Getting past the overly-familiar

Certain scenes are so popular in nature photography, that their popularity drains them of any emotional significance. After years of seeing the work of Ansel and his imitators, I had felt this way about Yosemite. Over-familiarity had bred an indifferent attitude in me. I had seen so many photographs of Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and El Capitan, that they no longer felt special to me. Just another place on the map.

But then, I finally went for my first visit. And was blown away by the staggering beauty of the place. It really is just that special. Being there helped me see Ansel’s work with fresh eyes, and appreciate his ability to express the soul of the valley. It also made me understand why so many people attempt to copy his style. The beauty of the place demands that you sing its praises. And what better way to sing than with the songs written by a master?

The problem is that when a master executes a vision, it becomes the default way to see that scene. It becomes so ingrained in our way of seeing and understanding that place, it becomes difficult for other artists to break free of the master’s technique and style. But the job of the artist is not to just record the beauty they see, it is to record the emotions that they personally felt while they were seeing. Adoping someone else’s style might at first feel like a natural shorthand, but in the end it is disingenuous to your own personal emotions. You end up parroting the master’s vision and voice, while damping down your own. The goal is to appreciate the master, thank them for showing you the way, while searching for your own voice.

Old Tree‘, a macro photograph of a small broken twig masquerading as a mountain scene, was probably one of my first attempts to relate Adams’ vision to my own personal style.

(This post was inspired by the post ‘Vivaldi-isation‘ written by Niall Benvie.)

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