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.

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.

Unexpected

A popular piece of advice in landscape photography is to stay and wait at sunset till the last light disappears. You never know what surprises can happen at sunset. I’ve advocated for the same myself. But…

A couple of days ago I went to Mount Rainier National Park. I hiked to one of my favorite spots up the Pinnacle Peak trail. I had not been there for, well, a year. I had missed it and was very glad to be there again.

I got there just in time for sunset. I intended to stay there during the sunset taking pictures and enjoying the view. Well, the joy did not last long. My presence attracted swarms of mosquitoes. The little devils would bite me in several places at once. Instead of enjoying the wilderness and taking pictures, I was spending most of the time swatting mosquitoes. It was not fun. It was not enjoyable.

Frustrated, I decided to head back before the sun even dropped below the mountain ridge. The way I rationalized it to myself was that if I were to spend every sunset and every sunrise in the same well-scouted places I would never see it in from any unexpected places.

As I was heading down the trail, that was exactly what happened. A beam of sunlight found its way through the clouds and the mountain peaks as the sun just settled below the mountain ridge. I was awestruck by the unexpected photo opportunity. I was glad I started heading down early. I would not have been able to see this from the place where I had planned to spend the sunset.

Be open to photo opportunities everywhere, seek out and be prepared for the unexpected.

One Day in Kauai

The day started as any other Hawaiian day. The sky was cloudy at the northeast end of Kauai just as any other day of the last vacation. My first look out of the window at the clouds, palm trees, the ocean, beach, and mountains in the distance. Hey, there in the mountains something interesting was going on. The sun broke through the clouds and lit up one of the mountains in the ridge.

That was interesting. I setup my tripod in my hotel room, put my camera on, pointed it out of the window at the landscape outside and took a photo.

The fall weather in northeast Kauai is typically very unstable. In just a few minutes the light completely changed. I took another photo. The change itself had become interesting. Thus a day long project was born: the composition was framed and unchanged for the whole day but any time light changed I would take a photo.

Here is the final selection of the images from that day.

 

The Light 2

The morning in the backcounty of the Monument Valley started with rain. The sky was overcast. There was no sunrise.

We photographed anyway because we were there. It is better to do than do not. I photograph whereever I am and whenever I am. Who knows when is the next time the opportunity like that presents itself.

After about an hour of photographing we decided it was time to go back. As we packed up the sun broke thru the clouds. The was only one whole in the clouds and a spot of light was slowly moving across the valley lighting up its different features creating new and new images.

We’ve unpacked and started photographing the same place all over again. This time in a new light.

The Light

I’ve probably written about importance of light, of an interesting, beautiful light in landscape photography. And I’ll probably write about it many more times because it is worth it. This is one of those stories.

One of the places that we visited on the recent trip was Canyon De Chelly. When we arrived there the sky was gloomy. The light was flat and uninteresting. The images were flat and uninteresting too.

We started with the furthest viewpoint. In just a few minutes the sky broke into a small rain that within seconds turned into downpour and then into hail. There is nothing to do but to leave.

We dutifully visited every viewpoint on the way back. Eventually, the rain was over. When I walked to the next viewpoint the sun broke thru the clouds and lit up the canyon in patches of soft glow that added volume and magic to the scene.

From there on there were a lot of images worth looking at.

The White House

Watching the light moving across the land – there is nothing more fascinated than that for me.

One of the destinations on my most recent trip was Canyon de Chelly. One of the most interesting places it has is a White House, which is a set of ruins from the times in the distant past.

When we arrived there we were met with pouring rain then hail. When it all stopped the sky was grey and the light was flat. While I found the White House be interesting compositionally, in flat light it was looking boring.

Then the sun started breaking thru the clouds. From a viewpoint that I was standing on I could see a spots of light moving across the planes on the other side of the canyon. As they reached the edge of the canyon they quickly dropped off the cliff down the sheer the canyon wall and landed with a splash into the valley below.

I was watching them doing it over and over. With time I started seeing the pattern to the movement: the direction they are moving in and which place on the canyon wall they will pick to take the fall.

Eventually, the spot that I’ve been waiting for came by. I knew it was coming to shine on the White House while it was still wandering the plains on the other side. I saw it highlight one tree after the other slowly crawling toward the edge of the canyon. When it reached the edge of the canyon I leaned to viewfinder anticipating its fall.

The light spot dropped down fast and I caught it just as it was crossing the White House. I was excited as if I caught a magical creature. Well, maybe I did. The light like that brings certain magic to the photo.

Print is the Ultimate Editing Tool

I’m working thru a backlog of photos I took last fall. And I find a lot of good ones that are too hard to choose from. They are of the same place as I visited the same place over and over photographing in different light, different time of day, different weather.

Making selection from a large set of image close to each other is tough. After narrowing the set of picked images to about 50 I hit a wall. I could not reject any more images. This was about two months ago.

Now two months later I went back trying to reduce selection further. I was able to reject about 30 more images and get selection down to about 20. It was still too many. Too many images that looked too alike.

While working thru the backlog of the images I’ve been also getting ready for the new season of the art fairs. The first art fair of this year is not far away in just two months and really-really wanted to have some new work to show.

With no more ideas of how to make progress I did something I’ve never done before: I’ve printed all those images. I’ve laid them out on the table on the floor, wherever I could find space. One large room filled with images. I’ve started “visiting” the room. My first two visits I still could not reject any images.

Then one day I’ve decided to pull one out, the one that seemed the weakest of the bunch. Then I pulled out one more because there were two that were so close it did not matter which one to keep and which one to reject.

As I spend more time with prints it seemed my vision was unfogging and I was getting more and more clarity. In a few days I was rejecting several prints at a time thinking: of cause the remaining are better – how I could not see it earlier.

Here is one that stayed in “keep” pile.

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Interpretations

There is an infinite number of ways to interpret that same scene, the same photo, the same subject. The interpretation very much depends on my emotional state.

My photographs are more a reflection of me than a capture of reality. This sounds cliché but it is true. I’m very much surprised but this myself.

Naturally my emotional state changes over time and images that used to speak to me seem to be silent now. The opposite is true. Sometimes I find gems in images long forgotten.

The changes of my emotions even change the way I interpret images in post processing. Look at these two images. The exact same scene the almost exact same photo.

First one is the image I captured. It is dark and grey. It is an image of depression, being lost with no way out.</p

Then the image after processing. When I process images I rarely have a plan; I’m exploring letting it take me wherever it wants to take me, looking for something that resonate with me. In this case I ended up with an image of hope.