The Reluctant Artist
--Part 1--

by Steve Pope
with an introductionby Alain Briot

Other essays in this series

Tremont Torrent

We all learn differently, and the learning process unfolds differently for each of us. Here, Steve Pope describes the path he followed so far in his photography. Steve also describes the challenges he is facing in regards to his perception of color and black and white. I believe that we all face challenges. In that regard Steve's experience is very useful in helping us understand and find solution to our own unique challenges

Steve's story in regards to photography is on-going, and this account is only the beginning. However, I believe that we all face challenges.Therefore, Steve's experience can be very useful in helping us understand and find solutions to our own personal challenges.

So, without further ado, here is what I would like to call Part One of Steve's account. Let's learn from Steve's experience while waiting for Part Two.

Alain Briot

The Reluctant Artist by Steve Pope
I was dragged kicking and screaming into a world I didn't want to be in. Okay, perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.

As an explanation, I absolutely love color, especially soft, subtle, and calming hues that speak serenity to me. You see, I lived a life of violence and conflict as a career military officer and criminal investigator. There weren't many moments of serenity, and those that briefly existed allowed me to savor them with an intensity little understood in the "outside" world.  Our primary colors were stark gunmetal grays, blacks, whites, and of course reds. Nothing soft or calming there.

So, after retiring I wanted to recapture some of those times of peace, centered on the medium of photography in which I could share my vision of a calmer, quieter, beautifully colorful world.  Knowing that I needed education and training if I was to succeed, I began searching for accomplished photographers who were willing to teach.

Alain Briot's writings were what attracted me to him, not necessarily his images of the Southwest.  Coming from New England, the desert didn't hold much sway over my sentiments at all.  After having read everything he had written that I could get my hands on, I came to the conclusion that Alain's philosophy of Art in general and photography in specific were exactly where I wanted to go.  Plus, he teaches.

Unfortunately for me, I was too late in registering for his 2007 Photography Summit in Zion National Park, where I could learn not only the camera skills I needed but also the printing abilities I lacked.  When Alain informed me that the workshop was full, he suggested we do a print review to help me decide which direction I should go in photography. To make a long story short, I learned that I had plenty of room for improvement, that I needed to concentrate on one genre within photography, and that I actually don't see color with much fidelity, I have a visual white balance problem (I see things too warm).

What the vast majority of people see as white, I see as very yellow and what I perceive as true white has a very blue cast to most people. As such, I have learned I must trust monitor calibration hardware and software (X-Rite EyeOne), even though the results look "wrong" to me.  Needless to say, it is a frustrating situation.

We scheduled a second print review and I committed to attending the 2008 Death Valley/Alabama Hills photographic workshop.  Having narrowed down my prints to local landscapes, my work was at least more consistent.  However, what impressed Alain was an image that was partially desaturated, versus one that I preferred which displayed some brilliant fall colors for which our region is renowned. Frankly I was stumped. Was I reading my images incorrectly? However, I was paying him for his expertise, so I reluctantly agreed to look into making more images with a semi-saturated, more detailed style.

The third blow came during the Death Valley workshop in which we were instructed to bring six prints for a class print review.  Imagine my outright horror in that the one image that Alain and the rest of the workshop participants deemed my best was not color but purely black and white!  "I'm doomed", I thought.  Black and white connotes one thing to me, and it isn't Ansel Adams. It is Crime Scene photography.  I have seen and taken a lifetime's worth of crime scene photography and it certainly isn't beautiful.  Now I am being told that my best work is in the one field I don't like.

Smokies Overlook

Upon the conclusion of the workshop, I promised Alain I would submit to him a portfolio of black and white images for a print review. Imagine my reluctance to realize that a significant percentage of the images I made during our five days actually do look better in black and white than in color. As I have found, some photographs are far more impressive without the color I so desired to capture.  I suppose I could categorize my work into four categories: Images that look good in both black and white and in color, ones that look good only in color, images that look good only in black and white, and, of course, image that don't look good no matter what.

So I reluctantly admit that I am an artist in a field that is far from my initial desire.

However, I have learned a great deal about black and white fine art photography.  First, I do not need to be another Ansel Adams. This is very important to realize, yet when you tell people you are making black and white landscape images, they immediately say "Just like Ansel Adams?"  Then I have to explain that just as there will only be one Frank Sinatra, there will only be one Adams, and my work is my view of the beauty that surrounds us, not anyone else's.

Secondly, it is incredibly freeing to not worry about color.  Yes, there are some things that I have yet to see an outstanding black and white image of, sunrises and sunsets come to mind. However, the same light quality which makes the dawns and dusks so magnificent work equally well in black and white. So, no sleeping in. Bummer.

Death Valley Dunes 12

Thirdly, no one said this would be easy. Nothing worthwhile is easy, otherwise we'd never appreciate it.  So I progress up the learning curve, steeply at first, but hopefully one which will never quite flatten out (who wants to say they've ever mastered everything and have no challenges to look forward to?) but will get more comfortable to climb.

I am reminded of the Rolling Stones song "You Can't Always Get What You Want," particularly the lyric where Mick Jagger says "Sometimes you find you get what you need."  So I find I am exactly where I need to be, learning the intricacies of black and white landscape photography, a very nice world away from my former usage of the medium.

Steve Pope
May 2008


Essay and photographs Copyright © Steve Pope 2008. Introduction © Alain Briot
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