Go With the Flow

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Sodium Altocumulus. Death Valley. ©Michael E. Gordon

Ansel Adams stated (The Negative) that

“visualization is a conscious process of projecting the final photographic image in the mind before taking the first steps in actually photographing the subject. Not only do we relate to the subject itself, but we become aware of its potential as an expressive image.”

The photograph presented here (Sodium Altocumulus) looks nothing like what I actually saw on these salt-encrusted desert mud flats. The light was flat, the mud and salt were nearly color-less, yet I instantly saw the altocumulus clouds and recognized the expressive possibilities for this “bland” setting.

This is neither high art nor a masterpiece but it was enjoyable to visualize and make. I enjoy studying it the same way I enjoy studying big sky. This is a location which I return to frequently to indulge my creative needs and practice my form of abstract landscape photography. The location can change dramatically from day to day, even hour to hour. It’s arid year round and the evaporation rate exceeds the rainfall. Regular shallow flooding through winter and spring alters the surface of the flats and begins anew the salt crystallization process. I never know what I will find and I love this.

By foregoing the preconceived singular image (forget the dang shot), I can spend an entire morning out here in a flow state, engaged in nature’s fascinating details, and make numerous stimulating images.

Just go with the flow, man.

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.

Photograph: Desert Mariposa Lily (Calochortus kennedyi)

Mariposa
Some seem surprised when I inform them that on the California desert there is always something blooming somewhere every month of the year. Long after the spring annuals have spent themselves and have gone to seed, perennial shrubs and other unique annuals begin to appear (often coincident with rising temperatures and heat). This is the paradox and beauty of the desert. She never fails to reveal her beauty and she never disappoints.

Mariposa is Spanish for butterfly, and she is surely beautiful and delicate like a butterfly. She’s a member of the Lily family (Liliaceae) and rarely grows more than a few inches tall. Her color can vary widely from pale yellow to brilliant California Poppy orange. Noted taxonomist and botanist Philip A. Munz suggested that the desert mariposa lily is “probably the most beautiful of desert wildflowers“. Will you disagree with Munz? The Desert Mariposa Lily grows from barren soils and conditions (see the middle image above) and thus seems spectacularly beautiful against a drab canvas. The spirit of Georgia O’Keeffe often reaches a flower before me and stylizes it for my lens (above left).

I recall a well-known U.S. photography magazine in which they’d publish their annual travel calendar for nature and landscape photographers. This suggested 12-month calendar offered twelve or more different U.S. photographic destinations, one for each month based on the peak conditions of particular locations (for example: Jan: Winter Photography in Yellowstone NP; February: wildflowers in Death Valley NP; and so on…). As a photographic “specialist”, I always found this calendar slightly amusing. It’s taken me a lifetime of naturalist observation to develop my own twelve-month calendar in my own habitat. I’m sure as heck not passing up my Mariposa Lily bloom so I can stand with crowds of other photographers at the June hotspot.

Consider developing your  own annual photographic calendar through a long and deep commitment to a habitat or subject(s). Time will be your only challenge – you will never find yourself at a loss for ideas or subjects.

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.

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.

Mojave Mound Cactus (photo)

Mojave Mound Cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus)

I found the granddaddy of all Mojave Mound cacti (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) this weekend in California’s Mojave National Preserve. This was the largest, healthiest, and happiest Mojave mound I’ve ever seen (sure, I’m anthropomorphizing, but it’s my blog :)), and it had no less than approximately 100 buds and flowers on it. The plant was at least 36″ across and about 30″ or more inches tall. Chances are that I’ll be heading back to it in about a week to catch it at its fullest bloom.

It’s not what most would consider a “great year” for wildflowers in California’s Mojave Desert, but if one gets out there with open eyes and willing legs and feet, one will find an incredibly lush, vibrant, and yeah, happy desert! So get out there before it gets hot!

Info for photographers: I made this photograph during the middle of the day under hard light. Why then does the light look so appealing? A 32″ Adorama-brand 5-in-1 (now branded “Flashpoint”) lives in my truck and allows me to shoot small scenes like this under any light. I typically use the diffuser most during middle-of-the-day light such as this. No nature photographer should be without this useful tool!

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