For most of us, wanderlust is all about the new: new adventures, new experiences, and new perspectives through the viewfinder.We spend countless hours daydreaming about personally uncharted bucket list worthy journeys. Each trip almost demands to be new and exciting. I’m as guilty of it as anyone, but years ago I finally realized something that has changed my perspective profoundly. You can’t be an expert at something the first time you do it. Expert level skills require practice. We’re more than used to this concept as it relates to the general skills of photography. You don’t pick up a camera for the first time with a sense of mastery. The same goes for photographing a location. I absolutely love the sense of whimsy a special place gives me the first time I set eyes on it. Discovering a location through your camera is an exciting and powerful thing, but returning to a location time and time again gives your images a stronger sense of place, and it gives you a better appreciation for what’s in front of your lens.
I first figured this concept out when my husband and I kept finding ourselves in The British Virgin Islands. We’d save for a vacation, throw out a list of locations we wanted to explore, then a few weeks or months later we’d find ourselves stepping off the ferry onto the dock in Virgin Gorda. Again. Over and over. Ten times, to be specific, because some places just capture you. They call you back no matter what your grander intentions are for your travel plans. Each time I visited The British Virgin Islands I found something new about it that I loved. Some perspective I hadn’t previously noticed or thought to photograph. Some corner of the island, or time of day in a certain location that I hadn’t yet experienced. With each visit, my collection of photos expanded and improved.
Many artists, more specifically painters, often visit and revisit the same locations throughout their careers. Think of Monet and the water lilies in his garden. As a truly talented impressionist painter (he basically invented the genre) Monet was capable of painting a variety of subjects: landscapes, portraits, still lifes, or the occasional bit of architecture, but he returned time and time again to his water lilies. There are over 250 Monet paintings of water lilies. Something about them captured his artistic attention unlike any other subject and he never tired of their exploration.
A statistical analysis of Bob Ross paintings (yes you read that right, someone actually performed that research) found that he repeated certain subjects and motifs over and over again in his work. Over the course of 403 episodes of the “Joy Of Painting” his paintings featured at least one tree 91% of the time, at least two trees 85% of the time, clouds (undoubtedly happy little clouds) 44% of the time, at least one mountain 39% of the time, and on it goes. All of this is to say, as artists we are often most inspired by the familiar. We know what to expect. We see the nuance, the variety of light, the change of season, and all that attention to detail makes our images stronger.
My good friend Jay Dusard (a fabulous landscape and portrait photographer whose work deserves your attention) lives near the Mule Mountains in Southern Arizona. He has talked about driving past those mountains over and over again, always appreciating their beauty, but never feeling they were as photographable as they could be, often lacking an interesting sky or just the right light. Then one day, the perfect collection of clouds appeared and that was it. He was ready to make his image. His familiarity with the location informed the photograph. That’s something we should all strive for in our images.
I always tell my students, “As you travel, push yourselves past the low hanging fruit. Work harder to find your image.” I’m talking about overcoming the standard postcard images, the things you’ve seen over and over again on Instagram. The fastest way to transcend those obvious, less interesting images is to really engage yourself with a location. Commit to visiting it in the prettiest days of Spring and the grayest days of November. Stop by under a fresh coat of snow, and just before a Summer sunset. See for yourself what the landscape feels like at blue hour or how a recent storm has changed the look of things. We don’t all have the luxury of year-round visits to the same far-flung places, so start in your own backyard. Pick a place that you can easily visit and revisit and help tell its story at different times of the day and different times of the year.
My husband and I lived for a few years in his small, rural hometown in Illinois. As a city girl and a lover of mountains and varied topography, the flat landscape of the Midwest took some time to grow on me. I referred to it (still do actually) as The Great Wide Empty. I was lucky though because our backyard looked out over an enormous field. In the late fall, after the harvest was over, it was empty and barren and visually uninspiring, but other times it was filled with volunteer grape hyacinths, or yellow mustard flowers, or tall verdant corn stalks, or silver and gold soy at the end of their season, or a low hanging fog. Every day it was different. So I photographed it over and over again and found that it really was beautiful and quite inspiring photographically.
A landscape doesn’t have to be a National Park, or a UNESCO site to grab your attention. Sometimes it won’t grab your attention at all, but if you give it some of your time, and a commitment to return, you may find some of the best images in your portfolio hidden in its familiar nuances. A place doesn’t have to be shiny and new to be profoundly beautiful. Put in your time and you’ll get so much more back in return.