Pick a Number …

At the heart of all photography is an urge to express our deepest personal feelings – to reveal our inner, hidden selves, to unlock the artist. –Galen Rowell

There is value in stepping back from our work and looking at it from different perspectives. In doing so, we will learn more about ourselves and our path and patterns. Our images reveal not only what we see, places we’ve been and what peaks our interest, but also how we see them and, if we’re lucky, how we feel about them. We can observe images and easily recognize and remember our disconnectedness from a subject. We wish for better. Then, there are the images that bring us back to a moment and evoke a palpable sense of engagement and attention. Those are the images and subjects that speak to us and our audience below the surface. Those are the ones we allow to be imperfectly perfect.

MAN ON STREET ACROSS FROM CAPITOL BUILDING This is an image that haunts me. I cannot “un-see” it, and I cannot forget that it was taken immediately after visiting one of the most beautiful buildings I have visited. This man was on the sidewalk across the street.  I wrestled with myself about taking the picture and almost didn’t. In that moment I learned something about myself. I don’t ever want to take another image like this unless I can do more than capture a broken moment in someone’s life. It was only one image, but one I will never forget.

We all know and have seen images that have been worked to perfection on a technical level and yet are void of impact and emotion. (We’ve probably taken them, too.) While we can appreciate the efforts of technical mastery, these are the same images that lose our interest quickly and are easily forgotten. Then, there are images that yank us in, draw our attention and keep us there – not because of technical perfection but because they speak to us on a deeper and more connected emotional or spiritual level. They touch our souls. We as the photographer/artist (and the viewer/audience) connect with what we have chosen to put in the frame and how we have chosen to finish the image in our refinement process.

If you want to learn more about your work, how you see the world, or patterns within your vision, take a closer look. How do you photograph places you spend time in? Are you a “big picture” person, and your images reflect that? Do they speak to the essence of places that touch your heart or do they simply document what you’ve seen and say “I was here”? Do you tend to see and photograph the smaller stories, intimate landscapes, moments that might have been missed by others, or even by you, if you had hurried by? Or do you find yourself going in deeper still to the point that “context” and place are not part of the stories you tell?

FLOWING IN THE PETALS OF A DAHLIA – This image was created using the Tamron 90mm macro lens with Nikon 6T supplemental close-up lens.

Take a good, long look. See what you learn about yourself by looking at the images. Can you remember what made you stop? What held your attention then? What holds your attention now? Are they the same? Do you see something more or different? Do your images reflect those moments? Do they bring you back in time? Challenge yourself to gather a cohesive collection (or more) from your archives. See what you discover.

One way to embark on the challenge is to follow the “Seeing in Sixes” project by Lenswork. To give you some insight, Lenswork describes these sets as “a visual cousin to the haiku or six-word storya compact expression of a single nature, possibly a story, definitely a theme, held together stylistically, and making a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Tight, distilled to the essentials, impactful, deeper than what is possible with a single image.”

DAHLIA STILL LIFE – This image was created with the Lensbaby Velvet 85 in my living room and a texture from Topaz Texture Effects.

Over the course of the last six months I have heard in three different ways the call to “see in six.” First, from a fellow photographer who submitted to the Seeing in Sixes project. Then, two other photographer friends shared with me the first two volumes of the Seeing in Sixes books. Finally, a challenge came through an in-depth mentoring course by David DuChemin (The Compelling Frame). I got the message, and I did it.  It has been an enlightening endeavor, even with the constraints I gave myself with the dahlias. It has inspired me to look at and gather more collections that reflect a part of who I am, how I see and what I love.

DAHLIA PETALS IN ABSTRACTION – This image was created using the Tamron 90mm lens and adding the Nikon 6T supplemental close-up lens.

For my set of six, I chose images I had taken within a six-week timeframe. My dominant subject during that time was (and still is) my “dates with dahlias.” Along with the constraints of time and subject, my third requirement was that each frame needed to reflect something more about me and my connection to the subject. Each one needed to be personal and unique to how I see and feel about dahlias. There were no other “rules.” The six images shared here are “me.” Each one speaks to more than “This is a dahlia.” I recognized and accepted long ago that I am not a documenter. I am an interpreter. My best work reflects not only what is “real” and what I see, but rather what I see and how it makes me feel.

DAHLIA IN BOTTLES – This image was created using the Lensbaby Edge 80 optic and a French Kiss texture called Purple Prose.

Whether consciously or not, we notice things that touch us below the surface, that tug on a part of our heart and awaken a sense of wonder and more. What those things might be are different for everyone. They also change along the way as we experience life, learn new things, meet new people and grow as individuals.

Take a look … pick a number. I challenge you. What does your set look like? What does it reveal about you – as a person and as a visual artist? What does that collection say about what touches your heart? Give it a try and see where your “look back” takes you. Discover what your work tells you about yourself. And keep looking. Those touchpoints have and will continue to change and grow as you do. It will reveal insight and be reflected in ways that may surprise you.

DAHLIA IN BOTTLE WITH ANTIQUE PAPER UMBRELLA – This image was created using the Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens and blending two images – one of the dahlia, the other an antique paper umbrella.

Remember, we all begin our photographic journey with little knowledge of the technical aspects of the craft. What we bring first is a good portion of life experience and a sense of wonder that is in a continual state of evolution. Much of what took my breath away in the beginning of this journey still does – sometimes in the same way and for the same reasons, but not always. Life and learning and people and places along the way have expanded my vision and inspiration, and it always will.

DAHLIA AMIDST MAGICAL COLOR — This image was created with a Lensbaby Sweet 80 optic and blended with a Topaz texture called “Dreamy Day.”

So, pick a number … any number. Add your own constraints for this exercise so that your focus will be limited and purpose-driven. Challenge yourself to do something (ie., same subject) differently, to veer from your usual approach and comfortable style of shooting. See what you see, what you learn and what you feel. Be open and inspired.

DAHLIAS IN SIXES – And here are those six images that fall within the boundaries of a timeframe, a subject and that each reflect a part of me and how I see and feel about the dahlias.

Responsibility and Freedom

. . . As a visual storyteller, you are responsible for everything within the frame. . . . If it’s in the frame, it’s because you allowed it to be. If it’s missing, it’s because you chose to exclude it, or you neglected to include it.      –David DuChemin, from “Within the Frame”

For a while now, I’ve been hearing things during workshops and in conversation with fellow photographers that are troublesome to me. Some have said, sadly, that they’ve considered quitting photography altogether because whatever they share is not well received. Others have said that they’ve stopped submitting images in their camera clubs because they “never win” or “nobody likes what I do.” And the same type of scenario plays out on social media.

poppy pods, texture overlay, artistic, interpretive

Artistic interpretation of poppy pods with texture overlay.

We are all different in how we view the world. That’s a wonderful thing. We should celebrate our uniqueness. And when we share our way of seeing the world, we should make our vision clear but also be prepared for mixed reviews.

To each person I talk with and hear these words, I ask them, Why do you photograph? What makes you want to go out and take pictures?” With different words, each one shares that they want to capture what they see (or rather how they see) in their world. That, to me, is the very best reason of all to take whatever camera you’re using to preserve those moments in time. It is why, at the age of 34, I bought my very first “real” camera. I wanted to capture what I was seeing and responding to in my own little world – plays of light on trees, flowers and buildings, gatherings of family and friends, places I visited in my travels and simply things that I found interesting or unusual.

Roots, rocks and stream shadows landscape on trail at Falls of Hill Creek, West Virginia - landscape

Roots, rocks and stream shadows landscape on trail at Falls of Hill Creek, West Virginia – landscape

I did not see myself becoming a photographer, selling my images, speaking to groups or leading workshops throughout the Southeast. I simply wanted to capture the moments of my life. And while my own path as a photographer veered into a career, photography has become my passion and vocation. It was not on my radar or in my plans. It happened because I could not stop and because of a hunger to learn and grow.

Thankfully, I have been blessed with mentors and teachers who pointed out areas where I could improve (as they should) and encouraged me to find, express and be true to my own vision. Not one of these people told me that I should be like them or that their way was the only way to photograph. Many thanks go out to Joe and Mary Ann McDonald, Jim Clark, Bill Campbell, Dewitt Jones, Nancy Rotenberg, Les Saucier and others. Their influence may be seen in some of my work because of the things I learned from them or because we were kindred spirits, but the voice is mine because each one encouraged me to find and own it. Find yours.

Landscape of the Manteo waterfront with old boat and lighthouse with textures

Landscape of the Manteo waterfront with old boat and lighthouse with textures

If you’re one of those people who have become discouraged in your efforts to grow as a photographer because of the words of a few critics or because your images “never win” contests or aren’t well received in your photo club or don’t get “Likes” on social media, TAKE HEART. Go back to the reasons why you started taking pictures, and do it for you. Find your own path. Learn what you need to learn to grow and improve your skills. Listen to those who honestly (and kindly) share how you can refine your work. Keep on taking pictures no matter who sees or likes them. DO IT FOR YOU.

Faux color infrared landscape of Lefler Mill, Georgia

Faux color infrared landscape of Lefler Mill, Georgia

As a photographer, I am responsible for everything I include within the frame, for everything I leave out, and for being true to my own vision and voice. Because I accept this responsibility, I am free to express myself in my own way. It’s a process that evolves continually, and I didn’t start out that way. The beginning of my journey held many technical insecurities and concern for doing things “right.” Learning the fundamentals gave me comfort and freedom to step out and veer into my own lane.

artistic blending of Century Plant in snow with soft focus flowers

artistic blending of Century Plant in snow with soft focus flowers

The images you see in this post are ones I know I never would have taken (or shared) in the early years, even if I had taken them. I encourage you to listen to your inner voice and BE FREE to choose your own path – for you, not for “likes” or prizes. Be the best you!