Having just assisted in curating and hanging two exhibitions that relied on local and not-at-all-local environments as their subject matter, the question of whether traveling to seek photographic images was somehow better than documenting what happens in one’s immediate surroundings, arose.
The first was a collection of photographs based on the theme of Sand+Stone. These images were taken both overseas and on the other side of the country from the author’s home. The second showing was a set of images taken within fifty kilometers of the author’s home – some taken literally in the next suburb.
Which collection told a better story?
Both were realised in monochromatic black and white, and each had their own charm, message and impact. The first series relied on shape and texture rather than location to project a strong message very successfully. The second series had visual stories to tell that demanded the viewer’s attention. The location was, in most cases, almost invisible; and where it was recognisable the story was of far greater importance than the context of it’s geography.
Can we justify travel as an effective visual stimulant for our own photography?
Of course we can, but there is a sharp danger in just returning home with weary copies of well-visually-worn images of the Taj Mahal, the Opera House (Sydney or elsewhere), the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben. Aaargh – same lens, same perspective, same tripod holes in Kodak Moment Lookouts. This is the difficult but interesting challenge for the creative photographer. Finding the unique, mastering a different interpretation or seeking a fresh take and viewpoint – this is what sets apart the talented photographer with his or her own vision from someone simply seeking to replicate that which has already been seen countless times before.
On the other hand, working within one’s own backyard requires an inquisitive eye that cuts through the perceived banalities to find a story to tell in either a unique way or with an appealing perspective. What one saves in airfares can be invested in time to contemplate the removal of dross and effort in seeking out real stories that are right in front of us.
I am reminded of two photographers who have a love affair with dogs. American photographer Elliott Erwitt was a constant traveller and created wonderful images of dogs wherever he went. Erwitt spoke of ‘creating a book not of dog pictures but of dogs in pictures’. Alternatively, another American photographer William Wegman has spent a lifetime photographing his own Weimaraner dogs as his only subjects, and in the environment in which they live. The equivalent of in his own backyard. Both photographers have managed to create successful images which are not defined by their plainly domestic or enticingly exotic locations.
The challenge I put to you is this:
Great creative images have as little to do with the location they’re captured in as they have to do with the use of the very latest cameras, or wider/longer/faster lenses. Your background may well be a location you have accidentally or deliberately avoided noticing all this time.
Now, is my trip to the Galapagos Islands and New York in June really necessary?
Or should I stay home, rediscovering my own environment with fresh eyes and new purpose?
Disclaimer – I am Gallery Director at Foto Frenzy in Brisbane and acknowledge the exhibitions of Hardy Lamprecht (Sand+Stone) and Owen Flynn (Enviro) as part of the subject matter for this thought piece.
This article appeared in Issue 32, f11 Magazine – for photographers and aficionados, an online magazine read by over 5000 professional photographers.