In The Zone; An Afternoon On The Streets Of St. Moritz, Shooting “Not Much, Really”

Photos © 2004, Jack Hollingsworth, All Rights Reserved

Last fall, I attended the Society of American Travel Writers' (SATW) annual convention in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The SATW is the world's largest and most prestigious trade association of travel writers, journalists, publishers, photographers, and filmmakers. I don't use the term "prestigious" lightly; consider that for a photographer to join you have to have at least 200 published pictures in a given year. One afternoon I had a break in my schedule and decided to check out the town--camera in hand, of course. As I was leaving the hotel, two friends, both internationally recognized travel photographers, were coming in. "What've you been up to?" I asked. "We were just out shooting in town," one answered. "How was it?" I asked. "Oh, it was okay," he said. "A few shots here and there, but not much really."

I had never seen St. Moritz before, and as I walked out of the hotel I was thinking, well, if these two guys are saying there's not much down there, I can't expect a whole lot. The thing was, I was already emotionally predisposed to failure. Still, I walked around with no agenda and no purpose other than seeing what was there. I walked down one street and saw a colorful flower box. I thought, that's kind of cool, and I took a shot. I saw a cup of coffee on a table. That's pretty cool, too, I thought, and took another shot. Ten shots later I was fully charged and firing on all cylinders. It took me about an hour to get fully in the zone--that place where I'm totally focused and in tune with my surroundings, where every single thing I look at is colorful, interesting, graphic, exciting, a great composition, and larger than life.

At the end of the day, maybe thinking of a column for this magazine, I wrote down all my thoughts about the day in my notebook--which, probably because it was pink and orange, was appropriated upon my return home by my lovely 8-year-old daughter, who subsequently lost it.

But I can still recall thinking that what happens in the zone is an interplay of emotion and action. Athletes talk about it in terms of the pitches coming toward them in slow motion, or the tennis racket seeming huge. When you're a photographer and you're in the zone, everything you do seems to work. You have the right lens on the camera at the right time for the picture. You're in the right spot and the light is perfect. Everywhere you look you see something interesting: the shadow you'd normally just walk across; the crinkled-up paper in the alleyway you'd normally ignore; the cat perched on the flower box that most times wouldn't even register in your mind. Even things you normally don't like look cool. It's a little bit magical.

I also recall writing something down about how amateur photographers often think that it's all magic, all the time, for professional travel photographers. That we can go out and create pictures anytime, and we're always in the mood for photography. That, in effect, we're always in the zone. Not true. Looking back over 30 years of shooting, there have been very few times that I got up in the morning feeling in the zone. Nope, I have to work to get there. For me, it's a step by step process to work up to the feverish pitch and high energy pace of the zone. Picture by picture, I find a theme or develop an idea. I start doing it and let the emotion and the energy catch up or come on. Or not. It doesn't always happen. But I remembering writing down some of the things that are common to those instances of finding myself in the zone.

I know I won't get there if I start out believing there are no good pictures to be taken. In St. Moritz I first had to get over the negative feeling my friends had left me with. And I know I can't rely on starting in the zone--I have to work to get there. The stimulation I get from a new place is part of it, too. Could I have been in the zone on that same fall day, at the same time, if I were shooting on the streets of my hometown--Austin, Texas? Maybe, but probably not. The fact that I was in an Alpine village, in Switzerland, on a picture-perfect, 65Þ day with blue sky and white clouds, fueled by three cappuccinos--well, I was in heaven. If you're not going to get into the zone on a day like that, you're probably not getting there at all.

That day I shot until there was no more light. All the photos you see were among those I took during a four- or five-hour period, all with my Nikon F4 and 28-70mm Nikkor lens, all on Velvia 100--pretty much my standard walking-around gear. When the light was gone I sat down in a cafe and had a beer and reflected on one last thing: What were those two guys talking about? How could they have found "not much" to photograph? What was the difference between me and them on this day, in this town? I don't know. I do know that I think amateurs feel more powerfully and deeply and sensitively about photography than professionals do. And I know I feel more like an amateur than a professional. Who knows, maybe for me that's one of the first steps to getting in the zone.