Just Passing Through
merica is big and handsome. Focus on the soft blankets of farmland, stubborn mountains, skinny trees and incandescent rivers. If you see America like a landscape photographer, it’s all color and texture and tilted light. When you’re on a road trip, the country is in constant flux. I know — I’ve spent the last six months on the move. And I didn’t expect to feel overwhelmed by it all.
I’m a believer that travel isn’t integral to seeing something new every day. Back in my last true home outside of Boston, I walked the shadowed streets in the evening after work. It was both a means to unwind and a way to play with light. I relied on street lamps, high beams, and the warmth of suburban homes to fill in the nightfall and engage the frame.
As the sun set, I peeked out my living room window, hoping for rain or fog or snow — my town transformed. Regardless, I’d slip out, headphones on and camera in hand. I suppose I’m susceptible to repetition, to nostalgia. I wouldn’t say I stayed within the lines, but it was a bit like buying the same coloring book again and again.
By contrast, road trip photography is so new. It’s invigorating. If not a new location, it’s a fresh season, clean weather or shadowed skies. If you cover a lot of ground, you encounter a surplus of easy beauty.
Driving highway 40 over Rocky Mountain National Park, the landscape changed with a frequency too high for my shutter speed. I felt I could spend a lifetime with the nuances of the Oregon Coast. I didn’t know how to put a new spin on White Sands. Olympic National Park dumped delicious rain, blurring our view finders. Route 1 in Northern California was so lovely that I had to put my camera down.
Faced with the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, Crater Lake in Oregon, the Yellowstone River — I didn’t know how to start. It all seemed so beautifully obvious.
Passing quickly through a place can feel superficial. Unlike my hometown obsessions, I wasn’t finding something new in the well-worn. It takes a while to know a place and it can be hard to discern a personally satisfying photograph within a growing American catalog.
My short time on the road (thus far) has taught me some creative lessons. Here are some tips for photographic motivation — en route and otherwise.
This may seem obvious, but if I’m in a highly photographed place or I’m feeling burned out, I focus on details I love: patterns, textures, and abstractions in landscape.
If you’re forcing it or concerned about what someone else might do or has done in a location, you’re setting yourself up for discouragement.
Sure, it’s counterintuitive to above, but it will help you grow and keep you on your toes.
Love street photography? Try shooting it in polaroid film instead of your Fuji rangefinder. It’s a whole lot more conspicuous than a quiet camera and will add another level of challenge.
It’s important to check in with a group that keeps you creatively charged. Follow photographers who inspire you and actively give them feedback. Ask others for thoughts on your own photos. Don’t be afraid to start a conversation. Find work that is different than yours, that makes you ask — “how did he/she capture that?"
This community can be made of up friends, family, colleagues, or complete strangers. Visually focused social platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr, and Steller can be great places to start.
To stay motivated, it’s important to share your work digitally and in hard copy. There’s something satisfying about holding a print in your hands. It makes you think differently about color and composition. Even better? Mail it to a friend.
I use time in cities to put my camera down for a few days. Breaks keep you curious, engaged, and excited. They also allow you to review what you’ve shot!
A steady project is a great way to get shooting, whether it’s a theme, photo-a-day challenge, or Every Day Carry.
My boyfriend and I started taking views out the back of our van. It’s a great way to document our trip and work together, and also gets us thinking differently than usual.
It’s amazing what a little time will do to your opinion on an individual or series of photographs. So if you’re frustrated with a batch, put them away. You might be surprised what you find later. [H]
Gale Straub is currently traveling North America with her boyfriend in the Huckberry Sprinter Van.
She loves landscape and believes you don't need to travel the country to see something new every single day. En route, she started She-Explores, a site for inquisitive women in the outdoors, on the road, and besides.
You can buy her prints here.
All images © Gale Straub