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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San Gabriel Mountains Forever

San Gabriel Wilderness

Rising steeply from the nearly level plain of the Los Angeles Basin, the rugged San Gabriel Mountains provide numerous recreational opportunities and wilderness solitude for more than 17 million Los Angelenos. This rugged mountain range, which John Muir described as “more rigidly inaccessible in the ordinary meaning of the word than any other I have attempted to penetrate” (The Mountains of California, 1894), has been my recreational backyard during my entire life. I’ve stood on the summits of all its major peaks (10, 064′ Mt. San Antonio [Mt. Baldy] more than 50 times in all seasons), explored its steep and deep canyons, and have relished in the silence of its deep Wilderness. Despite its close proximity to downtown Los Angeles, its three Wilderness areas (San Gabriel, Sheep Mountain, and Cucamonga) are largely untrailed, unvisited, and offer incredible opportunities for solitude and silence like few other metropolitan mountain ranges can. “The

West Fork San Gabriel River

Angeles National Forest is an irreplaceable natural resource that gives Los Angeles County 70% of its open space, provides 35% of the region’s drinking water, and contributes clean air to a polluted region. The forest serves as critical habitat for many endangered and sensitive plant and animal species including the Nelson’s Bighorn sheep, California condor, mountain lion, spotted owl and the mountain yellow-legged frog.”

I jumped at the opportunity when The Wilderness Society recently contacted me about photographing for this campaign (my

Yucca and Wildflowers

first assignment with them was in 2007). San Gabriel Mountains Forever is a partnership of local business owners, residents, faith and community leaders, recreation groups, health and social service organizations, and conservation groups who have come together to protect wilderness and wild and scenic rivers in the San Gabriel Mountains. Most importantly, this campaign seeks to expand the three existing Wilderness areas (San Gabriel, Sheep Mountain, and Cucamonga) and hopes to gain Federal Wild and Scenic River designation for the San Gabriel River (east, west and north forks), San Antonio Creek, and the Middle Fork of Lytle Creek.

Middle Fork, Lytle Creek

Regardless of what I think of their images, I have always been most inspired by landscape and nature photographers whose work has been used to help protect and preserve threatened and imperiled landscapes (a few names come to mind: Ansel Adams; Eliot Porter; Philip Hyde; Galen Rowell; Robert Glenn Ketchum [American Photo magazine wrote recently that RGK “may well be the most influential photographer you’ve never heard of.”]. As a fine art photographer, the primary vehicle for my work is the fine art print. I’m moved by the fact that my photographs adorn the walls of many homes and offices, yet the legacy I’d like to leave looks a lot like that of Adams, Porter, et al.

A family enjoys the North Fork of the San Gabriel River

The Wilderness Society provided me with a shoot list that would keep me busy. They’d asked only for about fifteen photographs total (I provided them with thirty-four in the end), but the locations are quite distant from one another and required that I put in a number of miles on foot, bicycle, and by car. I also needed to provide a few photographs of a family recreating on one of the creeks slated for Wild and Scenic River designation (see photo at left). Because I’ve been adventuring in the San Gabriel’s most of my life, I knew that this would be a fun yet challenging assignment. The rigid inaccessibility that slowed down John Muir would also slow me down. The San Gabriel’s are a striking range, yet the range doesn’t easily lend itself to idyllic and beautiful campaign photographs that would easily sway public opinion. I would have to work hard to create ‘iconic’ photographs in a range that has little to none. The lack of trails and vistas where I needed them to be would work me even harder.

Morning light and atmospheric haze over the Sheep Mountain Wilderness

Some of my campaign photographs have already been published in several local newspapers and used in campaign materials, including on the SGMF website. A few of my favorite photographs from this campaign are seen throughout this article. While these are less iconic images of the San Gabriel Mountains,

Morning light and atmospheric haze over Cattle Canyon and proposed additions to the Sheep Mountain Wilderness

they are images that for me best illustrate the ethereal light and mood and rugged character of the range.

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP? Please tell Congress that you support protection of the San Gabriel Mountains! You can take easy action right on the SGMF website (they even have a sample letter with talking points that you can use). I THANK YOU in advance for helping to preserve the San Gabriel Mountains forever!

I offer my sincere THANKS to The Wilderness Society and the coalition! It’s a real honor and privilege to have my photographs used for such an important cause in my own backyard.

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

Balance of Power

I made this photograph about one week ago while shooting on assignment for The San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign (more on this later). Late afternoon, stormy skies (I was snowed on earlier at a higher elevation), and beautiful light illuminate “Our Lord’s Candle” (Yucca whipplei; also known as “Spanish Bayonet”) and a large electrical power pylon. One delivers energy necessary to the Metropolis, the other delivers beauty and grace necessary to my well-being and sanity. I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition of the two, but only one of the subjects delivers the positive energy that I seek!

Yucca whipplei has always been one of my favorite plants (it flowers once then dies), and it’s beauty and poise is undeniable. Due to exceptional winter precipitation, Southern California is currently bursting with blooming Candles. Photographers can currently find thousands of them along Highway 138 and Highway 2 near Wrightwood.

The San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign: this campaign is presently working on twin goals to 1) Expand wilderness and wild and scenic river designations in the San Gabriel Mountains and 2) Establish a new San Gabriel Mountains National Recreation Area (NRA). The spectacular San Gabriel Mountains are the iconic landmark of the Angeles National Forest. It is Southern California’s most accessible and popular “backyard” for millions who visit its clear and cold rivers, and its tranquil and panoramic vistas. The Angeles National Forest is also an irreplaceable natural resource that gives Los Angeles County more than 70% of its open space and provides our region with drinking water and clean air.

Once I complete my shooting for this campaign, I will share images and thoughts here on my blog. Please stay tuned.

Read more about this campaign in a May 16 L.A. Times article.

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

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