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Revisiting Icons

Text and photography copyright © Samantha Chrysanthou. All rights reserved.


"I am not interested in shooting new things—I am interested to see things new. - Ernst Haas

What is it about human nature that places a high priority on being first at something? And if you can’t be first, then being the best is also important. Of course, the first and the best would be the ultimate! No doubt such an attitude germinated in the pea-brain of our first ancestors who crawled from the primordial mud to the sandy shore and from there went from belly to all fours to feet. But is this way of thinking helpful to the photographer as artist?

Patricia Lake, Jasper National Park

I am thinking specifically in terms of photographing icons here. Again and again, I read tips in magazines and on websites on how to get fresh perspectives of over-shot scenes. Be different or be damned is the common thread. While these articles encourage us to see beyond the low-hanging fruit, there is a danger of creating superficial photography as a result of trying to be different solely for difference’s sake.

What’s the big deal, you think? We’re all tired of looking at the same tired, old images of tourist hot spots. Don’t get me wrong - diversity is good. Challenging yourself to work a scene beyond what you first see is a healthy part of artistic development - but this should be your work ethic every time you photograph, not just when you are trying to outdo others who have been there before you.

Mount Crowfoot, Bow Lake, Banff National Park

Lately, I have been reading a lot of books about photographers’ artistic vision and learning to see like a photographer. These books have got me thinking. They all state that to truly be a good photographer, you must shoot what moves you; your motivation for clicking the shutter is a magical elixir mixed from feelings generated by the rich data your senses are feeding you about a scene. Good photography requires honesty and bravery: you must be aware of what motivates you to click the shutter and brave enough to do so despite any perception that others may not agree with your image. Thus, approaching an icon with the need to be first or best with a new way of shooting the subject may be counterproductive if you are not responding with your honest voice.

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park

This is not just an academic exercise! I have stood with photographers visiting Canadian icons for the first time and heard them say things like, “Oh, I’m not going to shoot this because it is over-shot” or “There’s no point taking a picture of this as others have done it much better than I can.” I couldn’t believe my ears! Here we were, on a gorgeous morning in the mountains, and the person had blinkers on so huge an elephant couldn’t see around them. There is a reason why iconic scenes are so popular - it’s because they universally appeal to people. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but the throngs who behold these landscapes consistently see beauty. They are inherently divine. Unless you are on assignment for someone else (where your choices are legitimately constrained by the employer), turning off your photographer’s eye to the majesty before you means you miss a great shoot and can hurt your artistic development. I think the best photographers are always giddy with the glory around them. They shoot a scene for how it makes them feel, not for what it will give them.

Medicine Lake, Jasper National Park

The way to come away with fresh images of icons is, perversely, to shoot them. - again and again and again. The point is to hone your ability to see and react to what is before you, whether it is an iconic scene or a never-before-seen. There is no other ‘you’. No other person will react in the same way to the same scene. The skill of a photographer is being able to translate what you see into a final image, and that takes honesty, bravery and practice.

Or you could shun iconic scenes, paint yourself as an adventurer, and seek easy trophies in rarely seen wild areas. With no one to compete with, you could at least call yourself first if not best. But then that would truly be taking home the low-hanging fruit.

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Samantha Chrysanthou was born in Lethbridge, Alberta. After moving for a period of time to northern Alberta, she returned in 2000 to southern Alberta to pursue a law degree in Calgary. After becoming a lawyer, Samantha began to realize her heart was more engaged in capturing the beauty of the landscape around her than debating the nuances of legal arguments in court. She has since left law to pursue writing and photography full-time. She particularly enjoys shooting the prairies, foothills and Rocky Mountains within an hour or so of her home in Cochrane, Alberta. Visit Samantha’s website to view more of her work at www.chrysalizz.smugmug.com.

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Comment posted by Tom Nevesely on 09/08/09 at 12:01 pm     

Really well said Sam!

   Tom Nevesely
Calgary, Canada
Tomas Nevesely Photography

Registered on 06/14/05, 147 Posts, 1550 Comments   Personal Website    Member Blog NPN Member
Comment posted by Vicki Kadow on 09/12/09 at 10:07 pm     

Yes, very well said and my feelings exactly!  I just returned from the Pacific Northwest with more pix of rock outcroppings near Mt Rainier or birds on snags in front of a familiar scene.  Great article.

Registered on 04/16/09, 9 Posts, 34 Comments    Member Blog
Comment posted by Stan Rose on 09/17/09 at 10:15 pm     

Very well put, Sam!  You've made some excellent points. The flip side is that despite the abundance of "shoot different or be damned" articles, the vast majority of phtoographers still gravitate to the familiar, and i'm not sure it's always because they just like what they see, i think it's also because it's the "easy" thing to do.

   Stan Rose
Pueblo, Colorado
stanroseimages.com
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Registered on 09/15/05, 836 Posts, 17099 Comments   Personal Website    Online Portfolio
Comment posted by Paul Duval on 09/30/09 at 09:10 am     

Well put Sam, another flip side, is that sometimes by crowds of onlookers and photogs  you are pushed into taking a different view and therefore a different composition. It's not always a bad thing, I see it as an opportunity rather than be bothered by the crowds. Also  I have accidentally and purposefully followed in the proverbial footsteps of "iconic" photographers. Searching out their views and also searching for my own view returning home, and when editing a photo realizing I have seen it before. Going to the book finding the photo and being amazed that I had found a place recognized it's potential and then wandered directly to where they had set up, accidentally. Then I wonder  if there's a connection,  or if artistically we're pulled into similar views. Upon reflection, and as you intimated Sam when photographing an "iconic" view you were probably drawn to visit the area by looking at photos but by letting your own creative eye make the image this and the fact the exact same conditions will never be duplicated again, you have your own take on the scene.  There's nothing wrong with taking pictures of "overshot" places ( we can't wear them out by clickng the shutter ) and nothing wrong with searching out that new view.

Registered on 06/30/09, 508 Posts, 1907 Comments   
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