The Geography of Hope: The Incompatible Ideals of Wilderness and Industrialized Tourism

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.

Ivanpah-Panorama
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

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.

Film’s Not Dead: Introduction to Large Format Photography Workshop: Nov 15-17, 2019 – Death Valley National Park

 

I am pleased to announce my next long-awaited Introduction to Large Format Photography Workshop: November 15-17, 2019, taking place in the incomparable Death Valley National Park. This workshop is limited to only six photographers – everyone will receive lots of hands-on instruction and attention. NO previous large format experience is required and loaner gear may be available for those who do not already own. Learn more about this workshop and register here.

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.

Photo: Narrowleaf Yucca (Yucca angustissima)

Narrowleaf Yucca

I recently concluded my last workshop of the season in Moab, Utah (Terrific Trio with friends and leaders Guy Tal and Bruce Hucko) and am happy to have come home with a new photograph for my desert botanicals collection. I gave a presentation during the workshop whereby I discussed portfolio development and my own methods of having several working projects under simultaneous development. During a brief off-road stop following the workshop, I spotted this yucca under sizzling midday light; not the ideal time for photography. I used my standard combination of modern tools and vintage aesthetics to make the photograph. The background is in full sun and provides a pleasing backdrop for the diffused light foreground.

Advice for photographers: always carry a diffuser.

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 Art of Saying

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The art of seeing has long been co-opted by the photographic community but its first use was likely Aldous Huxley’s unrelated 1942 book. We use this phrase to describe our own photography; that we possess some sort of gift, that our art is the ability to see and capture. I propose an end to this nonsense.

Art arises from artists who have good stories to tell about their subjects. Good composition is mere training and repetition, as evidenced by the many wonderful smartphone images I’ve seen by non-photographers and non-artists. A traditional operating mode for nature and landscape photographers is to find something beautiful; to use a wide angle lens; to stick something large, unrelated, and often obtrusive in the foreground and to keep the fingers crossed for an “epic” sky (apps can help you determine this but they can’t help you make art).  But when photographs lack a backstory and/or deeper interest (which admittedly may vary greatly depending upon the viewing audience) the most likely reply from viewers will be a terse “that’s pretty” (a death knell for the artist, a potentially positive outcome for the camera operator).

As an artist, I’m still trying to find my voice after more than twenty years of working at it. I’m still in an “entry level” position. “Overnight success” has proved apocryphal; artist is for the long-haul. If you love what you do and have a story to tell, what’s the rush? It takes years to understand what you need to and want to say and to learn how to say it. There is no competition despite the apparent F.O.M.O epidemic. Good cameras and software and a large social media following will not ensure artistry or success. Having good ideas that are worth expressing is probably a better path to a long, artistic career.

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.

Starry Nights

_DSC5492Most contemporary nature and landscape photographers are obsessed with sharpness. I like to see how far I can push the blur.
This is Sweetbush (Bebbia juncea), long after the flowers have gone to seed and probably long after most photographers would consider making a photograph of them. It’s a large aromatic shrub in the Daisy family that grows in desert washes and provides a nice treat for Desert Bighorn Sheep. I used a soft-focus portrait lens wide open (big aperture) and focused only on one flower.

 

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.

Desert Candles (Caulanthus inflatus)

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!

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.

On Exhibition: American Desert

the-arenaI am excited to tell you about my forthcoming exhibition. American Desert will feature twenty-five of my photographs from my extensive works on the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. The show will  feature a balanced blend of my botanical portraits of unique desert flora along with bigger views of these unparalleled and sublime landscapes. The Arena (attached here), made in Death Valley National Park, will be included.

This exhibition takes place at the Viewpoint Photographic Art Center in Sacramento, California, and will be on display from Tuesday, March 5 to Saturday, April 6, 2019. I’m very pleased to share this space with the beautiful works of Kerik Kouklis. The Artist Reception is open to the public on Friday, March 8, 2019 from 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm. I will be present and hope to meet you there!

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.

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.

 

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.