Updated: Oct 30, 2018
Author Jenn Mishra
This week I talked with fine art travel and landscape photographer Karen Hutton about creating art around the sense of awe. Karen spoke eloquently about creating art that is expressive of us and communicates the message or feeling we want to put out in the world - what we want to embody. Our photographs are a direct reflection of us and what we want our work to say.
Karen started our conversation talking about pursuing a sense of awe in everyday life and replacing our negative response to the world with something more positive.
"Life is awesome. The world is amazing. People are incredible.
I can focus on things that annoy me –– but when I do, I make myself miserable. The thing is, you can can’t simply stop doing a thing, because nature abhors a vacuum. Personally, when I find myself focusing on my reality selection in crazy making ways, I have to actively infuse my mind with what I want to feel. Y’now, “Stop the madness!” I have to lighten up a little, accept what is - and make the decision to focus on outcomes that’ll make me feel amazing and good."
Finding and capturing awe in our photographs isn’t always easy. There are many distractions in every day life, but being open to experiencing awe can completely change our photographic work.
For Karen, it comes down to deciding how we want to live and what we want our photographic work to say. Photography is an expression of who we are. Each of us has a unique and special view and every life experience we have shapes our art.
"All you have is who you are.
Just you and the camera - that’s it.
You have to know yourself. Dig into a rich inner life. Develop yourself. Decide what it is you really want to and simply must say. It takes what - 3 weeks to learn some photography technique? Maybe I exaggerate. The point is… then what? The technique is like the part where you learn how to drive a car. Once you have the basics down - then you have to decide where you’d like to go, who you’d like to visit - what you’d like to experience. Where will those fancy driving skills take you?
We can get really good at photography really quickly - probably faster than a writer or speaker or painter can. So entry level is easily accessible. That’s why there are so many bad photos out there in social media. Mind you, I’m not criticizing… entry level is never pretty in anything. It sure wasn’t pretty for me either!
But the unique thing about photography is that feedback is immediate. So you can get better at it in a really short time. You can look at an image in the back of the camera right after you take it and in 5 minutes take a better photograph. That’s so great!
Here’s the thing though: photography can only be so perfect in a technical sense. Obsession with gear and technique and being perfect just squeezes the life and humanity out of a photo. For instance, sharpness is good, but you’ve got to know why you want sharpness – or not! Is it because photography is “supposed” to be sharp? Or because sharpness tells the right story? You need to know! You may want to mess it up, make some parts blurry, or texture it up. The key is to know your why about any photo you take."
I asked Karen to choose one of her photos and talk about Awe and Artistic Voice. She chose this photo called “Survivor on a Sunday Morning” – and I was thrilled. This is one of my personal favorites from Karen’s portfolio. Karen describes the feeling and how she captured that feeling technically in the photograph.
"The power of life and light leaves me awestruck, always. The undeniable will to LIVE, the gesture of reaching for light; sometimes it just brings me to my knees. In those moments, I’m humbled, filled with so much love and wonder I feel like I might burst. I see these qualities everywhere I go in nature. And in this tree; against all odds, growing out of sheer rock, as it leans into radiant morning light, thriving - well it took my breath away.
I chose a 30 sec exposure to smooth the water just a bit, because I wanted to express this moment as slightly “altered”. I wanted it to represent a feeling, not a literal translation. I love that space that exists in between fantasy and reality; it’s most often how I see the world. Using a shallow depth of field put the focus on the tree and let the island behind it take a step back, which put my story in the right context.
In post-processing, I took that notion a bit further, darkening the background some, enhancing the light so that it felt like the warm caress of morning sunlight on an upturned face. I worked with the details in the foreground, enhanced the colors - and gave it a particular palette, to deepen the experience of altered reality. To me, the enticing part is that while it IS enhanced… it could also be real, seen through a certain set of eyes. Which is just like life. You can choose how you see your moments, your path, your options.
I wanted to create an image that had something to say, to tell a story. A message about the power of desire, of life and the spectacular experience we’re all having on this incredible planet. Or COULD be having, should we choose it. I love it - and it came out exactly the way I felt it that Sunday morning, breathing in the glory of Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe, California."
Karen started her workshop/retreat series, The Artist’s Voice, to help photographers tap into their muse, their more creative self and make signature images. Karen began forming the idea after some social media conversations about how to create unique photos that more directly reflects the photographer.
"When flipping through social media stream - you want for your fans and followers to know an image is yours. Like: BOOM that’s Jenn’s! Yet, no one could explain how you do that. Even finding vocabulary to talk about that was really challenging. People said you either have “it” or you don’t. Well, I know better. I know that to a great extent, developing an imprint of yourself in your images is learnable."
Karen developed a system for teaching the process of finding a unique photographic signature. Building on her experience as a voiceover artist, she talked about finding a “celebrity voice” – a signature voice that makes the artist special. A voice that is instantly recognizable. She talked about finding a sense of “who-they-areness.” This signature is what the artist is known for.
Karen tries to help photographers understand and create this sense of “who-they-areness.”
"The “Style” conversation is tricky. It’s possible to get stuck in a “style” that works for you on some level, then simply rinse and repeat it in everything. But you don’t grow as an artist that way. My thinking is that your Style has to grow and evolve with you - reflect who you are as a creative being, a creative soul. In that way, it becomes less your Style - and more your voice - the imprint of your soul.
Personally, I think life is like this amazing an artistic quest.. It’s not about living as we were conditioned toe, but about returning to the soul voice we were born with.
Every thing you do - from photography, to cleaning the kitchen, to running errands is an invitation to find your unique way of seeing the world. There is only one You… what does he or she want to say? That’s living life as your art. That’s also what gives depth and dimension to your photography."
Karen is known for her landscape photography, but for her it’s less about the genre of photography and more about her personal photographic vision.
"What I do - and teach - is to express a point of view about everything I photograph. It doesn’t matter where or when or what genre. I bring the same set of eyes to everything. Who I am behind the camera is who I am. Doesn’t matter whether I’m shooting the Alps or an apple. It’s all being photographed from my own perspective, sensibilities - always seeking the love and awe of the moment. My photos are not about creating someone else’s idea of what’s pretty, valuable, worth shooting. It lends a certain consistency of voice to my work."
She talked about finding awe in nature, but also finding awe when photographing newborns or at a friend’s wedding. She talked of finding awe on the streets of New York or in a studio or at a family gathering. Awe can be found everywhere by being present in the moment. It’s the feeling, not the genre, that’s important.
Actively inviting moments of awe and a connection is a transcendent way of being.
"Artistically, it makes you develop this second set of eyes that can’t help but see beauty in everything, from the smallest to the most epic. It’s a shift from the banal and everyday - into a world of light and life that leaves you breathlessly in Awe. That’s when you begin to truly see photographically. One of the superpowers of Awe is that it’s actually now been proven to improve your health, level out your heart rate, become kinder and more caring about others, even change how you see your possibilities in life. Capturing awe in art is a truly profound thing to do."
When I asked Karen my favorite interview question; what for her is a successful photograph, her answer was almost poetic:
"One that makes it impossible to determine where I end and the photograph begins. It’s indistinguishable. It simply contains the brushstroke of my heart and soul and spirit, like capturing a firefly."
Karen had a few tips about how we can create successful photographs and provided some insight into how she works when capturing her amazing landscape images.
"Slow down. Look and feel first.
Don’t even pick camera up until you feel a sense of Awe, however small. It might be a whole body feeling - or maybe a gasp, a little tickle in your stomach, a feeling of “Yes!” in your gut. You might be struck silent - or whoop out loud in joy. Point is, there’s a physical feeling to go along with the “the moment”. Take your time, sense your body for those responses. It’s an interesting thing to try - and might just change how you see!
OK sure, you might miss your shot at first; it’s like hand-eye coordination… only more sophisticated. But you’ll get better and faster at it. Pretty soon, you not only won’t miss the moment… you’ll feel the moment coming.
Lots of people think about settings and getting the “right” shot.
But take to next level: feel for that identifier – like that gasp – and only then take the photograph.
Then, look at photograph - did you get it? Is your point clear - or is the photograph too general? Did you shoot wide, hoping there’s a good picture in there if you crop in far enough? See if you can get more specific and compose in-camera. Do you need to step back? Get closer? Become clearer on what you’re trying to capture.
Hone in on what the story is, what your point is, what you most want to convey.
Did I mention - get more specific? Pretty soon, your voice will become embedded in the very pixels of your images and your “signature” will sing out.
Rinse & repeat."
Karen admits that she rarely clicks the shutter button if she doesn’t feel a sense of awe and this feeling embeds in her images.
For Karen, photography is a way of sharing her vision and her sense of self with the world, but it is the experiences of our lives that are most important. Karen reminds us that, “sometimes the best photographs are simply the ones we have in our minds. Sometimes put the camera down and just experience the moment.”
"Photography allows us to communicate our feelings and help others experience what we’re feeling, our point of view, our message, that which we think is beautiful - even Awe. In that way, photography has the power to move people, affect them in such positive ways - even change them - and by so doing, change the world through art, Awe and vision."
Karen is an inspirational writer and speaker and her website is not only full of her amazing landscape and nature photographs, but also words of wisdom. Follow Karen on Facebook and Instagram @karenhutton
Karen’s next Artist’s Voice retreat is coming up soon – October 7-12, 2018 in Lake Tahoe. www.karenhutton.com/tahoe
Find more of Karen’s adventures. www.karenhutton.com/adventures
** This post may contain affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.
Article Written by Jennifer Mishra
Jennifer Mishra is an American travel photographer born in Colorado and based in the St. Louis metro area. She has a background in classical music and academia. She is the founder of PhotoYoga. Her photos are published at Wits End Photography or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
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