I’m trying something new with my photos, and I’ve published this slideshow video on YouTube. I’d love to know what you think. I’m trying something new here, which I think needs a bit of explanation. Which is going to require a digression.

I’m a believer that an image needs to tell its story to you; if I have to stand by and explain why the image matters, then I’ve failed in creating it. That said, telling the story of an image can add texture and nuance to an image. This is why I’m starting up a series on the blog I’m calling Today’s Photo, where 2-3 times a week I’m going to show one of my images and talk about it, both why I took it and how it was created.

There’s a much different problem I’ve been struggling with in my images, though. I’ve long wanted to find a way to tell stories about places, to explain why those places resonate with me and why I find them special and interesting. The Wildlife Refuges that I photograph every winter are one of those sets of places I’ve long wanted to bring to life for others and try to help people understand what attracts me to them and why they deserve protection.

And bluntly, everything I’ve tried to do has sucked, badly. I’ve hated it. A web page with a bunch of images on it and some text thrown at them bores the crap out of me and I think it requires too much work from the reader to find what I’m trying to show them to succeed at what I want to do. But every time I’ve experimented with other ways of presenting these places and ideas, I’ve hated the results.

In retrospect I now realize this struggle put my photography in a funk. I stopped enjoying it, I stopped caring, and for stretches of time, I stopped shooting. I was adrift looking for a direction because every time I tried, I failed.

On top of that, I’ve been fighting some health issues. If you’ve read the blog over the last months, you’ve seen me talk about some of it, but there’s been more, including a loss of stamina and mobility that’s limited my ability to go out and walk and explore. If you think about it, a nature photographer who’s effectively tethered to the car has a problem. There’s been a lot of work with my doctor and with the teams at the emergency rooms on my various visits to understand this gremlin and get it under control, but it’s been a long and rather frustrating process. The good news is we seem to have done so; along the way I’ve dropped 40+ pounds and working on pushing that further, and it’s now been two months since I’ve had any symptoms of the gremlin and almost 3 months since my last ER visit. My energy levels have returns, and for the last few weeks I’ve been making an effort to start rebuilding my stamina and have been really pushing my physical activity. It’s making a difference, the other day I did a mile and a half walk and felt tired but fine after where six months ago half a mile to a mile might put me away for the rest of the day.

For the last year or so, I’ve wondered if the doors to what I wanted to do with my photography were closing forever because of this health thing. I’m now believing they’re opening again, although I have a lot of work to rebuild my physical conditioning. But at least I know they aren’t locked.

This has all gotten me thinking about my photography again and feeling positive about my work again. My thinking has shifted from “what CAN I do?” (and honestly, ‘here’s all the really great things you can see from the driver’s seat’ didn’t make the cut) to “what SHOULD I do?”

This is one reason I’ve spent the last few weeks on my project making new prints that now live on my walls; I had let everything go stale and static, and the act of creating prints was a way to reboot my activity with the images and create a fresh environment in the office to work in, and also to bring to life some of the newer work I’ve done. It was a great reminder to myself that even during this rough stretch I was still able to create some rather nice work, even if I wasn’t enjoying it very much. That really helped change my attitude towards the positive and let me start looking forward again to other and bigger things.

I felt ready, finally, to commit to some kind of project with my imagery, but what?

David duChemin is a Canadian photographer and author I’ve followed for a long time. He’s a strong proponent of moving beyond focusing on the nerdy tech details of the cameras and instead focus on the image itself. He’s also someone who really pushes the idea of the personal project as a way to grow yourself as a photographer, and creating bodies of work that tell a larger story than a single image can on its own.

In the back of my head, I’ve long had a couple of personal project ideas simmering, one being works that open up and show the essence and beauty of the refuges; one problem with that is that it’s very seasonal in my ability to shoot and so it is a long process to create the images I want to use. A second project I’ve wanted to do for a while is to create similar displays about the green spaces and birding locations here in the greater Silicon Valley.

Which of course circled back to the fact that all of the things I’ve tried I’ve hated, and with the health limits I’ve had, creating the necessary images even with the local green spaces has been basically out of reach. That latter problem is now receding, but I still had no idea how I wanted to present this stuff. Complicate that with my belief that part of the way to bring these things to life for others has to include more than still images (I know, heresy for someone who’s an unabashed lover of still photography) — but in reality, there’s big value in using both video and sound along with still images to tell the kind of stories I see in these places.

Except every time I tried, I hated the result. ugh.

And then last week I ran across something new. Art Wolfe’s doing a new series of videos called Where’s Art? which are informal slideshows of images he’s creating at locations with a recorded conversation about the location and images. It’s nothing fancy, but I felt it really set off the images and put them in a context where they worked together to explain the place, and the discussion by Art helped set the context on top of that. And as I was watching those videos, I found myself thinking “I can work with this…” — and that with some tweaks the format could be extended to include both video and sound from locations as I start capturing it.

Suddenly I realized I had the format I was struggling to find, or at least, maybe I did. For the last few days I’ve been off exploring tools and experimenting with building a video of images to see if I could create something that I didn’t hate.

I used my photos from Merced National Wildlife Refuge, of course, because it’s the place that really ground zero for my love of the refuges and where my journey to seeing and understanding the impact of those places began.

And the end result is the video I’ve embedded in this piece. I like it, both for what it is and for the possibility to extend the form out as I gain experience and start capturing the kind of sound and video bits that I want to use. This first video has no voiceover, is “just” a slideshow set to music, but I think this works. I hope the video helps at least whet your appetite for the kind of things you can see when you visit a place like this, and give some sense of the life and vibrance and noise and activity that happen there.

Knowing the forms I’m going to use moving forward: the single image, the web page collection of imagery, and now this video collage of imagery, sound, video and music, I now have a vision in my head of the kind of material I can (and need to) create to create these presentations, and that will help me drive my photography and content creation forward.

So in about a week I’ve gone from “I suck and all of this sucks” to “I have a plan and I like it”.

Of course, part of this quick shift was that I didn’t accept “I suck” and stop looking for a new direction, and the time and energy put in exploring options before finding the pieces that click together. A lesson to be taken out of the last six months for me, I guess, is “keep trying”, because if you stop, you won’t find what you’re looking for.

Now that I finally have something I like, the next question is — what do you think? Do you like it? What can be improved? What’s missing? What works? What doesn’t? You can let me know by email or twitter. I’d love to get your thoughts here.