The Infatuation Half-life

Based on my selection process over the past month, my infatuation half-life for new photographs seems to be about two weeks.

Infatuation is the state of being carried away by an unreasoned passion or love.
Half-life (t1⁄2) is the amount of time required for a quantity to fall to half its value as measured at the beginning of the time period.

I haven't been sharing those photographs because I decided to slow the sharing pace.  But, I'm photographing regularly and making selections as I go along.

I use Lightroom to manage photographs.  After an outing, I do a first pass and mark the ones I like with a five-star rating.  I'm generous at this stage, giving photographs the benefit of the doubt.  After a day or two, I revisit the outing and revise my ratings.  I may add a five-starting rating to some and decrease the rating of others.  I'll add the ones with a five-star rating to a project-specific collection.

Within a collection, the first-rate photographs have a five-star rating.  The newly added photographs join that esteemed collection.  Some may be down-graded right away when I see them in the context of other first-rate photographs.  

Often, there are new ones I'm sure will make it as first-rate photographs.  I mean, positively certain.  There may even be several like that - which is very exciting.

I review the collection from time to time, as a minimum whenever I add new photographs to it.  As I do this, the ratings of recently added photographs begin to fall.  The ones I thought were definitely most excellent, fade to a more provisional status.  On the next viewing, it becomes clear most of the provisional ones definitely don't warrant a five-star rating.  Those infatuations are over, replaced by new ones.  That process of going from "almost certainly a first-rate photograph" to "definitely not a first-rate photograph" takes about two weeks.  The ratings seem to stabilize after that.    

Recently, I've discovered a mental test that may be shortening the infatuation half-life.  I ask myself: "When I decide to share these new photographs, would I select this as the first one to share?"  If the answer is no, I downgrade it.  

I think there will be a longer term "competition" to keep those five-star ratings, driven by factors other than infatuation.

Iona Beach, 2013

Questioning the Ideal

When I looked back at my photographs from 2014 the urban ones didn't seem as cynical as I thought they might be.  On reflection, I think it's just less overt.    

My Vancouver photographs seem motivated by the contradiction between an idealized version of Vancouver and the reality on the ground (which is perhaps a clever turn of phrase given how that idealized vision incorporates towering condos). 

Looking at the photographs (yet) again, I concluded that even the ones appearing to be a straight-up representations of an idealized Vancouver are still questioning that ideal in some way.  Consider this photograph:

Dwelling, Vancouver, 2014

It’s a view of an attractive townhouse entrance.  But my interest lies in the contrast with the tower sitting above it.  The towers are striking, but their scale is alienating when experienced from the ground.  The homes in the sky are financially out of reach for most people.

The questioning appears in other ways.  Vancouver, like most Canadian cities, is very young.  Yet, there are signs of decay and neglect.  Rather than acquiring character buildings simply wear out.  They are disposable.   

Shrouded, Vancouver, 2013

Claymore Parking, Vancouver, 2013

Steps, Vancouver, 2014

There’s more to be written about the Vancouver photographs in future posts.  But I want to touch on how the Prairie Waters and Prairie Modern photographs also question ideals.  

The prairies are often imagined as a pastoral ideal.  In practice, the it's criss-crossed by a grid of roads.  I can just as easily see it as a vast food manufacturing operation.  I think of the Prairie Modern photographs as both representing and questioning the ideal.

Power Pole, Alberta, 2005

The Prairie Waters photographs question an ideal in a different way.  People might not consider the shallow lakes in central Alberta beautiful.  Certainly they don't attract visitors the way the Rocky Mountain parks do!  But mud can be beautiful if you look at it in the right way.  So, they question the ideal of conventional beauty.

While I may be questioning an ideal, ambiguity arises because there is also genuine affection.  I unabashedly love the open spaces of the prairies.  Vancouver may be flawed, but it’s an easy city to love. Green stains on concrete can be seen as verdant or decrepit.  I'll write more on this ambiguity in a future post.

Constructive Discussion

I appreciate discussions about photography that give me something to build on.  

I’ve never been drawn to still life.  But the exhibition Marvelous Things: The Art of Still Life curated by Aline Smithson (author/publisher of LensScratch) expanded my concept of still life.  I realized still life encompassed a broad range of objects and could be a found scene.  Thanks to Mark Hobson for bringing it to my attention.  Mark has a piece in that exhibition and is an accomplished practitioner of the art of still life. 

I mostly photograph scenes that are bigger than me.  If I walked into the scene my entire body could be included in the frame.  I think of these as landscapes.  Sometimes I photograph scenes that are smaller than me.  I’ve never been sure what to make of these photographs.  I’ve started to think of them as found still lifes.  I’m not sure why it makes a difference to think of them that way, but it does.  It’s provided a context for me to explore more of them.

Having another path to explore, helps get me out the door to make photographs.  Once I’m out the door, I’ll photograph not only still lifes but other things that present themselves to me.      

Consistent with my recent resolution to slow the sharing pace, I’m not going to share any new work to illustrate the point.  We’ll revisit in the future to so if the inspiration yielded fruit.  But here’s an older example of the sort of thing I have in mind. 

(The new ones have a slightly different feel because I've been composing them for the square.)

Urban Still Life, Vancouver, 2014

Concept and Intuition, Part 3: Urban Photographs

In Part 2, I discussed the role of concept when photographing the prairies.  In this post I’ll continue by discussing it in the context of my urban photographs.

I started photographing the city with the loose idea of producing a prairie trilogy: natural, rural and urban.  At the time I was obsessed with creating photographs that were abstract and minimal without resorting to extreme cropping.  There were some successes:  

Backside, Edmonton, 2006

Alley Shadow, Edmonton, 2006

There were also lots of photographs of walls with various things on them.  I found these less satisfying.  It seemed to me I was trying to impose a minimalist ideal on an environment that was frequently chaotic.    

With the Prairie Waters and Prairie Modern photographs I drew inspiration from abstract painting.  I likened the natural photographs to abstract expressionism and the rural ones to color field painting.  I began to think cubism might be an appropriate reference for urban environments.  I made a few tentative efforts to produce cubist photographs, but the results were disappointing.    

Eventually, I gave up my preconceptions and just started photographing what appealed to me.  I photographed sporadically.  Looking at photographs from that period, there are many inspired by a minimalist aesthetic.  But there were others embracing more complexity.  I seemed to be developing a new grammar for photographing the city.

Mall Entrance, Edmonton, 2007

Eventually, I gained confidence in this new grammar and began photographing more frequently.  There was only concept in a broad sense.  I was trying to make honest photographs of Edmonton while staying true to the way I see.   

When I moved to Vancouver, I carried on in much the same way.  I was invigorated by having a new city to explore.  From the beginning the Vancouver photographs seem more complex and sophisticated.  

Convention Centre, Vancouver, 2012

Growth, Vancouver, 2013

Without doing so consciously, I was now making photographs that realized the cubist ideal I imagined many years before!

My approach to the urban photographs has been pretty consistent.  I pick a direction (if I’m walking out the door) or a neighbourhood (if I’m driving) and see what I find.  I try to vary the locations.  Sometimes I re-visit and other times I seek out something new.  I avoid back-to-back visits to the same place.

I have no specific agenda, but themes emerge.

For example, in Edmonton there are what I think of the ‘blank spaces’.  These are certainly informed by the minimalist aesthetic, but they are also seem true to the character of the city.   

Industrial Facade, Edmonton, 2012

There are also photographs of things protruding from the landscape. 

Protruding, Edmonton, 2008

There are photographs of malls.

Southgate Mall, Edmonton, 2007

None of these themes make an appearance in the Vancouver photographs.  Surfaces in Vancouver are covered in growth.  There are malls in Vancouver, but they are not as integral to the character of the city.  In downtown Vancouver, nothing breaks the horizon because you rarely see the horizon - it’s obscured by towers or mountains.  

The Vancouver photographs have their own themes emerging.  The city is trying to transform itself into an idealized and often exclusionary version of itself.  There is a strong demarcation between the west side and east side of Vancouver.  There are contrasts and contradictions to explore.

Chaotic, Vancouver, 2013

Behind, Vancouver, 2014

Between 4852 and 4864, Vancouver, 2013

I’m trying to nurture these themes while leaving room for others to emerge.  I’ve become more attentive to the politics of development.  I’ve read a little history on different neighbourhoods.  I’m doing research and formulating concepts to feed back into intuition.      

This series of posts on concept and intuition was motivated by the Vancouver photographs.  I'm looking back to learn from those experiences.  I hope to better understand what’s emerging and explore how I can re-enforce it conceptually without clobbering the flow.  

Other posts in this series:
Part 1: Prairie Waters
Part 2: Prairie Modern

Slowing the Pace

I’m slowing my image sharing pace to favour quality over quantity.  

In a good year, I might produce 26 first rate photographs, an average of one every 2 weeks.  If I post several images a week that’s 150, so 85% of those will be second rate. 

I can’t think of a good reason to share that 85%.  If I let the photographs sit for a while I can sift the best from the merely good.  I’m not sure how long the minimum evaluation period needs to be.  Longer is better, but that’s balanced by my ego’s desire for a few accolades.  We’re talking months anyway.

I’ve been actively photographing but won’t post any new ones for a while.  The internet will survive.  In the mean time, I’ll keep posting contemplations and continue considering various sequences and combinations.  

After two years, I still like this one, so I think it's in.

Mural, Vancouver, 2013

Concept and Intuition, Part 2: Prairie Modern

In Part 1, I proposed a model for the roles of concept and intuition and discussed how it played out in the Prairie Waters project.  In Part 2, I’m going to examine the Prairie Modern project.

It could, and perhaps should, be called Roads and Horizons.  It’s two projects that I banged together after the fact when I put this site together.  I felt neither project was strong enough to stand on its own and they are closely related.  

The roads came first.  I was driving along the highway connecting Edmonton and Calgary taking pictures in my head.  It occurred to me I should make an effort to take some of those photographs with a camera.

I went on excursions to photograph around roads.  I started by focusing on overpasses, but the results weren’t satisfying.  One winter morning I was wandering along a ditch overlooking the highway.  Rather than looking out into the surrounding fields away from the road - a more conventional point of view - I was looking back onto the road.  

Pair, Alberta, 2005

Pair, Alberta, 2005

Roads are often framed as a visual pathway leading into a scene.  The view from side appealed to me because it shows the road slicing through the landscape.

I included objects in and around the roads as integral parts of the composition.  I was interested in drawing attention to mundane details often excluded from the frame.

Farmhouse, Alberta, 2005

Later I began simplifying the scenes into horizontal lines.  This was in part a response to observing how completely these landscapes have been transformed and groomed by people.  It's like the landscape has been machined into this simpler form.  

After Gursky, Alberta, 2005

I also stumbled upon the idea of framing scenes to include the top of the road as the foreground. 

Cracked, Alberta, 2005

Pond, Alberta, 2005

Such variations seem informed by both concept and intuition.  

Driving through the prairie provided ample time to consider concepts, perhaps to the point where I was getting in the way of myself.  

I was seeking more abstract images.  I imagined photographs with a few, simple bands of colour like a Rothko painting.  That contrasted elegantly with the Prairie Waters photographs which I likened to abstract expressionist paintings.  But that search became frustrating because roads are usually a messier affair.  My pursuit of an idealized landscape could blind me to the one in front of me.  Or perhaps I just needed to be more committed to finding those simplified landscapes.  At the time, I felt I was driving into a cul-de-sac.     

One evening, I was driving to an area where I planned to spend a few days photographing roads.  I had gotten a late start, so as twilight arrived I was mostly focused on reaching my destination.  I came upon a pile of grain.  It seemed like a pyramid.  Even though it wasn’t a road I felt compelled to stop and photograph it.

Prairie Pyramid, Alberta, 2005

I liked the idea of that photograph so much I abandoned the roads and spent the next several days making photographs of smallish things on the horizon.  This was one of them.

Tractor, Alberta, 2005

I sought more like this and found a few adhering to the strict format:

Canola Power, Alberta, 2005

Herd of Deer, Alberta, 2006

But again, they were difficult to find and I became frustrated.  It’s an interesting concept, but one that requires more patience.  I was very pleased with the deer.  I wanted some cattle and horses.  Rather than hoping to come upon such a scene by chance (as I did with the deer) I could have improved my chances by working with farmers.    

I made other photographs that were similar, but less stringent in their constraints, more informed by intuition.   

Prairie Sundial, Alberta, 2005

A Touch of Green, Alberta, 2005

When pulled together, the resulting portfolio reflects this series of partially developed threads.  I might have benefited from giving intuition freer reign.  For example, just photographing the roads as I found them without concern for a high degree of abstraction.  The Prairie Waters photographs were never as abstract as I imagined them anyway!  Alternatively, I might have benefited from stronger conceptually imposed constraints.  For instance, I could have photographed from the tops of roads, but always using the same focal length and placing the far edge of the road on the ⅓ line.  Or I might have continued to work on the ‘things on the horizon’ project to slowly accumulate more.  Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from trying any or all of these approaches in the future. 

There was certainly a lot of toing and froing between concept and intuition.  It generated interesting sub-themes and variations.  I might have achieved greater impact by more cohesively developing fewer ideas.  Or I could have generated more variation with a less constrained approach.  I wonder how it comes comes across in the Prairie Modern portfolio?  Let me know in the comments.    

Six Bins, Alberta, 2005

Concept and Intuition, Part 1: Prairie Waters

Human endeavours such as works of art, scientific discoveries and product innovations rarely proceed in a straight line.  The final outcome depends on a mix of skill, intellect, intuition, luck, research and analysis.  I see concept in photography arising from the to-ing and fro-ing of intellect and intuition.  

Some concepts arrive in a moment of inspiration.  Photographs motivated by that concept might be brilliant or dull.  The concept evolves or dies.  Something different might emerge from the attempt.

Alternatively, concept can emerge from photographs taken without specific purpose.  The conscious mind becomes aware of patterns observed through intuition.  Having noticed these patterns, a concept may be formed through focused consideration.  It is then further refined by intuition. 

Bringing the conscious mind to play is fraught with peril.  Intuition speaks softly and is easily crushed by over-thinking.  But concept plays a role in putting intuition in the path of opportunity.  A concept might be as broad as carrying a camera during daily activity.  Or it might be more planned, like an excursion to photograph peak colour in the fall.    

In part 1, of what I envision as a three part series, I'm going to discuss the role of concept and intuition in the Prairie Waters photographs.  

The project was sparked by this photograph of Cooking Lake. 

At the Edge, Cooking Lake, 2004

I had photographed Cooking Lake for several years.  Despite not looking radically different, this photograph contained several revelations.  It integrated land and sky into a cohesive composition.  It was more abstract and ambiguous.  It was distilled to just mud, water and sky.  It was epic and completely unremarkable at the same time.

With these concepts in mind, I scoured maps seeking other prairie lakes with similar characteristics.  I found Beaverhill Lake and Bittern Lake.   The following photographs are from my first visits to those lakes.       

Alien Forms, Beaverhill Lake, 2004

Angles, Bittern Lake, 2004

Inspired by the early the results I returned to photograph the lakes again.  I was amazed how different they could be from visit to visit.   Changes in weather, seasons and water levels revealed different moods.  I committed to visiting often to discover these moods.  Sometimes the conditions were unremarkable but I always enjoyed my visits.

Stained, Bittern Lake, 2004

Sacred Circle, Cooking Lake, 2004

Eruption, Beaverhill Lake, 2004

The onset of winter brought even more radical transformations.  

Crack In the Ice, Cooking Lake, 2004

Right, Cooking Lake, 2004

When I was at a location intuition took over.  The more surprised I was the more viscerally I responded.  To avoid pre-conceptions and trying to repeat past successes, I made a rule not to visit the same location twice in a row.  I chose my destination randomly or on a hunch. 

So, in the case of Prairie Waters a single photograph inspired a concept.  That concept guided research.  The resulting photographs motivated further exploration and a deep engagement with the concept and places.

In Part 2, I discuss the role of concept and intuition in the Prairie Modern project.

Last Light, Bittern Lake, 2004


Sometimes I make photographs that remind me of a different, unrelated scene.  I think of them as metaphors.

For example, when I came upon a pile of grain at twilight I felt like I was looking at an ancient pyramid.  

Prairie Pyramid, Alberta, 2005

Lately, there have been several photographs like this.  

This one feels like a Mayan temple...  

Courtyard, Downtown Vancouver, 2015

this one like an arch left standing after a bombing raid...

like a signal graph...

Cowichan Bay, 2015

like a scene from an imagined future...

Another Courtyard, Vancouver, 2015

I suppose I could read this sort of metaphor into other photographs.  But these metaphors asserted themselves immediately and in a memorable way.  In addition to the one I posted at the beginning I can think of only one other photograph that feels as strongly metaphorical (see below) and it's from 2005 as well.  Four metaphorical photographs in quick succession is unusual, though perhaps just how it happened to happen. 

Prairie Sundial, Alberta, 2005

Scenes from an Imagined Future

Dystopian science fiction is having a moment.  But other common imaginings of future cities aren't very comforting either.  Modern and futuristic equates with cold and antiseptic.  

Visions of a utopian future appear in urban architecture.  Peter Carroll commented on this Vancouver photograph: "Great sci-fi vibe going on."  

Among the Towers, Vancouver, 2014

That thought lodged itself somewhere in my mind.  

Recently, I found myself in a business district courtyard bereft of people on a late Saturday afternoon.  I marvelled at another scene from an imagined future.

Courtyard, Downtown Vancouver, 2015

I've perhaps employed a bit of photographic sleight of hand to achieve the spatial ambiguity in these photographs.  I'm not manipulating the image after the fact, just exercising my license to choose what to include in the frame.  The scene is there to be found.  It appears as we've designed it.  

The Concept Continuum

We can perhaps think of the role of concept in art on a continuum.  

At one end of the spectrum we have art about art where concept is king.  An example is Marcel Duchamp's readymades.  As a Canadian the snow shovel (In Advance of the Broken Arm) is especially appealing.  From Moma Learning:

To make In Advance of the Broken Arm, Marcel Duchamp selected a snow shovel, hung it from the ceiling of his studio, and called it art. . His readymades—mass-produced, functional objects he designated as art—challenged many accepted assumptions and traditions, namely that art should reflect an artist’s skills, or even be handcrafted by the artist. Duchamp asserted that an artist could create simply by making choices.

Such self-referential work spirals in upon itself until there's nothing left.  It's not like you can make a practice of sticking shovels in an art gallery.  Otherwise, art schools would only need to teach students how to find the nearest Canadian Tire.  That doesn't stop some members of academia from trying to find ever more obscure and convoluted ways to make clever statements mostly appreciated by those in the know.  But I digress.   

A little further along the continuum we have photographs of photographs.  Richard Prince is well known for his Cowboy photographs.  

Richard Prince came to the attention of the art world in the 1980s for appropriating the Marlboro Man advertisements into his own photographs. When he started appropriating images he was working at Time-Life in the tear-sheet department. “At the end of the day, all I was left with was the advertising images, and it became my subject.” He would rephotograph the advertisementsand then crop them to remove the text and most references to the cigarettes they were selling. Eventually one of his Cowboy photographs would become the first photo sold for more than $1 million. In 2007 he reset the record price for a photograph by selling “Untitled (Cowboy)” for $3,401,000 at an auction.
— James Franco

From this article.


This kind of work where concept is king doesn't appeal to me that much.  But further along the continuum we find ourselves visiting artists such as the recently deceased Lewis Baltz.  From a tribute by Gerry Badger:

Baltz was a leading figure in the field of what has come to be called ‘conceptual’ photography.’ Indeed, he was actually the Professor of Conceptual Photography at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. But the term ‘conceptual’ photography, like ‘documentary’ photography, can be difficult to define, and is a complex beast; not quite a school, not quite a defined approach.

But then Lewis belonged to no school, and in his hands, the conceptual approach certainly was both complex and meaningful, unlike so much contemporary photography that pretends to have a concept where in fact it has little, and is merely a regurgitating of formulaic strategies that lack either intelligence or soul.
— Gerry Badger

Baltz is best know for works such as The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California.  There's a great deal of over-wrought writing about this work, but Tyler Green does a good job summarizing it here.  From that article:

New Industrial Parks, which Baltz shot in 1974 with a 35mm camera and the help of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, is one of the masterworks of the 1970s. Baltz’s project made our ugly, under-considered treatment of the land into something uncomfortably beautiful, an apt metaphor for the way bad Western land-use policies served as an effective economic engine.
New Industrial Parks gracefully engages with many of the most important art-making threads of its time: conceptualism, the marriage of conceptualism to photography, geometric abstraction, minimalism and artists’ intense engagement with the then-nascent American environmental movement.

Baltz's work appeals to me because concepts are - at the very least - balanced by the aesthetic properties of the photographs.  These photographs can be deeply appreciated without reference to concept or their place in art history.*  They are beautifully crafted images.  They invoke a visceral response.  The aesthetic properties and concepts support each other. 

Duchamp's shovel by comparison, is a bit of a one-trick pony.  It's about the concept.  There is a 'right answer' as to how one is intended to interpret the shovel.  Prince's photographs are similar.  We're meant to marvel at the cleverness of the idea rather than his ability to assemble light and form in interesting ways.   

Many  excellent photographs lie further along the continuum where concept plays a lesser role. Ones where concept is more emergent or implicit.  I appreciate these photographs equally well.  

But I can't help but admire photographs like those from Lewis Baltz that sit comfortably at the balancing point of the continuum.  They are photographs that have a strong conceptual foundation while still being excellent photographs independent from conceptual reference.  

* Perhaps assuming one appreciates photographs of the vernacular.  

Where Have All the People Gone?

I rarely include people in my photographs.  In fact, I go to some length to ensure there are not included.

In this 2010 interview John Gossage (JG) and Lewis Baltz (LB) discuss why they don't include people in their photographs:

JG: ...unlike Jeff Wall, one thing I’m very sparing with is photographing people. Once you insert a person into the work, he or she become the protagonist and a lot of my books are at such low intensity that it throws everything off. I want the viewer to be the protagonist in the book. Like in The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler – no people occur except for the viewer.

LB: I think this is one thing we have in common: that the subject of the work is the person looking at it. If you want to get a little more Zen about it, the subject is necessary for the completion of the work.

JG: Yes.

LB: And the intellectual or imaginative engagement of the viewer is what makes the work finally a work. And if you interpose another human in the work, then he or she becomes the subject, which I think is too simplistic.

JG: I think it’s to be used incredibly sparingly and delicately.
— John Gossage (JG) and Lewis Baltz (LB)

Last Light, Bittern Lake, 2004

Prairie Waters

The warm glow is probably the first thing you notice in this photograph.  Equally important is the feeling of being alone in a vast space.  A figure would change that.  It would become a photograph about a person standing in the landscape.  Including myself in the photograph (something that seems to be increasingly common in our selfie-obsessed culture) would shift the emphasis from the viewer to the photographer.

There's also the impact of figures on scale.  Its common advice to include a figure in landscapes to provide a sense of scale.  But I want the scale to be ambiguous.  This scene could almost be an aerial view.  I consider that a feature.

Loops, Edmonton, 2006

Winter City

More care is required to avoid people in urban landscapes.  Its one of the reasons I photograph in-between places and visit during off hours.  In "Loops" there's still that feeling of being alone.  We can consider the landscape rather than wondering why a person is out in an otherwise abandoned school yard on a frigid winter day.  We might ponder why a city with long, cold winters seems to double-down on the suffering by favouring muted, windowless buildings.  

I also find vehicles can behave like figures.  When they are being driven, they become proxies for people.  But even parked vehicles can become the subject of the photograph.  Still, vehicles are a common feature of urban landscapes.  In the last few years I have started to carefully include them in some photographs.  They are usually more like architectural features -- a part of the photograph but not its subject.

In the scene below, we see a used car lot designed to both attract and repel people.  We observe a clean interior and a garbage strewn exterior.  The vehicles motivate the situation and play a supporting role in the visual structure.  But the emphasis is on the ribbons and fence.  The presence of people is implied through their choices.  We are invited to consider these choices. 

Used, Vancouver, 2013

City of Glass

There are certainly many excellent bodies of work where people in the photographs play a primary or significant role.  They are just different from the kind of work I choose to make.  

Prairie Revisited

The Prairie Modern photographs were made in 2005 and the spring of 2006.  During that period I photographed the prairie intensively and more or less exclusively.  

I also photographed the prairie after this period creating a few more photographs I love.  They are similar in some ways, but have a different look and feel.  

The Prairie Modern photographs adhere to self-imposed constraints reflected in their formal and symmetric compositions.  The later ones break from those constraints.   They are more relaxed and organic and perhaps even a little romantic.   

Here's a few of my favourite post Prairie Modern photographs.

Edges, Alberta, Fall 2006

Above, Alberta, Winter 2006

Clumps and Abandoned Shed, Alberta, 2012

I didn't recognize the end of the Prairie Modern project until sometime after it had happened.  Starting in the summer of 2006 there there were several years of lean photographic activity as I focused on leading product development teams at a startup.  The photographs during this period started heading in new directions.  The prairies remained the same, but I changed. 

I haven't included the more recent photographs in the Prairie Modern portfolio.  The portfolio is not a 'best of' collection of every photograph I've taken of the prairies.  Instead, its meant to be a cohesive set of photographs with its own narrative and a consistent aesthetic.  

There are also some fine photographs of the prairies taken before the project.  They are different from the project photographs and the ones that came later.  I think of them as precursors.  But that's a topic for a future post.  

I thought perhaps the more recent photographs might lead to a new prairie project and maybe they will someday.  But for now they are a vignette rather than a full story.  

Staying True to Myself

In the fall of 2003 I decided I should make more 'commercially viable' photographs so I could sell more prints.  The results were mostly mediocre.  I see it as a period where I failed to be true to myself, but it's a little more nuanced than that.    

It was fall, so I decided to photograph fall colours in the mountain parks - because that was something serious nature photographers did.  Here's a couple of the better ones.     

Kootenay Plains, Fall, 2003

Banff National Park, Fall, 2003

Ironically, looking at these photographs now, I find myself liking them better than I did at the time.  The compositions are simple and striking - especially at 'thumbnail size'.  The fall colours are beautiful.

Let's compare these to a couple of photographs taken earlier in 2003 (January and March).

Aspens Hanging, Elk Island National Park, 2003 (from   Elk Island  )

Aspens Hanging, Elk Island National Park, 2003 (from Elk Island)

Trees in Spring Snow, Elk Island National Park, 2003 (from   Elk Island  )

Trees in Spring Snow, Elk Island National Park, 2003 (from Elk Island)

They are all photographs of aspens and they all have structured compositions.  In the fall photographs everything falls on the same plane, while the winter photographs have depth.  Partly, this is because the fall photographs were made with a telephoto lens and the winter ones with a wide angle lens.  In the fall, I was deliberately choosing to use telephoto lenses because I felt this was something 'serious' photographers did.  I wanted to become skilled at making intimate landscapes.

But there's more to it than just lens choice.  The fall photographs are very much about the thing being photographed.  They are more portrait than landscape.  But unlike a good portrait they seem to lack emotional engagement.  Indeed, they were photographed at the side of the road while I was driving along 'seeking' compositions.

By comparison, the winter photographs are as much about the space as the things in them.  I am literally immersed.  I'm wandering on foot well away from the road and responding to my environment rather than mechanically seeking compositions. 

Both of the winter photographs were taken in Elk Island National Park, in an area I visited many times.  It's off the beaten path.  A special place place I had to myself.  I think my strong emotional attachment comes through in the photographs.

Its not that the choices made in the fall photographs are inherently wrong or poorer.  They just reflect choices that are less true to me.  I prefer photographs containing objects in multiple planes parallel to the viewer over photographs where the subject matter is primarily in a single plane.  Similarly, I prefer the quiet solitude of winter to the vibrant colour of fall.  Winter's snow covered landscapes with stark branches devoid of leaves have a simplicity and elegance that reminds me of calligraphy.

The first four months of 2004 read like a searching process with plenty of experimentation.  I'm reminded there's a delicate balance between being true to yourself and becoming set in your ways.  In my mind I remember the period from fall of 2003 to the spring of 2004 as wandering around in a photographic desert brought on by overthinking the process.  But looking back, I see it wasn't that simple.  In part, I was trying different things, which informed future experiences even if they weren't entirely successful on their own.  It was also a reflection of my limitations.  Although I didn't realize it at the time, I had many things to learn about seeing the world.  So, it was probably also a necessary part of the learning process.  And finally, there's luck.  There are stretches where I seem to see photographs everywhere and others that are simply less productive. 

I've been more sure of my photographic sense of self since then, but it's not a static thing - it keeps evolving and changing.  There are times when I'm searching.  But now I'm more likely to let it come to me rather than trying to make other people's photographs.

Eventually, in late spring of 2004, the wandering ended with the start of what would become an intense explosion of activity resulting in the Prairie Waters series of photographs.

At the Edge, Cooking Lake, May 29, 2004 An explosion of forms leading to the   Prairie Waters   explosion.

At the Edge, Cooking Lake, May 29, 2004
An explosion of forms leading to the Prairie Waters explosion.