Finding My Vision

One would say the nature of photography is capturing the light of the subject. For myself, it’s more…

From the time I got my hands on a video camera, I always liked the idea of composing a scene for the world to see through my visual perspective. Angles and movement at the time were of more the focus than anything else. These were all calculated between the moments of pressing the record button to begin and once again to stop capturing. As an adolescent, my weekends were filled taping skits with my cousins and siblings. During holidays, grandparents, family and friends would get their chance in front of the lens. Yet this was nothing more than a fun hobby.

Alas, the time to grow up and choose a path for further education came and for me, it would be something business related. My parents owned a business and I grew a business sense from working in the family restaurant for many years. So, my endeavors for a formal business education were underway. This, of course, had nothing to do with my love of the visual image. Though the idea of making moving images never left. Then finally, with a great deal of consideration and after attaining an associate business degree, the choice to switch majors led to film school.

Here I started understanding substance is essential to bring meaning to a work and carried that understanding with me after graduating from Columbia College in 2000. I chose personal projects to work on. An early work was an instructional series for ethnic instruments, the first of its kind on DVD that also distributed worldwide. I moved on to create a short documentary about the area I grew up in. “Where We Live”, was a narrative of the small towns that the Rock River flowed through starting with Janesville, Wisconsin down to the town of Ronald Regan’s boyhood home, Dixon, Illinois. It is literally here where it began, my shift from being video centric to shooting still images primarily. You see, I needed present day photos to include in my documentary, which would help contrast the archival images I had obtained from the various town’s historical societies. Many of these old photos individually had their own story by giving a glimpse into the past.

Realizing the possibility of telling a story from one photo, where context is given to the viewer all at once, was a profound impact. The approach to sharing my perspective changed in this regard. I found that I could share more beauty with the world in the form of individual images. For example, a landscape photo presented on a wall is a daily observance to anyone walking by as opposed to a film. And a piece with some merit is what gives the possibility of a photo on the wall to be art as well, even though it is an image taken from a place that can be found and experienced in reality.

This coincides with what I remember to most likely be the first photo to resonate within me in terms of an artistic landscape. It was an image of Antelope Canyon. Somewhat of an unworldly topography of the likes I had never encountered. Sand at the bottom of what seemed to be 40-foot red canyon walls, with beams of light from the surface top peering into the tight cavern and illuminating enough of the beautifully water carved rock walls to create an impressionable image. I was taken back. An older article accompanied by the photo described the location of this wonderment as being off the beaten path, somewhere mysteriously hidden between the deserts of Arizona on Navajo land. I thought to myself how improbable it would be to ever go to this place. It would not happen, yet.  Though, eventually, I would get the opportunity.

In the meantime, my interest in what could be done with a single image grew. I was searching for a new direction. I was also back helping with the family business. My own documentary helped inspire an expressive form through photography by the connection I had with the subject. I went from studying in Chicago to going back home, staying in a smaller town, trying to figure out how I could use still images as a viable career.

Not long after, my father would find himself with an untreatable illness. While spending my days with him, it was important for me to always share the prints I had been making in the basement. When he passed away an emptiness set in. I began to think of getting away. Nothing was holding me back. I searched for a trip that offered a great experience. A place where I could take my camera. The chosen destination ended up taking my younger brother Bill and I 1,200 miles across the country to Yellowstone National Park.

The first day of entering the park was amazing. Within minutes, buffalo were trotting along our car down the road. We learned terms such as “cub of the year” from the peculiarly interesting bear enthusiasts that make spring bear watching a yearly pilgrimage. Standing at Lower Yellowstone Falls, we exchanged the gesture of taking photos of our respective parties with another two brothers and their wives. Oddly enough, the brothers’ names were Jim, the elder and Bill, the younger. It was their first time in the park as well, though they were roughly 20 years older than us.

Midway through the trip, we found a peaceful meadow with a quick-flowing stream nestled next to the Sheep Eater cliffs. My brother and I both agreed that my father, an avid fisherman, would have loved this spot as we imagined him by the water’s edge. I snapped a photo of the soft light reflecting off the tall grass before starting to head back to the vehicle, unexpecting the touching story which was about to transpire.

An older man in his seventies stopped me and explained how the red color of the grass was unusual for this time of year. His wife had walked up to us by now and not uncommon when you meet people in the park, she asked where we were from.  It’s easy to mention the closest big city, so “Chicago”, I replied. We learned they traveled by RV from Texas to visit. It turned out they had met while volunteering in the park in their late teens. Raising children and life got in the way of returning until now, as this was their first time back some fifty years later. Retirement afforded them the opportunity to return and relive their story.

I brought my mother to this spot a few years later and told her about the experience. That and how my brother and our fight over a flashlight turned into an arc of highs and lows that ended bonding us by the end of the trip.

I’ve been taking trips like these to extraordinary sites a few times a year now, either alone or with others. I found the connection with nature and discovering the essence of oneself to be profound. When first encountering such raw unabated nature, a feeling of insignificance of your very own place in the universe can be overwhelming. The more you immerse yourself in the elements, the idea of self-awareness broadens and the insignificant feeling lessens.

I kept finding myself wanting to get away as I was recharged with these trips. They brought understanding to my own personal perspective and I saw my vision grow. Having found this vision has enabled me to put my impression not only into projects but matters beyond the scope of photography.

For myself, photography is about capturing a moment in time and space. A place where the clouds will never again be the same. An area between inhaling and exhaling. The instance a tear drops from your eye. It is very much a personal and intimate reflection of something meaningful which is shared and communicated through images.

Where are you, who are you, who are you with and how valuable is your time? This is what comprises importance to me. In life, one has to find what’s important to them and do what matters. Knowing what is important gives a person a direction and the choices you make will lead you down your path. As with observing a sunset, there is distinct beauty in the sky’s colors looking both towards and away from the sun. So, where does your vision lead you?

Which way do you look when the sun sets?


Jim Tsioles

(Original) July 2018

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Jim Tsioles
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