January 1, 2012

The View From Here - January 2012

Moonset over Panamint Mountains. Death Valley. 2012.

by Stephen Johnson

As I write, I'm out in Death Valley, between workshop sessions, pondering the new year ahead, my presence in this landscape and my movement around this planet in exploration.

In a place I've visited so often, like Death Valley, I wonder about even making new photographs, as I certainly have more than I'll ever use. But in the making is seeing first, and seeing something new with every visit is part of the wonder of this world and of photography. The variety of this place, its scale, its unexpected color and upheaved geology is truly remarkable.

As I think forward a few weeks to my Yosemite Valley in Winter workshop, that thought is even more prominent in my mind as I grew up near Yosemite and so much of what I think of as nature were experiences born there...those early backpacking trips with my friend Peter Mauffray, artist and musician, now gone, or my first memories of seeing deer, bear, and snow. The birth of my interest in landscape photography came from Yosemite, Ansel Adams' wonderfully inspiring and dramatic black and white landscapes. I clearly remember my first conversations with Ansel on the porch of the house behind the Ansel Adams gallery in the Valley, talking about the At Mono Lake Exhibition.

I am drawn to Yosemite in unique ways. It forces an instant re-apprecition of grandeur. It reminds me that even a famous and heavily visited place can remain full of solitude. It keeps me aware of the power of the earth's forces to constantly reshape itself and the tiny little window of time that our lives here can witness. Yosemite Valley fosters an appreciation of all of these things, and builds in the heart a unique place of personal memory and scale.

The park is remarkable. Lying at the heart of the 10 million year old Sierra Nevada range, glaciers have cut through its river valleys for over a million years. Yosemite Valley formed from a massive 4000 foot deep river of ice, slicing huge granite domes and carving today's valley. Yosemite Falls is 2425 feet tall, the highest in North America, and 5th largest in the world. El Capitain is the world's largest monolith of solid granite, its huge brother in the park, Half Dome is perhaps the most recognizable rock formation on the planet. Yosemite was set aside not only for its spectacular scenery but for its huge Giant Sequoia redwoods which were starting to be logged in the late 1850s and early 1860s.

Giant Sequoias, Wawona. Yosemite. 2008.

Photographically, Yosemite remains hard as the reality competes with the photographic history and our preconceived views. But I never find the photographs equal to the experience, and consequently keep getting pulled into reaching deeper into the being there to understand what I see and want to record. And I want to share what I've found...

I move around this great big world
see such beauty and intricacy
I want to hold it like some precious love
Let another soul see and believe

from Make the Art, 1999 by Stephen Johnson

Half Dome, Yosemite, 1996.

It is that sharing, that wanting to say "isn't this remarkable" that is the recurring theme for us as imagemakers. Our artistic vision may take many paths, but for me, that "remarkableness" is fundamental. It is at the heart of why I do straight photography, because it is my interest in this real world and its uncanny beauty, variety and nuance that continues to amaze me, and draw me in with my camera. It is almost as if the photographs become something other than a product from the experience, they become a constant suggestion of wonder, and reminder of our privilege in being here, being able to be witness.

Titus Canyon. Death Valley. 2012

Notebook Scribbles from Death Valley's West Side Road

The silence. The silence here is amazing, pervasive and feels profound. It is so unlike our normal worlds. I can hear the crinkle of paper in my hand, and the scratch across it of the pen as I write.

I'm looking into a 100 mile 360 degree space, almost devoid of human constructs, but full of earth upheaval and light-heat of our sun.

There is a low level, barely audible under-sound of distant wind rushing through endless canyons, almost a bottom-end shelf under which there is only real silence.

A raven suddenly appears squawking north through this huge valley. I wish I could inquire about its journey.

The earth has now dropped the sun below the mountains, with a huge cirrus arc rising above, stretching well beyond the zenith.

Titus Canyon. Death Valley. 2012.


A few things I would like you to keep in mind...

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Dunes. Death Valley. 2012.