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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.

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.

Harvesting Autumn

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Volumes have been written about iconic locations in landscape photography, but if there is an iconic season, then it must be autumn.   This is for good reason because the displays put on by vegetation as it transitions from a full summer coat to the nakedness of winter can be breathtaking.  In the same way farmers harvest their crop in October, photographers harvest the wonderful long shadows of waning daylight and the gorgeous colors of aspens and maples, taking advantage of weather that hasn’t quite turned white yet.

Trail and aspens in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

A Walk through the Aspens

Autumn is by far my favorite season.  Both of the images in this post are from previous years, but this year I’m looking forward an upcoming trip to the mountains of northern New Mexico, where aspen groves are certainly on the itinerary.  I am excited for crisp mornings accompanied by the bugles of bull elk looking for a sparring partner and the feeling of warmth only an autumn sun can bring.   In addition to the upcoming trip, it is time to enjoy the fruits of a hard year’s labor; later this week, I will have some exciting news to share here on the blog regarding a project I’ve been working on this year with PJ Johnson and Ann Whittaker.

To quote L.M. Montgomery (who wrote Anne of Green Gables), “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”  Indeed.  I hope you have a fantastic harvest season, and look forward to the next few months!

Laurel Mountain at sunrise, Sierra Nevada, California

Laurel Mountain at dawn 

Intimate Zion

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

I remember my first visit to Zion National Park as a teenager, on spring break, with my parents.  It was one of the only trips we took as a family that was a vacation for vacation’s sake.  All other car trips to that point had been to visit family in Wyoming or Nebraska.  I have to admit it felt odd to be on a vacation with my parents!  But, the massive sandstone cliffs and buttresses left me nothing less than floored, making me quickly forget about the awkwardness of “being seen” with my parents.

Since then, I’ve returned to Zion several times; I’ve hiked the entire length of the Narrows, the classic Virgin River hike, and I’ve been through many of the technical slot canyons in the park.  I feel privileged to have seen parts of the park that <1% of its visitors get to experience.  Most recently, I’ve returned to Zion with my own family, sharing its serenity and sanctuary with them.

Like all heavily photographed areas, Zion has its own repertoire of icons: the Towers of the Virgin, the Narrows, Court of the Patriarchs, the Subway.  Moving past these locations, though, I have consistently found it very difficult to make a compelling image in the midst of the breathtaking beauty.  I should qualify that statement: I find it difficult to make an image that makes me stop and say, “Wow, that’s awesome!”

On our most recent trip to the park, I focused on the intimate details.  Autumn is in its final throes in Zion Canyon right now, with most of the cottonwoods and maples half-naked, ready for their hibernation.  Three weeks ago, this place was crawling with photographers, I’m sure, now these trees have been all but forgotten about.  Still, I find a certain beauty in these vestiges of fall.

Fremont cottonwoods in autumn foliage, Zion National Park, Utah

Autumn's final vestiges, November 2011

Big leaf maple, Zion National Park, Utah

Hanging on, November 2011

Early morning is my favorite time to be in Zion Canyon; deer are peacefully grazing, turkey are out, and the chill is still in the air because the sun hasn’t penetrated the depths of the canyon yet.  There’s often a breeze blowing, almost as if the canyon is starting fresh every day.  As the cliffs begin to greet the sun, the light reflects on to the river, giving it a wonderful tonality.

Virgin River cascade

Cascade, November 2011

I welcomed Zion into my heart and mind years ago.  The fight I have with the place is that I haven’t–until recently–let it drive my creativity.  I’ve been trying to force the park to reveal itself to me in ways it isn’t ready to do.  Letting go of the notions I held on to let me see in a different way, making images I never expected to make, but am happy with.   I will continue making my yearly pilgrimages to the park; I look forward to seeing how the canyon reveals itself to me next time…and I’m grateful my son is years away from that stage of not wanting to be seen with me.  🙂

Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

In the U.S., we’ve taken the day to give thanks for all the things in our lives–material and non-material things that bring us comfort and happiness.  If you’ve turned on the radio, opened the newspaper, or watched TV at all, you are well aware that there’s no shortage of opportunities to obtain happiness from material goods (rock bottom deals, starting at 10pm tonight!!!).  However, I sit here tonight thinking that the old cliché holds true–the best things in life are indeed free.

I spent the afternoon walking with my family in Zion Canyon, fallen cottonwood leaves littering the ground, the smells of autumn in the air.  As the sun went down, wild turkey, deer, and a grey fox graced us with their presence.  It gave me an opportunity to reflect on the things I’m thankful for; a few things are:

  • My capacity to feel love, and the people in my life who bring that out in me.
  • The fact that we have wild places to escape to.
  • My son, who’s curiosity, enthusiasm, and perception of the world always remind me to keep an open mind.
  • Good beer.  🙂
  • The ability we have to visit places (wild or not) that inspire us.

I won’t bore you with a long list, but those are a few of the things that come to mind at this instant.  If you’re celebrating Thanksgiving today, I hope you’ve had a wonderful day connecting with friends and family…what are you thankful for today?

A cottonwood in fall colors along the Virgin River, Zion National Park, Utah

Happy Thanksgiving!

The last vestiges of Autumn

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Last weekend, we took advantage of some nice fall weather to visit Sequoia National Park (I recently posted another image from that trip here).  It really couldn’t have been nicer weather.  Not only were we wearing t-shirts at lower elevations, but we really enjoyed the brisk temperatures in the Giant Forest.  In addition to some find landscape opportunities, we saw two black bears (which our son absolutely loved).  Not a bad weekend at all.

For me, some of the prettiest scenery was in the area just at the entry of the Giant Forest, where the oaks and other deciduous trees were still hanging on to the final vestiges of fall color.  I spent some time with the big trees one morning, and on my way out, I stopped to photograph this tree, which seemed to be completely ensconced in fall colors.

Since visiting Sequoia, a major winter storm has hit the Sierra, probably (by my best guess) obliterating this beautiful fall color.  Fortunately, we were able to catch the tail end of this great show…

A giant sequoia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum) in autumn, Sequoia National Park, California

Sequoiadendron giganteum, November 2010

Click here to see all of my images from Sequoia National Park.

Eastern Sierra Fall Color Observations

Monday, September 13th, 2010

With 2010 moving towards autumn, fall colors are on many photographers’ minds.  Just this weekend, Phil Colla published on his blog a very helpful list of fall color resources.  I won’t repeat them all here, but I did want to add some of my own observations.

We hiked into the North Fork of Big Pine Creek on 9/10-9/11.  Below 9,000′, there is no fall color yet, with all the aspen still being green.  However, above 9,000′, and up to 10,000′ there is color starting to appear.  Some trees have beautiful golden or red sections, and a few (read: very few) trees have already turned completely.

Fall colors on Aspen (populus tremuloides), Sierra Nevada California

Early Fall Colors, September 2010

The above photo illustrates well what we observed between 9,000′ and 10,000′ elevation.  I would guess that in 2-3 more weeks the colors will really be hopping at higher elevations, as well as moving down in altitude.

As a sidenote, some of the cottonwoods in the Owens Valley appear to be losing some of their color, but nothing striking yet.

New images posted!

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Since returning from our Sierra trip, I’ve been editing photos, and have some new ones up on the website.  In true banzai* fashion, a friend and I made a run up to the eastern Sierra over the weekend.  We left after work on Thursday, and arrived in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine about 11pm.  I shot some star trails of the now famous Mobius Arch (also called Galen’s Arch, after Galen Rowell).  After sunrise, we headed north, and shot up Bishop Creek to hunt for some fall colors.  In my last post, I summed up the difficulty we had finding fall color.  That night, we headed north and shot the Minarets at sunset.  The next morning, we visited Mono Lake at dawn.  At the South Tufa parking lot, I counted 28 cars when we arrived, one hour before sunrise.  Figuring on a minimum of 2 photographers/car, I bailed and went to the Navy Beach parking lot; we were the only ones there.  In my opinion, Navy Beach has tufas that are waaayyy cooler than the “regular” ones at South Tufa.  After sunrise, we went to Lundy Canyon, in hopes of finding fall colors there, then to Tuolumne Meadows for a hike to Cathedral Lakes.  Sunset at Olmsted Point, then to the Whoa Nellie Deli for dinner.  The next morning, we went for a hike in Devil’s Postpile, then shot home.

I’ll share some of the images from this trip in the next few posts.  However if you can’t wait, I’ve updated my Sierra Nevada page with new images, as well as Mono Lake.  I’ve added a new page for Devil’s Postpile National Monument as well.

Desert Bouquet, Autumn, Alabama Hills, California, October 2009

*See Phil Colla’s definition of a banzai photographer.

Eastern Sierra Fall Color, 10/10/09

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

Greetings from Mammoth Lakes!  We just finished our second day of shooting and “chasing” fall color, amid what’s been called an atypical year.  After leaving work on 10/8/09, we drove to Lone Pine and camped in the Alabama Hills.  On Friday morning, 10/9, we drove up Bishop Creek Canyon, and found–as expected from reports–very little in the way of prime fall color.  That said, many thanks to Inge Fernau, who tipped me off to a good grove at Cardinal Pond, as well as some decent trees in the South Fork, near the “fake” waterfall.  It was nice to finally meet Inge in person at Cardinal Pond as well!  Here’s a shot from Bishop Creek Canyon:

Aspens and Sunburst, Bishop Creek Canyon, CA, October 2009

This morning, 10/10, we drove to Mono Lake for sunrise, then headed up to Lundy Canyon because we had heard word about a small grove in the day use lot.  We found the trees, as well as about 7 photographers.  However, on the way to Lundy, about 400 yards north of the Tioga Lodge on the north end of Lee Vining, we saw the best trees of the whole trip, with yellows, oranges, and reds:

Aspens at Moonset, Mono County, CA, October 2009

From what I could tell, there were few, if any, brown leaves.  This grove is best shot from the highway, as, in the interest of full disclosure, I may have been trespassing onto this grove.  I accessed it via a sagebrush escarpment to the south, and did not see the “no trespassing” signs until I walked back down the road to the south.  

After photographing this grove, we hiked into Cathedral Lakes in Yosemite.  Driving up Lee Vining Canyon, I saw little color at all from Hwy 120.

Thanks to all who offered advice, for the hard work on the Flickr group, etc.  

A quick eastern Sierra fall color update

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Last night I received word from a friend who lives in Bishop about the status of fall colors in the eastern Sierra:

[On Friday (9/25)] We took a drive up Bishop Creek to see how the colors are.  The canyon is beautiful with reds, yellows and oranges.  South Lakes is already fading with lots of the leaves already on the ground.  North Lake is really nice and so is Sabrina.  Looks like fall came early in this area.  I’m told that farther north that the aspens are still green (Conway Summit and Virginia Lakes area).

[On Saturday (9/26)] We just returned from a day of wandering around with my sister and bro-in-law who are passing through.  Interestingly, there are lots of brown leaves and not much color up Rock Creek, while the June Lake loop is still green.

I’m thinking that I’ll be spending most of my time further north on my 10/9 visit…possibly June Lake, Lee Vining Canyon, and Lundy Canyon.