Being One With the Place

Last week I just spent a few days in the Palouse and something unusual happened on that trip. I did not take pictures there. That’s right, I spent several days in one of the most sought after photographic destinations in the world and for a few days I did not take a single picture.

It’s important to mention that I had  been to the Palouse many times before and had taken countless pictures there. But not this time.

When I got there this time I realized that I didn’t have anything else to say about it; I have exhausted my visual language in photographing it. And instead of photographing it I decided to experience it. Simply being present there.

Instead of driving up to location for sunrise when an alarm went off after a night sleep in the car I was peering through the windows covered with a veil of snow white petals taken off the apple tree I was parked under by the gusts of wind whose rhythmic shaking of my car lulled me to sleep the night before.

Instead of driving around looking for photographic opportunity I was sitting at the top of Steptoe Butte, reading a book, doing some work, or just staring in the distance.

Walking among the trees of abandoned orchard I’d stop caught by the singing of the birds. I’d stand for I don’t know how long listening to them because the time lost its meaning and only the melody of the nature remained. I’d stand as quietly as possibly and just listen.

Next day I walked to the top of the Steptoe Butte proudly towering over the ocean of rolling hills. There’s a road there going all the way up. That’s how most people get there and that’s how I used to get there too. But, I wondered, what it would be like to walk that road instead. I drove to the top first, left my car there and walked down to the base of the butte. That way I would not chicken out and turn around half way to the top. I’d have to go all the way because that was where my car was. Following a spiraling road bound around the butte a few times down I went.

Walking it gave me a new appreciation of Steptoe Butte diverse natural beauty. A green carpet of grass with orange and purple and yellow and blue polka dots of wild flowers was covering the slope.  A multitude of plum and apple trees covered in blossom ranging from pure white to gentle pink were rising from that carpet. And isolated rock gardens not tamed by the vegetation yet.

On the way back I spotted a faint trail going up, more likely walked by wild animals than people. I took it. And just like that my walk turned into a real adventure. I found wild flowers I had never seen before, I experienced rich scents I had never smelled before, I saw a herd of deer that quickly retreated away from me and an ant mound that I carefully walked around at a safe distance.

A patch of trees that seemed insignificant from the road turned out to be a real forest where one could use ‘up’ as the only way to keep walking in the same direction. I had to find my way, sometimes walking around spiky bumbles, sometimes retreating and finding another way when facing especially dense vegetation. When I finally walked out of the forest onto the road I was rich with new experiences and much closer to the top than I expected.

In the end I did take a few pictures when the light was so dramatic that it was hard to stay away from the camera.

Restrictions Mean Creativity?

For almost two month now we’ve had Stay at Home order in Washington state. It ruined my travel plans and I was pretty disappointed with the loss of photographic opportunities. But I stayed at home and only walked close to it to keep myself and other people safe. As days passed and I kept walking the nature trails next to my home, I first came to terms with the restrictions, and then I started appreciate them because I was falling in love with the place I live in.

Day after day I was walking in the patch of wilderness near me. Little by little I studied it. Now I know every little stream, every little trail. I know many trees and rocks. I know how they look in sunny weather and in cloudy one. I know how they look in the morning and in the evening.

I spent hours sitting on a rock or log by a burbling stream in a cool shade of a tree while the sun was winking at me through the canopy. And I was winking back at the sun, listening to a story the stream was telling me. Or read a book myself. Every time I would make sure to leave no trace and take a good picture of the place.

The forest became my friend. I saw it waking up after winter, stretching its muscles with the cracking sound of its branches, dressing up in a green dress with flowery polka dots. Every day I had little discoveries waiting for me, brightening my day: a new flower blooming that was not there the day before, a tree having a shimmer of green where there were bare branches earlier, a deer walking among the trees.

The forest was never resting, always changing. And yet there was a sense of calm and peace in the forest. Nothing was rushed and everything got done. Slowly day-by-day it was coming to life.

By now I came to appreciate the restrictions for making me fall in love with the place I live in. I was challenged to find something interesting close to home. And I became more attuned to its beauty. And I became more creative.

I’m eager to see it living and changing through all the seasons.

Fushimi Inari-taisha

I recently vitsited Kyoto, Japan. Before I left on the trip a friend of mine who had been to Kyoto before me showed me her pictures of Kyoto and said that she would be interested to see what kind of pictures I would take at Fushimi Inari-taisha (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fushimi_Inari-taisha). I thought of it could be a good challenge for me.

On my first day in Kyoto I went to Fushimi Inari-taisha midday. It was very crowded with tourists. At times the stream of torists moving through seemingly too narrow torii was so thick that I could not stand in one place, I had to move with the stream. It was hard to get any picture of the place. So, I did not. Instead I spent my time exploring the place, experiencing it first hand.

Next day I went there in the very early morning. It was dark and cold. The city was asleep. Occasional taxis on the narrow roads were asleep too with their drivers sleeping in reclined seats. The subway was  closed in such early hours and I walked along the streets of the quiet Kyoto to Fushimi Inari-taisha for an hour. I walked the path that would become all too familiar to me in the mornings after that.

When I got to Fushimi Inari-taisha it was still very early and I had it to myself until the first train would bring early-risers. I took some pictures but they somehow did not capture the place the way I felt it. They were too obvious, lacking uniqueness, my personal experience with it. They were technically perfect but that was too low bar for me. I wanted to go beyond technical.

On the morning of the third day I realized that I kept approaching photographing Fushimi Inari-taisha the same way I approach landscape photography paying attention to details. Every picture had every detail sharp in highlights, mid-tones and shadows. But that was not what Fushimi Inari-taisha was about. It was about mystery. It was about unseen and unheard. It was about my deepest wishes and deepest fears hiding away from light in the dark shadows of night. They were there for me to find, they were there for me to imagine.

Only after abandoning the idea of capturing every little detail in each picture I started getting pictures that spoke to me. A hint of torii, a striking pattern of shadow and light, a light revealing nothing but a few characters of Japanese script was enough. The rest could be filled by one’s own fantasy.

Once I saw the magic of the place I fell in love with it. It became the destination of my nightly pilgrimage.

On the last two days of my stay I finally got to the summit of Mount Inari (I had too many interesting photos to take at the lower levels before). As I got to the shrine at the summit I felt moved, touched by the experience of all those days and prayed following the local customs I had observed for so many times all the previous days. It just felt appropriate, like that was the single purpose of climbing all those steps.

I could not get enough of Fushimi Inari-taisha. On the departure day I stayed there as long as I could taking more and more pictures. Even as I had to leave I saw even more pictures that I did not have time to take.

National Park in the Backyard

Camera – check. Batteries – check. Boots, backpack, tripod… I’m ready to go.

For a while I had been obsessed with an idea of finding interesting pictures in my backyard, in my neighborhood, in the parks nearby. I thought of it as my personal challenge: finding interesting images where I live without going far away to popular photographic destinations.

One of the outcomes of it was an ongoing project “My Backyard” with a new installment published to my website every year. This time I took it one step further though. I decided to treat a patch of wilderness in the middle of my neighborhood as a National Park. I got all my gear the way I would take it on a hike in a national park. I got water and snack and I went exploring.

There was a well developed trail around the lake used by runners, joggers, and walkers. Along it there were plenty of side trails just begging to be explored. I walked to that trail briskly. Once I got on the lake trail I slowed down watching out for the side trails that would get me closer to the water.

Some were well-walked. Others were barely visible and somehow more enticing: following them I would make my way through shrubbery and brambles to eventually get close to water. A wall of trees would isolate me from civilization creating a realm of nature with its own sounds, with its own beauty.

Just like that, following one of those side trails, I found a place that would be great for taking pictures at sunset. Perched up on the log I settled down waiting for the sunset. Time flowed past quietly unnoticeably and somehow the wait was over. The warm colors of sunset was filling the sky. The tops of the trees were still holding the sun by its last rays. And the lake was reflecting it all in the upside down world…

I got home well after dark. I was tired but happy that I went on an amazing hike in the patch of wilderness in my neighborhood.

Camp Muir

Yesterday I went up to Camp Muir to check if I had altitude sickness and test my fitness level for a possible climb to the summit.

At Paradise I was greeted by thick fog. It was a hard decision whether to go or give up but I saw other mountaineers go and people who came down said the fog was clearing up at the higher elevations.

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When I got to snow fields it was a white out. For four hours I kept pushing upwards surrounded by white snow and white fog. I kept following a rocky outcrop on my left to make sure I didn’t get lost. At the four hour mark the rocks that I used for guidance ended. There was nothing but white ahead. I didn’t want to risk going out into the white.

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I was dismayed by the weather and ready to turn back when suddenly fog cleared out and I saw Rainier closer than I had ever seen it before.

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But it’s only when I turned around I was really stunned. Majestic snow covered Tatoosh Range was below me, green mountain ranges and valleys were below me, and the endless sea of clouds was below me. Awestruck, tears of joy running down my cheeks, I tried to take it all in.

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Right then I knew there was no turning back. I had to get to Camp Muir. In a mad dash I climbed remaining 800ft of elevation gain toward Camp Muir.

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When I got there I was filled with joy, I wanted to dance, I was hi-fiving random strangers at the camp sharing my joy. And I was taking a lot of pictures.

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It was getting late and I needed to go down. With byes from people in the camp in tow I started running down the snowfield. I was light on my foot letting them slide from time to time. When slope was steep enough I was glissading enjoying it the way the kids would enjoy.

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It took me five hours to get up to Camp Muir. It took me only one and a half hours to get down.

 

The Best Place

I’m a perfectionist. I know this about myself. My friends know it about me. I know they know because I’ve heard enough grunts from them when I get stuck in one place endlessly perfecting a picture while they want to continue hiking.

This quality of mine can be a virtue as I constantly challenge myself to be better at my craft. It drives me on a personal quest to make the best of the scene to find the best of me. But sometimes it can also be misleading.

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This morning I woke up very early as usual given my jet lag after flying from Seattle to Rome to go to Tuscany. I like my jet lag: I wake up deep in the night hours before dawn. I can explore Tuscany by myself while most people are sleeping.

I was staying at a farm near a small hill town Pienza. During day the town was bustling with tourist and shops and restaurants but at night I could have it all to myself. It was quite: a ghost town, a movie set, a place to wander aimlessly through its narrow streets. In warm street lights it was intimate and mysterious.

I could walk along its walls and enjoy the views of mist covered fields surrounding the town, listen to the quiet of the night, breathe its chilly air. The walls were empty during night but there were plenty of photographer every morning there as they offered grand views of the surrounding hills.

The walk to Pienza from the farm was about half an hour. As I was hiking along the road that morning I passed an olive orchard. Then I walked along a winery grape field. The grape wines were low enough that I could glimpse the hills that make Tuscany such a picturesque place. As I came to the end the second olive orchard I veered off the road and sneaked between the trees to come out to a wheat field where I finally got a clear unobstructed view of the valley.

I stopped to marvel at the thick fog blanketing the valley. The fog was slowly moving in waves and only tops of the hills were floating above it like ships in the ocean. I got my camera out and started taking pictures. The perfectionist in me was telling me to go to the town walls, that they would give me a bigger view, that it might be even better, that I would miss the sunrise if I stayed there.

And yet I stayed. I could not move. I could not abandon what I saw. And it dawn on me that the place, where I was, was the best place for me to be, because I was there alone, because I was the only witness to that particular moment, I was the only one there to capture it and share its beauty with others.

Wrong Turn

I usually travel to famous destinations well-known for their spectacular views and enticing subjects. Imagine my surprise, upon taking a wrong turn on my way to a locally famous photography spot, to find a hidden gem just in my backyard. When I set out that morning, I was hoping to capture a typical fall subject: leafy trees turning a glorious red lining a quiet, intimate drive. It was a place I had visited many times in the past, and had already stopped by multiple times this season, hoping that the colors would be at their peak brilliance. It’s a beautiful place, don’t get me wrong, and it deserves the many visitors that stop by every year to get a snap of it, their cars parked in a line down the street.

But what I found instead was intimate in its own way, a place without photographers jostling to get the perfect angle, a place that isn’t photographed over and over every year. It is just as stunning, and it captures the ephemeral beauty of autumn just as well as my original destination, but most importantly, it was all mine: clear blue sky touched with a light brush stroke of white clouds, trees covered in mid-autumn yellows reflecting in the still, quiet water in the pond, occasional ripples running across the water and playing with the reflection to create a dream-like view that I had only seen in pictures from far away places.

Somewhere far in the distance, through the wall of trees, I could still hear the noise of the city, the rumble of traffic speeding down freeway, but it all seemed so distant, so surreal. It did not belong in this oasis of quiet and solitude. Rather the sounds of singing birds that had not left for the winter yet, the splashing of water disturbed by the ducks landing or taking off, the quiet whispering of leaves as the easy breeze rustled through the forest belonged here.

There was incredible stillness to the whole scene as if I had walked into a painting, my presence disturbing it and putting it into motion. It had been here all along enticing passerby with its beauty, rejoicing at capturing my attention as I was looking at it and appreciating it. Awestruck for a moment, I just stood there taking it all in before the magic disappeared. Nature was patient with me. It did not disappear. It stayed. It waited. Until I was ready to capture it not only with my eyes but with my camera too.

Pictures taken, I sat on the bank of the pond in the warm autumn sun, breathing in the refreshingly crisp autumn air filled with the sour scent of dry grass and the honey-sweet scent of fallen leaves, thinking about how easy it is to get into the habit of walking the same paths, going to the same well-known locations, photographing known scenes. It offers a sense of comfort and security knowing that I’d definitely get some good images there and if not, it would only be weather conditions to blame: no spectacular light, no sunrise, no sunset. Getting off the beaten path is unpredictable, unknown, and quite frankly scary – there might be nothing worth photographing there. But visiting the same place over and over makes photographs predictable and does not challenge me to grow as a photographer.

P.S. My writing and photography lately has been influenced by my girlfriend who gives me constant support while challenging me to do things differently including this post where she challenged me to write better and gave me some invaluable lessons in language arts.

Believe in it

Recently I went on a trip with my girlfriend to Rowena Crest to photograph wild flowers. As we stopped by one of many meadows filled with bright yellow flowers I asked her a question.

“Look,” I said, “there is this meadow of flowers. I bet there are good photos here but I don’t see any. What about you? Do you see any?”

Her reply made me think for a while about my motivation: “You need to believe that the place is beautiful to make beautiful photos.”

I realized that I did not think that particular meadow was very beautiful. There were random patches of flowers. None really stood out.

The reason I wanted to take pictures was that it was a rare opportunity for me: those flowers were there for a short time a year and we had to drive four hours to get there. As such I wanted to squeeze every possible photo from every meadow we came across.

I still took a few pictures there but I did not have a goal of making beautiful pictures. I was experimenting with compositions, finding patterns in a chaos and leading lines in twisted tree branches.

I did make beautiful pictures on that trip in the places I believed to be beautiful.

Observer

A few days ago I was taking a photo of chairs in a park behind an office building. While trying to find an interesting pattern in the seemingly random location of the chairs I had an interesting thought. There might be photographers who’d come to a scene like this one and rearrange it in the way it is appealing. I on the other hand just looking at it, from different angles, from different point of views, trying to read its stories the way they are.

I do the same while photographing a landscape. I never rearrange a scene, moving only my camera trying to find an interesting picture. I appreciate the scene for what it is, for what it tells me. I just need to be a willing listener.

At the trip to the Death Valley last December I visited Racetrack Playa for the first time. I’ve dreamt about visiting this place for so long, about seeing its sailing stones – stones moving across playa leaving tracks in clay that covers the playa.

With dismay I discovered that the place is mostly ruined by the visitors. There were a lot of tracks with stones stolen from them. Some tracks had stones that clearly did not belong there. In addition there were signs of vandalism: tracks left by motocycle and truck tires. It took nature many years to create this unique place. It took humans just a few years to ruin it.

Cold is a Good Motivator

I’ve just got back from a trip to Banff and Abraham lake in Canada. What an adventure! Not all of it was safe or easy. Winter roads can be quite challenging to drive.

My body was challenged too with the cold that I’ve never experienced before in my life. First day it was -31C. The day after it was -21C which seemed like an improvement but it was slightly windy which made it feel even colder.

On the third night I wake up earlier to photograph sunrise at Abraham lake. The place is popular for photography due to natural phenomenon. The lake freezes up deeply during winter and as freezes up methane bubbles rising from the lake bottom get captured any preserved in the ice creating fantastic three-dimensional structures.

As I got to the lake, to location I explored and decided on the day before. It was cold, very cold. The wind was howling outside rocking my car from side to side. Despite layers and layers of clothes I had on me, once I stepped outside I got cold within seconds.

I immediately got back in the car. I could not convince my body to go outside again. No matter how beautiful sunrise was going to be I could hike to the lake and back in such weather.

As I was faced with this challenged my first reaction was to just sit in the car and watch the sunrise. Then I thought that maybe I should get out of the box and photograph something else. I remembered the trees with a small frozen pond around them with ice shining like a mirror. I drove to that place. It was cold but it was quiet, still, no wind at all. I felt warm and cozy.

That ended up the place where I photographed the sunrise. There were no bubbles in the ice in my photos but the sky was nice and I liked the trees and the frozen pond around them.

In fact, I realized, I’m not that attached to the bubbles in the ice. I’m fascinated with the phenomenon and I like to look at them but I don’t feel emotional connection to the scenes involving them. Thanks to extreme cold and wind that drove me away from the lake I found something of my own, something that I enjoyed more photographically.