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2016 year in review

Monday, December 26th, 2016

As I write this, Christmas is only a couple of days away, rain is falling outside, and I’m putting together my favorite photos of the year feeling a bit of disbelief that another trip around the sun has already passed. In many ways, the past twelve months have represented contrast, a dichotomy. The world lost several great and inspiring artists this year, but I feel lucky to have discovered new artists who are a source of inspiration. Another contrast is the current state of division that the United States is ending the year in, but personally I feel more complete–less divided–that I’ve felt in quite some time.

Photographically, 2016 was one of contrasts as well. My travels between the desert and the coast really underscored this; two dramatically different landscapes, have–in their own way–become home to me. I finally put together a small (but growing) portfolio of ocean images this year, and of course expanded my portfolios of the deserts and mountains. Of course, in addition to new friends, I was able to enjoy these places with old friends. My girlfriend and I enjoyed several camping trips along the California coast, and I got to introduce her to some of my favorite desert landscapes. A couple of great backcountry trips with Jackson Frishman helped to strengthen my affinity for Great Basin landscapes.

To that end, contrast has certainly been a theme this year as I chose my favorite images for this annual year-end retrospective. I also have been thinking a lot about the role of landscape photography as art.  In 2016, it became more apparent to me the threats that face public lands (see my blog posts here and here), and producing art that changes the way people see the world seems more important now than ever. My friend Mark Hespenheide’s artist statement continues to resonate with me in this regard:

“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.”

May we all produce a truly great body of work in 2017.

bosque del apache snow geese fly in

Snow geese at dawn, Bosque del Apache NWR, January

 

montaña de oro beach

Montaña de Oro, California, June

 

Sunset in western Nevada

Sunset in western Nevada, January

 

navajo national monument sunrise

Sunrise in northern Arizona, August

 

Wildflowers in Death Valley, January

 

jalama beach sunset

Pacific Ocean sunset, June

 

Escalante River Sunset

Sunset over southern Utah, March

 

Clouds and fog in the San Gabriel Mountains at sunset

San Gabriel Mountains, November

 

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

Winter storm in western Nevada, January

 

white pine mountains sunset

Sunset in eastern Nevada’s White Pine Mountains, August

 

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

Storm in Death Valley, January

Past images of the year:

2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015

Chaos Theory

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

In walking around southern California, I notice many people are starting to doubt the legitimacy of the rain this record El Niño was said to bring us.  Fair enough…we’ve had only one honest storm so far, but meteorologists say it is really just starting to come into its own. Despite not rearing its head too badly yet here, much of the Sierra Nevada is already at 100%+ of snowpack, and wildflowers are starting pop up in the desert.  More on that in a minute though.

At the end of fall, right before Christmas, I made a quick trip to the Grand Canyon.  While there, I got to experience a fairly stormy day on the south rim, complete with howling winds, whiteout conditions and closed roads.  A couple of images from that trip easily made my Favorites of 2015.  Then, Jackson Frishman and I headed to Death Valley National Park, and the weather was equally spunky.  There was no snow in the valley, but there was plenty of rain, great clouds, and even a few surprises thrown in along the way.

Visiting the Grand Canyon and Death Valley so closely together in time is sort of a surreal experience.  As if I had lost it, I quickly regained my appreciation for deep geological time.  Nearly 75 million years ago during the Laramide Orogeny, the Colorado Plateau was pushed upward nearly two miles and the Colorado River (which flowed from the newly formed Rocky Mountains) started to cut into the rock, forming the Grand Canyon.  Today, the river has cut about as deeply as it can go–to the basement Vishnu Schists–giving us a look back in time about 1.7 billion years.

Death Valley’s geologic story is a bit more complex (and violent), but as the Vishnu basement rocks in the Grand Canyon were being formed, Death Valley was already in a state of unrest, with rocks in certain areas being twisted and folded.  One area of particularly complex folding has been dubbed the “Amargosa Chaos” and is found in the southern end of the Black Mountains.  Fold, fold, fold…then separate.  That’s how the Basin and Range Province creates its mountain ranges–plates are pulled apart until they tilt upward creating massive mountain ranges with deep valleys between them.  In this part of North America, as John McPhee writes, the continent is literally being pulled apart.

You also start to understand a scale of spatial immensity in these two places.  While the Grand Canyon is typically thought of as the “deep” canyon at around 6,000 feet, it’s got nothing on Death Valley, which is over two miles deep (at its deepest).  If you’re not interested geology (I know…how can you not be?), it might be just as easy to stand in awe of both of these places, allowing yourself to feel small, both as a part of the landscape, and as barely-a-blip in geological time.

It’s worth noting briefly that while spring on the Grand Canyon’s rim is a few months off, it’s already happening in (especially) the southern end of Death Valley.  Jackson and I saw fields of Desert Gold (Geraea canescens) that created a wonderful lace-work pattern among the volcanic rocks in the southern Black Mountains.  All of the other usual suspects were starting to bloom as well, but are several weeks off from peak.  Hopefully some dreary, drizzly conditions continue in Death Valley, and it’s got the possibility of becoming a very good year for wildflowers.  Jackson has several photos and more commentary on his blog as well.

A winter evening at the south rim of the Grand Canyon

Death Valley mountains and wildflowers

Stormy winter morning on the south rim of the Grand Canyon

Salt Creek Hills, Death Valley

January Trips

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Straight as an arrow, or very nearly so, the road crests the mountain range, beginning its descent into the valley.  After what feels like only a few minutes, it will start up the next rise, repeating this pattern again and again.

Basin and range.  Ascent and descent.  This topography–narrow, steep mountain ranges separated by deep valleys–very nearly defines the West.  John Muir’s Sierra Nevada is the westernmost “range;” the province then extends eastward, one towering mountain range after another, and would reach all the way to eastern Colorado if the Colorado Plateau didn’t get in its way.

Four years ago, my Dad and I began the somewhat informal tradition of making a January photography trip somewhere together.  I think it started mostly as an excuse to be outside and hike around together, hopefully making a few images along the way.  Last week, I found myself in his truck with him cresting the Amargosa Range thus beginning the descent into Death Valley.

Death Valley National Park typifies the Basin and Range Province; the Inyo, Panamint, and Amargosa mountain ranges rise like the vertebral columns of colossal ancient dinosaurs, and the valleys between them (Death Valley included) cut through the earth separating them.  The changes in elevation are dramatic and impressive, even to someone not well-versed in geology.  As the park brochure will tell you, it is indeed a land of extremes.

Colorful backlit badlands

We spent the next few days hiking around some places I had been to before, and some I had not.  As one must sometimes do in a national park the size of Connecticut, we also drove a lot.  The arrival of a winter storm gave a unique patina to the desert: landscapes we normally associate with hot lifelessness were transformed–beautifully–by clouds and fog.

I don’t normally get to photograph über-dramatic light, and honestly I am okay with that.  My eye naturally tends to find compositions in subtle light and delicate form, which is exactly what this storm gave us.  This year I celebrated my birthday on our trip, and the light was a perfect birthday gift.  So, not only was it a time to enjoy being outside, it was also a time of celebration.

Early morning light on the Panamint Mountains

The last four Januarys with my Dad have given me milestones by which to watch him get older as well.  He is not in failing health, but with each passing year I see him–both of my parents–getting older.  My rational brain is accepting of that, but the little boy in me isn’t quite ready for the aging process to begin–in them, or in myself.  Over the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking a lot about aging, mortality, our ability to experience a place, and the creative process; I think a common thread runs between all of these things.

As photographers, and particularly as landscape photographers, our ability to create art is rooted in how we perceive the world: our ability to see light and distinguish shapes, and to integrate that sensory experience with the smells and sounds around us is the cornerstone of our craft.  The most evocative landscape photography I have seen is that which is sensed, not only with my eyes, but inside of the nucleus of every cell in my body.

Our senses are rooted in our biology, which changes as we age.  If our senses are changing, it is no surprise that our artistic vision would change as well.  Ideally, it would mature along with everything else!  I wrote in my last blog post about my own journey back in time, exploring my favorite images from the last half decade.  My artistic vision has changed, certainly.  Matured, perhaps.  Practice, study, and introspection have no doubt played a part in this, but perception–the way my senses tell me about the world–is a huge part of that.

Do we perceive the world with more clarity as we age?  Do my aging parents somehow see things more clearly than I do?  In some ways, I’d like to think they do.  It is somewhat macabre, but looking all the way to the end may help answer that.  Turning to my “other” field of comparative physiology for a moment, the great Canadian physiologist Peter Hochachka wrote only days before his own death in 2002, “I have noticed how the mind seems to clear when one’s time is up and current life is near an end…instead of anger, bitterness or even sadness, there can be interest and increased clarity.”

Winter Storm in the Panamint Mountains

Basin and range.  On my birthday this year, this landscape gave me not only light, but hope as well.  Hope that in 30 years, I will see this landscape differently, and with more clarity, as perhaps my Dad did standing next to me on this trip.  Hope that I will still be creating images then, images that are personal, unique, intimate.

Storm light on the Racetrack Playa

New Portfolio Images

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Things have been a little quiet here on the blog this year.  I guess, perhaps, I’ve been suffering from a bit of writer’s block, but I have been enjoying sharing a daily image on Facebook.  I’ll be writing more here on the blog soon.

At the end of 2011, I spent a couple of really enjoyable days at sand dunes in Death Valley National Park, including the Eureka Dunes.  So far this year, I’ve spent a couple of days in southern Nevada at Valley of Fire State Park, as well as the surrounding Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and have been on a few rainy-day hikes at one of my favorite places in southern California.

I’ve uploaded new portfolio images to several of my galleries here on the site; all of these images have resonated with me, for various reasons, and I hope you check them out!  A few (that haven’t already been featured here on the blog) are below.

I hope your 2012 is off to a great start!

Gnarled oaks at the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve

A Foggy Day, January 2012

 

Sunrise at Elephant Rock, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

The Elephant & The Moon, January 2012

 

Late Afternoon in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Persistence, November 2011

Braced against the wind

Friday, January 6th, 2012

In Medicine Bow, Wyoming, they say the wind doesn’t blow twenty four hours out of the whole year.  Even in July, the wind is cold, noisy, all-consuming.  One morning, my friend, hiking in the wind near Medicine Bow tripped, and at the last second looked down to see a small prairie rattlesnake strike right between her legs; if she hadn’t stumbled, she would have been bitten.  The wind silenced the snake’s warning rattle.

The wind can be harsh, cold, brutal, and at the same time it can be life-giving, sustaining.  It shapes who we are, and what we have yet to become.  If you’ve lived with it for any period of time, you know what I’m talking about.  It may be much more tangible to see how the wind shapes the landscapes we love so much.  I’m excited to present four new images (See the portfolio here, as well as below) from two of our national parks–Bryce Canyon and Death Valley–that are devoted to the wind that shapes these beautiful, mysterious, and awe-inspiring places.

Bryce Canyon National Park is hugely popular, being part of the “Grand Circle” of the Southwest, and its no wonder why.  Bryce’s hoodoos–formed by the brilliantly colorful Claron Formation–simply glow like no other rock in southern Utah.  In concert with water, the wind shapes the hoodoos into various shapes–from hammers, to broken palaces, to entire cities.  Jagged and raw, Bryce inspires imagination and creativity, and as Ebenezer Bryce pointed out, “its a hell of a place to lose a cow.”

Contrast Bryce’s ruggedness with Death Valley’s seemingly endless sand dunes.  The wind shapes the sand into sensuous, almost erotic, curves that perhaps could be an abstract nude study rather than a grand landscape.  The light plays on the dunes on both a micro and macro scale, providing endless shapes and forms.

Hoodoos in late afternoon light, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon #1, 2011

 

Hoodoos in late afternoon light, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon #2, 2011

 

Ibex Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Death Valley #1, 2011

 

Ibex Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Death Valley #2, 2011

These images signify–in part–the forces that have shaped our national parks.  To help with the continued protection of our public lands, I’ll be donating 25% of the profits from the sale of these prints to the Wilderness Society, which works to make visits to our national parks more meaningful and inspiring.  This is not a limited-edition series of prints, and this offer doesn’t expire–I’ll make the donations forever.  Finally, I am offering special pricing for the purchase of all four of these prints, in any size.  Please visit my purchase page, or contact me for more details.

“The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly, light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding. Finally, the lessons of impermanence taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life.”   –Gretel Ehrlich

Desert Sentinels

Friday, November 11th, 2011

In the deserts and canyons of the southwest, water can be tough to come by; as a result, charismatic megafauna that rely on that water are often elusive and secretive.  The desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) is a widespread, but uncommon resident of the southwest.

They truly are sentinels of the desert; on any given afternoon in Joshua Tree National Park,  you might see one surveying the landscape from atop a granite boulder.  In southwest Utah, they return to the canyons from the high country when the temperature starts to fall.  In the desert communities around Palm Springs, they illustrate the interaction between man and nature very well; bighorns have taken to eating ornamental cactus and other plants, so large fences have been erected to keep them out (which is ironic, because some people would pay to see a sheep!).

Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in Joshua Tree
Desert Sentinel
Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The interaction between humans and bighorns isn’t a recent thing, though.  In fact, humans have been interacting with them since the southwest was first settled, probably thousands of years ago.  If you take any interest in rock art at all, you’ll quickly find that bighorns were a ubiquitous subject of prehistoric artists.  Indeed, I wonder if the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples who lived with these animals found them just as captivating as we do today.

Fremont River petroglyphs, capitol reef national park, utah
Badly weather damaged petroglyphs depicting desert bighorn sheep
Wolfe Ranch Petroglyphs, Arches National Park, Utah

In some ways, the desert bighorn sheep embodies the spirit of the west: it is largely solitary, is resilient, and has shown a great ability to adapt to the desert environment.  Its a true steward of the ecosystems it thrives in.  The Desert Bighorn Council is a great resource to learn more about the biology and conservation of desert bighorn sheep (they list links to many local organizations as well).

Ghost Stories

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Sometimes you never know what to expect in the desert.  Death Valley National Park is home to hundreds (maybe thousands) of old mines, and on our last trip, we explored the remains of an old talc mine near Ibex Dunes–the Rainbow Talc Mine.  There were a lot of remnants strewn around the mine site (scrap metal, etc), and the shafts were really well preserved.  While not getting close to the edges, it was interesting to poke around and wonder what it was like to mine this area.

Remnants of a talc mine, Death Valley National Park, California

Remnants of the Rainbow Talc Mine, February 2010

Upon leaving, my friend and I happened to notice a note scratched into a piece of scrap metal near the mine’s remains.  It said “We ‘saw’ the two big tall men carrying big packs! “ and was dated 2 days before our visit.  Could something have happened here that is causing the miners to linger, more than 30 years after its abandonment?

Note found at rainbow talc mine

Do you think we were being watched?

While I don’t believe in ghosts, I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder once or twice as we hiked out…just to make sure we weren’t being watched.

Have you ever had a spook while out on an adventure?  If so, please share it in the comments!

Bleak

Monday, July 19th, 2010

I’ve been playing around with some older RAW files lately, and remembered a series of shots from my February Death Valley trip.  When we arrived in the park, we immediately walked a short distance out into Badwater (Lake Manly when it has water in it), just to admire the scene.  Afterwards, we drove up the road, turned on to the West Side Road and were blown away by the amount of water present.  Overall, the light was drab, and I wasn’t too excited about the photos I was getting.

However, I’ve been able to resurrect some of these “blah” images as black and white photos–the clouds were present, the contrast and tonality was present, why not make a black and white image?  To that end, here are a couple of images.


Panamint Mountains, Late Afternoon, February 2010

storm in death valley national park, california

Stormy Skies, February 2010

The lesson here is simple: like these images AND in Death Valley, things may appear bleak on the surface, but if you’re willing to take the time and dig into them, you can find beauty just about anywhere.

To see all of my Death Valley images, click here.

Ibex Dunes

Friday, February 26th, 2010

After our poor weather at Badwater on Saturday morning, we recovered, and headed to the extreme southeast corner of Death Valley to visit Ibex Dunes.  I’ve wanted to visit Ibex for nearly a year, and was happy to get the chance to make it down there.  I like Ibex for several reasons: it is secluded so solitude is nearly a guarantee, the dunes are taller than those at Stovepipe Wells, so they give some alternative choices for composition, and they are on the way home, so stopping there to camp makes the drive home a little shorter.

As I said in my last post, bad weather can either make for stubborn or amazing light.   The latter was definitely the case on our visit to Ibex.  When we arrived, the sun was behind a thick cloud bank, and I was afraid that would be telling of our entire visit.  However, in the final 15 minutes before sunset, the sun peeked out and lit the dunes and the mountains behind them brilliantly.  The warm tones of the earth contrasted amazingly well with the stormy skies, thus making it one of the best sunset shoots I’ve had in quite some time…possibly ever.  However, the light only lasted about 15 minutes, and we made the 1 mile walk back to the car.

Ibex Dunes at sunset, Death Valley National Park, California

Ibex Dunes and the Saddle Peak Hills, Death Valley National Park, February 2010

The great thing about Death Valley is that you never know what the day has in store for you!

"Self Portrait", Death Valley National Park, February 2010

"Self Portrait", Death Valley National Park, February 2010

To see all of my Death Valley photos, click here.

A strange visitor at Badwater

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

This weekend, a friend and I drove to Death Valley National Park.  I had heard there is currently water in Badwater Basin, and wanted to see it, as well as photograph it.  Since Death Valley usually does not get enough rain to allow for standing water in the basin, this is a rare event (since January 1, Furnace Creek has received over 2″ of rain).  On Friday, we arrived at Badwater about 3pm, and immediately headed to the West Side Road in search of photo opportunities.

On Friday, another storm moved into the area.  In my experience, bad weather can either lead to amazing light conditions, or to very poor conditions for photography.  Unfortunately, in this case, it was the latter.  There wasn’t much of a sunset on Friday night.  However, after dark, we headed back over to the Badwater parking area and walked out on the salt flat.  Because conditions were poor for star trail photography, my friend and I did some light graffiti–one of his newest hobbies.  I have to disclose that I really did nothing here, except for stand behind the camera, but this one is called ‘Badwater Blooms’.

light graffiti on Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, California

"Badwater Blooms", Death Valley National Park, February 2010

As we were experimenting with different bloom configurations, the strangest thing happened.  We thought we were alone on the salt flat, but off in the distance, we could make out a figure walking towards us.  Ours was the only car in the parking lot, and no one had arrived, so we tried to say hello, thinking the person may be lost or need help.  The figure didn’t say anything, but as it got closer to us, a bright light appeared behind it, and the figure disappeared, almost as quickly as it had appeared.

I managed to snap this photo before it disappeared.

a strange silhouette in Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California

A strange visitor, Death Valley National Park, February 2010

Was the visitor from another dimension?  Did it exit through a portal that’s only open when Badwater Basin is full of water?  I’m not sure.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have much better light the next morning; in fact, we had really poor light.  However, Saturday night, we had the best light I’ve had in quite some time.  I’ll share those images in my next post.

You can see all my Death Valley images here.