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+.

The Artist as Activist

To my readers: I apologize for the raging quiet that has permeated this blog for a number of months. Booming business, my father’s failing health, and a plethora of other commitments and obligations fight for my time and this blog suffers for it. I hope to be be able to increase my posting frequency in the coming months.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Sheep Mountain Wilderness and Proposed Wilderness Additions. Photo © Michael E. Gordon

Say Hello! to the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument! Photo ©2010 Michael E. Gordon

My being and spirituality has always been directly tied to nature and wildlands. I was born in Los Angeles (a distinctly different city nearly 50 years ago) and first experienced and fell in love with the local San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and Sierra Nevada mountains as a very young boy. While many of the memories of those early experiences are no longer with me, the experiences themselves have indelibly shaped and defined the person I was to become. I studied the obligatory classics of my preferred genre: John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner. If it was not my experiences that would shape me, the words of these writers certainly would have. Their books became my bibles, and the only thing I cared about (and still care about) was spending as much time as possible in wild nature: In my happy place, away from people, away from civilization (or “syphilization” as Abbey called it). I distinctly recall my mother back then telling this teenager that he had no business complaining about anything if he wasn’t willing to vote or put his money where his mouth was. It was she who was responsible for creating the activist I was to become. I was registered to vote by the age of eighteen and by my early twenties had a fat three-ring binder containing hundreds of copies of letters written to and replies received from Presidents, Senators, and Congresspersons about all the issues that concerned me and our planet.

In the decades since, I have walked, hiked, and climbed thousands of miles in California. I have summitted hundreds of its mountains (including many of the state’s highest); have been a volunteer patrol ranger on the San Bernardino National Forest (for which I received the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2008); have served on the Board of Directors for the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association; and am currently serving on the Board of Directors for the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy. Since 2007 my photographs have been instrumental in the campaigns of The Wilderness Society, Campaign for America’s WildernessNational Parks Conservation Association, Pew Charitable Trusts, among others. Throughout my life I have fought for the preservation of wildlands and for doing what is right for the land. The latter is a position which Aldo Leopold argued for nearly 75 years ago. His ideas were brilliant and before their time yet few listened. 75 years later, wildlands have shrunk right along with our glaciers and much of our country is on the brink of ecological collapse.

In his piece on Politicizing Art, my good friend and workshop partner Guy Tal writes about disassociating his own political convictions from his photographic work and explains why he chooses not to be a public activist. Many artists choose a stance similar to his. Using my own photographs and art for activism and conservation seemed to me necessary and mandatory from the start. I have always believed that the most honorable purpose for my photographs would be their use in conservation and I desired following the footsteps of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde, and the Sierra Club tradition of using photographs and coffee table books to advance legislation and protection for wildlands.

In 2010, under contract of The Wilderness Society, I began photographing what at that time were termed “Solar Energy Zones” on the California desert. I was only then beginning to understand the possible and forever damage that could occur on my beloved Mojave Desert. My heart was crushed as I photographed vast swaths of desert wildlands that were impossible to envision covered in thousands of solar panels, 500-foot tall thermal power towers, and eagle-killing wind turbines. I have since committed to photographing all threatened California desert wildlands, and am proud that my photographs have been used to help kill at least three proposed ill-sited development zones (Pisgah, Iron Mountain, Palen).

In recent months, I have attended numerous public and private stakeholder meetings opposing utility-scale renewable energy developments on undisturbed California desert. I always have large prints in tow. While it’s easy to dispute confusing language and policies (such as with the recently-released 8,000 page Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan), the right photographs are able to clearly and powerfully demonstrate exactly what is at stake. Last week, I was invited by the Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association to lobby the Los Angeles City Council against entering a power purchase agreement from the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project. I had two 60″ panoramic prints in tow and their impact was undeniably felt. A few weeks prior I was invited to a private meeting with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to discuss the Silurian Valley solar proposal. Again, I had large and small prints in tow (both landscape and wildlife) and their impact was undeniable.

In 2010, under contract of The Wilderness Society and the San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign, I created a catalog of images to help advance the then-proposed National Monument designation for the San Gabriel Mountains. I am very happy to report that President Obama is screwing up traffic in Los Angeles today (October 10, 2014) to announce our newest National Monument!

Should artists avoid politicizing their art? Should photography and politics never be mixed? My personal life, spirituality, and profession are all intermixed and dependent upon nature and wildlands. I will not peacefully and passively accept the development and destruction of my beloved lands any more than I’ll permit an act of violence against a loved one.  If not me, what other artist will stand up and fight? If the power of beautiful photography can convince others of the need for protection and conservation of our vital wildlands, I want to be on the front line and I want those photographs to be mine.

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 FacebookGoogle+, and  Twitter.

Feel the Heat – Death Valley

The digital thermometer at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center displays 132 Fahrenheit at 3:39pm on June 30, 2013. The correct temperature was 129 Fahrenheit as officially read and reported by the National Park Service at 4pm. This is a new high temperature record for June 30. Death Valley National Park, California.By now you’ve likely heard that Death Valley set a new high temperature record on Sunday, June 30, 2013: 129 Fahrenheit. I have a long history in Death Valley and spend a lot of time in the Park each year (DeathValleyPhotoTours), so when the prognostications started flying regarding Death Valley’s potential to break its own heat record (134F, recorded July 10, 1913) I had to be there.

We arrived at the Badwater parking lot just after 2pm, our target time. There were a surprising number of people: Europeans are known to relish this heat and enjoy summer holidays in Death Valley. CNN was also present, talking with tourists and conducting a classic solar-radiation-egg-frying experiment in the parking lot (unfortunately, too many are conducting this experiment). Our thermometers indicated the temperature was around 121-122F, which was confirmed by CNN. I was initially disappointed. I expected Badwater to be HOT HOT (the Weatherspace.com believes it was hotter).

We moved on to the Furnace Creek Resort, where outside the general store hung an old analog thermometer with its needle beyond its maximum high temperature of 130F. We enjoyed the oven-like concentration of heat under the shade of the date palms. Even in the shade, the breeze was akin to the heat blast you receive when you open an oven door. It felt hotter than Badwater.

We moved over to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center after 3:30pm to find a throng of tourists, media, and two guys dressed in Darth Vader and Chewbacca outfits. The digital sign out front displayed 132F, although this thermometer is affected by direct solar radiation and is inaccurate. Just minutes later at 4pm the National Park Service took its official reading of 129 degrees Fahrenheit.

Around 4pm we were ten miles north of Furnace Creek moving towards Stovepipe Wells (and eventually the cooler heights of the Panamint Mountains) when the air conditioning failed in my wife’s car! It was fine by us, but extra measures were required to keep our dog Mojave cool in the 120F+ temperatures while we moved across the desert. We arrived at Mahogany Flats around 5pm where the temperature was beautiful and the high views of the hot desert sublime.

Indeed, 120F+ is HOT, but if one is dressed properly, well hydrated, in good health and operating smartly, it’s not near as bad as you’d believe. It occurred to me upon my arrival home that in calendar year 2013 I’ve experienced a temperature swing in Death Valley National Park of 126 degrees: It was 3F on the Racetrack on a bitterly cold January morning, and 129F at Furnace Creek on June 30. Death Valley: The Land of Extremes.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. Please visit his official website  for more information.

Speed Kills!

Kit Fox, deceased (Vulpes macrotis)Over the course of nearly thirty years operating automobiles,  I have moved off of roadways and roadsides far too many dead animals (coyote, hawk, owl, squirrel, snake, raccoon, opossum, skunk, deer, jackrabbit…the list goes on), and on January 16 in Death Valley National Park, I added a new species to the list. Not far from the parking lot for the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, I found a kit fox lying just beside the road. I was immediately angered and saddened – this doesn’t have to happen. This poor fox was virtually undamaged, although its bowels were slightly protruding and it appeared to have a broken back leg. There was very little blood. Such a beautiful, soft, and delicate creature, not bigger than most of my cats. I gently laid it to rest beneath a creosote bush and wished it well. My sleep was not good that night.

Speed kills! Please, when in wildlife country, no matter the posted speed limit, slow down! Do not assume that animals will make the right choice as your vehicle or headlights move towards them – they will not. Be observant for those sets of eyes that catch the glint of your headlights; automatically slow down when you see them. Project and imagine what the guilt will feel like after you’ve hit an animal. Imagine the young animals that could be left behind to suffer and starve after their provider has been killed. Let these thoughts guide your safer, more observant, and slower driving. Wildlife does not have to die beneath our wheels.

Disclosure: I’ve done a significant amount of driving where wildlife lives, often during the wee, dark hours. In my thirty years, I’ve hit only one creature (a kangaroo rat), and it was one creature too many. However, I have had  many animals in my headlights or on the roadway before my vehicle, but they received the attention and berth they needed to survive.

Please slow down and save a life.

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+.

10,000 Hours

Bathing Beauties

Bathing Beauties

Young photographers often ask what they can do to “go pro”. They often want to know about tips, tricks, or shortcuts to achieving commercial and financial success through photography. Ironically, few are interested in knowing how to become better artists and image makers.

Allow me to immediately clarify that no matter how much effort you invest, your photographic success will never be guaranteed and it will most likely never be the result of shortcuts, clever maneuvering, or social media marketing strategies. I’d like to also mention that I am not aware of any current professional photographer who makes their entire living from print sales and image licensing. Those glamorous days of free-shooting globe-trotting photography died long ago with 35% investment returns, bloated real estate values, and freely flowing cash. As a professional photographer, what you can expect is inconsistent income; to be asked regularly for free use of your photographs; the requirement for multiple income streams from different channels; and more hours at the desk doing non-photographic stuff than you’d care to. If you believe that “going pro” means buying a full frame d-slr, going on great photographic vacations, and then sitting back and watching the income roll in from image licensing and print sales…. good luck with your career!

In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell contends that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice and commitment is required to achieve excellence in ones chosen craft/sport/art. There’s no shortage of disagreement regarding Gladwell’s “rule”, however this essay is not about whether 10,000 is the right number of hours. There are certainly exceptions to every rule, and gifted prodigies indeed exist (although in very tiny numbers). Looking at photography, it’s reasonable to suggest that it really only takes minutes to master the pushing of camera buttons and gaining accurate exposure via the real-time histogram. Operating a camera is a rather easy affair, but operating a good camera does not ensure good photography. We can account for the rest of those thousands of hours as time that is (or should be) spent seeing, building ones visual vocabulary, and becoming proficient artists, communicators, and image makers. I’d posit that fiddling with gear and software does not factor into these hours. Good photography is the result of good vision; the camera and software are mere tools.

Just how many hours is 10,000 photography hours? That’s two three-hour shoots per day (one in the morning, one in the afternoon= six hours total) every day for four and one-half years. I’ll round up and suggest that if you do not have at least five solid years of image making practice behind you and not more than a few dozen strong photographs to show for all your effort, forget your Facebook, Twitter, and G+ social media campaigns: Work first at being a better artist and photographer, and consider marketing it later once you’ve got a unique body of work and an organically grown audience that cannot get enough of it. You cannot now nor will you ever achieve a level rivaling Steve McCurry or Art Wolfe (two randomly chosen hard-working artists of excellence) through clever Search Engine Optimization or through lots of Facebook “friends”. Get offline and get shooting.

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+.

Mars Resemblance to the Mojave Desert

©2012 NASA

©Michael E. Gordon

©

As soon as the first images from the Mars rover Curiosity were beamed back to earth  on August 6, comparisons to the Mojave Desert immediately began flying:

Curiosity and the Mojave Desert of Mars

Curiosity Surveys a Martian Mojave Desert

Mars Landscape Looks Similar To California’s Mojave Desert

These revelations were no surprise to NASA scientists, the U.S. Military, and others who have observed and used for decades the Mojave Desert’s similarities to other landscapes. Although I have yet to set foot on the moon or Mars, I’ve often found myself in such similarly desolate and austere locales throughout the California desert.

When I first viewed the black and white image from Curiosity – seen here at top left – I swore that I had previously seen and photographed this landscape with my own eyes. That is, not in a broad “looks-like-the-Mojave” kind of way, but right down the to the same terrain and distant land forms. I knew I had “been to Mars” before Curiosity, so I went archive digging and turned up at least one eerie similarity (seen below the NASA photo). The only evident dissimilarity of these landscapes is created by water: Given a little rain, I can visualize Martian valleys full of blooming lupine and creosote.

I’ve included one additional photo at bottom left. Mars? Mojave? How much difference there really is will likely come to be known in the weeks and months ahead.

Thanks for reading the 200th post of this blog!

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+.