“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
Don’t tell me that photography is a destination. It isn’t. This I’ve learned.
Depending upon your internal makeup, the pressure to develop a body of photographic work representative of how you see…it’s not insignificant. And with this goal in mind, I set out in the spring of 2010 to photograph several iconic locations – Mono Lake, Death Valley, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Great Basin National Park.
I traveled for seven weeks. I have ten photographs to show for it. I brought home nothing from Mono, Zion, or Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Or so I thought.
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The run between Great Basin National Park and my home in Portland, Oregon comprises a series of lonely, long roads. One of them, Nevada SR 50, passes through some of the most remote country I’ve encountered. It traverses classic basin and range – massive north-south swells of earth that peak and then trough into empty valleys where not a light shines. You ride these waves of earth for hours.
There’s nothing to do but think, which afforded me the time to truly wrap myself around the axle over the dearth of images my adventure produced. I struggled with the idea that my standards for a “good” image were too high, that I was shutter-shy as a result and failing for fear of mediocrity. Perhaps I don’t understand photography, I worried.
At Mono Lake, I’d anticipated the compositions of others discovered with a few web searches…deeply saturated skies, a perfectly smooth lake, well organized silhouettes of Mono’s tufa formations, all arranged neatly in thirds.
In Zion, I was so filled with the notion of its iconic landscapes that I simply failed to see the place in any other way. I went to The Subway, The Towers of the Virgin, all the spots popularized by photo mags. I stood shoulder to shoulder with dozens of other people at these sites also engrossed by their cameras, our shutters firing away relentlessly.
In Grand Staircase-Escalante, the need to capture an original angle, a novel composition, desert light to match my desert surrounds, was all consuming.
This dialog eventually changed, though. This quiet image of the North Jackson Mountains Wilderness, a speck of a mountain range, perfectly insignificant within the Great Basin’s endlessness and so perfectly fundamental to this moment’s astounding beauty, was the catalyst. This moment changed how I see.
* * * * *
Long ago, in what today seems like a former life, I mountain biked the 100-mile White Rim Trail in Canyonlands, situated a little north of Moab. My group took three days to complete the loop; it was awesome.
Early on our trip’s second morning, I rose and quietly climbed a hill behind our camp. I rested on a large slab of sandstone after a while to await the sunrise. You cannot imagine the silence of the desert on that morning. There was no wind, no human sound. The silence was perfect.
Darkness waned. The eastern sky mounded with light, silhouetting Washer Woman Tower to my north, which I would climb later that day, and before me, deep shadows slowly opened to the Colorado River canyon, where the Colorado flowed hundreds of feet below. Around me, edges of the things you sense in the dark became visual forms, and then merged into patterns, and then the detail of the desert.
My seat, the slab of sandstone, was huge, the size of a city block. The surface of the slab was rippled with the patterns you walk on at low tide during a visit to the beach. Other slabs just like this one were strewn across the hillside. I sat upon the ancient seabed.
I palmed the seabed. I cupped my hands together to see its grit and dust on my flesh. I brought my face to the seabed’s coolness. In the silence of the desert, the sky burning from blue to orange and back again, I smelled the ancient sea. I looked down again from this place, right down through the bedrock beneath it, right down through time, to where the Colorado River scraped and tumbled along.
This occurred years before I linked photography to my need for wilderness. At the time, I had only to be alert to the moment, to follow its passageway to awe and wonder and humility about the span of time before me. I had only to open to that moment fully, and embrace the futility of anything other than complete surrender to our world. I sure didn’t need to take pictures.
* * * * *
On an average day, you’d easily pass the North Jackson Mountains Wilderness on your progress along SR140 without acknowledging its presence. I encountered it at the end of a stormy day, somehow, at a moment of revelation.
I pulled off the highway, grabbed my gear and scrambled as quickly as I could to a place that made sense for a photograph. I forgot my jacket. A steady west wind tore right through me. My hands ached from the cold as I set my camera. I didn’t care.
I took two frames and moved my camera aside.
This moment, this quiet moment, this tiny confluence – a fresh sweep of snow across the Jackson peaks, the lode of color in the sky, the perfect little cloud, the slanting light, from nowhere, shining here – the conclusion of one journey in order to begin another.
Once I was home, my daily routine restored, my stories told, I sat down with this image and remembered something. I remembered why I go to wilderness.