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.

Artist’s Corner: Desert Light Magazine

Capture

 

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.

Mojave Desert Boondoggles: The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project

Cadiz

“…the voice of the desert is the one which has been least often heard.
We came to it last, and when we did come,
we came principally to exploit rather than to listen.
Joseph Wood Krutch

It’s long been acknowledged that the Mojave Desert provides the most ideal location for our prisons, landfills, renewable energy plants, military installations, military bombing ranges, and royalty-free access to minerals and water. In what other ways could man possibly benefit from the realm of desert bighorn sheep, seasonal wildflower blooms, desert tortoises, and wild desert springs? Unfortunately, this is the traditionally held [ignorant] view of and behavior toward the the California desert and its “resources”.

Bonanza

THREATENED: Bonanza Spring and the Clipper Mountains

The publicly-traded company Cadiz, Inc.  grows citrus and avocados on its 45,000 acres of privately held desert land in Cadiz Valley (water intensive farming in the desert?). Cadiz proposes to mine 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater (shared) every year from beneath Cadiz Valley while claiming that pumping from the basin would not affect Bonanza Spring (seen in the attached photos), or any other springs in the adjacent Mojave Trails National Monument or the Mojave National Preserve to the north. U.S. Geological Survey geologists assert that only 5,000 to 6,000 acre-feet per year of recharge is possible (this is, after all, the driest desert in North America). It’s simple math: drawdown will exceed recharge (Never Forget: Owens Valley and the LADWP). For nearly two decades, Cadiz, Inc. has tried to advance their project and for nearly two decades it has failed. Why?

“Access to new water supplies is extremely critical to the continued vitality of our cities,” says California Senator Tony Cárdenas in a promotional document defending Cadiz. But will a private water sale to one county benefiting a mere 400,000 people offer relief to a metropolitan area of 13 million? Cárdenas falls right in line with those who believe that coastal cities can sustain infinite growth (“vitality”) without an adequate local water supply. It is both illogical and irrational for a coastal city to suggest that it requires desert water for its “vitality”.

The California desert conservation community has been successful repeatedly at beating the bullsh*t served up by Cadiz; forward movement has been blocked again and again. That is, until the nightmare 45th President of the United States moved into the White House. Why would POTUS have an interest in the remote California desert and in a water project that serves less than half a million? Why would this unremarkable water project on the remote Mojave Desert make Donald’s Top 50 Priority List of Emergency and National Security Projects? Why, follow that money trail!

In late July, the 45th Administration confirmed David Bernhardt, a highly controversial pick, for the Number 2 post at the Department of the Interior:

“Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called on David Bernhardt, President Trump’s nominee for Deputy Secretary of the Interior, to recuse himself from all matters concerning the Cadiz water extraction project. Bernhardt is currently the head of the natural resources division at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the lobbying firm that is representing Cadiz.” “Given the fact that your current firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP, is contracted to lobby on behalf of Cadiz, Inc., I remain deeply concerned about any potential conflict of interest should you serve as Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior—the agency responsible for oversight of the federal lands related to the Cadiz proposal,” Senator Feinstein wrote.”

You read this correctly: David Bernhardt represents one of the most egregious conflicts of interest arising from this Administration.

With your help we will protect the Mojave Desert and stop The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project because it is so wrong on so many levels. If , as the proponents suggest, the project is good and necessary, then why has it been so hotly contested and written about? Several hours worth of reading and viewing can be found in the numerous links provided below.

Protect and preserve Your Mojave Desert – thank you for reading and opposing this damaging and dirty project. #RememberOwensValley #CadizSUCKS

MORE INFORMATION:

STUDY: CADIZ WATER PROJECT SCIENCE UNRELIABLE, WOULD JEOPARDIZE DESERT SPRINGS

Feinstein Slams Decision to Kill Cadiz Bill in State Senate

Cadiz Inc.’s pipe dream to drain a California desert spring

The Cadiz Pipeline (audio: jump to 8:05)

Loan to Jared Kushner raises questions about California water project

Study shows Cadiz water project would threaten spring in national monument

Cadiz project’s harm wouldn’t be limited to the desert

The Trouble with Cadiz

Environmental groups sue Trump administration over California desert groundwater project

A Controversial Plan to Drain Water From the Desert? Go for It, Trump Administration Says

Federal policy change criticized for giving ‘free pass’ to controversial desert water project

Forget it, Jake: It’s Cadiz

Will Cadiz Project Drain Desert Aquifers?

The Cadiz water scheme: How political juice kept a bad idea alive for years

The ludicrous plan to pump Mojave water to L.A.

Opinion: AB 1000 Would Protect California’s Deserts From Trump

The scheme to pump desert water to L.A. could destroy the Mojave. California’s Legislature needs to block it

WATER IS PRECIOUS IN THE DESERT. SPEAK UP TO PROTECT IT.

Cadiz Water Project should be nixed

TAKE ACTION: Protect California’s Precious Desert Water Resources!

State Legislation Introduced to Protect Water Resources, National Parks and Public Lands in California Desert

Cadiz: The Desert Water Pimps

Interior head says public lands can make U.S. a ‘dominant’ oil power

Secretary Zinke’s Magic-8-Ball approach to policy making

Trump eases the way for a controversial water pumping project in a California desert

Mojave Desert Feinstein asks Trump administration to protect desert water

Cadiz Inc. would harm the Mohave. Here’s how

Cook: Orange County Water District Should Distance Itself from the Cadiz Water Project

Feinstein to Zinke: Don’t Let Cadiz Destroy Pristine Desert

The Absurdity of the Cadiz Water Export Scheme

Feinstein: Trump Nominee Should Recuse Himself from Cadiz Water Project

Water extraction project would be destructive to California’s Mojave Desert

Desert Water Project Would Threaten Tribes’ Sacred Lands

How you can tell Trump cares nothing about water: He’s supporting the ridiculous Cadiz project

National monument boundaries protect our heritage: Guest commentary

Protect the Groundwater Beneath Our National Treasures

Trump’s pick for a top Interior post has sued the agency on behalf of powerful California water interests

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.

America: Your National Monuments are Under Attack

Proposed Mojave Trails National Monument

Mojave Trails National Monument – under “Review”

This is a very long post of vital national interest so I hope that you’ll bear with me…

America, your National Monuments are under attack even though the 45th Administration mildly terms it “review”. From the New York Times, April 26, 2017:

President Trump on Wednesday ordered the Interior Department to review the size and scope of national monuments larger than 100,000 acres created since 1996. He wants recommendations on whether any of those large tracts should be scaled back by presidential authority or by Congress.

Mr. Trump, signing the order at the Interior Department, described the designations as a “massive federal land grab” and ordered the agency to review and reverse some of them.

“It’s time to end these abuses and return control to the people, the people of Utah, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States,” the president said.

Yesterday’s egregious Executive Order (“Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act“) hits too close to home for me and impacts every American. This is not an issue of politics; it is an issue of national heritage and American pride. Far too many Americans are incognizant of what is at stake with this Order. Recognize that people from around the world visit America to experience and enjoy what is absent from much of the world: our incredible National Parks, National Monuments, and wide-open protected spaces of the American west (sorry, Eastern U.S.). This cannot be taken for granted as you are now bearing witness to the potential vulnerability of these designations under tyrannical rule. Numerous polls have demonstrated that voters agree on public lands: we want our lands protected, we desire access for recreation, and we oppose increased fossil fuel development. If you agree, now is your time to be a patriot and act for America.

Nine National Monuments in California will see “review” under this Order. I have been personally involved with the designation of four (San Gabriel Mtns NM; Sand to Snow NM; Mojave Trails NM; Castle Mountains NM) through my photography, letter writing, attendance at public meetings, and speaking at public meetings.

My first involvement was with the San Gabriel Mountains NM. The movement towards it’s formation began in 2003. I photographed the region under contract beginning in 2010 (my photography was used to aid in the passage of designation). Passage of the Monument did not occur until late 2014, and only after much public meeting, discourse, and compromise.

Patently false statements are made when the President calls our National Monuments “massive federal land grab[s]” and the Interior Secretary says that he’ll “give that power back to the states and to the people where it belongs.” We, the American people, own this land (not the “feds”); you already have the power (it’s your land); and much public process was part of their ultimate designation. This Administration continues to lie to Americans on behalf of the harmful extractive industries it is beholden to (what’s that about “draining the swamp”, you say?)

A particular segment of the Executive Order  is of great concern; I am emboldening the parts one should take careful note of:

Monument designations that result from a lack of public outreach and proper coordination with State, tribal, and local officials and other relevant stakeholders may also create barriers to achieving energy independence, restrict public access to and use of Federal lands, burden State, tribal, and local governments, and otherwise curtail economic growth.”

In reading this statement, let us not forget that we now have a Con Man real estate and golf course developer as President and an oil man as Secretary of State. The phrases “energy independence” and “economic growth” are ideas incompatible with land protection. If this Administration successfully achieves its goals of reducing the size or revoking the status of any National Monument, the door opens wide to yet more oil production and/or cattle grazing on America’s most beautiful and treasured lands. Will you allow this?

“[L]ack of public outreach and proper coordination…” can be summarily dismissed as a false statement (please see earlier links). Bears Ears NM in Utah is high on this Administration’s hit list (OIL!); note many public meetings with stakeholders took place prior to its designation as well.

[R]estrict public access to and use of Federal lands…” is another summarily false statement: NO citizen is denied access to any part of any National Monument at any time. You may not be able to ride your four-wheeler to your destination any longer, but complaining about a loss of such former use as off-roading demonstrates a misunderstanding of the reason for and need to protect public lands. If you’d like to see what is permitted versus prohibited at any particular National Monument: https://headwaterseconomics.org/wp-content/uploads/NatlMon_Permitted_Uses.pdf

The terms “Federal lands” and “public lands” are often used interchangeably. Federal lands are lands in the United States for which ownership is claimed by the U.S. federal government, pursuant to Article Four, section 3, clause 2 of the United States Constitution. Ownership of these lands is claimed by the U.S. on behalf of national and public interest (managing and distributing 327 million property deeds would prove very difficult). These are public lands to which all Americans (but not just Americans!) have 24/7/365 access. The exception to this rule are lands claimed by the Department of Defense for their training exercises (nearly 2 million acres here in California).
LINK: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42346.pdf

Attempts to block National Monument designation and supporters of the 45th Administration’s Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act incorrectly cite loss of “traditional” use under new National Monument designations as their source of opposition: Off-roading; hunting; grazing; loss of valid existing rights, etc. Blanket statements regarding blanket prohibitions cannot be made; some Monuments allow hunting, some allow grazing, some allow off-roading. Complaints about loss of mining activities demonstrates a misunderstanding of the reason for and need to protect public lands. Please see: https://headwaterseconomics.org/wp-content/uploads/NatlMon_Permitted_Uses.pdf

These are the basic and most important facts regarding this Order; links to additional articles and details can be found at the end of this article.

Now, will you PLEASE do this for America?
1. Please share, reshare, overshare this post or any other like it regarding this Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act. Here is where sharing is truly caring.

2. Call Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at 202-601-3839 and tell him that any attempts to revoke or shrink our national monuments is an assault on our historical, cultural, and natural heritage. You can also send him an easy form-fill email:
https://secure.npca.org/…/Advocacy;jsessionid=00000000.app3…

3. Contact your Congressperson and tell him/her that any attempts to revoke or shrink our national monuments is an assault on our historical, cultural, and natural heritage. His/her job depends upon their fight for your public lands; fire them (with your next vote) if they fail to act. http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/

4. If you operate a business or reside in San Bernardino County, California (home to Sand to Snow NM; Mojave Trails NM; Castle Mountains NM), please contact Representative Paul Cook at (760) 247-1815 and tell him that any attempts to revoke or shrink our National Monuments is an assault on our historical, cultural, and natural heritage. You can also email him: http://cookforms.house.gov/contact/
Specifically request that Rep. Cook send a written letter to the Department of Interior defending the designations and existing size of Sand to Snow NM, Mojave Trails NM, and Castle Mountains NM (all are in his District). His job depends upon his ability to fight for your public lands; fire him (with your next vote) if he fails to act. NOTE: office staff may seem uninterested in your call and may dispense false information by stating that Representative Cook cannot do anything. You may be told to call the President with your concerns. Persist, RESIST.

THANK YOU for what you do for America!

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

The Greatest Gift

_DSC8418

In this sunlit desolation of rock and thorn, where the sun beats down through an unending march of days and the desert silence which broods among the boulders and Ocotillos is broken only by the harpings of the wind, we can spread freely the net of our minds to gather those priceless, fundamental stirrings of the infinite which are most easily come by when one is close to nature. Marshal South

I recently celebrated my birthday in Death Valley National Park. Reasoning that all my clients are wonderful people and a joy to be around (this is no lie) – especially considered in the context of photography and Death Valley –  I chose to schedule photo tour clients on my birthday. While some opt for more civilized days or nights on the town with a fine dinner, friends, and a show, my time spent quietly in nature amidst the sun-burnished desert holly, half-billion year old canyons, and ancient night sky are among the simplest of joys – they make me happy. I don’t need any wrapped presents or candles or cake – these are the gifts I want and love.

I’m always a little hesitant to share my “methods” with my clients. I meet most of them at their lodging, where they’ve often spent a comfortable night under a roof with the possibility of evening television entertainment. They are often surprised when they learn that I forgo lodging and sleep under the stars. Not camped in a tent – literally, on the ground and under the stars (never in “developed” campgrounds). It is not a budgetary constraint – it is a choice. Sometimes the kit foxes visit me at night (sometimes walking around on and smelling my sleeping bag – “lie down, kit!”). Often I hear my coyote friends nearby reveling in their hunt. I have no fears about sleeping beautifully this way – much worse (and louder) things can happen in any city on any given night. There is no quiet like the quiet of my preferred Death Valley sleeping sites.

My “method” ceased being a choice long ago – after a great many years of doing it this way, sleeping under a tent canopy or roof feels wrong when there are planets, meteors, and a raging night sky to lull me to sleep. Rest assured, I’ve had plenty of middle-of-the-night rain drills which send my scurrying like a wood rat. My ancestors slept like this; it feels right to follow in their steps and try to understand a little of their existence and their communion with nature. It cannot be so terribly different from my own experiences.

One of Lynda’s goals was to experience and photograph the Milky Way. Any day or month of the year, I get to experience this brilliant flaming Galaxy over the Death Valley night sky. And while I don’t care so much about making photographs of  it – I observe it nightly in real-time H.D. with my own eyes – I don’t take it for granted. Never for a second.

In a world which often seems to be speeding (and spiraling) out of control, I feel eternally thankful and blessed for these gifts. The gift of sight lets me see nightly that infinite galaxy overhead. The gift of sound allows me to hear gentle desert winds rake across the hairs of my outer ear. And the gift of simply being allows me to take pleasure in the simplest joys which were enjoyed by my ancestors (and which are frequently lost on modern man).

Thank you for a most wonderful birthday in Death Valley, Lynda and Jim!

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

Get the Shot (or not)

MercurialI am rather particular about semantics and the manner in which I speak about my own art. You will never hear me define my photographs as “shots”, nor will you will ever hear me proudly declare how “I got the shot” while expressing the ideas or mechanics behind a photograph. Quite contrarily, a professional photographer known for his bold (and refuted) sales claims seems to really enjoy using both. A new generation of landscape/nature photographers has fallen under his influence and they also seem to love using these terms of conquest. The contemplative, perceptual, passive act of moving deliberately and slowly through a landscape in search of creation seems to have been superseded by epic-everything, moving quickly and far (extra points for defying death), and getting “the shot”. I have heard a number of stories from workshop students relating how they covered in previous workshops thousands of tiring miles in one week chasing epic weather and light over epic locations. My own workshops and personal photographic style run completely counter: One location, slow movement, connecting with the land, and a big emphasis on perception and vision. In other words, photographs exist everywhere and can be made at any time and under any conditions. You and your ability to see are your only limitations.

The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” — Ernst Haas

A bigger issue with “the shot” is the implication that there is only one photograph to be made from any particular location (I have been asked by students and tour clients “where is the shot?”). By limiting yourself only to your preconceived ideas (or mine) and/or photographing what has already been photographed, you cheat yourself out of a world rife with images.

Make art, photographs, or images. War against the shot.

I’ll be presenting and teaching at the 12th Annual Moab Photo Symposium, May 1-3, 2015. Register now for this wonderful experience while seats last. 

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 TwitterFacebook, and Google+.