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This chapter is from the book

The Process

  • “Expectation finds its source in hope. Vision, or intent, comes from meeting a place face-to-face and experiencing that place, then allowing that meeting and experience to shape the message and form of our photographs.”

Antarctica offered me the opportunity to not only set my feet on my seventh continent, but to photograph what I expected to be a vast and monochromatic place. Instead, what I found was one of the most colorful places I’ve ever seen, a place that pulled at my imagination and my affection like few places ever have. I think the idea of “a land of contrasts” is the most clichéd notion in travel writing—every place is a place of contrasts—but in Antarctica those contrasts seemed more extreme than I thought possible. Antarctica is a barren, extreme, harsh, and vast place that is teeming with life and light, and more shades of blue than I’ve ever seen.

I went to Antarctica with expectations and a notion of what I hoped to communicate with the resulting photographs, and those expectations were so thoroughly shattered that I was forced to completely change my intent for my photography. If I’ve committed one sin in my writing about photography, it’s flirting with a gross overuse of the words “vision” and “intent,” but I so strongly believe in their primacy in the photographic process—at least in my own photographic process—that I’ll continue to risk milking all the meaning I can get from those words. It’s important to recognize a difference between our expectation and our vision. Expectation finds its source in hope, and it comes from research and anticipation, but not from experience. Vision, or intent, comes from meeting a place face-to-face and experiencing that place, then allowing that meeting and experience to shape the message and form of our photographs.

I think these expectations not only affect whether we make honest photographs, but can be one of the biggest obstacles to the creative process; they can sabotage the unique way our brains come up with ideas. So when people ask me what all this stuff has to do with making photographs, it has everything to do with it. Our expectations—when left in their natural, inflexible state—blind us to other possibilities. If creativity is an endless line of “what ifs” (and I think it is), then our expectations stop the “what if” before it starts. Even when these expectations have their roots in legitimate research—Lonely Planet books, image searches on Google, and conversations with photographers who have shot in these places before—we forget that things change, new moments unveil themselves, weather has its own plans, and light is capricious. Prepare all you like, but hold your plans with an open hand. To do otherwise is to rob yourself of one of the most important postures of the photographer: receptivity to things as they are, not as we wish they were.

In my case, this meant an immediate abandoning of my intention to create a black-and-white or monochromatic representation of Antarctica. In fact, in neither the images shown here nor the rest of my collection from Antarctica is there a single black-and-white photograph. To have represented this place in black and white would be disingenuous—a betrayal of how I saw the place, like meeting a truly happy person and representing them with the one frame that makes them look sad. That one image might even be the strongest frame, but if it represents something contrary to the experienced reality of that person, it’s not a portrait that reveals either the character of the subject or the integrity of the photographer. We all do this for different reasons, but those are important lines to me, so they dictated an immediate shift.

What Antarctica was to me, though she revealed several faces in my brief time there, was first of all revealed in color. Even on the bleakest days, the fog presented as blue. The Antarctic waters were deepest black, but the moment an iceberg drifted past, those black depths provided a contrast with the white and blue, which made those seem impossibly white and blue. And so my process included a focus on color.

The second face was revealed in textures, and the contrast of those textures: ice that was smooth as glass, pitted like a golf ball, or serrated like a knife, floating in water that was equally textured against rocky shores and distant ridges as soft and sensual as a lover’s hip. Looking at my work, I’m never sure if it’s me who wants a repeated element like texture to feature in the photographs or if it’s the will of the land asserting itself on me. I think if we listen to our subjects—whether that’s light or land or a portrait subject—it’s both.

Speaking of portraiture, that was the third element in my thinking. As we drifted pass icebergs that were massive, still, and peaceful—as though they’d been there a thousand years—they’d sometimes remind me that they were changing as quickly as I do, in a slow decline toward something else entirely. The icebergs I photographed on that 10-day trip would never be the same again. Within hours or days they would pitch, heave, moan, and roll. They would crack and change and age, and create new forms, but they would never be the same. And so in that sense I saw my photographs as portraits of these entities of ice, shape, and light that would never repeat themselves; passing through these waters unchanged was as impossible for them as it was for me.

The idea of portraiture carried itself to my work with the penguins. I have little interest in documentary photography, and the last thing I wanted was a body of work that looked like I was studying the nesting habits of the Gentoo penguin. I had no idea how I was going to photograph these birds until two ideas collided. The first was a recollection of the book Bird by Andrew Zuckerman, a photographer I admire and respect. I’d watched a podcast of a lecture by Zuckerman on the plane to Argentina, and his ideas about the creative process were still percolating when I began making notes about photographing the penguins. His work for Bird was very controlled, carefully lit, and of much broader scope than my work with the penguins could be, but he photographed them, as he did other subjects for his books Creature and Wisdom, against a seamless white background.

The second idea occurred to me after wandering among the penguins. At the time, I was recovering from a near-fatal fall in Pisa, Italy. I had shattered both feet and cracked my pelvis, and walking was difficult and painful even on level ground. Now experiencing limited mobility and hobbling slowly through hip-deep snow with ski poles, I was as clumsy as these birds out of water, the element they move so beautifully and effortlessly through. Watching them waddle and fall and steal pebbles from each other gave me a sense of their personalities. It was then that the idea of portraiture against the natural seamless white of the snow came to me and gave me the constraint I needed to focus my efforts. When I return to Antarctica, I will continue this series and flesh it out more fully.

The last idea I wanted to explore was contrast in size or scale. Seeing this place made me conscious of two ideas. The first was the knowledge that if I provided something recognizable—like a penguin—I could create a sense of scale and therefore give a sense of how truly gigantic the ice forms were. And if that was true, then the reverse would also work: removing all references would free my photographs from recognizable scale and introduce mystery and ambiguity. I would have no way to know if I was looking at a macro photograph of an inch of ice texture or a 30-foot fissure in a glacier. I wanted to play with that, because it was part of my experience there—a sense of being so dwarfed in the presence of glaciers and icebergs, as well as a sense of being out of my own element, free of my usual points of reference.

These reactions and ideas gave me the constraints I needed to focus my work. Despite all our talk about creative freedoms and the artist’s legitimate desire to work free from rules and conventions, creativity works best within constraints. It’s easier to paint when you decide on a canvas and know where the edges of that canvas are. In my case, the canvas of my work would be primarily defined by color, texture, scale, and portraiture.

On a personal level—and I’ve already alluded to my accident in Italy—this trip represented a return to my work. While teaching, I’d already traveled to places like Cambodia and Laos, and Oaxaca, Mexico, but this time I was traveling to create, to do the work. I had no idea how hard it would be, and it was, but when I finally landed back in Canada, I had a small body of work with which I was deeply satisfied, and a renewed sense of how hard creation can be. Wrestling with our muse is never easy. It gets harder when we have obstacles like physical disability or emotional distress, but these obstacles only mean our work is harder; they are not an excuse not to do the work in the first place. If we shy away from our work because it’s “hard,” then our work isn’t likely worth the effort in the first place, and the muse goes somewhere else with her inspiration.

As Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, says, the muse has always favored the working stiff. She shows up once we do, and not before. If you find creation hard—and you’ve not yet figured out that this is work, that it’s hard, and that inspiration follows work and not the other way around—then take courage. All you have to do is show up, day after day, and do the work. Brilliance, genius, and talent are nebulous concepts that apply to too few of us, and when they do it often only takes a quick look to reveal them to be no more than hard work in disguise.

I’ve never worked so hard for my photographs, and while effort alone doesn’t necessarily make the resulting images any better, it sure gives them a fighting chance. I know I’m bordering on a sermon or pep talk here, but if your work isn’t what you hope it would be, then don’t start by asking if you’ve lost your talent or inspiration. Ask if you’re getting out of bed early enough, staying out late enough, and pushing through hard enough. I went to Antarctica discouraged and feeling I might have shot my last good photograph, but I was willing to trust the process, to work as hard as I had strength for, and to leave the question of talent to others.

  • “I’ve come to see these constraints as immensely freeing, and I feel myself breathe a little deeper once they’re in place. They give me a channel, and they encourage me.”

Aspect Ratio

One of my other constraints, which you’ll notice here more than any work I’ve done before, was the intentional use and exploration of the 4:5 aspect ratio. The Nikon D3s, unlike my previous Canon cameras, has the ability to change the aspect ratio of the frame in the camera itself, changing the frame in the viewfinder as well. Where the frame of the usual 2:3 aspect ratio of the 35mm camera is longer, the 4:5 seems to me a more elegant frame, and it gives a little more play to the vertical aspect of the image. It’s not square, but it’s less long, and Antarctica was as much about the open relationship of sky and sea (the up-and-down of the frame) as it was about the vastness of the horizon (the left-to-right of the frame).

Being able to make this crop in the camera instead of relying on a later edit allowed me to be more precise with the composition and balance of the photographs. That’s not to say I could not have made a different choice, and that’s where beginners get paralyzed: choice. I could have represented Antarctica in a square format, too. And I can see someone else doing large-scale 16:9 panoramas. At a certain point you just make a choice, and then you allow that choice to impose its own constraints. I’ve come to see these constraints as immensely freeing, and I feel myself breathe a little deeper once they’re in place. They give me a channel, and they encourage me along one path of visual exploration and “let’s see what happens” that is at the heart of all creative endeavors. When you make decisions about your frame before you begin photographing, you compose differently, and you make different decisions about scale, balance, tension, and space. Yes, you have to let go of the thoughts that push you back to old formats, and once in a while you jump the walls of those constraints to try something different, but overall I find these constraints work with me to produce stronger, more focused work.

  • “I knew there would be people who didn’t believe that the blues in Antarctica were real. I was there, surrounded by impossible blues, and I barely believed it. I knew people would ask if I had ‘Photoshopped these photographs.’”

Technical Challenges

The technical challenges shooting in a place like Antarctica could have been much worse than what I encountered. Almost all of the challenges had to do with weather. I spent a lot of time in snow and water, and had to keep my gear as protected as I could without restricting my ability to work. That last part is key and it’s why I don’t generally use rain covers for my cameras—they protect the camera, but are such a pain in the ass to shoot with that they rob my joy and, frankly, I’d rather have a wet camera with which I make photographs than a dry one I never use. Some people love them; I hate them. So I kept a bunch of cloths on hand in a plastic bag and in pockets for the lenses, and I used a small hand towel borrowed from the bathroom in my cabin to wipe spray off the bodies. I used a large Outdoor Research dry bag—meant for things like sleeping bags—to throw my camera in if the spray really got up. I clipped that with a climber’s carabiner to my lifejacket or the Zodiac itself. The more pressing issue, in terms of the photographs themselves, was exposure, but that’s an easy one to deal with by understanding how your camera meters and keeping an eye on your histogram, making sure you don’t lose data by overexposing the snow or creating a thin file by underexposing too much when shooting the snow and ice, which the camera generally wants to underexpose by a couple of stops.

The best approach, of course, is to shoot manually. During my time in Antarctica, the light didn’t change dramatically from one moment to the next. So putting the camera on manual, spot metering off the brightest significant area in the scene, and then adding two stops worked just fine as long as the light remained constant. I do this because using any of the program modes, including Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, means you are always re-metering, and although the light doesn’t change much, the scenes do, and you’ve got a good chance of getting wildly different, and inconsistent, exposures. I usually move between manual and Aperture Priority modes, but in places like Antarctica where the light remained fairly constant but the scene varied between dark black water and bright snow, I move to manual much more. Keeping whites white and blacks black gives you the best negative and means less work in the digital darkroom. It also means I can concentrate on the creative aspects of what I am doing, focusing on light and moments and the geometry of the frame instead of exposure values.

A number of my images—and offhand I couldn’t tell you which ones at this point—made use of my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer. Polarizers, like ND and graduated ND filters, produce aesthetic changes to photographs that are difficult if not impossible to replicate in Lightroom or Photoshop. The polarizing filter can remove glare from water and intensify colors simply by turning the ring of the filter.

My Gear List

  • Cameras: 2 Nikon D3s bodies
  • Lenses: 300/2.8, 16–35/4.0, 85/1.8, 24mm Tilt/Shift, 70–200/2.8, Zeiss 50/1.4
  • 256 GB of CF Cards (2 × 64 GB in each Nikon)
  • Singh-Ray ND and Graduated ND filters
  • Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer, and Singh-Ray LB Warming polarizer
  • Gitzo Ocean Traveler tripod
  • Sensor brush, swabs, lens cloths
  • Think Tank Photo Streetwalker Pro backpack

The Digital Darkroom

In terms of post-processing, I again imposed rough constraints. I knew there would be people who didn’t believe that the blues in Antarctica were real. I was there, surrounded by impossible blues, and I barely believed it. I knew people would ask if I had “Photoshopped these photographs.” I wanted to be able to defend the integrity of them and, while I don’t see the use of Photoshop or Lightroom as necessarily sabotaging that integrity, I wanted at least to be able to say I’d not overly saturated the colors. In fact I can honestly say that what you see here, even with minimal tweaks, does no justice to the blues that occur naturally in Antarctica. So in most cases, my post-processing was minimal, and it aimed at balancing a traditional representational approach (how did it look?) with an interpretive approach (how did it feel?). I did some subtle dodging and burning to make up for the fact that nature has a much broader dynamic range than my sensors, and I did the usual tweaks to my exposure and contrasts. As with all my work, I was not aiming for an objective accuracy, mostly because I believe no such thing exists in art, but instead I strove to make photographs that were fair to both my experience of the place and the reality of the place itself. The most notable tweaking I did was on images from Deception Island, and the old whaling station there, and that tweaking came from a desire to inject a man-made feeling of toxicity, as the place itself had. So in that case I added some split toning. To illustrate that, on the opposite page is a before and after—both the untinted frame, adjusted only for exposure and contrast, and the final frame.

Toxic Warmth

What I wanted from this small series was a sense of the effect of man’s intrusion. My favorite frame is one of an old grave marker, a handmade cross pushed deep into a pile of volcanic rock, the old dormitories falling to pieces in the background, presided over by a pair of indifferent penguins in the mid-ground. It was from this frame that I took my cues about the hues I wanted to use in the split tone, tinkering until I got something with the vague feeling of rust and corrosion, while still being, at least to me, believable and representative of my true sense and experience of this place.

At the risk of sounding too self-promotional, if you want to further explore the use of the digital darkroom to refine your intent for your photographs, I think you could do worse than to read Vision & Voice: Refining Your Vision in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which I wrote as a contribution to the discussion about the role of post-processing in the pursuit of expression. It talks a lot about understanding what you want to say with your photographs before you begin moving sliders and pushing buttons, and as technology gives us more and more options, I think that conversation will only become more important.

Toxic Warmth, Before and After

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