I have a friend who has lived almost his entire life in the Phoenix, Arizona area. For those of you unfamiliar with Phoenix, it’s located in a valley, smack in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. It’s dry and often very hot in Phoenix, with an unsurprisingly dun-colored landscape. This, in fact, describes much of the state of Arizona (though not all of it), at least in a technical sense.
My friend has taken an interest in my photography and has asked me to send him periodic samples of my work. He has typically shown a particular affinity for my images which contain things like creeks, waterfalls, fields of flowers and trees lush with foliage. See the pattern here? These are all things that are not in abundance in a desert environment.
Two years ago, when I told him that I was heading to Arizona for a week or so of photography, he expressed surprise, bordering on outright astonishment. “Why would you want to come here?” he asked. “It’s hot and dry. The most interesting things are rocks and cacti. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to take the time, and spend the money, to come here for landscape photography.”
I explained that there was nothing unique about my desire to go to Arizona to photograph; people from all over the world travel to Arizona and the surrounding states of the American Southwest for photography—a concept he simply couldn’t wrap his mind around. Why would people travel thousands of miles to come to a place that had “nothing”? Why would I leave all of these inspiring ecosystems that he was seeing in my photos, native to the American Midwest, filled with water and greenery and trees with leaves that change color in the fall to go to such a bleak and barren place?
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. It’s a natural tendency to become habituated, to at least some degree, to that which is common to our own experience, regardless of what that is. We’re inclined to take the familiar for granted. Sometimes it requires the perspective of an outsider to reboot our own associations with places and things. My friend has been in the desert all his life. Where I see haunting, singular beauty, all he sees is monochromatic monotony. Similarly, what I often regard as the cluttered, indistinct scenery of the Midwest is like Shangri-La to him.
I’ve always said that I spend my time living in a part of the world that is hardly amongst the planet’s garden spots for the kind of photography I like to engage in (i.e. landscape), and I firmly believe that to be true, but it’s always helpful to receive a reminder that there’s plenty of natural beauty out there, simply waiting for someone with the appropriate mindset to see it for what it is and reveal it.
The moral of the story: don’t settle for regarding the familiar as prosaic; you’ll be missing something grand if you do.
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.