Literal, Experimental, and Casual

October 6, 2020

For the past few months I’ve been trying to navigate a particular creative struggle. I can’t point to exactly when it became a thing, but I’ve come to realize that I have three primary ways that I interact with nature via photography: literally, experimentally, and casually. Oftentimes they are at odds with each other, or so I interpret them to be, and I’ve been spending a lot of thinking time wondering what it all means and how I should or shouldn’t let one affect the other.

I’m writing this all out to make these thoughts and feelings a little more concrete.

Literal Interactions

My primary way of interacting with nature is in a literal way. This interaction gives me what I need most out of my trips to nature: clarity, solace, mindfulness, distillation and more. They’re the moments where I am absolutely lost in my viewfinder and focused solely on the subject, moment in time, or interaction that I am photographing. I get into my flow state and I study the things I am photographing very deeply and literally. Meaning, I am photographing “a rock”, “a tree”, or “a glint of light” and my attention is completely invested in that process. Even most of my abstract images are born of literal interactions.

The vast majority of my current portfolio was created in this way and the whole entire workflow of the image from beginning to end can be described in one word as “serious”. And before I type the next part I want to make it clear that I need this type of interaction. It’s a very important part of my relationship with nature and it’s what has made me the person I am today. Yet sometimes the seriousness can be draining, overwhelming, and even unwanted. That feeling stems from the level of importance that I give this kind of interaction. I think I have trained myself into believing that I ALWAYS have to interact with nature in this way. And the process doesn’t stop in the field: when I get home I am going through the whole task of uploading the images to my computer, culling them, categorizing them, and reviewing the images for potential portfolio candidates. Then the whole emotional and mental side of processing the image starts. The way I process these images is also very serious. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I put a high level of attention and care into the processing of my images. I’m not saying that every decision that I make is the “right” one, but more that it’s the one that I want to make and there’s nothing about that creative decision that bothers me. I want the images in my portfolio to be a visual representation of that experience and if there is something in the image that bothers me then it takes away from that.

After the image hits my portfolio, that’s when I start to think about business and there’s a whole serious side to that. Keywording, resizing and saving five different versions of the file, saving the image descriptions and keywords in a separate document, adding it to my website and setting up the products, adding it to my checklist so that I know where I’ve already shared the image, sharing the image across multiple platforms, following up on comments (which I need to get better at), sending out two different newsletters, and then starting the whole entire process over again for the next image.

Again, I need this part of photography and it doesn’t necessarily feel like “work”, it’s just that I sometimes don’t possess the desire or energy required to interact in this way, where everything is deep and serious.

A silhouette of a Western Red Cedar branch against the sky.

Cedar Silhouette

Experimental - Figments of Place

I’ve always been one to experiment in the field, either with subjects or light, and now I’m starting to throw technique into the mix a little more often. I think this would be a natural progression regardless but there’s a part of me that feels it may not be genuine and that I’m heading in this direction due to a lack of feeling creatively invigorated by the literal interaction and that I’m grasping for that excitement again. I feel that my work has largely become predictable. Yes I still value the moments that I spend exploring through my camera and yes I still value any resulting photographs, but for the most part I have a good idea of what my images are going to look like. Maybe it’s because I’m frequently shooting the same subjects and the same light, but there’s a vacancy of discovery in doing that at this point. Yes – I need to seek out different subjects, light, and locations.

By incorporating different techniques I am breaking myself from that literal interaction. I am able to interact with the landscape in a more freeing way. While I may still lose myself in the scene, it’s less a serious interaction and more a playful one. I’m able to experiment, explore, and generally add some of that discovery back into my workflow while also not having to concentrate deeply on what I’m photographing. Once I’m out of the field the process remains the same as I mentioned above aside from the processing. There’s still the “serious” stuff such as the file management, social media tasks, etc, but I feel that I have a little more latitude and freedom in the processing of the images since I am not tying it to a literal interaction.

This direction is something that I’m actively exploring with intent and I’m having a lot of fun with it. For the most part the images that I have completed have not been put in my portfolio as of this writing, though I have shared a few on social media. Once I am ready I will be releasing my Figments of Place Collection which is a living collection where I will be compiling images created through this process.

Since this is a newer direction I am experimenting in a lot of different ways which produces a variety of results. I’m not sure yet where my “style” will land and in general I feel that, so far, the work of this nature which I have processed to completion lacks cohesion.

View the Figments of Place Collection

A Figment of Place captured in Aspendell, California.


Casual Encounters

The third way that I interact with nature through photography is in a completely casual way. Perhaps the biggest difference with this approach is that I only interact in this way by using my iPhone camera as opposed to my DSLR. I’ve long had the desire to experiment with square ratio black and white images and, one day a year or so ago, I decided to create an anonymous/secret Instagram account where I could have fun, let loose, and post images without any of the “serious” attachments that I’ve mentioned above. I decided to make this the place where I would explore the square ratio black and white images by posting my casual iPhone photos which I processed in the SnapSeed app. This results in a process that is free from all of the seriousness and responsibilities that I tend to feel with the other two approaches. I don’t have to upload them to my computer, there isn’t an invested process where I am trying to settle on an image I’d like to put in my portfolio, I don’t care about the technical perfection of the images, the processing is simple and laid back, there’s no checklist or limited edition tracker, and there’s zero discussion about it all. I have comments turned off on this account because I just want to make these images, let them fly, and then move on. I don’t want there to be comments, discussion, follow-up, and all of the other things that are generally considered “good etiquette” when it comes to social media. If people liked the images enough to follow the account, then my desire is for them to just enjoy the image for what it is and to have that for themselves in the way that I have this account for myself. Nothing needs to be said. Just let the image brighten your day (or not).

Yet in the process of posting to this account I realized something interesting: I really liked a lot of the photographs that I made in this way and I hadn’t even considered pointing my camera at many of the scenes (some I did). They were just passing moments where I noticed something that caught my eye, snapped a shot of it, and then moved on. And there’s something in that which I don’t feel is present in my portfolio images. Maybe it’s because the casual nature enables me to post shots that I normally wouldn’t which results in the sharing of a higher quantity of personal moments and interests. My portfolio of “serious” images is a highly curated representation of those deeper and more connected moments as opposed to the casual encounters posted to this account.

I haven’t told many people about this account because I’ve wanted to keep it insulated from those expectations and responsibilities, but I think I’m at the point with it now where I’m able to share it with people who might enjoy it (because the world needs all of the creativity it can get) and still retain the motivational authenticity of it. If interested, the account can be found here: @tatj_sq

What does it all mean?

Well, I’m still in the process of figuring all of that out.

It’s taken a lot of thinking to sift through all of these feelings and motivations in order to get to the point where I can look at these as distinct approaches and I still have a lot of questions. These are questions that I can only answer myself, though I am grateful to be working with a creative coach who is helping me to navigate it all:

  • Should I attempt to interact in a casual way with my DSLR and include those results in my portfolio or should I keep it separate? I feel like if I attempt it with my DSLR then I will muddy the waters of the casual approach and taint the freedom that it brings me.
  • In general I feel that my portfolio is widely varied and lacks cohesion. How should I feel about that? Including Figments and Casual Encounters in that portfolio is only going to add to that.
  • Where is my creative journey going from here? I felt like I had plateaued in regards to creative discovery and things felt a little stale to me. Do I invigorate my creativity by incorporating more experimentation, more casualness, or both?
  • Why do I even have these three distinct approaches? Where do they originate and what purpose are they fulfilling? Should they overlap and teach things to each other or should they remain on their own paths?
  • What do these approaches have in common and how do they satisfy that in their own unique ways? In other words, do these approaches scratch the same itch but in different ways? Does one way have a benefit over another?

Here’s the thing about all of this that excites me: I often talk about how I created my first “landscape photography” photo on the winter solstice of 2012, however, I have been photographing for over 23 years. All of that time is included in my creative journey and only now am I really starting to understand who I am as a photographer, what my motivations truly are, and how I can use those motivations to my creative advantage. 23 years later and I’m still growing as an artist and photographer. This journey doesn’t end and I’m excited to see where it leads me and what I’ll gain from it.

Thank you for reading.

Posted in Musings and tagged creativity.