Five years ago, I was fortunate to be able to spend several weeks ago the Svalbard archipelago, mainly travelling around in a 12-berth yacht. This was a collective private charter, not a “workshop”, which made it just about affordable for me. A similar trip with the overhead of paying for several “educators” to come along for free would have been way more expensive and probably less fun. It was quite an experience, but photographically I haven’t really made much of it so far. The basic reason for this is that I took far, far too many photos. The total is over 5500, which is just ridiculous. The editing process just becomes impossible, mainly because of the bulk - when you have 20 near identical photos of the same collapsing iceberg, trying to choose the top pick is tedious, and when you have 300 such scenes, it gets completely overwhelming. But also, there’s a problem with focus. Not focus as in out of focus, which is a fairly common characteristic of my photography, but focus as in theme.
Revisiting this collection after largely neglecting it for 5 years has helped me to realise this. The impetus to revisiting it comes at least in part from the drastic disruption imposed on my move from Aperture, to CaptureOne, and finally to Lightroom. This move is not something I’d honestly call a good thing, but in the end, perhaps the resultant disruption will turn out to be an unexpected but very valuable side benefit.
I’ve come to realise that the lack of a meaningful, coherent theme is actually quite common throughout my photography. For example, in this case I’ve always kept to the implicit assumption that “Svalbard” is a valid theme. But which Svalbard? That of misty, gloomy seascapes? Of ice cliffs? Of glaciers calving through mountains? Of arctic landscape? Of abandoned mining settlements, or active scientific settlements? Of wildlife - and then, of seals, or polar bears, or kittiwakes? The list could go on. In my first pass, I selected a sample of 16 photos drawn from all categories, which drew some nice comments, but they don’t really say much beyond “hey, look, I went to Svalbard. I’m so cool”. Vacation shots, basically. A second set drawn exclusively from the abandoned Russian settlement of Pyramiden was more meaningful to me, and hopefully more engaging. Having now revisited the whole set, I’ve been able to identify other themes and hopefully coherent sets, which obviously still document my experiences in Svalbard, but hopefully in a more mature way, which goes someway to communicating my reactions to the environments.
I think this teaches me two lessons: first, the old adage that less is more is never more applicable than when applied to quantities of photos. And the second, even older, is to work out what I want to communicate before pressing the shutter button. Applying these two points might help to distinguish between vacation photography and some form of self-expression. Not that there’s anything wrong with vacation photography, but sometimes that doesn’t satisfy me.
I’m not entirely sure yet how to present these new Svalbard sets. Some individual photos have leaked out on to Flickr, to see how they look “in the wild”. I expect some sets I will publish here, either in freeform blog post format, or as galleries. But the main thing I have in mind is a Blurb book. If I can do that to my satisfaction, then I think this new way of looking at my own photography will have drawn fruit.