Bearing Witness

This essay features numerous links to important illustrations and articles referenced – please click them.

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Michael worships a Giant. Sequoiadendron giganteum, Sierra National Forest

For many years in the West we’ve been hearing and learning about drought-stressed trees (USDA Drought Monitor), bark beetles, and climate change. My anger is justified when the 2016 GOP Presidential nominee comes to California for money and support and declares that our drought is political, not real.

During my adult life, “permanent” snowfields in the High Sierra have disappeared; its glaciers are dying; and alpine ice climbs I once made can no longer be repeated (not until the next ice age, anyway). I’ve also experienced the disappearing glaciers of Glacier National Park (expected to be gone by 2030) and near and dear to me, Joshua Tree National Park could lose its namesake trees by the end of this century. Overt signs of climate change are available everywhere in the West – if one is paying attention and not politically motivated to deny them.

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Giant Sequoia, Sequoia National Park

Following the opening reception of my latest exhibition in Sacramento, California, I decided to take the longer and slower route back to Southern California through the western side of the mighty Sierra Nevada mountain range. As a lifelong hiker, climber, and lover of the Sierra, I have always enjoyed its tremendous diversity. The east side of the range rises abruptly more than ten thousand vertical feet over the Owens Valley – from high desert to the alpine zone and the granitic massif of Mt. Whitney in just a few short horizontal miles. By comparison, the west side of the Sierra makes a long and gradual rise from the San Joaquin Valley towards its mighty crest – nearing sixty miles at its widest – containing chaparral and oak covered foothills, shadowed and fern-filled forests containing massive conifers (including the world-famous Giant Sequoia/Sequoiadendron giganteum), and life-giving rivers (the Kern, Kaweah, Kings, Merced, Owens, and many others) that make habitation and agriculture possible in otherwise arid California. While the East side is the dry side of the range, the west side is typically forested, wet, and green – lush and verdant by California standards (Pacific Northwesterners are laughing). My recent tour of the range, however, has forever altered my view. The Sierra Nevada will never again in my lifetime look the way I once knew it.

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Transformation – Sierra National Forest

On August 11th – the day before I began my drive to Sacramento – I received from a friend a link to a disturbing article: “Forests of fatalities: after 70 million tree deaths, worst “still to come – which highlights tremendous tree mortality throughout the state. A Washington Post article of December 2015 similarly suggests “fairly consistent predictions of widespread loss of piñon pine and juniper in the southwest, sometime around 2050.”As I headed north on Interstate 5 through the San Joaquin Valley- the Valley that feeds much of America’s humans (not its livestock) – I was shocked to see so many dead crops, dying trees, and fallow fields. Some of these “Central Valley” communities have gone dry in recent years and have had to truck in water just for human consumption.

Outside of Yosemite Valley, my busy schedule over the last couple years had kept me away from most of the western Sierra. My return was met with much shock and sadness. The U.S. Forest Service has declared that Sierra tree mortality jumped eight-fold from 2014 to 2015 – from 3.3 million dead trees to 29 million dead trees. In 2014, I might have suggested that there were no dead trees in the Western Sierra. No matter where one looks now, a sea of dead trees encompasses the view.

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Thousands of dead conifers through a haze of wildfire smoke. Chiquito Ridge, south of Yosemite National Park

As I made my way from Sonora to northern Yosemite National Park, I traversed some new ground and received yet another horrifying glimpse of Rim Fire aftermath. I was in Yosemite NP while the Rim Fire burned and distinctly recall near zero visibility at times. That fire had begun and consumed approximately 400 square miles of Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite NP just three years prior. The view from a prominent overlook revealed not a verdant green forest filled with undergrowth, deer, and birds; rather a brushy and barren landscape that will likely never return to its former verdant glory (not in our lives).

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Can’t see the forest for the dead trees. 2015 Willow Fire aftermath – a long view to Mounts Ritter and Banner in the Eastern Sierra

Making my way further south only revealed more horror. For the first time I got a glimpse of the 2015 Rough Fire aftermath which ravaged Sierra and Sequoia National Forests and parts of Kings Canyon NP. A prominent overlook of Kings Canyon revealed a nearly desertified landscape, looking more akin to dry southern California ranges than the Sierra I once knew. I found myself becoming more depressed about the bleak devastation before me and believed that climbing a mountain might deliver good tidings – I headed further south to Mineral King Valley (Sequoia/Kings Canyon NP).

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Beautiful Mineral King Valley filtered through the smoke of the Sequoia NF Cedar Fire (still active at time of this writing)

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Sawtooth Peak (the prominent fin on right), Needham Mountain (behind), and Columbine Lake. Mt. Whitney is visible far to the east.

I aimed for Sawtooth Peak, six miles and 4500′ elevation gain from my camp in Mineral King Valley. I started walking early to beat the heat and meet my wild neighbors who keep different schedules. Along the way I met at close range numerous marmots, grouse, squirrels and velvet-antlered mule deer. Walking alone and quietly always brings rewards. As I neared Sawtooth Pass, I began to see smoke moving my way from the south.

Hiding out under the trees of the Sierra for several days prior, I was unaware that yet another fire had erupted while I journeyed south. Daily sky views to that point had never been promising. Always orange or gray – never blue – the central California sky had been altered for weeks by the Soberanes Fire on the coast (erupted on July 22, still active at time of this writing).

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Mineral King Sierra with a plume from the Cedar Fire blowing up to the south

As I neared the summit I saw a huge plume to the south. My heart sunk; not another one!? At first I believed that it might be the Blue Cut Fire on the San Bernardino National Forest far to the south – it had only begun a few days prior. Little did I know that the Lake Isabella region was getting hit by yet another new and quickly-growing fire (which had suffered the devastating Erskine Fire only weeks prior).

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. John Muir

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I look distressed. Self-portrait on the summit, with the rugged Kaweah Peaks behind me

Quiet walks in the wild and climbing mountains has always been my antidote. It uplifts, it nurtures, it restores, it heals. But good tidings diminish quickly when even the view from a summit leaves one with a feeling of anguish. I stayed as long as I could. The air was getting thicker with smoke, my breathing was altered (especially at more than 12,000 feet above sea level) – I decided to depart before the smoke or my disposition worsened.

 

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My last look south from the summit

California’s natural landscape is very dynamic and has always been shaped by wildfire – this is not likely news to anyone. But it all changes when one factors unstoppable population growth, historic drought, community building in hazardous zones, and ultimately – repeated human-caused fires (not wild: power tools, downed power lines, bullets, sparks). We are helping to quickly transform and destroy the landscape we love.

Among the books in my collection is Charles Little’s The Dying of the Trees. Written in 1995, Little offers insights to dying forests around our globe. Much of it human caused, but not much mention of climate change. It was at that point beyond our knowledge and not part of our everyday lexicon. Only twenty-one years later, climate change has become very real very fast, and very threatening to our own ways of life. Every western U.S. state is suffering deeply from its effects; models predict it will only worsen.

The Sierra Nevada I once knew is no longer. Attributing blame is unimportant; acknowledging it and acting on it is paramount. Should any reader of this essay be among those who deny the overwhelming science and evidence of climate change , I invite you to California for a very personal and sobering tour.

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

 

A Fruitful Year

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Over the course of four nights last week, I observed  the peak of the 2013 Geminid meteor shower from my private bivouac above the floor of Mesquite Flats (in what was dubbed this year as the “largest international dark sky park“). The desert silence was profound and I was reveling alone in my fortune as a very lucky man. I’m not able to mention the typical darkness, as a near full moon flooded the Valley with spectacular nightlight, making the dunes plain to see well after nightfall. I was in Death Valley National Park – my home away from home in recent years – leading my final photo workshop of 2013 and reminiscing about the spectacular year I have been privileged to enjoy. It’s been a fulfilling year of exciting experiences in nature and wilderness (alone and with a few close friends), excellent growth in all segments of my photographic business, and many stimulating exchanges with inspired photographers who sought my workshops, tours, and training – I cannot thank all of you enough!

On the other hand, I apologize to all who patiently and eagerly wait blog entries and Facebook posts. My life, business, and travel are busier than ever before which has _MG_9340left little time for social media. I admit it: I have no social media “campaign” and have never found it to be an enjoyable medium that works for me and my personality (even though most would likely refer to me as sociable). My limited time at the computer is spent doing what must be done, and I’ve never considered “chat rooms” a must-do. I’ve instead been aggressively building on what I value most: Real life experiences and photographic journeys. Neither require a cell signal, internet connection, or any sort of campaign, and yet both have been tremendously successful for me in 2013.

Over the last calendar month, I’ve exhibited in two Southern California fine art festivals and have led two group workshops. I’ve hardly been able to keep up. The photo above left is my L.A. Center for Photography workshop on Death Valley’s Mesquite Dunes, and the one below and right is my Introduction to Large Format Photography workshop group enjoying a very special canyon last weekend. My sincere THANKS to all the wonderful participants (Amr, Daniela, Graham, Joe, John, Jorge, Jovanna, Ken, Kevin, Michael, Mike, Scott – thank you!) who joined me to learn in and explore one of the most fascinating places on earth.

_MG_9192As the sun begins to set on 2013, I thank you all for being patient readers and inspirational photographers. I hope your year was as joyous as mine and I wish everyone a radiant 2014. Happy holidays!

A few brief announcements:

* Guy and I have just had a cancellation and now have one space available in our February 20-25, 2014 Visionary Death Valley workshop. All of our Visionary workshops have been sold out; come find out why!

* My next  Introduction to Large Format Photography workshop is March 7-9, 2014 and still has spaces available. Kevin J. Mellis took part in last week’s large format workshop and demonstrated his kindness by referring to me an “awesome instructor”.

* My next  L.A. Center for Photography workshop at Death Valley is March 13-16, 2014; this workshop has just opened for registration and is expected to sell out. Register now!

* New for 2014! I’ve added a Fundamentals of Digital Photography workshop for novice photographers. This short and inexpensive workshop will give you all the tools you need to understand your camera, photographic basics, and basic post-production techniques.

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 FacebookGoogle+, and  Twitter.

Eastern Sierra Nevada Autumn Color

In just a few weeks the wonder of autumn color will begin to decorate the canyons of the eastern Sierra Nevada. These lemon-lime, yellow, gold, and orange slopes and canyons draw scores of photographers each year – myself included – from late September through early November as the color moves from the highest elevations down towards the floors of the valleys. The where-to and how-to photograph autumn color are well-covered on other sites (including the wonderful and thorough Eastern Sierra page of G. Dan Mitchell). This entry is not a prognostication for the coming 2013 season, but  I will promise you this: this year’s Autumn color may be early, late, great, or poor. In other words, climate change and continuing California drought makes color forecasting a folly (the Eastern Sierra has experienced multiple years of “average” – not great – color). And after a 17% of normal snowpack 2012/2013 winter, what will happen with this year’s color is anyone’s guess. The best way to ensure that you’ll photograph during the peak of color is to follow the numerous online reports and to simply invest as much of your time photographing as you can. Good photographs rarely arise from limited photographic itineraries.

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Choking at Olmsted Point

Shauna and I arrived in Tuolumne Meadows (Yosemite National Park) on August 30 with the intent of a few days of technical rock climbing and hiking (a long-running annual outing for us). What we didn’t know is that earlier that day the wind current had shifted, blanketing Tuolumne Meadows and the eastern Sierra in the thick, acrid smoke of the Sierra Nevada’s Rim Fire (now the third largest in California’s history). On the 31st – with out eyes still burning – we drove to Olmsted Point to assess conditions (photo to left). I was able to download Howard Scheckter’s wonderful weather report  which confirmed our bad timing and a couple more smokey days in Yosemite’s high country. Everything looked and felt sad, so we departed from Yosemite and headed south to the smoke-free zone.

South Lake - GONE!

South Lake – GONE!

We ended up in familiar Bishop Creek Canyons and Rock Creek Canyon for the next few days. The weather was beautiful, the temperatures cool, and the smoke nearly invisible. I did not expect to find any autumn color. We headed to South Lake hoping to paddle our kayak, but what we found was shocking: A nearly disappeared South Lake! I observed and photographed two vest-wearing fishermen walking the bathtub rings of the lake bottom who were likely as shocked as I was. South Lake is an Edison-managed power-generating reservoir, but I have never seen it look like this. Many photographers are accustomed to shooting the colored slopes and shimmering lake – not this year! Many trees and aspen groves around South Lake exhibited surprisingly early color (some rather advanced yellows and oranges). This is not a forecast, but the arrival of color as much as 30 days early is not a good sign.

Lake Sabrina - GONE!

Lake Sabrina – GONE!

In search of water and paddling, we headed next to the North Fork and Lake Sabrina. More shock and awe – Sabrina was GONE! I found the “PLEASE BE CAREFUL” sign to be a rather sad and ironic statement on this water-less and boat-less reservoir. Many photographers are also accustomed to shooting these colored slopes and shimmering lake – not this year!

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PRINTS FOR SALE – click for details and larger view

Still in search of water and paddling opportunities, we found ourselves in Rock Creek Canyon the next day. Here is where I observed some of the most advanced aspen color (September 1??). The photo at right was made on September 2 in a location that I visit and photograph each year, typically during the first week of October. This small grove was in peak color on September 2, and these leaves will be gone with the the coming season’s first strong winds.

Although climate change is still denied by many, those of us who spend much time outside see obvious signs everywhere.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. Please visit his official website  for more information.

Feel the Heat – Death Valley

The digital thermometer at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center displays 132 Fahrenheit at 3:39pm on June 30, 2013. The correct temperature was 129 Fahrenheit as officially read and reported by the National Park Service at 4pm. This is a new high temperature record for June 30. Death Valley National Park, California.By now you’ve likely heard that Death Valley set a new high temperature record on Sunday, June 30, 2013: 129 Fahrenheit. I have a long history in Death Valley and spend a lot of time in the Park each year (DeathValleyPhotoTours), so when the prognostications started flying regarding Death Valley’s potential to break its own heat record (134F, recorded July 10, 1913) I had to be there.

We arrived at the Badwater parking lot just after 2pm, our target time. There were a surprising number of people: Europeans are known to relish this heat and enjoy summer holidays in Death Valley. CNN was also present, talking with tourists and conducting a classic solar-radiation-egg-frying experiment in the parking lot (unfortunately, too many are conducting this experiment). Our thermometers indicated the temperature was around 121-122F, which was confirmed by CNN. I was initially disappointed. I expected Badwater to be HOT HOT (the Weatherspace.com believes it was hotter).

We moved on to the Furnace Creek Resort, where outside the general store hung an old analog thermometer with its needle beyond its maximum high temperature of 130F. We enjoyed the oven-like concentration of heat under the shade of the date palms. Even in the shade, the breeze was akin to the heat blast you receive when you open an oven door. It felt hotter than Badwater.

We moved over to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center after 3:30pm to find a throng of tourists, media, and two guys dressed in Darth Vader and Chewbacca outfits. The digital sign out front displayed 132F, although this thermometer is affected by direct solar radiation and is inaccurate. Just minutes later at 4pm the National Park Service took its official reading of 129 degrees Fahrenheit.

Around 4pm we were ten miles north of Furnace Creek moving towards Stovepipe Wells (and eventually the cooler heights of the Panamint Mountains) when the air conditioning failed in my wife’s car! It was fine by us, but extra measures were required to keep our dog Mojave cool in the 120F+ temperatures while we moved across the desert. We arrived at Mahogany Flats around 5pm where the temperature was beautiful and the high views of the hot desert sublime.

Indeed, 120F+ is HOT, but if one is dressed properly, well hydrated, in good health and operating smartly, it’s not near as bad as you’d believe. It occurred to me upon my arrival home that in calendar year 2013 I’ve experienced a temperature swing in Death Valley National Park of 126 degrees: It was 3F on the Racetrack on a bitterly cold January morning, and 129F at Furnace Creek on June 30. Death Valley: The Land of Extremes.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. Please visit his official website  for more information.

Epilogue: Visionary Death Valley

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Visionary Death Valley – Thank you!

Guy Tal and I concluded last week our second sold out Visionary Death Valley workshop of 2012.  It is always our great pleasure to work with such fine people and photographers, and we sincerely THANK Robert, Steve, Carol, Hoa, Andy, Dan, Joe, Bennett, Kurt, and Huibo for making this one a success. We really enjoyed your company and camaraderie.

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Burn baby, burn. An incredible pre-sunrise glow over Zabriskie Point and the Panamint Mountains.

December and January are my favorite times to be in Death Valley. Whether a personal outing, group workshop, or private tour, I get to spend many days in the Park during these months, and this is when winter’s weather is most likely to decorate the skies with color and the higher peaks with snow. This Visionary Death Valley workshop was no different, and we were in fact blessed with incredible light and color every morning and evening! What a show we were blessed to enjoy.

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Windstorm on the Racetrack

We were witness to spectacular atmospheric events, which included a sudden windstorm that overtook our group while we were on the Racetrack. Although direct light never hit the playa while we there, what was occurring all around us was an incredible sight to behold. The Grandstand would disappear in a cloud of dust from time to time, and unfortunately so would some of our group! A lesson for all desert photographers: Pin down whatever you’re not currently using, and never take your eyes off your tripod. High winds tried the patience of our group at times – a couple of cameras went down – yet bitter weather produced remarkable and unforgettable results.

Sunrise over Badwater Basin

Sunrise over Badwater Basin

We were fortunate to experience an absolutely ridiculous sunrise over Badwater. Ridiculous? Photographers who spend enough time outside inevitably witness numerous beautiful sunrises/sunsets. So many that they can become cliche and easy to take for granted. I consider a sunrise/set ridiculous when it outright trumps your memories of any of the previous 100. That’s what we had at Badwater.

Glory light over Death Valley

Glory light over Death Valley

The above sunrise photograph is straight out of the camera. I moved NO sliders, added nothing, took nothing away. I only resized for this post and converted the file to the Adobe sRGB color space. Trust me – you would have called this sunrise ridiculous if you had been there with us.

Visionary Death Valley concluded my group workshops for 2012, but the 2013 season starts right up in early January. There is ONE spot remaining in my January 9-14 workshop with Andy Biggs, and a few spots remain in the February 2013 Visionary Death Valley workshop. Please don’t delay as these are expected to sell out. There is still availability in Feb and March 2013 for my private Death Valley photo tours.

Photographer on the dunes

Photographer on the dunes

THANKS again to Robert, Steve, Carol, Hoa, Andy, Dan, Joe, Bennett, Kurt, and Huibo for joining us in Death Valley and making the workshop a success!

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+.

Death Valley Haboob – February 13, 2012

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

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

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

Death Valley, gone

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

Running upslope toward Towne Pass…

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

Toyota’s eat dust

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

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

THANKS to My Recent Photography Workshop Participants!

I’d like to offer a big THANK YOU to my March Death Valley Photo Workshop participants: (L-R) Rina, Stacey, Bonnie, Clark, and Lupin, and yours truly. I had a wonderful time with all of you and hope that you had an incredible and unforgettable experience.

I’d also like to offer a big THANK YOU to my April Alabama Hills Introduction to Large Format Photography workshop participants: (L-R) Yours truly, Dave, Rodney, Savahna, Ken, Katy, and Ralph. I had a wonderful time with all of you and hope that the large format photography process has been demystified and that you proceed forth with confidence in the format. We had a Name this mountainbit of challenging weather all day Friday and early Saturday yet it made for glorious conditions, great photography, and sublime viewing of the High Sierra. Can anyone help me with an ID of the mountain seen here? 😉

I wish all of my recent workshop attendees the very best with their photography and hope to see everyone again in the near future!

My next Introduction to Large Format Photography workshop will take place in Death Valley National Park in late 2012 and will be announced on this blog and my newsletter in the coming days; please stay tuned.

My next scheduled workshop is Visionary Death Valley with Guy Tal beginning November 29, 2012. You can read more about our successful February Visionary Death Valley workshop and see a few images here, and you’ll find workshop details and registration information here. Our November Visionary workshop is beginning to fill, but we currently have space available.

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