The well known adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is a great mark for a photographer to aspire towards. However, most analogies and axioms have a point where they break down. They simply can’t be held up as infallible universal truths in every conceivable situation. I’m not a binary thinker and I don’t put much faith in absolutes. Sometimes stories can enrich and provide context for a piece of art.

I make this point because I recently saw a photographer go on a negative, emotionally charged rant in an online forum about his disdain for photographers who talk about their images. Given his post’s proximity to one of mine, his blanket criticism might have been partially motivated by me. Of course, he cited the “…thousand words” proverb as evidence for why photographers should never explain their images. To each his own, but I’m not a believer in holding everyone else on earth accountable to the principles I subscribe to at any given time. To quote another well-known idiom, “it takes all sorts to make a world.” I do hope our angry online ranter finds some peace and joy in his life.

If I May Speak Freely…

I don’t feel the need to defend or supplement my work with words. I sometimes talk about my images here and on social media because it helps me to process as an artist. It’s more for me than anyone else, really; photography brings out the philosopher in me. But I also try to engage the online audience I have. I like to think that there are others out there who, like me, appreciate a little behind-the-curtain glimpse at the thought, creative, and production processes of artists they follow. Of course no amount of words will make up for a poorly conceived and executed image. I’m certainly not advocating for that. I just think, like most things in life, there’s a balance somewhere in-between the two extremes.

This brings me to my latest image, Stranded.

abandoned shack decay ruins salton sea by Johnny Kerr
Stranded / California, 2017

First of all, I don’t think this image needs to be explained to be enjoyed. The reason I’m going to the trouble is because the circumstances surrounding the making of this image greatly affected how I shot it and post-processed it. If you follow my work, you’ve likely noticed my recent personal challenge to develop my intentional use of color. This image was made on my trip to California in January and so far I’ve processed most of that work in color. To do so with this image would be to betray my artistic sensibilities. It would also be an inauthentic representation of my experience in making it.

The Story

While exploring the Salton Sea and surrounding areas, I spotted this little shack alone in the middle of an otherwise empty field. Immediately I saw its potential and knew I wanted to photograph it. There had been a lot of rain in the preceding weeks, and my traveling companion and I were well aware of the marshy conditions of the terrain. I was behind the wheel of a two-wheel drive, mid-sized sedan, not known for it’s off-road capabilities. In typical guy fashion, I said “I bet we could make it.”

Not ten minutes prior to this we had just had a terribly awkward discussion with a man living out of his pickup truck and trailer on the beach. He approached me where I was working on a different photograph and began asking me questions about my spiritual affiliations. He preached to us about how Christians who go to church on Sunday are not Christians at all, and are, in fact, going to hell. His personal studies had led him to the discovery of a translation error in the Bible regarding which day was the Sabbath, which he believes is on Saturday, not Sunday. He produced a tract with internet links and scripture references and encouraged my friend and I to study into it further on our own. He was a nice enough fella, and it was a quirky and memorable encounter, but this introvert was relieved to part ways.

“I bet we could make it.” Thus, we began our off-road trek towards the lonesome shack. The car made it out to my desired vantage point and seemed to be tracking just fine. I stopped, opened the door, leaned out, and positioned my camera about six inches off the ground. I used the live view feature to compose my shot. I checked my composition, focus and exposure and, satisfied with what a saw, made a couple more frames for safety. With the door closed and my camera stowed I slowly inched the car back into drive, relieved that it wasn’t stuck. We made a broad u-turn and headed back for solid ground. My relief was premature. The car lost traction and began to sink. Before I knew it my front tires were several inches deep. Stranded. I got that hot, sinking feeling in my stomach as I heard my inner voice say, “you knew better than this!”

My shame...
My shame… (captured by Matt Young)

We got out of the car and began scrounging for any debris we could put under the tires to gain traction and get moving again. The mud was so thick that when we put a shoe down it came back with a 3 lb. cake clinging to the bottom of it. It felt like we were walking around in platform shoes. After a few unsuccessful tries, and having sunk a few inches deeper into the mud, we were still stuck. Then I saw Mr. Sabbath ambling up the road towards us.

As much as I was not looking forward to engaging with this character again, I will say he was a very kind and helpful person. He seemed to know every inch of that area, recalling having seen a piece of carpet lying in a different part of the field about fifty paces northwest of where we were stuck. We followed him to the carpet, picking up a few other abandoned bits of metal and wood to put under the tires. After a few more unsuccessful efforts, and another party of good Samaritans arriving to help, we finally got moving again and back to the road. All in, we probably spent about an hour just trying to get out of there. The worst part of it was the horrible shame of watching three other people trampling through the sludge to get this stupid city boy out of the mud. It was a pretty humiliating and frustrating experience.

Lesson Learned?

I wish I could say that I learned a lesson in all this. But the reality is I will still go to uncharacteristically reckless and absurd lengths to get a shot that I want. I would like to think having a friend with me made me a little more bold, and that I wouldn’t have done such a thing if I had been alone. But I can’t say for sure. Even if I don’t get a good shot out of it I still have to try. Otherwise I find myself haunted by the regret of not trying.

So, that’s the story behind my latest image. I’m glad the sky was soft and gloomy enough to provide drama for a good black and white image. It really would not have felt right in color given the experience behind it. In hindsight, I wouldn’t say our little adventure was all bad, and I can certainly laugh about it now. But in the moment the best thing my shame could muster was “this shot better have been worth it!” I’m happy it was.

stranded closeup detail of abandoned shack ruins by Johnny Kerr
Closeup detail of Stranded