Posted by: kerryl29 | February 7, 2018

Thematic Interruption: Ignorance is Bliss

It was almost mantra-like in Colorado last fall:  “it’s not a great color year.”  As I noted in the introductory post that served as a lead-in to this series of Colorado reminiscences, I heard this statement so many times when I was on the ground in Colorado during the last week of September and the first week of October that I lost count.  In fact, I heard it so many times, from so many different people, in so many different places, that I’m inclined to believe that the statement is objectively correct.

And yet…

Aspens & Conifers, Ohio Pass Overlook, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

There are two essential points I would make.  The first should be obvious:  “not great” might still be pretty good.  That was certainly my impression.

Aspens Forever, Coal Bank Pass, San Juan National Forest, Colorado

The second point is the key to the theme expressed in this post:  while this may not have been the best color year in the history of Colorado autumns, I was blissfully unaware of any such benchmark.  This was my first fall in the Colorado Rockies so I didn’t have a standard of comparison upon which to base my observations.  While everyone wants to experience the very best a region has to offer–like the phenomenal color conditions I found in New England during my trip there in the fall of 2016–when you don’t have prior experience you have a much greater margin for avoiding the “failed to meet expectations” syndrome.

Scrub Oak Mountainside, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

The fact of the matter is that it’s natural to draw comparisons.  I’m as guilty of doing so as the next person.  When I photograph a location I’ve visited before I inevitably, and unconsciously, measure what I’m seeing in real time with what I’ve seen at that spot before, be it the quality of the dogwood blossoms in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the rhododendron bloom in the coastal redwoods of California or the depth and quality of fall color in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  But a first time visit…there’s really no comparison to be made.

Dallas Divide at Dawn, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Though I routinely extol the advantages of photographing places that have been experienced before, this is one of the benefits of bringing a truly fresh pair of eyes to a location–you don’t have enough personal history to be a jaundiced cynic.

Fall Color Majesty, Last Dollar Road, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado


  1. I couldn’t agree with this theme more, Kerry. A “fresh pair of eyes” enables one to see without the filter of expectations. This is so not only for color, but for all aspects of photography, and is well worth cultivating. Planning and previsualization have their place, but their habitual use entails a risk of blindness to chance opportunities.

    • Thanks, Tom, and I completely agree. My concern about visualization (I explain here why I don’t refer to it as “previsualization”) has always been: what am I missing if I’m hyperfocused on this one thing? The answer is, of course: who knows…but I’ll bet it’s worth noticing.

      • Previsualization reminds me of Guy Tal’s take on post processing.

        • Do you have a link?

        • And like the offers you get saying you’ve been “pre-approved” for a credit card, when “approved” says the same thing in a simpler way.

  2. Each photographer approaches a subject from a different perspective. And in saying that, I am not referring to camera angle, but from a different personal history, a different set of personal objectives, and different experiences. I’m not sure if ignorance is bliss, but not having preconceived expectations that lock you into disappointment definitely frees you to explore and appreciate whatever meets the eye (or lens).

    • It’s difficult to to avoid preconceived notions entirely but, for the most part, to the extent that they can be warded off I think it’s a positive thing.

  3. Inspiring

  4. These are magnificent! Some of those “bad years” have been my best, because I went out to the woods regardless and found abundant patches of colour.I was in the right place at the right time. From what i see here, so were you!

    • Thanks, Jane. Good color/bad color…it’s an inherently relative thing, given the implicit comparison. Good (or bad) compared to…what? And I guess that’s the point; given the lack of a basis for comparison, the color in Colorado would have had to be truly awful for me to have viewed it as bad. (There’s a point where really bad is just undeniable…I know, I’ve seen it. 🙂 ) And, whether it was bad compared to previous years in Colorado or not, it wasn’t “truly awful” or anything remotely close to that. And so, because of my lack of a benchmark, I wasn’t burdened by the innate psychology of comparing it to “that great year of ____” like so many other people I ran into when I was in the field.

  5. Having shown up in SW Colorado a couple weeks after you and missing the peak of aspen season, I must say it was still an infinitely better color year than any I’ve ever experienced in my home state of Florida. 🙂

    • Ha. Now that’s funny. It’s true…I have countless fall color destinations on my personal wish list, but none of them are in Florida. 🙂

  6. It’s worth considering that everyone remembers differently, too — and all of us have a tendency to remember the good times (or the good landscapes) more vividly than the ordinary or mundane.

    Of course I don’t need to worry about specific assignments or deadlines, which lead to their own complexities. But I’ve always found that taking the Bear Who Went Over The Mountain as a model works pretty well. He went out to see what he could see — without specific expectations — and it’s been my experience that there’s always something to see.

    • A corollary to your memory doctrine–you’re right about remembering the great experiences, but I think we also remember the really bad ones just as readily…so I think I’d amend the suggestion to “we have a tendency to remember the extremes.” I can give you chapter and verse on my 2006 trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during which a Lake Superior inspired storm on the first night of my trip knocked every red and orange leaf off every tree in the UP. 🙂

      As for the second part…I think it’s a delicate balance. I like to keep my eyes open for any possibility regardless of where I am (this is one reason why I still photograph intimate scenes despite being in locations so friendly to the grand landscape), but I do like to do enough planning to put myself in places where those possibilities are most likely to be fruitful. I don’t spend a lot of time researching and scouting locations (and advocating that others do the same) for nothing. 🙂

  7. WOW. Just one STUNNING scene after another. I’m gobsmacked…

    • Thanks, Frank!

  8. The line my daughters would use is: “manage your expectations”. In equestrian sports, riders are taught how to manage their expectations.It’s not the easiest lesson to learn, or accept. The best riders win around 25% of their starts. A very dominant rider will win around 50%, or better, of their starts, which is awfully rare.

    I would apply the same rule of thumb to photographing fall colors, whether here in Colorado, or elsewhere. If you manage your expectations, you won’t be disappointed if the colors are underwhelming. If you saw stand after stand of brown Aspens, I’d say it’s a bad season. Even in the year of spotted mold fears back in the 1990s, which turned some Aspen stands from green to brown, the color in other areas were breathtakingly beautiful.

    When you were planning to come here, I had a feeling you were going to have a very good experience with the fall colors. Frankly, I hadn’t heard about it being a bad year, or underwhelming color experience. I’m glad you had that very good experience.

    • Managing expectations is certainly the right approach though, sometimes, it’s easier said than done. I think it’s natural t compare conditions with previous experience…the key is being able to get past it when things don’t match up with the best of the past, and doing so is a mindset kind of thing.

  9. “Aspens forever” is an apt way to put it.

    • Thanks, Steve!

  10. […] somewhere else because it–superficially at least–pales in comparison.  (This was a theme that popped up when I was in Colorado last […]

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