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Tag Archives: Rocky Mountain National Park
I remember vividly the evening that the capture for this image was made. The weather forecast called for thunderstorms in Rocky Mountain National Park. This often is a bit risky from a photography standpoint, because it seems there’s about an equal chance of seeing something really cool happening with the conditions, or getting simply a flat, drab sky or a persistent downpour that washes away all of the visual interest in the landscape.
On this night, I got the really cool conditions. In fact, the conditions were unreal, I’ve never quite seen anything like it in several years of visiting the park during evenings in the summer. A rolling fog filled Forest Valley, the valley just behind this spire, and curtains of mist moved in and moved out with alacrity over the spire itself. But the fog and the mist were uneven – a clear sky would sometimes develop, even as most of the landscape otherwise was covered by the fog or draped by the mist. In summer, this location usually is quite crowded with tourists, but on this evening, warned away by the weather, there were few people about, and perhaps none by the time I made this capture. Photographically, it was one of those evenings I probably never will forget.
But there’s something I remember even more – the profound sense of peace and well-being I felt while I was working that evening. This particular image was a long exposure, two minutes or perhaps more if memory serves. While I was waiting for the exposure to run, I simply was sitting with myself, watching the scene unfold, and being at peace with my inner life. There were no regrets about the past, nor anxiety about the future, just being, truly being, a part of the moment. The feeling was all the more remarkable for occurring at a time otherwise rife with personal turmoil.
Photography is like that for me, and there’s a lesson in there somewhere, I suppose. Wouldn’t it be nice to carry that feeling with you all the time?
Here is an image that was captured last summer in Rocky Mountain National Park and probably edited not too long thereafter. It sat unnoticed on my hard drive until just a couple of weeks ago, when I came across it by accident while going through my files looking for something else.
I’m not sure why I didn’t think it was post-worthy the first time around. Maybe I didn’t like the way the long exposure blurred the shape of the moon, or the fact that the clouds actually are airplane contrails windblown into the shapes of streamers, or that there are two fisherman visible in the image (normally I don’t include people in my images).
If those things bothered me before, they don’t now. In fact, I rather like them. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, what is it about time spent away from something that makes it more appealing?
To be honest, all my life I’ve felt like an outsider in most things, and photography is no different. I feel like an outsider among photographers – for some reason, I just don’t fit in when photographers get together and talk photography. I feel like an outsider with tools and process – I don’t have formal training, professional experience, or even a lengthy amateur background in this field. I even feel like an outsider with my subject matter – particularly when it comes to landscapes, since I’m not and never have been much of an outdoorsman.
If there’s one advantage to being an outsider, though, it’s perspective. Being an outsider inherently places you a certain distance removed from the thing from which you are outside. This allows you to consider that thing from a place of detached observation, which in turn allows you to interpret it free from the influences and biases that come from being more wholly immersed inside of it. Stated more succinctly, you gain a perspective that most others don’t have. This can be a valuable tool in creating work having a unique appeal. In at least some aspects, it seems to me a good fit for photography.
I write these thoughts having read the writings of other photographers who assert that value in artistic work comes from familiarity and intimacy with the subject. With landscapes, it seems to be the idea of spending weeks, months, or years living in close relationship with the landscape sought to be photographed. Maybe so. But there’s value in having an outsider perspective as well. There are, in fact, many paths to achieving artistic value, and they will not be the same for everyone.
I didn’t really start out to make a project of photographing Longs Peak, in general I don’t consider myself to be a project-based photographer. However, having spent a fair amount of time in Rocky Mountain National Park (well, at least in the Trail Ridge Road area), I’ve really became drawn to these vistas of the peak. I say drawn, because I don’t push myself to go to them, rather, they really do draw me in like magnet. Over time, I’ve amassed many iterations of these views, but I’m still not tired of them and feel compelled to keep on photographing them. I find it fascinating the way you can keep one element of the composition the same – the peak – and still get nearly endless compositions by varying the other elements in the image. And in this manner, a project was born. I didn’t go looking for it, it found me.
Here is an image of Longs Peak (the flat-topped peak in the far distance) photographed from Rock Cut in Rocky Mountain National Park. Longs Peak is a very popular subject for photographs, and Rock Cut is a very popular (and very accessible) location along Trail Ridge Road from which to photograph it.
Photographing subjects that are very popular seems to engender much discussion among photographers. One school of thought seems to treat iconic subjects much like trophies to be hunted and bagged. In the same way that a trophy hunter might have a collection of stuffed animal heads on his or her wall, this approach tends to suggest that a photographer’s portfolio is not complete without a collection of iconic subjects that have been stalked and captured. The criticism to this approach is that it lends itself to producing cliched, repetitive photographs lacking in creativity and originality.
Another touted approach is to ignore subjects that are very popular. The thinking seems to be that great photographs can be found anywhere (which is true!), and photographing subjects that are very popular is at best a crutch in producing compelling photographs, and at worst a substitute for true artistic expression. The drawback here is that much compelling subject matter is passed over in order to avoid the risk of producing derivative and repeated imagery.
So what’s the right way to approach photographing a popular location? Myself, I just don’t think about it one way or the other. My personal feeling is that a photographer with a strong personal vision and the discipline to follow it honestly will inevitably produce images that have his or her unique stamp on them.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time photographing Longs Peak. I don’t do so to be part of the crowd (indeed, I’ve passed by and have no interest in photographing a great number of very popular subjects). But I also don’t avoid Longs Peak just because it is popular. I photograph Longs Peak because it speaks to me on a personal level. In this way, it’s no different than any other subject I photograph, and I treat it no differently when I photograph it. To me, that’s the best way to approach photographing a popular location.
This summer, seems like every time I turned around, there was the moon, looking all cool and stuff.
I’m a regular listener of the podcast by Brooks Jensen over at Lenswork Daily, which always offers up interesting and thought-provoking episodes about the practice and appreciation of photography. In the recent podcast titled “Just for Me,” he raised the notion that most photographers tend to produce at least some work that is purely personal, as opposed to that offered for public consumption. He may have offered more than one reason for this – the one that sticks with me is the idea that photographers may hold back work that, for whatever reason, is thought to run the risk of not being well received by one’s audience. The takeaway, as I understand it, is that this kind of thinking should be questioned, since the work produced that is personally meaningful to its creator also is likely to be the work invested with the highest degree of merit.
I agree with this point entirely, but what struck me the most is how much it missed the mark for me. Personally, I make no distinction between personal work and work for public consumption, at least as near as I can tell. My thinking is that if something is good enough for me, it’s good enough to share with the world. Taking a different approach would be like drawing a line around some of my images and declaring them “not fit for public consumption.” What I share with my images is more than just the photographs themselves, it’s basically a window into how I see the world. To me, this is very much an “in for a penny, in for a pound” kind of proposition. If I offer up one part of my work, there’s no reason I can see not to offer up it all. Doing it any other way just wouldn’t make sense to me.
As has been mentioned before on this blog, I really enjoy reading the blogs of other photographers. I don’t have many photographer friends myself, so it often becomes the principle way in which I get information about how the rest of the photography community practices this discipline.
I just was reading the blog of one landscape photographer (whose work I really like, by the way) who described how their practice of landscape photography has changed. This person’s principle method used to be “chasing the light,” which apparently involved road trips of hundreds or even thousands of miles at a time, crossing state lines and studying maps and weather reports to try and line up iconic locations under epic conditions, often in compressed periods of time between a day job or other responsibilities of life. If I understood correctly, this person’s opinion was that “chasing the light” was the principle – and perhaps most widely practiced – way to practice landscape photography.
Their new approach was to spend several weeks at a time living on the road, bringing their day job responsibilities with them and working them into a more relaxed schedule of spending a week or more at a given location. While perhaps sometimes missing the alignment of iconic locations and epic conditions, this approach allowed more time to become familiar with the location, often yielding quieter, more personal images than were achieved under the chasing the light approach.
Both good points for sure, but neither of which really resonates with the way I work.
Here’s a typical way that a photography outing works for me: I’m at my day job (Monday through Friday, 9-5, with limited options for flexibility in scheduling) and I keep an eye out the window on the weather. If it looks like interesting conditions are developing – or often even if they’re not – I’ll head out after the workday to a location within an hour’s drive. Since I live on the Front Range of Colorado, this means I have the flexibility to end up either up in the high mountains or out on the sparsely-populated prairies, so I’m fortunate to have access to a diversity of landscapes. There’s usually no real plan for a subject, I just drive around and look for interesting things that catch my eye. Photograph until there’s no light left – which often is well after the sun has gone down – and call it day.
Or try this: I’m up in the mountains doing something non-photography related. In the winter maybe it’s skiing, in the summer maybe it’s hiking. Throw my camera stuff in the car just in case I see something interesting. When the day’s activity is done, if there’s still an hour or two of light, maybe drive around a bit and see what catches my eye.
Or here’s another example: at the end of the work week, maybe I just feel like getting out of town. So I take off on a last minute road trip to a location within an evening’s drive away. Maybe it’s somewhere I’ve been to before, maybe I try something new. Usually I’m going for the sightseeing and novelty of being away from home for awhile, but I always bring my camera along and plan some time to do some photographic exploring as well.
Or something else: it’s a family vacation, with much time, effort, and planning expended to go somewhere really interesting. Most of my time is accounted for with family or sightseeing events, as it should be. But I always keep my eye on my surroundings, and here and there I steal a few minutes to follow up on something that seemed photographically interesting. Maybe it works out, maybe not.
It’s a very pragmatic, time-available approach to practicing photography because 1) given my real-world schedule, it’s unrealistic for me to be able to chase the light for hundreds of miles at a time, and 2) given my real-world schedule, it’s unrealistic for me to be able to spend weeks at a time away on the road. If you’re serious about photography, then it’s important to make time for it, but if you can’t chase the light or invest weeks away, you work it into your real-life schedule as best you can.
I suppose the thing that got me on about all of this is the between-the-lines implication of this photographer’s blog post (and those of many others as well). The implication seems to be that if you can’t chase the light, your photographs won’t be as good, and that if you’re unwilling to invest an inordinate amount of time, you’re not serious about photography.
Going to great lengths to get photographs is unrelated to the quality of those photographs. It’s a crutch - just like obsessing about expensive camera equipment is a crutch – that people substitute in the place of practicing good photography. Good photography is about possessing a strong, personal vision about the world around you, and having the ability to translate that vision into compelling images. This can be done both within a radius of one mile or 1000 miles from your home, and it can be done both within a time period of one minute or one week. It’s in the mind of the artist, not where you are or how long it took you to get there.
For the past few years, I’ve been in the habit of spending a few evenings each week during the long days of June and July at my “local” national park – Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, which is anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half from the front door of my home in Fort Collins, depending on the traffic in Big Thompson Canyon and through Estes Park. It began the first year as an exercise designed to give me regular fieldwork practice with my camera, but since then it’s become a treasured rite of passage to mark my summers, the way some people might look forward to baseball, hot dogs, and swimming pools.
We had an unusually wet and cold spring this year, meaning the Park got an unusual amount of late season snow. But I certainly didn’t need any weather reports to tell me that. My first trip up Trail Ridge Road this year was all about discovering familiar places with unfamiliar appearances. About seeing snow in places where I’ve never seen it before. About knowing where to park the car after going around Rainbow Curve, and about knowing where to hike in order to pick out this fine view.
I’m sure many visitors to the Park think it’s covered with snow like this year-round at the higher elevations. A few spots are, but most aren’t. Knowing a place like this is all about the privilege of being able to appreciate the difference.
Here’s a question for you: which comes first, the photograph or the experience?
In my observation, most landscape photographers tend to answer that the experience comes before the photograph. I’ve heard the same story over and over again, where one begins by enjoying the outdoors, then starts to bring along a basic camera to document his or her outdoor experiences, and eventually graduates to higher end gear and an interest in developing some serious photography skills. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, of course, but in this progression, the interest in photography follows from and is secondary to the outdoor experience.
My background is just the opposite. My interest in photography preceded my interest in getting out into the landscape. Whereas I’ve always been fascinated with photographs, I’ve not always been an outdoor enthusiast. Truth be told, I probably began spending more time in the outdoors as a result of following my lens to where the photographs are, rather than the other way around.
For example, this photograph was captured on a weeknight after working hours in Rocky Mountain National Park. If seeking out and capturing a photograph hadn’t been the primary motivator to get out of the house that evening, I doubt I would have made the hour or so drive just to have an hour or so of daylight to enjoy the (admittedly spectacular) evening.
The difference between the photograph and the experience is a real one. When I go into the field, I’m unabashedly seeking out great photographic opportunities. My goal is not so much to enjoy the outdoor experience as it is to have my creative eye stimulated by the natural environment, and to translate that stimulus into a tangible photographic print. I suspect that many would say this approach gets things backward, that the purer approach is simply to be in nature, appreciate the landscape, and then be moved to create a photograph of it.
So be it. My opinion is that there are many equally valid paths to achieving great photographs. It is a no less valid path to approach the landscape simply out of a desire to photograph it than to photograph the landscape simply as an incidence to being in it. Being in the landscape for the purpose of artistic expression is no less valid than artistic expression that follows from a desire to be in the landscape.
If anything, photography has opened the door for me to enjoy the natural experience in a way that I probably would not have acquired otherwise. In the same way that some outdoor recreationists discover a passion for photography they might not have known but for bringing a camera into the field with them, photography has opened the door for me to an expanded appreciation of the natural world I otherwise probably would not have but for my interest in exploring the world with a camera.