Jul 012016
 
Grand Serenity

“Grand Serenity” || The rising sun illuminates unnamed cliffs along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon in the Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA (Prints available – click on the photo to order)

When I used to work as a project manager for Intel, I occasionally heard the advice from upper management, “Don’t confuse effort with results.”

Initially, it seemed like pretty harsh advice as my dedicated team worked 16 hours a day, 7 days a week to help bring a new software application to life for our internal customers.  Didn’t our managers (and customers) appreciate our tireless efforts?

Most of them did, yes; but it did not replace their expectations that the software application eventually had to function without “bugs” (flaws/issues), as designed and delivered on (or before) the date our team promised. Anyone who has been involved in software engineering knows this sometimes involves project teams displaying impressive feats of strength and willpower equivalent to Superman moving the Earth…

Although I left the corporate life behind over nine years ago, I see this playing out all too often in the outdoor photography world.  As photographers vie for attention on social media channels and elsewhere, this notion of traveling to unknown foreign lands, enduring unforgiving conditions, and torturing oneself to “get the shot” has overshadowed the value of an artist’s ability to observe, feel, and visually express their individual connection with the land.

Don’t get me wrong; as wondering and wandering photographers explore the Great Outdoors, fascinating adventure stories do tend to emerge. And sometimes you need to push and challenge yourself to experience a place to the fullest extent.  In fact, famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that the mental state of “flow”—when you feel like you are “in the zone,” and that leads to increased happiness and creativity—occurs when a person concentrates on an important and challenging activity that requires some level of skill.

But just because you walked 17 miles in Class 4 terrain on the side of a mountain while hobbling on a broken foot through the middle of the night in grizzly bear country during the worst summertime blizzard in recorded history does not automatically guarantee that you “nailed it.”

Don’t confuse effort with results.

Maybe you did.  Maybe this harrowing experience was so real, rich, and personal that you made a hundred images that were meaningful to you.  Awesome.  The expressive images you created resulted from you wholeheartedly feeling the fear of the darkness, the cold snowflakes seeping through your leg cast, and the wind burning exposed parts of your skin, though, not because you merely survived the grand adventure.

This personal and emotional connection with your journey and with your environment drives the creation of unique images—and you can accomplish this in your backyard under sunny skies, in Iceland under a glorious sunset, and everywhere in between.  It matters not where you are standing but rather how you make the most of what you are standing in front of by incorporating your skills, intimate knowledge, and background.

Maybe you didn’t bring home any images.  Awesome.  Was the experience meaningful to you?  Did you have fun?  Mission accomplished.

To drive the point home, I made the image above from our Fossil camp (river mile ~125.5) while on our raft trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.  Before dawn, I casually strolled about 100 yards on a gorgeous sandy horseshoe-shaped beach to reach this point on the river.  I waded across a small riffle and sat on a boulder waiting for the rising sun to illuminate the deep canyon walls in the distance.  I inhaled my surroundings.  I felt at peace and at home after four days on the river.  I felt like each new day unfolded exciting mysteries of geology, history, and adventure.  I felt the constant shifts between flat water and roaring rapids.

I intentionally composed to show this serenity, this mystery of light, and the balance of the two water energies.  Then I snapped my frame.

With a cup of delicious coffee in one hand (and cable release in the other, of course).  In 80-degree weather with a light cool breeze.  While still in my pajamas.  While waiting for our amazing guides to finish cooking up made-to-order Eggs Benedict for our group’s breakfast.  One can only imagine the immensity of the tragic conditions I endured.

But really, I should not confuse effort with results…

May 162013
 
Waves of Change

“Waves of Change,” Ecola State Park (Prints available for purchase – click on photo to order!)

Almost eight years ago to the day, Craig and I celebrated the end of our first temporary stay in Oregon by standing on the headland at Indian Beach at Ecola State Park just north of Cannon Beach.

Sunset at Indian Beach

“Sunset at Indian Beach” from 2005 (Prints available for purchase – click on photo to order!)

I remember that evening in 2005 so vividly, I can still feel the memory today:  The gentle ocean breeze.  The smell of the tide change.  The warmth of the setting sun.  Two of the photographs I captured that evening – with my Contax 645 medium format film camera – now rest above our bed in our Arizona home to serve as a daily reminder of one of our favorite places and moments along the Oregon coast.

Months ago, as we prepared for our second temporary stay in Oregon, a rush of thoughts overwhelmed my mind based on our first experience.  Where to go, when to go, what to see, who to see, and how to record such ample and different beauty in Oregon. As they say, “So many places to see, so little time.” The list of places to see and things I want to do became longer than a child’s Christmas list.

Sea Stack Sunset

“Sea Stack Sunset” from 2005 (Prints available for purchase – click on photo to order!)

Despite the seemingly endless new photographic opportunities this transition presented, I decided to start my photographic journey in Oregon in the same place I left off:  on the headland at Indian Beach at Ecola State Park.  It’s a place I’d been countless times before, and yet when I arrived on Tuesday morning, nothing, nothing, looked the same as 2005.

Upon coming to the realization that nothing, nothing, had remained the same, I smiled as big as the little girl who got everything she wished for on December 25.  In that instance, I mouthed the words as the wind whispered, “No man ever steps in same river twice, for it is not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  ~Heraclitus.

(Turns out Heraclitus’ quote applies to oceans and women too!)

I couldn’t have been happier to learn that in eight years, everything, everything, has changed.  Mother Nature altered the landscape such that I can no longer stand in the same place as I did before, thanks to landslides.   Those landslides pushed new rocks into the ocean, and each wave crashed a little differently on those new sea stacks.  It’s not possible for me to re-create the same compositions I did in 2005, even if I wanted to-I didn’t.

On top of significant natural changes and differing light/weather, I’m thankfully not the same person, photographer, artist that stood on that headland before.  I replaced my film camera long ago with two generations of digital cameras.  I now know what to do with a graduated neutral density filter.   I’ve embraced my love affair with the coast, despite living in the desert.  Endless experiences – conversations, readings, successes, failures, travels, and other inspirations – have challenged and changed my perspectives over time so that when I look at a scene I’ve seen before, I’m looking through an entirely different lens.

Ansel Adams summed it best:   “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

Hang On!

“Hang On!” Ecola State Park, Oregon (Prints available for purchase – click on photo to order!)

Whether we know it or not, as time passes, we and the world around us are constantly changing.  But, neither change nor creativity needs to be a passive activity.  If we seek to create new images in the same spots, we must change as a person.  Simply buying a new lens won’t cut it.  Oh sure, new gear can help execute new visions, but we need to start with new ideas and make different associations among the knowledge we already possess to see, and ultimately photograph, something new in places we’ve already been once or a hundred times.

Consciously and subconsciously, we can gain fresh thoughts everywhere and anytime, not just while photographing.  Some ideas how:

  • Reverse engineer photos you like to understand the process they used to achieve a specific result.  How’d they do it?  Then how would you do it differently?
  • Keep asking “what if.”  What if you used a different lens?  What if you climbed the hill for a more aerial perspective?  What if you saw the ocean as the desert, metaphorically speaking?
  • Devour books.  Not just photography books, but anything that tickles your passion and stimulates your brain.
  • Listen to music, watch movies, attend plays.  And then think about how you can incorporate the concepts and ideas you hear, see, and experience into your photography.
  • Talk with and exchange ideas with others.  Not just other photographers, but also those who know nothing about photography, who explore other activities and fields you enjoy, and think differently than you.  Surround yourself with people who know more than you.
  • Screw up.  Often.  Then learn from the experience to develop even more new ideas.
  • Engage with your environment.  An experience you have in one location can help trigger ideas in a different location.  Ride a bike, go for a hike, take a field-based class – whatever gets you closer to your subject.

So last Tuesday, I brought with me to Indian Beach all my experiences from spending 90+ days in Acadia National Park in Maine over the last four years, every critique I’ve conducted during all the photography workshops I teach, the entire process of writing a book about Arizona wildflowers, and more simply, even the songs I heard on the radio as I drove to Ecola State Park, among so many other things.  And as a result, my photographs look nothing, nothing, like they did in 2005.

What other tips do you have to see the same place with fresh eyes?

Spring Emergence

“Spring Emergence,” False lily-of-the-valley at Ecola State Park, Oregon (Prints available for purchase – click on photo to order!)