It was about six years back; I was very, very frustrated.
I’d set my sight on capturing a particular scene in fog, a lovely grove of second-growth redwoods, ferns, and a meandering stream in Butano State Park. The location is about a 90-minute drive, followed by a fifteen-minute hike to reach. And this was the third time I’d make the trek, and this time, as the previous two times, the fog had lifted before I arrived. For the third time, I wasn’t going to get the shot I wanted. I almost headed home in defeat, but I knew better, and I resolved to keep looking and shooting, and that has been one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made.
Shaking off the frustration that day, I started kicking around the stream, with it’s perfect leading line heading into the redwoods. I was struck by the uniform size and dark color of the pebbles in and around the stream, and spent a good bit of time looking for some macro opportunities before noticing a larger yellow rock in the stream, with a rust-colored leaf held against the yellow rock by the flow of water. While not tremendously exciting to me, I started working out compositions in which I could place the rock and the leaf near a corner of a shot of stream bed. Handheld was out of the question, I was shooting 50-speed Velvia, and I wanted to shoot straight down, so I started the chilly work of setting up my tripod in the stream to allow me to shoot nearly straight down.
Finally set up, I got a better look through the viewfinder and saw something that almost got me to give up. The rock kicked up the flow of the stream just enough that the water downstream was sparkling with reflections of the sun. I figured those reflections would ruin my perfect little “zen garden” composition, so I experimented for ten or fifteen minutes trying to get rid of them, with a polarizer, by adjusting the position of the camera, and so on. Again, I was frustrated; again, I pushed on.
I shot nearly a roll trying different combinations of position, polarization, and long-exposures trying to get rid of the things, and then headed home, almost certain I’d gotten nothing that day, but at least feeling good that I’d kept at it. When I got home that day I didn’t immediately get it processed, but a couple weeks later, I had the film processed with some other work I’d done, and when I got the slides back, there were the most beautiful patterns in the water, patterns I would have never seen if I hadn’t kept shooting. Investigating those patterns lead me to develop my series Signatures of the Sun.
That series led to one of my most successful exhibitions and a book in 2004, but that’s not all. Last year, the composer Sam Hamm in Montana approached me about a collaboration based on those works between myself, him and the pianist Jen Bratz. The resulting four-part piano composition debuted earlier this week in Boulder, CO, and will be reprised Thursday at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT. I’m writing this from Wyoming right now precisely because I didn’t give up that one, frustrating day.
My point? There’s a tremendous amount of serendipity in the photography business, and it’s essential, if you aspire to become a professional photographer, to keep at it, to keep shooting when conditions look tough, to keep your mind open to experimentation, to different possibilities.
Don’t give up, keep shooting!