After writing the article on why we photograph and fresh off the back of several overseas trips, I wanted to share a few thoughts on travel photography. It seems that like street photography, the ‘travel’ genre is almost a generic catch-all bucket for images that don’t fit anything else; it’s a bit of portrait, a bit of landscape, a bit of street, a bit of still life, a bit of architecture, and, well, just ill-defined.
Not that genres require a definition, of course. Photography, and art, by extension, are always subjective and interpretative: what something means to one person may be very different to another. You could, for example, photograph nothing except the various modes of transport that go into getting from one place to another; or just the food; or just the people you meet, etc. Rather, I feel that sometimes one needs a greater objective so that the images produced are coherent and can stand together as a body of work. Better yet, they should be reflective of one’s experience and impressions of a place; personal biases in observation and style are very much welcome, otherwise every single image shot in that location would look like a Ministry of Tourism-sanctioned, politically-correct glossy.
I travel a lot. And I’m a photographer first and foremost. This means I shoot a lot, even more so when I travel; this is because I’m so used to seeing the city I live in that it’s difficult to find things I haven’t shot, and moreover, capture them from the perspective of somebody seeing them for the first time. The one thing I like about shooting in a physically different location is that there’s this wealth of fresh material; you are seeing every corner, every street, every place for the first time. For the jaded photographer, it’s like a breath of fresh air.
Some places are almost overwhelming in their intensity and material (Tokyo and New York come to mind, as does Kathmandu; all three rank very highly on my ‘great places to shoot’
list); it’s usually the places that are the most different to what you’re used to at home. So for me, other Asian cities aren’t that different; I try not to, but I’m usually corralled by my subconscious into shooting the same way I would at home. Developing countries and ultra-developed ones tend to bring the greatest photographic returns (and sensory overloads) – perhaps this is why I enjoy shooting in Japan so much. On my last trip to the USA, over the course of three weeks – bearing in mind that I had full days of teaching or in transit for all but three days – I shot 7,700 images; my previous week in Tokyo teaching yielded about 5,300 – and I’d been there before, about five times. Compare this to the few hundred a month I usually shoot at home, excluding commercial assignments and camera testing.
Of course, shooting that much doesn’t mean that I’d keep that many; my final cut from the USA was about 250; Tokyo was 100. I use a new place as a chance to replenish the creative juices, which means often trying out things that might not work, or might not work without significant experimentation and iteration. Generally, I find that the first day of shooting in a new location yields almost nothing worth keeping; I put this down to a mixture of jetlag and being overwhelmed by the newness and differentness of things. In fact, it’s usually my last day that’s the most productive – by this point, I’ve checked off the major tourist traps and must-sees, and I’m relaxing with no particular objective or destination in mind, a camera in my pocket, and nothing but the sole objective of enjoying final day wherever I happen to be. Going back to the USA trip, about 50 of my keepers were shot on the last days in SF and NYC; as for Tokyo, it was about 30.
Perhaps it’s this openness of mind that enables me to be receptive to my surroundings, and just see the different and unique rather than trying to force an image out of a less-strong scene that I’d probably have passed by back home. Images and compositions just seem to form themselves in front of my eyes, with little intervention required on my part other than to turn on the camera, frame, and record the moment. It’s this openness that brings me to what I think is the gestalt of travel photography: to use your technical and artistic skills to capture the essence of a place, in the way that you personally experience it. The ‘place’ can be a particularly charming street corner, or perhaps a city; it doesn’t really matter. After being there for a few days, you’ve moved past the point of initial sensory overload, but you’re still sufficiently conscious of them to notice the unusual; familiar enough to get a feel for things but not so familiar that they fall off the radar of observation.
I personally believe that the very best travel images allow the viewer to instantly identify where they were shot, without the need for a caption. (And of course the subject-independent fundamentals of what makes an outstanding image still apply, too.) This has changed a bit in the last 20 or so years as mass travel has become more accessible and media saturation has made images of and familiarity with foreign destinations commonplace; beyond that, there’s still some common social knowledge that allows people who’ve never been to Egypt to know that it has pyramids, camels and sand, for instance. So perhaps I need to qualify that a little: this works so long as the observer has a bit of worldliness about them.
In order to produce images of this caliber, one needs to go in with an open mind and the intention of conscious observation; it’s necessary to pick out the details, cultural cues and social idiosyncrasies that are unique to a certain place. Once you know what those are, it’s easy to look for compositions that include them. The trick is not to get bogged down in cliche; it’s too easy to shoot the Eiffel Tower and know you’re in Paris, but much harder to exclude it and achieve the same outcome. The next level is harder: how did you feel when you were there? What caused that feeling? And more importantly, how do you convey that in a single image – or sequence of images?
Sometimes simple things that are frequently overlooked – like the quality of light or texture of the streets – can be significant visual cues. For instance, winter light at any high latitudes creates intense blue skies, very long, directional shadows and a certain clarity that light in the tropics doesn’t have; yet at the same time, everything appears a little low-key because of those shadows. By contrast, the tropics are bright – so a low key image wouldn’t capture that feeling at all.
Perhaps the most beneficial thing you can do for your photography is to take a trip with no pressure or objective other than to observe, enjoy and experience; photography is secondary and will come once you start seeing. That influx of fresh material, the change of location, the removal of photographic inhibition by being a tourist will be extremely conducive to copious experimentation – and this, plus practice, is what helps us to sharpen our vision. MT
If you’d like to learn how to make outstanding images in any situation – especially a travel/ urban setting – there are still a couple of places left for my Prague and Munich workshops in October this year. More details can be found here.
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