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Joshua Tree National Park (and Musings on Photography as Art)

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

All images shot on Ilford Delta 100 film
using a Shen-Hao TFC 617-A Camera
Please, oh please, click any picture to see it bigger

I've been to Joshua Tree National Park more times than I can count. Sometimes I go and, no matter how hard I try, I just can't find a photo worth taking. Those times can be mind-numbingly frustrating. Because really there's no better way to feel like a hack than being unable to take a good picture when you're literally surrounded on all sides by beautiful vistas, stunning rock formations, and stately Joshua Trees. A 3-year-old with an iPhone should be able to take great pictures when they got this kind of scenery to work with.

But I've learned after enough of these failed attempts that there's a difference between creating great photographs and creating art. *Cough* *Cough* Oh, God *Cough* Sorry...I nearly choked on the pretension of that sentence. Hold on, let me put on a beret and an ascot before I proceed with this line of thinking. Okay, at the risk of sounding pretentious, here goes. And I write this not as a person who has it all figured out. I write this as an aspiring artist who is trying to figure this all out.

Here was the basic evolution of my photographic style: I started by aspiring to copy my idols (Galen Rowell was the main one for me). I studied and practiced until I could create a pretty good facsimile of the pictures I admired. I got good at it, too. I could create a pretty damn good imitation of what I thought a National Geographic photographer would do. I even took it a little further, putting a slight spin on this style so I could call it my own. I was content with this for a long time - creating pictures that were good, some of them great. But eventually I got bored. I felt like I was repeating myself again and again. It became a formula - use this lens with that composition with these filters. "It's resulting in great photos - why change it?" Same thing over and over.

And then I crashed (creatively, not literally). I got so fed up with photography that I barely ever picked up the camera anymore. I was sick of it. How many more high-saturation wide angle epic-foreground-under-a-fiery-sunset pictures could I bear to make? It was a very troubling time for me. I felt like I was losing my identity as a photographer/artist. But really, it was never my identity to begin with - it was my best imitation of the professionals I admired. I was the photographer-equivalent of a cover band.

But slowly, I began to realize what the problem was. I wasn't striving to create art. I was simply doing my best impression of Galen Rowell and Peter Lik and a million other people on Flickr.

*** Keep scrolling...More pictures below ***

I still do that style now and then, but I view it differently now. To me, it's not creating art. That high-saturation stuff with the predictable compositions, it's paint-by-numbers. Good clean fun, but nothing deeper than that. And don't get me wrong, there's a place for the paint-by-numbers style of photography. It's therapeutic, it's fun, and it makes for great pictures. But if I never go out and try to make my own creation - something that truly comes from deep inside - I'll never really feel that deep sense of artistic satisfaction.

I can't define art and I certainly don't have "what makes good art" figured out, but I know how it feels when I'm trying to create real art and when I'm just painting by numbers. The trips to Joshua Tree that go well these days, those are the trips where I'm really working to break out of the paint-by-numbers groove. When I'm really trying to create art, that's when I'm burning through rolls of film in the very same park where last time I couldn't find a single photo.

My most recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park was one of those times where I was in "art mode." And what does "art mode" mean to me? It means I'm open to the landscape, I'm ready to see what it shows me with no preconceived ideas of what pictures I intend to or should make. I'm a blank canvas going in. And I have to feel a deep affinity for the environment around me, I have to want to be there and I have to clear my mind so I can see what it has to offer. I also have to be okay with getting no good photos. If inspiration doesn't strike, that's okay. When you're not painting by numbers, there's no guarantee you'll have a picture at the end of it.

It can be difficult to get in that mode sometimes. The distractions I was supposed to leave back home often cling to me like barbs. Plus, my preconceived ideas of what I "should" be doing with composition, light, color, etc. can paint my blank canvas before I even get there. If that happens, I'm painting by numbers again. But if I can clear my canvas, open my mind, and let myself get in touch with that monster rumbling deep down inside me that wants to create true meaningful art - if I can do all that, I will come home satisfied.

Now whether or not true meaningful art is actually created, that's beside the point. I suppose that's for the viewer to decide. But ultimately for me, it's about creating something I'm proud of and, most importantly, something that I feel is a reflection of my inner fiber. I'm happy to say in that respect, this trip was a success.

Okay. I've now removed my beret and ascot. Let's talk unpretentious camera-geek stuff. I made all the pictures here using my Shen-Hao TFC 617-A 6x17 panoramic camera. They were all made with Ilford Delta 100 Professional film, all of them push-processed then scanned with an Epson V750. Tone curve adjustments done in Adobe Lightroom.

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Solo Camping in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Kodak Portra 160 Film, Shen-Hao TFC 617-A
You gotta see these big - click any image to enlarge

Lately I've been trying to break out of my usual photographic style. Super-vibrant colors, rich contrast, epic wide-angle compositions..."yeah, yeah, we've seen it before, Nick." I've pursued this style for years because, let's be honest, it's an easy way to impress people. Flash some pretty colors on a computer screen and folks gather around like moths to a flame. It's no wonder this style has become so popular in recent years. Just boost that saturation slider in Lightroom and watch the "Likes" rack up.

But repetition is the antithesis to creativity. I've become so overloaded with that hit-you-in-the-face style of landscape photography that I just didn't feel creative anymore repeating my usual look. So when I found myself in one of my cyclic creative slumps again, I decided it was time to switch things up. I needed to try something new - something completely different than my usual modus operandi. I didn't even care if it was good, as long as it was different. An ounce of "different" is worth a pound of "good" when it comes to creating art, in my humble opinion.

With plans to take a solo camping trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to break out of my mold. So I made a mental checklist of what I typically do in my landscape photography: super saturated colors, deep dark shadows, wide angle compositions, and a pronounced foreground element. Good. Now I know what not to do.

My goal was to only take pictures with a lower-saturation film (Kodak Portra 160) so I didn't have the crutch of vibrant colors. This film also has softer contrast - one more crutch gone. Then I stuck exclusively to normal and telephoto focal lengths focused on more distant subjects. In other words, no using that sneaky trick of throwing on the super wide angle lens and getting right on top of an epic foreground element.

Also, the location was Anza-Borrego Desert State Park - a park with no notable geographic formations, no raging rivers or majestic peaks, and no iconic arches drawing people from all over the world. The park is bland compared to the photographer's Disneyland that is Yosemite. Point any lens at Half Dome and you have a 50/50 chance of creating something frame-worthy. But out here in the desolate badlands of southern California, Anza-Borrego Desert would provide no "get out of jail free" cards.

Putting myself in this position was uncomfortable. I was in unknown territory without my binky. The certitude that I would create at least one good photo wasn't coming with me on this trip. After all, what if this low-saturation, low-contrast, telephoto looks turns out terrible? What if nobody likes it?

It was tough fighting years of ingrained habits, but I came out unscathed and better for it. I'm happy with the photos. I like the softer look and the simplified compositions. They are photos I would actually hang on my own walls. But more than the look, I'm happy I broke out of my mold. It feels good to try something new. And ultimately, it's the only way to get the creative gears turning again once they bind up.

Now the question is, how long before I grow tired of this style?

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

And check out my sweet campsite: