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Yosemite and John Muir

Just before Thankgiving, we stayed a few days in Yosemite. Since then, I've been reading John Muir. From over a hundred years ago, he described nature in a way that resonates strongly with some of the pictures I take, particularly those from the Little Pieces project.
"When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty."

On wilderness, Muir wrote:
"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity, and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life."

Urban Dwellings And Desert Wanderings

Highway 191 continues south from the Grand Tetons in Wyoming to the desert canyons of southern Utah. The drive is beautiful and it's good to be back in the desert. The Tetons may be breathtaking, but there's a heightened anticipation as the landscape turns sandy and red. It feels like coming home.

This trip has been a gradual removal of the conveniences of urban life. From the house to the camper van, we went from several rooms of living space down to one room of fifty square feet. Compared to what I'm used to, I'm living simply. But, those fifty square feet are packed with running water, sink, toilet, bed, futon, stove, heater and electricity - more accomodations than most people living on this planet have. From the camper van to the trail, I have with me only what I can carry on my back: a pack, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, tent, water, some food and a stove. And, the heaviest single item: my camera. I have to plan carefully to only bring that much.

The transition to living out of a backpack takes some discipline. Water is rationed until the next spring can be found, and I can only stay out until I run out of food. The days are hot and the nights cold. I like to stretch out and roll around in my sleep, but the mummy style sleeping bag binds me in like a straightjacket. I suppose this is "roughing it", but how rough can it be with my high tech, ultra light, weather shedding, water wicking gear?

I am well equipped, but while out in the wilderness, I leave much behind. There's no internet, no phone, no social network. There's no career, no mortgage. I'm not concerned about if anyone appreciates how I look or dress or what I own, or how clever I am. Who am I without these things? How can it be, that while in the desert, without these decorations of identity, I can feel so fully alive?

I've spent more nights in the desert than any other wilderness climate. Within the scarcity, there is a richness. The rugged twisted juniper trees. The ecstatic explosion of desert flowers. The towering rocks and the stillness. Its inhabitants scrounge for food and water, living close to death yet full of life. "...perhaps that is why life nowhere appears so brave, so bright, so full of oracle and miracle as in the desert", says Edward Abbey. So much is taken away that what is left is precious. Every bit of it. I re-learn what it is to appreciate. What's funny is, that I suspect the world outside of the desert is like this too - every bit precious.

What does all this have to do with photography? From what I experience, from who I am, is what I see, becomes the pictures I create. I love that desert.

If Photographs Were Stories

You have the opportunity to stand at the rim of a desert canyon. Or, the shore of a mountain lake. The location could even be the yard around your home. You can also pick the type of light and weather. What would you choose? What kind of picture would you want to make? Would you like dramatic clouds during the stillness of the early morning light? Or, perhaps the golden light of sunset with a wide view of the landscape.

Now, think of your favorite stories. It could be a novel, a movie, or something you heard from your neighbor. What makes these stories connect with you? Do they contain humor, beauty, oppression, grieving, peace, confusion, disaster, sacrifice, healing? Probably.

My favorite stories seem to start with a nobody main character. The protagonist is on a journey, it could be great or small. There's struggle and then some sort of redemption. The ending could be happy or sad, but something has changed and I, the audience, have changed as well.

Let's consider again the hypothetical nature photograph. I've spent the past couple of weeks in the high desert, so I'll take the canyon option. So many of the nature photographs that we are exposed to have an idealized, on vacation, I'd-like-to-be-there quality. If these photographs were to be stories, I'd tell you about lying on my back on a sand bench, falling asleep as I gaze at the stars though a frame of high canyon walls. Mmm.. that's good.

But there's more than just that. What about all those other elements that make up the stories we love? That kind of photograph would be just the happy ending destination. How many of your favorite stories consist of just a nicely resolved destination with no journey? What would my and your photographs look like if they contained more of the visual equivalent of a good story?

Hey, we're an instant gratification society. Give us the destination and screw the journey. The comfort without pain. Who needs change, just gimme the cozy goodness. Interestingly, our great stories are not like this.

Photojournalism, portraiture and street photography are good at covering this fuller range. What would this look like in nature photography? What is a great nature photograph that goes beyond presenting an ending?

A Walk to Taggart Lake

It's been drizzling rain for days. Typically, I would appreciate photographing in the even, moody light provided by overcast days. But after days of hiking in the rain, a little sun would do much to warm my face and lift my spirits.

We're driving south on highway 191, winding downhill from Yellowstone to Jackson Hole. Hannah is driving, and I'm gaping in awe. The clouds shift from a uniform, gray ceiling into billowing, moody islands, as if being shattered by the warmth above. Shafts of sunlight stream down. The light, delighted to greet land, kisses a spotlight on Shadow Mountain to the east. Through the clouds, there are hints of jagged, snow covered monoliths to my right. I can make out the base of a mountains, the Grand Tetons. But they are shrouded in mist, looming...hiding.

There's public land up in Shadow Mountain, where you can camp freely for up to sixteen days at a time. Just north of Moose Junction, turn east on Antelope Flats, past the bison herd and up a dirt road through pines and aspens. We find a spot to park the camper van, but there's a half eaten deer carcass nearby. After the bison encounter at Yellowstone, there's no need to be around when a bear or coyotes return. We drive on and find a spot overlooking the valley and the Grand Tetons beyond.

We wake up to snow. Wonderful, cleansing snow blankets all we can see. The clouds are back, but this time I don't care.

I love taking pictures in the snow. In a way, it feels like cheating. The snow simplifies the landscape. I can compose images considering the foreground, and the background is automatically uncluttered, clean and whitewashed.

We drove into the Grand Tetons and hiked a trail to Taggart Lake. As we walked, I imagined creating a portfolio of images from just one walk. I took about around a hundred pictures that day, more than usual. After editing, would I have enough images for a worthwhile portfolio? I could hope.


Take Me to Your Bison Overlord

We were telling a friend about our plans for a road trip and she told us of her visit out west, to Yellowstone National Park. She was driving through the park when she found the way blocked by several parked cars. A crowd had left their vehicles to observe a herd of bison mulling around the road. One man, eager to take a picture, gets closer and closer to one of the bulls. The crowd shouts warnings to him, "Hey, I don't think you should be getting that close. That bison looks a little nervous...." But he continues closer, unconcerned. I imagine him with eyes open wide in anticipation. He's ready to commune with this icon of the American West. Just as he's getting close enough, the bull snorts, lowers it's head and charges forward. Wham! The would be photographer flips into the air and lands several yards away. I suppose that's one way to communicate.

That story was on my mind last week as we drove into Yellowstone. We drive through the park and to a ranger's station to ask about the back country. To get a backpacking permit, the park service requires you to watch a video that, among other things, describes possible wildlife encounters. While in the park, you may come across bison, elk, moose and bears. In Yellowstone, there are black bears and grizzly bears. To avoid surprising a bear you should sing songs and clap as you hike. The video shows a group of jolly hikers, singing and clapping through the woods. They look a little silly. They look a lot silly. There was no footage of the hikers encountering a bear, so I guess it worked. And as far as bison are concerned, I'm not planning on walking up to one within goring range, so I should be OK.

Hannah and I get the permits, strap on our packs and head into the woods. We joke about the bear avoidance tactics. We're here to be in the wild, not to engage in some hi-dee-ho summer camp stroll. About ten minutes in, we come across some large animal tracks. Grizzly bear tracks. I give Hannah a concerned look. She looks back, a little panicked and asks, "What songs do you know?"

Cold gray rain falls throughout the day. We walk through fields of boiling acidic pools. Geysers erupt. The trail leads us through a snowy, icy pass across the Continental Divide and we arrive at a beautiful mountain lake. Birds call out and squirrels scurry. We sing and clap. There are no bear sightings.

The next evening, we come across two bison as we approach our camp site. I want to avoid being flipped into the air, so we walk away into the trees and wait. Twenty minutes later, the bison move on. We setup the tent and start preparing dinner. It's been a long wet day, and we're tired. Just as I manage to get a fire going, we spot one of the bison. Its the bigger one, with horns. I've heard that a bison can weigh up to two thousand pounds, and this one looked it. It munches on grass and edges closer to our camp. Good thing I got the fire going, that should keep him from getting any closer. He comes closer. The bison starts rubbing up against a tree, an aggressive behavior. He comes even closer, about twenty feet away. Hannah and I, now standing, slowly back away. He walks right up next to the fire. The camp is no longer ours. It was never ours, says the buffalo.

We circle around to the edge of the camp site. The bull is still there. The air chills as the sun starts to set. Hannah whispers, "Stay right there" and starts crawling toward our backpacks, toward the bison. I stand there, dumbfounded in my manliness. Hannah is brave, hardy and six months pregnant. She inches forward. I hold my breath. She sneaks on unnoticed toward the bison and scurries back with packs in hand. We scramble back to the trail, leaving the tent and half of our supplies behind. Ahead of us is a three mile walk through the dark. We utilize bear avoidance tactics as we go and arrive back at the van.

We're back at the camp site the next morning. The ground around the camp is scraped and turned over, but otherwise everything was as we left it. We pack up our things and walk back out of the woods, grateful.

From Michigan to Wyoming

The past week has been a blur of driving, day hikes, high winds and grasslands. We left Michigan on October 26th and spent the next several days traveling. From Marquette, Michigan to Minneapolis, Minnesota to South Dakota, the realm of Wall Drugs and the Badlands.

After miles and miles of grasslands, the ground suddenly opens to the Badland's jaggedly eroded chasms. Bright sunny days and cold nights. We arrived in high winds, blowing up to 70 miles per hour. It took a consistent effort to stay standing when walking around. Not that the landscape seemed to care. The wind moved little, with the exception of swaying grass and the random tumbleweed.

From Badlands to Devil's Tower, to rainy days in Yellowstone. The roads in Yellowstone National Park closed for the winter yesterday morning, pushing us onward to the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole - beautiful to Yellowstone's bizarre. Ah yeah... Yellowstone is bizarre. Stories to come.

Camper Van Conversion - part 2

We've now been on the road for seventeen days. Camper van Chuck has been a champ, getting us through cold nights and icy mountain roads. Here's more details on the van conversion.

View part 1 of the conversion process.

For the "living room" area of the van, we built a bench that folds out into a bed. This, in addition to the bed in the penthouse top, provides sleeping room for up to four people. Next came wood paneling and a shelf. 

The bench

The bench in bed mode

Insulation and support for paneling

Paneling installed

The bench and shelf installed

The sink installed

Penthouse bed


A Good Day

It took a week of traveling, but we're finally in the woods, nestled in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Hannah and I spent the night in the camper van along the side of a dirt logging road. I'm a little unsure driving as the van lurks along the rutted road, bouncing and swaying. But, the van does fine. We pull over, and we're surrounded by wilderness. There's us, the trees and the calls of unknown critters in the distance. 

After a hot chili dinner, we plop down on camping chairs, warmed over with a blanket and steaming mugs of hot chocolate and take in the Milky Way and a few shooting stars.

I run the heater for about half an hour before we go to bed. The heater uses small one pound propane cylinders and produces heat using a flameless, catalytic process. I've heard all sorts of precautions about running propane heaters in a contained area. We run the heater with some care -  leave a window cracked open, enlist the guarding nose of a carbon monoxide detector and turn the heater off before going to sleep. The heater lights with a whoosh and a little fireball. A little daring for a little comfort.

The night cools to around 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The van's pop-up top is lowered to conserve heat. The futon is flipped into a bed. We thread ourselves into mummy style sleeping bags and sleep snug, warm, deep and long.

The next morning, the sun shines bright, lighting up a cold, frost covered landscape. Hannah goads me into a brisk walk down the logging road. Our shoes crunch over frozen sandy ground. By the time we get back to the van, the frost is already starting to disappear. The moment is there, and then it's gone. Better enjoy it while you're in it.

We start up the van and drive to trails that wander the coast of Lake Superior. The rest of the day is spent walking in the woods. Feet shuffling over a carpets of fall leaves and soft beds of pine needles. The leaf canopy overhead is awash with maples, leaves bright yellow. Rugged cliffs over seemingly endless water. Waterfalls. A secluded beach.  We walk twelve miles and get back to the van just after sunset.

It was a good day.

Having Eyes to See

I like being able to see things. I'm extremely near sighted. Without my glasses or contact lenses, the world is a blurry mush, like walking around in one of Monet's paintings. Each morning, I get to step between these worlds, from the undefined to the crisp as I put my contact lenses on. Once the contacts are in, I mostly take this crisp vision for granted. Except, every couple of months, when I go to the doctor for a glaucoma checkup. Glaucoma is an eye condition that eats away at your vision. It starts at the edges and works its way in. At each of those visits, I go in a little anxious, hoping that I won't be hearing bad news.

A couple of days ago, I got an irritation in my right eye, so I've been wearing my glasses rather than the contacts. That would be fine, except my glasses are a prescription behind. I can mostly see, but not the fine details. I can see fine enough to walk around, but not the subtleties. The details come to a blur just as I reach out to them, like grapes just beyond my reach. I feel disabled. Something vital to the way I make photographs is gone. It's frustrating.

I'm currently in Port Huron, Michigan, at the beginning of a two month photographic road trip. Rather than taking pictures, I've spent the day trying to find an ophthalmologist with an opening in their schedule.

When people view my photographs, sometimes they'll comment that I have "good eyes". On days like today, I mourn a little over the goodness of my eyes. It is really good to be able to see. By seeing I get to make pictures and by making pictures, I strive to see the world even deeper.

Two women came to visit once when I was exhibiting my work. One of the women had her arm linked around the other's as if being guided. As they viewed the photographs, one of the women would pause to comment on each image. "This photograph has several small branches that are dancing around each other. There's an airy softness, but there's also crisps bits pink as the lines lead to small flowers." After a few images, it occurred to me what was happening and I was deeply honored. Her companion was blind. The sighted woman was being her eyes, so that they could both see the photographs. She was, in the truest sense, giving my work to her friend. They had eyes to see.

Update: I got in to see an eye doctor, and everything is fine. He pulled a bit of fleshy growth (ugh!) out of my eye and put me on some antibiotic drops. Contacts can go back in the next morning. Onward to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

We're Off!

Last week was a crazy rush of preparations. Hannah and I left Indianapolis on October 17th, 2008 on the Inagural Camper Van Chuck road trip. We spent the past few days with friends walking all over Toronto, Cananda. Tonight, we're back in the states in Port Huron, Michigan, where I need to take care of a hopefully minor medical condition with my eyes. More to come on this tomorrow. And then, it's off to find some wilderness.

I hope to take a pause in the next day or so to take some more pictures of the van conversion. I'm looking forward to catching up on some sleep tonight. Be well, and good night.

Camper Van Conversion - part 1

My old art show van, Mongo, has a bench that folds out into a bed - very handy for crashing in the van while traveling. Mongo's replacement, Chuck, being an empty shell of a cargo van, had no such amenities. 

I decided to build a plywood platform in the back. I could store cargo underneath the platform and sleep on top. At some point, I realized that I would need to drill holes into the van's metal support beams. I don't know if you've ever drilled a hole into your car, but for me, this was a big step. I was ok with drilling up the 2x4's, because, hey, if I screw that up I can spend two dollars to buy another piece of wood. But, if I screwed up putting a hole in the van, well... I guess I could cover it up with duct tape. With drill in hand, I paused and stared down the metal rail. I gave myself a pep talk and looked at it for a good long time. I took a deep breath and drilled the holes. And, it wasn't the neatest job, but it worked.

With my new bolstered wood cutting, metal chewing ego, the dreaming began. I found stories of people that sold everything and started living in their vans. I found camper vans with sinks and beds and toilets and solar power with 4x4 transmissions that could cross rivers and scale boulder ridden jeep trails. And then, I bought more wood and drilled more holes.

I drove the van up to a company called Sportsmobile, where they cut out the roof, and installed a pop up top with a loft bed. After that I was on my own. I built and installed a sink. I put in a 130lb deep cycle battery for house power and hooked it up to the alternator and followed up with a bunch of wiring. The passenger seat got a swivel base so that it can turn around to face the interior. New stereo, speakers and added insulation.

Empty cargo van

Empty van, before any work

Sleeping platform, insulation

Storage platform and insulation

Installing a box for the house battery

Installing a box for the house battery

The sink is installed

The sink

Chuck with the Sportsmobile penthouse top

Much of my photography is from backpacking in the wilderness and long walks in the woods. I create well when I am immersed in the subject matter. In these times, I feel fully alive. Chuck is preparation for a photographic tour, a grand adventure in the spirit of photographers Edward Weston and Robert Frank. Hannah and I leave in three weeks. Still to do: the plywood platform comes out, and in goes wood paneling, a bench and shelves. Fun.


There's Something About Vans

A few years ago, I had a couple of roommates that drove vans. When I was dating my wife, Hannah, she had an album of some kind-of funk house music. It had this wah-chika-wah-chika-wah beat. You know, caper music. It's the music that plays in a heist movie, where they montage scenes of the crew practicing their plan to break into some secure building. And when they're ready, they all jump into a van.  I would get into my roommate's van, and that caper music would be going through my head.  

We would take the van to pick up a new dishwasher, or help someone move, and it wasn't just a normal drive, it was an adventure. To drive a big container of a vehicle like that takes some responsibility, you had to be doing something worth doing. You're not just going to the grocery store, or driving to a job where you sit in a cubicle. There are hippie vans, junker work vans, spy vans. The A-team drove a van. The theme music to the A-team TV show, now that's some van music.

A couple of months ago, I bought a Chevy cargo van to use to haul my work to art shows. This van replaced a Ford passenger van, named Mongo by the previous owner. The new van needed a name, so we decided on Charlie. Or, in day to day usage, Chuck, as in the Chuck-Wagon; my bring-home-the-bacon friend. May the adventures of Chuck begin.

Mongo for sale - '92 Ford Van

Mongo, my 1992 duo-toned Ford art-caper van is for sale. View the listing on craiglist. Here's the info:
1992 Brown Ford E-150 Club Wagon XLT able to hold 7 passengers with a full-size fold down bed in the back!! (bed folds up into a three-seater bench otherwise) 164K miles, 5L/350cid motor, clear title, never wrecked, automatic transmission with OD (rebuilt 11/2004), AC runs cold, new brakes, good tires, power windows/locks/seats, radio with AM/FM cassette. We've depended on this van for out of town work and it has always seen us through-- a great vehicle.

Mongo has served me well through some good adventures. May it do well for its next caretaker.

I'm selling the van because I got another one, a Chevy cargo van, that I've been converting into a camper. Come mid October, we're going to hit the road to visit and photograph some wilderness for two months. And ooh, I am excited. For a taste, check out this pop-up top.

The Desert

At the beginning of May, Hannah and I spent two weeks backpacking in southern Utah, around Zion and Grand Staircase - Escalante. We were there just long enough to wet our appetites. On the way back, I picked up Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire. How is it that I haven't read this book before?

I love that desert, I do. There is much about this world that is wild, untamed and fantastic. Go. Take a long walk and breathe it in. Your life may depend on it.

And then, there's Niagara Falls. Makes me want to cry.


Little Pieces at Pictura Gallery

Pictura is a wonderful new gallery in Bloomington, Indiana. As far as I'm aware, it's the only full time gallery in the region dedicated to art photography. If you enjoy photography as an art form, they are well worth a visit. While you are there, thank David, Brenda and Martha for the great work they are doing.

To add to my enthusiasm, Pictura is hosting an exhibit of my latest series of images, Little Pieces all Together. This body of work looks into enchanted coordination within the details of the natural world. Last month's Pictura opening drew quite a crowd. Come and see what the fuss is about!

Little Pieces All Together - Opening Reception May 9, 2008 - 5:00pm to 8:00pm

Pictura Photographer's Note - May 28, 2008 - 7:00pm
I'll also be kicking off the Photographer's Note series with an artist's talk at 7pm on May 28th. See you there.

Pictura Gallery
On the Square at Sixth and College
122 W. Sixth St. 
Bloomington, IN 47404

Upcoming Events

Here are a few other upcoming events:

May 2First Friday Open Studio, 7 - 10pm 
Come by for a visit and see my latest work.
Studio #302, Murphy Art Center
1043 Virginia Ave, Indianapolis, IN 46203
May 9Little Pieces All Together, Pictura Gallery, Bloomington, IN
Opening Reception 5 - 8pm
May 17 - 18East Lansing Art Festival, East Lansing, MI
Booth 61
May 28thPhotographer's Note - artist's talk with Andy Chen - 7:00pm
Pictura Gallery, Bloomington, IN
May 30 - Jun 1 Summerfair, Cincinatti, OH
Booth 26H

Blog posts may be slim for the next couple of weeks. In addition to the shows, I'm also leaving for a backpacking trip in the canyons of southern Utah. Until then, I wish you well.
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