Beyond the Zone – my Comfort Zone
Reflections on Studying Landscape Photography

Essay by Jacqueline Stoken with an introduction by Alain Briot

Other essays in this series

Studying photography is more than purchasing the right equipment, reading about photography, and studying the work of photographers you admire. Studying photography is getting personally involved in doing photography, either on your own or under the guidance of another photographer. It is also reflecting about your work and about what photography means to you.

In this essay Jacqueline Stoken explores how the process I just described changed not only her perception of photography, but to some extent her perception of the world at large. Her essay is also a fascinating insight on the relationship of Art and Science, a relationship addressed by someone who was first a scientist and is now, in my opinion, an artist as well.

Finally, and from a publisher's perspective, this is the first essay in this series written by a woman. I hope many more will follow.

Alain Briot

The Hoodoos
Jacqueline Stoken

Reflections on Studying Landscape Photography
Science and medicine have been my life.  I was born and raised by two scientists.  I learned to marvel at the exquisite perfection of nature.  From the smallest microbe, to the flora and fauna around our home, to the sunrises, sunsets, mountains and oceans of the Northeast, I was taught the intricacies of life.  As I lay on the grass at night watching the meteorites, getting a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis and seeing a satellite cross the sky I was in awe of the expanse and the mysteries of the universe.  

I grew up and went on to study science and medicine learning how to unlock the mysteries of the body and help it heal.  I had never tried to capture nature by camera.  I never thought that I could even try to capture it.  Nature was too big, too perfect, and too mysterious to touch.  The artist in me had not been kindled or awakened.  I was overwhelmed.

As my body tired and my soul grieved for my patients I sought solace in nature.  I looked for photos to hang in my office to bring the peace and perfection of nature into my day.  The gift of the internet has opened the world and made it easier to touch each other.  As I cruised the internet world looking for these photos, I became acquainted with photographers who were successful in capturing the light, the perfection of nature.  Ansel Adams was and continues to be a source of inspiration to me.  To see how he has tamed the chaos and captured the sweet perfection of nature in the moment was beyond what I felt that I could even try.  The artist in me was awakening.  How could he do that?  What special connection did he have with nature to be able to capture its essence, its breath?  The artist in me was becoming curious.  How could I even try?  I am a scientist not an artist.  Well, I thought, if they could do it, then maybe I can.  The artist within me was beginning to want to try.  The artist within me was beginning to grow. 

In the fall of 2004, I planned to spend a week camping at the base of Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly.  So, if I am going to be camping for a week at the base of Spider Rock then I HAVE to take a camera and try to photograph this sacred place.  Could I even be bold enough to talk to the photographer who knows this place intimately?  Well, I reasoned, the internet is not so scary.  Why not Email Alain Briot and find out what film he uses.  That’s safe enough.  Even if he thinks that I ask stupid questions, I don’t have to face him.  I did and he answered.  He gave me so much information about landscape photography that I was stunned.  My pictures didn’t turn out that great but I had found someone who was guiding me.  He was guiding me with intelligence, experience and an artful eye; the eye that I needed to develop and grow. 

Antelope Canyon
Jacqueline Stoken

I ventured to take a weekend course with Alain and Natalie.  Then a four day workshop back to Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley.  Capture the light, photography is capturing the light.  But what does that mean?  I didn’t have clue.  He got me there at the right time of day, at the right time of the year.  I sat and waited for the light.  It appeared!! Sometimes the light was there for only for a few minutes.  But it was enough time if you were ready.  So that is what it means to wait for the light! 

I studied his writings and those of others to learn the rules of photography.  Now I need to put these rules in practice.  In the excitement of the moment, I try to remember those rules.  When can I break the rules?  Rules are rules.  Some are made to be broken.  I’m still learning when to keep them and when to break them.  Ansel Adams had distaste for rules.  He said “The so-called ‘rules’ of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant and immaterial.”  Maybe when I reach his understanding of photography and his stature I will feel the same.  For now, I need a roadmap. 

But in photography you have to see.  Now what the heck is that?  I see, but where do I focus?  But where is the light?  There are storm clouds everywhere obscuring the sun.  It is gray and dismal.  The wind is howling, it’s 10 degrees but there is a hole in the cloud.  And if, yes, if the sun’s rays light up those rocks what a great photo that would be.  Just keep waiting and if you are lucky you will get the shot.  Oh yes, if not -- when you get lemons, make lemonade.  See the grace in each moment.  Eliot Porter said, “You learn to see things by practice.  It’s just like playing tennis, your get better the more you play.  The more you look around at things, the more you see.  The more you photograph, the more you realize what can be photographed and what can’t be photographed.  You just have to keep doing it.”

Capture the light, but then process it.  Do I desaturate or do I saturate it? Does the photo look real or contrived?  Is it me?  Or am I being influenced by someone else’s idea of what the light looks like?   Dorothea Lange has said “The best way to go into an unknown territory is to go in ignorant.”  This was my teaching in my last one on one with Alain.  As we were discussing one of my photos of Antelope Canyon, I became aware of how I had been influenced by the oversaturated photos of another photographer that I had seen in hanging in one of the hotels there.  I became aware of how I had unconsciously tried to saturate my photo looking for that same effect.  And I didn’t even like that effect!  It was unreal, contrived and not peaceful.  Now I think I understand – go in ignorant, unbiased.  Capture the photograph and let it be yours not another’s.  Another lesson in my evolution, the unconscious mind is a powerful thing. 

I look forward to continuing my study of the masters and with the masters of photography.  It has been a great journey so far.  It has taken time, courage, and persistence but I am the better for it.  “Taking photographs . . . is a way of shouting, or freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s own originality.  It is a way of life.”  Henri Cartier-Bresson

Jacqueline Stoken

Introduction Copyright © Alain Briot 2005
Essay, and photographs Copyright © Jacqueline Stoken 2005

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