I went to Death Valley with preconceptions: The landscape would be vast and stark, evoking something akin to the sea. The photographs I made there would be wide angle, golden-hour images with stunted plant life or funky rock providing scale.
But a funny thing happened while I was there. The distances seemed to dilute color and shrink the mountains that rose on the horizon. Some locations, like Ube Hebe Crater, failed to inspire me. Others, like Zabriskie Point and Race Track Playa, were captivating, but intrusive crowds made photography a challenge.
Then I found the Mesquite Sand Dunes. The dunes changed my way of seeing. The more I attempted to capture their grandeur, the more I was drawn to the narrowest slices of light washing over and around its waves of sand. Casting aside my wide angle lens for a long tele lens, I was driven to capture abstracts like never before.
And that way of seeing has stuck. Visiting the Algodones Dunes near the Salton Sea, I found compositions easily in the light and shadow.
Visiting the Palouse in eastern Washington, I saw dunes of green.
My long-time fascination with big spaces, big mountains, and big color feels like a memory…
…and I am increasingly driven to abstraction.
I haven’t been fishing in over 35 years, but when I was a child summering on Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland, I went fishing on a regular basis. Before you picture anything too fancy, you should know that I was just a girl with a cheap Zebco rod and reel, a plastic bobber picked up along the shore during my weekly litter patrol, and a colorful lure purchased with allowance money more for its aesthetic appeal than its reputation for success.
When I was older, ten or eleven, I would fish from our aluminum row boat, a creaky old thing painted yellow, then red, bearing the peeling traces of each choice equally with its original Grumman gray. Its oars were splintered, its oar-locks bent, but from the boat, I could fish anywhere on the lake within “ear-shot or eye-shot” of home—that was the rule.
I rarely caught anything on my fishing expeditions, but when I tried new bait, a stonefly or night crawler, I started reeling them in: perch, sunfish, bluegill, and crappie. In the context of my increasingly productive fishing trips, my mother started a new rule: She would clean and cook anything I caught, but I had to eat it. That was the end of my fishing days. For me, fishing was not about catching a fish, and definitely not about eating fish. It was about being alone in nature.
For many people, solitude is a rare thing, but for children, it is rarer still. One almost needs an excuse for doing anything alone, and fishing was a good excuse. I gladly spent hours by myself, not so much waiting for fish to bite as thinking about anything and everything until a fish bit. A tug on the line interrupted a reverie that was more about nibbling at the edges of ideas and experiencing, with all my senses, the lake’s ecosystem. Bubbles breaking the surface over there could be a frog; that little dark triangle emerging up ahead is probably a turtle; the little wake left behind that water strider sure would be easier to cross than the one behind my father’s ski boat.
Today, nature photography fulfills that same need for a solitary and creative escape. Of course, my hope is that I will make images good enough to share, but sharing the process of making those images is another thing altogether. Don’t get me wrong: I learn much from working in the field with other photographers. When I’m not out there learning from a mentor, however, photography is about solitude. And the solitude is, quite frankly, part of the appeal. My day job is teaching English. I talk, read, write, and listen all day long. I solve other people’s problems, help them clarify their ideas.
Photography is a completely different form of interaction. It’s nonverbal. It’s visual. I follow my vision, rather than tapping into somebody else’s train of thought or navigating the rapids of institutional politics. It’s a world of beauty with me in the middle of it, doing my best to capture it. Put that way, I assume nobody would be offended by my preference for going it alone. The difference between fishing and photography, of course, is that I really do want to capture something worth keeping. I’m always hopeful that what mesmerizes me in nature will create the spark for a winning photograph.
Inspiration comes to me in the process of planning and taking each trip, casting my line and seeing what I reel in. I study maps and hiking and wild flower books. Some destinations are tried and true, but I also keep a journal in which I record roads and describe turn offs near mile posts that might lead to a lesser known subject worth shooting. At each location, I list the flora, record the time of year, and note whether it has been cooler and wetter or drier and warmer this year. I check some areas regularly to determine their promise and maximize the likelihood of being there at the right time. Consulting my maps again, I think about the season and the angle of the sun, the orientation of a canyon. I check my handheld gps to predict where and when the sun will set as well as the phase and position of the moon at sun rise or sunset. Planning trips is an exciting way to stay engaged in the creative process when I don’t have time to get out there.
In the field, other processes take precedence, and I often stumble upon serendipitous sources of inspiration. I adapt all of those calculations and countless hours of expectations to what the location actually offers, what the weather actually does, whether I can find a subject at all. If I have planned a trip and embarked with high expectations only to find one of my cherished Cascades peaks, my intended subject, disappearing behind clouds, I have to decide whether macro or bird photography is a better choice once I accept the reality of all the variables.
Then, of course, there are the camera-related decisions: Do I see a composition that works? Which lens will capture it? What aperture do I need to capture the depth of field I envision? Is the dynamic range within the capabilities of my sensor? Do I need to bracket my exposure, and if so, how many stops do I have to cover? What’s my next composition? Do I want to linger here or move on?
Perhaps I’m just describing the difference between taking a snapshot and engaging in photography. Each day of planning, each trip into the field, each press of the shutter button, each change of lens is part of this creative process, and I can get lost in this process—in a good way. I may spend an hour working on a single subject and composition, or I can decide fairly quickly that the conditions are not ideal and something better is further along the trail. I may go out to capture a pre-visualized grand vista, only to find clouds forcing my gaze downward to a delicate Prairie Star or Douglas fir cone. I can sit waiting for the clouds to clear from a mountain, and slowly realize those same clouds are casting promising light on a canyon below. Sometimes clouds evaporate quickly, leaving me with harsh mid-day sun, but that sun might also bring out flycatchers or other birds best shot in copious light.
Sometimes I arrive and find just what I hoped for: gorgeous light on a beautiful subject with a fascinating foreground. Finding what I hoped for doesn’t necessarily accelerate the process, but it certainly intensifies it. In these situations, I can lose myself entirely until the light tells me it’s time to move on. Sometimes that’s only a matter of seconds.
Finding that place of minimal interruption, total concentration on what I’m looking for, seeing, feeling, and capturing—that solitary connection with nature is the crucial element in a successful photography expedition. Sometimes I reel in a nice catch, and sometimes it seems the fish just ain’t biting. For me, the essence of a successful day is not necessarily coming home with a great photograph; it is simply having a rewarding creative experience. Without the pressure to produce, the trip itself is a worthy adventure. Afterward, I might work for hours at my computer trying to make something decent out of an image shot in poor conditions: I’ll try black and white when the sky never cooperated, or play with selective color to pull the eye away from an overly polarized area of an image. Fortunately, the screen time is part of the experience, and I enjoy it too. If the images don’t pan out after a few processing sessions, I still got what I went out for: some quality time alone in nature. And I can always dream about going back for “the one that got away.”