Travel Photography (and why it’s so hard)

October 13, 2017

I don’t travel a lot; my trips back to Northern Ireland aside, most of my jaunts are work-related, and tend to concentrate on Detroit, Dearborn, and other nearby urban locations.

When I do travel further afield, it’s always with my wife, and we might visit her sister in Washington DC, or decide that we want a brief overnight adventure somewhere nearby. 

Our last significant trip was to Niagara Falls, where we met with some friends of mine from school, who were en route to a wedding.

I always have a camera with me. Most of the time, it stays in my bag. I don’t take the usual tourist snapshots, concentrating instead on counterpointing something else with the ubiquitous scenic views. 

Sometimes, shots line up and I will take more traditional photographs, but unless there’s something different about them that I spot in post-processing, these shots will rarely see the light of day.

What it is about travel, and travel photography, that leaves me cold? Both in terms of taking these kinds of photos, and looking at them.

I have a couple of theories.

 

Childhood Slide Fatigue

You may be old enough to remember, as a child, gathering around a slide projector in a darkened living room. Then the slideshow began, with a friend, neighbor, or family member narrating the bright images, one at a time, sometimes going back several slides as the storytelling warms to their tale, and remembers anecdotes out-of-slide-order. 

This was probably as traumatic for you as it was for me. I was lucky enough to be the son (and grandson) of photographers, and so the childhood slideshows were interspersed with experimental macro shots of WW2 miniatures from my dad’s war gaming, or an aircraft from a military display, and so on. 

But still... there are only so many photos of people frozen in front of a mountain, lake, or old building, that one can endure before switching off entirely.

 

It’s Been Done

More often, when confronted with a beautiful landscape, I ask myself, “what do I have to add to the conversation?” Flickr and Google and Instagram are filled with such images, with a hundred different filters, and a thousand different edits. Ultimately, the mountain stays the same, and unless I feel like I can capture something unique about the scene, I sometimes don’t even bother taking a photograph. 

Someday I hope to visit the Grand Canyon. I’ll obviously have a camera or two with me, but I think that’s something I’d want to experience first hand, and not through the lens. This is a perfect example of a place that I consider to have been captured by others in ways I cannot even hope to achieve, and it’s a “conversation” to which I have nothing intelligible to add. 

I’d be more interested in taking photographs of other tourists and their faces when looking at the Canyon, or everything that’s behind the view, that we never see on Flickr, all the infrastructure and cogs and wheels that make it possible to even stand there. Even this has been done, I’m sure, and I’m not sure what I’d add to THAT conversation either. At least it would be new to me.

I think I’d rather enjoy a view than get frustrated worrying about getting a good shot. The good shot, the very best shot, has already been taken, probably years ago.

 

THE GLENS OF ANTRIM

I was very excited to take my new Fujifilm X-T2 out into the Northern Irish countryside. It had been raining for weeks before I arrived, and my guides (also photographers) took me on a very nice drive around the Glens of Antrim to show me their favorite out-of-the-way spots. This was edited on an iPad Pro while on vacation.

This shot might seem like one of those “overdone” photographs I’ve mentioned. In my case, I had a Canon 10-22mm EF-S lens and an adapter for the Fujnon mount. I had set it at f/5.6 before I left Ohio. So this was an technical experiment rather than an attempt to capture a view no one had seen before. 

 

That Said...

Sure, there are times when I am documenting the fact that I was there, or when I want to take a nice environmental portrait, really more for someone else’s Facebook than my own.

I’ll also take the shot if there’s something I want to explore in post-processing, like editing the physical landscape to take something out or put something in. 

And finally, if I’m off the beaten track, and I see something that genuinely appeals to me, I’ll walk around to “work the shot” and try to capture something that’s new, even if it’s only new to me.

 

Stranger in a Familiar Land

When I go back to Northern Ireland for visits, I’m conscious of being something of a tourist in my own hometown. I avoid the shots that I feel are overdone, but there’s enough context around my relationship with the country, in this case, to add some depth to a shot that might normally be tired or overdone. At least, I think so... I don’t know if that ever really comes across in the finished photographs, but I hope so. 

THE DOCTOR IS IN

This shot was taken in a coffee shop near Queens University in Belfast. It’s a good spot to watch the world go by, and as it’s beside a train station, there’s usually a steady stream of interesting people. This man clearly had a great deal of character. He felt like an amalgam of every surly Irish author or poet, with a solid dash of The Doctor, everyone’s favorite Gallifreyan. He moved through the coffee shop like he both belonged there and like he was instead a visitor from another time.

He felt like a statement about older Northern Irish men, and I felt for a moment like I was watching a far future version of myself, and I was alright with that. He was well dressed, his hair was fantastic, and he was observing everything around him with a careful criticism that felt completely authoritative.

I don’t do street photography very much, but this is what I’d do if I did more of it.

It's been nearly twenty years since I moved to Ohio, and each time I go home, I feel a little more distance, but it’s the kind of distance that takes something familiar and makes it new again. That’s a good thing for any photographer. It’s a little melancholy as well, and I hope that’s something unique and entirely me that I can add to the story.

I’ll write a bit more about that idea in the next blog.