Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

Location, Location, Location


One of the things that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book, Outliers, is the idea that being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference.  He uses Bill Gates as one example, noting that the young and future billionaire was living in exactly the right place while in high school.  He was able to feed his computer programing passion on a daily basis simply because he could walk to a place that allowed him access to computers (remember, this was in the “dark ages” when computers were huge devices that few people could even see, let alone program).  Right place, right time, and the right age.

Well, that got me to wondering about something similar with respect to photographers.  My impression (and it’s only an impression – feel free to show me I’m wrong) is that there aren’t a lot of really good landscape photographers living in the northeastern United States.  Certainly not where I currently live (near Rochester, NY).  That by itself seems a little strange, since Rochester is home to Eastman Kodak Company and Rochester Institute of Technology, both of which have been nearly synonymous with photography for decades.  I’m not saying that there are no “good” landscape photographers here.  There are a few, but their fame is primarily local, probably because most of what they photograph is local.  If that’s true, then the obvious question is: Why don’t you find more here?  And if they’re not here, where are they?

Since I’m a “numbers” guy, I decided to create my own sample of well – known landscape photographers and then see where they called home.  I wound up with 15 names, simply by looking through my own photography books that feature landscape photographers.  The names include people like Jack Dykinga, David Muench, John Sexton, William Neill, John Shaw, Art Morris, David Maisel, Art Wolfe, Jim Brandenburg, and a few others.

Not surprisingly, I found that 13 of the 15 photographers live west of the Mississippi River, most in California, Arizona, and Utah.  Of the two living east of the Mississippi, one lived in Maine and the other lived in Florida.  Only 2 lived in what I’d call a northern climate – one in Maine and the other in Minnesota.  The rest either lived in a relatively mild climate or weren’t terribly far away from warm weather.

Now, as a statistician I can tell you that a sample size of 15 isn’t big enough to draw hard conclusions.  But I have a feeling that the results I found are generally representative of a much larger set of landscape photographers.  They tend to live, I think, in areas that are (1) rich in subject matter, and (2) allow them to pursue their interests pretty much year round.  They tend not to live in areas where snow and ice are impediments 4 to 6 months out of the year.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here.  It makes sense.  Heck, if your goal was to become a really good downhill skier, would you pick Kansas as your “home state”?  If you’ve ever driven through Kansas, you know what I’m talking about.  No, you’d pick Colorado or northern Utah or even Vermont.  But surely not Kansas.

So if you want to be a great landscape photographer some day and you live in Buffalo or Rochester or Pittsburgh, get the hell out of town as fast as you can!  Move to Tucson or Moab, Utah.  The summers can be tough, but believe me, the natives there have probably never heard of (or seen) lake effect snowstorms.

2 Responses to “Location, Location, Location”

  1. Carl Weese

    Having just read “Outliers,” this post caught my eye. I think you are leaving out one of Gladwell’s assumptions about being in the right place at the right time, and that involves his working sense of “Success.” In the context of the arts, this would be that the work must gain audience. I don’t think Gladwell would count an artist as successful simply for making wonderful pictures–you’d need to gain audience and make lots of money to be successful in the context of the book. The audience for landscape photography is primed to appreciate the “ain’t nature grand” spectacular subject matter of the American West tradition. So to tap into that existing audience you should move to Santa Fe. If you want to work with the flat plains of Nebraska or the intimate woodlands of New England and Appalachia you’re pretty much going to have to create your own audience. That strikes me as exactly the sort of impediment that *prevents* “success” as described in the succession of examples in Gladwell’s presentation. As the Korean Air flight crews had to learn Aviation English and abandon their societal deference to authority to stop crashing airliners, a photographer who wants to work with the Buffalo landscape should get with the program and head for the Four Corners instead to make salable prints–good business advice perhaps, but hardly satisfying from an artistic perspective.

  2. Steve Weeks

    I will reserve comments on the content of “Outliers”, having just purchased it, but yet unread. Instead, Carl’s comment immediately reminded me of a chapter in David McCullough’s “Brave Companions” when he spent a day with David Plowden photographing cornfields and dying towns in Illinois. Not your grand landscapes to be sure, but it is something Plowden felt strong about doing. I think his work speaks for its self.


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