The Natural State

I must confess that until my brother and sister-in-law built a cabin in the mountains around Jasper, Arkansas, I was not a fan of the Ozarks. Compared to the peaks, valleys, and vistas of the West, the Ozark mountains, I thought, just did not measure up. I have changed that view over the last several years, and this past weekend, finally put that old vision to rest for good.

Bob and I spent several glorious days shooting in the National Forest areas around Jasper, Ponca, and the Buffalo River. He was the expert guide and I the lumbering photographer with equipment packed into a backpack along with water and granola bars. The hikes were a test; the views inspiring. Even back in the woods with clouds and drizzle on Friday, the remote waterfalls took us to the source of something that tested my vision and my skills. I tried mightily to do justice to the nature before me. The next several months of work will bear witness to my success or failure. On Saturday, the sun was brilliant, the colors bold, and our legs a bit more wobbly than the day before. Truth be told, I was not sure about our hike to Hawksbill Crag, an iconic bit of Arkansas rock that is probably the most photographed piece of landscape in the state. Did I really want to shoot such a recognizable piece of real estate? I am glad I did. Whether my photos reflect it, Hawksbill must be experienced, and the hike with Bob was one of those experiences we will talk about for years. We had hiked in at dawn with one other car parked along the road. By the time we got back, there were 17 cars scattered around the trail head.
Arkansas is no Dogpatch, USA. In fact, a shooter would be hard-pressed to find a better place to shoot. As Ansel Adams used to say, that’s just a Place with a capital P.

Several thoughts today:

We have been working on a Gallery show and sale here in our barn at Windhover. Friends Kathy and Carl will be showing their pottery and woodcarving, respectively. I am working on a variety of Platte County photos and photos from out West. Nov. 14 and 15 are the dates for the first of what may be several shows a year.
When I need inspiration for my shooting, I crank up the old video I have from Jim Richardson entitled “A Wide Spot in the Road,” which I saw again just yesterday. It is a video of his still photos and words about small town Kansas–mostly Cuba, Ks. which he made famous some 30 years ago when he was doing newspaper work and more recently in the pages of “National Geographic.” I used to show the video when my students were getting ready to go shoot a small town for our Heartland Photojournalism Project or at summer photo workshops. Richardson’s photos are prime examples of documentary photojournalism and help keep alive the memory of what small town life can be all about. His photos make me want to be a better shooter, but also they remind me of the importance of the small moments of each day. Live in the moment, they seem to say.
And, finally, I was saddened to hear of the death of Ival Lawhon, just weeks before his induction into the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame. The ceremony is in two days and will be poignant without Ival being there. In his early 60’s Ival was an example of what a shooter can do if he works at getting better as he ages. Ival’s work was as good at the end of his career as it was at any time in his life. I admire him.

Some thoughts from 3 amazing photographers

     In the early 1990s I had big plans to write a book on photography aimed at high school shooters and their newspaper and yearbook advisers. After my inspiring experience at the Missouri Photo Workshop in 1989, I wanted to show how the documentary approach, that is the heart of the Missouri method, could be applied to the high school level and was successful with my students. As things turned out, I spent most of my “spare” time during the last tens years of my teaching career trying to pass a Missouri Freedom of Expression Law to help protect high school journalists in the post-Hazelwood years. We failed to get anything on the books, but it was not for lack of trying by some excellent high school advisors and students around the state.

      The only concrete results of my photo book plans, besides lots of notes and outlines, were three interviews I conducted by phone with three of a planned eight or so professional photojournalists. These Q and A interviews were to be inter-chapters in the book, and I was extremely pleased when I was able to interview Jean Shifrin, Bill Luster, and James Nachtwey. The interviews were conducted and recorded over the phone–all lasting 1-2 hours–followed by my transcribing the interviews and sending copies to the three who could edit, add, delete, etc. in order to get the most complete answer possible. This is the technique used in the old Paris Review Q and A’s. Recently, I rediscovered my files on the book project and was still impressed with what these three wonderful shooters had to say. I thought I would share some of their comments advising young shooters. Not being one of those myself, I still think their words can motivate all of us to keep looking for ways to improve. See what you think:
Nachtwey: “If you are wondering whether you are good enough, all I can say is try it. And I don’t mean try it halfway. You have to commit yourself. I don’t know how to do anything any other way. Do it, and you find out. If you ONLY think about it, or do it halfway, or if you want assurances beforehand, it’s not going to happen. There are no assurances.”
I then asked him a final question: Howard Chapnick describes you in his book (Truth Needs No Ally, Inside Photojournalism) as one of the most disciplined photographers he knows of, disciplined in a number of ways. Do you think that description fits?
Nachtwey: “For me it’s been necessary. I don’t really think I am a natural. I had to discover whatever little bit of talent I might have and work very hard to develop it. That required discipline and sacrifice. I had to give up a lot of things in life that other people might take for granted. You should not go into this blindly. You should try to understand the choices you are making.”
Shifrin: “I think what helped me was looking at a lot of documentary work and seeing how it is done. Getting your work critiqued is really good, getting feedback from other people, because if you are working in a vacuum you may think your work is either really good or really bad. For example, when you spend so much time on a project, you get so close to it and it is so personal, a particular image may bring back so many memories to you that you had while you were there–what someone said or what it smelled like or what the light was like–and in your mind you may think you captured that in the picture, but if you show it to other people and there is no response then that’s a good indication that you are seeing more in it than a reader might see. You can’t take that criticism real personal either . . . And I read a lot about photography all the time. Anybody can get their technical competence, but having your way of seeing, your eye and developing that. I feel sometimes I am forced to go against that to do my job at the paper because there are certain things they look for. So, try not to let someone force out of you your own style. You really need to develop that.”
Luster: “Learn as much as you can about technique, learn as much as you can about computers and the state of the art, but don’t forget to learn about one thing–all that mechanics doesn’t mean anything. It is what you put on film (remember this was early 90s), and it is what comes from the heart that means anything. The reader doesn’t care if the image is scanned on. The reader wants to learn something from the impact of the photo . . . The eye can be developed as can the mind, but the one thing no technique can give anybody is heart. And I think the photographers who give their heart to what they do are the better photographers.”
Finding these interviews again just reminds me, too, that the great photographers–like Luster, Shifrin, and Nachtwey–are thinkers. And it is wonderful that they are willing to share their thoughts on the craft.