Those of you who have been reading my musings for some time know that I occasionally discuss the perceived benefits of photographing in familiar places that are close to home. (I most recently touched upon the subject here on 1001 Scribbles last fall.) While there are plenty of tangible benefits, as I’ve outlined in the past, I want to illustrate by example how working in such an environment can, somewhat intangibly and subconsciously, help make you a better photographer.
There’s nowhere on the planet that I’ve photographed at more often than the Morton Arboretum. I realize that it’s possible that no one reading these words has even heard of this place, let alone been there, but that’s part of my point. The Morton Arboretum is a privately held 1700-acre tract of green space located approximately 25 miles due west of Chicago, in the midst of heavily developed suburban sprawl, which makes it an oasis for a nature photographer. I go to the arboretum at least a dozen times in an average year, but more often than not I don’t have my gear with me. (I find it highly instructive just to walk around the property and observe.) But—and this is important—when I do have my equipment with me, make no mistake: it’s a very, very challenging place to shoot. There are no iconic scenes at the arboretum; the place is heavily endowed with manmade objects many of which aren’t particularly aesthetically appealing; and, perhaps most significantly, oasis that it may be, the locale is naturally a tricky place to shoot, as is most of the American Upper Midwest. (I’ve discussed this before, but for those unfamiliar with the region, this part of North America is mostly flat and is heavily developed in terms of dense settlement or agriculture.)
This is not to say that the arboretum doesn’t have its idyllic spots, because it certainly does, but you really have to focus (pardon the pun) your image antennae. Pleasing compositions must be teased out. Copious time must be devoted to pick out notable intimate and medium-range scenes that are rarely immediately apparent. Experience is required to recognize the somewhat unorthodox lighting that best flatters many spots (i.e. it belies common “rules” in many instances). Basically, you have to work (comparatively) very hard when shooting arboretum landscapes, and you have to “see” in a way that is quite different from most of the more iconic shooting locations on this continent. In fact, it’s when I’m shooting elsewhere that the difficulty of photographing at the arboretum is so strongly reinforced.
Believe it or not, all of this is actually positive, because if you can master—or at least tame—challenging shooting locations like the Morton Arboretum, you’ll find other spots that much more enjoyable in which to shoot. It’s not unlike learning how to swim by jumping into the deep end of the pool; it’s hard, but if you can master it you’ll never have any trouble in the shallows.
Perhaps the closest thing to a tangible aspect to the benefits of shooting in a place such as the arboretum is the need to really see differently than you do in other places—even many other places in the region. Iconic locations around North America have snowy mountain peaks, rushing rivers, stirring pinnacles. The most noteworthy spots in the Midwest have things like waterfalls, broad lakes with their accompanying shorelines or broad, open prairies. There’s none of any of that at the arboretum. It’s virtually impossible to produce meaningful landscape images at the arboretum by settling or by relying on conventional vision and technique.
In the end, the work required from a photographer at a place like the arboretum, the different ways of seeing that it compels, will broaden your photographic vision, and that’s something that you can pull out of your kit anytime, anywhere you photograph. That experience can help you move beyond the iconic, time-worn view even at places where it’s easy to settle. And that will help you put your personal stamp on the images that you create regardless of the location.
So go out there and find your Morton Arboretum. Really get to know the place. Let it speak to you. Work with it. Let it help you grow. And reap the benefits.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.