Behind the Camera: Me Through Photography

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Behind the Camera:
Me Through Photography
Welcome to Behind the Camera, which is a new feature here.  In this feature, I am going to try and answer some of the questions that come up about my photography.  The vast majority of my posts here are just about my treks and where I end up.  I talk about some of the individual pictures, but don’t necessarily delve into what makes me, as a photographer, tick.  My goal here is to, more or less, do a meet and greet and share a little bit about me.  I hope that this feature is enjoyed, as I would like to continue with it in the future as well.

About a week ago, I posted a question on social media asking if anyone had a question that they wanted to ask about my photography.  In all honesty, I was expecting a comment or two, but nothing like what I got.  There were a lot of great suggestions as to what to write about, but I picked a few that seemed to go together to get this series started.  The questions were: “What started my passion?” “How do I reveal myself through my photography?” and “What triggers my inspirations?”  I felt that these really got to the core of why I am the photographer that I am.  I will come back to the other questions later on in this series, but for now, lets jump in with these.

So, what started my passion with photography?  If I were to go way back, I can remember going hiking with my Dad in several different parks around the Piedmont of NC.  He would bring along his Konica 35mm SLR camera occasionally, and take some pictures of the landscape, as well as me…when I wasn’t looking that is.  That camera fascinated me, mainly because he didn’t let me touch it.  I think I held it once, and it was quite heavy compared to the point and shoot cameras that I was more accustomed to.  He explained about how a polarizing filter worked, although I only understood him to say it made the sky blue.  He talked about getting a telephoto lens for the camera more than once.  I liked gadgets, so photography intrigued me as a kid.
Add to that the hikes that we would go on.  I enjoyed going out in the woods, even though I was in terrible shape as a kid.  Really, it wasn’t sweat that was running down my face as we climbed the hills, it was tears.  I did learn to appreciate the natural world around me, even though I was wanting to be sitting on the couch watching TV.  One of the things that I remember the most was that we would anthropomorphize the trees.  He would show me how they each had a personality.  It was based off of The Lord of the Ring Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, but it applied to my reality at the time.  It did give me a deeper appreciation for those trees and the landscape though.
As I got older, I went out into the woods less and less.  I started to get more interested in cars than anything else (typical behavior for a teen).  I started taking pictures of whatever vehicle I owned at the time with those small point and shoot cameras.  Sometimes I would get a good picture, most of the time they would be pretty terrible.  I didn’t care how they looked since they were all pictures of my pride and joy.  It was all par for the course with film and point and shoot cameras.  The pictures were never meant to anything more than snapshots.  Then the digital age and the Internet happened.  I started wanting to post pictures of my truck at the time, but didn’t want to wait for a roll of film to be developed, and then scanned before uploading.
My first digital camera was a Sony FD-200 that my Mom got for me (the FD stood for Floppy Disk, which dates this upgrade of mine).  It was the answer to my woes, and allowed me to photograph my truck and have it posted on the Internet in the same day.  A side benefit to digital photography was that I could actually see the image right after I captured it which allowed me to make changes while I was still there.  Now, I was able to learn how this photography thing worked.
Morning Stretch
I started reading books and practicing.  I mean digital photography is absolutely free to learn on because the bad images can be thrown away.  The more I read about photography, the more I decided that the landscape was what I was really drawn to.  I learned a lot of about the design of a photograph, and how it applied to the natural world.  Essentially, I learned that a photographer can bring order to the chaos of the world that surrounds us.  Being slightly OCD (as my wife laughs at that statement), that really appealed to me.
What started as a hobby quickly turned into something else though.  My day job is being a police officer, which can be quite stressful at times.  I found that through landscape photography, I was able to concentrate on the beauty that surrounded me rather than always paying attention to the less than pretty aspects of the world.  It was my way of maintaining balance in my life.  It allowed me to be in touch with my emotions and give them an outlet since it is largely beneficial for an officer to compartmentalize their emotions under most circumstances.  I now had a way to deal with the left over feelings that I would collect through a work week, and had a way to release them in a constructive way.
The roll that photography has played in my life has changed from year to year.  These days it helps to combat my low grade PTSD which I picked up after an incident in 2009.  It allows me to get out by myself and be alone with nature.  I’m able to process my thoughts, and really seek the answers to the questions that I come up with during the days prior to my trek.  There is something very cathartic about connecting with nature on a very deep level and then recording that moment in time.  It is almost like giving an emotion a physical existence where it can remain without staying in my own head.
Photography has been a lifesaver for me, even though I have taken two substantial breaks from it due to severe frustration.  My passion for the art of photography has evolved through the years and actually reflects a lot of who I am deep inside.  Something that I’ve found is you can almost read my current state of mind by looking into my photography.  Yes, I said looking “into”, not looking “at”.
When it started, photography was just a hobby, these days it is more of a gateway into my soul, and a window for me to see myself.  That brings us to the second question which is “how I reveal myself through my photography?”

As I mentioned, if you look closely at my photography you are more than likely able to get a feel for my mood at the time I shot the image.  I’ve been noticing over the years that as I look back over my pictures from previous treks, I’m taken right back to where I was, emotionally, at the time.  It only stands to reason that the photographer brings a good bit of themselves to the photograph that they capture.  I am drawn to certain subjects depending on my mood, and I enjoy shooting in certain conditions more depending on my current mindset.  The time driving and hiking to the locations also gives me introspection time so that I’m really in tune with what is going on in my head.

I’ll go ahead and stretch out on this nifty couch for a little while, while you sit over in your easy chair taking notes about what I’m talking about.  I’m a complex kind of guy, so it might take more than an hour appointment to peel back these layers.

In all seriousness, art, no matter what kind, comes from the soul of the artist.  It is an expression of the inner self. Photographers are no different.  When I am looking for a scene, different things appeal to me at different times.  Since I am largely an introvert (there my wife goes laughing at me again for minimizing this quality), I find that many of my images are almost moody in their appearance.  I’ve tried to break that mold a time or two, but it never really comes off as convincing.  Deep tones, and saturated images are my hallmark, and they come naturally for me.  It is not that I am depressed, but rather I do a lot of internal contemplation.  My thoughts are rarely well lit in my head.  I don’t have fleeting thoughts that are easily understood as if fully lit by the sun.  I like to really explore my thoughts thoroughly, as I try to do with my photography.

Shadowed Ridge

When it comes to talking about how my images reveal who I am, this one is probably the best example to discuss.  When you look at it, it really looks like a pretty simple image taken at sunset.  However, it actually describes who I am very well, and I’m thinking that some of the feelings in this will appeal to others who share some of the same thoughts.

First of all, I shot this one day after work, which meant that I was driving the two hours to the Blue Ridge Parkway after spending a day at work.  I was going to be away from my family for the entire day and evening to go on this trek.  I was looking forward to the trip and what pictures I might get, but at the same time was feeling like I was abandoning them at home.  The light and the shadows show that inner struggle and dichotomy for the whole trip to the mountains.

If you continue looking at the light and dark, you can see that the warm light is only representing about a third of the image, while the shadowed portions extend the other two thirds.  This is where I’m sure that many will have this shared experience so that this image will speak to them.  We all try to put our best foot forward in life and present the best “me” that we can.  That is the part that is in the light for all to see, but it is only a small portion of who we really are inside.  That is where our own self doubts and insecurities are located.  This is the part that we hide from others, and we deal with internally.  Yes, this is what makes up the most of us, but it is not what is seen by others.

While I was shooting this image, I was among a large group of folks that were there enjoying the same scene that I was.  I was the only one there with a large camera bag and “professional” equipment though.  I was moving around setting up shots with my long lens mounted to a tripod.  Seriously, I looked the part of a professional photographer and that was what everyone saw (In reality, nobody was paying me any mind).  In my head I was trying to get a composition that worked that didn’t include all of the people that were scattered across the foreground I was wanting to use.  I was getting frustrated because the scene that I had come up here to get wasn’t panning out, and I had missed out on family time at home.  I was worried that it was all for nought and I would come home with nothing to show for my extra time away (about 6 hours, on top of the 9 hours I was at work).  I was feeling pretty much like I had failed them and myself.  I was internally existing in the shadows of this image, while everyone was seeing the bright side of me as the confident photographer.

The vast majority of my images reveal different parts of who I am, and I can pick each and every one of them apart.  The way I see it, by capturing emotions, rather than just an image, I have the chance to connect with a much broader audience because those emotions can be shared experiences, and will prompt somebody to be drawn to an image even if they can’t identify why.  It is also a really great opportunity for me to look back on different phases of my life and see where I was emotionally at the time.  My photography is basically a tracker of my mental health in a way.

So how do I find the images that I shoot?  What inspires me to pull the camera out?  That is usually a twofold process.  The first deals with previsualization and represents the planning stage.  I’ll usually pick something that I want to shoot which I am familiar with and have been waiting for the proper conditions to develop to photograph.  As I see what conditions are setting up in the extended forecast, I will start to work out which location will work best for those conditions.  I will consider the locations and compositions for days before I actually arrive at the scene.  The resulting images are usually well composed and executed, but fall under “normal” photography for me.  After that comes the fun part.  This is where I start to connect with the area I’m in and start to feel inspired to create other images.  I look for images outside of what I planned for.  These are the ones that are usually more inspired, and I am more satisfied with overall.  This is where my inner being really comes out.

There are benefits to these planned images.  I have a chance to wait for conditions to be right, and I’ve had the opportunity to think about the composition that I want to use.  On the other hand, when I get there, I find that I’m forcing an image based on a vision I had at a different time, with a different mindset.  I’m shooting inside of the box.  When I am hunting images that I have no preconceived notion of, I find myself drawn to those images that really reflect how I’m feeling that day.  Those are much more satisfying for me, and occasionally, the only reason I go out in the mornings.  If I don’t have a previsualized location in mind, but have the desire to go shoot, I’ll just pick an area and start driving around, or hiking as the case may be.  This is my chance to shoot outside of the box.

Sunshine Beneath the Clouds

So what do I look for when hunting images?  It can be rather complex so we’ll look at a couple of examples.  In this image, you can tell that it was a dreary day.  I was actually in a really good mood, so much of the wonderful rural scenery didn’t appeal to me, and I didn’t bother to photograph much of it.  It just seemed too dark for my current mood.  However, in the middle of this cloudy, rainy day, I found this bright yellow bug on the side of the road.  My happy mood connected with the bright colors here and I decided that I wanted to shoot this scene.

While the car was nice, it was really the color, and the happy vibes that I get from looking at a VW Bug that made me want to shoot it.  The darkness around it (it was actually raining at the time) really made the yellow pop, and my happiness flowed through the picture.  I’ll even go a step further.  I was really hopeful at this point for a good image and shot the car from the rear which I don’t typically do.  The result of this composition is the car looking off into the distance which adds to the hope shown in the image.  Had I been feeling a different way, I would have shot this scene much differently, and might have actually stored it for a later time as I do with a lot of scenes that I come across at the wrong time.  Of course, all of this is on a very subconscious level while I’m out exploring.  It is more of an emotional connection to a scene than anything cerebral.

Breaching the Surface

There are also times when I am not feeling all that happy, but the conditions I am in are bright and cheery.  That was the situation for this shot.  I was not having a good morning despite being on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The clouds had broken up, and I wasn’t really wanting bright images.  I was looking for more moody captures which is admittedly difficult in these conditions.  While at Price Lake, I looked down and saw the reflections in the water with a rock poking through the surface.  The blue sky was toned down, and I liked the abstract nature of the scene.  It fit with my introspective mood for the day.  I framed it up and applied just enough polarization to darken just a portion of the water at the rock before releasing the shutter.  There is a lot said by this image, at least to me.  It totally fit with how I was feeling that day and I can remember my thoughts at the time.  Today, I’m in a different place mentally, and I doubt very seriously that I would have even seen this scene unfolding.  I would have been too concentrated on the overall landscape to have looked at this section of 3-4 square feet.

Commanding Presence

Speaking of an overall landscape, I’ve mentioned that part of the fun of photography is bringing order to the chaos that surrounds us.  That feeds into my OCD tendencies (There goes Toni again snickering at my minimizing of this).  There are many times that my head is so full of thoughts and clutter that the only thing that really appeals to me in the landscape is something that can take center stage.  The example here was shot on an anniversary trip a few months ago.  There had been issues with our cabin that lead us to get a different cabin.  The weather was terrible with fog and rain.  I was sorting out things that we wanted to do while in the mountains, and I was finding it hard to concentrate on photography at all.  The drive was nice, but I just couldn’t get in tune with anything that I was seeing.  Nothing was tripping my creative trigger.

That changed as I passed by this large tree that stood out in the fog.  It would have caught my eye on any day, but I connected with it because it stood apart from the noise in the background.  Despite the rain, I wanted to shoot it because it really spoke to me and helped level me.  Thanks to an umbrella that Toni had, I was able to get the shot in the middle of a pretty good rain.  It turned out to be the best image from the time we spent in the mountains.  There were lots of other opportunities, but nothing really connected with me on the right level.  This one tree inspired my creative side because it spoke to my emotional side.  That is where my best images come from, and that makes total sense to me.

My passion for photography started at an early age and progressed through a lot of unrelated paths before culminating in a hobby that turned into so much more.  I’ve found that the art of creating pictures is therapeutic for me and has allowed me to self medicate my PTSD.  It does open up my emotions which can make them raw at times, but those emotions do come out in the images that are captured.  My best images are a direct result when the physical world connects with my inner spiritual world.  Once those two forces meet, there is a force that develops which allows me to capture the scene as my heart and soul wants.

Thank you for letting me share this part of my life with you.  I hope that it allows you to understand my photography better as well as the guy shooting the pictures.  Let me know what you think of this feature and I’ll come back at another time to answer some more of the questions that have been posed.