Amarillo, Texas, 1991. Nathan McCreery, M.Photog., is killing time in a bookstore waiting for a movie to start at the nearby theater.
He has years of professional practice under his belt, having covered the spectrum from commercial photography to weddings and portraits. A book by Bruce Barnbaum catches his eye. In fact, the book, “Visual Symphony: A Photographic Work in Four Movements,” triggers something in McCreery. In it, he recognizes image creation at a level that’s entirely different from what he’s seen before.
That revelation sets McCreery on a path he’s yearned to pursue—fine art photography. He throws himself into the work, studying under Barnbaum as well as John Sexton and other acclaimed landscape photographers. He dedicates every waking moment to improving his craft. In 2007, he closes his storefront photography studio in Clovis, New Mexico, and commits to fine art landscape photography with a specialty in large-format film capture.
“What resonates with me is the landscape, the world we live in,” says McCreery. “I believe strongly that your work will be significant if it resonates with you, if it’s an expression of who you are. If you do work only because you get paid for it, then it will never become art for you. You have to express who you are as an emotional being.”
To maintain his emotional connection to the work, McCreery takes dedicated photography trips three or four times a year. He goes where he can disconnect from the daily grind and simply photograph. “I go someplace where I can wipe my mind,” he says. “I don’t enter with any preconceived notions. I certainly don’t go looking for Ansel Adams’ tripod holes. I want to see and create something truly original.”
McCreery drives until he finds something interesting, gets out of his truck and walks. He walks until he finds something arresting enough to give him pause. Once he’s found that scene, he looks for elements to build a composition that pleases, regardless of any standards that dictate how he should compose the image. “The rules of composition only exist if you think they exist and you allow them to rule your life,” he says. “Every one of us sees things differently. When I go into an area, I see things completely differently than one of my friends in the same place.”
One of the dangers McCreery sees in photography is what he calls “me too-ism,” the practice of building a portfolio by emulating what others have done. “When you work that way, everything you create is just an echo of something someone else has already done,” he says. “We are influenced, of course, by the work of others, but the key is to try not to let their influence overpower your voice.”
That’s a process that takes time. It takes time to figure out what your vision is and how to trust your emotional impression of a scene. To develop that impression, McCreery suggests starting with a simple question: What attracts you to a particular scene? Is it the way the light falls? The rhythm of water? The composition of the landscape? Once you have that emotional impression, he says, you can go back and clean up the details, then keep refining those details down until you extract what it is you want to show.
“That’s why I’m so anti-rules when it comes to composition,” says McCreery. “Composition is just the way we see things. And it varies from person to person. If you’re focused too much on rules, on the logical response to a scene versus an emotional response, then the danger is that you can do nice work, but it never becomes personal. Our work should become personal first—a personal emotional response to what we’re photographing. When you do that, then you begin to create a recognizable style such that people can identify your work before they ever see your signature.”
There are no shortcuts in this process. Building a recognizable style isn’t something you can do in a weekend workshop. It takes time and, maybe more important, it takes commitment. People often assume that successful artists are simply talented. That’s rarely the case. For McCreery, that talent has been earned at 2 a.m. working in the darkroom to perfect an image; it was earned at dawn on a frigid morning when he dragged himself out of a tent to photograph a mountain sunrise.
“If you don’t have conviction, your photographs will show it,” McCreery says. “That commitment is important. If you leave yourself a path of retreat, you will.”
Then, of course, marketing and selling your distinct style takes time as well. It takes time to find people who appreciate your unique reaction to the world. But when you do, you’ve found the sweet spot in fine art photography. “These are people who not only see your photography as art but as something that will enhance their lives,” says McCreery. “Your photography helps take them from the place they are to the place they’d rather be.”
Selling photography has become more difficult of late due to the seismic shifts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn. Traditionally, McCreery has derived his income from selling prints at galleries and art fairs as well as direct sales to corporate clients in need of office building decor. He also does workshops and has been an artist in residence for the National Park Services several times.
Some of these income streams have slowed to a trickle this year, particularly the workshops and anything associated with live events. So McCreery has shifted to more internet commerce. He promotes his image sales through social media, posting photographs once or twice a week with in-depth narratives about their creation. The approach has resonated with his audience and helped drive art print purchases from his website.
“When times change, we all have to be innovative and get out there and hustle no matter where we are in our career,” he says. “The trick is finding where to hustle and how to connect with the people who appreciate your work.”
Would this method have worked if McCreery hadn’t spent years establishing and marketing his signature style? Likely not, but the ability to adapt successfully emerges from decades of single-minded commitment to a craft, a style, and to the expression of a unique vision.
“You have to be who you are,” McCreery says. “You cannot do what someone else does, the way they do it, and be you. Artistic expression is unique to an individual, and you have to find your own voice. And when you do, people will listen.”
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