People often ask me How do you take a picture like that? I think they expect that theres some technical secret to doing so, but I usually answer with a quote from Albert Schweitzer:
You start with a reverence for life
In college, I took every biology, chemistry and physiology class I could, trying to learn as much as I could about why things were the way they were. Ive forgotten much of that now, and I cant tell you the names of things Im looking at like some others can, but it left me with an even deeper reverence and appreciation for the natural world than I had before. I truly believe that contributes more to making the images I get than anything else; more than the science behind exposing an image, which anyone can learn; more than the technique, which anyone can become proficient at with enough practice.
Sometimes its interesting to trace the important things in your life to their roots. Good often comes from tragedy. When I was young, many important people in my life died. I ended up with a lot of anxiety about death and dying for a long time because of that. Somewhere along the way my natural resiliency took over, and I realized the only cure was to make the most of the time I had. Part of that approach was to set a goal to never miss a sunrise or sunset in my life, no matter how tired I was, or where I might be, or what I might be doing. Ive pretty much stuck to that goal and most of my images are the product of doing so. Ironically, pineapple-orange was always my favorite color crayon in the box, and perhaps thats another thing that draws me to sunrises and sunsets.
One of my favorites poems is from the Disney movie Never Cry Wolf. Its an old Inuit Eskimo poem:
think over all my adventures, my fears
Thats the appreciation I bring to every sunrise, even if I dont get any shots of it. And it only gets greater with advancing age. Ive seen a lot more than I photographed, and I wouldnt have wanted to miss any of it. My portfolio is a visual record, though not a complete one, of what Ive been lucky enough to see. Of course, they say that luck is the residue of design. I was there by design more often than not.
Like many students I have, my younger years were often filled with family arguments and disharmony. I think that may be why Im so drawn to the serenity of mirror image reflections in water. I also have noticed that Im drawn to scenes where different species of plants are competing for space, but yet living in harmony, if only visual. The stillness of these scenes also seems to be a big draw.
The experience I have also reminds me of the song Out in the Country made popular in the 70s by a group called Three Dog Night. I remember singing along as I slowly crawled forward in rush hour traffic heading into UICC in downtown Chicago, and wanting to be anywhere but there:
I feel the need to get away
Ironically, that pretty much describes my current-day experience in photography. Except for very rare occasions, Im out there alone. Im usually packed up and heading back when the first person starts showing up. I guess one of my messages to people viewing my images is, Look what you missed by sleeping in!. I hope my images would motivate them to get up early themselves and go to a special natural place of their own and just watch the sun come up. Take a picture if theyd like, but just get up and go. Take someone with if you can, but go by yourself if you have to.
I actually started taking landscapes when I was about thirty-two years old. I was a volunteer paramedic in addition to being a teacher at the time and was pretty overworked and stressed out. I took an ill-fated one-week trip to Yellowstone National Park, the first time Id ever gone west. I used my Sears Credit Card to buy a camera and telephoto lens and just started driving. It was like the line from John Denvers Rocky Mountain High:
was born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year
The next year I bought a Honda Civic and made a 15,000 mile, 6 week summer trip through all the major western National Parks. Ive been going ever since. My favorite state is Utah, home to eight national parks. Ive spent many summers hiking through the desert in 100 degree heat trying to get pictures.
Starting about eight years ago, I started building a portfolio of local shots. People often ask me, Where did you take that? and seem to expect me to tell them its some exotic location. Theyre typically surprised when I say it was right down the road somewhere, or a place they themselves have been to many times. Ive traveled to just about every one of the best scenic wonders in our country, and for a long time, it was always a big letdown to come back home. Experiencing the best seemed to jade my experience with the everyday. When my daughter became a teenager and we couldnt take her on trips against her will anymore and she started to hate going to those places, I was forced to deal with not being able to go to the best places. I grumbled for a long time but finally decided to make the best of it. Ironically, some of the best images Ive ever made are not from our national parks and monuments, but from otherwise seemingly mundane local areas. I had a poster in my classroom for years that sums this all up:
Beauty is all around us, for those who wish to see it
Seeing is such an important part of taking beautiful landscapes.
Ive also noticed that Im a big picture kind of person. Im that way in my job as a teacher working with students and their problems, in my approach to politics and world events, and most of all, my photography. I see a lot of macro photography that I admire and appreciate, but I find myself always gravitating to the big picture using a super wide-angle lens. I include elements of interest from just a few feet away up to infinity, creating the illusion of standing in the flora as I did when I saw and took the image.
I call my work Natures Masterpieces. Sometimes I worry that people might read arrogance or conceit into that, so Id like to explain. Many photographers name their work after themselves. Theres a certain practicality to doing so if youre trying to run a business. However, I wanted to pay Nature its due. I dont create the scene, Nature does. It would be there whether I stumbled upon it and photographed it or not. Yes, I selectively pick out parts of the scene to include or exclude, but I dont create the scene in the same way as a painter might. Sometimes I wish I could, but I dont. What.. Im really capturing is the product of natural forces acting on the landscape and then the light acting on that scene, modified by atmospheric conditions. If I do one thing well, its that I seem to have a knack for tapping into those forces and capturing their work on film, and have been blessed enough to be at some right places at the right time.
I also will admit to having an agenda with my work. As a teacher, I see so many students who have been so artificially over stimulated and who have spent so much time in a virtual reality that the real thing doesnt do anything for them. I believe everyone, both children and adults, are becoming increasingly disconnected from our natural roots as they become increasingly materialistic and live in an increasingly urban, man-made environment. And yet, many of us are still able to find satisfaction in the simple, free things of life. Nothing is more satisfying than being out in the fog in a wetland waiting for the sun to come up and surprise me, while listening to the music of John Denver blaring from the speakers in the open door of my nearby car. It doesnt get any better than that. I believe we all need to reconnect with our roots in the natural world.
I once traveled to a remote part of Canadas wilderness and misjudged my time and ended up sleeping in my car worrying about grizzly bears. Shortly after dark, a full moon came up over the mountains, and I had an epithany. I remembered the words from Neil Diamonds Done Too Soon. He rattles off a long list of famous names at a rapid pace and then slows to a near stop and sings:
each one there, has one thing they share
Something about being out in the natural world and tuning into it to make photographs makes me feel connected to everything that came before and everything that will come after. I feel less lonely out there than I do in crowds in a big city.
I havent spent much time in man-made cathedrals, but I am a very spiritual person. Being out in the natural world is a spiritual experience. I feel closer to whatever is going on and whoever might have had a hand in it when Im out in the natural world than when Im in a brick building. If it really is His Creation, what better place to get close to the Creator? And what better way to show appreciation, gratitude and respect than to capture it in all its beauty on film and share that with others and try to foster the same appreciation, gratitude and respect in them.
One of my favorite verses from John Denvers Rocky Mountain High pretty much sums up what the experience is like for me:
he walks in quiet solitude
When I do venture in toward our town, or perhaps further in towards Chicago, it amazes me how much land that was once farmland or open space has, and is, being turned into subdivisions and commercial properties. It sometimes seems as if some people wouldnt stop doing this until every inch of the natural world was developed. One of my favorite quotes from Teddy Roosevelt sums this up so well:
men, in their greed and selfishness, will, if permitted,
Another one of my favorite quotes is from Lyndon Baines Johnson at the signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964:
future generations are to remember us with gratitude
rather than contempt,
So, heres my agenda. I sincerely hope that people will enjoy my images, and more importantly, that they will be motivated to seek out similar experiences in the natural world for themselves. That might mean rising before sunrise instead of sleeping in, or dropping something else theyre doing to note and enjoy a sunset. And, after having done so, I sincerely hope they will be further motivated to join the rest of us who enjoy, and are trying to protect and preserve what remains of the natural world for ourselves, our children and those yet to come.