Posts Tagged ‘Tunnel View’

Book Review – Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks

April 27th, 2018

Book Review

Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks by Q. T. Luong

The Ethics of Protecting and Promoting Our National Parks

Cover of Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks by Q. T. Luong. (Click to view large.)

Americans invented National Parks and in return, National Parks and other wild lands of the new continent shaped Americans. Yet the influence of cities and automobiles has eclipsed that of the national parks in all ways except through our collective imagination and grandest vision of all that makes up an ideal civilization. We must be careful to perpetuate these fragile image ties to our wilderness past, or forever lose our identity as part of nature. Maintaining this vision will also ensure our national parks remain wilderness untrammeled. Otherwise, we lose the piece of our core selves closest to our heart.

The age-old debate still rages over whether to invite more people out to enjoy nature and thus develop a larger fan base, or keep quiet and try to stop people from increasing the wear, tear, vandalism and man-made infrastructure necessary to simultaneously maintain access and protect our national treasures.

“For every place there will always be people that want to exploit it,” my father, pioneer conservation photographer Philip Hyde said. “And, there will always be people—hopefully—that want to save it and keep it as it is. Even with the risk of inviting the crowds into paradise, better to publish your photographs and rally the troops. What’s in the frame of the photograph matters artistically, to be sure, but what’s outside the frame can destroy it.” Later in life, in the early years of the millennium, after hearing how overrun and trampled certain locations had become, Dad said he still wondered whether his books benefitted or harmed nature.

The Advantages of Large Format Film and of a Well-Written Text

Grand Teton from Schwabacher Landing, Midday, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming by Q. T. Luong from Treasured Lands. (Click to see large.)

If this best in class large format book, Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, with text and photography by Quang-Tuan Luong were a film, it would win multiple Academy Awards as one of the best efforts ever for recruiting new national park fans and encouraging old fans to renew themselves through new visits. My impression is that Mr. Luong accomplished such a masterpiece through sheer will, discipline and diligence.

When you open Treasured Lands for the first time you revel in the sublime realism and beauty that can only be achieved by large format film or a $40,000 digital camera rendered through the subtle, well-balanced color palette of a well reproduced photography book. To be fair, Tuan Luong informed me that the photographs in the book were not all made with a large format camera. Nonetheless, they all exhibit large format acumen by the photographer and they all have an unmistakeable large format aesthetic, portraying the full spectrum of nature, rather than nature dressed up only on her best day.

To accompany this colossal collection of effective and moving illustrations, Q. T. Luong wrote a text that flows and delivers just as well as the images. His punchy prose keeps your interest. It is loaded with facts, but not everyday facts, novel, captivating facts, figures and surprising observations that give you the feeling of having smartly and efficiently obtained the essence of each place. Just starting at page one and turning a few pages to the contents showing all the parks, I felt like I had already embarked on an adventure. I was learning, absorbing and celebrating our national heritage. I held in my hands all the parks in one monster volume.

Art, Propaganda and Photograph Location Disclosure

Cannonball and Badlands at Night, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota by Q. T. Luong from Treasured Lands. (Click to see Large.)

But is it art? Critics and others might ask. I would say the book itself is a work of art, the photographs are mainly documentary but contain artistic elements, some of them more than others. Some art critics might say the book is propaganda. They might perceive it as a kind of glorified guide book because Luong provides specific directions to each of his compositions in each park. Some art connoisseurs, gallerists and museum curators consider any art that is not solely for the sake of art itself is propaganda. This traces back to critics John Szarkowski and Nancy Newhall, as instigated by Ansel Adams and Beaumont Newhall around the time they co-founded the first museum photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Ansel Adams in workshops and his student and teaching associate Philip Hyde in a number of places, both in writing and in interviews spoke against giving directions to image locations. Both photography mentors felt the practice inhibited student resourcefulness and creativity, as well as hobbling the development of individual vision. I usually tend to agree with Dad and Ansel and believe these details are a flaw in Treasured Lands.

However, times have changed and photography in many cases is self-taught or no longer taught with the same rigor. Many photographers today find location specifics an asset and have praised Treasured Lands most of all for this reason. Either way, still today the best guidebooks offer suggestions and ideas, but do not give exact specifics. Nonetheless, even for purists like me, Luong somehow gets away with providing specific directions because the sheer scope of his undertaking and achievement force us to take him seriously as more than a mere tour guide. To go with the directions, I would have liked to see an outdoor ethics statement, or the Leave No Trace Principles. However, between the photographs and text, Luong portrays and describes these natural places with such reverence and admiration that his readers will hopefully take on at least some of his tone and outlook, which will hopefully cause them to treat our amazing national treasures with respect.

With new adventures on every page turn, my resistance to location disclosure fell away almost immediately under the sheer power of what I was seeing and reading. Unfortunately, I did find the maps a bit hard to read due to their tiny type font. However, I enjoyed reading how to reach a smattering of the photo locations. Meanwhile for the most part I became caught up in reading other content, which while obviously extensive and geologically rich, came accessibly served up in one to two page bytes. These are rewarding and satisfying because each section acts in part like a mini-tour of the park it covers. The text is well thought out, well-organized, captivating, diverse and packed with actionable instructions and tips to make your travels more enjoyable and photographically productive.

The Many Reasons Treasured Lands Is Not Propaganda

Haleakala Crater from White Hill, Midday, Haleakala National Park, Hawaii by Q. T. Luong from Treasured Lands. (Click to see Large.)

Regardless, I have other reasons not to dismiss Treasured Lands as mere propaganda. At face value, rather than feeling commercially viable at all, Treasured Lands feels so heavy in weight, so chock full of striking imagery and so bulging with smart information that once you have it in your hands you feel that you have made a great deal to have it for under $100. The publisher’s retail is $65 for an autographed copy from TreasuredLandsBooks.com. Currently you can even get it for as little as $44.19 with free shipping from Amazon.

Large two-page evening panoramas sprinkled across the pages bring the parks depicted into vivid awareness while taking us partially into abstraction with the extreme light and shadows of dusk. Sweeping vistas throughout the book give a sense of place and overwhelm us with the vastness and remoteness of wilderness. Luong visited many of the parks multiple times, which translates to years of hard work, days and nights of grinding travel in all conveyances and over all manner of terrain, which also translates into daunting logistics and planning.

By no means did Q. T. Luong make the expected photographs of each or even many of the national parks. In Lassen Volcanic National Park, as one example of many, he skipped the most popular views, especially of the mountain, but with the exquisite detail and texture of large format film he captured frames that showed the character of the park just as well without being cliché. In discussions with other photographers, I found most of them said that the book has a good balance between more innovative images and what some might call “the obvious shots” that are all but required to identify certain landmarks in some parks. Besides, in the visual arts people are drawn to at least a nuance, if not a good amount of familiarity, as Atlantic editor Derek Thompson points out in his book, Hit Makers. Hits are made from images that look new, but also remind us of other images before in some way.

Some of the Best Illustrative Landscape Photographs Ever Made

Cove of Arches and Cove Arch at night. Arches National Park, Utah by Q. T. Luong from Treasured Lands. (Click to see Large.)

Speaking of hits, in some of the national parks, Luong managed to make what I consider some of the best photographs ever made of certain areas. This was true in a number of unexpected places such as in Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite, where Luong shows us the only photograph I have ever seen that lives up to the early 1900s Bureau of Reclamation vision of what the reservoir would look like, as sold to the American public. Pinnacles National Park is challenging to photograph. Perhaps his many visits enabled Luong to do something extra special there by knowing the most striking compositions and capitalizing on the best possible light. In the Sierra, he photographed snow caked on Giant Sequoia trunks, but did it better than it has been done before, with more majesty and more mood. I love Luong’s photograph of Alabama Hills. It is more about the Sierra Crest and the terrain, than any gimmicky cliché pseudo-arch foreground window framing the distant peaks. Luong omits the Merced River altogether in Yosemite, except in the higher elevation roaring cascades below Vernal Falls.

The differences between documentary and art photography are blurring anyway, but Luong is perhaps one of those who push the two definitions inward toward each other. His photographs for Treasured Lands overall are documentary, but even the most representational and least creative works are artistically strong and well seen from a design perspective with luscious forms and beautiful lines. It is quite evident that Luong has studied the great works of photography and art and applied what he has observed. Documentary, almost standard issue images that essentially say, “Ok, here we are at Joshua Tree,” are the best working basis for a large book on all of the national parks. However, Luong keeps his book fresh by mixing in nighttime photographs, ridge silhouettes, a few wildly tilted horizons and other Pictorialist effects such as slow shutter speeds for silky water, movement blurs and wind blurs. Luong also puts in the extra effort and expense to provide variety in other ways by getting up in airplanes, scaling mountain peaks, climbing walls, swimming underwater, chartering various boats horses, burros and other unusual transportation. Meanwhile, he also mixes in enough expected imagery such as the lava dripping into the ocean in Hawaii, Tunnel View from Yosemite, the Teton Barn, Mt. Denali and Wonder Lake and the circular petroglyphs on Signal Hill near the Tucson Mountains in Saguaro National Park.

Realism, Hard Work, Diligence, Feedback, Revisions and Quality

Margerie Glacier from Tarr Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska by Q. T. Luong from Treasured Lands. (Click to see Large.)

Another significant reason large format film was the ideal medium for this national parks project lies in how the high fidelity gives reflections, textures and details a much more interesting and realistic look. With large format, a nature photographer can go after and make ordinary objects extraordinary. The resulting photographs also work better when they contain flaws and extra grit, rather than having to be sterilized by over retouching in Photoshop. For example: I love that Luong left the house in his Zion photograph of Towers of the Virgin. Many digital photographers take it out of their images of this iconic location. The large format color is also so lush and true without any false-rendering of tones or over-saturation.

Part of what lifted up the text and images to far above average, was the amount of advice and feedback Quang-Tuan Luong asked for along the way. He was wise to get Gary Crabbe to help him edit the photographs and to get advice from many other experts at each stage in the production process. The first time Tuan and I met in San Jose, he asked me for ideas on how he could come out with yet another national parks book and make it different from any that had been done before. This was a smart question to ask about such a book and a good place to start in attracting my interest and participation. My first answer was that we do not need another book on the national parks. However, as I began to think about how Tuan opened himself up to input and ideas, I felt I had to offer more. Besides, when he asked me about making it a guidebook for photographers as well as a picture book for everyone else, I told him I did not like guidebooks. Some help I was. Yet he patiently and gently persisted in asking more questions and asking me to read some of his text. I agreed to do so, somewhat reluctantly. It took me a long time to offer much feedback, but as I began to, I saw that Tuan had put a great deal of thought and effort into the project, the text no less than the photography. As the book took shape and began to emerge from the realm of ideas, the quiet strength of what he was doing became evident. Let this be a word of caution to all aspiring creative people out there: never give up on what you love or on your big idea just because it has been done before. Do it better. Q. T. Luong certainly did and the world and the field are far richer for it. However, he did it not by force of will or ego, but through good listening. Remember that too, above all else. He also did it with kindness and generosity. My copy of Treasured Lands is the limited edition version that Tuan personally sent me. He numbered it by hand 77 of 150, signed it and wrote me a personal note. How cool is that?

A Tribute to the American Land, the Art of Place and Our National Heritage That Will Live On

Cypress trees Reflected in Cedar Creek from Canoe, Congaree National Park, South Carolina by Q. T. Luong from Treasured Lands. (Click to see Large.)

It may be due to the large format camera, or perhaps Luong and his sensibilities, or all three, regardless an outstanding sense of place permeates every page of Treasured Lands. Many are close behind, but the national park depictions deserving the most recognition in establishing place in my opinion are Cuyahoga Valley, Death Valley, Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Great Sand Dunes, Guadalupe Mountains, Haleakala and Yellowstone. In Yellowstone, Luong includes Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs and a fairly unique framing of Yellowstone Falls, but also shows us many locations with which we are not familiar. In Death Valley, Luong gives us perhaps more of the usual images than in other places, but the additional images show us so much more as to render the place very well overall. Luong exhibits a certain flair for Alaska as his images in each of the parks there for the most part are both unexpected and extraordinary in the lexicon of all landscape photographs.

Q. T. Luong’s massive work consists of not so much a single unity of style, but of several style themes that run throughout the book. This cohesiveness is quite an accomplishment for a project that took so many years to complete. With all of the elements that went into making the book creating a synergy that lifts it above other work in the genre, it also transcends its minor shortcomings, or perceived structural flaws that we readers bring to it based on our own biases.

The sheer volume of work, in and of itself is impressive, but the consistent quality and exemplary execution make Treasured Lands a truly monumental achievement. Even as the son of Philip Hyde, or perhaps especially as the son of Philip Hyde, I am going to go out on a limb and say that Treasured Lands is one of the greatest large format landscape photography books ever published. It will live on and influence photographers for years and perhaps even generations to come. These statements, considering what has been accomplished in the genre before, hopefully transcend anything else I could say, or have said above, whether critical or supportive.

My Most ‘Unique’ Photograph Of Yosemite Valley

April 1st, 2015

My Most Amazing Photo of Yosemite Yet

Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, Sierra Nevada, California

Always. Do. Your. Home. Work…?

Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, Sierra Nevada, California. Objects appear by special licensing permission from far out friends of Steven Spielberg.

Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, Sierra Nevada, California. Sky objects appear by special licensing permission from far out friends of Steven Spielberg. (Click on the image to see large.)

        For many months I have been researching Yosemite National Park photo locations on Flickr, Instagram, 500px, Pinterest, Twitter, LinkedIn, The Luminous Landscape, Outdoor Photographer Locations, and how can I forget: Facebook. Then I consulted my photographer’s ephemeris, the Weather Channel, my neighbor who works at NOAA, astrological charts, astronomical charts, phases of the moon, sunspot activity reports, the Gregorian Calendar, the Hebrew Calendar, the Mayan Calendar, Dreamspell, a number of online games, Netflix, YouTube, HBO, Showtime, TV Guide, the Outdoor Channel, the Discovery Channel, Oprah, The Ansel Adams Gallery Blog, Michael Frye’s Blog, various Yosemite web cams, the Ghost of Ansel, the Yosemite Tour Bus Schedule, Bill Clinton’s speaking schedule, the Sierra Ski Report, the Central Coast surf report, literally hundreds of guidebooks, pamphlets, brochures, every hotel and motel and a few dive bars, taverns, bathroom walls and small funky convenience stores within 150 miles, searching for inspiration in Yosemite.

I wanted quintessential Yosemite, but yet my own take on this hallowed place. I input all of this data into a new photographer’s analytics program that I got at Home Depot, or was it Toys ‘R’ Us? Anyway, this is an amazing program. It crunched all this data and then tracked down the almost exact location through shared camera GPS coordinates.

The Sound of A Million Shutters Clicking

I drove seven long hours to capture this amazing Yosemite Valley perspective that is destined to be a centerpiece of my Portfolio One. Just when I thought I was the only person who might have thought of capturing this unique vantage point, I was disappointed to find that hundreds of photographers were already there snapping away. The sound of electronic digital shutters clicking was like a thousand tiny tornadoes. At first I was dumbfounded and even sat down to cry. To think that my unique location had already been discovered. There was a lineup of photographers, shoulder to shoulder, camera bag to camera bag, stretching throughout the parking lot, down into the brush, into the woods and way up the hill as far as I could see, all facing the same direction, all with tripods interlocked.

Finally after a good gnashing, howling and trembling sob, I stood up and felt a little better, resigned to make the most of the situation. I jogged down to the lineup in slow motion and imagined triumphant music and a TV crew tracking me. Esteemed photographer Ken Cravillion was there, a voice of good humor and reason. He offered me his spot between two other “photographers.” I set up my camera and took only One Shot, just as a famous muscle man from Australia has taught.

“I freakin’ nailed it,” I yelled at the top of my lungs with gusto and glee.

Secret Systems and Special Gear Make a Photographer…?

At that moment, way up behind me in the crowd I saw my friend Jim Sabiston from New York City.

“New York City,” I exclaimed when he drew near. “You must have some of the same secret systems and special gear that I do. I can tell that is what has made you an extraordinary photographer. I wonder if that is how all these amazing master professionals knew to photograph here too.” We proceeded to compare notes as I wrapped up my exposure. It turns out he looked up some of the same materials and has many of the same sources.

“Golly-wiz,” I said, “We can’t let this information get out. Pretty soon all the photographs made with these secret toys, ahem, tools, will look the same.” I would not want to spoil the incredible uniqueness already developing online among people who snap photos, post regularly and read each other’s materials exclusively, rarely, if ever, reading a classic novel or setting foot in a museum.

Now that I had my One Shot, I gave my spot in the lineup to Jim. I told him that I couldn’t wait to compare my photograph to his, not visually or aesthetically, but socially, to see which one would get more likes on Facebook. We are in competition because competition is, of course, the name of the game in photography, especially competition for recognition, not necessarily for quality. Quality is sort of an afterthought. What matters are “likes,” retweets, pins and reposts. Nonetheless, even though we are in competition, because it is amazing, I highly recommend checking out Jim’s photograph on his blog.

Ghost In The Machine

It was not until I opened my photograph in Photoshop Camera Raw that I noticed that something very unusual had indeed happened after all. At first these flying objects that I could not identify in the sky were very faint. Yet, after I applied my layers, presets, plugins, knockoffs and knockouts, I found the objects were much clearer. I still am not sure what they are. They look like something from Star Wars or Star Trek, but as some people have pointed out, all three of them are the same size, even though they are each a different clarity and brightness. Something is shooting a beam off into space toward the upper left of the image. I am not sure if this has anything to do with the objects, or The Arcanum, or with Bridalveil Falls lined up with it in synchronicity on the right, but this beam is clearly there in the image and even in some other images I saw taken at the same time. If the objects are indeed flying, people have pointed out that the perspective is wrong for them to be behind one another coming toward us. I am amazed some people have even made comments like, “The sky is all messy in that spot. It looks like you Photoshopped those objects into your photograph.” Can you believe it? I was flabbergasted. I tried to explain that it might be due to the beaming in process. Skeptics.

My own theory is that at the decisive moment of capture, each object was in the process of beaming in from somewhere else. This explains the differences in appearance. Also, if you look closely and squint your eyes, you too may see the objects becoming even clearer before your very eyes. They have been getting clearer in the photograph gradually all along. I am not sure how to explain this phenomenon. The objects seem to be beaming into the photograph just as they beamed into reality. I did not see the objects at the time of exposure, nor did anyone else that I noticed, though there was that one pet woodchuck that was freaking out quite a bit there in the parking lot at Tunnel View. I have asked around and as far as I know, nobody else captured these objects on their digital SD Cards or film. It remains a mystery. I suppose the case of the unidentified flying objects is one that cannot be over-thought or over-explained as is the practice with everything else in photography.

Happy April 1!

Official New Release: Sierra Portfolio

May 29th, 2013

Announcing David Leland Hyde’s All New Sierra Portfolio

“The Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light… the most divinely beautiful of all mountain chains I have ever seen.” –John Muir

New Sierra Portfolio By David Leland Hyde On PhilipHyde.com

Half Dome From Mirror Lake Trail, Winter, Yosemite National Park, Sierra, California, copyright 2010 David Leland Hyde.

Half Dome From Mirror Lake Trail, Winter, Yosemite National Park, Sierra, California, copyright 2010 David Leland Hyde.

John Muir wandered and celebrated the Sierra for more than a decade inspiring thousands of artists and lovers of wilderness to “climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” My father, American landscape photographer Philip Hyde, was one artist so inspired. His last book, published in 1992 and titled, “The Range of Light,” featured quotes from John Muir to go with his color, as well as black and white photographs.

When Dad was 16 he first visited the Sierra and labeled his map of Yosemite National Park, “Home.” Twelve years later in 1950 he and my mother moved to the mountains in the Northern Sierra. Another 15 years later a doctor friend helped them give birth to me at home in the wilderness of the Sierra. I grew up in the woods along Indian Creek and have been “haunted by waters” like Norman Maclean ever since. The Sierra could also be called the “range of shimmering water” as it is more abundant in rivers, lakes and streams than any other mountain range.

The house I was born in is situated on an ancient granite rockslide that originated from Grizzly Peak. The peak itself is not visible from our home directly below the mountain. We see Grizzly Ridge, rising precipitously up 4,000 feet to 7,600 feet elevation, from Indian Creek at 3,600 feet elevation just below the house. Nonetheless, this northern end of the Sierra is mild, softly rounded and much lower than the high Sierra of Yosemite, Kings Canyon and the John Muir Trail.

As a child of the mountains, they raised me just as much as my parents. My mother knew I would learn many of life’s most important lessons by wandering around in the woods, fishing and hiking along Indian Creek, Spanish Creek, Greenhorn Creek, Ward Creek, Red Clover Creek, Montgomery Creek, Lights Creek, Hinchman Creek, Peters Creek and many of the other streams of Plumas County and the Feather River region.

These local names are telltale signs of my focus on local photography for the last four years since I forged into digital photography; and for many years before that while carrying a film camera off and on, sometimes going whole decades without a camera too. Here I learned to walk, talk, run, swim, fish, ice skate, drive in the snow, jump off of big rocks into deep waters and all the fun a boy could ask for without any need of television, video games, cell phones or portable computers.

I understand the need, in some cases, for landscape photographers to travel. During his more than 60-year career, Dad traveled an average of 99 days out of every year. Yet even Dad’s travels were almost exclusively regionally limited to the Western United States, primarily in Arizona and Utah canyons and California mountains. Is it necessary that all photographers go to Machu Picchu, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, or even Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, Tunnel View in Yosemite Park, or Zabriski Point in Death Valley National Park? Sometimes photographers traveling to Iceland might help save the ice sheet, photographers traveling to far northern British Columbia might save a vast wilderness like the Sacred Headwaters. However, generally, I feel more and more that I am a proponent of photographic bioregionalism. In other words, bloom where you’re planted. Considering that Edward Weston said he could look at his boot and find a great photograph, amazing images are everywhere, if the photographer looks, or rather sees closely enough. There is no need to travel great distances to find beauty. It can be found right in the backyard as locally focused well-known photographers like William Neill, Michael Frye, Gary Crabbe, Richard Wong and Guy Tal prove over and over, day in, day out.

I was born in the Sierra, here is where I live and here is where I photograph. This new portfolio is a collection of a small slice of my personal expression through the lens, very often one single rudimentary lens, a Costco special Nikon 18-55 mm that came in a kit with my Nikon D90, a Nikon 55-200 lens, a camera case, an SD card and camera manual. Sure, some day I hope to break out Dad’s large format Deardorff view cameras and his two medium format Rollei SL66 film cameras to try out some black and white film, but for now, I’ll stick to the easy to use and versatile Nikon D90. I am lucky to have Dad’s nearly indestructible Bogen #3028 tripod with handy pads on the legs for comfortable carrying over the shoulder for long distances or while free rock climbing with one hand down into some canyon in these fair mountains of home.

Nearly all of my photographs are single exposure, single image capture, though now that I’m learning to blend, I usually make at least two, sometimes three exposures of most high contrast photographs. The only photograph in this new Sierra Portfolio that is a blend is #3 “Oaks, Grizzly Ridge, Fall.” It is not a blend for contrast, but for the purpose of lightening the California Black Oaks and shifting color temperature of part of the image and not another. Many of these Sierra Nevada photographs involve very little Photoshop work at all, except where obvious. Color saturation was rarely increased with the saturation slider. I usually only increase saturation as a byproduct of working with the curves to attain the look of the original scene. People who don’t use Photoshop and claim their images are more pure because they for the most part use their RAW file, are generally producing images that are less true to life than those who use Photoshop because the RAW file rarely match any scene the way it looked originally. For more on this and related subjects see also the blog post, “David Leland Hyde’s Portfolio One Revisions And New Releases.” Please keep in mind that I create these photographs in limited editions of only 100. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Enjoy browsing: Sierra Portfolio… and please share which you like best…

(Originally posted for soft release May 29, 2013.)

Moving Past The Repertoire by Greg Russell

December 19th, 2011

Moving Past the Repertoire: An Essay By Greg Russell

Landscape Photography Blogger Note: My photoblog friendship with Greg Russell developed over the last year or more through an exchange of many e-mails and phone calls on the state of photography today and yesterday, philosophy, and our development as photographers.  This essay came out of our conversations. Concurrently on Greg Russell’s photoblog Alpenglow Images, he has posted an essay I wrote called, “Make Your Own Tripod Tracks.” For more background on Greg Russell see the blog post, “Monday Blog Blog: Greg Russell, Ph.D.” or his own short bio.

Moving Past The Repertoire By Greg Russell

Early Morning, Bisti Badlands, New Mexico, copyright 2011 by Greg Russell.

In a previous blog post, I mentioned Katie Lee, whose songs and essays have undoubtedly made her one of the greatest advocates for the Colorado Plateau, and the Colorado River in particular.  In one of her essays she talks about a photographer friend she once brought to Glen Canyon before it was dammed.  He dropped his camera in the sand before exploring a much-anticipated side canyon.  Instead of continuing up the canyon sans camera, he turned around, saying emphatically, “I don’t even want to see it if I can’t photograph it.”

Hmmm…that brings up an interesting question.  Imagine yourself on the trip of a lifetime, possibly even knowing you’re going to be one of the last people to see a particular canyon before it disappears underwater forever.  How would you react if your camera got filled with sand?

Personally, I would probably begin by using every curse word in my vocabulary.  Then, I would probably pout, and I hope I would enjoy the rest of the trip, even without “that shot.”

Today on my blog, David Leland Hyde in his blog post, “Make Your Own Tripod Marks,” likens landscape photography to trophy hunting, with intense competition to get “the shot.”  Indeed, despite the camaraderie, things have evolved into a very “me first” sort of culture.  As a result, as soon as a new location is discovered (and its coordinates disseminated), it quickly becomes part of hundreds of photographers’ libraries.  Mark Meyer has written an excellent article on the landscape photographer’s repertoire, which describes the mentality of this culture very well.

Rather than rehash Meyers’ comments (he makes his point much better than I ever could), I wonder to myself, can we move past the repertoire?  Can we discover our own little wild places, places that inspire creativity based on our own discoveries, our own way of seeing?

As a beginning landscape photographer, it seemed logical and intuitive for me to learn about composition and exposure by following in the footsteps of photographers who inspire me.  I visited the classic viewpoints—Mesa Arch, Tunnel View—and in all honesty, I don’t regret it.  I think everyone should see sunrise at the Towers of the Virgin at least once.

However, I began to realize that by visiting these locations and making the same compositions as everyone else, my creativity was impeded.  By photographing the repertoire, my technical skills matured, but when the time to look for unique, incongruous, compositions and to attempt to break the “rules” in an artful way, it was obvious to me.  In other words, it was time to put down the roadside guide, to stop letting highway pullouts dictate what would make an interesting photograph.

Wave Abstract, Channel Islands National Park, California, copyright 2010 by Greg Russell.

In the search for my own voice, I quickly learned that for me, fostering a connection with the land—a sense of place—was the most valuable tool in letting me discover the landscape’s “unseen” beauty.  As a result, my writing and photographs focus on the place, rather than the technical aspect of photography, see, for example, the blog post: “Overland Flight.”

It was my voice, not the voice of others, that I wanted people to hear; speaking for the land, in my opinion, is an important aspect of being an artist.

All of this isn’t to say you should avoid Yosemite Valley at all costs, or that you should never venture into the eastern Sierra in October.

What I am saying, however, is to enjoy the landscape for its own sake.  Ask yourself, “If I forgot my camera on this trip, would I still be enjoying myself?”  After all, the first step to moving past the repertoire is to foster a connection with the land, not to race everyone else in documenting it.