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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

New Landscape Photography & Video: Storm in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art PhotographyJoshua Tree in Fog
Image made on Ilford Delta 100 Film
with a Mamiya RZ67 and 110mm f/2.8

It's been kind of an unusual couple weeks weather-wise for Orange County. Temperatures have been soaring and we've had lots of scattered cloud cover. It's resulted  in some seriously gorgeous skies - the sunsets especially.

Unfortunately, though, the beaches are crowded and, frankly, I'm a little burned out on photographing beach sunsets. So although I've been enjoying the beautiful skies, I haven't really been photographing them. But Monday of last week I decided to get myself out to Joshua Tree National Park to photograph these dramatic weather conditions.

The forecast called for scattered thunder storms in the desert - which is really what made me decide to drive out there - but the thunder never materialized. That's okay though because the breaking storm made for some of the most beautiful light and skies I've ever seen in Joshua Tree National Park.

The drive to Joshua Tree from Orange County is about 2 1/2 hours, which feels about 3 hours longer than I remember. And especially with the heavy downpour and flooded streets through the desert, I was beginning to doubt my decision about an hour in to the drive.

But boy am I glad I took this trip!

On the way in to the park, I found a stretch of road where a heavy fog enveloped the Joshua Trees and rock formations, creating some truly stunning scenery for me to capture on my Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. I chose black and white for this entire outing for a couple reasons (with the exception of a single roll of color film I'm pretty sure I botched). First, I've simply been more attracted to black and white landscape photography lately. Maybe I'm burned out on color, maybe I just don't find it "artsy" enough anymore. But whatever the reason, B&W seems to be keeping my creative juices flowing in a way color film isn't. And aside from that, I mean come on...Joshua Trees in fog and breaking storms over the desert? It's just begging for black and white!

I spent the first half of the day photographing these unique yuccas in the fog with my Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera. I chose this format because with the 110mm f/2.8 lens, I was able to get a real shallow depth of field by shooting wide open. This helped to draw attention to my subjects as if I was shooting a portrait of each Joshua Tree. I made 10 frames of these "portraits" with plans to create a triptych from the best 3.

I used a dark yellow #15 filter on these shots to help introduce some contrast in this flat lighting and I over-developed the film intentionally to help raise up the highlights a bit (N+1 processing for you Zone System users).

After lunch, I spent the day in the higher elevations of the park scouting out a good location for sunset and creating some B&W 6x17 photographs highlighting the stunning sky.

I'm normally pretty humble and modest about my photos and I always feel weird heaping praise on my own work, but I am truly thrilled with the photos I made on this trip. For a long time now I haven't felt that my pictures are actually representative of me or of the vibe I want to create. But these pictures are a better representation of me than I think anything else I've put out before.

I must be moving in the right direction.

Please, oh, please click any image for a larger view

Breaking Storm over Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art Landscape Photography

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art Photography

And check out the on-location video:

View on YouTube for full HD version