The Artist as Activist

To my readers: I apologize for the raging quiet that has permeated this blog for a number of months. Booming business, my father’s failing health, and a plethora of other commitments and obligations fight for my time and this blog suffers for it. I hope to be be able to increase my posting frequency in the coming months.

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Sheep Mountain Wilderness and Proposed Wilderness Additions. Photo © Michael E. Gordon

Say Hello! to the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument! Photo ©2010 Michael E. Gordon

My being and spirituality has always been directly tied to nature and wildlands. I was born in Los Angeles (a distinctly different city nearly 50 years ago) and first experienced and fell in love with the local San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and Sierra Nevada mountains as a very young boy. While many of the memories of those early experiences are no longer with me, the experiences themselves have indelibly shaped and defined the person I was to become. I studied the obligatory classics of my preferred genre: John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner. If it was not my experiences that would shape me, the words of these writers certainly would have. Their books became my bibles, and the only thing I cared about (and still care about) was spending as much time as possible in wild nature: In my happy place, away from people, away from civilization (or “syphilization” as Abbey called it). I distinctly recall my mother back then telling this teenager that he had no business complaining about anything if he wasn’t willing to vote or put his money where his mouth was. It was she who was responsible for creating the activist I was to become. I was registered to vote by the age of eighteen and by my early twenties had a fat three-ring binder containing hundreds of copies of letters written to and replies received from Presidents, Senators, and Congresspersons about all the issues that concerned me and our planet.

In the decades since, I have walked, hiked, and climbed thousands of miles in California. I have summitted hundreds of its mountains (including many of the state’s highest); have been a volunteer patrol ranger on the San Bernardino National Forest (for which I received the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2008); have served on the Board of Directors for the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association; and am currently serving on the Board of Directors for the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy. Since 2007 my photographs have been instrumental in the campaigns of The Wilderness Society, Campaign for America’s WildernessNational Parks Conservation Association, Pew Charitable Trusts, among others. Throughout my life I have fought for the preservation of wildlands and for doing what is right for the land. The latter is a position which Aldo Leopold argued for nearly 75 years ago. His ideas were brilliant and before their time yet few listened. 75 years later, wildlands have shrunk right along with our glaciers and much of our country is on the brink of ecological collapse.

In his piece on Politicizing Art, my good friend and workshop partner Guy Tal writes about disassociating his own political convictions from his photographic work and explains why he chooses not to be a public activist. Many artists choose a stance similar to his. Using my own photographs and art for activism and conservation seemed to me necessary and mandatory from the start. I have always believed that the most honorable purpose for my photographs would be their use in conservation and I desired following the footsteps of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde, and the Sierra Club tradition of using photographs and coffee table books to advance legislation and protection for wildlands.

In 2010, under contract of The Wilderness Society, I began photographing what at that time were termed “Solar Energy Zones” on the California desert. I was only then beginning to understand the possible and forever damage that could occur on my beloved Mojave Desert. My heart was crushed as I photographed vast swaths of desert wildlands that were impossible to envision covered in thousands of solar panels, 500-foot tall thermal power towers, and eagle-killing wind turbines. I have since committed to photographing all threatened California desert wildlands, and am proud that my photographs have been used to help kill at least three proposed ill-sited development zones (Pisgah, Iron Mountain, Palen).

In recent months, I have attended numerous public and private stakeholder meetings opposing utility-scale renewable energy developments on undisturbed California desert. I always have large prints in tow. While it’s easy to dispute confusing language and policies (such as with the recently-released 8,000 page Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan), the right photographs are able to clearly and powerfully demonstrate exactly what is at stake. Last week, I was invited by the Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association to lobby the Los Angeles City Council against entering a power purchase agreement from the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project. I had two 60″ panoramic prints in tow and their impact was undeniably felt. A few weeks prior I was invited to a private meeting with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to discuss the Silurian Valley solar proposal. Again, I had large and small prints in tow (both landscape and wildlife) and their impact was undeniable.

In 2010, under contract of The Wilderness Society and the San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign, I created a catalog of images to help advance the then-proposed National Monument designation for the San Gabriel Mountains. I am very happy to report that President Obama is screwing up traffic in Los Angeles today (October 10, 2014) to announce our newest National Monument!

Should artists avoid politicizing their art? Should photography and politics never be mixed? My personal life, spirituality, and profession are all intermixed and dependent upon nature and wildlands. I will not peacefully and passively accept the development and destruction of my beloved lands any more than I’ll permit an act of violence against a loved one.  If not me, what other artist will stand up and fight? If the power of beautiful photography can convince others of the need for protection and conservation of our vital wildlands, I want to be on the front line and I want those photographs to be mine.

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.

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Photograph: Arterial Hypnosis

Arterial Hypnosis

The Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park. Made before sunrise on a cold January morning on Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa. 4×5″ camera and film.

Guy Tal and I would love to have you join us at The Racetrack and other spectacular Death Valley locations during this November’s Visionary Death Valley photo workshop.

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

Epilogue: Visionary Moab

The Visionary Moab group before Balanced Rock, Arches NP

The Visionary Moab group before Balanced Rock, Arches NP

Guy and I concluded our Visionary Moab photography workshop just under a week ago.  It was another successful workshop with a great group of participants, and it’s a strong testament to our program and teaching when 50% of the participants are returnees (thank you, Bob, Paige, Ron, and Tina!). Visionary Moab explored fifteen unique locations and provided great shooting opportunities with diverse subject matter. Everyone in the group was able to enjoy the three mile roundtrip walk to the world famous Delicate Arch (in Arches NP) for a sunset shoot (great job, guys!). Although we visited a few well known locations (Delicate Arch, Grandview Point), our focus is otherwise on placing participants in less obvious, quiet, and photographically rich environments where one can stretch their skills and creativity. Daily shoots were combined with field classes, field exercises, portfolio assignments, and classroom time where we examined the tools and techniques to creating our art.

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Guy instructs

The core tenets of the Visionary program are intended to induce a quiet and thoughtful practice into ones work. Some educators and photographers engage in a “spray and pray” approach to image making. Visionary workshops recommends the exact opposite: slow down, quiet the mind; be completely present and in this moment; consider and deliberate; quality over quantity. Spray and pray is a mindless path to lucky captures and editing nightmares; quiet and thoughtful deliberation is a path to creative imaging and expression.

In the Window before sunrise

In the Window before sunrise

Free yourself from external influences: bills, obligations, and chores will pollute your experience every time if you allow. Bring your baggage to the field only at the risk of failure-to-see. Photo buddies are fun to hang with but can provide obstacles to photographic growth; practice working in solitude (quiet your mind).

Be observant of your entire surroundings. Take visual inventory of your “materials”, of what you have to work with to create your images. Compose away from the camera and viewfinder; use your mind and vision (photographer Edward Weston stated “composition is the strongest way of seeing“). Don’t get locked into the arbitrary 2:3 or 4:5 aspect ratio of your camera. Your camera has no brain; use the one you’ve been gifted with.

Guy instructs during one of our classroom sessions

Guy instructs during one of our classroom sessions

Be an expert; know and photograph your subjects better than anyone else. Honor, love, and dignify; meaningful relationships with your subject matter will often result in compelling and sincere photographs. There are no shortcuts to artistry, but there is a direct correlation between input and output. If you love photography and strive to become a better photographic artist, do more of it and make it more than just a spare-time pursuit; make it your life.

Our next Visionary workshop takes place November 21-26 in Death Valley and we hope that you’ll join us for stimulating and inspirational discussions and engaging photography in one of the planets most extraordinary places!

You’ll find eight additional images from Visionary Moab below this entry…

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+.

We enjoyed everywhere the beautiful aroma of Mahonia...

We enjoyed everywhere the beautiful aroma of Mahonia…

Yucca, wide open

Yucca, wide open

Mesa Arch?

Mesa Arch?

Sweeping sandstone

Sweeping sandstone

Reflected light

Reflected light

We explored and photographed lots of rock art

We explored and photographed lots of rock art

Guy, Ron, and Tom discuss the detailed rock art behind them

Guy, Ron, and Tom discuss the detailed rock art behind them

Washer Woman Arch

Washer Woman Arch

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+.

Announcing Visionary Photography Workshops

Guy Tal and I first met each other about ten years ago shortly after he’d left California for Utah. During the ensuing decade, we shared together many wonderful photography expeditions to extraordinary places and discussed at length our goals, philosophies, and hopes for nature and landscape photography as fine art. Despite our differences, we shared many commonalities and philosophies and began to plan our first workshop. In 2004, we hand-picked a select group of photographers for a free Grand Staircase-Escalante NM (Utah) workshop where we could test and vet our curriculum. It was a wonderful start with a great group of photographers, and we’ve since spent the last eight years teaching, guiding, and inspiring scores of photographers at all levels while continuously refining our philosophies and teaching methods. In 2011 we began hatching a refined Visionary concept, and in February 2012 offered our first (sold out) Visionary Photography Workshop in Death Valley National Park. It was a tremendous success, and it prompted us to consider additional offerings in new locations.
The success (or failure) of a photography workshops hinges on its leadership and planning. After eight years of teaching and guiding, we had heard the horror stories from our participants about bad workshops and bad leadership, and desired to never have our names associated with similar stories. Meticulous planning is part of every Visionary workshop. There is no “figuring it out” as we go along, no details are left uncoordinated, and we don’t use our workshops to build our own portfolios. We take great pride in the Visionary program we’ve put together, and we hope you’ll join us for a Visionary Photography Workshop in 2013.
You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

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+.

Visionary Death Valley Photography Workshop Epilogue

Visionary Death Valley Photography Workshop, February 2012

Guy Tal and I concluded our February 2012 Visionary Death Valley (VDV) photography workshop last Wednesday on Death Valley NP’s Eureka Dunes, and to summarize our workshop with just one word: INCREDIBLE. We had a most wonderful group of participants who were engaged and inspired. We feel incredibly fortunate to be able to share our passion for creative photography and Death Valley National Park with a select group of individuals who are eager to move forward on their creative journeys.

Our workshop explored and photographed some of Death Valley’s most well known features – the vast Dante’s View; the surreal Badwater; the cosmic Racetrack; the sensual Mesquite Sand Dunes – as well as lesser known but no less extraordinary locations that are exclusive to Visionary Death Valley. VDV blends the perfect mixture of field photography, field classes, and a post-production classroom session (with laptops and projection) along with inspirational and philosophical discussions designed to challenge photographers to rethink the way they work and photograph. There are many photography workshops and instruction manuals that teach craft and technique; we’ve designed Visionary Death Valley to lead photographers towards the heart of their art.

A few workshop highlights: A brief but intense sunrise at Dante’s View; a downright ridiculous flaming sunset on our last night out with the Eureka Dunes extension group (see image at left); investigating incredible marine fossils and petroglyphs; the largest engulfing dust storm I’ve ever experienced in Death Valley (this occurred during preparations a few days before we first met our group); and F18 fighter jets screaming over Eureka Dunes at low elevations (it’s a violation of the wilderness experience, yet hard not to be awed by).

Guy and I would like to sincerely thank Anil, Annette, Bob, Don, Jon, Michael, Paige, Ron, Stephanie, and Tina for being part of the first of our Visionary workshop series and for being wonderful students and humans. We truly enjoyed your company and learning about each of you over those tiring but exciting days. We wish you well on your creative photographic journeys!

Our next Visionary Death Valley workshop is scheduled for November 29 – December 4, 2012 and you are all invited. We are also currently in the planning stages of Visionary Capitol Reef (Utah) in 2013. Please stay tuned for more information.

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