April 16, 2013

Essay- Robert Adams Quotes

Some Quotes from Robert Adams from his book "Beauty in Photography"
Robert Adams Quotes
I am a great admirer of Robert Adams' photography and writing. In one of my favorite books about photography are several lines I refer to in my teaching. I thought I'd share a few with you here.
Truth and Landscape essay
Geography by itself is difficult to value accurately - what we hope for from the artist is help in discovering the significance of a place.

We rely…on landscape photography to make intelligible to us what we already know
Gardens are…strikingly like landscape pictures, sanctuaries…the Persian word for paradise is "walled enclosure" much like what a photographer sees through the finder of his camera.
from Beauty in Photography
the word beauty, is in practice, unavoidable. It accounts…for my very decision to photograph.
The Beauty that concerns me is form. Beauty is a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life…Why is form beautiful? Because…it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.
Quoting William Carlos Williams…poets write for a single reason - to give witness to splendor.
Art…abstracts. Art simplifies…a careful sorting out in favor of order is called composition.
A photographer can describe a better world only by better seeing the world as it is in front of him. Quoting Weston from his Daybooks, he started to photograph because of his "amazement at subject matter."
I think we judge art "by whether it reveals to us important FORM that we ourselves have experienced but to which we have not paid adequate attention. Successful re-discovers Beauty for us."
Quoting Stieglitz "Beauty is the universal seen"
beauty cover

The View From Here - April 2013

st helens

Mt. St. Helens. 1995. from With a New Eye: The Digital National Parks Project.

by Stephen Johnson

The Connected Photograph

For years I've been talking about the idea of a "connected photograph," an image that exists not only in its space as a visual, and hopefully heartfelt record of what seduced ours eyes into making a photograph, but also as a connection to the place, time and technology embedded in the image.

I find the idea very seductive of linking a photograph that I care very much about, with the surrounding information now automatically generated by digital cameras, and augmenting that information where possible. Time, date and means of exposure are useful, the technical information regarding lens, focal length, aperture, shutter speed, metering modes, exposure compensation, all of which are gathered automatically now. These data points can be deeply useful in trying to determine technical success of a challenging image, and should definitely be looked at when trying to analyze image quality, positive and negative.

Where We Were

I've long been intrigued by the GPS potential. Since the beginning of my project on the national parks, With a New Eye, I've carried a GPS receiver to log exact location. Early units had no digital compass as part of the data stream, so I carried a compass to record bearing as well.

The location and bearing can have all sorts of useful derivations. When used with good maps and mapping software like Google Earth, places and landforms in photographs can be identified and named better than the best note taking I've ever managed. This has proven deeply useful in as commonly traveled a place as Yellowstone and as remote as the Antarctic Peninsula.

In a recent essay, I also mentioned FlightAware as a way of knowing where your commercial flight aerial photographs were taken.

Where Were We

This information can be extraordinarily useful in rendering a better understanding of the geography of a space, both while present, which is becoming ever more possible, and later. Certainly, after the fact placing the photograph in time and space has some dynamic implications. I often use my photograph from the top of Mt. St. Helens as a great example of the photograph carrying its own aesthetic weight, but the context of the actual location dramatically deepening the power of the image.

The weather can often be determined later as well. Although much of environmental conditions might be obvious from the photograph itself, such as sunny or overcast. Temperature, wind direction and speed can also be aids in more fully understanding the scenes. For the most part, this information currently needs to be gathered independently and contemporarily with the image-making.

It is interesting that so much of this information is now automatically gathered by our cell phone cameras. Innovation often comes in the back door even as we lobby the big camera companies to build GPS into the professional cameras. Of course, for reasoning I don't quite understand, the first cameras with GPS built-in seem to be point and shoots rather than pro-bodies. Nikon has made connection with external GPS units as part of their strategy for awhile, Canon has made provisions in recent years.

yos class

As one of Canon's Explorers of Light, Canon will send in equipment to me through their CPS program, and I borrow equipment frequently for testing. I was most intrigued by their new EOS 6D and have been enjoying the built-in GPS and wireless connection. My iPad controlling the camera is fun and potentially useful.

In so many ways, I deeply believe we photograph to hold what we see, which is why I'm so conservative about photo manipulation and fakery. But frankly, it is a huge challenge to hold the wonder of the real world with our cameras. It takes very careful recording and a great deal of finesse in RAW interpretation and image processing to move the recorded view close to the experienced scene.

The Color of Light

One of the areas that continues to be a real challenge is getting the color right. I've talked a great deal about this over the years, and real progress has been made with better cameras, better White Balance controls and tools like the ColorChecker Passport and Adobe's DNG Profile Editor. But there is a missing component here that could be a great aid toward realism in photography, and that is the inclusion of a spectrophotometer in the camera itself.

I believe having a spectral measurement of the ambient light, knowing the real color characteristics of the camera, and being able to integrate those two real pieces of information into the basic interpretation of the photograph, could make real progress toward narrowing the gap between what we see and what we get. This won't fully account for the limitations of the single camera capture as opposed to the almost unbelievably sophisticated images our memory, eyes and brain can experience at the scene. But it could eliminate some big information gaps.


This is one of those issues where some companies have scoffed at the value of the added capability, but I believe some variant of this deeper color interpretation capability will not only come to be embedded in our cameras, but will make a big difference in our ability to be faithful to the wonder we see.

Of course, as I eluded to earlier, a spectral measurement of the light is just another useful piece of information. It cannot account for our own color adaptation to the scene and consequently what we actually "see," being a product of our eyes, our own internal "image processing" and our brain trying to adapt to different light conditions over time.

Mt. St. Helens View Rendered by Google Earth.

Rendering out photographic sites in software like Google Earth can give us an unparalleled sense of the geography of the scene. It is a remarkable tool, and of course, works best when you have the exact location of the image rather than just an approximation. However, it is amazing how close you can reason out your position by working with the software.

Interestingly enough, in trying to relocate to exact site of the photograph for this rendering, it appears as though it is no longer there, likely succumbed to the constant landslides we were seeing on the crater rim.

Flora and Form Workshop Coming Up

Check out the Flora and Form  Workshop April 16-18, 2013 or May 16-18, 2013 at Shelldance Orchid Gardens. Any and all cameras welcome.


Shelldance Nursery. 2013.

Latest Video Study: San Francisco Bay Bridge Light Show

Canon 1Dx video. 2013.

Tutorial - A Reply to a Student


A Reply to a Student

I frequently get emails from photography students around the country having been asked to research a photographer whose work they enjoy. Typically they ask me about my work habits, equipment and processes. In answering one of these this morning, it seemed that it might be relevant to a wider audience.

I use a variety of cameras depending on the situation, 35mm style dSLRs like my Canon cameras for highly portable work, my Hasselblad cameras with Phase One back for higher resolution, and my 4x5 Betterlight scanning back for my most serious work.

I don't really have any tips or tricks, just the most sincere application of craft I can put into the image. I don't use Photoshop to change the image, but just like with silver based photography, I use the raw file much like the exposed but undeveloped negative and carefully process it in Adobe CameraRaw and then in Photoshop to reveal, to the best of my ability and the best of the technology, what was before the camera.

Fast shutter speeds, careful use of aperture for desired depth of field, no smaller aperture than required to maximize lens sharpness, normal ISO when possible, making sure I get adequate exposure and take full advantage of the tonal resolution of the device. These and many other considerations go into any well-crafted exposure in the camera.

I don't believe in concepts like enhancement in Photoshop. The world is already self-embellished, As I see it, my job is to be a loving witness to the wonder of the planet, bring sensitivity to making a photograph, take the time and care to execute a well crafted exposure, then be faithful to that inspiration all through the processing of the image. The real world is so much more interesting than the chromed-up cartoon-like results I see so often from extensive use of Photoshop to alter and manipulate.

I hope that helps, with my perspective at least.



The View From Here - March 2013


Ice Sheet at Dawn. Merced River. Yosemite.. 2013

by Stephen Johnson

Redwoods, Flowers and Ice.

Themes can run strange as you start to look through recent work. The photographs may not be necessarily related except in the time frame you might have made them. But there are also times when visual relationships and sensitivities do suggest something going on bringing somewhat disparate work together. Sometimes only as timeline, sometimes an evolution of your current state of heart.

Those sequences of interests inevitably couple with what we notice in looking back at the photographs, picking out what we want to work on. That in and of itself can be interesting, because we don't just record our photographs, we have to decide to process them into more finished works. It becomes a continuum of selection and caring and that may be more revealing than a conscious effort to create a body of work.

So as I looked through photographs from the last month, I chose a few that moved me, some I wish were more successful, and some that sprung new ideas, and even a new workshop.

yos class

Yosemite in Winter Workshop. 2013.

The Yosemite in Winter Workshop

Our Yosemite Workshop last month went great, good people, comfortable weather and a wide variety of photographs were made. Moving through the park did bring back many memories of challenges and opportunities over the years. Yosemite Valley is a place full of photographic icons, which can prove challenging to see uniquely. We were somewhat amazed as we passed hundreds of people lined up to get a photograph of Horsetail Falls at sunset. For me, I think, the photograph would have been of the photographers.

Giant Sequoias are always dramatic, but very difficult to photograph in a way that communicates their grandeur accurately. Mid-19th century photographs often posed people next to the giant trees to portray their unbelievable size. Those photographs were documents for the most part, needed documents, and were amazing. Their immense scale is now well known. Seeing the trees for the first time overwhelms the viewer with that very size. Their reality is impressive. So our photographs now seem to strive to confirm their amazing scale, but not repeat the cliches', and make art as well. A big challenge, so to speak.

I'm not sure I've ever risen to the challenge, but thought I'd share a few recent photographs and past efforts to render these giants.


Bachelor and the Three Graces. Mariposa Grove in late afternoon light. 3 shot HDR file. 2013.

The photograph above works for me mostly as a memory jog of the light and scale. It is reasonably well-executed, but an obvious location, and an expected, even if natural composition. I am unmoved in the sense that I feel like I've seen many variations on it, from old hand-colored postcards to hundreds of advertisements over the years. Postcards and these trees have a long history together that continues.


Thanks to Ted Orland for the postcard above. His Man and Yosemite book is well worth checking out.


A few years back, working on the digital national parks project, With a New Eye, I also struggled with the Giant Sequoias with only ok results. The photographs are fine, but I've yet to make a photograph of these trees that even comes close to the emotional response of being in their presence.

By the way, check out the Save the Redwoods League.


Ice Yosemite Valley. 2013


Ice Crystalled Leaves near Merced River. Yosemite. 1977.

Ice in Yosemite has been another matter. Even early photographs from the 1970s revealed my fascination with ice in the park. This workshop proved again that for me that small scenes, like the ice, can often be as rewarding photographically as the iconic and massive rocks and cliffs of Yosemite's famous skyline. It's not that the tiny ice abstractions match the grandeur of Half Dome or El Capitan, but in the light-based world of the photographic image, beauty is not only derived from the spectacular, but also often from the small and humble scenes, and has little to do with scale.

We spent more time during our dawn session at the Merced River looking down at an icy eddy than staring up at the rather spectacular Yosemite Falls. Although the falls, cliffs, ice dune and frozen mist did get some deserved attention.


Succulent. 2013. iPhone Photograph.

Flora and Form

Before my friend Michael's memorial service last week, we sought solace in the natural beauty and form of wondrous flora by visiting our local orchid nursery.

An idea I had been considering for awhile arose once again, of putting a workshop together exploring the challenges and great opportunities of the natural form and photography. Fortunately, Shelldance Orchid Gardens agreed that it was a good idea and a new workshop was born.

Check out the Flora and Form  Workshop April 16-18, 2013 or May 16-18, 2013. Any and all cameras welcome.


Orchids. 2013.


Weird Plant. 2013. iPhone Photograph

dv woorkshop

Michael Black

I lost a dear friend last week, my friend of 30 years, Michael Black. I first came to know Mike about 1984 as an advisor/helper/consultant on the Great Central Valley exhibition I did with my friend Robert Dawson. Michael had been working for years on native Salmon runs, their destruction and mismanagement. He taught as a visiting professor of political science at many universities and had written widely on the Salmon issue. Michael put together a Symposium on the Central Valley, its people, its water and agriculture during the Great Central Valley Project Exhibitions' run at the California Academy of Sciences in 1985.

Michael was a great humanitarian in his generosity of spirit, support for his friends and deep love of his 16 year old son. We lost Michael to a hit and run accident as he was walking back to his car from a nature walk in Santa Rosa California. Mike was 64 years old and was deeply loved by many friends. He was a fellow board member on the Pacifica Land Trust on which I serve.

I will miss his friendship, his appreciation for the natural world, his encouragement for my art, and his companionship that will now only be memories rather than plans.

Tutorial - The Moon and the Land


The Moon and the Land

The recent full moon I witnessed over Death Valley and the eastern Sierra was a good teaching moment for me.

We get into habits, some of them dating back decades, and sometimes it takes awhile for those old habits to be challenged and supplanted by new and better ways of doing things.

The brightness difference between the full moon, which is very bright, and the rather dimly lit landscape below, can be a real photographic challenge. Although our eyes and mind rapidly adjust as we glance between the ever so slightly different locations in our gaze, the camera cannot. Timing a day before or day after the actual full moon can give you more light on the ground for exposures that are more manageable. But when confronted with what to do at a given moment, we witnessed a real challenge of extremes this past week.

In the days of film, we would have likely calculated how bright the moon was, assumed a N minus 2 or 3 development, and seen how much exposure we could capture of the ground. Then in printing, a really good job of burning in the moon would have probably also been necessary for the print. Some examples from photographic history do come to mind.

Last week, I instinctively just hand bracketed the exposures assuming I would put them together after the fact, as digital can often allow. But with the 600mm lens I had borrowed from Canon, the magnification was such that the time lag of manually adjusting the shutter speed and taking the second exposure allowed the moon to drift. Consequently, small differences in feature location between the exposures emerged with the long magnification that the lens provided.

The result was that very few of my photographs line up well. And this might be ok, but there were other factors I ran into, the glow around the moon itself that needed to be preserved as well as the color coming through in the sky around it.

My manual exposure changes were simply too different in moon location to do a standard HDR integration after the fact, although I'm still thinking that one through.

Doing a standard HDR integration should have been obvious to me at the time, and not unlikely what my students were already doing with their auto bracketing habits. I simply should have set up a bracketing sequence on the camera for a very wide range, and had the camera do a continuous stream of exposures to encode the range as automatically and as independently from any human jiggle and as close in time as possible. That would have minimized any difference in location of the moon relative to the proper exposure and the over-exposure of the image designed to record some ground detail. Then a standard HDR integration might have worked well.

In other words, I should have simply done an HDR set, and a standard HDR integration after the fact.


The moon exposure was f8 at 1/400 of second, the mountains below f8 at 1/8, six stops of exposure difference which is not an unusual spread for HDR at all.

The two images were opened into Photoshop Layers, aligned, and the moon shot masked to only let the moon through, with considerable work on the still imperfect mask. The lens exhibited some chromatic aberration not completely eliminated by the Adobe RAW controls, which had to be hand tweaked.

Although it seemed worth including here as an example, it is still very much a work in progress.

The View From Here - February 2013


Hills, Zabriski Point. Death Valley. 2013.

by Stephen Johnson

Journey of Remarkable Light and Form

The last few weeks have given me the pleasure of witnessing some truly remarkable light. Spending some time at the beach, on our way to our Death Valley workshop, in the park itself, coming up the eastern Sierra and then a quick trip to Yosemite, all within the last few weeks.


Spectral Breakout on Lenticular Cloudbank. Dawn Lone Pine on the Eastern Sierra. 2013

Death Valley was a reminder of the beauty of desert and the wonder of it as a place. This year brought some rain, beautiful light and skies that frankly will take some time to sort out, there are so many photographs I am looking at with interest.

On our way home from Death Valley, we stayed over at Lone Pine to see the moonset on the eastern Sierra crest. The moon setting at dawn was wonderful, even if a bit cold. But behind us to the east, a lenticular cloud had formed that I turned a 600mm lens toward, very near the rising sun.

At first glace, zooming in on the cloud bank was dramatic. Unexpectedly, a wonderous rainbow like spectral breakout was suddenly visiable around the cloud. It jumped out at me, quite unbelievably. My first thought was that the color ring was some artifact of the long optic pointing so near the rising sun. Then, as we looked closer, with only our eyes, we could barely make out the exact same color breakout on the cloud's edge. Although visible in the photograph, the effect pales in comparison to seeing the real thing.


Radio Telescopes along Owens River. Owens Valley Radio Observatory. Big Pine. 2013.

Driving up the eastern Sierra in the Owens Valley, through Lone Pine and past Manzanar, we noticed some satellite dishes on the east side of the valley.  One of our Death Valley Workshop students mentioned a radio observatory on the east side, and we appeared to have found it.

We took the first way in, though it felt like a back way. We followed a dirt road across the desert leading us up to the Owens River, just opposite the telescopes. It was an unusual mix of form with the winter desert brush, cottonwood trees, river cutting through and the space age construct plucked down in the landscape.


Highway 395 above Conway Summit near Mono Lake. 2013

The following weekend we couldn't resist a quick trip to Yosemite. It's only a little beyond a planned trip to see my sweet 85 year old mother, which made it good loop of love and beauty. As is almost always the case about Yosemite, I was treated to scenes I never imagined and a slightly deeper understanding of this so familiar place, enrichening my mind and heart.


Tree and Mist. Bridalveil Falls. Yosemite. 2013.

The waterfalls and bellowing mist from them are always part of my delight in Yosemite. In fact, falling water is almost synonymous with Yosemite Valley. When mixed with ice and cold, it can be almost other worldly and surprizing. Part of the delight in wandering the planet with a camera is just such surprize, even in places we think we know well.


Snow Dune. Yosemite Falls. 2013.

The sheets of misty water draping over a dune of ice at the base of Upper Yosemite Falls was amazing to watch. The pattern changed with every moment, leading to many stills, and some very graceful video.


Ribbon Falls Rainbow. Yosemite. 2013.

In looking though the photographs made last weekend, when we did the short swing through Yosemite, it made me particularly grateful for our Yosemite in Winter workshop coming right up. I'm anxious to go back and spend a few days. I know many of the people coming to the workshop and a few days spent with some fine people in such a special place sounds really good.


Full Moon Setting over Eastern Sierra. HDR with Canon 1Ds III and 600mm lens. 2013.


Moonring and Jupiter over Paso Robles. 2013.

Along the Coast

A recent trip to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, brought another set of ongoing curiousities renewed. The Reserve is one of my local haunts here on the north peninsula coast near San Francisco. The extreme of compelling visuals I found those few weeks ago drew me deeply into a diversity of natural form. From the brilliantly lit cliffs above the tide pools to the oh so blue sky through the trees, and the intricate alien form of tide pool life, particularly the anemones. I was entranced.


Cliffside. Fitzgerald Reserve. 2013

There are some places that keep drawing you back, some out of convenience because they are nearby, and some you go to great lengths for. This stretch of coast, from San Francisco south to Santa Cruz, remains a road of refuge and heart engagement for me.

The Highway One Coastal Journey Workshop April 20-21 seemed worth a mention with these photographs that have stayed with me these last few weeks.



Anemone. Fitzgerald Reserve. 2013

dv woorkshop

Death Valley Workshop 2013 Group Photo. Titus Canyon, Death Valley.

Our workshop Group Photo from Death Valley this year captured a moment of delight that in some ways summed up the wonderful light we had all day exploring Tutius Canyon, the road in from Nevada and wonderful Red Pass. We were contantly reaching for superlatives to describe what we were seeing, and feeling a heartfelt gratutude at being able to witness such beauty with the excitement at having a chance to photograph.

We didn't get everyone in the photo, but thanks to Fiona for capturing these wonderful expressions.

Irresistable Motion

Snow Dune Video. Yosemite Falls. 2013. Canon 1Dx, 600mm lens Stabilzed with YouTube Filter.

Tutorial - DSLR



This may be more an enthusiasm than tutorial.

Cuts assembled in Photoshop CS6. Surf audio thanks to Bill Schwegler, Fyreplug. Lee Vining Creek 2010 (from the September Newsletter)

I started with an overall scene of the creek, then decided to zoom into various areas where the design and movement seemed interesting. Finessing length of shot to the dynamics of the scene is key. This particular edit simply assembles the cuts into what might be a starting point for a shorter piece. Canon 5DII video.

The View From Here - January 2013


Hills, Zabriski Point. Death Valley. 2012.

by Stephen Johnson

The Solace of Natural Form and Open Spaces

The connection between our humanness and our planet is in many ways too obvious to even discuss. It is self-evident. I would think. But I know in my own life, it is something that easily slips away, lost in the daily tasks of our modern lives inundated by our creations. We value so many of our tools and toys, the very Mac Book I'm writing on now, or the smell of the coffee maker brewing a fresh pot. I am grateful for the shelter from the rain and cold, and the ability to transport myself to the redwoods or around the world in a very short time.

Without getting deep into our place in the world psychologically or philosophically, we do pay a price for our modernity. From a strictly experiential level, our sense of well being is obviously shaped by our daily surrounds. We strive to make our homes and workplaces comfortable, productive and life giving. My books, CDs, musical instruments are of value to me and make a difference in my daily life.

But it is also clear, that the connections to the source of everything, our very planet, can be easy to view as separate, as though we are separate. Of course we are not at all separate, and we know it. The challenges of making a living, spending time and doing right by our loved ones, rising to our own aspirations, financial, artistic, or spiritual can be all consuming. It can be so easy for the disconnect from the earth to take care of normal life, even where the other aspirations directly benefit from a plunge into a starry night or the deep woods, we don't give it the time.

Photography has played a critical role for me in engaged in the natural world, connected to the sun and stars, even when no photographs or cameras are involved.

There are senses of space and surrounds that become iconic as we experience them. Over time, they evolve into a kind of memory shorthand, where the smell and sound of a place can be called to mind with only a vague association. These memories become part of an underlying consciousness, almost iconic, certainly part of our inner romance with the ideal.

Death Valley from Dante's View. Quicktime VR. which may take time to load.
Click and drag Mouse to pan, or use left/right arrow keys, shift to zoom, control to zoom out.

The desert is one of those places, full of light, space and dust, dry air, uncanny silence, an echoing ring to the rocks as our own footsteps knock them against each other...a dryness you can almost smell, mixed in with the sounds of a bird's wings pulling itselve through the air. I can feel the desert in my skin, even without heat. The air is dry. You can taste it.

But it is the open space and vast distances I've experienced in the desert that have been most profound. There are not many places you can see almost 100 miles. In Death Valley I have. It makes an impression, not only about the size of the place, but about my own smallness.

Playing off the differences in these natural environments is inevitably part of the photographic experience. We get pulled to these different environments, we keep trying to encode their realities into our images. Reaching for the camera is instinctive as we witness the remarkable, dramatic or sublime. The camera isn't always there, but I hope my heart always is.

Landscape photography sometimes seems like the product-producing excuse for hanging out in wonderful places. And maybe it is. It is also transportive of more than just physically moving around. At its best, the photograph becomes an act of consideration and concentration that starts with giving the process intrinsic value, and continues through to a love of craft and beauty most often manifested in a print. All done best when slowing down, focusing on what is happening on the planet around you. I don't believe it comes out well when hoping for something else or being driven by dissatisfaction or impatience. It works best for me when I care about what I am seeing, and feel that calm of the time invested being deeply worthwhile.

It is after all a privilege to be witness to splendor and work your craft to hold an impression of the sacred light our miracle eyes manage to see.


Mono Lake and Paoha Island. 2012.

Standing near open water has become one of the life-sustaining natural experiences in my life. Watching the rhythm of the waves, the roll of surf, the very real huge spaces I can see, and the unimaginable space beyond. I always say that we are drawn to water not only because it is life-giving, but because at some level we sense that this is where we are from, still carrying the salt water of our origins in our blood to this day.

Living near the Pacific Ocean has been a passion of my adult life. It wasn't something I dreamed of, but rather kind of happened into by a series of choices. I could never have anticipated the role the sea has come to play in my life. It is a constant, the low level sound of surf is never far away, and becomes something like a sacred rhythm of the earth's breathing. The coastline is where I most frequently watch the sun set, walk under the stars and walk for the sheer pleasure of being outside. I spend great times there with my partner Fiona and our dog Sandy. The sea is a constant reminder of a living earth.

The surround and fecundity of the forest carries a sense of the tall and complex, mixed with strong scents of healthy trees and undergrowth, decay and new life everywhere. Forests are often filled with the sound of running water, birds and trees squeaking in the breeze, insects buzzing. It is both full of bigness and a curious closed-in surround without horizon. The forest can be a most curious place.


Forest. Pt. Reyes. 2012.

These are not small experiences. They may be quiet, or dramatic, but they are born from our core notions of the earth, of belonging to this planet, ultimately of having the solace of a home amid much disconnect and challenge.

I have no intention of raising praise for a our natural connections to a religious experience, although I understand how it is for some. I do however, want to remind myself through my writing, of the sensitivities and values that make me whole, and influence my work as an artist. Mostly I work by instinct, but naturally I also muse on my work, its place in my life, my values as expressed through my art, and how I want to spend the time and energy I have here, living and breathing on this planet.

I want to be immersed in the trees and mountains, the coast and surf, the desert sand and the sacred sun. I am very fortunate to have a partner who loves wandering the planet as well.

The View From Here - December 2012


Clouds and Hills over Interstate 580. 2012.

by Stephen Johnson

Our Hands on Earth

I've been photographing our marks on the landscape for my entire career. The tension between the natural world and our constructs is often strange, challenges perspective, downright odd, and sometimes compelling.

Despite my concentration on the natural world, I have never sought to idealize it, but rather plunge deep into what I find, whatever direction that might take. For over 30 years I have been drawn to the curious marks we make, the things we build, together with the debris and evidence we leave behind.

As is often the case these days after so many years of working, a body of work can emerge from looking at what I've been curious about over time. We see a photograph, get reminded of others, start to associate even more images, and without consciously deciding to consider a grouping, the associations start to form.

Many of the images that could be gathered under this idea of our hands on the land come from other projects, the Great Central Valley work, my series Western Artifacts, and countless isolated images that seemed irresistible at the time.

The theme also reminded me of a song I wrote over 30 years ago watching the moon rise and the sun set on the Anasazi ruins at Waputki near Flagstaff. Thinking back to the making of those buildings, a vivid image came to mind of people working hard to build a community, their very home clearly made from the earth, rising from the ground toward the sky.

I'm riding the wind back a 1000 years
I can see his skin in the sun
With his careful hands he shapes his earth
his red house growing in the blue


Kettleman Plain. 1984.


Gold Mining Dredge Tailings. Sacramento Valley. 1982

We are native to this planet. Naturally we leave evidence of our presence. Although there are many reasons to decry this impact with so much of what we do, it is also the very delight of researchers trying to understand our past, and the casual cultural anthropologists we all become in our fascinations. How old does graffiti have to be to become pictographs and evidence of who we were?

We often impose ourselves on the land incidentally, our works becoming visual evidence of  land use, from agriculture to dumps, by merely using the land. We've been making such marks for at least 5000 years. Sometimes the impact is direct and intentional, human humor and art laid onto the land. Other times it is debris, the decay of what we leave to collapse back into that very land. Visually they can all be compelling in different ways.


Stone Fence. Ireland. 2008

It was invigorating to explore some of these files, and go searching for a few I vaguely remembered, most of which there is not room for here. But the last few days have been a good exercise. Whether this little archive exploration continues and is joined by others will depend on how these few images settle in, and grow on me, the feedback I may get, and if my curiosity dares open those daunting drawers with thousands and thousands of negatives...

Looking again at some of the work from the Western Artifacts Project does make me want to pull those together into a set of great scans and finished modern prints. Anyone want to come in and intern on some projects?...



At The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

A must see if you are in New York City, Faking it: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is a wonderful exhibition at the Met in NYC through January 27, 2013.


Truck Stop Tower. Winnemucca, NV 1982.

Strange Constructions

Deliberate impositions on the land, using it as a surface for the making of art is often not as interesting as something that happens coincidental to the makers intentions. But sometimes you come across that rare combination of intention and aesthetics that makes you really notice.

Many of you know Robert Smithson's work, like the Spiral Jetty, work by Andy Goldsworthy and others. An artist from Santa Cruz, Jim Denevan, has been doing massive beach markings for years. Their art is in the marks they make on the land, by intention and hard work.

In Jim's case, they are ephemeral marks that the next wave can wash away. I documented some of his work many years ago, and greatly admired his dedication to drawing something so temporary, and that so few would see. The photo documentation became the record, and for most, the experience, the temporal quality part of the preciousness of the creation.

My good friend and former assistant David Gardner has been working an a great series Marking Our Place in the World which directly relates to these ideas.


Landsharks. 1984.

I've delighted in driving by the Landsharks for years. Where natural form has suggested a palette for art and humor, graffiti and comment, those sites particularly engage me. I wish I knew who did it, how long they thought about it, and if it was carefully planned or quickly improvised. I know the paint has been touched up over the years, so somebody cares.


Windmills Altamont Pass. 1983.


Rolled Grass. Iceland. 2009.

Tutorial - Aerial Photography from a Commercial Plane


Aerial Photography From a Commercial Plane

(excerpt from the book Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography unreleased revised electronic version)

Photographing from a commercial airplane is both difficult and irresistible. The views can be astounding. I'm amazed that people close their windows. There are a few obvious, and perhaps not so obvious things, that can make a difference in making the best of a challenging situation, to take advantage of the view, and occasionally make some fine photographs.

Plan Ahead

Unless seeking a specific view, try to book a seat on the opposite side of the plane from the sun, usually in the northern hemisphere this means facing north.

Book early and try to get a seat well in front of the wing to avoid jet exhaust. If that is not possible for increasing far and late bookings, try as far back in the plane as you can get.

Dress for minimizing internal reflections with a dark, non-patterned shirt.

Bring a rubber lens shade with sufficient flexibility to press against the acrylic plane window without it squishing and blocking your view.

Making the Photographs

Do what you can to buff the inner window of smudges. A laptop screen cleaning kit seems to present no problem for the airlines and can help. The elbow cloth of your shirt can also be a quick help.

Always use fast shutter speeds for normal plane motion, but particularly in turbulence. Higher ISO with the noise they can bring is better than blurs.

I usually opt for my 28-70mm lens as that is slightly too wide to avoid the wing in many cases, but long enough to simplify a bit without too much added apparent motion from a long lens. There are times when I wish I could go a bit longer though, so I keep a longer lens handy when I can.


Use an app like Flight Aware to download the path of your flight, save the flight log and map to know where you were and when to match the time of the photograph to the log in order to identify your subject. This can be particularly satisfying when really bizarre things are seen and you become determined to find out what on earth they are.


Biscayne National Seashore. 2009.

The View From Here - November 2012


Clouds and highway Over.... 2012.

by Stephen Johnson

On Aerial Photography: Commercial Flights

I am a deep fan of aerial photography. I am always seeking a window seat and carrying my camera, as I have been for over 30 years.

Flying back from my recent east coast lecture tour, I looked into using an App from my iPad/iPhone called Fight Aware to track the route we flew. As I was exploring it, I noticed I could save the route as a Google Earth compatible .gmx file and save the times and location of the entire route,


San Francisco at Dawn. 2012.

This led me down a path of tracing back some photographs I made along the way of curious sites and some nice compositions. I now have the ability to determine locations, place names and some investigative opportunities to find out what on earth some of these markings on our earth actually were.


Baker Lake, Arkansas. 2012.


Razor Bluff, Colorado. 2012.


Flight Aware Route Screen.


At The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

A must see if you are in New York City, Faking it: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is a wonderful exhibition at the Met in NYC thruogh January 27, 2013.


Snapshot: Steve in the White House Press Room. 2012.

A West Wing White House Tour

While in Washington DC last week, I was fortunate to be able to tour the West Wing of the White House. It was amazing to look into the Oval Office and take in all that has happened there. The fate of our nation rests with decisions made in that room.

The Presidential election this year probably heightened that since of history. But I do find my mind keeps coming back to staring into that room, the Oval Office. The fact that it is smaller than all of the wide-angle photographs have suggested, the concrete non-emperor quality of ordinary old paint on old wood, the simple reality of the real space. We were not allowed to photograph on the tour, but the scene made a deep impression on me.


North Portico of the White House from the West Wing.2012.

Just moving around the White House, going in and leaving the tour, brought a core reality to the place that took myth and made the place real. Even the interrelationships of the rooms and space was surprising. It was hard not to photograph, as so much of what I saw contextualized spaces I had never before put together quite right. I was happy to make a few images outside and in the Press Room.


Like most any visitor to Washington DC, I am always taken by my first sighting of the Washington Monument. It seems from almost any view, I keep making photographs of the spire. To say that it's iconic is a bit obvious, but there is something singularly remarkable about it as a form and symbol. I get emotional at the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, and particularly at the Vietnam Veterans Wall. But there is something about this towering spire...


The Washington Monument from the Old Post Office. 2012.