Landscape Photography is not a Sport

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:

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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?

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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.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

 

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The Visionary Image: Conceptual Development

Place two photographers side by side on the the very same scene or subject and they are likely to produce distinctly different images. Excluding the most obvious images easily gathered from accessible vistas, photographers have largely known this to be true. With any given scene of any scale, how we approach it and what we choose to most focus on is largely based on our mood and temperament of the day; our previous experience with such a subject; even the subliminal influence of other photographs and photographers may come into play.

Guy Tal and I wandered a Death Valley canyon following the close of our most recent Visionary Death Valley workshop. We stopped intermittently where we found interesting rock outcrops and healthy fruiting specimens of Coyote Melon (Cucurbita palmata) – these wild desert pumpkins can be intriguing subjects for photographers of our ilk. I have casually photographed Coyote Melon for many years; an artful black and white image of Coyote Melon was still elusive and resided only in my head. Required to make this image was a perfect confluence of my mental state, a good visual arrangement, and unfailing vision. I still had yet to find that while in the company of these gourds.

We were now just a few miles from road’s end where we would begin a walk into desert wilderness – this is our method of rest and recovery. But Guy spotted one more beautiful Coyote Melon specimen – we stopped to investigate. It was a large enough vine to provide working space for both of us. We each identified our objects of interest and and got to work.

_DSC0713I was immediately drawn to the delicate but elaborate etchings on one particular fruit – I honed in. Space and space exploration has been on my mind a lot lately. I spend many nights each year staring deeply into it and sleeping under it and NASA’s InSight Lander touched down on Mars just thirteen days after this photograph. I like to use space and time metaphors in my images and titles. The etchings reminded me of planetary surfaces similar to Jupiter or the Moon. This became the metaphor that I forced into my approach.

My very first frame is seen at left. It’s a solid documentary image but it’s not terribly creative or exciting. I’d be happy to have it published in a plant ID guide but I can’t call it “art”.  Over the next 17+ minutes (happily mired in a flow state), using two different lenses – including a soft-focus brass portrait lens – I exposed 46 frames in total, each with slight shifts in perspective and field of view, each working towards the image that I had now developed in my mind. I already knew how the print needed to look. The camera position moved exceedingly closer to the ground in order to force the perspective I sought. I wanted the gourd to be tucked behind some of the leaves – similar to the way a full moon rises into a bank of clouds. In fact, I had photographed this very thing a couple of weeks prior. The dramatic image I had made of a full moon rising was finding its way into this image of a simple gourd. But I was no longer photographing a gourd – I was photographing a Rising Coyote Moon.

Coyote Moon Rising

Creative photographers who find such ideas and discussions stimulating and inspiring should consider joining Guy and I for Visionary Death Valley.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

The Ten Commandments (for Outdoor Photographers)

I am part of two communities who exhibit behaviors on public lands that I am often angered by and find myself at odds with: climbers and outdoor photographers. I suspect that many have never experienced trailhead or public lands closures caused by improper/unethical/illegal use – I have.

Many climbers trample vegetation at the base of crags and boulders; they leave athletic tape, food wrappers, and the tape from rope ends wherever they fall. The rock and the climb take first priority; concern for vegetation, trampling, wildlife (including ants and all sorts of small vertebrates and invertebrates that we can’t even see), and wildlife habitat is secondary (or doesn’t matter). Sadly, this sort of behavior has now become commonplace in the outdoor photography community. In this Instagram-era, a staggering number of landscapes have now been subject to the onslaught of careless humans and an uncountable number of popular photography locations have been drastically altered by the photographers that use them. It’s wrong, disappointing, and has to end before photographers find themselves locked out of locations that they’ve commonly been able to enjoy. If you think this can’t happen, just have a chat with a member of the MTB (mountain biking) or OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle) communities for their angle.

A little more than a week ago I guided my sister, nephew, and brother-in-law through an Eastern Sierra camping/roadtrip. One of our first stops/camps was Alabama Hills below Mt. Whitney and the High Sierra crest. You Western film buffs and photographers know this place well. What you probably don’t know is that the Alabama Hills Stewardship Group has vastly improved the condition and quality of experience for visitors and photographers over the last dozen years by removing graffiti and rubbish; breaking down numerous fire rings; obliterating excess and illegal roads; and planting native vegetation to rehabilitate the abused. I’ve watched the Hills become cleaner and even more beautiful over the last twelve years. During this period digital photography has exploded – especially night sky and astrophotography – and ironically, I’ve watched its photographic ‘hot spots’ deteriorate at the very same time.

AHI took my sister and family to a lesser known arch in the Hills (but still popular with night photographers) and was dismayed by what we walked into: it looked obliterated by grazing cattle (there are no grazing cattle here). Although from different angles, perspectives, and focal lengths, a comparison of the two images will reveal missing, damaged, or dead plants. And I am dumbfounded by this. The other side of this arch does not look like this; it’s not the preferred angle for photographers. This is not from drought, fire, or cattle, and this is not a dense landscape – the shrubs could have been very easily avoided or worked around. Instead, the land before this arch has now become a micro-wasteland.

My sub-teenage nephew learned a few of the following commandments while we were in the field and I’m urging every photographer and non-photographer who uses public lands to please adopt and share these with other photographers, climbers, fishermen/fisherladies, etc. Humans are trashing virtually everything; lest we lose our access, please be the high-road user group that sets the examples others will desire to follow.

The Outdoor Photographers Ten Commandments

1. I don’t own this planet or this particular landscape. I’m a visitor here and my needs and wants are secondary to its primary inhabitants. I’m thankful that I get to share this space with them.

2. I will step around or over EVERY plant I encounter, no matter whether dead or alive.

3. If a plant, boulder, or other natural object is in my composition – no matter what – I will recompose instead of altering or damaging the landscape.

4. I will avoid herd mentality and behavior. I will do my very best to not travel in photographic packs, but when I do, I will be very mindful of my steps and actions as well as those of my fellow photographers.

5. I will not covet the photographs or locations of other photographers. I understand that popularity has led to the ecological decline of many ‘hot spots’ and that great photographs can be found just about anywhere.

6. If I specialize in night photography, I will make sure that I have adequate daylight preparation or proper nighttime illumination so as not trample or destroy ANY vegetation anywhere around me.

7. I will never take anything, leave anything, or alter anything in the pursuit of my photographs.

8. If I can’t make the image I desire without breaching these commandments, I will walk away empty handed.

9. I will educate my fellow photographers and students (if you teach/lead workshops) about the critical importance of field ethics.

10. In the existential scheme of things, me and my photographs don’t really matter. It’s never worth abusing plants or a landscape to make an insignificant photograph.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Artist’s Corner: Desert Light Magazine

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I have an essay and two images in the January-February 2018 issue (Artist’s Corner) of Desert Light Magazine, a publication of the Mojave National Preserve Artist Foundation. You can find it on pages 12-13. Thank you for looking and reading.

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

Featured in On Landscape Magazine

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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.

My sincere THANKS to On Landscape for the feature and to Michéla Griffith for a thoughtful interview!

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

High Peaks and Low Valleys

Moss and flowering plants adorn the 19th century steps of the Old Royal High School, also known as the New Parliament House. Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Moss and flowering plants adorn the 19th century steps of the Old Royal High School, also known as the New Parliament House. Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Before I began typing this entry, I counted the meager number of blog posts that I made in 2015. It’s staggeringly pathetic considering that the year is now three-quarters finished. While some consider blogs dead (in lieu of Facebook and other similar social media), I still consider it my main means of communicating more detailed thoughts (despite not having done so in recent months). On one hand, my photography, business, and adventures have experienced a remarkable 2015 – it’s been exciting. On the other hand, I’ve experienced one of the most difficult years of my adult life. My nine-year-old lumbar spine problems and chronic pain reared its horrid ugliness again, and my father passed away on July 28 after several difficult months of illness and hospitalization. It’s hard to celebrate the highs with such low lows.

I was very close to my father. I took him to most of his medical appointments, oversaw his care, and was with him in his final days and with him when he took his very last breath. I lost my mother 16 years ago and forgot what it really felt like to lose a parent. I had no idea that I would be hit again as hard as I have been.

In late September 2015 we took home some of dad’s ashes to his birthplace of Edinburgh, Scotland (an incredibly beautiful and charming UNESCO World Heritage site – this from a guy who dislikes cities). The journey was beautiful and emotional. Regardless of any trip’s purpose, I always carry a camera and tripod (shouldn’t an artist always have their tools?). Although the purpose of the trip was to celebrate dad’s life and be with family, I was still able to spend many hours alone wandering through Edinburgh making photographs of its narrow closes and wynds and dimly lit corridors. Many of my favorites are dark, mysterious, brooding – perhaps the mood of Edinburgh or perhaps more reflective of the state of mind of the maker.

The Green Steps is one of my favorites (see it LARGER). It’s dark and perhaps a bit brooding. But I prefer “light at the end of the tunnel” or perhaps the route of ascendance that my father took (or hovered above) as he made his way to a more verdant, happier, and brighter place.

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

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+.