Let me stake a claim about landscape/nature photography here: it does nothing for me.
I can, and do, appreciate landscape photos from a technical perspective. But emotionally, they leave me cold. There’s something about the perfect beauty of an excellent landscape photo that seems to shut my engagement down. I’m compelled by imperfection for reasons I’ve never looked into, but they are doubtless why I thrive visually on gritty environments/things and misshapen industrial vessels.
In mid-May, I got on a Greyhound to Lubbock, Texas. I was looking forward to finally meeting Jerod Foster in real life after a few years of chatting with him on Twitter, and attending his much talked about Texas Tech photography workshop in Junction, which is basically…
…wait for it:
An introduction to commercial and editorial nature photography.
I didn’t have too many qualms about the bent of this particular workshop though. Getting to learn from a working photographer, no matter what they shoot, is always valuable, so I grab it when I can get it. The two weeks out at Junction were meant to give his students a taste of what his professional life is like, and if that is the case, it is a brilliant life, despite the less than glamorous hard work. We saw spectacular bits of Texas every single day of those two weeks, and met some fine locals, and I in particular, was treated to Jerod’s extensive knowledge of the state he calls home, and a lot of its inhabitants. Every day was a venture into something new, a broadening of existing horizons, a renegotiation of purpose. Aspirational.
I first found out about Junction Workshops in 2010, owing to a blog post of Jerod’s, which features people very close to an irritated rattlesnake. I distinctly remember thinking way back then “holy batman, there’s no way they’re all going to survive!”
When Jerod found out that I was going to be within reasonable proximity of Texas around Junction/rattlesnake workshop period, he invited me to come along and experience it for myself.
I got to do the same thing with the other students in the group: get within a meter of said slithery reptile, all for a picture or three.
And it was nothing short of awesome, even if I made no pictures of said snake worth keeping.
Texas was a a litany of first experiences for me, and one of the biggest was Wyman Meinzer, Texas State Photographer. Meeting Wyman within the first 24 hours of being in Texas, was a hell of an introduction to the lone star state. Larger than life in blue jeans, trademark lace up snake boots, grey mane and moustache, he is as expansive as Texas itself. Meeting the man was quite an experience, to say nothing of what it was like to be walked through a little bit of his history. Taking us through the old Knox County Jail, which he renovated and converted into a home 3 decades or so ago, he told us the story behind every nook, cranny and artifact that we thought to ask about, and lots of the ones we didn’t. In that time I got to see how a bullet was made from scratch (as, fittingly, he makes his own), and he graciously answered all the silly questions I had about hunting rifles in detail, as I was agog at the beautifully oiled and burnished variety he owns, the first firearms I’d ever seen up close. His memory for the history of seemingly everything is formidable, and it was no different with his photo archive. Any photo of his you could point at, he’d be able to tell you what lens he’d used, f-stop, weather conditions of the day, the circumstance leading up to the image, a related anecdote about the shot itself, and exactly where he was and what was around him.
It was incredible.
I was so absorbed in watching what, to me, was a living cowboy legend in action, I completely forgot about the camera. So I have no pictures at all of one of the most vivid people I’ve ever met. Dang it!
In two weeks, I got a fine taste of what the Hill Country had to offer, amazed at the diversity of the Texan landscape. Before I got here, I had envisioned featureless plains, sunbleached canyons, cactus and cattle ranches, oil derricks and tinder dry bush.
I did get all of the above, as well as being scratched up by local shrubbery – the bush in Texas is amazingly thorny, and very bloodthirsty! – but was also treated to running rivers at Dolan Falls and around Independence Creek, although I am told the water levels are significantly lower than they have been from previous years, owing to the long drought. There were also wildflowers, and lush greenery, and tropical-grade humidity in some areas.
It was an intense period of getting up in the dark, on location and shooting by sunrise, breakfasting, reviewing in the afternoons, and then getting back on the road to location and set up in time for sunset.
As expected, I found the business of being a nature shooter no less baffling than I ever had. Setting up my little Fuji on this incredibly complicated contraption called a tripod, was extremely uncomfortable, especially at the crack of dawn, when my body was in shock at being awake and in brisk motion. At this point, I remind my readers that I am an unemployed bum. Ergo, being up before the sun has been relegated to the realms of selective amnesia.
But most uncomfortable of all, was how I spent most of those two weeks struggling with how to shoot.
Most of my photographic life has been spent shooting people in some context or the other, so without constructed human elements and the geometry of urban environments in a shot, I am lost. I didn’t think I would be. It’s all photography, right? But I hadn’t realized until then, how much I relied on people to focus my composition. Stick a person in a landscape and I’m alright. Remove the human element from it and I flounder.
For the first time in ages, I was an utter noob. Monkeys would have done better.
After a few days of telling myself it couldn’t possibly be that hard, and finding out that it was, I cornered Jerod one afternoon and begged quarter, needing help because I didn’t know what I was looking for.
What he did explain wasn’t anything unfamiliar – looking for lines to move your eye through the image, depth and layering, etc. But with no experience in such environments, practical application was another story. I found myself looking through a bunch of photos with Jerod for a while, trying to get a feel for how to weave all the random natural elements in the frame, into a path, and also how to see this path in an image – something which was not immediately obvious to me.
And then I went out there with everyone else and practiced. Shoot the sh*t of it, as Jedi Master Trent Parke would say. And boy, did I shoot a lot of sh*t! But I stopped feeling so out of my depth at some point. Rising in the dark and being at location early, wading through cool streams, meditating on light changing on the land as the sun climbed, started to feel right. Reaching for a tripod as more than a steadying device when fording streams, become a reflex. I began to enjoy making exposures too long to hand hold, shooting only at the golden hour, devoid of hard shadows and overblown highlights, and using lowest available ISO to do so.
I was doing all sorts of things I’d never otherwise be doing – creeping through swathes of flowers looking for one which was situated right to shoot macro with, wading diligently through streams, not to test the depth and stability of their beds for 4WD passage, but to find the right angle for the rock, tree, mini rapid, fallen branch or obscure reflection I thought might make a good focal point for a photo which would take me an inexcusably long time to make.
I caught myself thinking fondly of the lovely featherweight Gitzo tripod that Jerod so kindly lent me for the duration of the workshop, shooting a long exposure past dusk one evening.
That was a turning point.
The biggest lesson I learnt in the 2 weeks at Junction: applying shooting discipline.
This meant knowing exactly what I wanted in a shot, and committing to get it. Shooting nature demands a lot of precision, as slack is immediately apparent. I am never this precise with street work, because the richness of city environments generally means I am able to make do with whatever opportunity throws my way (the slack could be apparent here as well?). It would not be a bad thing, at all, to apply this quest for excellence to my street work.
I can’t say, after all of this, that I am any more capable of, or inclined towards nature photography than I was before Junction. My best pictures during these two weeks were portraits, which I have been going hard at, of late. But having really applied myself to creating an OK landscape picture for once, I am considerably more appreciative of what it takes. Aside from competence at the craft, it involved, for me, a lot of meditation and also learning to love what I was shooting.
One of the things I observed of Jerod – and almost everyone else I met in Texas during this time – was an intense respect for the land, and how profound an understanding he has of its nuances, e.g changes weather patterns linked to small changes in the flora and fauna. The awareness of cause and effect in every subtle shift was constant, and surfaced even in casual conversation. It was amazing, and certainly gave me a deeper appreciation of what I was shooting, because there was no question that these things mattered.
It was about inhabiting that mental space no matter what was happening around me.
A month after Junction, I am finding that on the odd occasion, certain landscapes do pluck at my heartstrings just a little. Learning to look for a visual path within the frame, I’ve discovered, engages the strangest paths through memory.
An assortment of impressions come to mind when I think about Texas now. A deer getting skinned, fireflies like drifting stars in the rustling dark of a tree-canopied night, the high, clear notes of a mandolin harmonizing with the dulcet strings of guitar. The rush of a river partly muted by the trees at Dolan Falls, and always, the splendid lift of a turkey buzzard in flight, black feathers turning to shining slate grey with the wheel and bank of its path against the sun. I was enamored of the grace with which these scavengers are shaped and fly upon, and spent many a morning/evening watching them dance on the currents.
A random list of other things I learnt on this trip, courtesy the entire workshop group, who were very much invested in ensuring I got a good understand of all things Texan (or, as much as I could absorb):
- How to make jalapeño poppers
- Quality Texas barbeque
- Appreciation of Dr Pepper, that stuff I associated with cough medicine prior
- What a smore is (yummo!)
- That hunters will taxidermy anything, like turkeys and giraffes
- Testicle Festivals. Nuff said.
My immense thanks to Jerod for inviting a virtual stranger to an event so important to him, and also for introducing me to Texas in such a stupendous manner. And thanks also to the Texas Tech students who were a part of this workshop, who could not have been more excellent company for every moment of those 2 weeks.