Portland agency R/West invited Andy to speak at their 20th anniversary party last night. It was a PechaKucha style event, and included a great variety of talented makers speaking on a range of fascinating subjects. Each speaker had to choose a word that started with R. Andy chose Reveal.
Most interestingly, we realized that we are celebrating 20 years in business as well, and that R/West was one of our very first clients!
Here’s Andy’s full talk, we hope you enjoy it!
Reveal. It’s one of the things photography does best—it’s an artist’s tool for revealing story. For uncovering patterns. For seeing things with new eyes. This is true when you are making a photograph, and when you’re studying a photograph. A good photo tells us two kinds of stories—the story that you bring to it, and the story that it brings to you. Great photos keep revealing new ideas, different patterns and grow their stories.
I had the opportunity to visit the volcanic deserts of northwestern Argentina. This was a present from my wife Therese—she’d gifted me with a creative photography retreat—a week of being unconnected, of being somewhere to just do photography. I’d just finished a 2 year project writing a photo textbook and she somehow knew that I needed something to clear my head. She gave me a chance to make what I think of as pure photographs, being able to work on something different from my day to day photography. To make a pure photo is sublime thing—it’s a unique juxtaposition of elements and time. Sometimes you know you’re making one, but most of the time you’re hoping you’re making one.
Photographers reveal stories with their images. Sometimes those stories are driven by characters, or by light, or by shape, or by an idea. Sometimes, they’re driven by a need to create yet another photo of someone smiling and holding a phone and pretending to text with their mom. I believe It’s not enough for a photograph to just be pretty—it needs to hint at something bigger. It needs to feel like a door that you can open, even if you just get a glimpse at what lies beyond.
To accomplish this, my brain wants a plan. And not just any plan—it wants one with fractal levels of detail, with as much ‘what if’ gaming as I can come up with, it wants to problem-solve everything in advance. There can be a big benefit to this kind of madness: it lets me know that once I begin shooting, I can stop worrying. I can stop thinking and start doing. I plan so that I can create space for spontaneous stuff to happen. If I do it right, I’m planning so I can get out of my own way.
I love the desert. It’s like going to a different world. It’s a place that is relentless, it’s harsh, it’s beautiful, it’s full of incredible light and shape. It’s a place full of challenges. The deserts of Argentina promised to be even more beautiful and alien and unexpected. It would be a singular experience. This was a once-in-a-lifetime level of expectation. Suddenly the deserts of Argentina began to take on a lot of emotional weight. Suddenly I was afraid of failing to live up to the potential of this trip.
I tried hard to come up with a project for Argentina. I wanted to do something specific. I wanted to go there to make a certain kind of photograph. I needed to know what tools to bring—what lenses would I need to put in my bag? I wanted to make photographs that would be NEW and EXCITING and DIFFERENT. I wanted a project that would be equal to the amazing place I was going. I worried about it. I dreamed about it. I searched for inspiration. I waited for the project to reveal itself.
I’m not a traditional landscape photographer. I’m impressed by anyone who can find a single spot and spend the entire day there, watching the light, becoming one with that place. That’s not me. I know this about myself. I run around. I explore. I like to play visual games. I want to see everything from every angle. Most of all, though, I like to know what I’m supposed to be doing. I like to know why I’m there.
So I failed. I didn’t come up with a project. Which meant I didn’t have a plan. Which meant that I didn’t have anything to meticulously obsess over and research. This was absolutely terrifying. And not the good kind of horror-movie terror that gets your brain engaged and firing. This was anxiety and stress building terror. I left for Argentina with a backpack full of camera gear and no clear idea of what I was going there to do.
The Argentinean desert didn’t reveal its stories easily—the harder I tried, the more it resisted. It’s a visually overwhelming place. It’s bigger than your imagination or your camera. The scale is beyond human—it’s hard to grasp. It’s ancient and volcanic, and filled with wind sculpted rocks, cinder cones, lithium lakes, lava flows, blindingly white dunes, and seas of black sand. It’s filled with vast quantities of unique and fragile shapes, lit by fleeting moments of light. For me, it was also filled with 3am jeep rides along roads that barely deserved the title. It was 12,000 ft of thin air and headaches. It was not eating or sleeping very much, and trying to stay hydrated. It was a challenging place. It was a beautiful place.
There’s a world of difference between the act of photographing and the photographs themselves. Taking a photograph is about the experience of being in the moment. It’s about being present, being in the now of the place you are, of reacting to the light, to the shapes, to the sounds—to everything around you. You are framing your experience with your lens. The photographs are different. You need to look at them and separate out the experience of making them. You need to see the story of the photograph, not the photographer.
I was reviewing my work each night— looking at how I was interpreting this strange place. I began to more purposefully see the photographs on their own terms—to remove my story of making them, and to allow the photographs to have their own story. I realized a project was crystalizing on its own—and I just needed to get out of my own way. I have a voice that’s constantly judging the work I do, as I’m doing it. I’m sure many of you are in touch with your own inner critic — if you’re not, don’t worry, it’s still there, whispering into your ear whether or not you’re aware of it. Your inner critic makes you doubt what you’re doing, it stops you from persevering. It can stop you right in your tracks. It’s hard work to quiet the inner critic.
There is a strange logic to this. I couldn’t conceptualize this work because I needed to be out there making photographs. To know what I was doing, I needed to go do it.
I needed to get out of my own way. I needed to have my boots on the desert floor, to walk in the twilight, to sit still as the sun rose, to shelter in the shade during the high sun. There were ideas and patterns in the photographs I was making. I just needed to slow down, be less judgmental, and be more present. The only way to move forward was to stop worrying if I was doing it right.
It might have been partly due to the lack of sleep and the thin air, but I was able to make a profound adjustment to the way I was working. These images still have surprises for me. Every time I see this work it’s a confirmation that I need to trust my instincts more, to slow down and be more present, to let the ideas and patterns reveal themselves, and to try not to have a plan for everything.
Go to the full gallery of the images here. Prints are available, contact us directly for a price sheet.