Part 2: The Moment it Clicked

“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”
— Peter Drucker, author

When I moved from photojournalism to landscape subjects it was a significant adjustment. I was accustomed to moving subjects in all kinds of good and bad light with all kinds of subjects—from Division 1 athletes in a Power 5 conference to elementary students in a parade. For most assignments, you showed up and dealt with the situation at hand, it was reactionary and fast-paced. I find my best compositions were those that expressed pure emotion rather than demonstrating formal compositional rules


Art-focused photography is slow and the results even slower. If I didn’t come back to the newspaper with a usable photograph we were in big trouble. On the other hand it’s entirely normal to come back from a short landscape trip without anything. Many art photographers incorporate just a handful of images into their portfolio each year — sometimes just one or two whereas I was publishing one or two photos per day as a photojournalist!

Needless to say, I was a fish out of water when I stood in front of my first landscapes. Although I had the innate interest of the subjects I was not so adept at the style of shooting. Waiting in one spot for an hour? Spending my entire two-week vacation shooting sunrises and sunsets from three locations? Researching locations in-depth, obsessing over weather reports, and meticulously building compositions was a significant change for me.


Naturally I looked to established names like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston for inspiration and advice. For years I tried to replicate what I saw in their work. My problem was I wasn’t just studying it, but practically trying to copy it composition for composition. Of course, I failed spectacularly. After a few years of this battle I started to question what I was doing wrong or if maybe I was never going to be a good artist in this genre.

One day I was reading a photography interview in which the artist said you must ask yourself two questions before every push of the shutter button: “is this something I haven’t seen before?” and “how do I convey the emotion, rather than the subject?”

That hit me like a ton of bricks. Despite my photojournalism training I was breaking both rules routinely. I was obsessed with what had come before me and I was so focused on the objects themselves, I had completely lost the plot.

I was trying to take pictures like Ansel Adams. But what’s the point? It doesn’t show me anything new about the world that I haven’t already seen. I had been trying so hard for years to replicate and emulate the work of others that of course I never measured up — they already did it and did it well! There was simply no opportunity left for me. There was no room for my own voice. I was also stuck in this rut of “look at this pretty location” with complete disregard of how I felt and the emotion of the scene in front of me.


From that day forward, I began photographing subjects in ways that was more akin to my journalism work: shooting documentary-style stories instead of single photos, making photographs emotion instead of subjects or location, and telling stories that hopefully reach beyond the final artwork. It’s not about the place I was shooting, but what it communicates to the viewer.


I promised myself I would not follow trends or create work just for the sake of having something new to post on Instagram. My integrity as an artist now rests on my process of creating an artwork to convey an emotion and then exploring the best way to tell its story.

Just a few days after I read that, I started formulating several collections to pursue instead of individual Ansel Adams-esque photographs. These collections showcase a common theme or artistic statement. Read more about my philosophy in my next post.

 

As a journalist-turned-designer, the driving interest in my work is to unify the ethical and documentary obligations of journalism (storytelling) and its common ground with the projective, forward-thinking obligations of the design fields (futuretelling)."

Jonathan Knight