The Visionary Image: Conceptual Development

Place two photographers side by side on the the very same scene or subject and they are likely to produce distinctly different images. Excluding the most obvious images easily gathered from accessible vistas, photographers have largely known this to be true. With any given scene of any scale, how we approach it and what we choose to most focus on is largely based on our mood and temperament of the day; our previous experience with such a subject; even the subliminal influence of other photographs and photographers may come into play.

Guy Tal and I wandered a Death Valley canyon following the close of our most recent Visionary Death Valley workshop. We stopped intermittently where we found interesting rock outcrops and healthy fruiting specimens of Coyote Melon (Cucurbita palmata) – these wild desert pumpkins can be intriguing subjects for photographers of our ilk. I have casually photographed Coyote Melon for many years; an artful black and white image of Coyote Melon was still elusive and resided only in my head. Required to make this image was a perfect confluence of my mental state, a good visual arrangement, and unfailing vision. I still had yet to find that while in the company of these gourds.

We were now just a few miles from road’s end where we would begin a walk into desert wilderness – this is our method of rest and recovery. But Guy spotted one more beautiful Coyote Melon specimen – we stopped to investigate. It was a large enough vine to provide working space for both of us. We each identified our objects of interest and and got to work.

_DSC0713I was immediately drawn to the delicate but elaborate etchings on one particular fruit – I honed in. Space and space exploration has been on my mind a lot lately. I spend many nights each year staring deeply into it and sleeping under it and NASA’s InSight Lander touched down on Mars just thirteen days after this photograph. I like to use space and time metaphors in my images and titles. The etchings reminded me of planetary surfaces similar to Jupiter or the Moon. This became the metaphor that I forced into my approach.

My very first frame is seen at left. It’s a solid documentary image but it’s not terribly creative or exciting. I’d be happy to have it published in a plant ID guide but I can’t call it “art”.  Over the next 17+ minutes (happily mired in a flow state), using two different lenses – including a soft-focus brass portrait lens – I exposed 46 frames in total, each with slight shifts in perspective and field of view, each working towards the image that I had now developed in my mind. I already knew how the print needed to look. The camera position moved exceedingly closer to the ground in order to force the perspective I sought. I wanted the gourd to be tucked behind some of the leaves – similar to the way a full moon rises into a bank of clouds. In fact, I had photographed this very thing a couple of weeks prior. The dramatic image I had made of a full moon rising was finding its way into this image of a simple gourd. But I was no longer photographing a gourd – I was photographing a Rising Coyote Moon.

Coyote Moon Rising

Creative photographers who find such ideas and discussions stimulating and inspiring should consider joining Guy and I for Visionary Death Valley.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

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The Ten Commandments (for Outdoor Photographers)

I am part of two communities who exhibit behaviors on public lands that I am often angered by and find myself at odds with: climbers and outdoor photographers. I suspect that many have never experienced trailhead or public lands closures caused by improper/unethical/illegal use – I have.

Many climbers trample vegetation at the base of crags and boulders; they leave athletic tape, food wrappers, and the tape from rope ends wherever they fall. The rock and the climb take first priority; concern for vegetation, trampling, wildlife (including ants and all sorts of small vertebrates and invertebrates that we can’t even see), and wildlife habitat is secondary (or doesn’t matter). Sadly, this sort of behavior has now become commonplace in the outdoor photography community. In this Instagram-era, a staggering number of landscapes have now been subject to the onslaught of careless humans and an uncountable number of popular photography locations have been drastically altered by the photographers that use them. It’s wrong, disappointing, and has to end before photographers find themselves locked out of locations that they’ve commonly been able to enjoy. If you think this can’t happen, just have a chat with a member of the MTB (mountain biking) or OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle) communities for their angle.

A little more than a week ago I guided my sister, nephew, and brother-in-law through an Eastern Sierra camping/roadtrip. One of our first stops/camps was Alabama Hills below Mt. Whitney and the High Sierra crest. You Western film buffs and photographers know this place well. What you probably don’t know is that the Alabama Hills Stewardship Group has vastly improved the condition and quality of experience for visitors and photographers over the last dozen years by removing graffiti and rubbish; breaking down numerous fire rings; obliterating excess and illegal roads; and planting native vegetation to rehabilitate the abused. I’ve watched the Hills become cleaner and even more beautiful over the last twelve years. During this period digital photography has exploded – especially night sky and astrophotography – and ironically, I’ve watched its photographic ‘hot spots’ deteriorate at the very same time.

AHI took my sister and family to a lesser known arch in the Hills (but still popular with night photographers) and was dismayed by what we walked into: it looked obliterated by grazing cattle (there are no grazing cattle here). Although from different angles, perspectives, and focal lengths, a comparison of the two images will reveal missing, damaged, or dead plants. And I am dumbfounded by this. The other side of this arch does not look like this; it’s not the preferred angle for photographers. This is not from drought, fire, or cattle, and this is not a dense landscape – the shrubs could have been very easily avoided or worked around. Instead, the land before this arch has now become a micro-wasteland.

My sub-teenage nephew learned a few of the following commandments while we were in the field and I’m urging every photographer and non-photographer who uses public lands to please adopt and share these with other photographers, climbers, fishermen/fisherladies, etc. Humans are trashing virtually everything; lest we lose our access, please be the high-road user group that sets the examples others will desire to follow.

The Outdoor Photographers Ten Commandments

1. I don’t own this planet or this particular landscape. I’m a visitor here and my needs and wants are secondary to its primary inhabitants. I’m thankful that I get to share this space with them.

2. I will step around or over EVERY plant I encounter, no matter whether dead or alive.

3. If a plant, boulder, or other natural object is in my composition – no matter what – I will recompose instead of altering or damaging the landscape.

4. I will avoid herd mentality and behavior. I will do my very best to not travel in photographic packs, but when I do, I will be very mindful of my steps and actions as well as those of my fellow photographers.

5. I will not covet the photographs or locations of other photographers. I understand that popularity has led to the ecological decline of many ‘hot spots’ and that great photographs can be found just about anywhere.

6. If I specialize in night photography, I will make sure that I have adequate daylight preparation or proper nighttime illumination so as not trample or destroy ANY vegetation anywhere around me.

7. I will never take anything, leave anything, or alter anything in the pursuit of my photographs.

8. If I can’t make the image I desire without breaching these commandments, I will walk away empty handed.

9. I will educate my fellow photographers and students (if you teach/lead workshops) about the critical importance of field ethics.

10. In the existential scheme of things, me and my photographs don’t really matter. It’s never worth abusing plants or a landscape to make an insignificant photograph.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Published: *Shots* Issue No. 140

SHOTSGravitational Waves” opens SHOTS Issue No. 140 (“Forces of Nature”) with a beautiful double-page spread. Thank you, SHOTS magazine! Hang a print on your wall, own it and 15 other great images in this book, or enjoy it on your smart phone or tablet via digital download. Thank you for your purchase.

Photographers and those who enjoy philosophical meanders, please read on….

I’ve long been looking for an opportunity to discuss the language and semantics photographers use in the pursuit of their art and craft. It’s not my magazine and I have no stake in it, but I’m not fond of the name SHOTS. Since it’s inception, photography has struggled as an art form (yes, art form) and has always played second fiddle to painting; a poor man’s (or presumably less creative man’s) means of pursuing art (if you allow me to call it this). The belief being that as a mechanical object with a button to push – like using a smart phone – there could surely be no art or craft involved: it’s just a snapshot of whatever fell before the camera. But creative photographers and those who appreciate creative photographic art know a far different reality. So let’s take every opportunity to use good and proper language to educate our viewers that what we do is serious art.

* My creative pursuit involves a communion with my subject(s); there is no conquest and I “take” nothing.
* The photographs I make require contemplation, thoughtfulness, and good composition. The very same is true of painters and painting.
* Painters don’t throw or blast paint at their canvases, I don’t click or snap shots.

* I make photographs *

The words we use most definitely matter.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Photograph: The Queen

TheQueenThe extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms.” Edward Abbey

The Queen is a cristate (or crested) saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea). Cristate form is perhaps most well-known in saguaro but can occur widely across many cacti and succulent species. As some suggest, these are “freaks of nature”. The mechanisms for cresting aren’t well understood but the outcome can be elegant or bizarre (or both). Cristate form occurrence in saguaro cactus is estimated at about 5 per million. They’re not easy to come by yet Saguaro National Park says they have about 75 within their boundaries. Here’s an informative article for your reading pleasure:
https://media.azpm.org/master/doc/crestedsaguaro/

Here’s an enjoyable video about the Crested Saguaro Society who have now located more than 2200 cristate specimens in Arizona: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfNJ2KuQNvU

A larger version and prints can be acquired on the website (click LARGER VIEW under the image). Thank you for looking and commenting.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Artist’s Corner: Desert Light Magazine

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I have an essay and two images in the January-February 2018 issue (Artist’s Corner) of Desert Light Magazine, a publication of the Mojave National Preserve Artist Foundation. You can find it on pages 12-13. Thank you for looking and reading.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on Facebook.

On Exhibition: Yosemite Renaissance 33

WoodwingI’m happy to announce that my photograph Woodwing will be on exhibit as part of the 33rd Annual Yosemite Renaissance exhibition. It’s always a great exhibition and features the best of contemporary Yosemite-country work. YR seems to grow each year, and this year 65 works by 58 artists were chosen from 820 entries. I’m thrilled to have my work included.

I wish I could, but I’ll be unable to attend the opening reception (I’ll be leading a workshop) but hope you can make it. Yosemite Renaissance 33 opens on February 24th at the Yosemite Museum Gallery in Yosemite Valley. The exhibit will be on display through May 6, 2018. The public is cordially invited to attend this event. The Museum Gallery is open 10am to Noon and 1pm to 4pm daily.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on Facebook.

Featured in On Landscape Magazine

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It’s an honor to be featured in what I believe is the best online landscape photography magazine today. On Landscape is a British subscription-based magazine  with most of its content focused on works and artists from across the pond.

My sincere THANKS to On Landscape for the feature and to Michéla Griffith for a thoughtful interview!

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on Facebook.