The largest single landscape print I have made to date is a ten-foot-wide panorama of the Painted Rock at Fort Irwin. Titled A Thousand Words Fall Short, I donated it to a Veterans' clinic on the 4th of July. Printed on Fuji-crystal archival paper, front-mounted to 1/4" museum acrylic with an anti-glare coating, and backed by a solid sheet of aluminum, it really caught and exalted the light in the humble hallway where I was honored to see it hanging a couple days ago.
A Thousand Words Fall Short
The soldiers call the half-mile-long regal formation running alongside the road leading into Fort Irwin "the rock pile." Each graduating platoon claims a rock and decorates it with elements including their insignia, the names of their platoon members and leaders, and phrases in Latin dating back to classical antiquity and the Roman Empire, celebrating martial courage, valor, and honor as old as civilization herself. I recognized "Veni, vidi, vici," meaning "I came, I saw, I conquered"--a phrase attributed to the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar when he was reporting on one of his campaigns to the Senate. It was quite an honor to finally see the fine details writ large in the epic print as I photographed it hanging there on the wall in the clinic. To me, photography has always ultimately been about the epic print.
I have donated well over 100 pieces to area hospitals, and a few months back, after visiting the Veterans' Clinic to see one of my other installations, I became inspired to drive out to Fort Irwin that very same day to shoot a massive panorama wherein one could enjoy and read the artistic details on all the painted rocks. For I had overheard one of the Veterans lamenting that in the current photograph they had on display, one couldn't enjoy the details of the artwork, as it was, "all blurred out."
And so, a few minutes after hearing that, (and after picking up my gear which was always on "standby"), I found myself once again heading East on I-15--the epic highway which had so often taken me on past Las Vegas to all the glorious sights and National Parks of the American West including Zion, Bryce Canyon, Page, the Grand Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Monument Valley, the Colorado Plateau, Toroweep, the Wave, and the Grand Escalante Staircase, to name a few. I could hear Torweep's 60-mile dirt road calling me on back:
Toroweep Sunrise, Nikon D810, 14-24mm F2.8
But this time, I was heading on out to the desert to shoot a seven-shot panorama of the Painted Rock with a Nikon D810.
As I drove along on that beautiful day, I reflected how even the very worst days for a landscape photographer were far easier than an average day for a soldier. Sure, we were both out in the elements, but while a warm bed was at the most just a few days away for the landscape photographer, soldiers could be out in the field for weeks, months, and even years; far, far away from home, while often in harm's way.
While I had to wake up at 4 am to catch a sunrise, I at least had the luxury of sleeping the night before. While beauty constantly greeted me along the long hikes in all her myriad forms, rain or shine, sleet or snow, the soldier often had to deal with IED's and enemy fire. While a seemingly "bad day" could claim my camera or lens with a gust of wind or a minor slip on a wet rock, a soldier could lose far greater things transcending all those replaceable material possessions, which we so often value too much. The very roughest times I had ever experienced, when I was delayed overnight in the High Sierras without shelter as a winter storm moved in, would have been a Sunday picnic for many a soldier--a pleasant walk in the park.
And thus the emerging genre of "Woe is Me--Landscape Photography is so so Hard" rings a bit hollow. Google "landscape photography fail" and dozens of videos now show up, each one outdoing the previous one with "Woe-is-Meishness" (Yes! That is a word!).
All Landscape Photographers Will Fail
Winter Landscape Photography – The cold hard truth!
The UGLY side of Landscape Photography
Landscape Photography Fail - Beaver Dam
Nor am I the only one who has noticed the rise of the somewhat silly "Woe is Me" genre which is captured in this rather hilarious video:
One of the commentators states, "Great satire !!!!!!!" But the thing is, it isn't really satire.
For folks who wander outdoors, being subject to nature while in nature is not all that surprising. Or at least it probably shouldn't be. And thus it oft surprises me that landscape photographers sometimes seem surprised. When it rains, one gets wet, even if one doesn't vlog it. If it's cold out, one gets cold. If the wind blows, cameras get blown over, especially if one leaves them out overnight. Sure, the "grand tragedies" can make for good click-bait leading to product placement, but is it art? Does it truly exalt the higher art and greater spirit of landscape photography?
There are very few serious landscape photographers who have not oft found themselves tired, wet, and cold. There are even fewer who have not lost equipment to the natural elements, even though most don't leave their cameras in gusting winds overnight. A commentator on one video went so far as to compare a fallen camera to a "fallen soldier," writing, "Oh god. I had no idea it would be so bad. The first shot we see of the camera in the distance looks just like a fallen soldier. It looked so human. I genuinely felt my stomach turn:"
No. A fallen camera does not look "just like a fallen soldier."
I do not need to tell anyone that the two entities are worlds--no universes--apart.
While a lot of the rocks celebrated the idea of "first in," and "first to fight," the very highest one stated, "last out."
We landscape photographers have it easy these days. With amazing GPS, seasoned maps, graded back-roads, and a parking lot now placed in front of most every epic Ansel Adams photograph, life is good. Despite all its relatively small pitfalls, landscape photography is by and large quite safe and beautiful, especially when compared to other far more difficult pursuits and sacred duties. And well, I guess that after visiting that Veterans' Clinic and thinking on it, I have found it difficult to take the "Woe is me" weather report videos all that seriously. They seem to detract from the photography, which, all in all, is always a luxury and privilege--even on the very "worst days" when one has to wake up at 5 am (Woe is me!) after a good night's sleep and the "cruel, cruel wind" deposits a bit of sand in one's camera. Perhaps the videos have a tinge of disrespect about them, and not just toward the art of photography, but towards something far greater.
While I was taking photos of the freshly-mounted print on the wall, a Veteran walked by.
"Cool photo," he said.
"You take it?" He asked.
"A few months back."
"Epic shot--I can read my fine artwork here," He paused, looked for his rock, and read, "Veni Vidi Vici," pointing at his art. "Not sure what it means, but it sounded cool at the time."
I was about to tell him what it meant, when he smiled and said, "Just kidding," saving me from supreme silliness. "I came, I saw, I conquered," he said solemnly, pausing a moment as if he had found something new in the words. Silence filled the hallway.
"You want your photo with it?" he suddenly asked.
"Thanks," I said. "But it's not really my photo. It's yours."
"OK cool," he grinned, "Thanks for the photo," he said, turning and walking off.
"Not at all man--thanks for your service."
Of course, the words fell short, but they were all I had.
Today there's a small tag beside the photograph with its title: "A Thousand Words Fall Short"