Serendipity in Photography – Being There Versus Going There

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This is a topic that’s been rolling around in my head for awhile now, particularly whenever I plan a new trip (and no, nothing planned now). Each time I hatch a journey, I know there’s likely a photographer or artist who lives at my destination, knows the area well, and most importantly is there day by day. If I capture a beautiful moment in the spring, they’ll still be there in the fall long after I’ve left. This is particularly true of any large western city.

Travel photography is part of a long tradition from practically the dawn of cameras. People traveled to far away places and returned with images of the wonders of our world. Those images when published served as a sort of armchair travel for people back home, and eventually fueled a veritable explosion of people taking grand tours of the world. It created something of a feedback loop where photographers helped inspire tourism and they were often waiting on the other end selling souvenir prints to the travelers who made their way to far flung corners of the globe.

Of course, this is just the latest iteration in a long history of travel imagery. Before photographers, there were artists dragging their easels and sketchbooks around with them to foreign shores. The difference since photography’s dawn has simply been that images have become more reproducible than before, and ever more so as we’ve entered the digital era.

Getting back to the original question, then why bother? How is travel photography still relevant unless you are visiting sparsely inhabited destinations or ones where there are otherwise few local photographers? Would we be better served sticking to our own turf so to speak? After all, it was passing this old shed every day and watching the light hitting it as the leaves changed that inspired this picture some years ago.

Photo of an old shed in North Georgia in the Autumn
Harvest Past

Where my approach to photography tends to be more reactive, this is one example where I planned this image for days, watching the colors, knowing when the light was best (during my morning commute). Yet, I’ve employed that same approach to a smaller degree during longer stops everywhere I travel. Over the years, I’ve become quite conscious about not just where the light is falling when I visit a spot, but mentally predicting where it will land later in the day, i.e. should I come back to this spot in the afternoon for another try or will it be in shadows then? Sometimes those predictions are rewarded, other times, not so much.

And that gets me to the one element in photography that can’t be controlled, at least outside of a studio setting where every facet is controlled. In the outside world, there’s a huge element of serendipity or pure random luck. Maybe I’ll have great light, maybe I won’t. Maybe the skies will be filled with dramatic clouds, maybe they’ll be clear. Maybe a flock of birds will burst into the sky as I hit the shutter or maybe they won’t.

Picture of birds flying from a church tower in the Mexican town of Oaxaca
Serendipity

Serendipity is such a major factor it shouldn’t be underestimated. I thought of this recently when commenting on the beautiful light another photographer had captured and his response was that it wasn’t a factor he controlled. True, but he had the leg up that he was the one standing there when it happened, none of us were! Being there and being equipped, not just with gear but skill, makes the most of those moments, and is one of many reasons that one person’s image of a given place will likely differ from another person’s. We take our whole toolkit with us, but we still interact with an environment full of variables.

I don’t have a firm answer on this topic yet. Surely there’s something to be said for capturing our beautiful world wherever one calls home. It doesn’t require traveling great distances and there’s no doubt that a local is uniquely aware of their surroundings. On the other hand, for me personally, I love the journey. I travel places both to enjoy them on a personal level as well as to create pictures based on those places I visit. If it weren’t for part one in that equation, my own personal enjoyment, I might concentrate more in other directions.

And in the end, I still think there’s value in the outsider’s view. I take my own style and interests with me when I travel and take pictures of the places I travel. Those destinations for me, even if I’ve seen a million photos of them, are still novel. And maybe both my own style and that it’s still novel for me gives me a different image from someone who lives down the road. Maybe fresh eyes are enough of a reason to continue creating art on foreign shores?

What’s your take?

2 Responses

  • So true, Mark. I was just talking with someone else this week about looking closer locally rather than going farther. The point you make about getting out there with the gear and the skill, so true. If you don’t get out there (or leave the gear behind that day because you don’t expect to “see something”), you will not be present and able when serendipity when it happens. Love the photos, esp. the one of the shed.

    • Hi Lesley! Thanks! That photo of the shed is a personal favorite, too. It’s one of a handful of images that I had well entrenched in my head how and when I would photograph it. I’m usually far more into the camp of random chance, but even in that picture, I knew when the light would be good, it was chance that the skies had those thin wispy clouds that morning!

      There’s a saying I have often heard among photographers, the best camera is the one that you have with you at the time. I think that speaks heavily to the serendipity of photography (and that photos are more than the product of the camera itself).

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