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Going Back

Following on from the theme of my last post I wanted to tell you about a conversation I had recently.

A photographer asked me recently where I was planning to photograph in the coming months. When I told him he explained how he had no interest in going to those locations because he had already “done them”.

“Done them”

On chatting further, it became apparent he viewed locations much like a twitcher views rare birds. As something to be acquired. Ticked off. And once visited to be of no consequence. Been there, done that, what’s next? A teenager with a low boredom threshold.

Is it me, or do locations have more to offer than that? Are they not radically different as the seasons change, as the weather changes, as the light changes? 

Even with the honeypot locations, is there not more than one way to portray them? I saw Terry Gibbins image of Bamburgh Castle a few months ago, shot in the snow, and now a print of it sits proudly in my studio. It’s magnificent. So different from the usual “Sunrise at Bamburgh” that I and seemingly every other photographer who has visited Northumberland has shot.

To really get under the skin of a location, to really have a chance of capturing it at its finest, in all it’s guises, it needs to be visited over and over again. We need to get to know it. To understand how the weather, light and seasons affect it. In fact, it is hard to really build a fine body of work on a location without living close to it, to allow repeated visits, reacting at short notice to fast changing conditions.

Look at Ansel Adams. He spent most of his life photographing Yosemite. Yes, Yosemite is spectacular, but how many people go there once, photograph it and never return. “Oh yes, I’ve ‘done’ Yosemite”. It is no wonder Adams made amazing images of the place. He had great raw materials in the natural wonders of the place. But much more than that, he worked hard there. He put in the hours. He toiled. I’m sure his archives, alongside the classics we gasp at, also have their fair share of so so images of Yosemite from the less than wonderful days he witnessed there. But he still went out on those days and worked his patch. 

He himself said that “any photographer worth his salt has 10,000 bad negatives under his belt”. He was certainly a master photographer, but he also put in the hours in one place and it produced the goods. His idea of “doing” Yosemite was to devote a lifetime to it.

Take a modern example or two. Joe Cornish took a hill. A hill many had admired for years. Some had no doubt made images of it, good images. But Joe has devoted himself to this local hill, just up the road from his home. You can’t say “Roseberry Topping” to a landscape photographer in the UK who knows his stuff without mentioning Joe in the same breath. The hill is pretty, but Joe, through his devotion to it, has made it iconic. Would as many others go there to photograph it as do, if it wasn’t for Joes images? How many of us would belt past it going to and from the coast without giving it a second glance? be honest? Joe, however, has photographed it from hundreds of angles, distances in all weathers, seasons and in all types of light. I’m sure there must be a book there! Now, do we say, “oh it’s alright for him, having a hill as good as that on his doorstep”. But I would bet that wherever Joe lived he would find something, a local patch, and he would work it and find deep beauty in it. A small copse. A little field. A stream. Anything. He would work it. And then others would follow.

Look at Dav Thomas. Relentless, year in year out, working the woodlands near his home. Photographing what most landscapers recoil from as too difficult. Woodlands. But he has stuck at it. Toiled. Grafted. Made it his. Now he has a superb body of published work gaining international recognition. All through working his local patch.

So if we want to produce really fine work, rather than dashing about ticking off locations (Corfe in the mist, tick, Nanven boulders at sunset, tick, Elgol sunset, tick) lets devote ourself to working a patch. Look locally. It doesn’t have to be a “hero location”. How many of us who think our area is devoid of opportunity have bought our OS map and walked every footpath, bridleway? investigated the rivers and streams, lanes and byways, hills and woodlands, fields and shorelines? (I’m not saying, don’t visit and shoot the honeypots, the hero locations. They are well photographed for good reason. I photograph them. Beautiful images can and are made there. I’m just urging an opening of he eyes to the wider possibilities. Don’t limit yourself to these places).

If you need more convincing, more inspiration, Take a look at the work of Iain Sergeant. Particularly his series, The Pool, here. This is, I think, a stunning example of a photographer showing how beauty can be found in the ordinary places close to home. Iain saw a small pool of water just a couple of meters across within minutes of his home, surrounded by plants and proceeded to record it. The finished project is sublime. So simple. So beautiful. Not a hero location and right on his doorstep.

If we can identify a spot, visiting it and revisiting it, over and over we begin to open our eyes and start to see what we didn’t see before. Its tough at first. we shoot the obvious and think there is nothing left. Thats when the work begins. We have to stop looking and start seeing. We put in the hours. We graft. We will churn out some dross, no doubt, but gradually, just occasionally an image that pleases will be created. Over time a body of work we will be proud of will emerge. 

That has to be more satisfying than, visit, tick. Visit, tick. We are photographers. Not collectors.

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7 comments on “Going Back

  1. Alec Murrell on

    There’s a quote, I’m not sure from whom: ‘There are none so blind as those who cannot see’
    I think this aptly applies to the photographer you spoke to. I bet his body of work is fascinating…..

  2. Marc on

    Hi Doug. This is a lovely blog post, and one I can relate too. Though I live in a beautiful part of the Uk, due to work, family and finance I am limited to my local area , and spend most of my time making pictures within a few miles of my home. Yes, I’d love to travel more, more out of refreshment than get wonderful pictures. I love to keep returning to my local spots – they keep challenging me to look deeper, to work harder, to make mental notes as what may work in the future… But more importantly when I get something special to me, it makes me happy that I have had to work for this image. I don’t think I will ever tire or ‘done’ my local spots, and certainly not the areas I in frequently visit.

  3. Finn Hopson on

    Well said Doug. Really struck a chord with me. Sums up what I’m slowly attempting to achieve on the South Downs. I grew up there and have seen so many parts of it in so many different seasons and conditions that its the most natural thing in the world to keep exploring the area and photographing what I find. I can’t imagine ever feeling quite the same connection to any other landscape and the images I may take there.

  4. Baxter Bradford on

    How very true Doug. Lighting is always different in locations and offers possibilities anew. Seasons, tidal effects and mindset of the photographer offer further variation. Some days I see far better in an abstracted way.
    That said, if more photographers adapted the ‘tick it off, twitcher mentality’ it would mean that the honeypot locations would be far less crowded for those of us who prefer to persevere and keep revisiting!!

  5. Ray Fidler on

    Hi Doug, your last two blog pieces have resonated with me. They have given me the confidence to keep along the path just begun shooting locations very close to my home. It is amazing how much is on our own doorstep to explore and discover plus accrue an intimate knowledge of the location(s). My aim is to have enough images gathered over two years (maybe longer) to create a photo book for my own enjoyment. Thanks for sharing your wise words with a wide audience. Ray

  6. Lizzie Shepherd on

    You must stop writing such good blogs, Doug! ;0) It’s taking me away from what I’m meant to be doing…

    Can’t agree more with what you say here. It’s a rare day that I go out with my camera and don’t find something new. Yorkshire being such a huge place, it could of course simply be a new location. But as often as not, it’s something new in a familiar location.

    I avoided Saltwick Bay for a good number of years as I felt ‘everyone goes there’ but, when I finally went, I realised there’s a good reason why people go. And several more… You will know well that, aside from the obviously scenic, there are no end of things to photograph there. I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface – that’s what so exciting about pretty much any location imo.

  7. valda bailey on

    Agree with all that has been said above. It’s only by revisiting again and again that we can really start to get a feel for a place and attempt to convey the emotions it stirs within. And it’s the hard way to do it because it forces us to sit and think. Then think some more. Rather than have the scene laid out for us where all we have to do is click the shutter it is so much more rewarding to search for the hidden beauty. This is why I never ever worry about weather (well, maybe torrential downpours) because it will invariably bring something new to a familiar scene.
    You reference some fine work – and how about Michael Jackson and Poppit Sands – he really has learned how to see!

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