Trey Ratcliff, Messenger or Martyr?
By Glenn Guy
Fire Sky, Milford Sound, New Zealand
Caption: Seven separate images, at one-stop increments, combined into a single composite .tif file.
Processing in Lightroom 4.4 and Photoshop CS6.
By way of disclosure I had the privilege of meeting Trey Ratcliff from Stuck in Customs fame while photographing Milford Sound on the South Island of New Zealand during August 2012. The conditions weren't ideal, but the location is incredible and the afterglow that evening was spiritually uplifting. It was great to share the joy with such an inspirational character.
Later that evening Trey and his intern, Abe (a really intelligent and decent lad), joined my friend Joseph and I for a chat over dinner. We caught up to each other again during a night shoot and, yet again, early the following morning.
Trey is famous for being an earlier adopter of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography and his site, Stuck in Customs, is extremely successful. He's worked hard to get where he is and, to my mind, is fully deserving of the lifestyle he has built for himself and his family. His 2012 move from Austin, Texas to Queenstown, New Zealand is testament to his success and his ability to live the dream.
While I don't hang out in forums I've heard enough negativity from various sections of the photography community to get a sense of the frustrations that seem to go, hand in hand, with that level of success. It's such a shame.
Fear of the New
Despite the inevitability of change in our contemporary world many of us are scared of the new. To be an early adopter is to be unafraid. And all power to those who have broken the yoke of mediocrity and compliance so often associated with the herd mentality.
Technology has brought as many changes to our working environment and professional life as it has to our home and social life. Many professional photographers have found that, to stay up to date and relevant, they have to continually re-invent themselves. The need to update techniques and discover style in the search for a look that is both new and unique has seen a massive expansion in photography education, much of it outside of traditional forms of delivery.
From a commercial point of view there’s little value in being yesterday’s man. Change is no longer merely a reality of doing business, it’s become central to survival in an ever more competitive industry. But it’s not easy and many folks find it hard to embrace the new technologies and techniques that they hope will help re-define that seemingly elusive style for which they seek.
That's perfectly natural; such change often requires a whole new skill set that’s, usually, obtained via a steep learning curve. But to criticize this new paradigm, and those folk associated with it, simply because it’s new or outside our own experience or current working practice suggests a degree of intolerance that I find most regrettable. And let’s not forget that intolerance is so often based upon fear and ignorance.
Sunrise, Milford Sound, New Zealand
Seven exposures were required to produce a composite image with sufficient detail and luminosity
from what was actually a very high contrast (e.g. high dynamic range) scene.
Tall Poppy Syndrome
One thing about being an Aussie is that we have a fairly irreverent attitude towards authority. In the main we are a kind and generous people. We are not overly seduced by status or success, particularly when it seems undeserved or to have occurred overnight. This probably goes back to our early convict days and the first generations of free settlers whom followed soon after. The Eureka Rebellion marked a turning point in our relationship with our former Colonial masters.
Though we followed England into two world wars our link with the British Commonwealth is, I suspect, much like Canada's these days. And by that I mean it’s a link based more upon common ways of thinking and historical bonds than it is upon any sense of allegiance to a foreign government or royal family (English or French).
We are proudly independent of spirit and more and more an outward looking country. That is, of course, with the exception of the odd redneck, some of whom find their way onto the political stage. The days of the horrendous White Australia Policy are largely behind us. We seek engagement and a greater understanding of the world beyond our shores.
However, many of us are afflicted with what is known as the Tall Poppy Syndrome: the act of attacking or chastising someone of similar background or status who, through their own hard work, risk taking and focus have achieved considerable success. I wonder if this is part of the reason why Trey Ratcliff has fallen foul of so many photographers, professional and enthusiast alike. If so, then perhaps it’s time we look at ourselves to determine what it is that underpins such criticism.
Ultimately I have to wonder why anyone would want to criticize someone else for being successful when that success does nothing to harm other people or the world around us. Let's look at Trey Ratcliff as a case in point. He is largely responsible for bringing the joy of photography to a whole new niche of enthusiastic photographers. Personally I find his enthusiasm, commitment and dedication to the art of photography inspiring and believe it should be encouraged.
Of Course You Have a Voice
That's not to say you have to like everything he does. You may love all, some or none of his images. You might think his approach to HDR is appropriate or over the top. And that's just fine. It’s important to have an opinion and let such work help you find your own way and your own style. You will either move towards or away from it. It’s part of the education process and the building of your own, personal aesthetic. But please don't be too quick to turn your back on the power of HDR photography, and I refer particularly to its Tone Mapping component, to help overcome the high contrast devil that has plagued photography since its inception.
Now it might be that you don't want to use a tripod, adopt a new workflow (in camera and on the desktop) or change your preconceptions as to what is real or aesthetically pleasing. Fine, but why spend so much time and energy castigating someone who has done so much to bring joy into the lives of thousands of folks around the world. He's not the devil. Nor, do I suspect, is he the messiah. Though, from time to time, he's likely been a very naughty boy.
Overview, Lake Hayes, New Zealand
With the sun behind me a series of five exposures was sufficient
to record the large amount of detail evident in the above scene.
The More Things Change
You might be surprised to learn that, once upon a time, color photography was derided as something akin to evil. Of course it wasn't evil, it was just the next new thing. Times change, attitudes adjust and what challenges and frightens us today becomes part of our everyday experience tomorrow. You simply can't grow without change.
Think about the world we live in today. There's no way that traditional photography was going to survive, at least as a method by which the masses would record important moments and events, in its film and paper based forms. It’s had to change to stay relevant. I know I worked at Kodak (Australasia) Pty Ltd for 8 years.
In fact, unlike old yellow, photography has thrived. The amount of images exposed has grown massively and the distribution of those images, via social media, to ever growing audiences could never have been matched by traditional methods of distribution.
HDR photography is simply a part of the evolution of photography and, after meeting with him in the field and over dinner, Trey Ratcliff seems to me to be a worthy flag bearer for this latest photographic style and its associated workflow. And why not? As an early adopter, prolific practitioner, tireless advocate and enthusiastic educator I’d say he's earned it. What's more he's a really decent and genuine guy. And isn't that the kind of person you'd want to achieve success?
Whatever you do in photography may I suggest that it remain, as much as possible, camera and subject/scene based. That's largely where the joy of photography remains. Not in the gear we use, but by interacting with people and being out there in the landscape. But, just as was the case in the days of the darkroom, today’s images have a life beyond the camera.
Ansel Adams was a great photographer and a master printer. He's quoted as saying "the negative is the score and the print the performance". In some ways nothing has changed since ol’ Ansel made that quite poetic comment. By closing your eyes to the possibilities that desktop processing offers you are leaving your own creative voice undeveloped and, as a consequence, preventing your photographs from singing. It may not be as much fun as the act of making pictures in camera, but enhancing images on the desktop really can elevate them to a completely new level. As I said, nothing really changes.
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Glenn Guy is a photographer with over 30 years industry experience. He is the owner and content author of Travel Photography Guru an educational photography blog and website which aims to share the beauty of our natural world and its people with an ever-wider audience.