“Life,” said Helen Keller, “is either a daring adventure or it is nothing.” The same can be said about art and the effort to make it.
Adventure is defined as ” a risky undertaking of unknown outcome, an exciting or unexpected event.” Risky. Unknown. Unexpected. Art-making has a wildness to it, an untamed quality.
I know I’ve written about this before, but when Picasso was asked if he knew what his paintings would look like before he even put paint to canvas, he replied, “No, of course not. If I knew, I wouldn’t bother doing it.”
It is the adventure of art-making that makes it unpredictable, an exercise not only in the exploration of possibilities but also in the discovery of ourselves. It’s the adventure of it that brings a thrill when you make a thing you didn’t see coming. You don’t get that when you finish a paint-by-numbers or a jigsaw puzzle. You might get a different sense of reward, but it’s not discovery. That’s why repeating ourselves is so toxic to the artistic spirit; it robs us of the uncertainty and the wonder. Even when it’s the “I wonder if this is even going to work” kind. Maybe especially then.
Uncertainty. Oh, how we run from it. We’ll run in almost any other direction, which is a shame because there’s so much to be gained by running toward it.
It’s uncertainty that prompts young photographers to ask anyone which shutter speed, aperture, or lens they should use in a given situation rather than just trying and seeing what happens. “What if I do it wrong?” is the unspoken fear. The kindest answer, of course, is “you’ll learn something.” I mean really learn it. We learn much better when we figure something out by trial and error than when someone tells us to use 1/500, f/5 (your F should always be 5!), or 85mm.
Our fear of uncertainty is why there’s such an unstoppable torrent of drivel written about this craft. It’s just so much easier to be told what the best landscape lens is. All you have to do is buy it, slap it on the camera, then point it at the landscape. Same with all the other recipes and formulae. Easy peasy.
But should it be easy? Is that what we’re after as we make photographs? It’s not what I want, I know that. Remember, you can’t have flow—that state of creativity when time flies and you get in the groove and create your best work—without challenge. Challenge and uncertainty aren’t a problem to be solved. They aren’t what stand in the way of your next great photograph. They’re how you get there. By thinking them through. By experimenting. By failing and trying again and really learning not only how to do a thing but how you do a thing, in your way, for your purposes.
No adventure, no art. After all these years, this is the guiding principle in my own work. And I’m comfortable with that.
If there’s no uncertainty, risk, or “I wonder if….” or “I wonder how…”, then it’s because I’m comfortable. I’ve been here before, and I’m not moving forward. A more cynical version of me would have said this is just “mailing it in.” I don’t think it’s that intentional (or lazy), but it’s also definitely not an intentional effort to move forward. Into new territory. The discomfort of uncertainty.
I’m not interested in the photographs I’ve already learned to make—those that the younger me already figured out. They satisfied him; they were his adventure. But I’m not that guy anymore, partly because of the risks I’ve taken and the lessons I’ve learned. Sure, I make my art, but it’s just as true that my art makes me. I’m a new photographer (and human being) almost daily, and I’m most interested in the photographs that guy is going to make. There’s uncertainty there. Challenge. Adventure.
Your adventure will differ from mine because we all differ in our challenges, and what is uncertain in your art-making won’t be what’s uncertain in mine. But the resulting flow and joy will be similar. We seem hardwired to find pleasure in overcoming hard things, in accomplishing things we’ve never done before, things we thought might be just beyond our reach. But we’re equally hardwired to avoid them. By instincts honed over millennia, we’re risk averse by nature. Art-making is one way we engage with that, challenging our sense of what’s possible.
Find something you don’t know how to do and figure it out.
Use gear you’ve never used. Stop asking how you should do this or that and start asking what the possibilities are. Play. Experiment. Google things you don’t know and peek around the corners of your curiosity. Don’t let “I don’t know where it’s going to lead” be the thing that stops you; let it be the thing that propels you. That’s the point! You don’t know! Find out. Don’t know what settings to use? Find out by trying them all. Don’t know if your idea for a photo project has legs? Find out by doing it. Don’t know if you’ve got it in you? You do, but you need to find that out for yourself. Explore. Do. Discover.
You don’t have to photograph bears or climb mountains. You don’t have to “go on an adventure” to make great photographs. But I think making great photographs should be an adventure. Find yours.
For the Love of the Photograph,
P.S. Want to have an adventure with me?
Since we’re speaking of adventure, I’ve started thinking about new shared adventures with you. If you have any serious interest in coming to places like Kenya with me, I’d love to hear from you.
For years my safari trips and most of my workshops have been invitation only. They’ve been limited to alumni, people I’ve worked with before. That makes it hard for new people to join me. So I’m planning a couple trips that would be open to more people and allow us to travel, photograph, and learn together. If you’re interested in being among the first to know about these adventures, would you let me know by following this link? I’ll put you on the Adventure List and email you with those opportunities as they come up.
Right now I’m thinking of a couple 8 or 9-night safaris in Kenya in January 2025, but there might be other opportunities coming soon. I’ve also got a couple bear trips in 2024 and while they’re full now, any openings would be offered exclusively to people on this smaller adventure list. If you’d like to hear more, follow this link and tell me how to get in touch with you. The only thing I will send to people on this list are opportunities to travel and photograph together. I don’t do many of these kinds of trips, but they’re consistently the highlights of my year and I’ve created some of my closest friendships on these shared adventures. I hope you’ll join me. I would love to share my favourite places on the planet with you.