Landscape photographer Chris Morton shares the decade-long process of discovering and refining a photographic concept for his latest publication, Aotea, Great Barrier: Land and People
There are many elements that most combine for successful photography — skill, equipment, intuition, timing, chance — but the nucleus of truly great work is your concept. The ‘concept’ is an idea that holds all these disparate parts together, moving the photographic experience beyond simply capturing images to the creation of meaning.
Important as a concept is, coming up with a good one isn’t always easy. Auckland photographer Chris Morton’s latest project took him over 10 years to complete, with ideas and approaches shifting all the while. But the time and effort were well worth it, as his beautiful new book, Aotea, Great Barrier: Land and People, has finally found a place on bookshelves throughout the country.
“For me, just photographing for the sake of making good images is partially satisfying, but I like to have a focus for why I’m doing it — some broader context,” Chris says.
He shares his winding journey to find the conceptual soul of his work, in the hope of guiding others to discover their own photography concepts to fall in love with.
MAKING A START
The easiest way to discover a photography concept that will hook and compel you through the inevitable creative frustrations that will arise along the way is to focus on what you are passionate about. For Chris, a long-time sailer and mountain climber, his zest for the outdoors was an obvious starting point.
“I’m really fanatical about the outdoors and the landscape, and that passion has never dimmed,” he explains. “I’m interested in shooting a lot of things, and I’ve pursued a lot of different avenues, but it always comes back to landscape: the thing that gets me out of bed is the landscape. I’m endlessly fascinated with the earth and how we relate to it.”
Exploring this passion through photography ever since he started shooting seriously in 2004, Chris has produced thousands of images and two books prior to the latest project — all dedicated to his love of the outdoors. But, with Aotea, he has taken the conceptual underpinnings of the project further than before, and that comes about partially due to how well the photographer has got to know his subject.
“I have a piece of land on Great Barrier and I started going out there, planting trees, and becoming a lot more attuned to the landscape. Really, it was just me getting out there, doing what I like doing, photographing the land,” he says.
“After a few years, I thought, I’ve got quite a body of work here, this is getting big; what am I going to do with it?”
Photographing what you know is a great start, but a strong concept can compel you beyond your comfort zone to create imagery that you hadn’t previously thought of. For Chris, this meant exploring Great Barrier Island more thoroughly, broadening his scope to include the whole island, and travelling to places that he hadn’t before.
The photographer continued in this vein for several years, until he started to feel the project tugging at something even more meaningful. He became less interested in simply creating a beautiful book of landscape images and, instead, wanted to explore the deeper connections that he himself felt to the land.
“I thought, it’s not enough to do a photographic book on the Barrier; people will go ‘that’s really nice’, and that’s not enough. I started thinking, what is there about this project that’s deeper? And I thought my own relationship to land, but I’m also fascinated by other people’s relationship to the landscape, so [I wondered] how can I capture that in a project like this?”
This train of thought led Chris to the idea of speaking with 12 diverse residents of Aotea — young and old, female and male, Ma¯ori and Pa¯keha¯, landowners and tenants — and exploring the way that they express their own connections with the landscape. This led to an expansion not just of content but of the people that the photographer brought on to help create the project.
His first recruit was a local medical expert on the island with connections to basically all the residents (Aotea’s population is around 1000). She was able to provide a judicious selection of 12 subjects and help convince them to participate. Next, Chris selected a journalist, Peter Malcouronne, to talk with these people and uncover the stories of their favourite places on the island. Finally, working with designer Cameron Gibb, he was able to bring the book to life in ways that he hadn’t previously imagined.
“I was really humbled to see how he could take my work to another level,” says Chris of the designer. “The aspiration is that the sum of the parts is greater than the elements individually.”
KNOWLEDGE AND TOOLS
When shooting a subject about which you are passionate, your personal knowledge will be an invaluable tool. Not just knowing your way around a camera but whatever deep experiential knowledge that you have on a subject will greatly enrich a project.
Having spent so much time on Aotea, for instance, Chris has developed something of a sixth sense for the weather there. His expertise on the seas and trekking the land has given him a solid understanding of how weather behaves, and his intimate knowledge of the island’s geography almost allows him to see ahead in time.
“Sometimes, I’ll wake up, and I’ll know that this is what the weather is going to do, this is where the clouds are going to be, this is where the sun is going to be,” he explains. “It doesn’t always work out, but, over time, you do get a lot better at it, really feeling that landscape.”
This allowed the photographer to travel to the area he needed to shoot, find a composition that worked, and wait for the weather to come through and deliver the feeling that best suited his concept.
Another important aspect is working with the right gear to compliment a concept. For Chris, this meant shooting on a tripod for much of the project, even though, a lot of the time, ISO sensitivity being what it is, many of the shots could have been done in a quicker, handheld fashion.
“I like to slow down and be careful — watching and feeling and interacting with the land,” he says.
Time is an important element in bringing any concept to fruition; the more time that you can give a project, the more it will blossom. The writing of the Aotea book took longer than Chris needed for the bulk of his photography, but he invested that time in learning about drone photography and using that new technique to fill in a few gaps that his land-bound shoots had left.
In the end, Chris says the most important part of your concept is that you hold fast to it and don’t let go. You’ll run into frustrations along the way, but, in the end, those hurdles will make the project stronger as long as you keep your concept at the heart, as Aotea, Great Barrier: Land and People beautifully illustrates.
For more information on Aotea, Great Barrier: Land and People, as well as Chris’s other work, visit chrismortonphotography.co.nz.