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Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon.
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The Magic is in the Moment
Since the very beginning, nature photography has been indelibly intertwined with places. We seek out epic scenery, looking for photogenic and inspiring natural features to inspire viewers. Sure, great light is often part of the equation, but place is in many ways the focus of artistic endeavour.
With the digital revolution of the past few years, this equation needs to change. More people than ever are now photographing nature, and it seems that most locations have already been found and photographed many times over. “Place” has become, in many respects, synonymous with “been there, done that.” As we see the same places photographed over and over again, they cease to amaze and inspire us as they did when they were still a matter of first impression.
But there is one thing that can never be copied, reproduced, or photographed ad nauseum. If you make moment, rather than place, the focus of your photography, then each photograph you create will be unique. Each moment is different—and each is fleeting and ephemeral. Moment can transform even a mundane place into something magical. Rather than search for places which are instantly recognizable by many, search instead for never-to-be-reproduced moments that will inspire and amaze.
Moment, rather than place, has had a long and glorious history among street photographers, who can perhaps lay claim to being the true masters of moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most famous practitioners of the art, coined the phrase “the decisive moment,” referring to the peak moment when two or more disparate elements interact in a meaningful way. Photographers like Cartier-Bresson didn’t walk around looking for pretty, awe-inspring things or places. Rather, they photographed the mundane, the everyday, even the ugly. They relied on capturing decisive moments—capturing convergences of motion, shape, and expression—to create their art, and to uncover the hidden soul of their subjects.
Of course, moment and place aren’t mutally exclusive. In fact, if you photograph a very famous and oft-photographed place, then the moment needs to be exceptionally magical to ensure that your image stands above the multitude of others from the same location. And if you are lucky enough to find a new great place, capturing a great moment while there will help your image stand apart from the inevitable multitude of images that will follow. If you take a place-based approach, be prepared to spend a lot of time sitting on each location, waiting for days (or weeks) on end for the right moment to happen. Chase moments, on the other hand, and you will be free to pursue limitless artistic expression untethered by the shackles of geography.
I suspect that as you learn to master the moment, you will rely on place less and less. You will find that moment can reveal something true about nature, perhaps with more honesty than you can capture with a mere record of place.