I was sharing some of my personal thoughts with a friend about where I am in my journey with photography and realized it may be helpful to share some of the highlights with my readers.
My Humble Beginnings
My journey with photography started when I was 12 years old. By the time I was 14, I had built my own darkroom in the basement of my parents home. With my dad watching over me and doing the electrical wiring, I started developing and printing my own work. I learned everything I needed to know from checking out books at my local library. My kids have no idea that local libraries even exist. The darkroom is still there and when I go to visit, a rush of emotions come over me. I think about how far I have come, and also, how much farther I want to go.
When I was a child we had a small farm, about 50 acres, so as you may be able to guess, my subjects were flowers, trees, insects, wildlife, etc. Over three and a half decades later, I am more passionate about nature and wildlife then I was as a young boy. I realized after mastering the technical aspects, that I had a long way to go in order to create more compelling images. I share this realization because I wish someone had helped me get to the creative side faster, as opposed to mastering the technical aspects so thoroughly. There is a delicate balance a photographer must strike between being technically proficient and exploring the creative.
A Higher Level
The next phase in my evolution was to use my photographic skills for a higher purpose. I started as a young boy reading everything Ansel Adams had written about photography and built my own darkroom as noted above. His classic trilogy: The Camera, The Negative, The Print, are the defacto set of books that every photographer should read and understand. I didn’t realize for many years the impact that Ansel had on wildlife conservation and our national park system. I was too young to probably even appreciate his monumental efforts, and I was so focused on the technical aspects of photography, I would have likely overlooked it anyway. I share this because I am hopeful other photographers can find and utilize their photography for a higher purpose, whatever that may be for them. Get through the technical phase and move on to higher grounds is my advice.
My Higher Purpose
I wish I could tell a “made for movie” story about my journey to a higher purpose, but it is very normal and took a lot longer than it needed to. Hopefully by me sharing my path, this can help someone else arrive a little faster than I did! I have always been drawn to photographing flowers for as long as I can remember. I can’t really express why via words, it is simply a deep appreciation that I have always had since childhood. I have likely created thousands of photographs of flowers over the last 35 years, but I could probably distill my best work down to 10 to 20 images at most. This background is important because I didn’t fully realize and embrace my higher purpose until about 5 years ago. I started down a path of really focusing on creating floral photographs that were “beautiful” and created an emotional response within me. My purpose, so I thought, was to create beautiful images. I was beginning to operate at a higher level by the time I was 40 years old, and I think my work had significantly improved on a technical level. However–there was still something amiss.
Higher Level Phase II
I had many sleepless nights as I struggled and tried to figure out how to market my photographs. The first problem that I now realize–I was “thinking” way too much. I wasn’t far enough along in my journey and enlightenment to realize that I was aspiring to do things for myself, and not a higher purpose. I created beautiful images, so I am told, but something felt wrong to me and I didn’t know what it was. How could this be? I spent many years mastering the technical aspects of analog photography and explored many creative methods to express my feelings and emotions in my work. I still had a ways to go and many more sleepless nights, little did I know.
A New Awakening – Phase III
I came full circle one evening in a flash. I woke up from sleeping and realized what I needed to do. I awakened in that moment, knowing the best gift I could ever offer is my time and my focus without trying to quantify the return on investment for me. Giving yourself away takes a lot of courage and apparently a couple decades of thought. I must be a slow learner apparently! My current story has circled back to the same place where I started over three decades ago. Ansel Adams, who I respected so deeply for his technical mastery of photography, had the answer all along. I wasn’t ready to understand the full scope of what he had to offer. He of course was a master photographer, but more importantly, he gave his time and life to helping protect nature and wildlife. His impact on our national park system will forever be important. When I think of Ansel today, I see a man that made a huge difference in life by raising people’s awareness and conservation of America’s natural resources. Ansel was a very talented photographer that had a grip on his purpose in life from the time he was a young man. This is more important than his mastery of photography.
Current Operating Model
In my new enlightened state, I focus all of my time on raising awareness of Missouri’s most pressing natural challenges. I created a company “Missouri Naturalist” where I publish nature-related books and informational booklets, lead interpretive hikes and photo workshops to help encourage people to explore and enjoy Missouri’s natural resources. I do this because I fundamentally believe that people protect what they care about. By starting with my peers in photography, I believe I can serve as a positive role model and possibly inspire others to invest their time in the protection and conservation of natural resources in their respective communities.
I am focused on the protection of Missouri’s vanishing native prairies and grasslands because the problem is so big and the conditions are changing so rapidly, that every minute and small win counts. Prairies are often intertwined with and close to other natural communities such as savanna’s and woodlands. Little did I know that my love and appreciation of flowers as a young photographer would lead me to photographing native wildflowers and plants on Missouri’s prairies for a higher purpose. The biodiversity on the prairie and the relationship between the natural world and humanity is a fascinating story that is at risk of vanishing right before our eyes.
I believe Missouri’s vanishing prairies is a huge alarm going off that is letting everyone know our world is out of balance. Other alarms being sounded by the Monarch’s are very strong indicators of this too. Using my skills and knowledge of photography in tandem with being a naturalist is the reason I was born and my purpose in life. Working for others and being connected to causes greater than myself is the ultimate life experience.
In this 7 minute video, you learn about the benefits of prairies and the challenges facing Missourian’s to protect its remaining vanishing fragments. If you want to get involved and learn more, visit the Missouri Prairie Foundation website as a first step. By preserving the remaining fragmented prairies and grasslands, we are ensuring our future existence.
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All text and images copyright © Tim Layton Sr. 1983 – 2014