April 16, 2013

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

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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.

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