Nature or Nurture?
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, June 1997

What makes a successful photographer? How much is nature, and how much is nurture? Do creative pictures reveal hidden talent that only some of us possess? Or are they simply the result of effort and passion, and thus within the capabilities of any normal person?

It's human nature to consider your successes as due to your unique abilities, yet to view your failures as caused by others. We tend to direct our life's efforts in line with perceived "talents," where things come relatively easily for us, and avoid spending much time on things that don't come out so well. True masters of a subject pay at least as much attention to what goes wrong for them.

Some of the mystery surrounding the creative process has begun to recede of late. The common wisdom that every Nobel laureate must be a genius has shifted toward a vision of a highly creative person as having a reasonably normal, but finely tuned mind. The tuning appears to have far more to do with passionate life experience than extraordinary genetics. Most everyone knows at least one apparent genius who hasn't made meaningful accomplishments, and one professed photographer who knows everything about cameras, but can't take meaningful pictures.

When my friend Reinhold Messner made the first ascent of Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen in 1978, the media singled him out as some sort of genetic superman. He continues to have trouble convincing people otherwise. He now uses a slide of himself in public lectures that shows him looking like a pin cushion with scientific probes all over his head and body. After grueling batteries of tests, the retreating physiologists said he was disappointingly normal. If he has an unusual natural gift, it's his ability to focus on a goal. He stretches the limits of the possible by reassembling visualizations of what he already knows he can do into bold new configurations.

I once heard a National Public Radio interviewer refer to the enormous talent of a pre-teen dance virtuoso that begged to be expressed to the world. The young girl shot back a harsh retort. She said she was sick and tired of people talking about her luck to have been born with such talent, while her reality was investing the majority of her waking hours practicing her routines. She was very aware of missing out on much of the fun that normal kids have, but willing to do it because she knew in her bones that what made the difference was hard work. Whenever she slacked off her regimen, her performances suffered.

When I don't take pictures for awhile, my ratio of keepers in my first rolls goes down until I get the feel of it again. Early in my career, I saw this as a personal failing. Then I attended a National Geographic photographer's seminar and learned that such performance swings are universal. Editors and photographers alike acknowledged that early rolls shot on assignment by people not recently in the field were usually inferior. Unfamiliarity with the location could not account for these fluctuations, because work in new places in the midst of an assignment looked much better.

Creative photography is not a basic skill, like riding a bicycle, that comes back instantly without practice. The bicycle analogy fails because the simplicity of riding down the street doesn't equate to the complexity of photographing for Time or National Geographic. An average photographer would be happy as a pig in mud to get back one of those "inferior" rolls of film shot by a seasoned pro on the first day of a long assignment. Similarly, my confidence about hopping on a bike any time would more than falter if I tried to follow a world-class mountain biker down a steep obstacle course.

To capture a fleeting moment when light and landscape and the living things upon it come together into a perceived whole, plus instantly translate that reality into the visual "foreign language" of film, is at least as hard as not falling off a bicycle pushed near its limits. If your reactions are late, it's all over. As Lucretius recognized long ago, "When something has changed, it will never again be what it was before."

Most of my favorite photographs capture fleeting juxtapositions that will never exactly repeat themselves. Of course there are exceptions, and these "timeless landscapes" that stay static for relatively long periods of time tend to become the stylistic hallmarks of nature photographers who work slowly. Those who make a full-time living out of only creating static, evenly lit landscapes are as seldom seen as lone wolves or mountain lions.

Successful nature photographs visually excite the buyers who select them in for publication or the walls of homes and offices. So it is with the primary, wild experience. When I have spent time with some of the very best outdoor pros, I have never come away feeling that they are driven by the lure of money or prestige. What matters the most is capturing a significant witnessed moment in a way that its essence is communicated to others. Knowing that something wondrous happened before our eyes and we responded to it successfully seems far more important to us than having a collection of images to sell (though we of course treasure them to make a living as well as for what they personally represent).

This difference between basic collectors of objects, whether they be slides or fossils, and the creative artists or scientists for whom those objects comprise a personal world view, is essential to understanding the heart of the creative process. One of the greatest satisfactions of nature photography as a career is having public perception of the meaning of your art coincide with your personally most important life experiences.

It is no coincidence that the most creative people in both the arts and the sciences have followed a comparable three-fold process of understanding that links their internal and external worlds. Creativity researchers have noticed an unusually high number of obsessive childhood collectors among those who later perform at high levels. These assemblages of stamps, flowers, rocks, or beer cans often bear no relation to the eventual creative endeavor. Like a scrapbook of random snapshots, they represent unstructured visual curiosity.

Serious collectors take the next step of organizing their assemblage beyond mere numbers. Plants, animals, and minerals fall into well defined categories that are the result of centuries of such organization. Photographs of many things a person happens to like often defy clear organization, and thus slide shows by massive collectors of images who have not yet mastered stage two are likely to have the same effect as Valium.

High-level creativity begins at stage three, where a person intimately familiar with the known organizational relationships in stage two uses his or her mind's eye to visualize a previously unseen pattern in the sciences or the arts. Fine photography blends aspects of both science and art to technically produce an image first crafted by the human mind.

Despite any genetic predisposition, true innovators in fields as diverse as modern art, particle physics, and wildlife photography have all worked their way through these three stages. Breaking down the structure of creative efforts into three evolving stages makes us realize that any normal person is easily capable of becoming a collector or organizer, whether of actual physical objects or mental visualizations. Ansel Adams' good friend and fellow nature photographer, Cedric Wright, poetically described this process half a century ago as a "saturation of awareness" that grows out of "a quality of emotional knowing."

We produce our best pictures when we feel them oozing out of every pore of our body. Time seems to stand still and the world is more beautiful than we have ever seen it. Somebody else photographing a few feet away is usually having quite a different experience and taking a very different picture. And that difference is less in their genes than in their mind's eye–that storehouse of a lifetime's memories and associations which we intuitively rely on each time we create a new sense of order out of chaos as we visualize a fresh image of the natural world. Succeeding at this gives our lives new meaning.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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