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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.


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

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

A Celebration of Wilderness–ebook release

Friday, October 12th, 2012

The day has finally come…Ann, PJ, and I are very happy to make An Honest Silence: A Celebration of Wilderness available for purchase.  We are offering the book as a 48-page, 25.1 MB , PDF download for $5.  A portion of the sales will be donated directly to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

You can download your copy now by clicking here, clicking at the “eBooks” tab at the top of this page, or clicking the “buy now” button at the bottom of this post.

This will be my 266th blog post here at Alpenglow Images, and I’ve learned over the last three years that there is something very gratifying about writing, but at the same time also scary.  When you write, you are putting yourself out there…letting the world in.  While we want to be accepted, we can easily be judged.

Because of the “risk” involved, the release of this book carries a genuine excitement with it; I hope you enjoy reading it.  I want to thank David Leland Hyde as well for writing the foreword; David works harder than anyone I know to perpetuate the legacy of conservation that began with his parents, Philip and Ardis Hyde.

This book represents three voices that are asking for more to rise up in the defense of wild places.  We need these open spaces, and cannot live without them.  If we are truly successful, you will be moved.  Moved to write a letter to a legislator in support of wilderness.  Moved take your children hiking.  Moved to spend an afternoon under a tree in your favorite wild place.

Will you celebrate with us?

Buy Now

New ebook announcement

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Things have been fairly slow here on my blog lately.  That’s partly due to the fact that I’ve been working on finalizing a project that has taken up most of this year.  Along with my two co-authors–Ann Whittaker and PJ Johnson–I am happy to announce our first e-book: An Honest Silence.

An Honest Silence combines photography and a series of short essays to celebrate wilderness.  If you’ve been reading my blog, you are familiar with my writing style; PJ explores the interrelationships between art and science, as well as his experiences along the Boundary Waters canoe area in Minnesota; and Ann takes a very eloquent and poetic approach to honor her beloved redrock wilderness of the Colorado Plateau.  We are also very fortunate to have had David Leland Hyde (of Landscape Photography Blogger) write a thoughtful foreword to the book.

More and more photographers are offering books as an ebook format; this format, while getting away from a traditional book, is significantly more affordable.  We are offering An Honest Silence for $5 as a PDF download; it will be available on October 12 and a portion of the sales will go directly to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Please join us in celebrating wilderness.

book cover to An Honest Silence: A celebration of wilderness

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


Monday, April 16th, 2012

I recently returned from my first trip to the Colorado Plateau this year.  After an extremely busy few months, I welcomed the chance to slow down and relax, as well as to revel in the warmth of the spring sun on the red rock.  I went alone.

While I wanted to explore a few areas that I had not been to before, I also wanted to take some time for introspection; growing up as an only child, I have grown to value silence.  After setting up my tent, I took a walk through a piñon-juniper forest that burned several years ago.  As the red ochre-colored hills receded toward the distant cliffs, the lifeless skeletons of these trees stood before me, each one seeming to take on a different, animated, pose.  I sat for a while, admiring the stark and barren, but pleasant scene.  In the West especially, fire is part of our ecology.

A burned pinion-juniper forest in the Kolob Terrace area of Zion National Park, Utah

The burn, March 2012

I often notice that when walking alone, I find myself whispering.  Why not talk to myself at a normal volume, or like some people, take the opportunity to scream out, knowing my confessions will be my own only?  I have never been a screamer, in fact when I have something important to say, you will find me saying it quietly to myself.  I am not sure whether this is a good trait or not, but part of me hates to muddy the already sweet sound of the wild.  On this particular trip, western bluebirds had already moved into the area (a sure sign of spring) and their song is surely better than anything I could say.

Silence.  When I whisper no one answers back.  At the same time, it can be comforting and empty, exciting and lonely.

“I fear silence because it leads me to myself, a self I may not wish to confront. It asks that I listen. And in listening, I am taken to an unknown place. Silence leaves me alone in a place of feeling. It is not necessarily a place of comfort.”

–Terry Tempest Williams

After dinner and a night’s sleep under a blanket of stars, I explore more canyons.  Part of the fun of a trip like this is not having any expectations, taking the time to poke your head into slot canyons, pretending you might find something no one else has ever seen before.  The lack of both a defined plan and a guidebook are two of the best ways to drive creativity in photography, to let your voice be heard.  In silence, I revel at the sky, the clouds moving over the top of me, dappled light falling on sandstone monoliths.

Shadow play.

A sandstone cliff in the Kolob Terrace area of Zion National Park, Utah

Monolithic, March 2012

I spend the afternoon–the next few afternoons–wandering up small canyons alone, admiring the potholes which are full of water from recent rains, watching tadpoles begin to make their transition from aquatic to terrestrial, and confronting the silence head-on.  There is a lot to see in this small corner of southern Utah–I know I will be be back, soon hopefully, for there is a lot left unseen, both in the landscape and in myself.

One of the things that amazes me about silence is that it so boldly opens our souls; this is at odds with the way we close ourselves off in the hustle of our everyday lives.  I am not sure how to reconcile this.  However, I know until I can return to the Colorado Plateau my daydreams will drift to clouds floating in a sky above red sandstone cliffs, of the cool air inside a tight slot canyon, and the way the morning smells when I am waist-deep in sagebrush.


Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

I realize that many of my recent posts have been about life and introspection, and you may be saying, “Hey what happened to the photography?”  Well, I have realized over the last few months that it is impossible to make honest images without first taking a good look at myself.  As a result, my posts have been more philosophical.  Its definitely not a bad thing, as I learn a lot of great things about myself every day.  I hope they come through in my images.

Lying at the crossroads of three major ecosystems, I have always thought Zion National Park is a bit of a confused place.  The Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Desert collide pretty much at the entrance to Zion Canyon, making for a unique landscape of red rock, datura, and ponderosa pines, one that draws thousands of tourists a year.

Lately I have been thinking about decisions, crossroads, and the paths we take in life.  A friend of mine has told me several times that each sunset gives us an opportunity to reflect on our decisions, and each sunrise is a chance to either change them, or stay the course.  The more I think about it, that’s a good way to look at life.  A few months ago, David Leland Hyde guest-blogged for me and wrote about the decisions we make as photographers.  Are we to make our own tripod tracks, letting the world hear our unique voice, or are we to make the derivative iconic images that have been made before?  Is that truly original?

I think there’s more buried in David’s post than there initially appears to be.  What I am realizing more every day is that my decisions as a person shape who I am as a photographer–these two things are not mutually exclusive.  My images are my voice; through them you see the world as I do.  To some extent, you see sadness, elation, and melancholy in my portfolio.  I can feel the days that creativity is flowing inside of me; its like a warmth deep in my bones.  Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “To discount wild beauty is to discount inspiration.  Without inspiration, creativity dies.”  This must surely mean that with inspiration, creativity can thrive–we can choose to accept beauty, and thus to be creative.  Our choices affect us deeply and they shine through in our body of work.

The junction where we find Zion Canyon is arguably one of the more beautiful places in North America.  There is a lot of solace here, knowing that each decision we make has the potential to be very positive, both for our general character, and for our art.  What we do with that knowledge is up to us.

Half-bare Fremont Cottonwood trees in Zion National Park, Utah

At the crossroads, November 2011


My Head In the Cloud

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Its either the romantic or Zen Buddhist in me, but I feel like we have a lot to learn from clouds.  A dramatic sunset can connect two lovers, just as it teaches us a valuable lesson on impermanence.  In thinking about our motivations, inspiration, and voice these analogies can make a lot of sense to an artist.  To understand my photographic ‘voice’ a little better, I turned to another type of cloud.

I recently generated a word cloud based on what I think are a few of my representative blog posts in order to gain a better understanding of my own writing and photography.  Click the cloud to see it larger.

word cloud showing Alpenglow Images' most popular posts

Some words immediately jump out at me and catch my eye.  Canyon.  Light.  Hope.  Utah.  Shapes.  Life.  Believe.  Sandstone.  Bryce.  National.  Park.  

Why these words?  The cliffs and canyons of the Colorado Plateau are a constant source of inspiration and creativity for me.  Perhaps its all the hours I spent there early in my life, but now when I need to mourn or celebrate, feel the need for safety and security, am lacking humility, or simply need to escape, I find solace in the red rock wilderness I have come to know so well.

Places like the Kaiparowits Plateau or the Vermillion Cliffs are still wild, largely undiscovered.  Sometimes, when I look at them in the distance, I wonder whether humans have ever seen all the features there are to be discovered here.  I continue to entertain what may be a naïve hope by believing these landscapes will continue to be protected and loved as they are now, that they will remain unchanged, and give my children and grandchildren a place to visit, possibly even to bring their children someday.

In order to photograph a landscape and capture more than just its superficial beauty, it is my belief that you must first know it, study it, learn about its intricacies and nuances.  In my own development, I learned by studying the locations others had visited–by doing homework from a desk chair.  But as I slowly grew to learn the places that I call home, my voice started to be heard through my images.  To an extent, gear matters, but taking off your gear goggles and focusing energy on introspection and self-evaluation is a start down the road of making truly personal images.

By looking at my cloud, perhaps I didn’t learn anything about myself I don’t already know.  However, by studying the words I use over and over again, perhaps, I can learn a little more about my voice, and most importantly what I want my photography to say to the world.

What does your cloud say about you?  About your photography?

Colorful sandstone in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Layers of Sandstone, January 2012

Finding John Muir

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

This morning, I saw the trailer for a new documentary on the John Muir Trail, “Mile…Mile and a Half.”  It looks like it will be worth a look when it comes out, and I hope I’m able to see it on the big screen.

In 2010, a friend and I hiked approximately the last 1/3 of the JMT, from Devil’s Postpile National Monument to Yosemite Valley.  The scenery is spectacular, showcasing some of the finest peaks in the High Sierra.  Of course, we passed the classic views of the Ritter Range, like Banner Peak, as well as the outstanding Yosemite high country.  The Cathedral Range in Yosemite was among my favorite scenery of the whole trip–the rugged Echo Peaks and Mathes Crest are beautiful.

Our plan was to hike the rest of the JMT, but my friend’s bad knee has pretty much taken him out of the game.  I am now thinking of ways to complete the trail, possibly even by doing it from the beginning in classic through-hike fashion.  There’s something really special about getting in rhythm with the mountain range, and creating your own adventure.

Check out the trailer, which I’ve embedded below.  Hopefully it inspires you to find your own adventure.

MILE…MILE & A HALF (trailer) from The Muir Project on Vimeo.