Ian Plant blazes his own trail in landscape and nature photography
"It wasn’t a mutiny,” says landscape and nature photographer Ian Plant, “but it was close to one.” He was leading a nature photography workshop in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park when he explained to his attendees that they wouldn’t be going to Schwabacher Landing, the site where Ansel Adams made his famed “The Tetons and the Snake River” photograph in 1942. Instead, they would be going to a nearby and equally dramatic site.
“They weren’t happy,” remembers Plant. “Most had their hearts set on photographing the same scene Adams had made so famous.” Although Plant explained that trees had partly obscured the view since Adams made his capture and that the site would inevitably be packed with other photographers eager to imitate Adams’ picture, they still wanted to go. “Even when I told them we would have to get up two hours before sunrise to beat the crowds that would be fighting over several good spots, they still insisted on going.”
When the group arrived at the trailhead at 4 a.m. the next morning, 30 cars were already parked in the lot. Based on past experience, Plant knew there could easily be 200 people at the site by sunrise, all fighting for a few good vantage points. “Everyone agreed to go to a spot I had found just a quarter of a mile away,” Plant says. “Once there, we had a beautiful open view of the Snake River and a magnificent sunrise over the Tetons in the distance. We had the whole site to ourselves, and all of us got great shots.”
In addition to the getting their fantastic shots, Plant hopes the photographers also learned a lesson. “I’m not a big fan of chasing icons,” he says. “When you’re shooting a photo icon, you’re exploring someone else’s artistic vision, not your own. Someone else has already done most of the creative work for you.”
When Plant spent 10 days photographing Zion National Park, he saw many photographers carrying printouts of famous photos they’d found on the internet, hoping to duplicate them. Others had the iconic shots on their smartphones. “This ‘comp [composition] stomping’ may be fine for beginners who are still learning the ropes, but there comes a time where you have to break free of the ghosts of the past and put your own personal stamp on your work.”
Throw out the rule book
Flipping through Plant’s portfolio of striking images, it’s clear he’s taken his own advice to heart. His work, as one writer noted, “challenges many of the conventional notions that define landscape photography.” He confesses he’s fond of breaking the classic rules of photography. “For example, I think the rule of thirds is hokum,” he says. “I think midday light can be great sometimes; in fact, I think there is no such thing as bad light. In my opinion, many photography rules are made to be broken or un-learned.” Plant is fond of Ansel Adams’ famous quote, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
The Minnesota resident fell in love with photography during his first year working as an antitrust lawyer in Washington, D.C. “Once I began taking pictures I was hooked,” says Plant, 45. “I knew this was what I really wanted to do. In fact, I was so attracted to photography that I soon called law school my $100,000 mistake.” After working for eight years as an attorney and paying off his “mistake,” Plant left his law job in 2005 and turned what he’d been calling his serious hobby into his profession.
He published a well received coffee-table book on the Chesapeake Bay and followed that with a move into electronic publishing. His first educational photography e-book, “Chasing the Light,” was published in 2011, and more soon followed. There are now nine. He worked to build his brand and eventually began leading nature and landscape photo workshops and tours. He became a Tamron Image Master and contributes to numerous publications.
“I’ve recently decided to cut way back on the workshops and tours to concentrate on publishing instructional e-books and videos and shooting my own personal work,” confesses Plant, who at press time had recently returned from a two-week personal photo expedition to the Falkland Islands. “I found I wasn’t getting enough time to do my own work, to do what I love. And that was the reason I left my law job in the first place.”
He’s dubbed his personal photographic project “Dreamscapes,” a name that he describes as both an attempt at branding and a mission statement.
“I aim to look at the world in a different way and hope to make photography that transforms subjects into something that’s unexpected, to bridge the line between the real and surreal,” says Plant. His photography is becoming more abstract. “Too often nature photographers rely on the drama of the scenery to make powerful images. A beautiful landscape combined with an amazing sunset can make for a beautiful image, but Mother Nature is doing all the work and the photographer is merely showing up to record the big event.”
“Vision” is a recurring word in Plant’s artistic vocabulary. “The key to any artistic endeavor is for the artist to show his or her vision, and that’s my goal,” he explains. “If you are just taking pictures of pretty scenery and sunsets you are showing more often than not what the camera sees, and I am always looking for a way to impose my own personal artistic stamp on everything I do. For example, on a recent trip to Kenya I was trying to approach my subjects differently from ways most people approach wildlife photography. Instead of a typical close-up of a lion roaring, I looked for opportunities to use my wide-angle lens instead and incorporate more of the surroundings. I worked in the type of light that is typically shunned by other wildlife photographers, incorporating artificial light to create images that defy expectations.”
For Plant, it’s capturing these moments that pay off with compelling pictures. He likes to explain this point by remembering the day he spent photographing sea turtles in Belize. “I soon found out they were fairly boring. They spend all their time swimming, going up for air, then going down in a never-ending cycle. And that’s all they do. So there’s not much excitement in a sea turtle’s life.”
Therefore, as Plant explains, it’s not just about waiting for your subject to do something interesting. “It’s about waiting for your subject to spontaneously assume an artistic form, something you can use to create a compelling photograph. The sea turtle surfacing for air isn’t an interesting event, but the shape the turtle formed as it was coming up for air was a shape that is compelling in a compositional sense. That’s what mastering the moment is all about: recognizing artistic relevance from the spontaneous activity that is around you."
As Ian Plant crisscrosses the world looking for opportunities to impose his vision on a scene, he is—in a very personal way—chasing icons. But these aren’t the iconic shots that “comp stompers” are hoping to duplicate. “These icons are out there, still waiting to be found,” he says. “The trouble is nobody has bothered to look for them. The goal is to make a shot that becomes one of the new icons.”
Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.