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Alex Eaton

[ Stillnotes ] 29 — 2023 review, 2024 vision

Published about 2 months ago • 12 min read

29 » 2023-2024

Hey there,

I’m Alex Eaton, and you’re reading Stillnotes, notes on a photographic life. Welcome to 2024! I’m excited to give y’all many updates on what’s been happening over here and kick off this year in Stillnotes. Here’s what we’ll walk through today:

  • Looking back on year 1 of Stillnotes - What this project is and how it’s changed.
  • My 10 best photos of 2023 - With some discussion of my year in art.
  • Favorite vs. Best: What is meaningful work? - A quick ponder on the value of my work and its purpose.
  • Learnings from 2023, a path forward for 2024 - What I’m taking from my best photos of 2023, and what you can expect from me in 2024.

Let’s begin.

Looking back on year 1 of Stillnotes

I originally started Stillnotes back in late 2022 when I was still working on Rambler. It was simple, one photo a week, maybe a line or two of description, and thats it. Stillnotes was a push to produce more photos and get them out the door in a time when I wasn’t excited about Instagram. But then Rambler ended along with my time on the road and I found myself without a core project, nor a set place for consistent writing to go. Unintentionally, this newsletter began filling with more words, more time spent. It became my consistent creative outlet.

I struggled to box in what this project is. Am I teaching photography by discussing the craft? Sharing travel stories and images? Building my portfolio and documenting the process? The anxiousness of what this needed to be weighed on me until a small tagline fell on me one day: notes on a photographic life. It is called Stillnotes after all, yeah? This newsletter is my journey as an artist, which is just as much written as it is visual. I have no interest in a how-to newsletter even if that would be more marketable.

I produced 28 issues of Stillnotes in the first year and its fun to see how they’ve morphed from simple photo shares to full blown travel photo essays. It seems I need a consistent place and reason to push me to share work, and the newsletters I love so much are that push. So Stillnotes will become the main hub for my work moving forward. I’m glad you’re here.

Now, let’s look through my favorite images and talk about the work I produced this year.

My 10 best photos of 2023

A quick note on using the word ‘best’ here. Some of these I do feel are my best images in terms of quality and outcome, but there’s a mix of ‘favorite’ in here as well and I’ll try to denote the difference for each one. It’s impossible to separate best and favorite completely, but so is whittling down a year into 10 photos.

There are some photos you’ll expect, a couple you won’t, and a couple I've never shared before.

Lofoten, Norway. I was lucky to bring home dozens of northern lights photos from Lofoten, but this one always stood out as my number one. I have more grand displays, but the whimsy of the bus stop reminding me of magic school bus, the framing of the lights straight through the image, the simplicity of it all makes it my standout northern lights image. I’ve found that many of my favorite photos inject just a bit of whimsy to them, and I’m curious on how I can lean into that more.

Home in Boulder. What and why, you might ask. I’m drawn to this photo and the questions it raises about what we document in our lives. I have one or two other images in my archive of this nature, documenting a lower moment, and I’ve been pondering my urge to bring out the camera and what purpose these images serve. The quick background is I had surgery this year to remove a tumor from my neck. It was benign, no worries there, and everything went smooth for the most part, but this image taken in the first days after surgery gives a glimpse into the raw realities of life. I’m considering making this topic it’s own post, so stay tuned.

Temecula, California. A major theme in my favorite photos is family. Taking inspiration from Sally Mann, I’ve tried to approach capturing those closest to me through a more artistic lens. Never going so far as to pose them like she does, but trying to find particular moments that speak to deeper emotion than simple portraits in time. This images nails that pursuit. I took my nephews to the arcade and as the youngest worked to turn the snowmobile I captured his leg straining to reach the platform. He’s that size where he had to throw his weight back and forth to get the thing to turn, determined to play the game he wanted even if he isn’t quite built for it yet. I see this moment in time with his velcro shoes and him on his toes, the bright orange of the snowmobile bringing to mind the joy of games when we were young. I know I’ll watch him grow up and become an adult and remember these youthful days with nostalgia. The photo cutting off before revealing his face makes it more relatable too, I’m curious how parents will react to this photo and what memories it may bring up for them.

Lofoten, Norway. A secret favorite I’ve never shared until now. My friend Nate and I were driving the backroads across the islands when we came across this neighborhood area along a fjord. I spent a lot of time here messing with composition between this barn, the water, and the mountains beyond. I kept the edit gritty to give the rustic feeling of the place and to complement the light soft nature of the background. You can tell I was drawn to the little platform with chair, side table, and buoy. To me this photo gives a real sense of place.

Lofoten, Norway. Yes, three of my top 10 from Norway. This one speaks for itself. The best sunset I’ve ever seen in my life from the ridge line on Varden peak. Brilliant color with a scene so big it was difficult to capture, but I think this scene shows the majesty of the mountains we were on, swirled in cloud fog, with the exploding light over the fjord behind. A sunset I’ll never forget, and a memorable blue hour ski down the mountain after.

Utah. This is becoming a classic spot and will soon cease to be a unique shot at all, but I’m extremely happy with how my medium format film rendered this sunset. Bright color and a deepening sky. Simple desert beauty. It was dead silent in the expanse too, serene.

Utah. I love this scene for the composition. The leading road through the fence and around the corner with the buttes and towers behind. Daylight in the desert is actually some of my favorite light to edit, punching up the oranges and balancing with my favorite minty green shrubbery. I took this photo with my 35mm film lens adapted to my Sony. A part of me was disappointed in that decision because of the lack of clarity on the background towers, but as I’ve sat with it I think more and more a little character works better than perfect clarity. I don’t think this photo wins any awards but its well executed and again, gives that sense of place I strive for.

Outside Oaxaca, Mexico. This image is all about the details. Zooming in on both the horses and man you can see they all have their eyes closed, resting in the heat of the afternoon sun. This image was taken at Hierve el Agua, a mineralized waterfall, hot pools, and popular tourist destination outside Oaxaca. For me this photo represents the hard work shared between man and animal in a place like this.

Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado. I would call this image ‘really nice.’ It’s not extravagant, but its a well balanced scene with some beautiful light. I’ll talk more about my landscape work down below, but I think the fact that this is one of my best straight landscapes of the year speaks to my focus as a photographer (as in not being completely landscape focused). This photo also represents a brilliant evening I had with Scout in late summer and an insight I had on my approach. I began going out for sunset hikes instead of sunrise, first to avoid chaos at trailheads, but discovering the quiet joy of it and the light you get access to. I’ll go more in-depth on this evening in another Stillnotes.

Colorado. Fall is a frustrating time for me. It’s THE landscape photographers season and I’ve never made the point to do a full on photo trip. I’ve resolved to do a legit photography trip this fall and take advantage of all that Colorado has to offer. Even then, I did get out and was very happy with this photo in a massive aspen grove around Vail pass. The trail perfectly sliced through the center and I was able to compress it enough to give that walking-through-a-hallway feeling with depth from front to back.

Favorite vs. Best: What makes meaningful work?

To fit with the arcade photo of my nephew above, I had to include some favorite photos of family and friends from this year. Most of my favorite photos I take are of these people, they always carry the most meaning. This is obviously biased. However, since I try to capture them through a more artistic lens I struggle to separate favorite and best in reviewing my work. I could fill my top 10 with the images of my girlfriend and Scout and family and friends that make me look back weepy-eyed and grateful. I try to make these images good images on their own—regardless of my emotional attachment—but its difficult to look at these logically. I’m not stern enough an artist for that.

I find I’m riding this line between having my photos be meaningful to me versus a broader audience. I tell myself I want to shoot fine art landscapes, and mix travel images with essays, but I don’t think I’m matching the depth I’m getting in my family photos yet in my other work. There are shades of interest, such as the whimsy from my northern lights image, but I’m struggling to find my unique view on landscapes specifically. Landscapes, what I’ve always shot the most, are the area I think I need to improve the most. I’d like to bring the same meaning and emotion to my landscape work as I do my personal photos, I’m just not sure what that looks like stylistically yet. It’s also worth noting I am not saying I think I need to cater my work to a broader audience, I’m saying I want to find a way to bring out the same emotions I feel about my family work in my landscape work. A broader audience may appreciate the quality of one of my family photos, but I think I have a better chance of striking that emotion and relating to them through my other work and want to figure out how to bring out those qualities in my landscapes.

I’m not sure this is the right approach and thinking, but its where I’m at currently. I’m open to your thoughts if you have any.

Learnings from my work in 2023, looking ahead to 2024.

For a while now, I’ve struggled to figure out my identity as a photographer and writer. Am I a landscape photographer? A travel writer? Outdoor adventurer who documents? My work varies, which is more enjoyable, but my work suffers from a lack of focus. I don’t put the time and effort into my landscapes to be a true landscape photographer. Put simply, I’m not going out with the sole purpose of shooting photos enough. I take photos constantly on all my trips, but I’m assigning meaning and putting together stories willy nilly. This, mixed with struggles around my work’s place in my life overall has caused me some mental strife over the past year in particular.

I hit a phase last year where I was wondering if I wanted to continue my career in tech and if I should try and make something of my writing and photography, or start my own business. As you might imagine, this put a lot of pressure on my work. I knew I wasn’t producing nearly enough to realistically say this was a path I was pursuing. It also heaped on pressure to commercialize, which isn’t where my joy is. I want to write personal photo essays about the desert and ambition and make galleries and try out poetry and make a book and shoot a bunch of film. But I’m finding it difficult to manage all my passions, my job, my relationships, and my responsibilities in a way that keeps me happy and motivated and present. One of my favorite aspects of myself is that I have many interests that I pursue deeply, but damn if it doesn’t make me miserable sometimes. If I don’t get up before work to write I feel like a failure, if I don’t exercise Scout enough or see my friends enough I feel like a failure, if I don’t spend enough time in the mountains, failure. Last year I felt the effects of all this heaping pressure.

Ch-ch-changes

So what can you do in the face of all this? You can make some changes, and that is what I’ve set in motion this year.

I recently secured a new job that I’m stoked about. It may seem counter-intuitive based on the above, but I’ll likely work harder than I ever have in this new role, and that actually feels freeing. I’m joining an early stage startup to help build it from the early days (I’ll be the second marketing hire). I never talk about my actual career here, but this choice effects all my other work. What I specifically chose with this new job is my recommitment to my tech career being the revenue driver in my life. It’s a big opportunity for me career wise, with higher risk but higher possible reward if we do well. It’s an opportunity to put my skills and creativity and scrappiness to the test. That fires me up.

So how does working harder help my writing and photography? It takes money out of it. I can stop thinking about how my writing and photography needs to build up into something that supports me. I can pursue it with joy and earnestness. I thought through it all and found an opportunity that pushes me forward in my career in the way I want, in a way that excites me, versus pursuing some other direction. My career has always meant a lot to me even through periods where I’ve tried to deny it. The excitement and flow of ideas I already feel has confirmed this.

Another shift to support my vision for this next chapter: I’m hopefully finalizing a lease this week to move up to the mountains with my girlfriend. I’ve always wanted to ‘do the mountain thing’ for a couple years before I have a family, and there’s no better time than now. Pushing my running, skiing, and overall time in the mountains has been on the back burner usually due to time. So I’m putting myself smack dab in the middle of it. I also signed up for my first ultramarathon, a dream I’ve had for years and decided to finally commit to. Reading this back to myself, I can’t help but laugh a bit because I am certainly not helping my balance problem with these decisions. But that’s because I’m not sure it’s a problem that will be solved, you just re-adjust your life to try and move forward towards who you want to be.

My 2024 writing and photography plan

All this, however, does not solve my identity problem as a photographer and writer. Ha! But it does free me up mentally to experiment. This has already become a beast of a post, so I’ll summarize my plan into three buckets: exploration, projects, community.

Exploration. I’d like to push deeper into fine art landscapes, whatever that means for me. It won’t mean wide lens HDR scapes thats for sure, but I want to invest more time actually going out for photos this year. I’m also trying to push my skillset in ways I haven’t before, and will document that journey here in Stillnotes.

Projects. Mainly, the book and Stillnotes. The book got shelved last year, and I really just want to make something physical and put it out into the world. I need to do this before the ideas become a shadow in my mind. So this is the year it gets done. Stillnotes will continue by its tagline: notes on a photographic life. I’ll document my artistic journey, share new work, ponder my ponderings as I like to do. I also have a fun new project where I’m mixing pursuits, tentatively called ultra. My plan is to get a portable point and shoot film camera and, shooting only black and white film, document the training journey leading up to my ultramarathon. It’s a fun way for me to mix my passions, to introduce some constraints into a project, and also think about something over a set period of time this year.

Community. My work largely stays under wraps beyond some close friends and family. I don’t promote much, and I’ve found I need more conversation around art in general. I’ve already talked with my good friend and photographer/filmmaker Nate about this and we’re setting in motion some ideas around having these conversations more often. I’m trying to do the same on the writing side of the house, which has been even more barren for community up until now. Community is vital to stay excited and engaged, and it’s time I took that seriously.

If you made it this far, thanks for your interest in my work and wonderings about life and art. We’re already two months into 2024, but I’ve packed a lot in, including an epic trip to New Zealand I didn’t even mention here. More work coming to Stillnotes from that trip soon, check out my insta if you’d like to see what I’ve been sharing so far.

Thanks for reading along. It’s going to be a big year, and I’m thrilled you’ll be along for the ride.

Onward.

—Al

Alex Eaton

Writer, photographer

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