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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

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA
Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA
Please Click an Image to See it Bigger

I've become obsessed with palm tree pictures over the past couple years. I'm not sure why exactly; I've never really had strong thoughts about them one way or the other. But having grown up in Orange County, CA, they've been ever-present in my life. Perhaps they've burned into my psyche as a symbol of home and my childhood, kind of like the smell of mom's home cooking.

Thinking about this recent obsession two things come to mind. The first is an interesting tidbit that a good photographer friend of mine told me. He said that nature photographers typically organize their work by terrain - coastal photos, mountain photos, desert photos, etc. But that's not really what artists do. Artists often pick a subject to do "studies" on. They'll spend time focusing on a single subject or topic and really dissect it to get to the juicy meat. This subject might even consume their work for years. Just look at Andy Warhol and his Campbell's soup cans. So rather than avoiding this obsession in the interest of pursuing variety (as a younger Nick might have done), I'm letting this obsession guide much of my work. I'm letting my obsession play itself out until I feel a natural urge to move on. I'm trying to roll with it rather than fight it.

The second thing that comes to mind is a quote from the great Annie Leibovitz:

"I’ve said about a million times that the best thing a young photographer can do is to stay close to home... Discover what it means to be close to your work, to be intimate with a subject... Of course there are many good photographs that have nothing to do with staying close to home, and I guess what I’m really saying is that you should take pictures of something that has meaning for you…"

- Annie Leibovitz

Ms. Leibovitz here is not speaking of home in the literal sense, I don't believe. She's talking about working with subjects that mean something to you, subjects you can be intimate with. As a life-long resident of Orange County, palm trees are a subject I can really sink my teeth into because they are everywhere you look. And as I mentioned above, palms trees are meaningful to me in what they represent: home, growing up, building my career, and many fond memories of trips to Palm Springs, CA. To put it simply, palm trees have been a regular companion to many of my most important life events. They've often towered above me like gentle guardians as I've experienced the major milestones and memories in my life. I suppose that makes them worth obsessing over.

But beyond my own personal connection with palm trees there's something else I love about them. Palm trees embody the "dream" of Southern California. Think of every cheesy movie you've seen where the small-town girl with big dreams risks it all to come out to Hollywood in hopes of making it big. The first thing they cut to in the movie when she's finally made it to the city is a row of palm trees with the crisp California sun beating down on them. Palms trees and the Hollywood sign are the most basic symbols of "California Dreamin'."

And there's a special dichotomy with palm trees. On one hand they represent this ambition to reach greater heights, make it big, and find that elusive fame. While on the other hand, palm trees are a typical token of relaxation, vacation, and a slower pace of life. These palm trees with their unmistakable silhouette simultaneously represent ambition and taking it easy. I don't think you could make the same claim of the pine tree.

That California Dream doesn't speak to everyone and I'm not even saying it's a real thing, but what it represents is awfully romantic, isn't it?


Technical Notes:

All of the palm tree pictures shown here were made on 6x17 film with a Shen-Hao TFC-617A camera at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA. The color photos were made on Fuji Velvia 100 film and the black and white photos were made on Ilford Delta 100 film. The black and white photos are part of The Palms Collection - a series I've been working on using multiple-exposure techniques to capture that "California Dreamin'" vibe. You can view more of The Palms Collection here.

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Making a Fine Art Photography Print

Making a Fine Art Photography Print (2 Part Video)
View on YouTube to see full HD

I'm a big advocate of printing photos. I urge my students to do it whenever I can. And that's because my sense of pride and satisfaction is at its peak when I create a fine art photography print to hang on the wall. There's something about it that feels so much better than just sharing it digitally.

I mean, come on, how good can it feel sharing a photo on Instagram? You spend hours and hours getting to a location, setting up a shot, and processing the image only to have it displayed on a 2.5-inch wide screen that viewers will swipe past in under 3 seconds. You get a few likes, and that feels good, but then the picture just disappears into "the cloud" forever. Digital sharing is "here today, gone tomorrow."

But printing...that's different. When you get a print made, you're making a bold statement. You're saying "I'm so proud of this picture that I'm willing to spend money to get others to see it. I want it around for years, maybe decades. I want it on display in such a way that people can't just swipe past it." When you get a print made, you're investing in your work. You're saying that it's worth the effort and expense. And that does wonders for your self-esteem.

Fine Art Photography Wall Art

Think I'm overstating it? Get a big ol' print made and get it framed up real nice. Then tell me it feels about the same as posting them on Facebook. The tangibility of a print creates a sense of fulfillment that 1's and 0's just can't. For me, it's about the same as emailing a friend vs sitting down with them face-to-face. Sure, both are the exchange of ideas, but I'm betting you have many more memorable face-to-face interactions than memorable emails.

So that's why I decided recently to make a new fine art photography print. And the image I chose was one I took in Joshua Tree National Park on black and white film. I actually took this picture during an on-location video I made awhile back (check that out here). I love the vibe of this photo and it's something I've wanted hanging on my wall for awhile now because Joshua Tree is a very special place to me. I'm utterly in love with the desert and I've had some of my most incredible experiences in this part of the country. Also, what can I say, I just like the photo!

Whenever I set out to make wall art from one of my photos, I envision the finished piece as my very first step. I picture the framing style, the type of paper, the size - I get it all worked out in my head until it looks perfect. Things will get tweaked here and there as I go through the steps of it, but for the most part, I know the vibe I want and how to get it.

For this piece, I wanted a rough, old-timey vibe with a lot of texture and depth. I'd never used watercolor paper in a framed photo before, but I knew from previous samples that watercolor paper would provide the texture I was after. The only problem I have with watercolor paper is that it's for inkjet style prints and, generally, I hate inkjet prints. They are far inferior in overall look to Lightjet prints, which is what I typically get. But I really wanted that texture, so inkjet it would be.

So what's the difference between inkjet and Lightjet? Inkjet is ink on paper, like what you do at home. Lightjet is photosensitive paper (like in the darkroom) that's put through a machine that exposes your digital image to it with light (like in the darkroom) and then puts the paper through developer and chemicals and such, just like traditional darkroom prints. The end result is a true photographic print baked into the paper itself with a superior look.

I wasn't looking forward to inkjet printing on this piece, but luckily, watercolor paper absorbs ink differently than typical gloss paper, which results in better prints than I'm used to seeing from inkjet. And the technicians at Pro Photo Connection in Irvine (www.prophotoirvine.com) did a superb job on the print as always.

To add some more texture to this piece, I created a deckled edge on the paper, which is where the paper looks torn rather than clean-cut. The process for this is simple and is described completely in part 2 of the video series linked at the top of this post.

Then, to get my depth, I opted for a float-mount in a shadow box. This lifts the print away from the backer board and creates lovely shadows in the frame. The framing was done by my framer of choice: Salamon Art in Fountain Valley, CA (www.salamonart.com). They always do a perfect job.

When getting prints this big, it's a good idea to get a proof first. As you'll see in the video, a proof is an 8x10 snippet of the full print that you can use to verify the look before giving the go-ahead on the full-size piece. This is a great way to ensure there are no unpleasant surprises in the full-size print.

The finished fine art piece came out great. I got the vibe, the texture, and the depth I was after. It's a really cool style overall and I plan to do many more in this fashion.

If you're interested in purchasing this fine art photography print from Joshua Tree National Park or if you'd like to get a similar piece made, please drop me a line here.

Fine Art Photography Wall Art

Fine Art Photography Wall Art

Fine Art Photography Wall Art

Fine Art Photography Wall Art

Fine Art Photography Wall Art