Death Valley Haboob – February 13, 2012

Guy Tal, Steve, and our friend Raven watch the haboob overtake Death Valley

This post should have been made three months ago in the wake of this extraordinary event, but because I had too much on my agenda and it was reported elsewhere, I blew it off (sorry!). Yet every time I flip through my collection and see or share these photographs, I realize just how unique and extraordinary an event it was and that I should have shared this back in February. Without further delay…

On Monday, February 13, 2012, Guy Tal and I met in Stovepipe Wells, along with our friend, Steve, so that we could complete our final preparations for our Visionary Death Valley photography workshop and spend a few days enjoying the immense beauty of Death Valley National Park. We met at the General Store in Stovepipe Wells and sat at one of the picnic tables eating lunch, catching up, and shooting the breeze. Essentially, we were

Death Valley, gone

doing nothing in one of the best places on earth to do nothing, when I glanced north up the immense valley of Death – at 140 miles long, there are few that rival its depth and length – and observed a wall of dust heading our way. Because I was looking at it head-on, it was hard to get a sense of how tall it was and how fast it was moving. We grabbed cameras, and continued to watch and wait. It continued to grow in size, and our excited anticipation built as we could see that it was now only a few horizontal miles away from us. It was as wide as is the Valley, and we estimated its height to be roughly half-mile – it was scary-looking. The winds began to build, ravens displayed nervous energy, and sand began to fly about. We had only a few moments of snapshots, and in no time flat we were inside the giant sand-blaster. The landscape completely disappeared, and unbeknownst to us, we were in the midst of a rare Death Valley Haboob (haboob is Arabic for “strong wind”). More common to the Sahara and other arid regions of the world, haboobs are intense dust storms that are carried by atmospheric gravity currents, and somewhat resemble a wave rolling onshore. In July 2011, the Phoenix area was hit by a massive and well-documented haboob.

Running upslope toward Towne Pass…

The only way a haboob can be enjoyed is behind a protective barrier, so we piled into our vehicles and headed off toward Emigrant Canyon and Tucki Mountain. I was in the lead as we drove west on Highway 190 toward Towne Pass. I looked to my left (south) and saw the haboob racing us uphill toward Towne Pass; based on our own speed, I estimated it at 60mph (yikes!). We eventually exited the pavement and headed off towards Telephone Canyon – wherever it was in the soup!  An hour or two later, it oddly began to rain on Tucki Mountain, the gentle rain taking with it the sand, dust, and evidence of the massive haboob that overtook Death Valley only a few hours prior.

Toyota’s eat dust

What a wild day in Death Valley! You’ll find a few more good photos and report at the KCET SoCal Wanderer blog  and good photos/report by Margaret Summers on her blog. I hope you were lucky enough to be in Phoenix or Death Valley when these haboobs struck – what an amazing atmospheric event to behold!

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+.

On Assignment: Technology in Desert Photography

Even though I enjoy and greatly appreciate technology, a number of friends and others over the years have often referred to me as a Luddite. I resisted the change from analog to digital audio (I bought into CD’s years after everyone else and still prefer the warmth and quality of good analog audio); I resisted the change from analog to digital photography (I still prefer film and a view camera); and I resisted iPhones until their 3rd version, when owning one became a very obvious way to increase my productivity on many fronts (Status Updates from the field are not relevant to productivity ;)). The iPhone and other bits of technology became very relevant and important recently when about three weeks ago I went on assignment into the California Desert for The Wilderness Society (TWS).

Unless you live in the western United States, you’re likely unaware that the U.S. Department of Energy has fast-tracked twenty-four solar energy development projects on desert public lands throughout six southwestern states. Here in California, four Solar Energy Zones (SEZ) have been proposed, with the majority of the acreage occupying pristine California desert landscapes. It goes without saying that these are controversial and contentious proposals, and the conservation community has recommended that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) not designate two of the proposed solar zones in California (Pisgah and Iron Mountain) because of conflicts with wildlife habitat and nearby National Parks. Accordingly, TWS hired me to illustrate the diverse and undisturbed plant communities, wildlife habitat, and overall beauty found in these proposed SEZ’s. Because these SEZ’s are only in the proposal stage, no ground has been broken; there are no boundary lines or stakes on the ground; and no fences or other guides to indicate the exact boundaries of these huge proposed SEZ’s (the proposed Pisgah SEZ is 23,950 acres; the proposed Iron Mountain SEZ is 106,522 acres). So how does a photographer determine where to stand and point the camera when working with such a large and remote “job-site”?

I used all of the following technologies to research, scout, and photograph for this assignment: Google Earth (using provided KMZ files to indicate the SEZ’s); Ephemeris (I use an old desktop application; many prefer The Photographer’s Ephemeris); satellite images with SEZ overlays (provided by the U.S. D.O.E.); my iPhone; the iPhone compass app; the SunSeeker iPhone app; a paper San Bernardino County Map (provided by Automobile Club of Southern California; they make the best county maps and show roads that other maps do not); the WWW for various research and imagery while in the field; and finally, good old visual reckoning while in the field (does not break; does not require signal; requires no batteries). There is some overlap in these tools and I could have done away with one or two, but I used what was fastest and most convenient to me.

I had a one-week deadline. I did my research the afternoon and evening I received the assignment, and left the very next morning. In three days in the field, I covered nearly 600 miles of driving, a number of miles of hiking, and netted thirty-nine photographs for The Wilderness Society’s campaign. They’re soon to publish an extensive Solar Energy report which will use my photographs to hopefully to eliminate the Pisgah and Iron Mountain SEZ proposals.

I spent three days wandering alone these vast and primordial Mojave Desert landscapes. I was often overcome with grief and sadness when I could see before me the acreage that DOE proposes for these SEZ’s. These are huge and undisturbed landscapes where even during the most bearable season (Oct-Mar) you are more likely to see coyote, tortoise, or raven than a human.

No DOE employee nor Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ever had encounters with tortoise, bighorn sheep, and coyote like I have. No DOE employee nor Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ever scaled the Mojave Desert’s steep mountains to watch the new sun throw its blaze across these majestic and untarnished landscapes. And No DOE employee nor Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ever had a physical or emotional investment in this desert or in California’s heritage. What right have they to designate these zones as wastelands fit only for thousands of square acres of solar panels?

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

Photographic Point of View

Anyone can do the craft. Only the individual has the unique personality to build a point of view. Al Weber

My good friend and extraordinary photographer and writer Guy Tal recently interviewed me on his blog. Mine is the second installment of interviews Guy is conducting with photographers he considers “creative and innovative” (he’ll also need to interview himself in a future installment). Guy’s questions are unlike the typical ones you’ll find in interviews with photographers; they’re thoughtful and in-depth, and I had to dig deep for my replies.

The most important question Guy asked pertained to my treatment of my images as “expressive art rather than purely a medium for capturing natural beauty“. Before I proceed any further, I’d like to have you reread the quote at the beginning of this entry. Indeed, anyone can do the craft – more so today than ever before. Even amateur photo hobbyists now own 16-18mp D-SLR’s purchased from Costco or Sam’s Club, and if they point them reasonably well, they, too, can produce “professional quality” photographs. But simply owning a high resolution D-SLR and Lightroom 3 makes you no more a photographic artist than me describing myself a writer for owning an expensive keyboard and a WordPress blog. No matter how technically stunning your work – and despite rationalizing that it’s “your unique take” – you can’t own your photographs when they are composed of common subjects and grand views captured similarly by others from the same viewpoints and perhaps with better gear and possibly even under better light. Alternative or derivative? Indeed, but unique it will not and cannot be. The trap of becoming involved in the landscape photographer’s “circuit” – whereby a number of photographers shuttle around North America photographing mature subjects during their peak seasons (hopefully with “epic” light) – is that you’re not likely creating images for yourself or for your audience. You’re instead likely involved in the photographer’s rat race of one-upmanship: “I can do it better”.

I’d like to share a secret: buyers of photographs don’t care about location-based photography (photo-stock excluded) nor do they care about how close you came to dying or how you lost a camera and lens while producing the photograph. Buyers buy because a) they are too moved by your photograph to not buy it b) they have a direct connection to the subject or particular elements within it. It doesn’t matter that you have the very finest Moulton Barn photo of the thousands that are out there (millions?), and it doesn’t matter if you’ve captured the most epic light ever over Coyote Buttes. If your audience has no connection to these places, you simply cannot sell them a print no matter how hard you try.

Instead of trying to separate yourself from the photographic herd only by way of technical excellence (which, by the way, does not matter to buyers), consider building a point of view to share with the world. You’ll first need to develop this, of course. Everyone is quite aware that nature and natural landscapes are beautiful, so sharing the beauty of nature and landscape is not sharing your point of view; it merely affirms what is already celebrated. Dig deep into your collection of photographs; find common threads through the work which you can claim as your photographic voice and yours alone; and continue to develop photographs and themes that reinforce your unique point of view. You do have one, and the world is interested in it (if this were not the case, every nature/landscape photographer post-Ansel Adams would be a complete failure).

I am far from being the first (and last) landscape photographer to shoot the places I do and using the tools that I do. I am not the first to photograph the Mojave Desert, Joshua trees, or the Sierra Nevada, but I am the first to present my point of view of these subjects and places. It is the only way I know how to work, and it is the only work that I believe is worth doing. I don’t need to run about North America photographing its most photographically mature subjects, and I have little reason to outdo other photographers. I work in my own arena. I care only about making photographs of subjects I love and can portray in a way that I can say is uniquely mine. When I do this most effectively, compelling photographs emerge. Epic light and icons be damned – I can even sell prints of busted vehicles.

Stop paying attention to what other photographers are doing. Photograph anything you want. Do it with your voice and your point of view. If you can do this with love and conviction, success will be yours.

PS: I am judging Guy Tal’s Ten Weeks of Creativity contest this week, and I want to see your unique point of view! Guy’s got great prizes lined up for each weekly winner – enter your photographs now.

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

Follow your muse and be willing to fail

If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” Sir Ken Robinson

Thirty-six satisfactory exposures on a roll means a photographer is not trying anything new.” Freeman Patterson

Casa de Tilapia

The idea behind this article originated after watching a video of Sir Ken Robinson speaking at a 2006 TED conference on why schools kill creativity. Before I go any further, let me first recommend that you watch this 19:29 length video in its entirety. Sir Ken is a brilliant thinker and an engaging and humorous speaker, and you’ll hopefully be as moved by his entire commentary as I was.

The crux of my commentary herein is summarized by Sir Ken five minutes into the video: “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” How exactly does this relate to the photographer/artist? Reflecting on my own history and career, if I had heeded all the advice offered to me, and if I had obeyed all the discouragement and dissuading thrown my way, I might never have had the courage to take my work the places it has gone. I would have never explored and proceeded forth with my own black and white photography; I was told that you can’t sell it and there’s not a big enough market for it. I also would have never explored and experimented with selective- and soft-focus in traditional landscape photography. There was no evidence that I could succeed with either, but I’m stubborn, I bore easily, and I listen to me first.

I’ve begun a new project (photographs coming soon) that is a bit different in concept than anything I’ve done previously, and I’ve already had good friends attempt to invalidate my new work even though I’m excited by it. When you’re trying to grow your work and your style – which is imperative for any artist who doesn’t want to stagnate – you must ignore your naysayers and follow your instincts; they are what drive your art. It is better to have tried and failed then to have listened to those detractors who would have discouraged your explorations in the first place.

I offer here a few suggestions for growing your own art. I didn’t just randomly pull these ideas out of a hat; these are some of the exact steps I took in order to get where I am today. If you’re tired of reproducing your own photographs and tired of your formulaic way of working (shooting fish in a barrel), consider some of these style- and consciousness-altering methods:

    * Be willing to return from a shoot completely empty-handed;
    * Be willing to create your own photographic brand even if you know that not everyone will like it;
    * Recognize that not everyone will like all of your work all of the time; you’re no different than any other artist in this regard;
    * You can never apologize for the work you create, even when someone expresses their direct dislike for it. It is, after all, your work;
    * You must be willing to forgo the obvious and commonplace photographs in order to find your own photographic voice;
    * You must be willing to let go of all your preconceived notions about what your photographs should or must look like. They don’t have to be sharply focused or highly detailed (great work is being done with iPhone’s!); they don’t have to contain beauty or anything beautiful; and they don’t have to provide a documentary representation of the location in which you are shooting;
    * If you feel like the photograph you’re about to make might be derivative, it probably is;
    * Your photographs must represent you and your photographic voice in a compelling and engaging manner;
    * Your art is a journey, never a destination. You’ll never know your potential until you allow it to come forth;
    * Be willing to fail. Not every experiment is successful, yet there’s something to be learned from every experiment.

Finally, make lots and lots of photographs, for exploration is the key to discovery.

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

Meditative Distillations

I’m happy to announce that I am featured in the March 2011 issue of Rangefinder magazine! Contributing editor Martha Blanchfield has written a great article about me and my work, and the editors have made a nice selection of my images to accompany the article. Download this article for free!

Thanks for having a look!

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

Camera-less Seeing and the Art of Cropping

The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera“. Dorothea Lange

1:1 crop from 1:1.25 original

I don’t need an Xpan to make panoramics, and I don’t need a 501CM to make squares. For me the real beauty of using a large format view camera is that the image is conceived in my mind and not restrained by film size; by viewfinder shape or coverage; or by the format’s aspect ratio. Unlike medium and small format cameras (including D-SLR’s), it is nearly impossible to hoist a view camera to the eye to frame an image. Further, because the large format image is rendered upside down and laterally reversed on the ground glass (the image is as ones eyes perceive it before the complex brain corrects it), the ground glass view is difficult to reconcile for all but the most experienced users. This very nature of the format requires the photographer to learn how to see and frame exclusive of the viewfinder. For some this is a serious challenge and shortcoming of the format; for others, like myself, it is pure liberation. My photographs are bound only by the limits of my imagination and never by any constraints imposed upon me by a camera or tradition.

approximate 1:1.5 crop from 1:1.25 original

During any given week, I view a great number of photographs that I believe would be strengthened by a simple crop. Although most photographers shoot with the 1:1.5 aspect ratio of D-SLR’s, this does not mean that one is required to visualize or process/print the full 1:1.5 frame. Even more, too many photographers are caught up with the issue of pre-cut mats being available only in this size and pre-made frames being available only in that size – stop it! Aren’t your photographs considerably more important than their finishing? If your photograph is stronger by cropping it square, crop it square! It may cost more to finish the print by doing so, but aren’t your photographs worth it?

approximate 1:1.75 crop from 1:1.25 original

You’ll find in this article three of my photographs. All originated from 1:1.25 negatives (or 4×5), but take note that none were finished with that aspect ratio. All three images and their framing were visualized without a viewfinder, and I deliberately framed the three important edges and in post-production cropped away the remaining unwanted edge (regardless of the final print’s inability to fit off-the-shelf mats or frames).

If you’re not already seeing and framing your images without the assistance of your camera, here’s a challenge for you: Next time you think you’ve got a photograph, resist the immediate urge to set up and start firing. Consider this pre-exposure editing. Set your camera off to the side and become one with your subject. Study it carefully and quietly, and determine your framing and edges before grabbing your camera. Take as much time as you need; rarely are great photographs made in haste. Once you’ve gotten this figured out, then get out your camera and capture the image that you’ve already created in your mind (and crop at will).

Free your mind and your camera will follow.

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

Michael profiled in the Long Beach Business Journal

The Long Beach Business Journal recently profiled (Oct 12-25 issue) twenty-four Long Beach, CA residents who are involved with the cultural arts. I was the only photographer profiled in this issue, although my profile is mixed with other visual artists; authors; musicians; poets; and even a fire dancer! Despite the many organizational efforts within the city over the years, the arts have never been quite recognized here as they are in Los Angeles even though there are a tremendous number of artists working within the city.

The profile seems a little awkwardly written to me, although one might blame a brief telephone interview and the author having no prior knowledge of the artist or their work. But I’m not complaining – most press is good press! Thank you for reading!

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