The Personal Challenge – Jim Brandenburg

Some projects are about photographers challenging themselves. There is a wealth of photo-a-day blogs that have sprouted up all over the web and, as you’ll see in future posts here, getting through a volume of work is necessary to get you to the next step in your work.Nature photographer Jim Brandenburg took the photo-a-day idea to an extreme. As a renowned National Geographic photographer, he was used to taking thousands of photos on an assignment that would be culled down to a handful of the very best from his take.

But feeling frustrated with his work and wanting to rekindle his passion for photography, he gave himself an extraordinary assignment: to photograph a picture a day for 90 days, from the first day of fall to the first day of winter. Mr. Brandenburg meant that literally: he would take just one frame a day, no second chances. He described the journey for the project as a very personal one, but the work ended up as a cover story in the November 1997 issue of National Geographic—with the most photographs ever published by the magazine in one feature (using the least amount of film, by the way)—a book, and Emmy-award-winning video called Chased by the Light.

For Brandenburg, the challenge of which one frame to shoot each day was met equally with what not to shoot. Imagine the discipline it takes with this kind of a project, to pass up good photo opportunities holding out for something better that may or may not materialize.

“The day was dark and gloomy; my mood reflected the weather. I wandered through the dripping forest all day long. Tired, hungry, and wet, I was near tears. I was mentally beating myself for having passed up several deer portraits and the chance to photograph a playful otter. None of those scenes spoke to me at the time. But perhaps because I was patient, and perhaps because, as natives do on a vision quest, I had reached my physical limits, I became open to the possibility revealed by a single red maple leaf floating on a dark-water pond.

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My spirits rose the instant I saw it, and although the day was very late and what little light there had been was fleeing rapidly, I studied the scene from every angle. Finally, unsure of my choice, I made the shot anyway, thankful at least that the long day had ended. Once more I was surprised by the result. The image seems to have a lyrical quality, with rhythm in the long grass. A brooding sky reflects back on the water. Although when I had first framed it in the viewfinder it was quite disappointing, on film it gave me happy surprise. I know that what I see isn’t what you will see—for me, this photograph is a lesson in diligence and patience. It speaks to me of intimacy as well, reminds me to look closely at the world. As in life, you never really know what it is you have until later.”

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