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Saying Goodbye

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

On Veteran’s Day, my grandfather passed away. He was 92 years old, a WWII veteran and served in two branches of the armed forces during his life (the Marines and Army Air Corps). However, his main career–for nearly 40 years–was as the art teacher in his small town in southeastern Wyoming. A talented watercolorist and sculptor, he drew his inspiration from the natural world around him: wildlife, old barns, and the landscapes of the plains of southern Wyoming.

watercolor painting of an abandoned barn on a hill with ominous grey skies behind it

As a kid, I spent a few weeks each summer visiting my grandparents. We fished almost daily and never missed a baseball game on TV. Indeed, some of my best childhood memories were made with my grandparents, and because he never lost his youthful playfulness, my grandpa was easily my best friend during those summers.

Also, because he was perpetually a kid at heart, he was often caught drawing cartoons of friends–and me–often at our worst. Teasing was something you adapted to quickly in our family because it was relentless.

cartoon of a crash test dummy in a bicycle accident

My Grandpa was incredibly good at poking fun at people with his art. He had a way of making painful things (like bicycle accidents) seem funny.

Of course things change, and I grew older. I attended college at the University of Wyoming and visited my grandparents a few times a semester. After moving to California to attend graduate school, however, my visits became more infrequent. Going back to visit them, the landscape I remembered as a child seemed different: smaller and more compact. Not as wild as I once thought. But the lakes we used to visit to fish still brought happy memories.

Photo of a lone tree on the prairie at sunset near Hawk Springs Wyoming

Last week I traveled back to Wyoming for my Grandpa’s memorial service. The next day, we spent some time visiting a few of the places that were important to me as a kid. Although the ability to draw seems to have found a genetic endpoint with my Grandpa, it was nice to make a few images with him on my mind.

There’s a certain comfort in knowing someone is there, even if you can’t always see them. Now that he’s gone, there’s definitely a hole that needs filling and he’ll be dearly missed.

photo of leafless cottonwood trees and tall grasses in fall colors along the platte river in western Nebraska

In Defense of the West

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

As something of a disclaimer, I know not all of my thoughts here may make sense, and I know my connection between environmental issues in the West and landscape photography is tenuous at best, however because I believe so strongly in a strong sense of place guiding the production of quality landscape photography, I do believe there is a connection here.  So, please humor me, and if you have any thoughts to add, feel free to leave a comment.  

A little bit over a year ago, I wrote a blog post, “Citizen of the West,” in which I began to think about the landscape of the West, not just in terms of the topography, but of the culture, the art, and history as well; I was intrigued by how all of these components intersect to shape the West we live in today.  The general idea I wanted to convey is that landscapes like those of the West are more than just named places on the map–because of an inherent sense of place, they become part of who we are.  The places–just as much as the experiences–are what define us.  For many in the West, these bloodlines, as they are, run thicker than clay red Colorado River mud.

I recently watched a powerful and somewhat dark short film, The Death of the Bar-T,” directed by Anson Fogel from the Camp 4 Collective, that highlights this uncommon connection to the land and illustrates the complexity of some of the issues Westerners face–the collision of the old and the new West.  The old versus the new; a theme that is ever-present. Another example of this was given just a couple of weeks ago by American Rivers when they named the Colorado River–the lifeblood of the West–as the most endangered waterway in America.  As the population of the West grows (the arid Southwest states are among the nation’s fastest-growing), its precious little water is being strained beyond limit.

To me, landscape photography has an extremely strong Western influence–Ansel Adams’ work in the Sierra Nevada, Eliot Porter’s images of Glen Canyon, Edward Weston’s images from the California coast, Philip Hyde’s work from Utah, California, Colorado–all of these photographers shaped landscape photography as we know it today.  Because of their work, the named places that dot maps of the West are practically ingrained into our DNA and their images give the feeling of a sense of place whether we’ve visited these locations in person or not.  This is why so many flock to the national parks and monuments of the West each year.

As far as places go, these natural icons continue to be sought after by many as the holy grails of landscape photography, and in the name of originality, their portrayal is being pushed farther and farther to the limit of aesthetics.  The old versus the new: the icons as established by the f/64 school of thought, being reinterpreted by technology-driven pictorialists.

Family ranchers are still succeeding in places, but the culture is slowly losing its grip as larger operations take over, among other things.  Landscape photography, too, is changing (much has been written on this–see here or here).  Whether or not you eat meat, and whether or not agree with my thoughts on photography, there is much reason to defend Western culture.

Those who live here know the West is a challenging place–it is hard and arid and unforgiving, with no offering of shade or water in summer and no shelter from winter’s blizzards.  This challenge is the one against which we built everything.  Without it, we have fragments of memories–a mere recollection–of what was.

Things change, shifts in culture and perspective are inevitable.  I understand that, and in some ways, I suppose it’s silly to hang on to the past and avoid facing what’s here.  But, on some level, I feel compelled to think about these things.  All of them, from cows to photographs.  Because they all matter.

Prairie Sentinel

Citizen of the West

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Over the last few days, I have been contemplating some upcoming trips, and after a friend gave me some advice on a location, I pulled out a map to get my bearings; my memory of this particular area just wasn’t cutting it.  I have always liked maps: they tell a story, whether in a particular place name, in my memory of driving through a small town, or of a place I dream to visit.  When I was in college, before graduating to more sophisticated wall decor, it was not uncommon for me to put a map on my wall.

As I looked through my map file the other day, a flood of memories came back to me as I recalled roads I have driven, places I have seen, adventures I have had.  There’s something more tangible than paper here: these maps of the American West are the landscape of who I am.

The West has shown me what a windchill of -60°F feels like, and that those are perfect days to stay indoors.  I know that the radiating heat of 120°F in the Mojave Desert might seem uninviting, but that you can still find active wildlife.    My daydreams often drift to lonesome highways, and I find myself craving the feeling (and aroma) of being chest-deep in sagebrush at least every few months.   Dusty dirt roads were a staple of my childhood; I’ve had friends who give directions to their houses using landmarks and the words, “bear left at the Y then turn left after the cattle guard.”  This isn’t uncommon in the West.

Issues here, whether environmental or social, are hardly ever simple.  My approach to many of them is somewhat moderate.  I believe in wisely managing some of our public lands for more than one use.   The livelihood of many residents here relies on that principle–they count on our natural resources to put food on the table for their families.   That said, I watch news stories about things like coal mining, grazing, and dammed rivers closely.  As insignificant as some of them might seem, these issues ultimately affect every resident of the West.

I admire the people here who are extraordinarily hard-working; many of them know nothing else.  My grandmother is 81 years old and still works hard at least 4 days a week.

At the end of the day, politics do not matter as much as basic respect for your neighbor.  I lived in Laramie, Wyoming through many of the events surrounding Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was killed as a result of what is essentially a hate crime.  His murder showed that the rot of hatred and ignorance is indeed alive in the West, but it also brought out the best in people. A few months after things settled down, I was loading my groceries into my car, and I looked at the bumper of a beat up old ranch truck parked next to me.  On the bumper was a blue sticker with a yellow, “=”; the sign of equality.  Everyone in Wyoming, from farmers and ranchers to liberal progressives, came together in support of common, simple ideals.  Stereotypes do not hold much water here; what matters most is your character.

My website will tell you I am a photographer.  Indeed, I am.  However, I am more than that.  I am a citizen of the West.  I was born here, have lived here my entire life, and likely will die here.  I’m proud of the people who surround me, for their hard work, their vision, their character; all of these ideals are born from the landscape we live in.  They are as much a part of the West as the iconic landscapes we all chase with our cameras.

The prairie ecosystem near Cheyenne, Wyoming

High Plains Storm, December 2003


Ice Abstracts

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Several years ago, Ernest Atencio wrote an essay called “Little Wild Places”  in which he talked about wild places–even the smallest ones surrounded by city–as locations where we can rekindle our relationship with the natural world.

On our recent visit to Wyoming, I was lucky to have a creek to walk near several times.  Deer visit the creek daily; raccoons, pronghorn antelope, grouse, several small rodents, and other birds are not infrequent visitors.  One afternoon on my walk, the abstract patterns of the ice struck me and I attempted to make some abstract images of it.

abstract image of ice on a creek in winter

Ice Abstract I, December 2010

While making these images, I looked up, briefly, and saw one of the creek’s residents–a small mouse–bolting back into the underbrush.  I think it must have been as surprised as I was–what a strange being it encountered on the side of *its* creek!

abstract image of ice on a creek in winter

Ice Abstract II, December 2010

If you’re interested, there was quite a bit of technique that went into making these images.  Each one is a composite of 9 separate RAW files.  I wanted to maximize depth of field, so I focused at three separate planes through each image.  Each of these was then combined in Photoshop to maximize depth of field (I’ve blogged about this technique in the past).  At each plane of focus, I bracketed the exposure to maximize the dynamic range that was captured in the scene.  Finally, I converted the image to monochrome using Nik’s Silver Efex Pro, and added a slight silver-blue tone to convey the sense of a chilled winter day.  So, I guess these are HDR, focus-bracketed ice abstracts.  Whew…what a mouthful.  I hope you just think they’re pretty.

I was thankful to have this little wild place to not only rekindle my connection with nature, but also to foster some creativity in my photography.

How do you use little wild places?

Finding Solace

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

“We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We only have to look at the houses we built to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there…”

Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces

It wasn’t until I left Wyoming to live in southern California that I read these words by Gretel Ehrlich.  Although there are some beautiful open spaces left in southern California, and some communities have progressive open space initiatives, you’re still surrounded by ~5 million people.  Still, they provide an escape, if only for a few hours, from everyday life in southern California.  However, having returned to central Wyoming for a visit earlier this week, I now realize just how much Ehrlich’s words resonate with me.

Standing on the prairie north of Cheyenne with the cold December wind blowing in my face, I knew I could look for miles across the bunchgrass, knowing I was one of very few people for almost 100 miles.  I took a deep breath and smiled.  Yes, perhaps we do build against space (are we afraid of what we might find if we explore that space?), but sometimes that space brings a very special kind of solace.

Happy Holidays to you and yours.  Thank you for reading and participating on my blog this year; it really does mean a lot to me, and I appreciate it more than you know.  I’ve got a few blog posts planned for the rest of this year, but am looking forward to a productive and creative 2011!

A sunset on the eastern Wyoming plains north of Cheyenne

Solace, December 2010

A critic would criticize this image for having nothing interesting in the foreground.  But, that’s sort of the point.  🙂