of driving when you're just looking for the one perfect, fantastic image, that one amazing scene.
During this period, my photographs were what I'd call singletons - single images that were nicely arranged, fairly pretty, and reasonably well executed. I even made several trips to one of my favorite locations (the Olympic peninsula in Washington state) in this mode - and got singletons. The problem, of course, is that it takes a long time to build up any sort of body of work if you're making photographs this way. Even worse, the images didn't really make a cohesive body of work.
Finally, in exasperation, I made a trip to the coast. Beforehand, I decided that I was going ignore the drive for the perfect image. On this trip, I decided, I had a new catch-phrase - "Quantity *is* quality". I was going to make a lot of images, and if worst came to worst, I would at least have a lot of mediocre images instead of just one or two mediocre images.
And, to my amazement, this shift in attitude brought great rewards.
The first reward was that I had more fun. Spending all my time on the beach with the camera out making photographs, I had an incredibly good time. I didn't waste time looking for the best place to begin, I just hit the beach, got out the camera, and started making photographs. There was no problem finding things to photograph - in the same places where previously I struggled to find good subject matter, I just followed my nose from subject to subject. I found so many intriguing possibilities that I took to picking several out, making marks on the sand, and then just moving the camera from mark to mark, making exposures as rapidly as I could. For hours at a time, I was in a sort of photographic 'flow' - each morning, before I knew it, the light would be gone and I'd finally let hunger drive me off the beach and into town for a late breakfast. "Well," I thought, "at least I'm having a great time!"
The second reward came when I got home laden with hundreds of sheets of exposed film. It took me days just to get it all processed, but as I hung the negatives up to dry, I saw in each batch of ten negatives one or two that made my heart beat just a little faster. In the end, I got far better photographs from that trip. Were there some negatives that were worthless? You bet. But there were also images that pointed the way for the rest of the work I've done on the coast. For reasons I don't claim to understand, it seems that in order to make good photographs in a place, I have to let go of *trying* to find the good photographs, and instead concentrate mostly on making the photographs that I see, without regard to whether they're good or bad. I may be different from everyone else, but I'm a perfectly horrible editor of my own work when I'm behind the camera. I've finally come to the conclusion that relatively speaking, film is cheap, and I should just go ahead and make the exposure and sort it whether it's good, or useful, or fits in the portfolio later.
One aspect of this is that it seems like going to the same place over and over would get boring - after all, you've photographed the stuff there already - why go back and do it again? But by going back to the same spot over and over, I learned to *anticipate* the times when conditions would favor the sort of photographs I wanted to make - the tides just right, the light the way I like, the weather cooperative (mostly). Many times, I've been on those beaches before dawn, eagerly anticipating the alignment of sunrise and tide. Quite a few times, when the good light finally faded and the tide rolled in and drove me off the beach, I'd meet other photographers arriving just as I was leaving - they were walking to one of the world's most photogenic spots at the very moment I felt conditions had gotten so bad it was not worth staying. Chatting with those folks, they often remarked that they were just passing through, and had heard/read about the spot and thought they'd stop by. Sometimes they'd look at the beach in the bad light, with the tide racing in and covering everything up, and they'd comment that it didn't seem as promising as what they'd heard about.
So I'm no longer a nomadic photographic hunter-gatherer. I've found that it's far more productive (for me, at least) to go to a spot that I know (or am getting to know) and stay there for hours, making photograph after photograph. It's more fun. It burns less gasoline, it puts fewer miles on the car, although it *does* use a lot more film.
In the process, I seem to be finding out that in general, my photography is more and more about what's behind the camera and less and less about what's in front of it. I'm less and less interested in going to exotic places and making photographs of exotic things. I'm more and more finding that as a photographer, my aspirations are more along the lines of looking at what everyone else has looked at, and seeing what no one else has seen.
Originally written sometime in late 2002