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Joshua Tree National Park (and Musings on Photography as Art)

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

All images shot on Ilford Delta 100 film
using a Shen-Hao TFC 617-A Camera
Please, oh please, click any picture to see it bigger

I've been to Joshua Tree National Park more times than I can count. Sometimes I go and, no matter how hard I try, I just can't find a photo worth taking. Those times can be mind-numbingly frustrating. Because really there's no better way to feel like a hack than being unable to take a good picture when you're literally surrounded on all sides by beautiful vistas, stunning rock formations, and stately Joshua Trees. A 3-year-old with an iPhone should be able to take great pictures when they got this kind of scenery to work with.

But I've learned after enough of these failed attempts that there's a difference between creating great photographs and creating art. *Cough* *Cough* Oh, God *Cough* Sorry...I nearly choked on the pretension of that sentence. Hold on, let me put on a beret and an ascot before I proceed with this line of thinking. Okay, at the risk of sounding pretentious, here goes. And I write this not as a person who has it all figured out. I write this as an aspiring artist who is trying to figure this all out.

Here was the basic evolution of my photographic style: I started by aspiring to copy my idols (Galen Rowell was the main one for me). I studied and practiced until I could create a pretty good facsimile of the pictures I admired. I got good at it, too. I could create a pretty damn good imitation of what I thought a National Geographic photographer would do. I even took it a little further, putting a slight spin on this style so I could call it my own. I was content with this for a long time - creating pictures that were good, some of them great. But eventually I got bored. I felt like I was repeating myself again and again. It became a formula - use this lens with that composition with these filters. "It's resulting in great photos - why change it?" Same thing over and over.

And then I crashed (creatively, not literally). I got so fed up with photography that I barely ever picked up the camera anymore. I was sick of it. How many more high-saturation wide angle epic-foreground-under-a-fiery-sunset pictures could I bear to make? It was a very troubling time for me. I felt like I was losing my identity as a photographer/artist. But really, it was never my identity to begin with - it was my best imitation of the professionals I admired. I was the photographer-equivalent of a cover band.

But slowly, I began to realize what the problem was. I wasn't striving to create art. I was simply doing my best impression of Galen Rowell and Peter Lik and a million other people on Flickr.

*** Keep scrolling...More pictures below ***

I still do that style now and then, but I view it differently now. To me, it's not creating art. That high-saturation stuff with the predictable compositions, it's paint-by-numbers. Good clean fun, but nothing deeper than that. And don't get me wrong, there's a place for the paint-by-numbers style of photography. It's therapeutic, it's fun, and it makes for great pictures. But if I never go out and try to make my own creation - something that truly comes from deep inside - I'll never really feel that deep sense of artistic satisfaction.

I can't define art and I certainly don't have "what makes good art" figured out, but I know how it feels when I'm trying to create real art and when I'm just painting by numbers. The trips to Joshua Tree that go well these days, those are the trips where I'm really working to break out of the paint-by-numbers groove. When I'm really trying to create art, that's when I'm burning through rolls of film in the very same park where last time I couldn't find a single photo.

My most recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park was one of those times where I was in "art mode." And what does "art mode" mean to me? It means I'm open to the landscape, I'm ready to see what it shows me with no preconceived ideas of what pictures I intend to or should make. I'm a blank canvas going in. And I have to feel a deep affinity for the environment around me, I have to want to be there and I have to clear my mind so I can see what it has to offer. I also have to be okay with getting no good photos. If inspiration doesn't strike, that's okay. When you're not painting by numbers, there's no guarantee you'll have a picture at the end of it.

It can be difficult to get in that mode sometimes. The distractions I was supposed to leave back home often cling to me like barbs. Plus, my preconceived ideas of what I "should" be doing with composition, light, color, etc. can paint my blank canvas before I even get there. If that happens, I'm painting by numbers again. But if I can clear my canvas, open my mind, and let myself get in touch with that monster rumbling deep down inside me that wants to create true meaningful art - if I can do all that, I will come home satisfied.

Now whether or not true meaningful art is actually created, that's beside the point. I suppose that's for the viewer to decide. But ultimately for me, it's about creating something I'm proud of and, most importantly, something that I feel is a reflection of my inner fiber. I'm happy to say in that respect, this trip was a success.

Okay. I've now removed my beret and ascot. Let's talk unpretentious camera-geek stuff. I made all the pictures here using my Shen-Hao TFC 617-A 6x17 panoramic camera. They were all made with Ilford Delta 100 Professional film, all of them push-processed then scanned with an Epson V750. Tone curve adjustments done in Adobe Lightroom.

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Fun With Long Exposures in Laguna Beach

Long Exposures in Laguna Beach, CA

Long Exposure at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA
1 minute at f/32

I've been hooked on black and white photography lately. Maybe it's a sign I'm getting older, but I think I'm just a little burned out on the whole "make an epic landscape bursting with more color than a box of Crayola crayons" approach to landscape photography. I dig photos that depart from reality a little bit - something that doesn't look like a facsimile of real life. For these same reasons, I've been experimenting with doing ultra-long exposures down at the local beaches.

When you get into the territory of super long exposures like 30 seconds and longer, the ocean takes on a surreal foggy look from all the motion of the waves. The result is a smoothed out water surface and a beautiful mist along the shore. With some good dark rocks in the foreground to break it up, the surrealism that results is addictive.

For this series of photos, I set up my tripod at a local stopping ground - Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA. I've photographed this beach more times than I can count. It's classic Orange County, CA with picturesque palm trees lining the sun-soaked cliffs and some excellent rock formations for this style of landscape photography.

The photos you see here were made on Ilford Delta 100 black and white film with a Mamiya RZ67 camera, but these effects are even easier to achieve with a digital SLR. The shutter speed in each photo here was 1 minute. In order to get that long of an exposure, I had to close my aperture down real small - f/32 - and use 6 stops of neutral density filter to cut back the light. Also, the fact that it was a little bit overcast helped, too. If you were doing this with a digital camera, you'd need to do the same things I did - small aperture, ND filter, and be sure to use a low ISO of 50 or 100. And since the shutter speed will be beyond 30 seconds, you'll need to switch your camera into "bulb" mode. Bulb mode is where the shutter will stay open for as long as you hold down the shutter release. Best use a locking cable release so that you don't have to sit there with your finger on the shutter release. Use a stopwatch to time the shutter speed or just count "1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi..." I also used a split ND filter here to darken up the sky a bit.

I'm sure I'll be taking many more long exposure pictures like this in the near future. I'm hooked.

Long Exposures in Laguna Beach, CA

Long Exposures in Laguna Beach, CA

Fun With Triptych Photography: Trees and Clouds

Triptych Photography

Triptych Photography
Click Any Image to View Larger

I got a thing for triptych photography. There's something about threes - it just looks good. Maybe it's because I'm one of 3 brothers. But whatever the reason, lately I've been addicted to taking pictures in such a way that they'll look good as a triptych in the final presentation. This most often manifests as three nearly identical compositions of slightly different subjects so that when they are finally arranged together into a triptych, the artwork, as a whole, simultaneously highlights the broad similarities and minor differences between subjects all in one piece.

The other way to make a triptych is to simply divide up a single picture into thirds, then place the segments next to each other to reconstitute the bigger picture, as I did with the 10-foot wide panoramic hanging in my Tustin office.

Triptych Wall Art

Recently, when my girlfriend and I took our dog out for a drive/walk on a partly cloudy day, we eventually found ourselves at my old high school. The clouds were gorgeous - which is the real reason we decided to get out of the house - and I brought my camera gear along to capture the dramatic sky. Whenever we get those picturesque partly cloudy skies dotted with billowing fair-weather cumulous clouds, I feel a nagging itch to go photograph it. I simply love this type of weather. It is unquestionably my favorite type of sky. But my dilemma, usually, is that there just aren't many good foregrounds here in Orange County to create a traditional land-and-sky landscape photo. Unless I want that gorgeous sky paired with an endless wasteland of tract housing and strip malls, I find myself more than a bit frustrated.

I could head down to the beach and photograph this beautiful sky over the ocean, which I have done before with excellent results, but you Orange County natives know that the skies at the beach are rarely similar to the skies just 10 miles in from the coast. It would be a gamble heading down there. Or I could venture out into one of the local wilderness preserves to catch this sky over some rolling hills, but with the recent drought and the ever-shrinking wilderness areas, it can be difficult to find a good foreground devoid of tract-housing clutter.

So when we get skies like this and I get the urge to take pictures, I go into "let's play some Jazz" mode. I bring my camera along as I drive or bike around OC, and I simply look for ways to improvise. Head over here, see if something works, move on to something else if it doesn't. Often times this method results in nothing noteworthy, but sometimes it results in photos I'm really proud to call my own.

On this little outing with my girlfriend and our dog, the improvisation led us to my high school. Not sure why, I was just following my instincts and looking for an open view of the sky. But I'm glad we ended up at this location because I found some trees that I could silhouette against the sky without any suburban clutter in the background thanks to a wide open spread of baseball fields behind it. I immediately envisioned a black and white triptych of three of these trees side-by-side. I wanted a rich, dark sky with bright contrasting clouds and a simple outline of the tree centered perfectly in each composition. Our angle to these trees gave us the exact backlighting I needed to illuminate the clouds and silhouette the trees.

Although I always try my damnedest to predict conditions and plan out my shots well in advance, shoots like this always remind me that improvisation is an important skill to creating great photos.

Here are the individual shots from this triptych:

Triptych Photography

Triptych Photography

Triptych Photography