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Photography and Public Lands, a continuation

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

In my last blog post, I expressed a somewhat emotional response to the current threats facing our Western public lands. In this post, I’d like to provide a bit of context to some of the current threats, as well as the land transfer movement in general. It’s an especially complicated web of interactions and is really difficult to sum up in one blog post, so consider this an introduction. I believe that an understanding of these issues are something any Westerner should be aware of, as well as anyone working in the West (which includes landscape photographers, who have a vested interest in the preservation of wild space).

A look at our nation’s history

To understand what’s happening now in the West, we have to go back to 1862, and the passage of the first of the Homestead Acts. The Homestead Acts awarded 40-acre parcels of public land at little or no cost to homesteaders who were willing to improve it for agriculture for a period of 5 years.  Because most of the public land lied in the West, this basically amounted to the opening of the frontier, especially in the wake of the Civil War, when later Homestead Acts were passed.

As anyone who has spent any time in the West can attest, it’s a hardscrabble place with little rainfall, and it’s difficult to make a living here. So, it’s no surprise that many lands were left unclaimed because of the barriers the landscape presented. Combine this with the entry of two large Western states–Arizona and New Mexico–into the union in 1913, and the federal government was left with a huge amount of public land to manage. Although the soil may not have been conducive to farming, and (lack of) rainfall may not have made grazing easy, minerals and timber were abundant, so the government ultimately created the US Forest Service (1905) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM; 1946) to manage much of these resources, and to ease the burden on the Department of Interior, which oversees the National Park Service.

Let’s think about this for a moment. One of the things many Westerners identify with is a rugged individualism, the settling of the wild frontier. When the frontier opened during the nation’s reconstruction and the US government was basically giving parcels of land for free, Western culture laid down its roots. Within several decades, the US government, who was now in control of most public lands in the West (and still is, see the map below), needed a management plan. From the point of view of many homesteaders, this amounted to the government saying, “We gave you this land, and you settled it, but now we’re going to tell you how we want it managed.”

Map of public lands in the united states of america

Most of the nation’s public lands are in the West. Public Domain image downloaded from Wikipedia

As you can imagine, a homesteader who was suddenly being told how the land they had been mining, or grazing their cattle on might be a little bit upset. So, to some extent there’s always been some level of anti-government sentiment in the West, which has been compounded by people who move to the West for added seclusion and an increased sense of isolationism. Indeed, such high profile incidents as Ruby Ridge, and even the car bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 have either directly or indirectly been the result of rugged individualism clashing with government oversight.

Land transfer & the Sagebrush Rebellion

While private development is not usually allowed on public lands, grazing allotments can be leased, there are some mining claims, and of course recreation is allowed such as hiking, rock climbing, photography, and hunting and fishing, although specific rules vary somewhat depending on the management agency, etc. For instance, no hunting or fishing is allowed in national parks.

In 1932, the federal government did try to transfer land back to the states, but in post-Depression America, states were concerned about having the funds to manage the lands effectively, etc. As a result they stayed under federal control. Today, the federal government pays states for the land that cannot be developed, and as a result, taxed. These payments in lieu of taxes can be a significant revenue generator for certain counties that have a large proportion of public land.  Similarly, other sources of income like the ones resulting from the Taylor Grazing Act are important for certain counties (see reference below).

In 1976, in an effort to more explicitly regulate some of the above-mentioned activities on federal lands, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) that officially ended homesteading and formalized processes for regulating activities on federal lands, specifically those administered by the BLM. Within a year, the FLPMA had drawn enough ire from ranchers and miners that legislation was introduced into Congress that would transfer some land back to the states with the idea being that the land could be managed more directly for the sake of individual interests there.  This legislation–which was introduced twice but did not pass–was the birth of a movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion.

Where are we now?

Since the late 1970s the Sagebrush Rebellion hasn’t really garnered much attention per se, although there have been some very high profile incidents that revolve around the federal government and disagreements with private citizens (The standoff at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon are two of the most well known). Despite the fact none of these incidents have resulted in major legislative changes, there is the argument that they really are counterproductive to their stated original intent (see here and here), driving wedges where they don’t really belong.

That ‘stated original intent’ is also a bit cloudy. When you dig into the web of what’s morphed from the Sagebrush Rebellion into the Land Transfer Movement, things get confusing fast. Ranchers aren’t the only concerned parties it seems, but militia members and “alt-right” conservatives also seem to have a vested interest in returning public land to the states or private parties. Similarly, members of Congress also have ties to groups like the American Lands Council (which has a misleading name but is the biggest proponent of the Land Transfer Movement).

Most recently, representative Rob Bishop from Utah introduced the Public Lands Initiative to Congress, which would have returned public lands in Utah to state control; fortunately it was not voted on before Congress ended their session in late 2016, effectively killing the bill.

Sunrise at Grandview Point, in the white mountains of eastern california

What’s the big deal, and what next?

With all of these failed attempts to return Western public lands to state control, why should you care? There are several reasons.  First, the vocal minority who are perpetrating the highest-profile standoffs with government officials are becoming increasingly violent. Threats to public lands employees are becoming more common. Second, while this legislation has failed in the past, it doesn’t mean it always will. Rob Bishop is the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and advocates development of Utah’s wild places. Sooner or later, he’ll catch the ear of influential people who can make things happen. This is underscored by the fact that it’s becoming clearer that the Land Transfer Movement is incredibly well funded.

Lands transferred to state or private control do stand a higher chance of oil and gas or large scale mining development, among other things. This would make it more difficult to pass legislation fighting global warming, and thus would set heartbreaking precedents, and do irreversible damage to our Western landscapes. A common response I’ve seen to these threats on social media is, “It’ll never happen!” Maybe not, but the stakes are simply too high to sit back and assume it won’t happen.

There is hope, though. Although a vocal minority is favor of the transfer of Western public lands, the majority of Westerners are not. This was well illustrated just last month in Nevada’s general election as well as in the Montana governor’s race. As Westerners we all need to be educated, and see through the politics, and look for common ground together. Very few of us would disagree that there is room on public lands for everyone–grazing interests, hunters, photographers, backpackers, etc. None of us want these magnificent landscapes spoiled.

As photographers what can we do?  I have several ideas. First, you can donate your images to worthy nonprofit groups (e.g., the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance or Grand Canyon Trust). If that is financially prohibitive, consider donating a portion of your proceeds to these causes, or to the support of quality journalism. Second, tap into your local community. Learn what the land use issues are, and how your images can support groups advocating for your position. Similarly, take advantage of public comment periods on these issues (and use your images to support your comments).  Third, build bridges outside of your box. Hunters and anglers are equally as vested in the land as you are–how can your images help advocate for issues important to them?

This is just a start–feel free to offer more ideas in the comments.

sunrise on currant mountain, near ely nevada

References

Read the Homestead Act of 1862 here.

An in-depth history of in-lieu programs for western federal lands can be found here.

Read the Federal Land Policy and Management Act here.

Long-distance relationships

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

“Sense of place is the sixth sense, an internal compass and map made by memory and spatial perception together.” — Rebecca Solnit


Over the last several years, I’ve devoted much of this blog and my photographic efforts towards the Colorado Plateau.  More so than even the results I’ve shared here, I’ve devoted time and experience to the Plateau; no place I’ve visited has given me a more of a feeling of calm than that landscape of sinuous canyons, sandstone mesas, and petrified sand dunes.  That’s why I return year after year without fail; every time I go back I hear my bones say, “I’m home.”

I feel that the resulting images from my time spent on the Plateau are purpose-driven, grounded, intimate, and unique.  As an individual, no one else can see things quite like me, and I want my portfolio to reflect my own way of seeing.  Just like with any relationship, time has been invested to get to know the Plateau, as well as a few cactus pricks, scrapes, and bruises.

Because of my approach to photography, I’ve never been great at walking into a place for the first time and being comfortable making images.  I almost always experience some intangible awkwardness during the process.  How does place-based landscape photography translate to travel to distant locations, where a great distance has been traveled and the unlikelihood of ever returning again is small?  I recently found myself asking this question when my girlfriend and I ventured to Iceland for my first big trip away from the Southwest.  Tourism in Iceland has exploded in popularity over the decade or so, and I wanted to avoid making copies of everyone else’s images; I wanted to see the country with fresh eyes.


Stormy mountain scene near Vik

Planning an appropriate itinerary is key.  While it’s tempting to want to see everything, that is not conducive to thoughtful landscape photography.  We picked out three or four places that we considered ‘must-see’ locations and planned around them.  Anything more would have been difficult or impossible given the amount of time we had.

In concert with the logistics, I had to ask myself, “why is this a must-see location for me?”  Presumably the idea of it spoke to me in some way, so I proceeded to learn more about these places.  Iceland, like many European countries, has a rich history, so spending time to learn the stories of the places I wanted to visit helped me to tell the stories with my images.  Knowing the story behind many of the Icelandic sagas helped me to understand the culture and people, and reading about the geology of this ever-changing island also helped give me a sense of place.  As always, I had a map out as I did this, allowing me to connect the landscape with the stories.

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Being able to go back to Iceland would probably be of great benefit to me photographically.  However, the work I did before leaving home made me feel as though I had a connection to the place before ever setting foot there, which–in my opinion–made the photography that much more productive, enjoyable, and meaningful.  People and places make up the topography of our lives; the result is not much different than a landscape, with valleys and peaks, sunrises and sunsets.  My internal compass will always calibrate toward the Colorado Plateau and Southwestern United States, but I came home from my first international trip understanding that it is possible to connect with a place even if I may never visit again.

See all of my Iceland images here.

Reynisdrangar sea stacks

Jökulsárlón Lagoon

The Golden Hour Reimbursement Act of 2014

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle hailed President Obama on Tuesday as he signed into law the Golden Hour Reimbursement Act (GHRA) of 2014.  The bill, introduced by senator Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, will offer government reimbursement to U.S. citizens who–according to the bill–” experience a crummy sunrise or sunset, whether at home or while traveling abroad.”

“If you can’t ride off into the sunset in California, where can you?” asked Senator Feinstein as she addresses the Senate subcommittee on iconic landscapes in early March, “What kind of message are we sending to our citizens, our artists, our dreamers, our children, if they can’t be inspired by an amazing and dramatic sky at least twice a day?”  The bill passed through the Senate and House of Representatives with few problems.

According to the GHRA, U.S. citizens who experience a lackluster sunrise or sunset will be eligible for reimbursement in the form of another chance to see a more beautiful sky at a later date.  This could come in the form of an additional paid vacation day from work (participation by employers at this point is voluntary), or a complimentary one-night hotel stay in order to extend a vacation (all major hotel chains will be required to offer this as a subsidized option by 2017).  Critics call the application process for reimbursement lengthy.  “One night in Texas is all anyone needs to satisfy their lifelong desire for beautiful sunsets–they’ll never need to wait weeks for another pretentious Californian sunset again.  This can only further contribute to the end of the free market economy,” huffed senator Ted Cruz (R) of Texas from the senate floor on Tuesday.

“While we simply can’t guarantee scenic beauty to our country’s visitors, I am proud to extend this opportunity to our citizens, knowing they’ll be inspired for a lifetime, not having to get up early, only to be left saying, ‘meh’ in response to another lackluster sunrise,” said President Obama in a brief statement outside the Oval Office.   He went on to say that his administration has learned a valuable lesson from the healthcare.gov “debacle” and that the website to submit applications under GHRA–sunset.gov–will be up and running without bugs by early September.

Despite criticism, the bill has largely been welcomed with open arms.  Landscape photographers in particular are celebrating this as a victory for the industry.   In the wake of GHRA’s announcement on Tuesday, we interviewed several well-known landscape photographers to ask a simple question:

What do you think about GHRA?

“For years I have had to endure burdensome expenses, like severe lack of sleep, boring photographs, and excessive frustration, due to mediocre or poor sunrises.  When I signed up to be a photographer I was under the impression the light would show would go off every morning!  Alas, not in my country.  Finally we have an administration that is willing to do the right thing: help hard working but dawn-disadvantaged photographers like me compete with photographers in sunrise-subsidized countries like France, Spain and Japan.  It’s about time.  Now I know when I wake up at 4am and leave my warm bed, if I don’t get the shot at least I’ll get a check from Uncle Sam.  Damn right.”  — Phillip Colla, www.oceanlight.com

“It’s a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough. Clearly having just one sunrise and one sunset in a 24-hour period is a policy that benefits the privileged 1% (of photographers whose creative wealth allows them to still make images outside the golden hours). The government should step in and speed up the Earth’s rotation so that sunrises and sunsets are more frequent.” — Guy Tal, www.guytal.com

“All those hours learning how to fake dramatic skies in Photoshop were all for naught! Where was this law five years ago?” — Ron Coscorrosa, www.coscorrosa.com

“Thank you to the do-nothing Congress for finally doing something worthwhile!  I just wish that lawmakers would make this policy retroactive, as 2013 was a rough year for my photography because I encountered an almost endless string of the conditions this bill seeks to address.  Still, something is better than nothing and I will certainly have some claims ready to file for 2014 once the system is up and running later this year.”  — Sarah Marino, www.sarahmarinophoto.com

“This is a great start, and certainly long overdue, but the new law is essentially toothless without also having the park service place camera icon signs in the right areas.  Because honestly, what good is an impressive sunset, if one doesn’t know where to stand to shoot it?” — Robin Black, www.robinblackphotography.com

Disclaimer: Alpenglow Images Photography makes no claims as to the accuracy, reliability, or even the reality of this news story.  

Silence & Movement

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

“Silence. We are seldom conscious when silence begins—it is only afterward that we realize what we have been a part of. In the night journeys of Canada geese, it is the silence that propels them. Thomas Merton writes, ‘Silence is the strength of our interior life.… If we fill our lives with silence, then we will live in hope.'”   — Terry Tempest Williams


It might not seem surprising that silence has been on my mind lately, given my lack of posts this year.  The truth is that 2014 has been very busy, and I’ve spent a lot of time in quiet contemplation.  There is peace to be found in silence: sometimes we are afraid the moment will be ruined with words that can’t do it justice; sometimes we find forgotten spaces within ourselves–spaces that have long since been buried.  We tend to not wander into these open and unprotected expanses, but rather build against them, filling them with things that obscure our view.

Normally by this time of year, I’ve taken several trips.  By contrast, I’ve been content to focus on local landscapes this year.  One of my favorite images so far was made in a little grove of trees in the riverbed along my normal Saturday morning running route.  I’ve been eyeing it for weeks, and the weather finally cooperated on a morning I was able to get down there.

Lichen-covered trees

I’ve also taken advantage of clearing storms in the mountains, and an invitation from a friend for an early morning hike on the beach.  There’s been a certain joy in creating images close to home this year.  Normally my trips are planned out on a limited itinerary and involve tiring travel.  I’m not saying I don’t enjoy visiting far-off places (not even close), however by removing the stress of an abbreviated schedule and unfamiliar landscapes from the equation, I have the flexibility to let the light rather than the calendar dictate the situation, allowing me to relax and be more creative.

Movement seems to be an unintended theme in my images so far this year, but perhaps it’s fitting; we’re always quietly in motion, always changing.  When the clutter and fillers are cleared away, our own evolution becomes unmistakable and unmissable in the image-making process.  It’s these discrete, silent moments of self-reflection that propel us in making inspired art.  So it is that the open spaces we have unearthed no longer represent dullness, but vision and hope.

Wind-blown fog in predawn light

 

Coastal sunrise

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:

Potsherds

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

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

Through the Grama

Monday, February 25th, 2013

For February at 6500′, it’s a warm day–about 40 degrees–and the sun makes it feel even warmer as we hike across the windswept grassland plateau.  Snow still blankets the north-facing slopes, but the rest of the ground is free of snow, soft, and slightly muddy in places.

Everywhere, almost literally, signs of elk abound; I have never seen so many turds and tracks in one place.  This small plateau must be great winter ground for them.  I haven’t seen (or felt) any invasive Drooping Brome (Cheat Grass) in my socks all day, only native Bouteloua (Grama Grass).  Here on the Colorado Plateau, where some areas have been grazed extensively, that must be one sign of a healthy ecosystem.

Through the Grama we hike, our heavy packs weighing us down more and more, until–finally–the east rim of the Grand Canyon reveals itself to us.


Last weekend, Jackson Frishman invited me to join him on a trip to visit the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers.  Jackson’s proposal was ambitious: nearly 40 miles of hiking in 2.5 days, with no water along the route (we had to carry our own water cache).  He introduced it to me as a hare-brained plan, and honestly that’s all he needed to say to get me on board.

Jackson told me he wanted to visit the confluence because the Grand Canyon Escalade–a proposed tourism development on the western edge of the Navajo Nation, which overlooks the confluence.  If the project passes, it would include a tram from the rim down to the Little Colorado River (read more about Escalade here, here, and here).  For me, it was a good time to familiarize myself with this area, learn a little more about the proposal, as well as to visit the Grand Canyon again; I began my backpacking life there, and the Grand Canyon evokes many special memories for me.

Reflected light in the Colorado River

On Friday night, we discussed the final plans over beers and enchiladas, and it was clear that the stress of planning the trip had turned into excitement for what lied ahead.  We started out on Saturday morning; our packs were weighed down with a couple of extra gallons of water for the return hike.  We dropped the water underneath a couple of stiff piñon boughs to keep it from freezing, as well as to keep it away from the ravens which were surely watching us.  As we got closer to the park service boundary with the Navajo Nation, we found an old hogan, with a missing west wall; the doorway of a Navajo hogan faces east to receive the morning sun and it’s good blessings, and when someone dies in a hogan they are carried out through a hole that has been knocked in the west wall, then the home is abandoned.

After several more miles, we crested a hill and scared a large herd of maybe 200 elk out of a drainage.  They must have known about a water source that we didn’t.  We watched the elk until they disappeared into the horizon and would see them several times over the next couple of days.   The final push to the east rim was tortuous; buttes on the north side of the Colorado River were visible, but they never seemed to get any closer.  However, finally, after what felt like hours we arrived at Cape Solitude.

little colorado river arizona

Solitude indeed.  We had not seen any other human footprints all day, and aside from a windbreak built from rocks, our campsite showed no sign of other humans at all.  In the second-most-visited national park, solitude can be tough to come by.  It’s a special feeling to have a piece of the Grand Canyon all to yourself.

We woke up to a windy but beautiful sunrise the next morning and hiked back to our water cache (thankfully untouched) from the day before.  After rehydrating, I was happy to hike to our second night’s camp, closer to our trailhead, but with another private view of the canyon’s rim.  Horned larks flitting through the sagebrush and elk were our only company.  The next morning Jackson and I returned to our cars, shared a couple of cold beers, and parted ways.

sunrise at the confluence of the colorado and little colorado rivers


We hiked through the Grama–through a healthy ecosystem–to a part of the Grand Canyon only a few people get to see.  Elk tracks went right up to the rim.  I wonder if they admire the view from time to time?  In my twentieth year of visiting the Grand Canyon, I still stand in awe of the vast landscape, and can’t help but wonder if some of that awe would be diminished if I could take a tram all the way to the bottom, or if–consequently–the elk tracks didn’t go all the way to the rim.

sunset on the little colorado river gorge

P.S. You can also read Jackson’s post and see his image of Cape Solitude at his blog here.  His blog is always worth a visit, with fantastic writing and wonderful imagery.

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

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

Crisis in Confidence

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Last Friday morning, I got up early and drove up to the San Jacinto Mountains near my home.  A storm had been in the area and I wanted to go for a hike in the fresh snow, as well as to make some images.  Living at low elevation, it felt good to be back in winter for a while.  I wanted to hear the sound of snow crunching under my boots.  I wanted to breathe deeply and soak up the silence and sheer peace that comes with newly fallen snow.  I made some images–some that I’m quite happy with–but the morning would have perfect even if I had not.

As I drove home, I turned on my car radio and slowly started piecing together the events that had happened thousands of miles away in Connecticut.  Profound heartbreak is really the only way I can describe the emotions I felt as I listened to the radio, and when I arrived home, I turned on the TV and saw the images.  So much devastation, so much innocence needlessly lost.

On Monday morning, I read Guy Tal’s blog post, “Heal Thyself.”   His advice on how to heal after this tragedy?  Unplug.  Go away from the hype, the media, everything, and allow yourself to heal.  Today, that’s just what I did.  I went to the Mojave Desert and started walking.  When I came home, I told myself that although some might consider it cliché or derivative to write about this tragedy, I still feel the need to put words down, so here I am.

As far as days go, today was pretty miserable outside.  It was windy and very cold, but I found a lovely and verdant little canyon to hike up.  In contrast to the mountains just a while before, it still felt autumn-like in the desert; at least the colors of fall were still around me.  Several of the wetter spots I passed through must be hotspots for desert bighorn sheep: droppings were everywhere, and with good reason.  Water is hard to come by out here.   A little while later, underneath a grove of alders, I found the remains of a desert bighorn.  Maybe it fell from the cliff above (not likely) or was killed by a mountain lion.  Or, maybe it just found a peaceful place to lay down and die.  Either way, I sat quietly with its bones for a little while, enjoying a reprieve from the wind, as well as the solitude.

The remains of a desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)

Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)

I hiked a little further up the canyon, exploring mostly, before turning around and walking back toward my car.  For the first time in nearly a week, I felt peaceful knowing that hope is not lost.  When I got home, I saw reference to Jimmy Carter’s 1979 speech, in which he refers to the nation’s energy crisis as a, “crisis in confidence.”  We are getting over something much more visceral than an energy crisis, but those words–crisis in confidence–echo in my head.  Events like this, not just at home but abroad as well, shake our confidence to its core.  They shake our confidence that hope still exists, and if we are going to continue on, we must find a way to hang onto that hope.

So, I want to thank Guy for his advice, and I want to repeat it as well: unplug yourself from everything and find a way to reconnect with the good in the world.

An autumnal scene in the Mojave Desert

Desert Bouquet