We’ve had our first snowfall of the year here in the Netherlands. It’s one of those instances when most people stay indoors, while just about every landscape photographer is aching to feel the snow on their face. One of them is acclaimed British Landscape Photographer Simon Baxter, who I've asked to help me analyze the introvert mind.
The snowfall caught me thinking: Do most landscape photographers favor not only occurrences of rare weather but also the absence of people in general? To put it differently, do we landscape photographers get energy from being by ourselves in nature? It’s interesting to note that this and other traits of the introvert mind seem pretty common among landscape artists. So, in this closing chapter of the series where we pick apart how a piece of the artist enters the photograph, I'm talking with Simon Baxter about what gets him energized and how that is translated in his work from the woodlands he is so fond of.
If you’re not familiar with Simon Baxter, you’re probably not spending a lot of time on YouTube. His top-quality videos inspire the viewer to get out more while he tells us about what’s really going on inside the creative mind. Personally, I’m always more interested in the person behind the person we see. A question I often ask myself while I bring a group of photographers into the landscape is “how does the landscape make you feel?” It's a question that hopefully gets you to think about other things than composition or camera settings.
It turns out that Baxter finds peace, headspace, and relaxation in his local woodland. The constant shifts in patterns, light, smells, and the sound of silence being disrupted by passing wildlife is like nothing else. Where he chooses to shoot, his subjects, and how he then captures them all feel like a feast for the senses to Baxter. And with a condition that leaves him with chronic pain, these aspects make the woodland a truly therapeutic environment. “Being alone in nature feels like a prerequisite to being creative and having a true connection to my surroundings,” said Baxter.
Being an introvert doesn’t mean that we shun people. The way the introvert mind works socially is in part related to how we recharge. Baxter too enjoys the occasional social outing with a camera, but the ideal scenario for him is to discover a quiet location, explore, find compositions, and then wait patiently to capture the composition in conditions that are fitting to the feeling and mood he wants to portray.
This is where the fine art aspect of his photography again rises. If he goes through that whole process on his own, something remarkable happens. The woodland makes him feel privileged, fulfilled, and content in having created an image that has meaning and is a true reflection of him and how he sees the natural world. “There's something very magical about undisturbed nature and there are so many quiet corners of countryside waiting to be discovered and captured,” Baxter said.
Pre-visualizing seems to play a big role in his work, maybe even more so than with fellow fine art photographers. I’ve wondered if he actually sees the image appear in his mind's eye before the press of the button or indeed any post-processing. It turns out that it really depends upon how strongly he feels about the subject. If he discovers a single tree or small family of trees that he immediately connects with, then he has a much stronger vision of how he wants to capture it. Baxter even feels compelled to make it work, eventually.
But that’s not always the case. Other times, he might find a woodland that he likes but not a standout composition so it becomes a gradual and organic process of visualizing and finding what might work. “I'm not sure the process of visualization ever ends because trees change, cameras change, and your own vision changes from month to month and year to year,” said Baxter. “It's a never-ending story.”
Pre-visualization is a funny thing, Baxter adds. It can become frustrating when you know the image is within reach but it doesn't quite happen. As such, patience is massively important in landscape photography. Even more so in North Yorkshire, where Baxter lives. His photographic style is often reliant upon great conditions which are very rare. But that can only contribute towards making the moment even more special when your vision comes to fruition.
Introverts gain energy from internalizing; from being alone rather than with others. With so many people leading workshops in the field nowadays, I can’t help but wonder if we do things that are against our nature. Leading workshops in the field needs all sorts of expressive methods of communication. But Baxter and I agree that it’s incredibly rewarding in the sense that this is calls upon a different type of creativity. “I don't lead workshops with the sole objective of the client leaving with a great image,” said Baxter. It's about talking through compositions, using light, thought processes, and a whole variety of non-technical things that go into the creation of images. To Baxter, it's important to lead a workshop in a way that reflects your own approach so he gets a huge buzz from sharing his passion with others and seeing the client inspired and energized.
Because we have to plan, plan, and plan some more, workshops can be tiring. Baxter seems to thrive off it while feeling inspired to get out very soon afterward to practice what he preaches.
Seeing the Tree in the Forest
The ability (or desire) to see a story rather than just an object in the landscape seems to be a trait that’s also common among introverts. But it might come as a surprise to the other half of the population that introverts can feel over-stimulated by their environment. Extrovert people thrive through external stimuli, but because of how the introvert’s brain is wired differently, those stimuli take a longer route through the brain. Introverts seek meaning behind just about every impulse, even when there is none.
There is a ton of stuff going on in our modern, technology-driven world. In many ways, stepping out from all that and returning to nature can feel hugely beneficial to us introverts. But even nature can feel overstimulating at times.
Baxter recognizes this too, although it’s not often that it is detrimental to the making of images. Take an unfamiliar location, an epic landscape, and a set of fantastic conditions and it’s like a monkey with a machine gun. Baxter finds these occasions photographically frustrating and quite far removed from his typical approach because he needs time to settle into a location, find areas and subjects that he can connect with, and slowly immerse himself. He needs to feel prepared to make the most of great conditions rather than being flustered, rushing compositions, and ultimately feeling a bit disappointed in not having done the conditions justice.
This happened to him on a recent trip to Scotland when after his first night in a cottage he awoke to frost, a sky glowing red in all directions, two sunrise rainbows, and mammatus clouds overhead. Baxter tells us that the drive through the glen that morning was jaw-dropping. And yet he knew that he was ill-prepared for making the most of something so beautiful. His only option was to rush to a spot known by many and grab a couple of simple compositions as a record of the morning.
There was far too much happening in that moment: a stunning location, phenomenal light, drama, color, and then the mental and physical challenges of working quickly in unfamiliar territory. Baxter resided to the fact that although the results may appeal to many, they were never going to be truly satisfying or reflect his personal view of a rare and privileged experience. It's in these moments that you have to accept the limitations, put the camera down, take a step back, admire the view, and soak it all in. It's often too easy to get so wrapped up in capturing an image to feed social media that you forget why you're there in the first place and your memory of the moment becomes hazy. In these scenarios, it’s better to move away from the camera, be in awe, and remember.
The Path of Self-Discovery
Photography can help us to appreciate the smaller things in life more. Baxter’s photography has changed him as a person too. He feels his views are more mature and introspective. For Baxter, his biggest surprise is how his videos on YouTube have been received by viewers across the world. His local approach and keeping things straightforward and personal means that others have been able to relate to and be influenced by it. Recognition like that only helps to reinforce the importance of being true to one’s self.
His approach to photography is slow and considered, which allowed Baxter and his audience to see more while appreciating the nuances of composition and connecting with the landscape at a deeper and nurturing level. You know you’ve made photography a part of you if you can capture your emotions within your work. These cathartic effects can leave you feeling refreshed or even empty after an outing in the landscape. I regularly have this experience myself upon returning from the mountains.
Baxter too gets incredibly emotional when he thinks about his work and his journey through photography. For him, the most limiting factor in doing what he wants to do is his chronic pain. His passion for shooting locally was born from pain severely limiting his tolerance for traveling. As a consequence, he now has a mix of emotions locked up within numerous locations that he frequents for his work. When you spend time in a location that has helped you through a difficult time in your life, then it's impossible to not become emotionally attached to that place, its character, and the images you capture there. “Emotion is about the place, the experiences I've had there, and what the future holds,” said Baxter. “I think any emotion that is transferred to my images is a natural by-product of everything else that preceded it.”
In Harmony With Nature
The natural landscape is a strange, living place. It breathes, evolves, and its personality changes from time to time. Sometimes trees fall or branches that are important to their character can drop, rendering pre-visualization in the long term pretty useless. Baxter’s lesson is that we should accept nature for what it is and might become: eventually, nothing will remain.
The experience of nature, in any way, shape, or form is fundamental to Baxter’s photography. He wants us to know that it doesn't matter whether you're reaching high mountain summits, camping in the wilderness, or wandering through a small woodland close to home, there is a unique experience in nature to be had everywhere and it's those moments in time that Baxter craves the most.
That harmony is quite often felt more intensely as we move into winter time. Baxter feels closer to nature when it's cold. With the snow blowing into your face, every aspect of the day becomes more of a challenge — even getting to a location. Also, the harsher the weather, the more remote and solitary a shoot can feel, which Baxter says is somehow bizarrely satisfying. I think there’s a deep connection between the introvert mind and a landscape with an outspoken personality, however silent.
Your Relationship With the Landscape
There’s always some conversation going on between photographer and subject, it’s just that the landscape doesn’t speak in words but in physical parables. It’s this connection that seems so common among landscape photographers that I know exactly how Baxter feels when he says that it's of little consequence if he can't create an image on one of his outings. The process of getting to know a place is a long one. It’s like a friendship, if you will.
Check out Simon Baxter's website for more wonderful work from the woodlands of North Yorkshire.
Words and all images used with permission of Simon Baxter.