Looking at the image that heads this post, I am vividly reminded of the experience of taking it. Stepping outside in the crisp early morning, along a channel of the Mississippi River in La Crosse, WI, I managed to land in the moment where banks of fog began to form over the water. For the first few minutes it was clear, and then I turned my attention from some nearby subject and saw this.
The resulting picture fits well with the goals of my ongoing Driftless project. There is interaction between the built environment and the water and islands of the Driftless Region, seen in the floodlights that would be excluded from a more traditional landscape. There is an opacity or sense of mystery to what we are looking at. And like many photos in the series, the viewer perhaps feels a little bit alone, observant, outside. So why isn’t it actually in the published series?
Of the 87 final selections (from ~1,000 taken this last trip), why are only around 15 included? Why didn’t this shot of a foggy bridge make the cut for the current version of the collection, or this scene from my hotel? It’s the same fog, and the same moon. There’s a bit of mystery in both, or at least an occlusion that stymies our full grasp of the scene. Shots taken from the bridge have appeared in the work previously, as have some buildings in the cityscape. The answers often come down to small degrees of difference or gut feeling, or - less romantically - space. While I liked the effect of the mist in the girders, that image ultimately felt too clean and abstracted for how the series has trended over time. Perhaps if I capture similar vibes in the future, it won’t feel as out of place. And although the city of La Crosse has certainly featured in the series, it tends to be in close up, seeing its funky little details. This one feels anonymous and better saved for some other project.
These decisions are a huge part of channeling the flow of our creativity. In working toward a cohesive and effective body of work, we have to be discerning and willing to make difficult exclusions. Editing hurts. I really, really wanted to have that first picture in the series. It’s arguably the handsomest shot of the entire excursion, and it hits all the right points. But the thing is, this one is just righter:
I took my first solo photography trip to the Driftless Area in the summer of 2018. Constituting parts of southern Minnesota, neighboring Wisconsin, and northeastern Iowa, this region’s hills and bluffs cradle the Mississippi River and numerous tributaries. The eroded plateau topography is both alien-seeming and familiar to me, as my childhood home in Indiana was also formed in a place where glaciers halted and dissolved. A river-tracing necklace of small cities and towns contains countless moments of interaction between infrastructure and a teeming natural world, a rich photographic environment. My wife Marinda and I have visited the area frequently, including spending part of our honeymoon there. But while I certainly took pictures on those trips, I had never devoted the entire experience to simply creating. In the lulls before the fall semesters of my photography program, these dedicated explorations were a chance to hone my eye, outside of deadlines and rubrics. Having time just to make art felt luxurious (and indeed, it is). It also felt oddly “grown up,” a wry but welcome sensation to experience in my forties. There was something delicious in the aloneness of it.
The first journey proved to be one of those times that has really pushed me forward, where unfamiliar and uneven terrain caused me to stumble into little discoveries. The next one built on those experiences, giving me a better sense of what I wanted to see, and resulting in a few of my favorite photos to date (including Veil, which I consider a defining image of my work).
And then the pandemic hit. No travel at all in that first year, and only the most necessary in the next. I recaptured some of the feeling of inspiring displacement during my time studying in the Burren region of Ireland, but that was still somewhat constrained by academic aspects (not to mention living in a dorm); a wonderful and life-changing experience to be sure, but no the same
Now, my bags are packed for another journey into the Driftless. But while I am excited to renew my tradition, there is a pang of trepidation edging out my exhilaration as my return approaches. Perhaps I know that lightning rarely strikes three times. I will never experience these places with the same openness in my eyes that I did on those first trips. But that’s partly a dodge, I think. Photographers are used to becoming familiar with a subject. We revisit the same places dozens of times, searching for the moment to arrest their perfected images. Reflecting, I suspect that the truer issue is that this trip is no longer a respite. It doesn’t mark a time of freedom between semesters, an escape from my real-world obligations. Right now, I am a photographer. This is my obligation. I held off a lot of self-doubt and self-assessment by burying it under academic hyperactivity. Now I have to deal with those things while simultaneously making work. Any sense of free exploration or sabbatical will be altered by background noise: Is this picture in line with my aesthetic? Will that scene fit with the entry I’m considering?
When I was in Ireland, I made some photo/sculptural work that explored the tension between the raw creative impulse that we have all our lives, and the refining action of study. While we surely get “better” with practice, we also dull part of our connection to something elemental. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep these motivations in a productive, let alone nourishing, balance. All I can do is get up before dawn, put my boots on, and head out with my eyes open.