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Photography and our Public Lands

Friday, November 18th, 2016

Over the last several weeks, we have been reminded of very real threats–or at least dangerous precedents set–to the Western landscape, and to American public lands in general. First, all defendants in the 41-day standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon were found not guilty of charges of federal conspiracy and gun charges. Less than two weeks later, the United States presidential election resulted in a Republican-controlled presidency and congress, leaving federal public lands at greater risk for fossil fuel development, or even return to state control.

For anyone concerned with the preservation of wilderness, our cultural landscape, or simply the health of future generations, neither of these occurrences should set well.  Together, they’ve been keeping me up at night. Reconciling all of this news is no small task.

black and white image of the funeral mountains in death valley national park

“I want people to remember how photography works, the medium that depends on perfect darkness within the camera to capture the image, for an image of boundless light would be purely black, an exposure in perfect darkness would show just the white of unexposed paper. The visible world depends on both.” -Rebecca Solnit | Hugging the Shadows

Finding purple in a sea of blue and red

Last week, shortly after the election, I had a conversation on social media regarding the proposed Bears Ears National Monument (which I have written about before). Although I have some hesitation about the Bears Ears region being designated a National Monument, it really is the perfect candidate for protection under the Antiquities Act, although a longtime friend disagreed. While we had opposite opinions, our underlying concern for the region is the same: both of us would like to see it remain as pristine as possible. While our sedimentary layers may be different, we are standing on the same bedrock.

Looking at election maps from last week, there appears to be a deep divide in ideology between rural and urban areas, however I’d like to think we’re more purple than red vs. blue, and that the bedrock most of us are standing on is the same. Indeed, if you look at the role public lands played in western elections this season, it is clear we value our public lands.

Looking forward, I have questions.  Is it possible to search for common ground, while at the same time not compromising core values? Can we find a common currency for the value we attribute to public lands? Perhaps, more importantly, what can photographers do now?

winter storm and dark clouds over the salt playa in columbus valley nevada

Working locally, reconnecting to place

There are a few resources out there for having the conversations that are sure to happen more frequently in coming months (this is a great one). One thing they all seem to mention is to talk about feelings, rather than facts, at least to start with. As a scientist, I think, “but the facts are all that matter!” but as an artist, I get it. Art, including landscape photography, has the power to change the way people look at their world. There’s been some debate about whether artists can or should be activists or whether art should exist independently, but my gut is telling me now is the time for us all to be activists. Share your work with as many people as possible. Create content, be heard.

I’ve lamented before that as a people we are woefully detached from place, so perhaps it is the job of artists to bring us back to that. Share your work locally. Every local in every town has stories to share about their “backyard”–tap into those stories and work to reconnect people with what may have been lost.

If anything, recent news is a reminder that our public lands–and the places we love to photograph–are in danger of becoming not-so-public, and should be a good reminder to us all to educate ourselves on local politics, and think of ways to use our photography to shift the tide towards a secure future.

Sunset in western Nevada

New Gallery: Oceans as Wilderness

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

As hard as it is for some people I meet here in southern California to believe, I didn’t see the ocean for the first time until I was 21 years old.  I had a summer job working for the U.S. Forest Service to do carnivore population surveys in the northern Sierra Nevada, and on a string of days off a couple of coworkers and I drove to Redwood National Park.  Just outside of Arcata, California was where I put my feet in the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

My first thoughts, in no particular order, were: “Good grief, the water is cold!”  “That’s a lot of water” “How are people surfing in this?” “I wonder how many sharks there are out there.”*  But mostly I just stood in awe at the immensity of the ocean.  I felt calmed by the waves almost immediately, the sounds, the smells.  It’s easy to see why oceans get the attention they do from writers, poets, artists.

Since that trip to the northern California coast, I’ve seen the Atlantic coast in Florida and Iceland, and explored California’s coast extensively.  And although I’ve moved to southern California, and I still don’t spend as much time with the ocean as I should.  However, every time I go, I feel the same way I did when I saw the Pacific for the first time; the youthful wonder I had then stays with me now, in a myriad of ways.

As a photographer, I have tended to focus on the landscapes I identify most closely with.  I grew up in the desert southwest, and continue focusing primarily on that area in my photography.  However, I can’t deny that the ocean has found its way into my daydreams, and I have finally decided that it’s time to add a portfolio of ocean and beach images to my website.

jalama beach sunset and pacific ocean

Oceans are critical to the health of the planet, and comprise more than 70% of the earth’s surface.  In addition, less than 5% of the world’s oceans have been explored.  There are species we have not yet discovered, ones we know very little about, and ones we’re about to lose (or have lost).  To this end, oceans are truly a wilderness, one we should treat with as much respect as our terrestrial home.

montaña de oro beach

I hope you enjoy the portfolio; it’s a growing set of images that I’ll add to as I make what is sure to be more and more trips to the beach.

*When I was little I had a more than a mild obsession with sharks, so that has always stuck with me to some extent.

2015 year in review

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

It’s that time of year again when you start to see ‘best of’ lists popping up all over the internet.  I can’t lie–I enjoy them just as much as the next person.  It’s always fun to look back on the year, to think about where you’ve been, where you’re going, and to think about what lies ahead in the coming year.  In choosing my most memorable images of the year, it became all about reflection.

Photographically, the most notable thing about 2015 was travel to new and exciting places.  Iceland, Canada, and Basin & Range country in Nevada were some of the new places I got to see in 2015, and I also “rediscovered” some of the mountain ranges here in southern California, seeing them with new eyes.  Solo exploration allowed time for quiet contemplation, and of course the best adventures often are shared with people close to you–these are the ones I’ll never forget.  In the span of week in August, I was in central Nevada soaking in hot springs and watching wild horses at 11,000′, then hiking through the pouring rain in Alberta.  It was a very special year indeed.

Below are some of my favorite and most memorable images from this past year.  As always, I want to thank Jim Goldstein for putting together a very comprehensive index of best-of lists from photographers around the world.  Make sure to check it out on his blog; the list should be available in early 2016.

You can also see some of my favorite images from years past as well: 20142013 | 2012 | 2011

Stormy mountain scene near Vik

Icelandic mountain scene – January

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Seljalandsfoss, Iceland – January


Pinto Basin, Joshua Tree National Park, California – February

san juan river from goosenecks state park, utah

San Juan River, Utah – July

south twin river toiyabe mountains

Toiyabe Mountains, Nevada – August

playa in monitor valley nevada

Edge of the Playa, Nevada – August

avalanche creek, glacier national park

Glacier National Park, Montana – August

Saskatchewan River Banff National Park

Banff National Park, Canada – August

stormy sunset inyo mountains california

Inyo Mountains, California – November

san gabriel mountains moonset near wrightwood

San Gabriel Mountains, California – November

desert view sunrise, grand canyon national park

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona – December

lipan point sunrise, grand canyon national park, arizona

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona – December

2014 year in review

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

“Walking takes longer… than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed.” — Edward Abbey

In several ways, 2014 was a journey for me, and I am grateful much of it was taken on foot.  With a couple of exceptions, my favorite images this year were made on hiking or backpacking trips.  In June, Jackson Frishman and I had a great trip through the Ansel Adams wilderness and another friend and I spent a wonderful week in August in the John Muir wilderness.  Both trips were highlights of my year, not just for the photography and scenery but also for the company.

Now that 2015 is upon us, the journey continues.  I’m looking forward to seeing where life takes me this year, and I hope you find yourself on happy trails in your own travels.

See some of my other favorite images from years past: 2011 | 2012 | 2013

Fog races over a hilltop at dawn

Foggy Giant Forest

Sunset in the Golden Trout Wilderness

Bentonite Hill Layers, northern New Mexico

Sunset over Minaret Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness California

Iceberg Lake, John Muir Wilderness

Granite Park sunset, Sierra Nevada, California

Pacific Ocean sunrise

Mojave Desert storm light

Understanding the Why, part 2

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why I make images.  What’s my motivation to get up at unreasonable hours, explore dusty dirt roads that haven’t been touched in years, or hike for hours in the sun only to never take my camera out?  The answers–of course–transcend photography, but I have been able to identify some discrete reasons why I make images.  You can read part 1 (perspective) here.

Part 2: Beauty

“There is beauty, heartbreaking beauty, everywhere.” — Edward Abbey

In my last post, I wrote about how photography–and being in nature–helps me to gain perspective.  Indeed it does.  However, by being outside often I’ve also been able to see many beautiful scenes in nature.  I’ve often joked with friends that I’ll never take them anywhere ugly for vacation, which as far as I know is a true statement.  “Beauty,” to the photographer, however is two-fold.

The first way to look at beauty is very simple: nature is beautiful.  My hope is that every single person has had an experience in the outdoors that has stopped them in their tracks and has moved them to the point where they are speechless.  During these moments when words aren’t sufficient, we stand in awe of the scene before us.  It is a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching awe that is at the same time more satisfying and more tortuous than anything we’ve experienced.  Satisfying because there’s no place on earth we’d rather be in that moment, tortuous because we know we can’t experience that euphoria forever.

There are times in life when words aren’t necessary.  For most of us, trying to put words to these moments wouldn’t do them justice, and might even scare them away.  As a photographer, I try to make images that convey my sense of awe, knowing that as my capacity to feel awe increases, so does my reverence of the natural world.

My worry is that these euphoric moments are becoming rarer and all too fleeting in our society.  I recently read an article in the American Scientist by Louis Chianese that asks a simple question: Is nature photography too beautiful?  His main idea is that by presenting only glossy and polished nature imagery, photographers are “masking” the plight of our planet, and by subduing our processing, we can bring our photography more in line with the current state of ecological affairs.  To me, his question asks whether artists have a social responsibility to accurately portray a scene.  This has been discussed many times, and I won’t go into it here, except to say that it’s more important to me to protect those moments where I–where we–stand in awe of nature, because they’re equally as endangered (even if they’re less tangible).  This is where beauty and perspective go hand in hand:

If we lose our capacity for awe, we will forget who we are, and where we came from.

The High Sierra, Sequoia National Park

The second way to think about beauty is that we don’t have to go places to experience it.  Sure, that upcoming vacation to ____________ is something we all look forward to, but when you stop and look around you, you realize that beauty really is all around you.  In that sense, we have a good insurance policy on those awe-inspiring moments because they’re free and in abundance if we take the time to seek them out.  Photography helps me to “see” the world in new ways, and appreciate the inherent beauty in nature.

If we can all aspire to find a way to appreciate the natural world, whether by our art or other actions, we might be better off–kinder, gentler.  How do you appreciate the beauty that surrounds you?  Do you think nature photography is too beautiful?

Moss-covered trees, abstract

Understanding the Why, part 1

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why I make images.  What’s my motivation to get up at unreasonable hours, explore dusty dirt roads that haven’t been touched in years, or hike for hours in the sun only to never take my camera out?  The answers–of course–transcend photography, but I have been able to identify some discrete reasons why I make images.  You can read part 2 (beauty) here.

Part 1: Perspective

“Good and evil do not exist in Nature.” — Spinoza

So far this year, I’ve landed in Sequoia National Park a couple of times.  I didn’t really plan it this way, it just happened.  Most people associate the park with its namesake giant trees, which are truly impressive.  However, Sequoia’s backcountry is equally awe-inspiring; not only can you find the world’s largest trees here, but also the highest point in the contiguous United States.  They’re just a short 72.2 mile hike from one another (a day hike for some–Leor Pantilat ran the High Sierra trail in just under 16 hours in 2012).

Foggy Giant Forest

Whether you choose to focus on the forest or the trees, Sequoia’s landscape is big.  On my second trip to the park recently, I was on a solo backpack via the Golden Trout Wilderness. While the scenery here isn’t as well known as some other iconic Sierra locales, the views of the Kahweahs, Chagoopa Plateau, and Great Western Divide are impressive, and the scale of the landscape quickly becomes apparent.  While slightly less well-known, the landscape is still rugged.  In late May at 11,000′, the temperatures were still chilly and snow flurries reminded me winter might not be willing to loosen its grip quite yet.

Although rugged, I’m hesitant to say that the landscape is unforgiving because it simply can’t be.  It’s unresponsive.  That’s, I think, why I came here.   As Gretel Ehrlich wrote, I needed to be steadied by its indifference.  So much of the time, our burdens in life feel very big.  However in the grand scheme of things, things are really very different and those big problems maybe aren’t quite as insurmountable after all.  Standing in the Sierra or any landscape, I’m reminded of my smallness–my place–in the world.

Paraphrasing Muir, going out is really going in, and there’s a unique comfort to be found in a visiting a place that simply just is.

I make images in places like this to regain my perspective, to remember that I’m part of something bigger.  This isn’t to say that my worries and cares are diminished, but that’s the challenge:  can we not make something more than it is, while at the same time not make it less than it was?  Can the images we create answer this challenge?  Can photography become a practice in self-awareness and in helping us to gain perspective?

After The Storm

2013 Year in Review

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

“Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home — not by story or blood but merely by their forms and colors. How our perceptions are our only internal map of the world, how there are places that claim you and places that warn you away. How you can fall in love with the light.”  — Ellen Meloy

“I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to? It is not quite true that you can’t go home again. I have done it, coming back here. But it gets less likely…we have lived too shallowly in too many places.” — Wallace Stegner

Another year has passed and I am re-reading my blog posts and journals from 2013, as well as reviewing my images, retracing my year.  Last year was one in which I grew tremendously in my photographic vision and voice.  This year, I hoped to build on that growth.

Looking at numbers of images produced, 2013 was relatively light for me.  Some of this was intentional: I spent significant time in the mountains over the summer and fall, but often left my camera at home, focusing on introspection and reflection.  I used to carry my camera everywhere with me, but have learned to let that go somewhat–sometimes being in the moment is more valuable than trying to capture every moment with a camera.  Details and intimacy with the moment get lost that way, as counterintuitive as it may seem.

Despite the few images I made this year, it was productive in other ways.  I was able to redesign my website and restructure my image portfolios.  I had several fantastic backpacking trips and was reminded how good getting off the grid for a few days can feel.  I was fortunate to enjoy two of those backpacking trips with Jackson Frishman, who I have known for several years through our blogs; I really enjoyed getting to know him in person this year.  I also was able to further develop some thoughts on the West, and on sense of place, which is an ongoing subject of interest for me:


In Defense of the West

Preserving Wildness

Personally, it was a year of deep introspection, revelation, and unexpected hope for me; 2014 should be an interesting year photographically as well as personally.   One thing I did confront within myself was the fact that my parents are aging and won’t live forever–this has been a theme since January and in some ways continues to be so.

My biggest recurring theme this year was the concept of ‘home’ and how we fit into the landscape.  I’m not talking about home in the sense of having a street address and a house, but rather the feeling you get when you arrive in a certain location.  Why are we drawn to certain landscapes more than others–why do we feel “at home” in certain landscapes, but not in others?  I feel like this is should be a central tenet of landscape photography: conveying a sense of place, a sense of belonging, to the landscape.

As humans, we are at an interesting crossroads: we can use the landscape to drive our development, we can simply be inhabitants of the landscape, or we can become part of the landscape, existing as part of its rhythm.   Only the latter option is a completely synchronous way of living–the former two are somewhat asynchronous.  The bottom line is that we must strive to create a life that’s in balance with our own needs, but also with the land.

I found balance this year by visiting familiar locations, revisiting places I haven’t been in years, and discovering new landscapes I haven’t visited before.  As I was reviewing my portfolios and images from the year, it struck me that many of my favorites from this year were in monochrome.  Why?  I guess I just saw the world that way in 2013.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the images, and that 2013 was good to you.  I hope you a fantastic 2014 as well!

Markagunt Plateau Aspens

Aspen grove, Utah. September

Aspens and granite boulders

Aspens & lichen-covered granite, California, August

Blooming Mojave Yucca

Mojave Yucca, California, April

Intimate mountain landscape

Tree & Rocks, California, May

Canyon Abstract 2

Canyon Walls, Utah, June

Carrizo Plain National Monument

Shadows and Hillside, California, March

Death Valley Sunrise

Stormy Desert Sunrise, California, January

The Little Colorado River

Little Colorado River Canyon, Arizona, February

Wildflowers, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Mountain Wildflowers, Wyoming, July

On being busy and the creative life

Saturday, November 17th, 2012

It is funny how life can get away from you sometimes.  For the past few weeks I’ve been so busy I have not have much time to write and even less time to pick up my camera to make new images.  Over the last few nights, we’ve had some amazing sunsets here in southern California, as well as some very welcome winter weather; combined, this has all made me miss my camera and the outdoors so much more.  So, a few days ago, when I realized I had an entire day for a hike, I took advantage of it.

A recent storm had given the mountains and foothills a slight dusting of snow; I liked the juxtaposition between the desert ecosystem (one we usually consider to be ‘hot’) and the coldness of the snow.  The canyon I chose to hike up felt frigid, with several hours remaining before the sun would find its granite walls.  It was nice to feel the cold air on my skin as I moved up the canyon; after what felt like a scorching summer, I welcomed the chill.

A yucca plant with fresh snow on it

Winter in the desert, November 2012

As the day progressed, the long light of fall gave a lovely feeling to the day: autumnal perfection.  Although the snow is sure to melt without another storm, it hung gracefully in the shadows while the sun warmed my bones.  I couldn’t have written a more perfect day if I had tried; it was exactly what my soul and mind needed.

Ponderosa Pine trunks

| |, November 2012

During my hike, my thought process centered on art, photography, and creativity.  I had brought my camera with me, and I tried making some images; some succeeded.  I went hiking with the intent of getting a good workout and enjoying some time outside, photography was admittedly secondary.  I can’t help but feel, however, that natural pattern, light, and beauty are all around us–art is all around us.  There is a lot of discussion over exactly what art is.  .  As landscape photographers, we spend a lot of time (and money) traveling to the “best” locations at the best times of year to make beautiful images…then we try sticking a label on it (and worry about what others think).  I wonder if, we are limited only by our ability to see the art that is all around us?

A ponderosa pine tree standing in a fresh dusting of snow

Last rays, November 2012

We are all on a personal journey to create art.  How do you go about that?  How would you tell someone to embark on their own journey?  Brooks Jensen recently gave some of the best advice for creating moving art here; this is the strongest statement I’ve seen on the subject:

Produce your work to the very best of your ability. Send it out into the world. Listen to feedback, but measure it against your instincts. Learn from the feedback, but don’t supplicate yourself to it. Produce more work to the best of your ability. Be honest with yourself. Strive for deeper understanding and expression with all you’ve got. Give your work and yourself time to mature. Finish things so you can let go and move on. As has been so often said, even a fool who persists may eventually become wise. Then produce more work and plunge deeper into the process of awareness and expression. Soon, you will no longer care about the terms used to describe your work — snapshot or “Fine Art.” Do not confuse the map with the territory.

I think, ultimately, the landscape photographer has a choice: to create images that simply are what they are, or to let the “reptilian scales” be peeled from their eyes and truly see what is around them, perhaps in the process creating images that truly move the viewer.

Returning to the sea

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

While I normally don’t think of myself as a desert rat per se, when I do some serious self-examination, that is where I find my imagination wandering. Deserts can be funny places; you can sit all day in the shade of juniper a tree without so much as seeing a lizard flit across the sand, yet you can observe the diversity and health of the ecosystem all around you. Most people–myself often included–don’t often have the patience to sit and wait for something (anything) to happen here. This is the wilderness after all, and action can be a bit hard to come by.

So it was that I recently found myself at Montaña de Oro State Park, on California’s central coast. Far away from my much-loved desert, I spent several hours exploring the rocky coastline, climbing on the rocks and looking for a spot to photograph sunset. Waves crushed the rocks along the beach relentlessly, finding their way into every cove, crack, and crevice, over and over again. As soon as one wave left, another would come, inflicting its wrath on the rocks. For millions of years this has been happening, shaping the shoreline into what it is today.

Waves rushing into a sea cave at Montaña de Oro

Carving out a cave, October 2012

There is something mesmerizing about being near the ocean.  Maybe it’s the rhythmicity or the the ability of the waves to drown out the voices in my head, I don’t know.  Whatever it is, I feel calmed and soothed, regardless of whether I walk along a calm beach or next to a violent shoreline being battered by relentless waves.

I often imagine what it would be like to be alone on a kayak far out at sea.  The thought frightens me a little bit, the feeling of loneliness that would accompany that could easily be overwhelming.  I suspect the hours would pass slowly, just waiting for something (anything) to happen, and it would feel like a million miles away from the seemingly busy shoreline.   In this context, it should become obvious that the ocean is wilderness too, and should be celebrated as such.  However, just like our terrestrial wildernesses, the ocean is being exploited, overfished, polluted.

“Fifty million buffalo once roamed the rolling green prairies of North America. Gunners reduced them to near extinction. Now, hunters are at work on the rolling blue prairies of the sea, and already, the big fish – including miracles like thousand-pound, warm-blooded bluefin tuna – are 90 percent gone. What we regret happening on land, may again happen in the sea. Those who care about wildlife should get to know about oceans.”

–Carl Safina, Comes a Turtle, Comes the World


A seascape on the California coast

Seascape, October 2012

From a photographic point of view, beaches have been called the easiest places to put together a compelling composition.  I can’t argue, but I definitely don’t believe that oceans (or beaches for that matter) are simple places.  They are beautifully complex, life-giving, and they need to be celebrated by everyone, whether they’ve set foot in an ocean or not.  Sitting at Montaña de Oro, I am reminded that I need the sea as much as I need my beloved desert.

All That Glitters

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

With kids, practicality often wins out over idealism.  When I camp, I would much rather be completely alone on a sage flat or next to a small mountain lake than in a campground choked with campfire smoke, people on cell phones, and car alarms gone wild.  However, with a 4-year-old, having a flush toilet and running water is sometimes just…well…easier.

So we found recently found ourselves in said campground on an end-of-summer trip to the Sierra Nevada.  I had plans to photograph a few locations nearby that I scouted earlier in the summer and was excited to be back in the Range of Light.  But, pulling into our campground, I was distracted by a large group of my favorite tree–aspen–on the hillside above our campground.

It will be a month or so before photographers descend by the hundreds on the eastern Sierra, but I didn’t really care that these trees weren’t yet showing their golden set of leaves.  Aspen groves have a distinct smell; something about the trees, the grass, and the leaves on the ground gives a very unique and comforting fragrance.    After dinner on our first night, my wife and son went to bed early so I walked alone for a long time, enjoying the different “sections” of the grove–interspersed with sagebrush–each one idiosyncratic, each one with its own personality.   I made some images, trying to capture the temperament of the trees, whether they were twisted and weather-beaten, or growing straight and true towards the sky.  Visiting this grove felt almost like visiting an old friend.

Vertical pan blur of aspen trees (Populus tremuloides)

Aspen Grove I, September 2012

As I wandered further from my campsite, I thought about how the eastern Sierra is crawling with photographers year-round, yet I did not see another set of tripod legs or hear any clicks of the shutter anywhere around me.  Again, in about a month, that won’t be the case here.  “Why are these poor trees ignored for most of the year,” I wondered to myself.

Then I thought that perhaps this is the gift these trees have given me.  If for only one night, I can stand among them, or lay in the grass watching the stars overhead and be completely alone–completely welcomed by the calm and the silence–even if I do have to camp in a “real” campsite.

There is refuge here, and I’m not talking about refuge from a few rogue campers.  There is refuge for the soul.

Stars over an aspen grove in the Sierra Nevada mountains

Aspen Grove II, September 2012