Thursday, March 31, 2022

The art of misery

Lodgepole Pine Snags and Shadows, Winter, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Would you like this picture more if you knew I was in pain when I made it? That my fingers ached after I removed one of my gloves in the sub-freezing temperatures in order to work faster in the fleeting light? That a half hour earlier I injured my back while trying to speed through waist-deep snow with my heavy camera bag?

It is a somewhat serious question. Anybody can take photos and most people always have a camera with them. The number of pictures taken in any given day is approaching the population of Earth. So, what separates the dedicated artists from anyone with a smartphone? The amount of suffering is becoming that measuring stick.

I began to notice the value of suffering several years ago. And I think “value” is the perfect word to describe the phenomenon.

I was taking part in a group show at an art gallery. At the opening reception, one of the attendees expressed interest in a piece by another photographer. The curator related the story behind the image, making the experience sound as miserable as possible.

To reach the viewpoint, the photographer climbed a peak in the middle of the night, using only a weak headlamp to navigate the faint trail and overcome obstacles. Arriving at the summit an hour before sunrise, the artist shivered in freezing temperatures and fierce wind. Then, as the moment of sunrise approached, he lifted his hand to his camera. With great nervousness, his finger trembled on the shutter button. He had but just one chance to capture the perfect split-second of light.

“One chance?” Seriously? Maybe that was true early in Ansel Adams’s career when he climbed with precious few glass plates, some of which might crack when being jostled on the rugged trail. But the image in question was taken with a modern digital camera, presumably with at least some juice left in the battery and blank space on the memory card.

It was hard not to laugh at how thick the curator was laying it on, but the patron seemed to be lapping it up. And I get why. Couldn’t anyone climb to the viewpoint and take that photo? Maybe, but from the sound of it only the most dedicated and hardy souls should even venture to try.

After that night, I noticed this phenomenon more and more. At a lecture, I heard a master birder go on and on about the insect bites and other injuries he suffered when attempting a Big Year. Even at my own lectures, attendees would ask how long I had to stand around, enduring nasty weather, waiting for something amazing to happen.

People mean well, but I think some of this comes from how we are conditioned to value work. We often see something as work only if someone is at least somewhat miserable while they are doing it.

It won’t be easy to change that perception, but I think the process begins with photographers talking about their work as if it is work. It involves talking about why you took a picture or why an image you created looks a certain way. We don’t get there by trying only to get people to feel sorry for us.

In this case, I saw a unique opportunity to capture contrasting lines. I found the vertical trees and horizontal shadows interesting. And while I have hiked past these trees before, I had never quite seen them like this.

In the summer and fall, there are sunny days that allow for the shadows, but the color and texture of the ground is distracting. In the winter, the snow provides a blank white canvas, but whenever I’ve been there, it’s snowing or cloudy and there aren’t any shadows.

These shadows about lasted five minutes — and I spent the entire time adjusting my position and focal length, trying to find the right balance in the lines. The trees are located in a geothermal area in Yellowstone National Park where it’s absolutely forbidden to leave the boardwalk. I stayed on the boardwalk, but could adjust the angles by standing on different parts of the trail. I found one spot that had a nice cluster of trees where I could capture their shadows as perpendicular lines. I then worked through a process of deciding how many trees to include in the final frame. I found a balance that felt right to me. That process was guided by an art education and decades of experience.

A few dozen people hiked past me when I was working this scene. One grabbed a quick snapshot with his camera. Everybody else hurried by.

That I thought this scene was worthy of a photograph is my value as an artist. Likely something else captured the attention of the other photographers who went past me. What they recognized is their value. And hopefully someday we will value images for the visions behind them rather than the misery involved in creating them.

(Prints of Kevin Ebi's images are available through Learn about new work by joining his mailing list.)

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