The Creative Road

Not as straight or narrow as you would think

Reviewing images from my photo shoots and assignments over the past couple of months, I noticed an interesting trend: My photography continues to improve and evolve. The change in my photography has always been an integral part of my creative process, which feeds on pushing new boundaries and new worlds to explore. This dynamism is opposed to the concept of creativity as (to use the well-worn metaphor) a golden ticket, where one is working toward a fixed objective.

The pursuit of photographic creativity is different for everyone, but I believe the basis for each of us is the same, to grow and improve our photography. The foundation for my creativity is a desire to explore new places and people, but also rediscovering locations and subjects I’ve photographed many times before with new eyes.

The other major stimulus is spending time with other creatives, hearing their stories and watching them photograph. It’s in my network of photo friends where I find my most positive creative interactions. I work and encourage these photo interactions on a daily basis. These could be as simple as a text, a comment in social media, attending or giving a talk, getting out with another photographer to shoot or gathering with a professional group like the local Tucson chapter of ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers), a group that meets regularly to catch up on the photo industry and share images and assignments in a show and tell. I am always open for these gatherings, to share, collaborate, shoot and be inspired.

I am more engaged and excited about photography now than I was 30 years ago when I started my photographic career. You know your creative game is in a good place when you can make that claim, and I’m not alone. I hear similar comments from other photographers who continue to shoot and push their photography far past the requirements of a mere profession or hobby. That is what it is to be passionately creative—when nearly every moment in your life is routed and processed through the filter of your creative process.

The image accompanying this column, a quiet sunrise landscape image from the Painted Desert on the Navajo Nation, gives no hint of the other accomplished creatives, photographers and videographers also shooting at the time I made this photo.

What brought me to shoot in this particular place on this morning started with a conversation months before with National Geographic photographers and filmmakers Andy Mann and Keith Ladzinski. When we attended the annual photographers’ gathering at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., Andy and Keith told me about a film they were going to shoot exploring the creative process. They wanted to follow artists to amazing outdoor locations and, through film and interviews, pursue their connection to the outdoors and and how it influences their art and creativity.

Originally the two envisioned shooting the film, which had been given a working title “Convergence,” in Patagonia near the southern tip of South America. The location is insanely beautiful but difficult to reach. They changed the location to the American Southwest so that more artists could take part in the project.

Andy and Keith wanted me in their film and asked for my suggestion of places to shoot. They knew I had shot stories for Geographic and that I was familiar with the Southwest. As Keith said about the film, “The premise is simple, a rendezvous with artists of various genres and walks: musicians, painters, photographers, illustrators and filmmakers converging on a road trip to create, talk about the process and that point where clarity kicks in and art is born.”

In the true collaborative spirit of the project, I wanted to share with them a place that would be mutually gratifying. I knew Keith had an eye for landscapes with intense and saturated colors, so I suggested going to the canyons in the Painted Desert. Andy Googled images of that location and was amazed by what he saw. I confessed that I hadn’t been to the place for several years, but to go there with other creatives would be the perfect excuse to return. Before parting ways, the three of us made plans to meet in the Painted Desert.

Fast forward two months and, with the required Navajo permits in hand, seven of us arrived at our camp above Coalmine Canyon on the Navajo lands. Keith, Andy and myself were joined by photographer Andy Best, cameraman Chris Alstrin, film editor Josh Povec and photo assistant Ian Glass. During the best light, all of us took an active role in shooting photography and video. Keith would man the controls of a DJI Inspire drone for aerial stills and video, Andy would lay track for time-lapse footage, and I would share my 1959 Polaroid Pathfinder camera. It’s no exaggeration that when the photo wheels really got spinning, our crew might have as many as 15 still and motion cameras in use. I got to try flying the DJI—fortunately not when it smashed into a wall (goodbye $5,000 drone).

After the sun was long set, we would gather around a fire to talk and share the day’s experience. The upshot of this gathering of talent, besides some incredible still and video footage, were personal insights about our creative process. It was an affirmation of our shared passion to create and explore the outdoors—our prime motivation and catalyst.

I left the crew to shoot an assignment, and the “Convergence” team continued its quest for another week, meeting photographers, painters and musicians in Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods, Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend and other creative hotspots around the Southwest. My advice to you: Surround yourself with passionate people to keep your photography creative.

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.