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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

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).

Till Death

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

Not to sound too sociopathic, but death has always interested me.  Perhaps its the remnants of a childhood curiosity, but when I’m out and I see a dead animal I always stop to look at it, and if I have my camera handy, I often will photograph it as well (see here and here).  I guess, on some level, I feel there’s a very distinguished beauty in death, the ability to rest in peace, returning to the earth, and photographing it is my way of honoring the cycle we all will participate in.

Last week, a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) turned up in my yard; it had been completely consumed by another predator (another hawk, I assume), leaving only the legs, wings, and tail feathers.  Before picking up the carcass, I made sure to make a few images of it.

Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) talons

Talons, July 2011

Wing of a cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii)

Flight pattern, July 2011


Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

After the grim nature of my last post, I thought I’d share some of the positive wildlife encounters that can be had in the desert.  Last summer, a friend and I discovered huge number of common poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) that roost on the roads in Joshua Tree National Park after dark.  As a kid I remember nighthawks–another member of the Nightjar family–that would swoop through the evening sky, scooping up insects with their oversized mouths.  So, the discovery of these poorwills was welcome and nostalgic.


A Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) in Joshua Tree National Park, California

Common Poorwill I, May 2011

I assume the poorwills–which are ground-dwelling birds–roost on the roads for a clear view of the sky, and the insects they are hunting.  They fly upwards, grab their prey, and return to the ground fairly quickly.  They can also be quite tame, when approached by a car.  By getting out slowly and crawling on my belly with a short telephoto lens, I was able to get within about 7 feet of this poorwill before it flew away, letting me get a couple of intimate portraits.

One thing that’s evident here is the amazing camouflage these animals have–they blend in very well to their surroundings, making such an open roost probably quite safe.  In addition to that, you can see the large eyes (great night vision) and “feelers” around the mouth, to help locate prey in the very immediate vicinity.

With summer approaching, keep an eye out for these charming birds on the roads!


A Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) in Joshua Tree National Park, California

Common Poorwill II, May 2011

In Memoriam

Monday, May 16th, 2011

This weekend, a friend and I made a last minute trip out to Joshua Tree National Park to search for photography opportunities.  After doing a short hike, we drove into the main park entrance about 5:30pm.  Although the temperature was starting to drop, the asphalt was still warm; it didn’t take long before we discovered this freshly road killed Speckled Rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchllii pyrrhus).  Its a species I’ve always wanted to photograph–just not like this.

Speckled Rattlesnake in Joshua Tree National Park, California

In Memoriam, May 2011

Its always somber to see road killed reptiles, but this was just the beginning.  Not five minutes later, we pulled a very badly injured (fatally, I’m sure) coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) off the road, and over the course of the evening, we found a gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer), and a red diamond rattlesnake (Crotalus ruber) that had been killed earlier in the day.  It was carnage–easy to see why–with cars whizzing by us at 50-60 mph (25-35 mph over the posted speed limit).

Accidents happen, especially with fast-moving snakes like gopher snakes or coachwhips–they can jump out in front of a driver, with no hope of being avoided.  But, as my friend pointed out, there is no excuse for killing a rattlesnake in a park where the speed limit is 25 or 35 miles per hour.  They’re visible animals, and when following the speed limit, they can be avoided, largely because they are slow-moving.

April and May is peak camping season in Joshua Tree–the campgrounds are full, and people are everywhere.  Right now, that time of day is suicide for a basking snake.

To make it worse, the red diamond rattlesnake we found later in the evening was missing its rattle.  I hate to think about someone hitting the animal purposely to take the rattle (although I know of people who have done just that)–its a despicable act.  Even if a later driver stopped to take it, I wouldn’t want to be that person if a park ranger came down the road!

I know I sound like a real square with this post, urging people to stick to the posted speed limit, but after what we witnessed this weekend in Joshua Tree, its obvious that slowing down could really help to save some beautiful wildlife from needless deaths.

Fast Forward

Monday, December 6th, 2010

Here are another couple of images from my recent trip to the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.  I really loved the comparison between the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and its skeleton.  Cheetahs are one of the fastest land animals on earth, rapidly reaching speeds of nearly 70 miles per hour, with the ability to accelerate more quickly than most sportscars (0 to 65 mph in less than 3 seconds!).

a cheetah (acinonyx jubatus) and its skeleton at the los angeles county natural history museum

Fast Forward, November 2010

a diptych of a cheetah and its skeleton

Duplicity, November 2010

Click on the image above to see it big!


Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Øyenstikker is Norwegian for “eye poker.”

In some cultures, they are regarded as sinister or evil; one Romanian folk tale insists they were once a horse possessed by the devil.  Others will argue that the devil uses them to weigh peoples’ souls, and they are often associated with snakes, some saying they stitch snakes back together after they’ve been injured.  However, in other, primarily Native American cultures, they are associated with swiftness and activity, and in Navajo legends, they represent pure water.

Looking at one, its easy to see that a creature so bizarre, so beautiful, as a dragonfly would evoke such imaginative stories.  To me, they don’t evoke thoughts of evil demons or some sort of siren able to heal an injured snake.  To me, they represent change: summer turning to fall, days growing shorter, and leaves changing color.  Right now in southern California, the dragonflies are quite numerous near any body of water, especially ponds and marshes.

Black Saddlebags Dragonfly, Tramea lacerata

Black Saddlebags Dragonfly, Tramea lacerata, September 2010

Although they may have no inherent mystical qualities, dragonflies do carry the names of warriors, sorcerers, and wizards: Black Saddlebags, Variegated Meadowhawk, Western Pondhawk, Azure Hawker.  At least 20 species of dragonfly are found in southern California.  Recently, on a trip to a local wildlife area, a friend pointed out a species to me that has only been seen a handful of times in the whole state, and–we think–only once in our county: the Striped Saddlebags.

Striped Saddlebags Dragonfly, Tramea calverti

Striped Saddlebags, Tramea calverti, September 2010

In addition to just looking pretty cool, dragonflies have some pretty interesting behavior as well.  In the photo below, a Variegated Meadowhawk is displaying an obelisk behavior, where it orients its abdomen toward the sun, thereby minimizing contact with solar radiation, cooling itself.

Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum) displaying obolisk behavior

Variegated Meadowhawk, Sympetrum corruptum, displaying obelisk behavior, September 2010

The green darners in the photo below are displaying part of their mating behavior: the male (on right) is holding the female to the water while she oviposits (lays eggs) on the submerged branch.  Presumably, he is also protecting her from other males while she lays eggs.  More properly, he is probably protecting his sperm, since other males could mate with her, “ousting” his sperm.

Common Green Darner Dragonfly, Anax junius, in mating behavior

Common Green Darner Dragonfly, Anax junius, September 2010

In homage to the mythical Øyenstikker, I’ve updated all of my dragonfly species pages, and you can view all of them by clicking here to visit my miscellaneous animal page.

Some Zoo Creatures

Monday, August 30th, 2010

After nearly a week of 100°-110°F temperatures at our house, we took advantage of a very autumnal day (mid 70s) and went to the San Diego Zoo yesterday.  With a heavy cloud layer that didn’t lift until mid-morning, it allowed for some great photography, without having to worry about high contrast situations.  By noon, however, the sun came out, and so did the crowds.  However, with a 2 1/2 year old, we were ready to leave, have a picnic lunch, and head home by then anyway…

 lesser spot-nosed guenon Cercopithecus petaurista

Lesser spot-nosed guenon (Cercopithecus petaurista), August 2010

Su Lin the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), san diego zoo

Su Lin the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), August 2010

Of course, I can’t go to the zoo and just visit the charismatic megafauna.  Some of the lesser-visited attractions are some of the most pleasant for me.  One in particular I like is the exhibit on local (to southern California) rattlesnake species.

Crotalus mitchellii pyrrhus, speckled rattlesnake at the san diego zoo

Speckled rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchellii pyrrhus) August 2010

*As a technical note on the above photo, I handheld that with my 300/4 + 1.4x teleconverter and focused through glass.  The image was pretty sharp, but it did take some help in Photoshop to make it look presentable.

Finally, a visit to the hummingbird aviary was in order, before leaving the zoo for the day.

hummingbird in aviary, san diego zoo

Hummingbird, August 2010

All in all, it was a pretty good day!  Even on a family-oriented trip to the zoo, there are many opportunities for photography available.  With so many opportunities, it is a good time to practice refining your skills with flash and exposure so when you’re in the field and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arises, you can draw on the knowledge you gained.

Kangaroo rats galore!

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

In my opinion, kangaroo rats are among the most charming of all animals.  Their cheeks–usually stuffed full with seeds–and their huge hind feet make them adorable in my opinion.  Those namesake feet are also useful: when combined with their long tails, kangaroo rats can be extremely fast and agile, which is useful when you are avoiding predators like owls and rattlesnakes.

I gained an appreciation for kangaroo rats when I was helping one of my professors in graduate school trap Ord’s and Panamint kangaroo rats for a project he was working on.  When we released the animals, they would sit in our hands, almost not wanting to leave.  Indeed, it was hard to walk away from those big black eyes, and that cute face.

In southern California, we have several species of kangaroo rats, and they can be fun to photograph.  Near my home, the most common are the Dulzura (Dipodomys simulans) and the Stephen’s kangaroo rats (D. stephensi).

Dulzura Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys simulans)

Dulzura Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys simulans), August 2010

Stephen's Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys stephensi)

Stephen's Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys stephensi), July 2009

Yeah, I know, they look pretty much the same.  Most species of kangaroo rats do.  In fact, if an expert on these little creatures hadn’t confirmed their identity for me, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.  These photographs were taken less than one mile from each other; the Dulzura k-rats like rocky country, and the Stephen’s k-rats like open, grassy areas.  In fact, the chosen habitat of the Stephen’s kangaroo rat is probably partially responsible for the fact that its Federally-listed as an endangered species.

You see, open grassy areas are also the preferred habitat of housing developers.  As huge areas of land have been cleared for new housing in southern California, habitat is being taken away from these small creatures.  While some people had serious problems with the idea that a ‘rat’ was being protected by the Federal government, I hope you can see that this little creature is much more interesting and charming than your typical rat.  To see all of my Stephen’s kangaroo rat images, click here.  To see all of my Dulzura kangaroo rat images, click here.

If you venture further into the Mojave Desert toward Joshua Tree National Park, you’ll find the Merriam’s kangaroo rat (D. merriami).  Again, you’ll see there’s not much difference between this species and the other locals, but apparently enough genetic distance exists to warrant the creation of a new species.

Merriam's Kangaroo Rat, Joshua Tree National Park

Merriam's Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami), November 2009

While photographing nocturnal creatures can take a bit of getting used to, and may take one or two tries until you figure out a system that works for you, the rewards are definitely worth it–fantastic photos of these charming little rodents!

Coloration in collared lizards

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Last week, I blogged about the huge variety of wildlife present in Joshua Tree National Park during the hot summer months.  Among my favorite animals in the park are the collared lizards, Crotaphytus bicinctores.  Collareds are aggressive, carnivorous lizards and are extremely flashy this time of of year.  They mate in late May-early July, and because of that, they have some fantastic colors.

male great basin collared lizard, joshua tree national Park california

Male Great Basin Collared Lizard, July 2010

The rich yellows and oranges on the legs, blue under the neck and black in the pelvic and pectoral areas are all characteristic of this species, and in my opinion, what makes it so beautiful.  The lizard above is a very accommodating male we found on the 49 Palms Oasis trail.  The females, however, are much less vibrant.

female great basin collared lizard, joshua tree national park california

Female Great Basin Collared Lizard, July 2010

Despite her more drab appearance, I still like the subtle hues present, especially the orange markings on the lateral sides of her body.  After the breeding season, these orange markings will fade, leaving the females a brownish color.  What do they mean?  While its long been known that animals change color, plumage, etc during their breeding season, a 2004 study published in the journal Herpetologica suggests that in female collared lizards, the orange markings signal to males that she is sexually receptive.  On average, orange female collared lizards were courted 5 times more frequently by males than non-orange females.

Its always important to remember that things that may just appear pretty (or sometimes, even ugly) to us very often have a function in nature.