The Value of Stepping Out of the Box

A high dynamic range image of a tree and the sun on the shoreline at Great Salt Plains Lake.
A high dynamic range image of a tree and the sun on the shoreline at Great Salt Plains Lake.
The author photographing the Great Salt Plains Reservoir dam. (Photo by Michael D. Zeiler)
The author photographing the Great Salt Plains Reservoir dam. (Photo by Michael D. Zeiler)

My close friend Michael and I spent a day recently in northern Oklahoma, attempting with some success to photograph the Great Salt Plains area. The reason we do this is entirely artistic. This exercise in imaging isn’t in any way commercially viable; we’re not building our portfolios to sell online, and we don’t have any clients paying us to do this. The reason we went, and the reason we have been doing things like this for our entire adult lives, is to express something artistic about our subjects, and to keep fresh and alive our desire to create art.

A spot of color on a mostly grey day, we found these hackberries near the Great Plains Lake dam.
A spot of color on a mostly grey day, we found these hackberries near the Great Salt Plains Lake dam.

Earlier this year a photographer friend of mine visited our home, and while he was here I decided to take him around the patch to photograph, or attempt to photograph, the rustic character of our bucolic acreage; the windmill, the old Chevy, the barn, the shed with the garage sale dishes still on top of it, the elms, the apples, the rusted nails on the fence posts, and on and on. I never get tired of photographing it, and am able to find a beauty in making pictures of my little corner of the country.

Whitetail deer peer at us through the woods; I do very little wildlife photography on a daily basis, and it was fun to photograph these wild animals.
Whitetail deer peer at us through the dense woods of the Great Salt Plains Wildlife Refuge; I do very little wildlife photography on a daily basis, and it was fun to photograph these beautiful animals.
Michael's humor: the "stairs on their side" shot.
Michael's humor: the "stairs on their side" shot.

I was astonished and disappointed when, sometime later, this photographer described the experience as “pretty worthless.” I don’t think his comment was directed at our hospitality as much as it was meant to express the fact that the images he was getting were valueless to him, and probably that they were commercially valueless. I certainly don’t have a problem with the notion that professional photographers have to make a living. It’s what I do for a living, after all. At the same time, at least for me, there is a constant desire to expand my craft, and expand it in all directions. I hope that part of this desire is due to the fact that I am not just a professional photographer, but also an artist.

Snow on concrete steps; I felt black-and-white was the only way to render this bleak scene.
Snow on concrete steps; I felt black-and-white was the only way to render this bleak scene.

The popular internet photography critic Ken Rockwell comments on the notion of who was are as photographers in his bitingly satirical essay The Seven Levels of Photographers. It’s worth reading. I like to imagine that in his lexicon of photographers that I am a balanced blend of all these people, although I am more the professional than any of his other categories. Part of me yearns to be mostly the artist, the top level on his list. And the way I imagine becoming mostly artist is by stepping out of my news and sports box, and stepping into another paradigm, one in which I am making images unlike those I submit to my editors on a daily basis. (Sidebar: I regard my lovely wife Abby as 60% artist, 30% snapshooter, and 10% professional, for anyone keeping score.)

Our first photo op of the day, a vine trellis with a watering system left on overnight, which then froze; even as we photographed it, it was already melting. (Photo by Michael D. Zeiler)
Our first photo op of the day, a vine trellis with a watering system left on overnight, which then froze; even as we photographed it, it was already melting. (Photo by Michael D. Zeiler)

The way I try to do this, of course, is by going places I don’t normally go, with people with whom I don’t normally shoot, often with different equipment, and almost always with a different audience in mind. Who is this different audience? I can’t say exactly, but like to imagine they are educated, curious, open-minded, and hungry for art of substance. I know I’m flattering myself when I say that, but part of an artist’s goal is to aspire to a greatness only he can imagine.

Michael experiments with my 10-17mm fisheye lens.
Michael experiments with my 10-17mm fisheye lens.

An odd goal I tried to iterate to Michael on this trip was that I wanted to try to create images with a sense of sarcasm. The overwhelming majority of my daily images are entirely straightforward, and I wanted to explore the notion of making images that were somehow satirical or sarcastic. I don’t know if I achieved any of this, but in the end, an artistic endeavor like this is a success if the artist learns something about how to create or express himself, and I believe I did that this time, and every time I let myself think outside the box.

As is often the case, this entry contains only a tiny fraction of the images I made on this day. I have already saved the rest of my product in the folder for my photoblog, and as the days and weeks pass, they will find a home there.

A blank sign; this may have come close to expressing the "sarcasm" I was seeking.
A blank sign; this may have come close to expressing the "sarcasm" I was seeking.
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3 Comments

  1. This is a nice collection of images, and as good an explanation as any for why many of us continue to create photographs even when there’s “no good reason.” I remember Asimov (I think?) saying something about writers, that he “must write,” whether he sells anything or not.

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  2. Ha! And also thanks for the link to Rockwell’s article. I read his blather occasionally, and sometimes agree with it. That one was funny, and of course makes me want to do a similar post someday… 🙂

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