Yosemite National Park: Can’t see the forest for the missing trees

Yosemite National Park ©Michael E. Gordon

I mentioned being injured in my last blog post on June 17. That comment did not go unnoticed, and I’d like to thank everyone for their concern, well wishes, and generosity. I am indeed on the disabled list, and I will address this in a forthcoming post. In the meantime, there’s something more pressing that I need to get off my chest…

Approximately 5-6 years ago while traipsing cross-country through Yosemite National Park’s incredibly beautiful Tuolumne Meadows – within eyesight of Highway 120/Tioga Pass Road – I discovered scores of young pines that had been cut and removed from the meadows. All that remained of the trees were very short and slender stumps. It had to be the National Park Service (NPS) that cut the trees, and that they were most likely cut to preserve the views for those driving Hwy 120 in the vicinity of Tuolumne Meadows. In late 2008, I learned that the large pines that had grown in front of Yosemite’s famous Tunnel View also got the chop, all in the innocuous-sounding name of viewshed restoration. I was upset. Finally, just this week, Yosemite National Park approved its Scenic Vista Management Plan, and word has gotten out (Mercury News article; L.A. Times article).

In short, the NPS says that the Scenic Vista Management Plan “…is needed to reestablish and maintain Yosemite National Park’s iconic views, vistas, and discrete lines of sight that are obscured by vegetation growth.” The question is WHY? Trees grow, vegetation grows, and natural processes occur. I know you know this, yet I have to wonder if the NPS does. It is not and should not be NPS policy to interfere with natural processes in the name of viewshed restoration, yet that’s exactly what they plan to start doing. I encourage you to have a look at the NPS Mission Statement. Even if broadly interpreted, I cannot see how this action is within the bounds of the NPS’s mission.

The public is at odds with the NPS regarding this issue, and it is vitally important to note that most of the thinning will take place alongside roads, turnouts, and at scenic viewpoints. It should be noted that I support tree thinning and controlled burns to control wildfire – Yosemite NP engages in both every year. But by its name alone, it should be evident that this Plan was primarily enacted to restore scenic views that have become obscured by trees and brush.

For some historical and geologic perspective, let’s have a look at Yosemite Valley’s famous Mirror Lake. Once upon a time, Mirror Lake was much larger and lake-like – you can see this in early Ansel Adams photographs. Mirror Lake is today partially filled with sediment, and is slowly becoming a meadow. Years from now, Mirror Lake and Mirror Meadow will be no more, and the area will be recognized as a forest. This is the standard geological process in the Sierra Nevada. We can’t stop it, we cannot change it. Once upon a time, Tuolumne Meadows was also a lot wetter than it is today, but like Mirror Lake, the expansive meadows are filling with trees and obscuring roadside views – much as forests do. Even the NPS acknowledges Mirror Lake’s meadow conversion on their website (Mirror Lake/Meadow).

It’s a done deal and there’s little we can do about it (the public comment period ended long ago), yet All photographers have a vested interest in this discussion. My concern is that trees and other biota are not killed so that opportunity is created for tourists and photographers. This is not why we created Yosemite National Park and the National Park System. This is not America’s best idea!

I appreciate your comments and contributions on this subject.

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

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Little Jewels

Some years back, I was fortunate enough to take in an André Kertész exhibition here in Los Angeles (I can hear a few readers saying “who in the heck is André Kertész?” Photographers: Please do yourself a favor and learn about him and his work). Beyond the brilliance of his photographs, what struck me most about the exhibition was just how small the prints were. Kertész worked with mostly hand-held small(er) format cameras, and either contact printed his negatives (contact prints are the same size as the original negative) or made very small enlargements (what we might today call “tiny”). What I learned from that experience was that by their very nature, small prints command the viewer to move in, get close, and enjoy a very personal experience with the print (I again experienced a similar sensation a few years later at an Edward Weston exhibition; his, too, were mostly 8×10″ contact prints). On the contrary, large prints have the unintended consequence of moving the viewer away from the image, both physically and possibly emotionally. Indeed, some images can be printed massively and will still dominate the viewers emotions and attention, but I’d suggest that this is more the exception than the norm.

Little JewelsTry this experiment with your own photographs. Printed small, every one of them becomes like a little jewel. I recently made an 11-print sale (all framed); six large, five small. Very small! These five were custom sized to fit very specific bookshelf spaces. Mind you, I make small proof prints all the time, but it’s a wholly different experience to make such small prints and then to frame them as the finished product! These five are finished with hand-oiled solid walnut frames, and I was taken with their tiny beauty (photo at left). Despite their diminutive size, one is commanded to move close, hold the frames, and carefully inspect all the details (right down to the framing). NO large print has ever moved me the same way. I learned this first from that Kertész exhibition, and I am reminded of it again today with my own small pieces.

I write all this as my largest-ever print (34×80″; yes, that’s 7 feet wide!) is currently at my finishing lab awaiting treatment!

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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Photographic Memories

Desert Rats

In the early days of photography, long before it came to be used for virtually every imaginable purpose, photography was largely used as a means of recording people and places. The world was largely “undiscovered” at the time (the western U.S. was still almost completely wild), and the camera was mostly used a matter of record-keeping (think of Eugene Atget’s thousands of determined studies of Paris or William Henry Jackson’s photographic revelations of the “new” American west). Despite the amazing number of uses for all sorts of imagery today, by and large, most of the billions of photographs snapped each year are still a means to record important places, people, and events in our lives. While I may call myself a fine art photographer, my motives behind my work are none too different than most point-n-shooters: I want to record subjects and moments that I want to remember. Photographs as memories – especially for the photographer – are incredibly powerful and can trigger deep and dormant thoughts and feelings.

Almost exactly one year ago today, I spent a week exploring and photographing The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park with two good friends, Guy Tal and Steve Cole. It was an amazing adventure, and not one that many will get to experience, and I shared it with two dear friends. I could have written journals about our adventures; I could daydream incessantly about the things we did and saw; but a quick look at the photographs instantly transports me back to that very special place and time. Only the photographer can have this deep-seated connection to his or her images, and it’s a pretty damn powerful feeling.

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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Photography Podcasts

TransitionI do a lot of driving each year. Shortly after receiving an iPod, I found out about these wonderful things called podcasts. Photography-based podcasts for me have now largely replaced music while traveling, especially when I am traveling on photography business. These podcasts help to inspire, inform, and place me in a photographic frame of mind, ready to start seeing and photographing when I step out of the car. What follows is a short listing of my favorite photography-based podcasts. They’re intelligent, inspiring, and often uplifting. Give them a try:

History of Photography, by Jeff Curto. These are recorded from Jeff’s class lectures and should be considered required listening. You cannot stand on the shoulders of giants if you don’t know from where they came.

Camera Position, by Jeff Curto. NOT Jeff’s class lectures, but rather his own personal musings on a wide variety of important photography topics.

LensWork – Photography and the Creative Process. If you know the publication LensWork and Brooks Jensen’s writing, you can expect more of the same intelligent discussion and thoughts from his podcast. One of my favorites.

Thought on Photography, with Paul Giguere. Paul creates a great podcast, with excellent interviews, thoughtful questions, and intelligent insight.

The Candid Frame, by Ibarionex Perello. Ibarionex has smooth voice and is an engaging interviewer.

You’ll notice that absent from my list are any gear- or technique-based podcasts. The reason for this is simple: they’re not very interesting to me and they won’t make me a better photographer. With limited available time for podcasts, I choose to listen to those that inspire and inform me, and ultimately those that make me want to keep coming back for more.

What other good and creative podcasts can you recommend?

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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Lessons in Light and Visualization

There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” photographic light. There is just light.
Brooks Jensen, LensWork.

Just last week, while photographer Floris van Bruegel and I walked towards Death Valley National Park’s Ibex Dunes, Floris commented that I used direct light in my photographs more than most photographers. I harbor no shame about this, and believe that I’m at an advantage in being able to visualize photographs in whatever available light is before me. While many nature and landscape photographers would have you believe that we are limited to the Golden Hours or to the twilight found at each end of the day, there simply exists light that best benefits your subject or light that is less than ideal for your subject. If you’ll contend that the light is “bad”, I’ll counter that you’re just looking in the wrong direction.

VoyagerThe photograph at left, Voyager, was made in the extreme southern end of Death Valley (the Valley proper, that is) last Wednesday. The time was 9:30am. I was up at 5:30am that morning. I had already covered a fair bit of ground, and had even cooked and eaten breakfast by the time I found this scene. I would estimate that 99 of 100 photographers would have told me that this was horrible light and no photographs could be made. Were it not for my experience and ability to visualize a scene in the final print (there is no such thing as PREvisualization!), I might have concurred. Fact is, were it not 9:30am and had the sun not been beating harshly on this wet mud, I doubt that I would have ever been able to see this. Before you rule out “bad” light, rule out your preconceptions and make the exposure. For digital photographers, this costs nothing. For film photographers, it costs only a modest amount to expand your seeing and possibilities. What could you possibly have to lose?

Voyager - raw film scan

Voyager - raw film scan

I’m about to do something here that I don’t believe I have ever done online before: share a raw film scan of the original negative (no manipulation). A cursory glance at the raw negative might lead one could suggest that this is “bad” light, but the proof is in the final print. The exposure was calculated to preserve all highlight and shadow details (no bracketing; no guesswork; I teach my film exposure techniques during my film-based workshops). From the moment I found the scene, I visualized not “bad” light or a difficult-to-print negative; I saw a voyaging vessel in a distant galaxy and a luminous final print. When Ansel talked about “visualization”, he was referring to this ability to visualize a final print (not the “capture“). I would venture that this is one of the most difficult if not liberating ways of seeing. If one cannot visualize the final print, one is not seeing the light 😉

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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Images of the Subconscious Mind

Darkman

Darkman

One week ago today I found the photograph at left in Death Valley Junction, California (just east of Death Valley National Park). I instantaneously saw the caped and hatted man in the broken pane of glass, assumed it to be Sherlock Holmes, and photographed it and moved on. I thought it was neat – end of story. Upon arriving home, I shared the image with my good friend, Johnny, who emailed back the word(s) “Darkman”. I recalled that there was a film of this name, so I did what we all now do: I Googled. And I was floored.

I barely watch television (I’d rather kill it) and see only one cinema film or so per year; sorry to say to you Darkman fans, it apparently never made my important list of films to watch. But somehow, somewhere, the image from the film stuck with me for nearly twenty years (Darkman was released in 1990). And despite not having seen Darkman, I found him in Death Valley Junction last Monday. I find the similarity uncanny.

It doesn’t end here. If an unimportant twenty year old image can lay dormant in my subconscious for this long, what about direct photographic inspiration from other photographers? Have the images of others inadvertently come out in your own work?

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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Only the Best Will Do

A couple of days ago I launched a new website for my custom printer/paper profiling business, Great Printer Profiles.com. In doing so, it occurred to me how many photographers still use “canned” printer/paper profiles provided by paper manufacturers free of charge. Some who use canned profiles don’t even have a calibrated display. Sure, canned profiles and an uncalibrated display won’t stop you from getting decent-looking prints out of your printer. But if you think you’re putting only your best work out there, only a custom profile built for YOUR paper and YOUR printer will do and you need to have a calibrated display and an entirely color-managed process. Now, this is starting off sounding like I’m pitching you my custom profile or other services, but wait – there’s more 🙂

I follow a number of online photography forums – some technical, some creative – but what consistently strikes through many of the forums is the number of ways in which photographers try to cut corners, hasten their process, or use inferior materials; mostly to save money somewhere along the way. I see many recommendations for low cost/poor quality mouldings and frames; recommendations for low-cost inkjet papers; low-cost non-archival framing materials; photographers who leave large format for digital due to the cost of film; etcetera. I like savings as much as the next guy, but if you’re promoting yourself as the best in your class and market yourself as a “fine art photographer” – I’m sorry, only the best will do.

Consumers and buyers are a savvy lot. They can easily tell good from inferior work, especially when the work is available for viewing side-by-side, and unless your market is high-volume low-dollar, your buyers and collectors expect better and more. When the “competition” amongst photographers for buyers and clients is at an all-time high, only your BEST can separate you from the herd.

Want to be professional and wow people? Want to charge and get more for your work? Don’t show or market anything less than your best photographs. Don’t cut corners. Don’t use canned profiles, cheap inkjet paper, cheap frames, and non-archival materials. When cost and convenience trump your quality, it’s your art that suffers for it. Make everything you do better than the way every other photographer does it. Only your very best will do.

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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