Photography as Propaganda: Messages from the Wilderness

You’ve possibly already seen this video as it makes rounds on the blogs of several different photographers; please allow me to pile on! Photography as Propaganda is a current exhibition at the Atlanta, Georgia Lumière gallery and features works deploying the visual power of photography to communicate an understanding and appreciation of the great American wilderness. The exhibit includes the magnificent and legendary photography of Philip Hyde, Ansel Adams, Edna Bullock, Peter Essick, Robert Glenn Ketchum, Tom Murphy, Bradford Washburn, Edward Weston, and Brett Weston.

The short video below details the work of Philip Hyde, whose color photographic work in the American Southwest set the virtual stage for all other color Southwestern work that followed. Hyde’s influence is evident even in today’s most current Southwest photographs, even though many budding contemporary nature and landscape photographers remain unaware of his work and its impact on environmental conservation.

If you enjoy photographing the desert landscapes of the American Southwest, you owe it to yourself to check out Hyde’s 1987 book Drylands: The Deserts of North America. While you’re at it, check out Sierra Club: 100 Years of Protecting Nature, which details how the photographs of Hyde, Adams, and others were used to protect imperiled American landscapes. Enjoy the video!

Philip Hyde from Lumière on Vimeo.

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

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.

Landscape Mastery on Fine Art Photography Weekly

Yesterday afternoon, the talented and renowned Canadian landscape photographer Darwin Wiggett and I appeared together LIVE on Fine Art Photography Weekly. I can’t fault them for our episode’s name (Landscape Mastery), but I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea that one can “master” anything. “Mastering” your camera should take only a few hours to a few days. But, mastering PHOTOGRAPHY? My contention has always been that there’s little reason or inspiration to continue with something that one has “mastered”. Would Picasso say that he mastered painting? Would Miles Davis say that he had mastered his horn? If you master something, wouldn’t it be time to move on to mastery of the next thing? I like the idea that I’ll forever be learning how to see and photograph; I’d consider myself creatively dead otherwise.

Some of my readers may not be aware of Darwin or his work. Mr. Wiggett is a well-respected photography professional, having published eleven photo books; having produced a lifetime’s worth of incredible photographs; and providing inspiration and instruction to scores of photographers over the years. It was a real honor to appear on this program with him. Watch this pro do his thing; Darwin enters the scene at 1:50.

Yesterday’s program (Episode #26) should soon be archived and available on their website; I’ll update here when it does become available. In the meantime, you might want to watch some of the episodes that preceded ours. You’ll find twenty-three videos full of inspiring and informative ideas and discussions.

I’d like to offer my great THANKS and appreciation to Peter and Christy Urban for inviting me on their program!

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

Nine Albums for Desert Listening

In this new age of iTunes and 99-cent singles, I can hear it already: “ALBUMS?”. Yes, albums. I was raised on vinyl and the full-length album format (that’s pre-CD and pre-iPod for the younger folks). Most albums were (and often still are) unified by theme or concept (not unlike photographs, eh?); these were meant to be listened to and absorbed from start to finish. Even as an iPod owner/user, I still purchase and listen to only full length albums. Singles don’t cut it for me, and similar to a photographic body of work, it’s hard to understand the artist’s intent when only pieces of the full picture have been extracted. As with the pursuit of my photography, I prefer a full immersion experience, just as the artist intended it.

Although there are ideal moments and places for it (like when driving, for instance), I’ll add the that I do not really recommend listening to music while in the desert (or any natural environment). These places produce a music all their own, and the beautiful and evocative sounds of wind; rustling leaves; and canyon wrens are infinitely more in character than the sound of a wailing saxophone or a shredding electric guitar.

I’ll also add that this is not intended to be a “best ever” list (I’ll likely update it as time goes by). I enjoy all musical genres (this list is rather eclectic) and have compiled this list over a number of years spent in the desert with repeated listening to what I considered the most ideal candidates. This collection of music works well towards absorbing the landscape and heightening the experience for me. May you experience the same in your favorite landscapes…

Without further adieu, here are nine suggested albums for desert listening. In no particular order…

1. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue. Simply one of the best albums of all times, all genres, and it goes surprisingly well with expansive desert landscapes.

2. Bill Frisell: Good Dog, Happy Man. Frisell is one of my favorite artists, and this album combined with the right landscape has brought tears to my eyes on a number of occasions.

3. R. Carlos Nakai: Canyon Trilogy. The Master of the native American flute. There couldn’t be a more perfect album for the desert.

4. Thievery Corporation: The Richest Man in Babylon. Thievery Corporation may not seem a good fit for the desert, but this album blends with the landscape surprisingly well. One of my favorite artists.

5. Alexi Murdoch: Time Without Consequence. Thanks to my friend, Scott Schroeder, who turned me onto the wonderful music of this Scotsman. My very first listen to him was in Death Valley National Park, and I was hooked.

6. Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny: Beyond the Missouri Sky. The Desert west is a long way from Missouri, but this just works. Incredible players, incredible compositions, incredible album.

7. Eilen Jewell: Boundary Country. Thanks to my friend Harley Goldman, for turning me on to this great artist. Her voice and style couldn’t be a better compliment to the desert.

8. Sigur Rós: Agaetis Byrjun. A sonic delight. This album works in the desert in a way that I would have never expected. Great thanks to my friend Graeme Wilson for introducing me to this great band from Iceland.

9. Bob Marley: Legend. Perhaps an odd fit for the wide open landscapes of the American West, but positive vibrations lead to positive photographs and experiences.

I hope you enjoy this collection of music – I look forward to hearing your personal suggestions for listening!

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

Review: Guy Tal’s Creative Landscape Photography eBook

Guy Tal is a longtime friend and co-leader of our infrequent joint workshops (disclaimer made!). He’s also a gifted photographer and writer, and his internationally-acclaimed images and articles have been featured in such publications as Outdoor Photographer Magazine (US), PhotoLife (Canada), Digital Photographer (UK), as well as his own beautiful coffee table book, Exposures. In the current genre of landscape photography writing, I place Guy’s writing at the very top. I’ll be honest; most of what gets passed off as the best publications of our medium do little more than regurgitate what has already been regurgitated ad nauseam. Most of them are obsessively focused on gear and gear-based techniques, with few ever tackling more spiritual (if you will) and emotional approaches to landscape photography.

Designed as a companion to Guy’s Creative Landscape Photography workshop, this process-based instructional text is aimed at intermediate and advanced photographers who want to unlock their creative potential and evolve their craft. There’s also plenty of gear-based content for those who are still struggling with fundamentals. The book is well organized and features sections on the creative process; concept; visualization; composition; capture; processing; and presentation. It’s also filled with a number of Guy’s stunning images and accompanying text that explains his thought process and motives behind these particular photographs (no useless EXIF and aperture/shutter speed info!). There are also numerous exercises intended to aid in the evolution of your imagery (yes, “homework”!).

Taken a step further, creative photography is about the expression of subjective ideas, emotions, and sensibilities through the unique beauty of natural elements and using the medium of photography. A creative photograph is the result of venturing beyond the mere act of recording scenes and objects with a camera. Rather than thinking about what you want your viewers to see when looking at your work, think instead about how you want them to feel.

The eBook contains a whopping 86 pages, and at only $9.95, it may very well be one of the best valued eBooks I’ve seen. And at only $9.95, you can’t afford not having this eBook in your collection. Get ready to move to your photography to the next level…

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

It’s All About the Light…

Wherever there is light, one can photograph. Alfred Stieglitz

Striped Butte

Striped Butte. Death Valley National Park.

Last night I gave a presentation to the Santa Clarita Valley Photographers Association (SCVPA) (a great group of people, and a more organized and attended-to camera club than I would have ever imagined). The most ironic thing about teaching and presenting is that I always learn as much as the audience. No matter how often I may speak about my work and my philosophies, I learn something about my photographs and beliefs every time.

As I moved through and talked about the 96 photographs I shared with the SCVPA, I was alerted to my use of any and all light. It’s not a new discovery, and other photographers often comment on my use of whatever light. The fact is, I have a photograph(s) in my collection to represent virtually every hour of daylight. The notions that there are only “golden hours” or “sweet light” under which to practice photography have been perpetuated for far too long amongst the nature and landscape photography community. It’s enforced by books, workshops, online photo forums, and far too many photo instructors. It’s time to change this line of thinking, for believing that photography can only be practiced for a few sweet hours of each day and then setting out to capture only specific images that capitalize on that sweet light is akin to photographing with dark blinders on. Any light is available light, and how you choose to see it and whether you choose to photograph under it determines the diversity of your abilities, your vision, and your work. I’d venture that photographers are missing a lot of beautiful photographic opportunities when they’re locked into a singular and exclusive method of photographing.

All light is available light. Sweet light is any light you choose to photograph under. The Golden Hours extend from sunrise to sunset. With few exceptions, failure to create photographs under any light is not a failing of the light; it’s a failure of vision. Take off the blinders and be free.

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

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Balance of Power

I made this photograph about one week ago while shooting on assignment for The San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign (more on this later). Late afternoon, stormy skies (I was snowed on earlier at a higher elevation), and beautiful light illuminate “Our Lord’s Candle” (Yucca whipplei; also known as “Spanish Bayonet”) and a large electrical power pylon. One delivers energy necessary to the Metropolis, the other delivers beauty and grace necessary to my well-being and sanity. I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition of the two, but only one of the subjects delivers the positive energy that I seek!

Yucca whipplei has always been one of my favorite plants (it flowers once then dies), and it’s beauty and poise is undeniable. Due to exceptional winter precipitation, Southern California is currently bursting with blooming Candles. Photographers can currently find thousands of them along Highway 138 and Highway 2 near Wrightwood.

The San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign: this campaign is presently working on twin goals to 1) Expand wilderness and wild and scenic river designations in the San Gabriel Mountains and 2) Establish a new San Gabriel Mountains National Recreation Area (NRA). The spectacular San Gabriel Mountains are the iconic landmark of the Angeles National Forest. It is Southern California’s most accessible and popular “backyard” for millions who visit its clear and cold rivers, and its tranquil and panoramic vistas. The Angeles National Forest is also an irreplaceable natural resource that gives Los Angeles County more than 70% of its open space and provides our region with drinking water and clean air.

Once I complete my shooting for this campaign, I will share images and thoughts here on my blog. Please stay tuned.

Read more about this campaign in a May 16 L.A. Times article.

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

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I Am Alive!

I am alive!

Like many photographers, I giddily anticipate the arrival of spring wildflowers every year. More so than in any other place, wildflowers in the arid desert is a truly magical sight to behold. Extraordinarily beautiful, terrifically ephemeral, and entirely without any guarantees that the next spring will deliver the same (or even close). In my case, “the chase” is critically more important than the actual photographs I make. The chase affirms my sanity and confirms my minuscule role in this amazing web we call life. Desert wildflowers have taken thousands of years to develop their punctual annual program, and I am in as much awe of this evolutionary process as I am the results.

The biology and geology of the places I explore are truly amazing, and truth is, the still photograph is usually an entirely insufficient device to sharing these special moments and experiences. The technicals of making good photographs is boringly easy when compared to conveying my deeply personal and passionate feelings for these places. To be sure, the hardest part of my art is not access, organization, or sales; it’s creating images that emote those distinct and unique feelings. How do you transmit through photographs your tears of joy over the stunning moment and place before you? It’s never easy, and I often submit, put away the camera, and enjoy that special moment without any distractions.

The attached photograph is from a few mornings ago; sunrise over Anza-Borrego Desert State Park’s Borrego Badlands. That’s my good friend Johnny enjoying a sweet little backlit patch of Arizona Lupine (Lupinus arizonicus) on a steep and exposed ridge. The large format photographs I had planned for this morning didn’t quite work out, yet this photograph more than makes up for any lost opportunities during my travels. This image does not remind me of the noxious spread of Sahara Mustard across Anza-Borrego; it does not remind me of the blowing wind that prevented a few photographs; nor does it remind me of the uncomfortable-at-times heat: it only reminds me of how sweet it is to be alive, to have all my senses, and to watch a new day dawn over an ephemeral wildflower desert landscape. No photograph can ever rival the beauty of life and these kinds of intimate experiences.

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

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2010 California Desert Wildflower Prognostications

Ocotillo and Arizon Lupine. Colorado Desert, California

Despite the copious amounts of rain and snow that have fallen on California’s deserts since late November 2009, the 2010 desert wildflower season (if there is to be one) is off to a rather poor start. The attached photograph was made on March 9, 2008. If I were to take you to this location today, we would find nothing like the sweep of Arizona Lupine we see surrounding these Ocotillo. In fact, as of a few days ago, flower-less was this location and many others that are typically in flower at this time. Many high desert residents have delayed their spring gardening, as winter has hung around for as much as one month longer than in most years. The continued precipitation, cold, and wind has done little to encourage growth. Regardless, close inspection of the ground, plants, and buds reveals what may be an underwhelming bloom, despite all this rain!

I initially had scheduled a Desert Wildflower Photography Tour for March 6. I would have typically counted on this date, but on March 6 of 2010, there was virtually nothing in flower. So I postponed the Tour until March 20. I have spent recent days in the locations I had planned to take the tour, but because most of these locations are tremendously late and possibly altogether flower-less this spring, I have canceled any plans for a Desert Wildflower Tour.

I concluded a private workshop last Sunday in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. As Ron Niebrugge and Phil Colla have already reported, Sahara Mustard (Brassica tournefortii) has radically altered the Borrego Valley landscape, stretching from Borrego Springs all the way to Salton Sea. I even found it in remote canyons and washes during my stay. Unfortunately, the spread of this plant is out of control, with millions of acres of Colorado and Sonoran Desert having already been transformed, and with many more acres at risk from this noxious and invasive species. I’ll, too, join the choir in declaring that the vast fields of wildflowers that made Borrego Valley famous may now be a thing of the past. The only real solution at this time is hand-pulling, which is not terribly effective when thousands of acres have been inundated with this devil weed. You can help! If you spot Sahara Mustard while in the field, KILL IT! The entire plant – roots and all – must be pulled, placed in a tied-off plastic bag, and properly disposed of. Simply pulling the plant and tossing it aside is not enough, as the seeds can and will still disperse from a pulled plant.

There is a possibility that things could flip quickly, as we are finally experiencing spring-like conditions throughout most of the California desert for the next week or so. Should I find a remarkable transformation out there, I may offer a short-notice one day tour. Barring this, I am currently at work on putting together a late March/early April 2010 trip to southern Death Valley’s stunning Owlshead Mountains. Only there can I guarantee spreads of wildflowers, towering sand dunes, and vast and stunning landscapes. Click here for more information about this tour.

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

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