April 16, 2013

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.

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