Breakthrough

Breakthrough - Zion National Park

There are moments. Very personal, resonate moments. Moments you hesitate to write about for fear of diminishing their significance. Because, despite their gravity, they are ephemeral, they float in the outer edge of awareness, in spirit. To put words to the experience risks obscuring the essence of what you feel compelled to communicate.

In such moments of hesitation, I draw on the words of Mary Oliver:

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

So, I will.

In my artistic pursuits, I had a breakthrough. It occurred up Zion Canyon, along a cliff-protected slope of stately trees I’d visited many times before. It was near dusk. My intent was to make a photograph framing a tall regal maple, its leaves gloriously carmine and crimson, sheltered high up at the base of the towering cliff. But everywhere I could manage an angle of view to the tree, the composition failed.

As I moved, and emotionally let go of my original intent, my attention was drawn to an opening of grass and flowers harboring a single tree with lustrous leaves of lemon and gold. The sun, now setting, lit a thin veil of stratus creating a soft box of white ambient light. The wind, gusting earlier, had settled, and with it, a peaceful air enveloped the space around me. The white flowers glowed like suspended snowflakes. The grass shown a rainbow of green. I transfixed to the scene before me and felt a slow rising tide of awareness. The elements of grass, flowers, tree, slope, background, texture, color, and light, all taken together made sense to me in a way I had previously not understood.

I bloomed with elation. And, simulatenously, felt a flowering of doubt. The doubt is important. It is, I believe, a uniquely human questioning rooted in a need for affirmation that an idea, feeling, or experience is essential and good. Its presence, accepted with grace, affirms the elation and empowers you to move forward.

So, I did.

Intently, intimately, I moved through the scene, honing into what I perceived to be the best composition expressing this new awareness. In the end, the placement of my view camera to make the photograph was precisely where the scene had revealed itself, a rarity for me.

The image may ultimately be a failure. I haven’t received the processed film back and I’m well versed in the fact that inspiration and execution don’t always agree. But the iPhone image that accompanies this post encouraged me to write while the ideas were fresh in memory and feeling. And, even if the film image isn’t successful, something essential was affirmed — a breakthrough in my photographic continuum along a path of elation and doubt that never fails to astonish me.

Pine Creek Reflections

Pine Creek Reflections - Zion National Park

Recent hard freezes and wind have encouraged the leaves to drop off trees like rocks, abruptly concluding the fall color season here. And, as with all transitions, new opportunities arise. Trees, their leaves bared, reveal previously veiled stone patterns and textures. Cold invites intricate ice patterns to form in pools and along the stiller edges of running waters. And foam patterns bubble up in gurgling cascades, holding shape in the creeks before the sun rises high enough to warm and dissipate them.

Years ago, I made the image, A Moment in Time, along lower Pine Creek under similar weather conditions. Hoping for a bit of the same magic, I took a mid-morning meander up the creek last week. While I found only hints of ice, I came upon some wonderfully patterned foam that, at a low angle, reflected bold morning colors shining off lower East Temple.

Just another glorious morning in the canyon of stone and light.

Swirling Silence

Swirls in Sandstone - Zion National Park

Silence. Such a rarity. I found it late yesterday afternoon in a half bowl of swirling sandstone high atop a ridge in the beautiful chaos of eastern Zion.

I’d scouted the area a year earlier, returned twice this October, and now ascended the ridge late yesterday to make this photograph. The afternoon was splendid. Whisps of milky white clouds floated a crayola blue sky. Despite the cold, the still air coupled with a brisk hiking pace, kept me comfortably warm. When I reached my destination, it was near dusk, the sun’s waning orange glow, a gentle kiss on the tree lined tops of the surrounding peaks.

I had to work quickly to set up, focus, and expose the photograph. It was only after, while stowing away the gear, that I became accutely aware of the silence. The land, the animals, the air, all still under a blanket of deepening cobalt sky. I stood there motionless ignoring the radio fuzz of my body, feeling a deep peace, oneness, and, ironically, insignificance. To accept your place in the world, a mere dust grain in an ocean of possibility, is at once humbling and an inspiration.

This ridge and I will see each other again.

24,323 Steps

Stone Tapestry - Zion National Park

24,323 steps. That’s the total my Health App registered after a long meandering 11-mile trek through the back country of the upper east side of Zion National Park. An extensive expanse of high altitude slickrock and forests, I’d “discovered” the area a year earlier while hiking high atop a neighboring canyon. The inspiring views hinted at tantalizing photographic opportunities. A careful study of the topography suggested the access route which was generously confirmed by a group of bighorn sheep pensively watching me (intruder!) approach the steep partially obscured gateway.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the hike, I had pretty high expectations for scouting photographic opportunities which proved elusive. It wasn’t until step 21,977 (yes, I checked) that I came upon a section of water worn sandstone with these delicious time weathered patterns. The patterns are present throughout Zion’s high country but finding such a richly colored continuous tapestry is rare. And, at step 21,977, felt especially gratifying.

Thankfully, returning with my view camera to make a film image will require far fewer steps.

UPDATE: Making the image with the view camera required 9,343 steps.

Douchebaggery

Meme

I’m not one for dipping into the Internet meme toolbox to make a point. But, occasionally, you read something that begs for it.

The romance and nostalgia associated with film doesn’t justify its continued use, even for the black and white photographer working in the traditional wet darkroom.

This statement belongs to Fred. Fred isn’t this guy’s real name. His real name doesn’t matter. But that statement qualifies Fred for douchebag status.

Let me explain.

Last week Fred was hiking The Narrows in Zion National Park. Two of my friends and I were, also. One friend had his digital medium format system in tow and, while photographing, was approached by Fred. The subsequent discussion, which I saw but couldn’t hear, was related to me. It was a largely one-way discussion about gear that often occurs between photographers, and has about as much merit as a circle jerk. Fred, not having his system with him, made sure my friend understood his equipment was equally good, if not better.

The experience of Fred in the Narrows and the “my equipment is bigger than yours” exchange probably would’ve floated into distant memory, except we all spied Fred again at dinner. There was no exchange, but seeing him prompted some Internet searching, and we found his website with the aforementioned quote.

And, Fred goes on:

The technical hoops one must jump through to scan and process the image alone are reason enough to abandon the medium, and the color shifts and casts are an additional headache. The recent quality improvements in medium format digital capture conclude the argument.

This argument, which amounts to “film was hard, digital is so much better (and easier)”, is something of a classic philosophical position defensively adopted by “fine art” photographers who transitioned to digital. I’ll admit there was a period where the question of veracity in digital photography made me feel defensive of the portion of my work that was digital as well.

But I’m over that. And so are a lot of others, thank goodness. So why pick on poor old Fred?

Fred’s assertion that his points “conclude the argument” concerning digital vs. film is egregiously narrow-minded and arrogant. And, for me, unacceptable. If you have a true appreciation for the medium of photography and its potential as an artistic pursuit, then these 5 ideas should ring truer than Fred’s position.

  1. The argument concerning the superiority of digital vs. film is dead. In fact, we’d all be better off if it’d never existed in the first place. If you want to talk about film and digital’s characteristic differences, please do. Because they are different. Fundamentally so. One is analog. One is digital. Duh. And the choice to use one vs. the other (or both) is a personal one that should align to your goals as a photographer.
  2. Photographers who continue to work in the traditional wet darkroom do so for love of medium, the aesthetic characteristics of the product created, and the inherent processes the medium requires. Some people simply love to work in a tactile environment in a traditional, craft-based way. More power to them.
  3. The assumption of digital superiority, in technical terms, may have merit, but romance and nostalgia are powerful forces that align well with people who commit to an artistic pursuit for its own sake and not the popular trends of the culture. Throw in some rebelliousness and out-of-bounds thinking and you’re beginning to characterize some of the greatest artists we’ve ever known.
  4. Analog prints (both color and black and white) created in the hands of master printers have aesthetic characteristics both unique and incredibly beautiful. For certain styles, these prints still rival and can exceed the aesthetics of the highest end papers and processes currently available digitally. Why? Mastery of medium aligned to one’s vision will generally exceed technical, product, even aesthetic superiority.
  5. Much of digital photography and printmaking today is its own unique medium that should be pursued, mastered, and appreciated for its own inherent qualities and capabilities. My digital work is often quite different from the work I pursue with film. I enjoy the different options and aesthetics associated with the strengths of the medium.

I’d like to think all my statements are both reasonable and inclusive. Fred’s statements take the form of defensive posturing. They, sadly, fit the character of the person we briefly encountered in Zion. I’m not sure Fred understands that quality and aesthetic are two distinctly separate ideas. People with commitment to a particular creative medium (aesthetic) should be celebrated, not refuted for superiority’s (quality’s) sake.

Maybe next year I’ll come across Fred again in the Narrows. And you can bet the conversation will not be about whose camera is bigger.

Nature’s Transitions

Nature's Transitions - Zion National Park

Over the years, I’ve become rather spoiled when scouting images here in Zion. Often, even with fall color scenes, I’ll come upon a very promising composition under less than ideal lighting conditions. Assuming the weather isn’t forecast to dramatically change, I know I have a day or maybe three (in some cases, even years!) to attempt making the photograph in more favorable lighting conditions.

This trip, however, nature has reminded me her transitions can be quick, unexpected, dramatic. The comparison image here is a small section of stream taken only three days apart. I’d discovered the leaves in cloudy conditions with winds gusting so hard I had to mind I wan’t standing underneath pine trees and their resident kamikaze pine cones. And when rain began to polka dot the ground around me, I hastily departed the area not wanting to risk traversing steep wet slick rock (my only route back), a particularly dangerous scenario in canyon country.

The conditions that drove me out of the canyon dissipated and while rain did return later in the evening, it was light enough I felt confident the leaves would still be there when conditions were favorable. So I was shocked when, three days later, I eagerly started up the canyon and discovered dramatic changes. The rain had been heavy enough to mildly flood the stream bed. New channels were carved in sandy bottoms. Water pockets were refilled and clear of wind spawn debris. Oily sand pockets soaked maroon and violet were repainted tan and bone. The transitions were, in their microcosmic way, startling.

Climbing the slick rock I weakly held on to a glimmer of hope my composition of leaves remained intact. But when I arrived, clear water reflecting trees and blue sky left me wondering if I’d merely dreamt the image.

One other thing I’ve learned over the years under such circumstances, there is only one reasonable response orchestrated in three simple steps.

Smile. Bow. Walk on.

Conflicting Topographies

Conflicting Topographies over Nevada

It’s probably not surprising, when flying, I like the window seat. Flying, for me, is a little dose of transcendence. At 30,000 feet, perspective runs visually broad and contemplatively deep. Patterns that might strike me while walking along the beach or across a sloping plate of sandstone replicate themselves in swaths of mountain range, river valley and plain. The visual connection is an affirmation of the synergistic relationship of all things, whether big or small, that make up our planet.

In the photo here, taken high above the desert northwest of Las Vegas, linear roads and boundaries cut through the natural patterns of Earth, exemplifying the often conflicting nature of our efforts to “progress” human life. I generally hold to Darwinian beliefs and nothing in this image feels particularly Darwinian to me in terms of the ultimate success (survival) of our species. Instead of conflict, our future needs harmony. The human topographies we evolve going forward must better align and respect the topography of Earth. At 30,000 feet, the visual argument for such a paradigm shift seems obvious.

Star Trails over West Temple

Star Trails over West Temple - Zion National Park

Taken from the rooftop of the home I’m currently staying in. 534 images over a total of 17,622 seconds or slightly less than 5 hours. I was going for more (720 images) but the battery pooped out before things could finish.

The moon, at approximately 50% illumination, begins to light the scene about two-thirds through the image sequence. This helps provides just a hint of detail in Zion’s West Temple and its surrounding peaks. Overall, the combined effect is rather mesmerizing.