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Jack of all Trades

Letting Yourself Explore

Paul Gallagher

To be hon­est, if this was my sole form of inspi­ra­tion, then I think it would have worn thin some time ago because I have nev­er been par­tic­u­lar­ly good at shar­ing my work, cer­tain­ly before social media exist­ed, which has been in exis­tence only a short part of my career. There­fore, there were oth­er forces in place mak­ing me get up and explore with a cam­era, as opposed to sim­ply enjoy­ing my time being in the wilder­ness. Hav­ing thought about this, I have not sim­ply made pho­tographs of the land­scape, but I have made pho­tographs of dif­fer­ent parts of the land­scape, each of which has excit­ed me. 

I vivid­ly recall the excite­ment of being at the coast, and with an unstop­pable desire, assign­ing all of my free time with my cam­era to sim­ply head­ing away from land until it had all but ran out. I remem­ber trav­el­ling to dif­fer­ent beach­es and bays to expe­ri­ence the white sands or the tex­tures of the geol­o­gy. I have an inven­to­ry of loca­tions, all marked on maps that I returned to time after time, but which some­how are now left alone — but not for good. 

I arrived at the same con­clu­sion with moun­tain land­scapes. Seek­ing out tight­ly packed con­tour lines on maps and head­ing out there has pro­vid­ed me with years of huge­ly enjoy­able mem­o­ries that still bring a smile to my face to this day. Also, with rivers and lakes. These ener­getic fea­tures of the land­scape are plen­ti­ful, and I was hooked on stand­ing at the edge of a rapid flow or watch­ing mir­ror like reflec­tions form and dis­si­pate as a breeze glid­ed by towards the end of the day. Once again, I still have the maps, all marked up and fold­ed away just like the mem­o­ries I can draw upon when gaz­ing at them. 

So why is this? Why have I left the coast behind and washed the sand off my tri­pod? Why have I turned my back on the roar­ing sound of the water­falls and cas­cades? The answer is I did not want to ever get close to think­ing that parts of these amaz­ing land­scape were done. I don’t how­ev­er feel any loca­tion is done’, but I did not want to tire of it, to labour at it too much. More­over, I do not need to, there was plen­ty more out there, and it is this that inspires me.

You may be ask­ing what I did do with my time and where did I go next. Put sim­ply, I allowed myself to change my mind. It’s good to be a but­ter­fly from time to time and land upon a dif­fer­ent way of see­ing, but the only way to do this is let­ting go of what you think you should be mak­ing pho­tographs of. This is not as sim­ple as it sounds as it can be fraught with con­cern and a dash of frus­tra­tion. If you are get­ting good at some­thing, the most com­mon approach is to get even bet­ter at it, and I see mer­it in this. I also see there is anoth­er side to it, a side of pos­si­ble rep­e­ti­tion, and fatal­ly, medi­oc­rity seep­ing in. Pho­tog­ra­phers often find their way’ or adhere to a genre, or a genre with­in a genre. For me, the land­scape pho­tog­ra­ph­er that only pho­tographs on a rivers edge is not exciting.

The frus­tra­tion aris­es from any­one pur­su­ing some­thing new. The first chords played on a gui­tar are gen­er­al­ly not a har­mo­ny of clean­ly depressed strings, but a muf­fled strum through which the frets buzz, and the play­er who is learn­ing pro­claims their fin­gers are bleed­ing! As with any­thing new, the expe­ri­ence invites prob­lems and mis­takes that we all have to work through, and sim­i­lar­ly, the fin­ished pho­to­graph, the tro­phy of our efforts, can be dish eas­i­ly over-sea­soned. It is at this junc­ture that I have almost rushed back to the shelf har­ness­ing my maps, grabbed one, and let myself off the hook by head­ing back to my favourite beach. But I resist­ed, and the rea­son I did is that I want­ed two things to hap­pen. The first is that I know only too well that beyond the first fum­bles of new explo­ration, lies rev­e­la­tion and fur­ther inspi­ra­tion. And sec­ond­ly, this has always led me to be a pho­tog­ra­ph­er that has just learned to see some­thing dif­fer­ent with new eyes. 

This approach may sound like a means of dilut­ing a spe­cif­ic skill set, and fur­ther­more, if I had grabbed that map and head­ed back to the coast, I may be bet­ter at coastal pho­tog­ra­phy. I dis­agree. Evo­lu­tion, and more impor­tant­ly, allow­ing your­self to evolve, is what keeps me going. I do not say to myself that I will nev­er go back to those beach­es, or into the moun­tains, but I do say that I can look for­ward to that when the time comes, but for the mean time, I have to push myself and the way I see.

Look­ing back, this has hap­pened through­out my entire career. I was orig­i­nal­ly trained in a com­mer­cial stu­dio using 8×10 cam­eras involved main­ly in archi­tec­tur­al projects. This work I loved, but I was soon stood in a land­scape with cam­eras loaded black and white sheets film. I have made many a bumpy cross­ing to oth­er things I have explored, but always return­ing with tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits. From film to dig­i­tal was one of the many tran­si­tions laced with uncer­tain­ty and an over­whelm­ing sense of per­son­al betray­al. I even received some com­ments stat­ing that I was a film pho­tog­ra­ph­er, and what was I doing with colour! It was the best thing I ever did, and I may go back to film in the com­ing years in the same way I will return to my maps.

I recall my first reluc­tant use of dig­i­tal infrared cam­eras and the belief that the only pho­tographs that could be made would be what I con­sid­ered ugly, harsh and abound with con­trast. That jour­ney did not arrive there, and I have expe­ri­enced an over­whelm­ing love for a medi­um that I last put on a shelf as a stu­dent when I was seventeen. 

Look­ing at the way we describe this, we use words like frus­tra­tion, inspi­ra­tion, fraught and rev­e­la­tion which denote an emo­tion­al state. This is impor­tant to me. I seem to rel­ish in these changes and what I expe­ri­ence dur­ing the jour­ney. I recall many occa­sions either out in the field or back at home, see­ing the pho­to­graph I want­ed come to life, mak­ing that con­nec­tion that was slight­ly out of reach when I first embarked on a par­tic­u­lar path. I remem­ber feel­ing it was worth it!

I have nev­er real­ly adhered very long to one very spe­cif­ic approach in pho­tog­ra­phy, the longest prob­a­bly being black and white film. But this flu­id­i­ty has not at all made me a jack of all trades’ either. I have not dipped a toe into wildlife or had a bash at por­trai­ture. I have cer­tain­ly not set up a home stu­dio or walked the streets doc­u­ment­ing the inter­ac­tions of peo­ple and envi­ron­ment. There are peo­ple far bet­ter at that than me and I admire their work. But as I said in the out­set, I have always gone out into the land­scape, and in doing what I have done, I feel I have forged inti­mate rela­tion­ships with many facets of where I love to be. This in turn has made me see far more that if I had not. 

It is real­ly quite com­mon­place to see pho­tog­ra­phers deliv­er­ing image after image of the same sub­ject mat­ter. There is noth­ing at all wrong with that, but for me, I can occa­sion­al­ly be seen pack­ing up my kit and head­ing to my car, know­ing that I have had a great day at a par­tic­u­lar place and enjoyed every minute of it, but also know­ing that I am say­ing good­bye for a while, and I don’t know when I am going to be back. 

So, I say, let your­self try dif­fer­ent things, hide away in a wood­land or walk onto a moor. Don’t wor­ry about what might hap­pen, or more impor­tant­ly, what peo­ple might think of the pho­tographs, just let the mis­takes hap­pen. After all, the only way we learn is through mis­takes. What you will be doing is explor­ing as much of the envi­ron­ment as you will of your­self. And rest assured you can go back to what you are used to, and if you do, you just might see it in a dif­fer­ent way.

As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder.