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Karen Hutton: Seeing the World for the Very First Time

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“I’m a photographer.” Karen Hutton’s self-description is so succinct yet so broad. She doesn’t need all the adjectives – she’s not “a spectacular nature-scenery-exploration adventure photographer!!” No, a simple “photographer” suffices. She could have just as easily used the word “chronicler.” That fits well, too, because she discovers the experience, both the mood and the feeling, immerses herself in that new place, and then simply records what it was all about, what it felt like to be there.

In SmugMug’s beautiful short film, Karen Hutton: Framing the Journey, we catch up with Karen on her very visit to Slovenia. Judging from the video footage, Slovenia is an amazingly beautiful place, tucked in between Italy and Croatia. Karen is exploring this country with new eyes, and she hopes to capture this freshness in her shots.

This is how she frames her images – to capture what it feels like to be there for the first time, record that experience, and allow the resultant photograph to somehow replay it all back. She’s after that initial sense of wonder and awe of seeing scenes and places in that irreplaceable first-time mindset. You only ever have experiences like that once because the brand new feelings and surprises can never be felt in the same manner ever again.

It’s the newness that attracts her to the unexplored, the unseen. “Sometimes, it’s a trail that I’ve never hiked – sometimes it’s a new country halfway around the world.” It can be next door or right around the corner, literally anywhere. “Experiencing a new place with fresh eyes is one of the most inspiring things that I do.” She seeks the moments that feel somehow profound or awe-inspiring, when she feels her senses become heightened and more connected to the world, where she feels the grandeur and exaltation of simply being. “Photography for me is a way of looking at the world through those eyes.”

While it’s the end result that we see and appreciate, the process begins with the immersive experience. In a new environment, Karen doesn’t just show up and immediately start snapping away at everything. “I actually have to stop, and listen, and take it in. I don’t always need my camera in front of my face. It’s a whole inner journey for me. It culminates with a photo, but the whole experience is what I’m after.” There is almost a magical component about how it works, how “a single snap can bring back a whole afternoon.” That’s the mark of an artist at work, somehow the unexplainable is taking place under her gaze.

The viewer can be excused for longing to visit Slovenia after watching this gorgeous footage. Much of it centers around Lake Bled, nestled between forested arms of the Julian Alps. In the center of the lake is Bled Island with its famous 17th-century church. One can only visit the island by water, but when you have the SmugMug videographers taking care of everything, you can sit back and watch the amazing drone video of the island by air. It is truly a remarkable location.

“There is so much beauty that fills our world, and it comes in every shape and scale and texture. I want to appreciate the smallest components as well as the grand design.”

— Karen Hutton – Photographer

Luckily, the film includes some inspiring samples of Karen’s work from all over the globe. We see brief glimpses of intriguing shots from Paris and Croatia, moody shots of steaming moors, entire cities taken from unusual angles and views, even close-ups of the natural world. While she loves amazing vistas and awesome cityscapes, she feels “there is so much beauty that fills our world, and it comes in every shape and scale and texture. I want to appreciate the smallest components as well as the grand design.”

Slovenia certainly offers both. The Alps obviously look amazing from pretty much any angle, but there are also the forests, the waterfalls and cliffs, and the mist-enshrouded rolling fields. It is autumn there now, and Karen tells us that one of the top reasons for her visit is to appreciate the fall colors. And it’s true … there is an amazing range of earth-tones to be found on the leaf-strewn forest floors as well as in the canopy above. You can tell that she’s entered the forest with a renewed sense of wonder, of appreciating the feeling of simply being in it.

Karen has an eye for man-made color as well. She visited a tiny sea-side medieval town in Slovenia whose small harbor is bobbing with attractive multi-colored boats. The village itself features a multitude of colorful plastered walls up and down every street, and sometimes even a line of laundry hung out to dry is enough to catch her eye. She is a tactile person – it’s never enough just to see, just to look. She has to touch as well and feel the many textures. She listens and breathes in the sea air. She experiences the moment with as many senses as she possibly can, and only then can she know how to record that unique impression.

No matter how awe-struck she may seem, or how random her explorations look, there is a firm technical edge that underlies her work. Make no mistake … this is a person who knows her equipment. The surprising thing is that her technical mastery actually frees her from having to think much about it. “As much as I talk about ‘being in the moment,’ I’m a big believer in technique and knowing my gear.” All her practice and experience have allowed the specific photographic techniques to become second nature. Having learned the details so thoroughly has “freed me up to think less about dials and buttons and settings, and more about what’s right in front of me.” In other words, by the time all the technical decisions have become automatic, you can finally put them out of your mind to concentrate on what’s really key.

Karen uses the word “beautiful” a lot. She doesn’t overdo it … it’s just that she experiences beauty everywhere, and you can tell she fervently means it every time she says it. She honestly expects to find beauty everywhere, yet somehow seems just as captivated each new time she discovers it. It seems like every new experience is approached with a sense of wonder – what might I see, how will I feel?

To Karen Hutton, it’s not the end product that is most important. It’s the entire synergistic process and experience … the question of how best to distill it all using the medium of photography. While she walks around the town, she admits she’s drawn naturally to those aspects that appeal to her personally, “I love getting lost in the alleys for hours, or for days.” At the same time, she understands the universal appeal of shared experiences, of how she can relate her feelings to others on a visceral level. “I see photography as an extension of myself and my life experience.” Her photography speaks a universal language – the desire to see and explore, but also to connect with those who will want to follow.

Keep up with Karen Hutton: