Zen and the Discipline of Landscape Photography

Zen and the Discipline of Landscape Photography

Landscape photography is not my thing. I use it to exercise the fundamentals and have something to do when I need a break from the family on camping trips, but that's the extent of it for me personally. But I feel for landscape photographers. It's a crowded field in an already crowded profession. It's hard to make your images not look like everyone else's, especially when everyone has access to the same subject matter you do.

That is why when I find someone's landscape work that does leave an impression on me, I take notice. Every time I do, though, I am reminded that the dedicated, truly dedicated landscape photographers are cut from a different cloth than the rest of us.

Are You a Photographer, or Is It Who You Are?

Does mastering one's craft require absolute devotion, or is your chosen medium just a tool? If comfort kills creativity, then what does the uncomfortable have in store for us?

These are important, albeit pretentious questions whose answers are mutable and vary as much as the individual creators themselves. Yet, we must ask ourselves futile questions like these throughout our career even if we never land on an answer.

However, one artist has been on a 15-year journey to define those answers for himself. A journey that will soon culminate in a personal and career-defining exhibition that will call upon every ounce of technical expertise, physical prowess, mental toughness, and emotional intelligence to make it home safely.

Enter Scott Mansfield, a landscape photographer whose own evolution in the field has him going by the preferred title, Landscape Artist.

After 15 years exploring and photographing landscapes, I know how to take a good image. Not to sound arrogant, but it's not a challenge anymore, so I had to think beyond the photography."

Today, Scott's typical photography excursions range from the short day hikes in his backyard of Bend, Oregon, with his 9-year-old daughter, Abbey, to multi-day solo backpacking trips off-trail in desolation wilderness. During his trips, he is as serious about writing, reading, and meditating as he is photography. In his mind, they are tools to help secure a profound inner connection stemming from the equally profound disconnection from the outside world.

No phones. No GPS. A compass, a map, and over a decade of experience guiding him through this next challenge. Now is a perfect moment to tell you about his upcoming project, A Mountain Walk, which by the numbers alone, I am personally awestruck by.

A Mountain Walk, By the Numbers

On July 21st, Scott will take his first steps in a three-week-long, 205-mile solo adventure along the off-trail Sierra High Route in California. The challenge doesn't stop there, as the total weight on his back is just shy of 30 lbs; only 5,lbs makes up his photography equipment. The rest is food, water, a bit of wine, his parent's ashes, a notebook, and a pen. Scott is too modest to brag. It's a good thing that I am not, so I will do this part for him: the base weight of his gear is a mere 9 lbs, achieved by making much of this equipment himself, including sewing his sleeping bag to his preferred specs.

When I asked him if he considers himself a mountain vagabond, his response came before I could finish the question in a resounding: 

Oh hell yeah! I am a proud dirt-bagger. I don't do this to say I did it. It baffles me how quickly people want to come down from these places –– it's antithetical to what I and this project are all about. The plan is to slow down. Sit. Be present. Observe. Shoot. Sit some more. "

What Scott and I have in common is the deep understanding that any growth, personal or otherwise, only comes from uncomfortable situations. It's the only way to grow and progress as a person. Where we differ is that Scott seems to live for these moments and, by doing so, has turned photography into a discipline.

So, what is this project all about, and why do it? Well, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Yes, it's a photography project, but it's also not about photography either.

If I come back and all the images are crap, that will be a bummer, but it will not be disappointing. If I have to bail early for safety reasons (serious injury, wildfire, etc.), that will be a bummer too. I am trying to learn something about myself that transcends photography.”

You would be mistaken to think that photography is not at the core of who Scott is. Formally educated on film at the famed Brook's Institute of Photography during its heyday, Scott had a fruitful career as a commercial photographer for consumer-facing brands that took him as far away as India for shoots. 

It was a comfortable, easy commercial life.

"Sounds like a trap."

It was. It was a trap. When we get busy with clients, we tell ourselves, this is just temporary until we get back to 'real' photography. And then, seven years go by, and you are still focused on the next gig or getting invoices paid or building your following online. It's a trap.

To escape this trap, Scott and his wife, Sara, took their then four-year-old daughter, left their comfortable life in San Francisco, and moved to Bend, Oregon. The move had been a topic of conversation for years until one day, they decided they had enough.

My daughter loves that she was born in San Francisco and only holds romantic ideas about the city. I don't miss it. We moved for our family. For a lifestyle that we wanted."

So, what does a Brook's Institute alumni and accomplished landscape photographer bring on this journey of all journeys? 

What's In Scott's Bag?

His medium format Hasselblad? No.

His Nikon DSLR and a family of premium glass? Too easy.

An iPhone? I can't believe you even asked that.

6x12 120 wooden pinhole camera by ONDU. Wooden!

2 filters, Red 25 and a 3-stop neutral density.

50 rolls of film, 1/3 of which are expired.

MeFoto backpacker tripod. 

That's it.

This goes against everything I have learned as a photographer, but that's kinda the point. The uncertainty is what I am trying to embrace. The more I thought about it, this is more about letting go.

A Walk on the Wild Side

You are not alone if you think that Scott's project seems on the more dangerous side of uncertainty, especially given that he has a family to consider.

First, I have been backpacking in the High Sierra's for more than 15 years; even though it is way outside my comfort zone, I am very familiar with the terrain, history, and its weather patterns for July/August. You have to define the uncomfortable by your limitations.

And the family dynamic?

Sara, is a real partner. If anything, she is pushing me out the door. Many of the details in A Mountain Walk were her idea. She gets it."

There is much about a solo 200-mile adventure on foot that can go wrong. Currently, California is experiencing a record-breaking drought. Wildfires of biblical scale seem to be a regular occurrence, and wildlife is, well, wild. 

Look, it's easy to be a hero in our minds, but when you make it practical, you make it real. My real fear, the thing that will ruin this trip is encountering the unknown and coming back the same person."

If everything goes to plan (did I just jinx it?), on August 8th, the mountains will return Scott to us safe and sound. When they do, I will be there to learn all about his journey, so don't turn that dial.

To Be Continued

Until then, take a look at Scott Mansfield's catalog of work here. If you feel like supporting Scott and his journey, purchase a print. No, he didn't ask me to say that. Check out his most recent project, "A River Walk" for a preview of what to expect in the coming weeks. If you want to know more detail about ‘A Mountain Walk’, he created a page outlining the details here. And for any fellow mountain dirt-baggers, you can nerd out to stinky heart's content about Scott's equipment, route, and planning here.

 Images used with permission of Scott Mansfield.

Alejandro (Alex) Martinez's picture

Since Alex was 18, he has been working on commercial sets. Now a spritely 40 years old, he knows that the easiest thing about photography is how quickly it can all go wrong. This is why Alex is laser-focused on a fully collaborative pre-production process to create stunning images that build brands, create awareness, or tell stories.

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Scott, I love that you are doing this, the way you are doing it, and that Sara supports your doing it. I don't know you nor you me, and yet in a way I do know you and your journey of self discovery. As a fellow Bendite and a 74 year old woman who is taking her lifelong love and practice of photography to a new level in my own way, I applaud you. I just returned home from an 8,000 mile solo road trip. My days of trail adventures like yours are behind me; therefore I celebrate your youth with some "there for but...".and the jubilations and understanding of humility and gratitude that lie ahead for you! You are embarking on something extraordinary. Bon voyage!!
Judy Johnson

Wow Judy. 8,000 miles is amazing. Are there any details or photos that you can share?

I think it's great that your landscape photog friend wants to challenge himself and get out in the wilderness. But I disagree with your operating premise: "... that any growth, personal or otherwise, only comes from uncomfortable situations." When anyone tells me there only one way to do something well, to grow, I know there's some BS being delivered.

Sure, sometimes we grow when faced with stuff that's physically uncomfortable. But people grow in ways that are unique and unpredictable. Folks can grow by challenging themselves in a classroom or a relationship or just by practicing their craft in thoughtful ways. The idea that suffering is necessary for genius or that miles of wilderness hiking is The Way is a simplistic projection of your own beliefs on others.

Fair enough, Tim. While I don't conflate suffering and discomfort in the article, I believe that complacency is the killer of growth, which may be what is motivating Scott, amongst other things.

As mentioned in the article, we have to define what is uncomfortable situations for ourselves. It is comfortable for me to stay on the couch and think I have nothing to learn, so instead, I may take class, go to the gym or even sign up to have my work critiqued by strangers. I think we agree on this point. Best of luck out there Tim.

Im used to praising accomplishments after their made.

I was going to say something super snarky here, but then I found out that you worked on Curb, so I owe you a debt of gratitude for one of the best things ever made. Thanks for the laughs Bill!