Design and Architecture firm Workshop/APD has acquired a large Tranquil Waters print for a New York design project. It’s an honor to have my Pacific Ocean photographs make an appearance on the Atlantic side. These liquid abstractions are often the confluence of three movements: water, watercraft, and camera. All three are typically moving simultaneously in these photographs and the results are often surprisingly exciting or a complete failure. I may be better known for my monochromatic impressions of California deserts yet I’ve lived in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean my entire life. In my experience, the vast infinite and solitude of open water is not at all unlike standing on a desert summit with the vast and infinite stretched before my feet.
I offer my sincere thanks to Susan Burnstine for writing about my work in her monthly column and featuring four of my images in the August 2019 issue (#231) of Black + White Photography magazine (U.K.). The full print magazine is available at Barnes & Noble and at international newsstands. A digital version can be downloaded here. You can also click here to read this article only (content provided COURTESY OF BLACK & WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE (UK), August issue #231).
After reading the article, please check out Susan’s own critically-acclaimed work. She is one of the few photographers today avidly pursuing alternative processes to create an idiosyncratic and deeply personal visual landscape. I’ve long admired her unique style and process and dream-like images. Thank you, Susan!
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.
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!
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.
I 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.
I am very pleased to announce my next big exhibition: The National Park Service—100 Years: California Dreaming at the Viewpoint Photographic Art Center in Sacramento, California. This exhibition opens on August 10, 2016 and runs through September 3, 2016. I will be exhibiting 15-20 photographic prints from Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park in celebration of the Centennial of our National Park Service.
I hope that you will join me for the Opening Reception at the Viewpoint on Saturday, Aug. 13 from 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm. Please visit the Viewpoint Photographic Art Center website for more information.
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.
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 Wilderness, National 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 Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.
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 left 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.
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 Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.
My next Introduction to Large Format Photography workshop takes place December 13-15, 2013 in the incomparable Death Valley National Park. This workshop is limited to only five photographers – everyone gets plenty of hands-on instruction and attention. NO previous large format experience is required and loaner gear is available for those who do not own. Learn more about this workshop and register here.
I am happy to announce the release of my new collection of work: Tranquil Waters. Featuring horizon-less waterscapes filled with color, these images evoke peace and tranquility and were made as personal meditations on moments in time. Water movement is the hallmark of this series. Wind played a significant part in most, and I played an important role in several: I disturbed the water surface. In addition to water movement, the camera was panned during some of the images and a handful were made from moving watercraft. This body of work has involved lots of fun and experimentation to achieve the look I was after. As with most of my work, this series will never officially conclude and will continue to grow in number over the coming years. Enjoy!
Young photographers often ask what they can do to “go pro”. They often want to know about tips, tricks, or shortcuts to achieving commercial and financial success through photography. Ironically, few are interested in knowing how to become better artists and image makers.
Allow me to immediately clarify that no matter how much effort you invest, your photographic success will never be guaranteed and it will most likely never be the result of shortcuts, clever maneuvering, or social media marketing strategies. I’d like to also mention that I am not aware of any current professional photographer who makes their entire living from print sales and image licensing. Those glamorous days of free-shooting globe-trotting photography died long ago with 35% investment returns, bloated real estate values, and freely flowing cash. As a professional photographer, what you can expect is inconsistent income; to be asked regularly for free use of your photographs; the requirement for multiple income streams from different channels; and more hours at the desk doing non-photographic stuff than you’d care to. If you believe that “going pro” means buying a full frame d-slr, going on great photographic vacations, and then sitting back and watching the income roll in from image licensing and print sales…. good luck with your career!
In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell contends that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice and commitment is required to achieve excellence in ones chosen craft/sport/art. There’s no shortage of disagreement regarding Gladwell’s “rule”, however this essay is not about whether 10,000 is the right number of hours. There are certainly exceptions to every rule, and gifted prodigies indeed exist (although in very tiny numbers). Looking at photography, it’s reasonable to suggest that it really only takes minutes to master the pushing of camera buttons and gaining accurate exposure via the real-time histogram. Operating a camera is a rather easy affair, but operating a good camera does not ensure good photography. We can account for the rest of those thousands of hours as time that is (or should be) spent seeing, building ones visual vocabulary, and becoming proficient artists, communicators, and image makers. I’d posit that fiddling with gear and software does not factor into these hours. Good photography is the result of good vision; the camera and software are mere tools.
Just how many hours is 10,000 photography hours? That’s two three-hour shoots per day (one in the morning, one in the afternoon= six hours total) every day for four and one-half years. I’ll round up and suggest that if you do not have at least five solid years of image making practice behind you and not more than a few dozen strong photographs to show for all your effort, forget your Facebook, Twitter, and G+ social media campaigns: Work first at being a better artist and photographer, and consider marketing it later once you’ve got a unique body of work and an organically grown audience that cannot get enough of it. You cannot now nor will you ever achieve a level rivaling Steve McCurry or Art Wolfe (two randomly chosen hard-working artists of excellence) through clever Search Engine Optimization or through lots of Facebook “friends”. Get offline and get shooting.
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 Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.