landESCAPEvisuals

jeff lewis, landscape artist

where do we go from here?

So, you’ve read my last piece, “Outdoor Photography: Leave No Trace, Leave Social Media”.

You’ve decided to leave the uninspiring social media platforms behind, and choose our planet over Instagram likes.

Well… what now? Chances are, you didn’t suddenly feel a massive burst of inspiration. And if you did, it was short-lived. Then we’re back to square one.

This time, I don’t have answers for us. I just have ideas. Perhaps you do, too.

In order to understand the struggle, we need to understand how our creative process works.

There are three components of the artistic creative process: 1) inspiration to create, 2) physically creating the art, and 3) sharing the art with an audience.

Removing social media leaves us in the dark for both (1) and (3). It leaves only the physical creation of the art. This is why, even after we leave social media behind to hope to get our creative mojo back, the juices don’t just start flowing.

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So, what is art without social media? Is it possible to find inspiration to create without Instagram? And is it possible to share the art with a meaningful audience, without a need for likes, comments, and attention (which likely contributes to depression and anxiety… how do you think that might affect creativity?)

Many of us would agree that 99% of the images we see on social media today are garbage. They’re overprocessed, or just badly processed. They imitate, not create. They have no emotional depth. They have no voice. This makes it relatively easy to leave social media behind. We aren’t any less inspired without it.

For some, simply being out in nature may be inspiring. But for many of us, even that is difficult. How do we motivate ourselves to even get outside with the camera, without having inspiration?

The great artists of the past found inspiration without social media. Some of them had a cause to work toward, for example, conservation. Many musicians write songs that express their deep emotions, feelings, reactions to what’s going on in their life. Many of the world’s best chefs, surprisingly, are similar: their dishes express strong emotion and give a diner a window into their life experiences.

This is something I am still experimenting with, but have found success so far. One of my first truly emotional releases, “DARKNESS” (2019) , came from a stream of intense feelings late at night. When my strength began to return, I began putting together a dreamy spring album. Many of the times when my emotions would prevent me from creating for social media, have become my best times to create for myself. Perhaps all of us can find inspiration by searching deep inside ourselves, listening to the voice in our hearts, and allowing it to speak in our images.

I semi-regularly check a small group of artists’ websites, those who I have found inspiring. Many of them do not know that I follow their work. Perhaps you are one. I find viewing others’ bodies of work on my time to be more impactful than doing so when an algorithm decides a single image is worth a look mid-scroll.

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Equally important is the issue that, post-social media, we no longer have a place to share our work with so many people. Fewer viewers visit portfolio websites, and many who do, might not share their reaction with us.

Sharing brings joy and inspiration. It drives us as artists. The very definition of art describes the impact it has on others.

All great artists find inspiration to create not only in their life experiences, but also in the work of those who came before them. And art needs an audience. Ansel Adams famously said, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”

Once we’ve made something impactful… who will it impact? How will people see it? For many, there were hardly any meaningful viewers on Instagram, so leaving it was easy, and very little will have changed by leaving… but again, this isn’t a solution.

Physical art galleries are a wonderful way to share our work, but require substantial time and financial investment.

Perhaps an Escaype collective would soften that burden by distributing such an investment. We are surrounded by amazing artists here. Perhaps it’s time to do more to harness that power together. And now that we have broken free from social media, perhaps we can actually call conservation a goal again. Are you in?

Even so, sometimes it can be difficult to motivate ourselves to get outside, shoot, process, create. A few years ago, waking up for a sunrise felt effortless; now it’s a losing battle. Sunsets that were obvious gambles have turned into debates of “is it worth the drive?” Motivation to process is often nonexistent. And when our body of experiences to draw from shrinks, our creative opportunities become sparse.

If you’ve read this far, you probably feel this way, too. And I’m afraid I don’t have simple answers. But what I can tell you is, you are not alone. More people than ever before are feeling this way — and so many immensely talented artists are putting down their cameras at an alarming rate. Perhaps it takes many of us to come together, acknowledge that we all share these feelings, and move forward together.

What do you think? Where do you find inspiration? Where do you want to see your work in 10 years? Do you want people to be scrolling past your images on their phone screens? Do you want it to be hanging on a wall? What legacy do YOU want to leave as an artist?

outdoor photography: leave no trace, leave social media

The Leave No Trace (LNT) Center for Outdoor Ethics has a universally recognized set of 7 principles that all outdoor enthusiasts should follow, to minimize our impact and preserve our natural surroundings.

Among those: “Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces”, “Dispose of Waste Properly”, “Leave What You Find”, “Respect Wildlife,” and “Be Considerate of Other Visitors”.

Yet all it takes is a ten-second scroll down an Instagram feed to find egregious violations of each of these.

The posts are there for a reason: they get attention. They attract likes, comments, and followers, many of whom will seek to visit the place and do something similar.

Is it just a tale often told of social media, though? Visit beautiful places today, and it’ll become immediately obvious that more than ever before, not only are places exploding with overcrowding, but visitors are failing to follow key LNT principles. Places that were once wild are now full of litter, social trails, noise, crowds, tour buses, selfie sticks, wildlife living off human food. Much of the damage is caused by photographers, artists, influencers. bloggers, content creators.

“Poppy Stampede” causes Super Bloom shutdown in Lake Elsinore (LA Times)

Tourist Trash has changed the color and ecological balance of Yellowstone geothermal pools (Smithsonian)

Graffiti artist defaces 10 National Parks and Instagrams It

Human life is endangered. People are doing dangerous things for photos.

And one powerful article after another is emerging, describing the unfortunate reality that Instagram and social media is destroying our public lands.

Time after time, travelers are entering closed areas, trampling flowers and meadows, disturbing wildlife, stopping on roads to put other visitors in danger.

IT’S OKAY. No need to feign innocence. You’ve done it. All of us have done it. We all violate LNT principles from time to time. But nothing we do in the field — the worst damage we have done to a meadow, the most people we have held up on the road — none of it compares to posting to social media.A single post is often responsible for an exponential rise in visitation that ultimately trashes the place. We cannot control who we reach on Instagram. We aren’t just sharing with friends. We are exposing a place to the world. We all think it will never happen to our special places… until it does.

Let me say that more clearly.

In today’s world, the most egregious violation of Leave No Trace we could possibly commit, is to post to social media.

Those who refuse to accept their responsibility might sneer, “well, if you want to preserve a place without impacting it, don’t visit it”. While this is technically true, the vast majority of the damage comes not from the visit itself, but from the social media share.

(Note: In my research, it matters little whether or not location information + directions/GPS is shared in the social media posts. Refusal to share the location does not prevent the destruction. It merely postpones it. I provide more detail in my article, “Location, Location, Location”. )

In other words:

There is no such thing as posting to social media with a goal of conservation. In fact, posting to social media is anti-conservation.

But, you might ask, weren’t things different in the past? Hasn’t art contributed to the preservation of our public lands?

Absolutely.

In the past, art and writing was a powerful way of drawing attention to beautiful, little-known places, and advocating for their conservation. Ansel Adams’ work showed our parks to the world, and left a massive legacy of conservation. John Muir famously described our public lands as an advocate for their preservation. Painters like Frederick S. Dellenbaugh produced work of Zion Canyon that “raised awareness about this majestic canyon and influenced some to petition for its protection as a national park” (NPS).

To this day, many national parks still continue the tradition of conservation art, with artist-in-residence programs.

Today’s digital world, however, is different. Information spreads far more quickly. The global population is growing exponentially. Travel is easier. A large middle class is emerging around the world. An experience-driven economy has emerged to dominate leisure today. And, most of all, the consumption-based, attention-seeking, like-and-comment-driven society of Instagram has taken over. The need to optimize for attention, validation, and business. The need to do something more “epic” to stand out.

It’s hard to deny that social media is driving the destruction of our natural wonders — at an alarming rate.

And yet, time after time, photographers, artists, travelers, content creators… we keep posting. We feed the machine, knowing it destroys the places we love.

In this war we are waging against the environment, there are two directly opposing sides: we can continue to feed the social media machine, or we can take a stand and preserve our surroundings for future generations to enjoy.

The situation is dire. Apathy is no longer acceptable. Which side are you on?

WILL YOU CHOOSE INSTAGRAM, OR OUR PLANET?

stay tuned for the next article — “Where do we go from here?”

A word on digital processing and the "visual"

One of the most common questions I get about my work is, "Is that real? Or Photoshop?"

Let me be extremely clear.

I am a landscape artist. I do not care about "rules" of photography. I do not "mess with nature". I create

I am not a photographer who publishes final images that are straight out of the camera. That kind of work is not interesting to me. Being a journalist would hinder my ability to fully express myself. If you are searching for photojournalism, you will not find it here. 

The term "photograph" fails to accurately describe the vast majority of modern camera art. My work is no exception. I refer to my images as visuals.  A visual may not always meet strict criteria for a photographIt is camera art. 

As an artist, I don't find it exciting to release ten images from the same sunrise, each featuring one highlight or moment. I prefer to portray my vision in a single visual. This may require blending together images with varying exposures, focal points, perspectives, and times. For example, I may capture birds, wave motion, and sunset color in separate files from the same evening, then merge the best parts of each image into a visual that portrays my vision of the scene. The techniques I use in Photoshop are nothing that couldn't have been done in the darkroom -- they're now just much more accessible and precise. 

Photography, much more so than any other art form, is anchored in reality, as a camera depicts an actual experience in some way (often telling lies of its own!). This is not important to the result, but rather to the process. I enjoy the challenge of seeking the best conditions in the field, and find myself far more inspired to create when I am in such situations. 

In an increasingly digital age where classic darkroom techniques are resurfacing in applications like Photoshop, those who insist that a visual is "unnatural"  or "fake" because it has been digitally enhanced or altered are rendering themselves obsolete. This portfolio contains many of my own artistic visions, some subtle, some more surreal. 

My art will lie to you. But my descriptions will not. I might say nothing about my process, but I will not lie about it. This is crucial to my integrity as an artist. 

So, if your question is, "Is that edited?" -- the answer is "of course", but you're asking the wrong question. 

Happy exploring, and may the light be with you!

location, location, location

Few issues divide outdoor communities as deeply as locations. Do we share valuable beta with others, or not?

We are photographers. We are explorers. We are hikers. We are canyoneers. We are climbers. We are travelers. Immersing ourselves in our surroundings is what inspires us, what drives us. 

Others who join us in this experience are themselves part of the experience. There can be nothing more inspiring than sharing special conditions at a wild location with a few people we hold dear. And there is nothing less inspiring than standing in a line of 50 tripods in a place we once held dear. 

Whether or not to reveal our beta is one of the most difficult choices we face. Do we want to risk ruining a sensitive place? To some: of course. Locations are locations, just places for creativity. Let people come see them, just as others have done for us. 

But what if the location is...

  • ...closed to the public, or closed at the time of day the image was made, and photographers there must not attract attention? 
  • ...fragile, and susceptible to trampling, garbage, and vandalism?
  • ...sacred to native people? 
  • ...dangerous and potentially life-threatening to access or photograph from?
  • ...too small to fit more than one or two photographers?
  • ...on private property, and you had permission, but others might not seek it?
  • ...a place you simply enjoy solitude and just want to keep it that way?

If you discovered one of these places, and most of us have -- would you STILL share it with the world?

We all draw our line in a different place -- but I believe we all have a line somewhere. Where the problems arise is how we present our beta to the public in the context of our images. This is where social media brings out the worst in us. 

The simple answer is, if you discover a new or little-known location, or come up with a new concept for an image, you have three choices:

  1. Share it with the world. Post it to social media, tell people where it is and how it's done. 
  2. Keep it to yourself. You must not share images of the location, even if untagged. 
  3. An "unhappy medium" between (1) and (2). Perhaps share an image but exclude location and technique information, and refuse this information to most viewers who inquire. 

The problem with (1), sharing, is... it rapidly destroys the place. Large crowds quickly appear. And you caused it. Issues with landowners may arise. You might return next year and find no space for your tripod, or have your images ruined by light painters or model shoots. There may be a new permit system in place, or the location may become closed due to the actions of others -- you might not be able to visit at all. And your image will quickly become lost in a sea of similar-looking images from others. 

The problem with (3), the "unhappy medium", is... it destroys the place AND makes you a jerk. Others helped you discover little-known locations. You claimed the fame but passed nothing on. You contributed nothing to the art, other than borrowing someone else's idea and giving nothing back. And for that... you can screw right off.  AND, worse yet... it doesn't even work. Intrepid explorers will still quietly use your images to reverse engineer the locations and concepts. And you'll have no control over how they handle the information. They'll tell a few friends. Who will tell a few friends. And it's over. Same outcome. Just delayed. Location destroyed. AND you're a jerk. 

The problem with (2), keeping completely to yourself, is... you miss out on the joy of sharing your work with the world. Others inspired you, and you will surely inspire others... but you can't do that if you don't share your work. And there is little joy in creating if we have no one to share it with. 

So... what does that leave us with? We can't win, can we? 

Social media, of course, is the primary driver, and makes the problem worse than ever. Most photographers chase images that perform well online, or sell well. If you achieve these, there will be people knocking on your door for information, so they, too, can get in on the social media action. The information will get out, whether you provide it or not. Crowd growth is exponential. Social media photography is a disease. It must die. If I think you're gonna post your image to Instagram, I'm sorry, but I won't be sharing my beta with you. 

I can understand both sides. I go back and forth between them myself. I enjoy sharing beta for the happiness it brings others, and to give back to a community that has helped me so much. However, I have experienced firsthand the pain of publishing unique work from unique locations, and soon returning to find dozens of tripods chasing my creative success. I have tried to find the unhappy medium, but always failed. And that unhappy medium, of course, comes with being a jerk. 

If the image appears on social media, even without information, it will not be unique for long, and its location will no longer provide solitude. It may never be the same again. And you have to live with the fact that... well, you are responsible for that. Despite your best efforts, you let it out. And you were a jerk by refusing to give back to others who were interested. What a mess. 

In the end, what it all comes down to is, if you have a secret location that you want to preserve, do not share it, and do not share images of it. Posting landscape images for "preservation" but withholding beta on them is a snake's tactic, not a happy medium. If you truly want to "preserve", or just want to enjoy it for yourself, there is nothing wrong with that -- but do exactly that. By sharing the image, you are now enjoying it with others, who will want to see it for themselves. You can't have fame and recognition for your discovery without also making it popular. You can't have your cake and eat it too. It's just a choice we have to make.

I find this choice is best made on a case-by-case basis. With each new image you produce, consider this: Is this an image you would like to establish your name with, or is this a place you would like to return and have it to yourself? 

Because you can't have both. 

When Two Worlds Collide: Art vs. Social Media

A WORD ON TODAY'S SOCIAL MEDIA SCENE

 

Debates continue to rage within the social media photography community, over issues like compositional ownership and what amounts of post-processing are acceptable. Occasionally the pot boils over, then briefly returns to simmering, only to boil over again in the coming weeks. 

If I released a cover of your song, of course I’d credit you. Why don’t photographers do the same? Shouldn’t they?

Similarly, how is it fair to a photographer who runs their business by creating honest photographs, or does some blending to compensate for camera limitations, but doesn’t drop in skies from other days – when someone else can just drop their sky in and get more attention? It’s not fair, right?

Remember: this is social media. This is business. This is a society that worships likes, comments, and dollars.

Photography isn’t any of those. Photography is art. What are the rules in art? There aren’t any. Who are we to impose our personal beliefs and limitations on others? If I say one thing is OK, but something else isn’t, who am I to make the rules for someone else?

Both sides are right, really. But it’s the approach that determines the opinion.

The real, underlying problem is when one tries to put all photographers on a level playing field on social media, while everyone is taking different kinds and amounts of steroids. This is a world (a bubble, if you will) where all work is the same -- “photography” -- and competes for likes, favorites, comments, and other forms of attention. Money may be involved, too. Success is typically defined by the amount of attention an image gets. In a social media world, it absolutely isn’t fair if your honest image, which you worked hard for, gets 100 likes, while someone drops a sky over the same scene in 10 minutes and gets 1000 likes. And it isn’t fair if your fresh image, which you worked hard to scout for, gets 100 likes, while someone else copies your composition, doesn’t credit you, and gets 1000 likes.

But wait a second – are we talking about photography, the art, or are we talking about social media? Those are different!

If you insert a sky from halfway around the world, you have obviously taken steroids. If you move the contrast slider or add a tone curve, you have also taken steroids. And if you use a single long exposure to blur moving water, you, too, have taken steroids.

“But what I do is different,” you say. “I stretch reality, but it’s believable. It’s natural. It’s not fake. It's not like that.”

Time for a reality check. What the hell are you talking about? Of course your work is fake. You altered the raw file that came out of your camera, which didn’t represent reality in the first place. And who cares?

Social media cares, and rightfully so. Because it isn’t fair to have everyone play the game using different kinds of steroids on a level playing field.

But we have to understand something here. Social media does not promote art. The web promotes competing for attention and business, and by rewarding replication of trending topics, it ends up suppressing creativity as much as it fosters it. That’s one of the reasons why I recently stopped posting my images on social media, and just keep them to my website.

Interestingly, since I’ve stopped posting on social media, I’ve noticed myself doing new kinds of experimentation that I wouldn’t have done before. Why? Because I don’t have to prove to anyone that it’s real, original, or worthy of their like or comment. I don’t have to brace myself for comments from trolls and self-proclaimed experts. I don’t have to weather the storm of photographers defending “their” comps. I simply don’t have to give a hoot what anyone else thinks. It’s not like I’m trying to use the image to get 1000 likes, to draw attention to my work, to drive traffic to my workshops page. I’m back to making art. And I enjoy that. I still have personal guidelines, merely because those describe the creative process I find most inspiring, but… really, once you remove the competition and comparison, who cares?

Seriously, who cares?

Ah, right – social media cares. Artists couldn’t care less.

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