This story was originally written for Australian Photography magazine by Anthony McKee
The story may only be reproduced, in part or in entirety, with the consent of the author.

 Cemetery, Kyeburn, New Zealand

For most of us, panning and sluicing for gold seems to be a rather energetic yet romantic way of making a living and according to figures based on the Australian Bendigo gold rush of 1852 such notions were not wrong, at the start anyway. The 680 miners in Bendigo during the early months of the strike were each mining at least an ounce of gold a day, that equates to an income of over $3500 a week in todays money. There was a reason the events were called rushes though and soon the population of the Bendigo area was to swell from just a few hundred to over 33,000 as 5000 people arrived in the Bendigo gold fields each week to try and make their fortunes.

Most of the gold being mined in Victoria and New South Wales at the time of the gold rushes was either alluvial (washed from the ground by the flow of rivers) or it was surface quartz located in shallow reefs that could easily be reached with a pick and shovel. For the first miners into the strike areas the pickings were rich and easy. After a couple of years, though the gold became more difficult to find. By the early 1860’s the average earnings had dropped from 324 ounces per man per year down to 78 ounces. It was at this time that gold was discovered in New Zealand and so, almost as quickly as they had arrived, 64,000 miners left Australia to join the rush in the new gold fields of the West Coast and Otago.

One of the rushes was to the tiny settlement of Macraes in the hill country of Otago on New Zealand’s South Island. The area was originally settled in 1850 for the purpose of sheep farming but by 1861 gold was discovered and Macraes was soon transformed into a small gold rush town complete with four hotels and a population of 300 people. The rush lasted through to 1875 and the town of Macraes slowly started to quieten back down to the sedate and rural life. The tough terrain combined with the hot dry summers and bitterly cold winters was never going to keep too many people in that town.

Gold mining was re-established in Macraes in 1889 but this time miners had to dig shafts underground in their search for ore bearing reefs. The Golden Point Mine excavated a total of 15,000 ounces from four mineshafts before its closure in 1930. The area then remained quiet for another 60 years until in 1989 a new company decided to rework the area using new mining techniques. Now the Macraes Gold Mine is the largest hard rock open pit gold mine in New Zealand and is mining an average of 100,000 ounces of gold a year.

In the early 1990s a journalist and myself were sent to this mine to cover a story and we were shown about the site by one of the site managers from the relative safety of a 4x4. About us giant 150 tonne trucks were taking ore from the pits through to the processing plant where giant crushers and complex chemical processes were used to extract the gold. At the end of the tour we witnessed the final stage of the mining process. From a glowing crucible located in a small shed at the site was poured a single 24-kilogram ingot of gold with a value at the time of around $250,000. That this one single ingot was enough to buy all the camera gear I might have wanted plus a house might have been impressive enough but what was really staggering was the amount of earth required to excavate just one single gram of that gold, roughly one tonne! About 24,000 tonnes of earth was processed to achieve that one brick of gold.

 Quarry, Queenstown, New Zealand

While it may sound like I have the yearnings of Midas the fact is I have often considered there have been some interesting connections between mans chase for precious metal and our own photographic pursuits. For one thing, the invention of photography coincided with the start of most of the great gold rushes of the 19th century. The gold rushes were perhaps the first great mass migration event documented by the newly invented imaging process. While tens of thousands of people were travelling the world with a shovel and pan in the hope of making their fortunes a mere handful of individuals were following along with incredibly heavy cameras and “portable” darkrooms recording the mining sites and the men who worked them. (Note that the Collodion Wet Plate process used through the mid 1800’s required the photographer to pre-sensitise a large glass negative plate in total darkness, expose and then develop it within the space of half an hour and you can start to appreciate the difficulties these early photographers worked under). 

A second interesting fact worth noting has more to do with geology then historical timing. All the great gold rush sites of the world seemed to be located amongst some of the most beautiful landscapes of the world. If some of the outback gold rush locations of Australia do not grab your attention then give thought to the Yukon in Alaska, Yosemite in California and the Queenstown and West Coast regions of New Zealand. These were all gold rush regions and yet now they are popular tourist destinations where the prime attraction is amazing scenery.  

There is another parallel however that photography now has with gold. Gold is valuable and nowadays good photography is being considered valuable too. Gone are the days when photography was just about recording events and making nice pictures of the family; photography is now a totally accepted art form. Photography dealer galleries are now becoming common in the main cities and the art investors are starting to take notice of the good workers. Moreover, what is the most popular genre of photograph sold in photography galleries throughout the world? Ask the top dealer galleries in New York and London and they will tell you it is landscape photography (followed by fine art nude images and flower studies).

Gold is valuable for one simple reason though, it is a rare metal. Landscape photography on the other hand is one of the most popular and common expressions of art in the world. Where once only a few hardy souls travelled with cameras to capture never before photographed scenes, now millions of photographers every year shoot billions of landscape images. Many people make landscape photographs for their own pleasure, a visual diary that says “I was here and this is what it looked like on the day” but for thousands more photographers the pursuit of the perfect landscape is akin to mans pursuit for gold through the 1850’s but this time the chase is about creating images they can hold up high as art. So often though, these images end up looking like every body else’s photographs.

 Aerial over North Otago, New Zealand

The question is then, how do you make your photographs valuable? The golden answer is your images need to be both technically strong while being incredibly original. Your images need to be unique, really unique!

From a technical perspective, valuable photographs usually exhibit the photographer’s total control over their craft. This does not just mean the photographs are sharp and well exposed, it also means the photographer has made good use of light, design, tonal range, colour and print control in crafting their images. These qualities are expected of any photographer hoping to sell and exhibit work at a fine art level. 

Technical control is only part of the equation though, the next challenge is to find or create images that are significantly different to most other landscape photographs on the market. It is this challenge that usually narrows down the range of photographers making worthwhile landscape images to a select few. The image-makers who do succeed are using a good mix of imagination, acute vision and some advanced technical know how to forge new directions within the tough landscape market.   

In recent years I have come to know two photographers whose work I can safely say breaks the stereotype of traditional landscape photography. One of them is Jackie Rankin who for the second year running has won the of AIPP (Australian Institute of Professional Photographers) Landscape Photographer of the Year award with a collection of outstanding aerial photographs. Jackie has been able to combine her father’s love of vintage aircraft with her passion for photography to create unique images of the Australian outback. Despite being a nation of flyers it is rare to see aerial photographs as beautiful and defining as Jackie’s.

The other photographer whose work regularly impresses me is Doc Ross, an editorial shooter from New Zealand who has successfully redirected his energies into fine art photography. Doc (he was tagged with this name when a friend once noted his initials were M.D.) shoots a mixture of work from definable landscapes through to quirky urban documentary images and evocative abstracts. Over the past decade his prolific collection of work has been exhibited firstly in small galleries and then larger galleries about New Zealand and now his work is represented in New York, Chicago and Berlin. He works mainly in black and white and prints using fibre base papers however he regularly makes large prints over 1 metre wide using the gicleé fine art ink jet process.

 A year ago I had the opportunity to join Doc Ross on a road trip through the back roads of Victoria. We were both on the hunt for good landscape images and yet wherever we stopped to make photographs I noticed we usually ended up looking and shooting in opposite directions. While I was pre-visualizing and then setting up a tripod Doc was preferring to shoot in a documentary style (no pun intended), working handheld, often at slow shutter speeds of only 1/30th of a second. He was preferring to respond quickly to the possibilities of each landscape, moving about unhindered by tripods or free of many of the preconceptions most of us expect with landscape images. The fact that Doc and I were both looking in different directions for our images at least reassured me that we were looking for more then the obvious within any given scene.

Despite the many billions of photographs already made of the worlds landscapes I am confident there are still some good images out there waiting to be made, but like gold, these images are getting harder to find. There is a lesson or two that we can take from the gold mining industry though. For one thing, we should be prepared to keep exploring for new locations and new ideas. The other, though, is a rather heavier answer to a tough problem – if we must revisit old digs then we should be prepared to dig deep and see beyond the tonnes of images already made in our search for those few grams of visual gold.

 Native Forest, Fiordland, New Zealand

Some Pointers for Better Landscape Photography

Having established how difficult it can be to create new landscape images here are five tips that might help you see the world about you a little differently.

1/ If you can remember every iconic landscape photograph you have ever seen then remember them! And then forget them! The secret to making your own individual images is to realise what the standard stock images are of any given environment and then to ignore them. Establish them in your mind as “no fly” zones and start looking for your own interpretation of those landscapes. In ninety nine percent of the all situations, if something feels too easy then it has surely been done before. Think New!

2/ Take the road less travelled (with a careful mind to the road conditions and the local safety advice). Look for the interesting and unusual parts of the world that the others may never see. Be an explorer, be a visual explorer!

3/ Don’t just look for great compositions, be sensitive to the good light. The direction and mood of light can significantly affect any landscape and so be aware of the oncoming changes in sky conditions and note how they can potentially affect the locations about you.

4/ Don’t only take a camera into the field with you, take an understanding of the creative options you have within the image making process. The basic options can simply mean exploring the range of aperture settings to vary the depth of field or experimenting with slower shutter speeds to discover what a little creative blur might add to a scene. At the advanced level the options can include painting local areas of a landscape with flash units and torches in the faint glow of twilight, experiment with filters or explore multiple exposure techniques. Experiment, explore, learn. Invent a technique you can call your own. 

5/  The rules of composition should be learnt, considered and then forgotten. Good landscape photography is not about putting a subject on the thirds of the frame or ensuring the horizon is level, it is about making images that work, period. Go out, explore and discover what works for you.