Par Excellence

I have always been a competitive individual. In my earliest years, I dreamed of making the annals of baseball history. In my early adult life, as a guitar player of many years and co-writer in an original band, I loathed the idea of sounding only as good as other guitar players and writing average music. In later years, I chased challenging routes in rock climbing and mountaineering and aimed to have endless stamina and climb in good style. I haven’t yet discovered what drives my competitive nature, but being second always seemed like not winning to me. Call this character trait what you will, but I believe without a doubt that it has fueled my drive for photographic excellence. Whether anyone else believes in my excellence is irrelevant. My goal has never been to be a “better” photographer than others, but to instead always be continuously pushing my photographic boundaries and striving for excellence.

As we watch the 2012 Olympics and the world’s most incredible athletes dig their deepest and fight their hardest – and breaking numerous world records while doing so – we are reminded that there will never be any substitutes for vision, hard work, and dogged determination. Those “overnight” sensations you only recently learned about have been quietly training for years in the background, while others have managed to effectively use smart marketing and social media to immediately convince others of their excellence. Even if there were a metric by which your work could be judged, whether anyone else believes that you are the “best” at what you do is not the point, but the moment you lower your standard and settle for “good enough”, you deny your creativity and greatness.

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I’m not the most prolific blogger, I know, but this post marks #199 since this blog’s humble beginnings on September 20, 2006. 200 is no special number, but it’s a nice even number which took some time for this blog to reach. What should I discuss? I humbly request your topic suggestions for my 200th blog post.

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There are only two spots remaining in our November Visionary Death Valley workshop. Guy Tal and I invite you to join us for more in-depth discussions on excellence, creativity, style, and more during this exciting adventure.

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+.

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The Heart of the Matter

Creosote Dreams

Great photographs transcend place and time. Celebrated American photographer Minor White well understood this concept when he wrote about photographing “things for what else they are.” While there are numerous variations of this quote attributed to White, the message is definitive: Powerful and timeless images occur when the photographer reveals something about his subject that we cannot or might not see with our own eyes. This concept underscores why a photograph like Edward Weston’s Pepper No. 30 is regarded as one of photography’s masterpieces. Although it literally is, critics, curators, and viewers concur that this is no simple portrait of a bell pepper. Similar is Weston’s portrait of a toilet. But is it merely a toilet?

Photographing things “for what else they are” has become a fundamental aspect of my work. After spending a sufficient number of years chasing locations and light, I essentially grew tired of the formula and my subsequent results. It was too easy and creatively unfulfilling: Pick a scenic location, point the camera reasonably well, and hope for sweet light and clouds to transform it into something more meaningful. Yet I would repeatedly return home and develop my film only to realize that the photographs I’d made did not live up to or even remotely equal the experience of simply being there. Location-based photography leaves most everything to chance – find an awesome landscape, scramble for a foreground anchor, and pray for clouds and light – but little for your viewers to ponder and contemplate. One eventually yearns for more when the most common refrain regarding your photographs is “oh, that’s pretty”.

Have a poke around some of the web’s most popular photo-sharing forums to see how well you can differentiate one photographer from the next, or if you can differentiate one Icelandic or Patagonian landscape from another. In his ‘Letting Go of the Camera’, Brooks Jensen suggests that “[a] great deal of what passes as fine art photography today is not based on vision, talent or craft; it is based simply on access.”

I’ve had life-long love for the geology, plants, and animals that make up the grander landscapes about which I am passionate. I have studied academically all of these subjects and at one time even fancied a profession in wildlife biology or geology (someone once mistakenly told me that photographers were better paid). I’m enthralled by geological processes, interrelations of plants and animals, and the way they have all adapted to each other (and to other forces), so it’s no accident that I spend a lot studying and photographing the smaller and deeper details. Most everyone already knows how beautiful and extraordinary our planet is. I feel no artistic compulsion to reinforce the obvious, so I’ve focused my work on sharing the unusual and fascinating aspects of my world. Not everyone can or will share my love for my subjects and photographs, and I’m perfectly okay with that. This is precisely what defines ones work as personal and unique.

Photographers that are sensitive to the environments and subjects which they photograph create images that offer opportunities for insight and contemplation, and great photographs should always tell us something about their maker. When the photograph is about location, we often learn more about geography and the quality of light and clouds than we do about the photographer. Make your photographs about you. Show us something about your subjects that we might not perceive with our own eyes.

Guy Tal and I invite you to join us for inspirational and in-depth discussions on style, creativity, and other philosophies during our Nov 2012 Visionary Death Valley workshop. Only a few seats currently remain…

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+.

Photograph: Sliver

Late afternoon canyon light illuminates a rocky outcrop of California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus). Joshua Tree National Park, California.

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+.

Serenity – 1st Place, Indian Wells Arts Festival

My photograph, Serenity, was awarded a Blue Ribbon – 1st Place in the Photography category – at the 10th Annual Indian Wells Arts Festival. This festival was held in April at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, a $75 million state-of-the-art facility surrounded by mountainous desert vistas, and featured more than 200 award-winning artists. It’s an honor to have received this award, and I’m offering a 15% discount on any size and finishing of this print through May 31, 2012. Please use the discount code “Serenity” at checkout to activate the discount.

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+.

Photo: Salvation: The Joshua Tree

Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia); Mojave National Preserve.

I’ve lived within a short drive of Joshua trees my entire life. Only a handful of years ago did I begin to consider these “trees” (it is a Yucca plant, not a tree) as something more than ordinary blips on the landscape – they are very common throughout the Mojave desert. I began to observe tourists posing with beautiful specimens, and realized that all along I had been taking for granted the remarkable Joshua tree. I’d spent years walking among them and recreating and photographing in their shadows, yet I had rarely trained my camera on the Joshua tree itself. They all looked ordinary and the same. And then one day my eyes were suddenly opened to their incredible uniqueness and individuality, and I began to seek out extraordinary specimens to photograph.

It’s quite difficult to find unique qualities in individual pines and aspens, for example; they all look very similar, and the unique aesthetic qualities each tree might possess are primarily hidden by their sameness. Quite the contrary with Joshua trees. Take a walk in any Joshua tree woodland and you will immediately observe that almost no two trees are alike. My wandering imagination got the better of me, and I began to see these specimens as individuals like humans, and sought to capture them in a portrait-like fashion. The Joshua Tree series was born.

Technical details: The Joshua Tree photographs are made with a 4×5″ view camera and black and white sheet film. Almost all the photographs have been made with a century-old Wollensak Verito lens which lends a soft-focus pictorial quality to the photographs. Why this approach over a modern lens and complete sharpness throughout? I like to involve and engage viewers. Sharp and detailed photographs don’t often leave much room for the imagination; there are no spaces to fill, no questions to ask, no thoughts to ponder. Easy ingestion and easy abandon, if you will, with one quick sweep of the eyes. I find that combining a mixture of sharp and soft elements side-by-side keeps my eyes and mind engaged; collectors and fans of these photographs seem to agree. I hope that you’ll enjoy them, too.

Purchase a print of this photograph for as little as $39…

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

Save a Desert Tortoise – Buy this Book

Tortoises Through the Lens – it’s not just a photography class, but a movement to change the continuous struggle that tortoises must go through because of human interference. Rachel Wilson, TTTL Student

Until you’ve met and made the acquaintance of a Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), you’ll never know just how incredible are these creatures. I met this tortoise (at left) on April 3 in Joshua Tree National Park, and as I sat beside and talked to him/her – all the while snapping photographs – I felt the same joy I feel each time I am lucky to have one of these chance encounters. Here before me is a distinct and unusual species that has roamed North America for 50 million years or longer, and has existed in its current form – before the Mojave was a Desert – for roughly 18 million years. Beyond humility and respect, I can think of few other ways to behave and honor the presence of this incredible creature. To see these fellows succeeding and feasting on greens warms my heart. Yet their lives are far from without challenges….

Icons of the Mojave Desert, they were once ubiquitous, and many southern Californian’s unwittingly diminished their numbers by taking them home and keeping them as pets. I had one during the earliest years of my life, and it troubles me to think that my family (and the family from whom we adopted the tortoise) helped to possibly push this species towards the danger zone. Urban/suburban sprawl pushed development and housing directly into their Mojave and Colorado desert habitats, and by 1990 landed them on the Threatened list of the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, without human intervention and corrective actions, Gopherus agassizii will eventually land on the Endangered Species List and their lives will hang in the balance.

Enter my good friend David Lamfrom, the California Desert Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. In 2008, David created a wonderful program entitled Tortoises Through the Lens; “a community-based action project created to provide thirteen California high school students with an opportunity to explore and experience the Mojave Desert.” For two years, David and his long-time partner (and great wildlife photographer) Rana Knighten, led these thirteen teenagers on trips into the Mojave. They would not only be given cameras and learn how to photograph under David’s tutelage, but they’d also learn how to commune with nature and tortoises and would document their encounters through their photographs. In late 2010, the results were published in a beautiful book entitled Tortoises Through the Lens – an important collection of images and words. This 50-page book details their natural history; the serious threats they face; and what the future has in store for them. Beautifully designed and printed by Sunbelt Publications – and only a mere $14.95 – this book should be added to your collection. Most importantly, proceeds go directly towards tortoise conservation. David Lamfrom is one of those true desert tortoise heroes; I ask that you please support the tortoises and his work with your purchase. Thank you!

Please purchase directly from Sunbelt Publications.

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