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Obata’s Photoshop Filter

Friday, July 26th, 2013

One of the most noteworthy things about being a parent, for me, has been watching my son discover the world.  Now five years old, he began as basically a blank slate (although that isn’t entirely the case), and now is an incredibly independent and strong-willed little person.  Like all of us, his personality and his perception of reality is shaped by the world around him.  He has adopted little idiosyncrasies from both my wife and I, as well as his teachers and friends at school and other people in his life.  The way these pieces have combined make him uniquely…well, unique.

That makes him special.  Since we all went through something similar, this same principle makes us all special and unique.  When we talk about originality in art, it’s important to remember that the same processes are at play.  Every artist, regardless of the medium, draws inspiration from various sources, and their art is simply the result of the way in which these sources have combined to spit out something “original.”   I think the distinctiveness of someone’s art is probably a product of many factors, such as how courageous they are to seek inspiration in unlikely places, their experience, the amount of introspection they’ve done to clarify their own vision, etc.

On a recent backpacking trip, I was working my way up a mountain pass that overlooked an alpine tarn.  The blue-green water was shimmering as if it were full of diamonds, the blocky granite surrounding the small lake contrasted that delicacy well, and the sky had perfect puffy white clouds.  What a great scene.

I highlighted the words “blocky granite” in the paragraph above because that’s the aspect of the scene that stood out to me immediately.  I wanted an image of this scene, but how to portray it, such that the granite blocks–almost like cord wood–would be accentuated?  Immediately I thought of the woodblock prints of Chiura Obata, a Japanese-American artist who produced moving paintings of the Sierra Nevada, among other places, in the first part of the last century.

I’ve always had a particular affinity for Obata’s work in the Sierra (three of his pieces–postcards–hang above my desk right now) for many reasons, not the least of which is the incredible sense of place he felt there.  You can see it simply by looking at his work.  When Obata, like many other Japanese-Americans, was sent to internment camps during World War II, he made art there, and you can even feel the sense of place in that work.  It’s a rare quality, but his work has it.

Looking at this alpine tarn, I was inspired by Obata, made some images, and when I got home I did something radical: I attempted to manipulate the image so that it would resemble a woodblock print.

Alpine tarn, John Muir Wilderness

Please make sure to view this one big!

The effect is a bit difficult to see on the computer screen (I imagine this would need to be appreciated as a print), but here is a 100% of the above image to see the result:

Detail, Alpine Tarn

As I said above, I suspect this would make a nice print, but is difficult to appreciate here.  I don’t see myself making these sorts of images with any regularity, but I thought it was important to note my thought process in making this image, because it’s good for every artist to remember that inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places, and to remain open to that.  Additionally, it was an instructive exercise for me, because I got to dive back into Obata’s work, which always makes me very happy.

A life well-lived

Monday, March 18th, 2013

In my last post, I reflected a little bit about the landscapes and experiences that make us who we are; I know that much of who I am is tied to the landscapes of the Southwest.  Since then, through a series of separate but related conversations with friends, I’ve been thinking more about a life lived to its fullest.

The path I followed in life was probably not unlike that of many others.  I went to college, got a job, started a family, and now, here I am.  There was a crossroads in my past where I could have gone another direction, working seasonal jobs in order to make ends meet between adventures.  More than once, I almost went down that road, but today I fit my adventures in around other obligations.  I accepted the trade-off: stability for freedom, as it were.  Similarly, I would have been sacrificing stability, family, and possibly relationships if I had gone down the other road.

Trade-offs.  Life is full of them.  In most cases, they’re unavoidable, however what’s important (and this is where my conversations from this week come in), is to live a life with no regrets.

This week I also came across this video that’s been circulating online.   Renan Ozturk is an accomplished climber, artist, and photographer, and was a 2012 nominee for the National Geographic Society’s Adventurer of the Year.  The video below is his 2013 Director’s Reel, produced with the Camp 4 Collective.  Quite frankly, on the surface, it’s badass.  But, looking deeply, it’s a good reminder to live life to the fullest.

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How does this relate to photography?  In photography, as in life, it’s all about the personal journey.  Treating every image as if it counts, because it does.  Putting only your best work forward.  Thinking very hard before saying “no,” when an unforgettable opportunity comes up.  Creating personal, meaningful images.

As I watch the video above, I wistfully wonder about what I would have found had I taken another path in life, and I know that other crossroads lay before me yet.  In life, in photography, I want to always say that I have had a life well-lived.

Pacific Ocean, early morning

Crossroads of Creativity

Monday, January 7th, 2013

I have never been all that great at new year’s resolutions.  The will power and self discipline to cut cookies from my diet or to learn the guitar just aren’t there.  I’ll admit the latter has more to do with my complete lack of rhythm than will power, but you get the idea.  While I am not much good at resolving, I do like the new year because it is a good time to look ahead.

Over the last week, one question I’ve been asking myself is, “Where do I want my landscape photography to be 12 months from now?”  In many ways I feel as though I’m standing at a crossroads of creativity.  To define this crossroads a bit better, I should provide some context.  A few months ago, I came across photographer Mark Hespenheide’s artist’s statement; I encourage you to read the entire thing as it really is quite inspiring, but one passage has returned to the forefront of my brain over and over again.


Mediocre landscape photography can only reinforce the ideas about nature that we already hold. Good landscape photography can introduce us to new ways of seeing the world. Truly great landscape photography can change the way we perceive our place in the world and the way we interact with the world.


After reading this, it is easy to imagine three diverging paths at a crossroads and to understand the fact that each path requires increasing levels of introspection and challenge.  Of course any photographer would say that they choose to make truly great images, but what does that really take?   The answer lies somewhere different for everyone I think, however the same basic principles should apply to any landscape photographer.

Fresh snowfall in southern California's San Jacinto Mountains

Your artist’s statement is an incredibly powerful document.  If you are honest with yourself as you write it, it will be about you, the artist.  It will not describe your accomplishments, but rather your motivation and inspiration behind making images to begin with.  Your artist’s statement is not static–it needs to change over time as you do.  As I look back to my favorite images of 20092010, 2011, and 2012, I can see a definite shift in my vision; why should my artist’s statement not reflect that vision?  Even if you don’t make it public, write your artist’s statement and put it away somewhere.  In a few months, revisit it and be brutally honest with yourself as to whether your actions (and images) have matched your words.

One of the very first things I have done when I visit a new place is to study it on a map.  I want to know the place as if it is an old friend.  I want to know the names of the valleys, canyons, and mountains, and once I have learned that, I want to know why they earned these names.  Just as understanding why you make photographs, the establishment of an intimate relationship with the land will make images more meaningful.  As a photographer you should read–prolifically–about the places that you love to establish a sense of place.  When you visit these places, it should feel like you have arrived home.

This all culminates in a creative process in which you get to know yourself and your subject intimately, and it goes beyond the postcard or calendar images that landscape photography is often regarded as being.  When you express your subject photographically, Ansel Adams wrote, “it is a vivid experience, sudden, compelling, and inevitable.”  It is, “a summation of total experience and instinct.”

Photographically, I operate on fairly simple principles.  I believe there is beauty in life as in death, there is compelling order in chaos, and although we must look deeply, the intricacies and intimate details of the landscape are very often the best part; these are the characteristics of the landscape I want to express.

As we move into 2013, which path do you plan on taking, and what do you plan to do in order to get there?

Aspens and Snow

Crisis in Confidence

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Last Friday morning, I got up early and drove up to the San Jacinto Mountains near my home.  A storm had been in the area and I wanted to go for a hike in the fresh snow, as well as to make some images.  Living at low elevation, it felt good to be back in winter for a while.  I wanted to hear the sound of snow crunching under my boots.  I wanted to breathe deeply and soak up the silence and sheer peace that comes with newly fallen snow.  I made some images–some that I’m quite happy with–but the morning would have perfect even if I had not.

As I drove home, I turned on my car radio and slowly started piecing together the events that had happened thousands of miles away in Connecticut.  Profound heartbreak is really the only way I can describe the emotions I felt as I listened to the radio, and when I arrived home, I turned on the TV and saw the images.  So much devastation, so much innocence needlessly lost.

On Monday morning, I read Guy Tal’s blog post, “Heal Thyself.”   His advice on how to heal after this tragedy?  Unplug.  Go away from the hype, the media, everything, and allow yourself to heal.  Today, that’s just what I did.  I went to the Mojave Desert and started walking.  When I came home, I told myself that although some might consider it cliché or derivative to write about this tragedy, I still feel the need to put words down, so here I am.

As far as days go, today was pretty miserable outside.  It was windy and very cold, but I found a lovely and verdant little canyon to hike up.  In contrast to the mountains just a while before, it still felt autumn-like in the desert; at least the colors of fall were still around me.  Several of the wetter spots I passed through must be hotspots for desert bighorn sheep: droppings were everywhere, and with good reason.  Water is hard to come by out here.   A little while later, underneath a grove of alders, I found the remains of a desert bighorn.  Maybe it fell from the cliff above (not likely) or was killed by a mountain lion.  Or, maybe it just found a peaceful place to lay down and die.  Either way, I sat quietly with its bones for a little while, enjoying a reprieve from the wind, as well as the solitude.

The remains of a desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)

Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)

I hiked a little further up the canyon, exploring mostly, before turning around and walking back toward my car.  For the first time in nearly a week, I felt peaceful knowing that hope is not lost.  When I got home, I saw reference to Jimmy Carter’s 1979 speech, in which he refers to the nation’s energy crisis as a, “crisis in confidence.”  We are getting over something much more visceral than an energy crisis, but those words–crisis in confidence–echo in my head.  Events like this, not just at home but abroad as well, shake our confidence to its core.  They shake our confidence that hope still exists, and if we are going to continue on, we must find a way to hang onto that hope.

So, I want to thank Guy for his advice, and I want to repeat it as well: unplug yourself from everything and find a way to reconnect with the good in the world.

An autumnal scene in the Mojave Desert

Desert Bouquet

The Sacred Mountains of Tibet–eBook review

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

I can remember being in a sporting goods store with my Dad when I was about 14 years old.  It’s not clear to me exactly what he was looking at, but as he talked to the salesperson, I started looking at the pictures in a catalog sitting on the counter; it was for the clothing company The North Face.  In those pages I saw my first big wall climbers, my first mountaineers, and I discovered the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal and Tibet for the first time.  Fortunately the catalogs were free because I decided almost instantly that I was bringing one home with me.

Over the next several weeks I went to sleep and woke up with those photos–those places–on my mind.  In my daydreams I would fantasize about what it would be like to visit Everest base camp, or trek between Buddhist monasteries.  As I got older, my own adventures began, albeit much closer to my home in northern New Mexico than the Himalaya, and my mind started to wander to these places instead–the Colorado Plateau, and the high peaks of the southern Rocky Mountains.

Yet, to this day, I still find myself in awe of the Himalaya.  Although I hate the term, “bucket list,” I guess you could say that someday before I die, I’d love to visit these mountains.  While I don’t hold on to the adolescent fantasy of climbing Mt. Everest or K2 any more, I would love to take a trek though the lower elevations, admiring the scenery, as well as the culture.  As a photographer, I see the austere peaks as very beautiful subjects; they seem to create their own weather, which can make for dramatic light.  I enjoy viewing photography from this region; its relative inaccessibility results in an internet that is not flooded with “iconic” Himalayan images (for which I’m grateful).

Photography in the 21st Century leads to a lot of “online” friendships, and I’m grateful to have developed one with Alister Benn and his wife Juanli Sun.  Together, they are Available Light Images, and live together in Liajiang, China.   I have long been a fan of Alister’s photography; his nighttime work is top notch (I reviewed his night photography eBook, Seeing the Unseen in March), and both he and Juanli have impressive images from the Himalaya.  How fortuitous it was that Alister and Juanli just published a free (that’s right: free) eBook last week called, The Sacred Mountains of Tibet.

The Sacred Mountains of Tibet

Unlike Seeing the Unseen, The Sacred Mountains is not text-heavy.  This is not a how-to manual; it is a celebration of place, written by two placed people.  A short introduction, and individual introductory sections to different regions make up the bulk of the text, but the real gem–the thing that sets this book aside in my opinion is Juanli’s poetry.  Several of her poems appear on pages between images, bringing a better sense of belonging to the viewer (I use that word rather than “reader” because, again, this book is about admiration of place, not of the written word).  In addition to the cover, I’ve included two of my favorite images in this blog post.

Makalu, Lhoste, Qomolangma - Juanli Sun

Makalu, Lhoste, Qomolangma – Juanli Sun

The Sacred Mountains is the brainchild of a larger project; Alister and Juanli are planning on expanding this project and turning it into a printed book over the next few months.  I think this is a worthy project, and it would make a fine book, library-worthy for any adventurer, or photographer.

The only thing I found myself wanting in this eBook was more, but I suppose it was the perfect teaser for their (hopefully larger) book.  I’d like to thank Alister and Juanli for publishing this eBook, and for reminding me of my teenage dreams, awe, and respect for this mountain range.  It really is a lovely effort, and I highly suggest you settle in on one of these cold winter nights with the beverage of your choice, dim the lights, and let the light of the Himalaya fill you up.  You can download your free copy of the 51-page PDF by clicking here.

Chanadorje - Alister Benn

Chanadorje – Alister Benn

Concerto in D minor

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

It’s chilly, gloomy, and rainy outside today; winter, it seems, has arrived in southern California.  Sitting here in my office, the heater is warming me up, and I am listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor.  The third and final movement ends on a happy and light note, but unlike some of Mozart’s other work, Concerto No. 20 is aggressive, in places even agitated and ominous; well-suited for the weather today.  As I listen, I think of our recent trip to the Escalante area of southern Utah.  How fitting I would be drawn to this particular piece today, as my imagination wanders back to the sandstone I love so much.

Just like a good friend, the redrock wilderness always welcomes me; my feet find purchase immediately, and it is as if we haven’t skipped a beat since being apart.  I am constantly amazed at the plant life that–like my feet–finds refuge in this habitat of stone.  These organisms eek out a living, nurtured by the harsh landscape, growing slowly but surely through the years.

A small yucca grows out of sandstone

Finding purchase, November 2012

Hiking up the Calf Creek drainage with my family, I think of a word that’s not often used in the desert: “lush.”  Harbored between the gaunt canyon walls is an ecosystem that supports thriving plant and animal life.  It is easy to see why you can look high up on the rock walls and see ancient Native American granaries, dwellings and rock art–they were drawn here for the same reasons as we are.  Sustenance.  Life.  Safety.  While I am not growing food or defending myself from marauders, all of these qualities are here for me.  They are undeniable.  As the morning progresses, cold night air moves out of the canyon, meeting the warm air that is radiating off of the sun-warmed rocks; the lingering scent of autumn hangs in the air, and it is difficult to imagine a place on earth where I would rather be.   Just like Mozart’s welcoming melodies, it is easy to feel that way here: embraced, peaceful, calm.

Foliage in Calf Creek

Autumn in the Desert, November 2012

Calf Creek Falls

A Desert Utopia, November 2012

In the same way that Concerto No. 20 turns turbulent, so can the desert.  Here in the Escalante, temperatures can drop below zero in the winter and can soar to well over 100 degrees in the summer.  While plants and animals find a way to survive, it is not without compromise; life here is harsh.  A summer’s worth of water can arrive in one storm, destroying everything in its path as it crashes through the tight corridors of a slot canyon.  I have never seen the desert her in all of her fury, and am not sure I would want to.  However, it is just that fury that has helped shape this landscape into what it is.


Under a wine-dark sky I walk through the light reflected and re-reflected from the walls and floor of the canyon, a radiant golden light that glows on rock and stream, sand and leaf in varied hues of amber, honey, whisky — the light that never was is here, now, in the storm-sculptured gorge of the Escalante.

–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire


Navajo Sandstone

Gloaming, November 2012

I am now sitting here listening to the rain hit the window of my office; Mozart’s Concerto is over.  After 227 years his music lives on, and is still evocative; it will be until we as a species cannot hear–or feel–any longer.   So will the Escalante, which is not exactly a piano concerto, but is–without question–a work of art.

Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

It hardly seems like a year ago I was writing a similar blog post from Zion National Park.  This Thanksgiving, I find myself in Escalante, Utah, a small township located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau.  The weather today was unusually warm for this time of year, and it made hiking extraordinarily pleasant, the perfect St. Martin’s Summer.  My family and I started the day in the northern Mojave Desert, and ended sitting quite alone on a sandstone outcropping admiring the sunset just outside of Escalante township.

Escalante has some of the darkest night skies in the United States; it is far from electricity, out of the grasp of large metropolises, and tonight I am only blinded by one of the darkest night skies you will ever see.  I am thankful places like this still exist.

For my friends in the United States who are celebrating Thanksgiving today, I hope you had a day with your family and friends, celebrating everything in your life that you are thankful for.  With some time in the car today, I was thinking about the things I am thankful for.  I am grateful for a family who is willing to travel with me.  Having stopped in four national parks or monuments today (Zion, Cedar Breaks, Bryce, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante), I am thankful that the citizens of our country have had the foresight to put land aside, for the well-being of our souls, if nothing else.  Sun-warmed Navajo sandstone is also on my list, as are sunsets that make me smile.

From the bottom of my heart, let me wish you a warm and happy Thanksgiving, whether you are officially celebrating or not.  There is much in life to be thankful for.

Navajo Sandstone aglow

Thanksgiving sunset, November 2012

 

Revisiting the White Mountains

Friday, July 27th, 2012

Just a few posts ago, I mentioned how I spent several summers working in the White Mountains of eastern California when I was in graduate school.  The Whites are an interesting mountain range.  Comprising the eastern border of the Owens Valley, they are certainly imposing, with California’s 3rd highest peak (White Mountain Peak, 14,252′) as well the highest point in Nevada (Boundary Peak, 13,147′), but despite their prominence, the Whites are visited far less than the nearby Sierra Nevada.

The Sierra is a relatively wet mountain range, receiving anywhere from 20-80 inches of precipitation a year (for the arid west, that’s wet).  The Whites, in the rain shadow of the Sierra, stand in stark contrast, fully embodying the characteristics of the Basin and Range province, to which they are included–dry, windy, desolate, and strikingly beautiful.

Detail of a bristlecone pine trunk

In the Details, July 2012

I have always loved the Whites, primarily because the lower elevations remind me of my home in northwestern New Mexico: piñon-juniper scrubland and sagebrush dominate the landscape, giving way to primarily lower-growing sage above about 8,000 feet.  Deer, coyotes, wild horses, pika, and marmots are common here.  However, the real draw–accounting for the bulk of visitation–is the presence of the Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva).  With the exception of organisms that self-replicate (clones), bristlecones are the longest-living organisms on earth.  One tree in the Whites, Methuselah, is estimated to be 4,500 years old.   If the Whites have a persona of incredibly difficult growing conditions, then the bristlecones fit that quite well.  Their gnarled trunks and otherworldly shapes are a favorite of photographers.

Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) and summer storm clouds

Weathering the Storm, July 2012


After nearly seven years away, I recently returned to the White Mountains.  Walking around in the ancient bristlecone pine forest is an act of humility.  Before leaving on my recent trip, a friend and I had a conversation about life and the value of living in the moment.  This conversation was heavy on my mind as summer storm clouds moved through the Whites at sunset, giving these grand trees an equally grand backdrop.

Of all things on earth, these trees have given their best shot at living forever, and even they can’t quite do it.  Once they die, the dry air preserves them leaving funky skeletons on several hillsides.  What advice would they give, after 4,500 years, to someone just starting out?  Would it be to live in the moment, to not let the little things get you down, and to hold close the things in life that make you deeply happy?

I’m anthropormorphizing a little bit more here than my contract allows, so I’ll stop.  Suffice it to say, I think that’s pretty good advice.

Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) and storm clouds, California

The Sentinel, July 2012

We spent one night at 11,000′ in the bristlecones, and I was reminded of a few things that have kept the White Mountains on my mind all these years:

  1. Yes, it can snow in July in California.  Even if only for a few minutes.
  2. The White Mountains are the only place I’ve ever experienced altitude sickness (manifested by trouble sleeping).  I attribute it to the dry air.
  3. The warm-toned trunks of the bristlecones contrast very nicely with stormy skies.
  4. Everyone should experience quiet like the Whites afford once in their lifetime.
  5. Everyone should experience a night sky like the Whites afford once in their lifetime.

From a photographic point of view, I find it amazing that several images can come out of one place in a short amount of time.  This is probably due to luck, inspiration, and visualization, but I have been updating my portfolios with new images and have added several from the White Mountains.  Please visit my Mountains and Intimate Perspectives portfolios to see these and other new images.


It’s funny how some places can be a huge part of our lives, exit for several years, and then re-enter.  I guess they never really leave us.

Sunset in the Patriarch Grove of Bristlecone Pines

Pastel sunset, July 2012

Seeing Beauty

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

The comments on my last post brought up something I hadn’t originally thought of in the context of photographing archaeological sites: the joy of discovery.  In photography, and life in general, we live in a world of guidebooks, whether it be a guidebook to the greatest photo location, or a step-by-step instruction guide to being able to make agave nectar-glazed salmon just like that guy on TV.  The idea of “winging it” seems to be out of style.  Many thanks to Jackson and Guy for getting me thinking about the joy of discovery a bit more.

I recently looked through my personal favorite images from the last few years.  What I found was that most of my favorites–the ones that have stood the test of time (in my eyes, at least)–are the ones scenes I did not expect to find.  I think sometimes photographers put too much pressure on themselves to get “the shot” of “that icon” that they fail to see beauty as they walk past it.  Thus, going for a walk with no expectations can lead to very inspired and personal photography.

Unique abstract patterns in sandstone

Convergence, June 2012

 


“In the depths of our darkness there is no one place for Beauty. The whole place is for Beauty.”

–René Char, Leaves of Hypnos, 1946


One of my greatest sins as a photographer is saying, “I don’t want to shoot there, there are prettier places.”  Beauty is indeed all around us.  As a photographer’s personal style develops, an “eye for beauty” should develop along with the requisite technical skills.  I think this eye for composition and learning to simplify and single out the important aspects of a scene is one of the greatest if not most difficult skills to master.

In seeking this beauty out, the ability to discover and recognize it in the most unexpected of places is perhaps the best gift there is.

Out of chaos comes elegance and grace.

Manzanita, genus Arctostaphylos

Manzanita Abstract, June 2012

Camas

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Today I received in the mail my Summer 2012 issue of Camas, a publication put together by graduate students in the Environmental Studies department at the University of Montana.  Camas celebrates the literature and photography from the West; the theme for the summer issue is ‘Restoration.’

Although not quite made in Montana, an image I made in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains is featured in the summer issue.  Many of the West’s forests have been devastated by bark beetle infestations, leaving forests of skeletons, rather than trees.  To me, this image communicated the theme of restoration, in that some of the forests in the West are starting to recover from these insects through the use of controlled burns, cutting of infested trees, etc.

Scene in the San Bernardino National Forest

These sorts of university literary publications are common in the West (I’m not sure about other parts of the country); the University of Montana has Camas, and the University of Wyoming has the Owen Wister Review, for example.  I am happy to have my work be a part of this type of publication because they strike me as very grassroots, and are oriented towards a sense of place.  I’ve written before about how I’m proud to be a citizen of the West, and I’m proud to have my work featured in Camas.

Camas is published biannually (summer & winter) and contains literature and photography from the West.  I’m looking forward to digging into my issue.

Camas--The Nature of the West

Camas, Summer 2012