Standing at the edge of Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park I didn’t feel an immediate connection with the iconic tableau. It wasn’t that the scene, El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, and Half Dome, wasn’t spectacular, as it was. It is among the most captivating scenes in the world. In spite of the beauty, my camera remained in its bag. I couldn’t conceive of a shot that felt personally connected to the scene. Instead, I only saw vignettes of Ansel Adams' deep love for the place.
That moment of stumped ecstasy, in which I was visually in awe, but couldn’t conceive of a photograph, provided just the hint of insight needed to explore a deeper lesson. Eight months into a multi-year photography road trip, I was beginning to perceive a pattern at play, a pattern that operated with the predictable highs and lows of the gas gauge. In periods of travel, when the luxury of time was present, to sit, observe, and engage with a singular landscape for more than a few days — ideally for a couple of weeks — I became settled and connected to the more intimate features of the landscape. For example, while spending three months this winter on the Oregon Coast, I became attuned to the landscape features (sea stacks, tide pools, and beaches) and the rhythm of the ocean, and given enough time, learned how I wanted to photograph them. When, conversely, I rushed, the results were crushing. A couple of nights in the Badlands of South Dakota, the next night in the Black Hills, followed by a quick jaunt through the Wind River Range, Tetons, and Yellowstone in Wyoming left me feeling exasperated and ultimately, photographically wanting. Traveling rapidly, I failed to capture more than iPhone documentation shots.
Standing there, awestruck, at the foot of Yosemite Valley, it struck me: we photograph best the places we love the most.
Although the phrase "we photograph best the places we love the most" has become enormously helpful in shaping my approach as a landscape photographer, the phrase requires some unpacking. Firstly, by "best," I mean, my best and your best. It bears no relation to what other photographers are doing. This is not a space for comparison. It is simply our best. It is our most honest, articulate, and comprehensive visual representation of the place. This is a visual representation born in a relationship with the place. Just like interpersonal relationships, our relationship with the place will always vary from others.
Nor does "best" equate to spectacular. Some of my favorite images of my local area are soft, intimate, nearly anonymous moments. These images came as a result of continual refinement of the broadest landscape, narrowing in on ever more intimate scenes.
The second half of the phrase could just as well read the "places we are most intimate with." Love, in this case, is synonymous with intimacy. When it comes to landscape photography, this means knowing the ins and outs of a place. It is a level of intimacy that accounts for the interplay of light and form. It is the broken light of passing spring showers over the balsamroot blooms on a hillside. It is knowing every rock and tree and how it presents in each season. It is knowing the tides and their concealment of the geology below. This intimacy, first and foremost, a superb reflection of living in relationship with the landscape, is also, I believe, critical to the long-term development of successful images.
Undoubtedly, one can read photography guides, use photo apps, and hire local photo guides to accelerate this process, but, I believe, the strongest photographs emerge after years of studying and photographing a place that one loves.
I didn’t have to look far to find evidence of this mantra in practice. In fact, by definition, I needed to look as close to the landscapes as possible to find proof of photographers living them. Over the past eight months on the road, I’ve popped into photography galleries adjacent to iconic landscapes. Most recently, I visited the gallery of a local photographer in Sedona, Arizona. What I saw was intimacy. The gallery was filled with images that uniquely displayed spectacular red rock scenes that define the greater Sedona area. The images, largely taken off the tourist route, conveyed the raw beauty of Sedona’s famous geologic formations throughout the seasons. The collection of photographs communicated a long-term intimate knowledge of the area. Similarly, visiting local galleries in Wyoming, Oregon, and California, I saw truly original work: work that transcended more commercially successful photographs by famous photographers. Not all of the local work was as polished or technically perfect as their more famous counterparts, but it was profoundly unique and connected to the local landscape. The local work communicated a love of the place borne out of a longstanding relationship with the landscape.Now, you may be asking, why travel at all? I believe that every landscape has a lesson to teach, and I am forever a student. Each landscape that I've visited has provided invaluable lessons. Seascape photographs taught me how to observe and capture motion in the landscape. Desert photography taught me how to tune into textures and subtle color variations. Mountain photography taught me how to communicate scale. Ultimately, travel through these discrete landscapes has taught me how to move more slowly and to look more closely. Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, I have learned that my future as a landscape photographer lies not further afield, but rather, in my own backyard. The lessons learned from visiting disparate landscapes are simply equipping me to photograph best the place that I love the most.