I probably have 300,000 files and close to 8 TB of data on my computer that I can honestly characterize as output from my lifetime of creative effort. Not that I’m bragging or anything, but those are big numbers. Of course, quantity is but one measure of output: we all know that quality is what really counts. To that point, surely most of my data falls into the category of “failed experiments,” also known as junk. But there are some gems buried within all that data that I’ve never brought to life. In the case of images, these gems take the form of unprocessed image files.
I recently stumbled onto some hidden gems from a trip to Zion National Park in 2006. It was my first trip to Zion, which was (and remains) an iconic location for landscape photographers. In those halcyon days near the beginning of my love affair with digital photography, my goal was to get to as many iconic locations as possible. One place in Zion that stood out to me back then was “the Subway,” a stunning location known for its photogenic rock formations and river scenes. Getting to the Subway was not easy. I don’t remember how long the hike was, but I think it was 8 miles roundtrip. Much of the hike required walking in the river with camera gear and enough other stuff for a day-long adventure. Back then, I didn’t consider that to be difficult. I didn’t care about blisters or ankles or getting wet. It was a beautiful thing.
In those days, I used a Nikon D2x camera. I loved that camera. It was my pride and joy. By today’s standards, it was a piece of crap. The sensor was small and quite limited in its capabilities. For example, if you wanted to make large prints, the only option with the D2x was to create stitched mosaics from multiple exposures. Of course, this is a routine process today, but back in 2006 the software was limited and required a fancy tripod gizmo that allowed for a very precise and systematic image capture process. It also required some advanced editing techniques to make a seamless mosaic with flowing water in river scenes. Today, none of that stuff is necessary. Mosaics are easy. It is a beautiful thing.
Several days ago, I happened upon the digital files from this trip and a host of memories came flooding back. I remember being out on the river near first light. I didn’t see another person until midday. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, I only saw two people the entire day. I had the world-famous Subway in Zion National Park virtually to myself. It was a beautiful thing.
The images I’ve included in this post are from that trip. Each image is a mosaic consisting of between 3 and 12 individual exposures. For the last two days, I’ve stitched and processed the images and I offer them here for your visual enjoyment. I’ve also spent time reflecting on this trip and my stroll down memory lane. It has been rewarding and I encourage you to do the same with your own creative work. For one thing, it is interesting to see one’s aesthetic evolve over time. For another, it is equally interesting to see how one’s craft improves at the same time. I love the naivety in my early images. So often I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I just did stuff. My images were filled with aesthetic and technical flaws, but it didn’t matter back then. Everything was new and I learned from everything. I had nothing to risk because I had nothing to lose. Motion was progress. Ignorance was bliss. It was a beautiful thing.
All that said, I also love the maturity and polish in my image making process as it exists today. I feel like my aesthetic has grown as I have gained a more experienced eye for visual artistry. Photography has changed the way I see the world and it is evident in my images today. I can more easily visualize the end result of an image before I even press the shutter. This is the holy grail of photography as taught by many famous practitioners ranging from Ansel Adams to Guy Tal. Knowledge is power. It is a beautiful thing.
As much as my trip down memory lane revealed my progress over time as a visual artist, it also revealed a downside. I no longer take the same creative risks I did early in my photography. Today, knowledge and visualization mean that my risk calculations factor in a degree of success. I often don’t even pursue photographic projects unless I can guarantee successful images at the end. I’m also more specialized in the subjects I seek and the techniques I employ. In some measure, I have sought depth and predictability at the expense of breadth and originality.
All of which makes me think. How did I get from “ignorance is bliss” to “knowledge is power” in one short 15-year pursuit of a creative art? More importantly, which is better, the power of knowledge or the bliss of ignorance? I wish I knew the answer. I believe there is beauty in both and perhaps it is important to maintain a little of each. Creatively speaking, perhaps a little ignorance is a good thing to temper the sharp edge of knowledge. Too much knowledge can lead to predictability and limited creative possibilities. The key might be the intentional use of ignorance for purposes of good. Informed ignorance, you might say. That would be a beautiful thing!