Through travel photography, conquering fear and inspiring passion

One of my earlier images from what has become a five year (and counting) exploration of abstract imagery in the U.S. National Parks. [Photo (c) Ron Reason]

An early image from what has become a five year (and counting) exploration of abstract imagery in the U.S. National Parks. [Photo by Ron Reason]

Things I learned today: That Moby (one of my fave musicians/DJs/artists) had an uncle who was a photographer at The New York Times. And that he (Moby) first picked up a camera at age 10, set it aside in college set to pursue his music passions, and just picked up the habit again in earnest four years ago.

a mobyIn an essay this month at GOOD magazine online, Moby shares thoughts on his photography, exposing your work to others, and fears about the same – all of which mirror my own. I thought I’d take a detour today from topics of newspapers and magazines and redesigns, and pass along some of my own experiences developing my photographic interests in recent years. In the essay, Moby shares his uncle’s ethos, “document the things you see that others don’t.” However, with his renewed passion came anxiety: 

Even after four years of collecting a significant body of work, I had doubts about showing my images to anyone. With digital photography being so prolific, everyone I knew was a photographer. I felt like a dilettante.”

He goes on to share his belief, inspired by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, that

to truly live a creative life means that you will need to experiment in as many different fields as possible.”

This I strongly believe is something journalists or communicators of any stripe must adhere to. Most one-trick ponies, especially in this day and age, don’t have much to offer anyone in the long run.  However, with this experimentation, Moby continues:

there’s always that risk that … you will leave yourself open to being seen as a dilettante. But I decided that I’d rather try even though it runs the risk of failure.”

My own photographic adventures have followed a similar path. Six (-ish) years ago, thanks to the recession and a dip in consulting work, I was relieved of the burden, so to speak, of working 60 hours and sometimes 6 or 7 days a week. What to do? I volunteered in the Chicago Public Schools for a while. Traveled for the sake of travel, and not because someone was sending me on a business trip. And picked up the camera, after many years of thinking, I’m a designer (or editor, or consultant), not a photographer.

I’m sure I was at least partly intimidated by the memory of working with hundreds of astounding news photographers through the years, some of whom have gone on to win Pulitzers, shoot for National Geographic, and so on. But I just dove in.

I took thousands of images around Chicago, with many selected as “photo of the day” and published online by Chicago Public Radio, Time Out, the Reader (which later became my redesign client) and others. I attended and photographed events like the women’s roller derby just for my own satisfaction, and learned a lot about the city and its people. But, even though I’d pride myself on picking out of the way places or happenings, I quickly came to think that Chicago was a place anyone could shoot well.

I stuck with it even when consulting work picked up (hurrah!) and my wanderings eventually led to a passion of exploring our National Parks. I’m now at 46 parks and will bring the total to 50 this year. I’ve shot the biggies – Half Dome, the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, of course – and as I racked up the typical tourist shots of sweeping vistas, I knew that to push myself I needed to look deeper.

The result was a small but growing body of work that showed abstract corners, shadows, small details and secrets of the parks. These little things began to speak to me, like the image above from Yellowstone. This colorful geologic feature reminds me of dividing human cells, and led to a further refinement of my work to a series I call “Our Human Earth.”

What seemed like blood coursing through a vein at Yellowstone. The lungs of the planet in the Everglades. A musical note suspended in mid-air near my part-time home in the Indiana Dunes. And if nobody likes them? So what?

I realized that the more you produce the better you get and guess what – someone may like them. A few months ago I was contacted by a rep from Getty Images, who had noticed online some of my abstract images taken high above Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska and requested that I license them. Heck yeah! Where might they show up? You never know until you put the work out there.

From a series of abstracts taken high above Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Click to view more of the work.

From a series of abstracts taken high above Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Click to view more of the work. [Photo by Ron Reason.]

Like Moby’s, my photo work is “just a sideline,” but in recent years I have been published in Time Out Tel Aviv, Männer (a European politics/culture magazine published out of Berlin), various books, and this month, Voyeur, the in-flight magazine of Virgin Australia Airlines. I’ve had a solo exhibit at Chicago’s Center on Halsted, and for several years I ran a gallery out of my office space in a converted factory building/warehouse in south Chicago, exhibiting nearly 50 artists via more than 15 exhibitions and group shows. (And could anything have been more fun? Check out tons of work I had the joy of curating, installing and sharing with hundreds of viewers – and more than a few buyers.)

Since moving on from the space, my curatorial work has lived on via group shows, and I have just been appointed the juror of the 71st annual salon show of Indiana’s South Shore Arts Center, this September. (More than $10,000 in prizes – if you’re an artist, visit the website and enter!)

All of this exploration has served to inspire in hundreds of ways my “day job” – consulting with media corporations on their own day to day publishing of words and images of all kinds.

For anyone stuck in a creative rut in whatever role you play in the media, I suggest picking up a camera – or a paint brush, or pastels or pencils, or a guitar or whatever floats your boat – and just see what happens!

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