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.

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.

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.

The Experience

Long time ago, when I only started doing photography more as artistic pursuit than a record of personal life my focus was completely on making stunning images, images that captivate viewers. If I came back from a trip with no great images because weather did not cooperate or my creativity was on a break, I would have been depressed: the trip was a failure. And if I brought great images I would have been extremely happy.

Now I travel more and more for experience. The experience of being somewhere. The experience of living there. The experience of being one on one with the nature, or being with likeminded friends, or being in another culture.

Don’t get me wrong. If I make a great image in the process I’m still excited like a kid for a new toy. But I enjoy the full experience and enjoy it independently of whether I make great images. Making photographs only makes me more acute to the world around making me, more sensitive to the experience.

One of the memorable experiences on the last trip was a trip to the backcountry of the Monument Valley with a local guide. We were lucky to get some decent light and I got some exciting images but photography was only a part of the experience.

I also enjoyed being in the wilderness, the food cooked on the coals of a camp fire, the dinner by the campfire, sleeping in a tent surrounded by the noises of the wilderness away from industrial noises of the modern houses, the waking up to the rain bouncing on the tent in the morning urging me to get my boots into the tent before they are filled with water, the eerie silence when all birds and critters suddenly went silent just as the sun hidden by the clouds broke the invisible line of the horizon, the hot coffee on the chilly morning as the campfire was dying down with no one feeding it more logs.

That is the full experience. That is worth living for.

The First Mile

How often do we pass on opportunities to make photos because we are so busy with routine every day motions of our lives? Trip planning and preparation requires a lot of effort and thus does not happen often. But photography is not about trips to exciting destinations, it is about taking a camera in your hands and stepping out of the door.

For a couple evenings now I’ve visited a park that is within a couple miles from my home. There was not much there to see except grass dried out by relentless summer sun and an open view of sunset.

So, I’ve photographed the grass at sunset. And as I got a taste of it I started noticing grass details that would work nicely with the sunset. I ended up with a series of photos I’m very excited about.