Welcome to “In Layers”, a series of conversations that explore how the creative practices of photographers inform their images, guide their process, intersect with their personal lives and interests, and shape the landscape of nature photography as an art form.
You know those people that seem to have talent coming out of their ears? Matt Payne is one of those people. Nature photographer, avid mountaineer, father, husband, podcaster; Matt is also the program director for a local agency that serves adults with developmental disabilities.
Read on to join Matt and I as we sit down on his front porch in Durango, Colorado to discuss the evolution of his creative process, how releasing expectations has improved his craft, and how the lack of mentorship is limiting the evolution of nature photography as an art form.
Jessie: What is your relationship with the creative process?
Matt Payne: To be brutally honest, it’s kind of a love-hate relationship because I’ve talked to all these amazing photographers, and they’re telling me all these amazing things that are going through their head, and I’m like, “yeah, that’s not the kind of stuff that goes through my head, what is wrong with me?” Before I started the podcast, I didn’t identify heavily with the creative process, think much about it, or even put much credence into the idea that there is a thing as a creative process. Looking back on photos that I’ve taken over the years, there was creativity involved for sure, but I don’t think it was as top of mind as it is for me now. I just have a different process, I have a different approach that I haven’t necessarily put words to, but I know for sure that I have a creative process because I know when I’m out taking photos, especially when I’m by myself, and I’m in a place I’ve never been before, my brain is going crazy. I’m taking inventory of all these visual objects and how I feel.
I’m taking inventory of a lot of things at once. Part of that might be the psychology geek in me, but having grown up in the mountains, hiking, and climbing mountains my whole life – it’s just part of my DNA. When I’m in those places, I get really excited, and then I start seeing things that I don’t necessarily think other people see as an object of creativity. I struggle a lot with naming and talking about the creative process for myself because I find the more that I’m trying, the less natural it becomes, and the output suffers. Of course, there are some exceptions of things that I come away with, and I think, “oh, I would’ve never have taken a picture like that if I wasn’t doing that.” So that’s why I say I have a love-hate relationship with it because it yields a lot of really bad results, but occasionally yields really interesting results that even surprises myself. So, I’ve struggled with the creative process a lot. What about you?
Jessie: My process of creating, whether it’s writing or photography or decorating my house, becomes better when I identify specific components that lead to the product that I was trying to create. It’s my creative process whether I put vocabulary to it or not. Sometimes that could be identifying that I work better when I eat well, or I created better photographs if I didn’t drink whiskey the night before I’m shooting, or that I am more creative if I am well-rested. The magic for me has been in identifying the things that help you flourish as a creator, in whatever medium you’re working in.
Matt Payne: Yeah, I’ve definitely noticed that my photographs tend to be better under certain conditions; both mental conditions and also environmental conditions. Not necessarily the weather, more like who I’m with or the types of conversations that I’ve had or the emotional state that I’m in because of the people that I’m with. Some of my best photography has happened when I’m with a friend of mine, Kane Engelbert. Part of that is because he sees things and shows me things that I normally wouldn’t see myself. I also think we push each other to be better. For example, last summer, we started planning a photo trip, and we wanted to go to places or shoot things that people haven’t shot before. It is kind of hard nowadays to do that well and actually come away with photos that are decent. Having somebody to think through finding those spots (Kane), is something that puts me in places where I’m going to come away with better photos. I’ve also found that I take better photos if it’s not a place that other people have shot a lot. I look at a lot of photography, but there’s danger in seeing a lot of photography because you get kind of locked into a mindset of “I have to come away with that shot,” and I think that can be a hard trap to pull yourself out of if you’re in a place like that. I find that if I purposely put myself in places that I haven’t seen photos of before, my photos are going to be better by the nature of having to think through it myself. Maybe that’s a creative process, I don’t know.
Jessie: It sounds like you do a lot of lead up work to create unique photographs.
Matt Payne: Sometimes. And sometimes it’s just wandering around in the forest and seeing something that catches your attention. Sometimes it’s that simple. Why did it catch your attention but not to the 20 other people that looked before you? I think that’s one of the exciting things about landscape photography is that you can take 20 landscape photographers, walk the same trail, and people are going to come away with 20 different types of photos, which is really cool. Each person has their own creative process that’s driving that. A lot of people are probably like me in that they don’t necessarily have a way of talking about what that process is. It’s hard for me to talk about the creative process, I know I have one, but I don’t know if I could teach it. I would have to teach you how to appreciate and love the things that I love because that’s a huge part of my creative process. I see things that really interest me and that I’m curious about, which may bore somebody else. It’s different for everybody, everyone has a different process. My process is certainly going to be a lot different than Sarah Marino’s. I went on a shooting with Ron Coscorossa, Sarah Marino, Jennifer Renwick, Alex Noriega, and David Kingham last year, and watching all of them was really interesting. They are very different process and all of those processes are way different than mine. They’re showing me stuff that’s interesting to them, and I don’t see it. I see something else way over there that I think is cool looking.
Jessie: In those situations, would you say that your own identity is interfacing with the environment in a way that attracts you to certain images and not others?
Matt Payne: Definitely. A huge part of my identity growing up was hiking and climbing mountains. That athletic component of being in nature has also produced some of my best photos. Those photos required [physical] effort, you know? Whereas if I drive to an overlook and just get out of the car, it might be a beautiful photo, but there was nothing leading up to it for me that made it special. That athletic effort also pushes me to look for things that might be different or unique about that place or special about it because there’s that extra layer, and that’s just what I grew up with. When I was 9 years old, my parents and I climbed Mount Evans, which isn’t hard, but it’s a fourteener, about a 14-mile hike from where we started. We’re sitting at the top eating lunch, and a lady comes bumbling up from the parking lot 500 hundred feet below, and she says, “I just climbed a fourteener.” But I remember thinking, “no, you didn’t.” I wasn’t trying to disparage her effort, but we obviously had very different experiences, and part of what I was experiencing in that moment was way different than what she was experiencing in that moment. Not saying one was better than the other, but I guarantee that if I had driven a car there and then hiked 500 feet, the way I felt in that moment would have been way different for me. I think that experience also informs your creative processes as an artist. If there’s some kind of effort involved in leading to that moment, there’s something about that that also makes it that much more interesting.
Jessie: There’s a part of my own creative process that is rooted in grappling with rejection or failure to obtain a goal. If you watch your creative process closely, it will highlight what your personal reaction is when you fail. Do you have a relationship with failure in that aspect?
Matt Payne: I used to have a really bad relationship in that regard, and I would say that’s something the podcast has helped me with is talking to people about that. A lot of that is expectation management. One of the greatest things for me in the last two years that has been useful for me creatively is decoupling expectations from why I’m taking pictures and the results. Since then, I’ve had several outings where I didn’t come away with any photos that I thought were that good, but I still had a really good time. I still found myself taking a lot of pictures that I think are interesting, maybe not gallery-worthy, but they were interesting photos, and I wasn’t disappointed in the experience. A big part of opening up a whole new world creatively has been just having totally different expectations or no expectations at all of what I’m going to come away with, what the end result will be. If you go out thinking, “this is the shot I have to get,” you’re not going to look for other stuff. It’s super important to have an open mind.
Jessie: Would you say there’s a practical cost to taking photography trips, the cost of spending time away from your family, and your home, and that cost gets higher if you are not enjoying taking photographs because you are focused on the outcome?
Matt Payne: Totally. In 2013, I did a backpacking trip in the Weminuche Wilderness. I carried 60 pounds up a really tough trail. A huge storm came through, and I ended up stuck in a tent for five days. I didn’t have to be stuck the tent, but in my mind, the shot that I wanted was not there. If that would happen to me now, I’d throw my raincoat on and put some plastic over my camera, and I’d look for stuff that looks cool. Maybe just some fog in the trees or a corn lily full of rain. Having preconceived notions of what you’re going to come away with, at least for me, is one of the most damaging things you can do. It almost completely derails your creative process if you already have a shot in mind. It’s okay to have a preconceived vision of some images when you are going on trips, but don’t lock yourself into only wanting those shots, which is what I did for years.
Jessie: Releasing specific expectations for your work brings about the topic of what success is to you. Thinking about your own practice, how would you define success?
Matt Payne: Everyone has their own definition, right? If you were to channel my wife, it would be financial success, being able to travel to any part of the world whenever you want, take trips, but also have a house, not live poor. I wouldn’t say it’s fame, I don’t think fame makes you feel comfortable. In photography, financial success doesn’t exactly come easy even for people that are incredibly talented, incredibly intelligent, and incredibly lucky. There’s a lot of things that’s coming together for people to be financially successful as photographers. I think it is part of the human condition to compare ourselves to others, I just listened to a podcast about that. It talked about no one feeling rich due to always comparing themselves to the people above them. We never compare ourselves to people below us. If we did, we’d see that we are actually doing pretty good.
Jessie: You just released Episode 127 of the F-Stop Collaborate and Listen podcast, what type of feedback have you received from your listeners about the podcast?
Matt Payne: A lot of the feedback I’ve received has been really positive. I did get some feedback early on like that there was too much profanity, so I’ve actually cut that down quite a bit. Some of the best feedback I received was from Eric Bennett, he told me to let people talk more and not cut them off. It was true. I have a propensity to want to dive in because I’m a social person and out-going. I’ve spent more time trying to get people to talk more than I talk. Some people are more interested in hearing from different people from different areas. I have a lot of people telling me to interview people from the film days, the people that shoot large format, the pioneers. Then I have a younger crowd that
Jessie: In thinking about social media and your photography practice, what you’ve been creating, would that be different if social media was not a part of your life?
Matt Payne: It’s a double edged sword for me. I would probably have less motivation to take pictures in general because I’m competitive in some ways. I was an athlete growing up and a baseball pitcher in college. Everything I do, there’s a little bit of competitiveness in there, even if it’s just playful, there’s still a little bit of competition. If I wasn’t on social media, it would probably make me produce fewer images, but they might be better. How often would I even show them to people? What are your outlets for actually showing your work to other people when you don’t have social media? There’s a Durango photography club that meets once every month where you can show people photos, but that isn’t nearly as exciting as posting it on NPN or throwing it on Facebook, or posting in a Facebook group of people that you highly admire. There’s a different component to it that makes it exciting. It does good things and bad things for your photos. I did fall into a rut about the same time that I was just shooting stuff that was preconceived. I was just posting images for social media purposes only, thinking I needed to post at least once a day. I’m pretty aware of it now, I’ll go weeks and months without posting photos and then I’ll go to weeks straight posting once a day. It just depends on how excited I am about my work. Social media used to heavily inform my photos, but not so much anymore, which is good.
Jessie: It sounds like you’re moving in a direction that is more rewarding.
Matt Payne: Oh, 100%. Definitely way more rewarding. This is the crux of it for me. My work is moving in a more rewarding direction, but not necessarily a financially rewarding direction. For example, if I take a photo and it never sells, that’s fine. But that doesn’t necessarily work in a world where I’m also wanting to make more money as a photographer. Those are the two battles going on in my head all the time. I need to make more money as a photographer, but on the other hand, it’s okay if the photo never sells. Like a devil and an angel. But, I used to not even have the angel, it was always the devil. So we’re good now.
Jessie: Speaking of onboarding positive characters, do you have artistic mentors that you turn to?
Matt: In terms of a specific one or two people, no, I wouldn’t say that. I don’t know if mentor is the right word. The closest person that comes to mind is Kane. When I was just starting out as a photographer, I really, really, really liked his photos. We were taking photos of similar subjects, and he made a comment about one of my photos that wasn’t mean, and it could have been mean. It made me really respect him. The first time we went out shooting together was in Oregon, and it was just awesome being around him and learning how he sees. Also, people that I’ve photographed with in the past like Brent Doerzman, Jimmy Gekas, Sarah Marino, Ron Coscorossa, David Kingham, and Alex Noriega. Surrounding yourself with really smart, great creative minds makes you better. Maybe not immediately, but it does rub off. That is one of the values of workshops. Even though I’ve never done a workshop, I think that is a value that you can get out of workshops, and you can start to pick up on ways of seeing the world that you never thought of before.
Jessie: Does it seem difficult to create a mentor-mentee relationship in photography right now?
Matt: Yeah, I would say that that’s a problem right now in photography. There’s not a lot of mentor-mentee relationships out there, which is a product of how we are learning now, which isn’t necessarily good. There is something to be said with developing a long term relationship with somebody. They don’t even have to be someone who’s great, it could just be somebody who you admire, they can be completely unknown to the rest of the world. It’s important to have somebody to bounce your ideas and thoughts off of, and it is lacking.
Jessie: What impact are you seeing in photography with the lack of mentorship?
Matt Payne: What we’re seeing right now is a lot of derivative photography. You can see a really great photo of a great place, and you go to that place, and you try to take the same photo. Without someone teaching you or standing next to you, telling you why that’s a great photo and how to see those elements in other scenes you don’t know. That’s a huge impact. We’re seeing a homogenization of the output in photography. It’s all starting to look the same, which is boring, and for a lot of people, not as fulfilling as it could be. It may not be the same level of experience you could have if you were learning side-by-side with a master.
Jessie: Do you think nature photographers have a responsibility to be assertive in protecting the environment?
Matt Payne: The word assertive is a subjective word, but do I think that nature photographers should care about the environment? Yeah! That would be like If you were a fisherman and you didn’t care about the quality of your streams and lakes. It’s pretty important for those places to exist and to be protected to some degree. So, yes, I think we have an obligation. Is it a moral obligation? I don’t know about any of that, but I think it’s the right thing to do.
Jessie: What would you say is the most effective way for nature photographers to have an impact on how the environment is being treated?
Matt Payne: I definitely don’t think it’s through shaming, even though it feels really good to see people do it. But I don’t think it’s effective. The most effective thing we can do is get as many people as possible excited about nature and then couple that with intense education on loving nature. For example, loving nature means practicing the outdoor ethics of Leave No Trace, being curious about the places you visit, and wanting to understand those ecological systems and how they tick so you can better understand how you as a person are impacting them. The greatest impact is going to be through education in the schools, and in urban environments where people have never even been to a high mountain lake. It’s an important relationship that we have as people on this planet. Being here impacts this place and, like it or not, that can be in good ways and in bad ways, and being aware of how you impact the Earth might change the way you interact with it. Education in an accessible and non-threatening way is critical.
A big thank you to Matt for being the first of this series.
Stay tuned for our next guest Anna Morgan!