Join me this Friday, April 9, 2021, for an ONLINE presentation The History of Landscape Photography (followed by Q&A) presented through the Los Angeles Center of Photography. The presentation is only $10 for LACP Members and $15 for Non-Members (please consider joining to support this worthy photographic institution https://lacphoto.org/member-info/join/). All photographers stand on the shoulders of giants. Come learn more about them with me on April 9, 2021.
Many thanks to photographer Matt Payne for inviting me to this conversation! Matt’s podcast F-Stop Collaborate and Listen is one of a kind, well known, and enjoyed by many photographers. Matt invited me Guy Tal to his 200th episode for a special discussion on the history of landscape photography. It was an engaging conversation with Matt and Guy and I hope it proves valuable to others. Thank you for listening!
“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” Ernst Haas
I have walked this beautiful Death Valley canyon perhaps more than one hundred times. It is a spectacularly colorful serpentine canyon with deep, polished narrows and many potential photographs along the way. I made all the obvious photographs over my first tens of visits. All of my walks since have produced exciting discoveries that can really only result from intimacy. I’ve not once been bored by this familiar walk (refer to the Haas quote) and I’ve never run out of opportunity or ideas. I walk with no photographic preconceptions as they act as barriers in my ability to *see* and experience.
These four geologic panels are millions of years old and found over a two mile span of the canyon. I made these photographs not because they are colorful and could compose well, but rather because I am fascinated by the geology of this canyon and the Death Valley region and have studied it extensively over the years. I now know these walls and every twist and turn of the canyon as if it were my own home.
My heart grows only fonder, the experiences and photographs get only better.
Some seem surprised when I inform them that on the California desert there is always something blooming somewhere every month of the year. Long after the spring annuals have spent themselves and have gone to seed, perennial shrubs and other unique annuals begin to appear (often coincident with rising temperatures and heat). This is the paradox and beauty of the desert. She never fails to reveal her beauty and she never disappoints.
Mariposa is Spanish for butterfly, and she is surely beautiful and delicate like a butterfly. She’s a member of the Lily family (Liliaceae) and rarely grows more than a few inches tall. Her color can vary widely from pale yellow to brilliant California Poppy orange. Noted taxonomist and botanist Philip A. Munz suggested that the desert mariposa lily is “probably the most beautiful of desert wildflowers“. Will you disagree with Munz? The Desert Mariposa Lily grows from barren soils and conditions (see the middle image above) and thus seems spectacularly beautiful against a drab canvas. The spirit of Georgia O’Keeffe often reaches a flower before me and stylizes it for my lens (above left).
I recall a well-known U.S. photography magazine in which they’d publish their annual travel calendar for nature and landscape photographers. This suggested 12-month calendar offered twelve or more different U.S. photographic destinations, one for each month based on the peak conditions of particular locations (for example: Jan: Winter Photography in Yellowstone NP; February: wildflowers in Death Valley NP; and so on…). As a photographic “specialist”, I always found this calendar slightly amusing. It’s taken me a lifetime of naturalist observation to develop my own twelve-month calendar in my own habitat. I’m sure as heck not passing up my Mariposa Lily bloom so I can stand with crowds of other photographers at the June hotspot.
Consider developing your own annual photographic calendar through a long and deep commitment to a habitat or subject(s). Time will be your only challenge – you will never find yourself at a loss for ideas or subjects.
This essay is about wilderness character, geotagging/location sharing; and overcrowding/vandalizing of public lands. Many articles have been published denouncing location-sharing due to their overcrowding and vandalizing. This essay is a rebuttal to those opinion pieces which advise readers to “keep on geotagging” while suggesting that those who enjoy wilderness character are elitist. I welcome your comments and feedback.
It’s late May on the Mojave Desert. The air temperatures and weather this spring have been remarkably unseasonable. Palm Springs, California is normally sizzling this month but in a few days it will record its coolest May on record. It’s been an extraordinary spring: the wildflower explosions; the millions of butterflies and bees (oh, the Painted Ladies!); and the gazillion pounds of biota respond in kind to a bountiful winter. Strangely, there is no longer a drought. This place is alive. I’m alive – a very happy and content desert explorer.
I arrived at the foot of the range mid-afternoon to long shadows. This place has a National in its designation, but being far from services, gasoline, lodging, and notable icons in the world of social media, the cooing Gambel’s Quail, Say’s Phoebes, and Phainopeplas and I have it all to ourselves. I plan to climb up high on the craggy ridge and traverse its length, returning to my truck from the opposite side of the ridge. I’m not sure what I’ll find along the way but I expect magic; it’s always there. The 360-degree views from the top are stunning; I can see an uncountable number of mountain ranges and into three different United states from my high vantage (there are five mountain ranges visible in the above image; the site for this journal). It’s breathtaking; I could cry. I should cry. The cackling White-throated Swifts and desert wind are the only people I see and sounds I hear (birds are my people). Except for my own, no human or vehicle is within miles of me. This is exactly why I am here. This might be terrifying for many, but this is my sanity and world peace. This urge is merely evolutionary and biological; I never suppressed it. I feel whole and alive.
A remarkable thing happened to the United States in late 1964. The passage of The Wilderness Act sought to assure that an “increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition”. The Act further defined “wilderness” as “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean….retaining its primeval character and influence, without….human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions….. [and] has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation”.
In summary, the 1964 Wilderness Act set aside protected lands to retain their primeval character and natural conditions (a rather abstract and lofty concept for a nation hellbent on “progress” and sacking money). Secondly, it recognized the need for human-untrammeled lands and solitude (for the mutual benefits of both wildlife and humans). Sadly, The Wilderness Act arrived too late for the central and eastern United States but it allowed for the protection of much of western U.S. wildlands (U.S. Wilderness MAP) which draws millions of visitors from around the world (unfortunately, not all with the best of intentions).
In 1960, the great novelist Wallace Stegner wrote the now-famous “Wilderness Letter” to urge for the passage of the forthcoming Wilderness Act. Stegner deemed wilderness “an intangible and spiritual resource” which can offer “spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe”. It’s impossible to define what these are and how they feel unless you’ve allowed yourself to have this experience. Stegner continued to assert that wilderness is “something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people.”
Readers are surely aware of the recent spate of nuisance and destructive human behavior on public lands. It’s not just here in the Unites States – it’s happening everywhere (public lands and private). Everything from graffiti/tagging to illegal fires to rock stacking/cairn building to toppling prominent rock formations to trashing fields of wildflowers to outright habitat destruction. We don’t yet have any conclusive studies but many of us attribute it to the explosion of social media, geotagging, location sharing, and a very particular photo sharing platform for which people have proved willing to risk and take their lives for self-portraits (“selfies” in their vernacular). Many of us have repeatedly argued against sharing locations to help protect them from the destructive ways of humans; the F.O.M.O. Generation rails back with “elitist” and “racist”.
Let’s set the record straight: wilderness character is impossible to preserve if everyone is present. It’s not about keeping away any particular age, gender, or color – I want to preserve that intangible and spiritual resource. It’s long gone when one is surrounded by crowds, antics, and chatter. If you enjoy crowds and socializing, great! Please go where those qualities exist (recommendations provided upon request) but please don’t be upset with those who wish to retain the natural character of wild places.
It’s true: we cannot save these places from industrial destruction if no one knows them or loves them. But we also can’t save them from industrialized recreation if they’re equally shared by all 330 million Americans and a few million tourists from abroad. This isn’t elitism or racism – it’s reality. I welcome you to find and share my sacred spaces with me but please don’t be upset because I don’t provide a name, waypoints, or an e-guide. Gumption, legs, and burning desire will get you high on this desert ridge; geotags are for the elite.
“Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved – as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds – because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there – important, that is, simply as an idea.” Wallace Stegner
Of all the arts, I believe that photography – specifically nature photography – is the one that encourages the highest levels of observation, awareness, sensitivity, and curiosity. Non-photographic artists can invent their subject matter and works. Photographers need to find theirs. We have to be intimately attuned with our surroundings and subjects and aware of the many photographic possibilities in order to make great images come to life. Such photographs never happen by accident or luck (although the latter remains a constant point of derision for our medium). Combine the love of photography with a love and awe for desert, botany, light, and life, and you’ll find someone who is willing to wait for hours to spend an entire afternoon photographing an odd patch of desert plants.
The funky-cool and not-so-common Desert Candles (Caulanthus inflatus) flickered for my attention one recent afternoon on the Mojave Desert. This California endemic – found only here – arises only after a good rainy season. And man, did we have one. In the Brassicaceae family, they may look like asparagus but are related to cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and broccoli. I arrived at this incredibly unique garden under the hot light of midday but these flaming candles told me to stay until the light ran out.
There were no tulips here but still I tip-toed through the Candles and Fiddlenecks (Amsinckia tessellate). One can easily make such photographs without injuring, killing, or ripping wildflowers from their beds to impress a social media audience. It’s not really hard to do and requires no special skills or talents. You just need to care and recognize that your wants should never outweigh the needs of other living things. I treat my own garden no differently. What sort of person would destroy a wild one?
Wildflowers matter. Perhaps not to you, but they matter to every bee, moth, and butterfly that pollinates and depends upon them for their existence. Wildflowers are living things that bring life and joy to all who utilize and love them. Crushed wildflowers cannot go to seed. Less seed means a smaller seed bank. A smaller seed bank means less potential for future “super blooms”.
Should you visit any wildflower fields this spring, please be a good steward for the flowers and for our shared planet by carefully tip-toeing through them. Leave no trace. Leave it better than you found it. Give a damn. Thank you!
Photography is not a sport. It has no rules. Everything must be dared and tried! Bill Brandt
It’s that time of year when people start thinking about making (and breaking) resolutions for the coming year. With this in mind, I’d like to issue a challenge to my fellow landscape photographers. We’re plastered with redundant landscape photographs, many of them routine and forgettable, many of them nearly exact copies of thousands of similar images preceding them, many of them generally boring by now to the average viewer. But you, creative artist and photographer, choose whether you follow the conventions and movement of the photographic pack or dare to break free from it and proudly stride alone. Let’s talk about the latter.
It’s interesting to linger in the vicinity of young and social photographers and eavesdrop on their conversations. While in Death Valley recently, I learned that this was entirely the wrong time for “astro” (that’s astrophotography for the rest of us) because the galactic center (or core) of the Milky Way is not currently in position for us. There couldn’t possibly be anything else up there right now worth photographing. So that very night, I proceeded to make this image:
It’s simple but I like it. Moonlight on cirrus clouds briskly streaking across the night sky is always exciting to me. I sleep in the open under this canopy and get to participate in a time-honored tradition of sky-watching that has spanned millions of years of humanity while affirming my own aliveness and awareness. The galactic center of the Milky Way is not visible. Somebody’s rules would have suggested that I should not have bothered with this. I should delete the file?
The next day, long after the crimson burn of sunrise had diminished and all the photographers had long packed up to escape the “harsh light” of winter solstice, I proceeded to make the following image at 11:15am. Am I allowed to photograph at this hour?
There are no rules in our medium but too many landscape photographers assume those of others while stymieing their creative growth. Don’t do it. Don’t ever stop looking for, composing, or considering photographs; I do it all day long regardless of the hour. Stop looking at photography forums, guidebooks, and e-books that tell you where and when to go. Stop looking at apps that tell you where to stand and whether you should stand based on fiery sunset predictions. Stop limiting yourself to seeing and making photographs only during blue and golden hours; if any “rule” of landscape photography ever needed a quick death, it’s definitely this one. If the strongest emphasis in your photographs is a colorful sky instead of a creative aesthetic, I’m urging you to take on this new year resolution. Stop providing audiences with easy and obvious images; what human doesn’t love a colorful sky? Everyone will click what you want them to click even if only few studied it long enough to tell you what the image contained. It’s a negative positive feedback loop. You will always check your online rewards and then proceed to make more of the same guaranteed crowd-pleasing images even as it further stagnates your creative potential.
Challenge your viewers, challenge other photographers. Don’t be a sheep with a camera. Don’t follow a pack. Forget the rules because there never were any. 2019 is yours.
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.
I 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.
It’s an honor to be featured in what I believe is the best online landscape photography magazine today. On Landscape is a British subscription-based magazine with most of its content focused on works and artists from across the pond.
I have released a beautiful 46-page 8″x8″ softcover book containing eighteen of my photographs exhibited during The National Park Service:100 Years-California Dreaming exhibition at the Viewpoint Photographic Art Center in Sacramento, California. These eighteen images span many years of my work in Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park.
Books purchased through my website are signed/autographed. Immense, Silent, and Sacred can be fully previewed at MagCloud. Please note than purchases through MagCloud are unsigned/not autographed. Digital downloads are also available.
It has never been easier or less expensive to own my photographs in print form (that’s a little more than $1 per photo). Many thanks in advance for your support and purchases!
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