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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Photographing With Purpose

By creating more meaningful work, you can find greater focus and develop a stronger voice, leading to deeper satisfaction and growth as a photographer

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First light on a cloud over the Owens River near Bishop, California. The Owens River, the Owens River Valley and the City of Los Angeles have been the central figures over nearly a century of water rights and environmental issues.

What does it mean to be a photographer with purpose? The challenge of making that next image to be proud of, not to mention the warm glow of accomplishment that follows, can be meaningful enough for a lifetime of photography. After a while, however, some passionate photographers start to wonder about the point of producing and accumulating images, and they begin to crave purpose in their work.

A snow-covered bristlecone snag in the Schulman Grove, Inyo National Forest, White Mountains, California. The bristlecones are ancient trees that are under assault from climate change.
As a boy, I just liked the view through my father's camera. Investigating the world through the viewfinder frame encouraged a greater appreciation of the things that interested me. As I began to learn about photography, it was the moods and emotions that photographs can evoke through tonality and contrast that most excited me. I spent hours at a wobbly enlarger in my school's darkroom trying to make prints that yielded the rich qualities of tone that I saw in the work of 20th-century masters. Early in my career, I found myself photographing mostly to serve the needs of the market and began to realize that I was still trying to find my own voice and deeper meaning and purpose for my work.

Three years working with Galen Rowell changed all that. Overflowing with purpose, Galen seemed to anticipate an application and audience for every image. Even making very personal photographs, he always had in mind that this image would illustrate a point in a lecture, that image would help advance the agenda of a conservation campaign and yet another would make a perfect cover for Outdoor Photographer. By keeping a mental list of ongoing thematic projects and potential applications for images, he had a ready source of conceptual and creative inspiration. The purposes he kept in mind helped him to routinely seek out and make photographs that had a point and carried a message, rather than simply being pretty. As I adopted this approach, I found that my personal work became stronger and far more satisfying to create.

Pros have obvious business motives for keeping purpose in mind as they work, but it also keeps the creative juices flowing by setting goals that force them to push limits and tackle challenges in which they otherwise may not engage on their own. Amateur photographers can create a similar artist-client scenario by taking on projects on behalf of causes they wish to support, such as a local conservation organization. Of course, anyone can create his or her own set of goals for a body of work, and the amateur has the luxury of serving personal interests alone, rather than the whims of a particular client or market.

Wind-driven waves and tufa towers, Mono Lake, Eastern Sierra, California.
Start with your passions. If you have trouble defining specific subjects or themes that you're truly passionate about, make a list of the sorts of things you tend to be drawn to photographing. Then, take a moment to honestly reflect on why you're drawn to each one. Perhaps some will appeal to you because you saw another photographer's great photos of that subject and you'd like to make comparable images. Sufficient motivation though it is, to find a truly meaningful purpose, you may want to dig deeper to find your own voice. A few of the subjects on your list ultimately will reveal a more personal calling that transcends photography—things you're absolutely fascinated with and care about deeply, regardless of whether you've seen good photographs of them or not.

Next, pick apart each candidate subject, thinking of ways to capture images that follow a theme and tell a story. You may want to make a storyboard, sketching rough compositions of opportunities you anticipate may come together under reasonably foreseeable conditions. Then, think through each image you've previsualized in the storyboard and determine what conditions would need to be present, what preparations you need to make and how to be in position at the right time to make that image the best it can be.


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