Finding my artistic side
I always imagined being possessed of an artistic talent of some kind. After all, there are painters, musicians, singers, writers and designers on the family tree.
Unfortunately, drawing was a dead end. And my vocal skills were called into question early on when the singing teacher suggested I stop because I was putting the others off.
Paint by Numbers gave me some early optimism, but it was to journalism (and its various mutations) that I eventually graduated. Yippee. I’m a writer! That’s my God-given talent. Or so I thought.
It wasn’t until I attended a lecture by Canadian nature photographer Freeman Patterson that I received the key to understanding a whole new world of artistic expression and satisfaction through photography.
Stepping back again, to when I was a know-nothing, do-anything cadet reporter on a small town newspaper in New Zealand, there was early but brief photographic success. You might say, beginner’s luck!
On day two at the paper, I was told to interview a wildlife rescue guy about a strange bird that had been blown in on a storm. Clearly not expecting much, the chief reporter passed over a camera, offering an unenthusiastic ‘good luck’ by way of instructions.
The camera was a battered TLR Rollie, fortunately with the film already loaded. By some miracle, I worked out how to flip up the viewfinder box and use the film advance crank. Shutter speed and aperture? What were they? I just fiddled with the focus and pressed the button.
The blow-in bird turned out to be an albatross (I think), which struggled powerfully in the arms of its carer – a florid-faced gent with a Mr Magoo-type nose. Not knowing anything about depth of field or the rule of thirds, I snapped off a few shots, got some basic details from the guy and was on my way back to the office.
In handing the camera over, my expectations of further photo/journalism assignments were not high. So when the chief sub (there was only one sub) came into the newsroom brandishing a fresh 8 x 10 print, I imagined the worst.
“This is a bloody cracker!” he shouted. (He didn’t need to shout – the ‘newsroom’ was only bedroom size.) “Front page on your first try. Not bad, son.”
By the biggest fluke in all creation, I had captured the bird’s beak just as it closed on the rescue centre guy’s ample nose. Ouch!
Buoyed by that success, I wanted to know everything they could teach me about press photography, film processing and developing – including ‘dodging and burning’, now a key part of digital post-processing.
Wanderlust and better
But the photography buzz was soon overtaken by incompetence (mine), wanderlust and better opportunities in journalism and public relations.
Another 25 years down the track, I listened to Freeman Patterson talking about something like ‘Photography and the Art of Seeing’. In one hour, he helped me find my true artistic calling – as a photographer of wild things and wild places.
Freeman inspired me about photography, not as a ‘capture’ or technical process but as an expression of ‘visual thinking’. “Seeing a photograph comes well ahead of technique,” I recall him saying. “It requires us to utilise our senses, our intellect and our emotions… But letting go of self is an essential precondition to real seeing.” (Or words to that effect – it was a while ago.)
Afterwards, I bought his book ‘Photography of Natural Things’, which Freeman kindly signed, with an added and nicely nuanced ‘Go wild!’ notation.
In the intervening years that is pretty much what I have tried to do, although it is fair to say I’m still most comfortable with the ‘outdoor’ aspect of ‘going wild’. But I’m working on being more expressive and free-spirited with my photography – particularly when it comes to capturing the intangible qualities of wild places and things.
My photography blog
Watch out for my monthly blog posts about some aspect of photography in the wild. They will be ‘different’.
As far as gear goes, I’m a Canon tragic, but that’s mostly because I have lots of it and know (more or less) how to use it. So don’t expect too many camera or lens reviews. I’m more interested in writing about the stories behind the pictures.
This is also an open invitation to readers to contribute their own thoughts on photography in wild places – and the art of seeing.
Tony Neilson: email@example.com