The Incompetent Photographer

Biarritz, 1994.

Over at the WSJ, Kevin Sintumuang tells the story of a young man — a young man who goes backpacking through Europe only to return with terrible photos. Get out of my memory hole, Kevin Sintumuang!

In my quest for frame-worthy shots, I came away with a handful of boring ones: A street. A bridge. A church tower. An empty field. Another church tower. … But years later, flipping through the mix of matte and glossy 4-by-6 prints, I experienced my biggest travel-photography epiphany: The more you document seemingly insignificant details on a trip, the more vivid the memories.

See the top right corner of this website? The part where it says I’m “a writer, photographer, and historian?” I sometimes write stuff that doesn’t stink and I’m proud of my accomplishments as a historian, but I often feel the word photographer should be in air quotes. For years I wasted pounds of silver halide shooting empty landscapes from wide angles in an effort to capture the spirit of a place, only to end with distant and impersonal ghost towns that showcased nothing except my own detachment. I actually studied photography in college and though infatuated with Ansel Adams, somehow still managed to make the view from a summertime beach in Biarritz — populated by topless girls, no less — chilly, gray, and blurry, as you can see in the above taken during my 1994 European rove. I filled whole albums with castles and bridges and cathedrals. Cold stones, cold images.

Like Sintumuang, it took me more than a decade of thumbing through old albums or browsing desktop file folders to realize the most appealing shots were those featuring people or animals and often up close, not from some removed point.

Which isn’t to say landscapes aren’t worthwhile — just that I have to do better. I took hundreds of photos on a 1992 trip through the southwest, and yet the best of the bunch is a snap of my brother, diminutive against the vastness of the Grand Canyon:

Grand Canyon

(I also like, because this is a scan of a print, how age has washed it through a natural Instagram filter.)

And occasionally loneliness is the objective, like this 2001 shot of a foggy early morning hike to Hadrian’s Wall.

On the trail to Hadrian's Wall.

So-so, if you can overlook the way too-dark tree trunks.

I remain a poor photographer. I fancy myself a decent composer, yet lighting confounds me and my post-production editing is atrocious. But these days, my more compelling subject matter often offsets my technical shortcomings.

New Hampshire.


You know what this blog needs? More photos. Big honking ones.

I solo hiked Hadrian’s Wall in 2001. These are the Peel Crags after I traversed them, then turned around to photograph the route. That’s the wall on top.

Stonehenge, from my first trip to England in January 1991. Megaliths lend themselves to black and white.

Grand Canyon, summer 1992. Somewhere in Bright Angel Canyon. My brother and I hiked to the bottom and camped for a couple of nights. If you ever have the chance, go see the Grand Canyon and the Giza Pyramids for yourself. They are much, much bigger than any photo or movie can render.