The Tao of Landscape Photography

The Tao of Landscape Photography is about the recovery and the illumination of the path to creativity. I say recovery because the way of the Tao is also a recognition that the path was always there. Along our long way we have acquired various forms of learning and knowledge that have helped us grow not only as individuals but also as landscape and nature photographers. But this learning and knowledge has also helped to restrict our awareness of nature. The Tao of Landscape Photography is about rekindling some spontaneity that brings back a more child-like sense of wonder and unrestricted awareness. This leads to a new awakening as we move away from well known formulas and instead experience and photograph the natural landscape with the eyes of a child.

Glimpses of Summer Paradise

In this post I will discuss what is the Tao and introduce two key source texts, The Tao Te Ching and Chuang Zu. I will then use direct passages from these source texts translated into English to explore eight Taoist ideas and how they relate to Landscape and Nature Photography in our own time: (1) Return to Nature; (2) Negative Space; (3) Yin and Yang; (4) Flow “Wu Wei”; (5) The Simple Life is the Best Life; (6) Perception: Is this Life a Dream?; (7) Reality is a Seamless Whole; and (8) Self Understanding.

What is Tao?

The Chinese word Tao means “the way”. One might ask what kind of way? First and foremost, it is the way of nature including our own nature. It is also the way of harmony with others and the way of self understanding. Taoism is the study of the way. Its origins trace back to the philosopher-hermits, called Xian, who roamed the mountains of ancient China. It comes as no surprise that the Chinese ancient pictogram for Xian (僊) represents a person in the Mountains (1). Although Taoism eventually developed into a religion complete with rites, rituals, and practices including meditation, Feng Shui and Tai Chi; in this blog post I am primarily interested in Taoism as a philosophy that sheds some light on my own relationship with nature and how nature provides inspiration for all of my photographs. In this regard I stay close to the original source texts for Taoism where one actually finds very little about religious rites, rituals, and practices.

North Cascades Wildflower Dreams

For me Taosim is part of what Aldous Huxley calls the Perennial Philosophy (2). This is a perspective views all of the world’s spiritual traditions as pointing to a common truth. In this regard I have found echos of Taoism with its emphasis on a direct, immediate and intuitive experience of nature as the way in both Zen Buddhism and American Transcendentalism. It should not be surprising that one sees similarities of Taoism in Zen because the practice of Zen came to an already Taoist China by way of India and only later moved to Japan and eventually the West. Zen’s exposure to Taosim helped transform Zen into the spiritual practice that we know today. The similarity with American Transcendentalism is purely coincidental and there is no known evidence that either Emerson or Thoreau had access to any Taoist writings. To me this is actually a good thing because it demonstrates that the teachings of Tao need not be tied to a specific historical and cultural tradition and are relevant in all times and places including our own time.

Ancient Writings

Although there are many ancient texts on Taoism, there are two primary texts that have informed my understanding of Taoism

1. Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way) attributed to Lao Tzu
2. The Inner Chapters attributed to Chuang Tzu

The Tao Te Ching is generally regarded as the central text of Taoism (3).  It was written in the 5th Century BCE.  Although it is attributed to the sage Lao Tzu, we do not know for sure if such a person even existed and most scholars believe it was compiled by several authors.  The book is rather short consisting 81 brief chapters and only 5000 Chinese Characters.  Perhaps as a testimony of the difficulty of translating the Tao Te Ching, it has been translated into English by more different translators than any book other than the Bible.  Each Chinese Character in the Tao Te Ching has a very nuanced meaning making a precise English Translation virtually impossible.

Mountain Light Full Immersion

The Chuang Tzu is named for its primary author, Master Chuang. Composed in the 4th or 3rd century BCE, the Chuang Tzu  also focuses on the person of Lao Tzu, who is presented as one of Chuang-Tzu’s own teachers (4).  Although both the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu’s writing are paradoxical in nature, in Chuang Tzu the paradoxes rise to level where they are often humorous and perhaps also a bit irreverent.  Many of the chapters come in the form of parables and stories.  But one cannot fully appreciate or even understand Chuang Tzu without first reading the Tao Te Ching. So if you choose to read the Chuang Tzu Inner Chapters (it is short and makes great bed-time reading!), make sure you also have close at hand the Tao Te Ching!

(1) Return to Nature

A central theme in the Taoist perspective is a return to nature. At a more personal level this also means a recovery of our own nature. I say recovery, because our own original nature, a sort of childlike primordial state, was always there. Taoism points to several factors that stand in the away of awareness of our true nature. Chief among them is our contemporary culture that surrounds us and other trappings of society. Society convinces us as we grow up that the path to both success and meaning involve the acquisition of material wealth along with work accomplishments and recognition. Unfortunately this path according to Taoism also leads us further and further away from nature. What we need instead is a return to a life more anchored in spontaneity, passion and intuition.

Grazing and Sleeping in the Pasture

Taoism is also deeply suspicious of both language and thought. Our words, thoughts and concepts can literally never describe our experience of nature. The first words of the Ta Te Ching are “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the real way.” Taoism always emphasizes the importance of direct experience. In this regard a landscape image that best reflects our direct experience of nature is also one that is in a more natural alignment with the Tao.

Waterfall in a Primeval Rain Forest

Chapter One of the Tao Te Ching: What is the Tao? Translated by Sam Tarode

The Tao that can be spoken of is not the real way.
That which can be named is only transient.
The nameless was there before the sky and the earth were born.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
In nothingness you will see its wonders;
In things you will see its boundaries.
These two come from the same origin, although they have different names.
They emerged from somewhere deep and mysterious.
This deep and mysterious place
Is the gateway to all wonders.
Light of the Angels

This passage introduces the heart of the Taoist perspective. The Tao, or the way of nature, cannot be named. Any attempt to do so is transient, bound not only to a particular moment in time, but also to a particular person. Words cease to be relevant the moment they are uttered and are not to be confused with the Tao itself. Chuang Tzu put this more humorously when he said “A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker and a man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker!” In the Tao there are no boundaries and limits, but in our attempts to describe our experience using conceptual thought we establish just that, boundaries and limits. Does that mean we should abandon our attempts to name and describe our experience? Certainly not, but be aware that the mystery and wonder of Tao and nature is ultimately beyond any kind of logical description.

In this next passage Lao Tzu likens the Tao to the spirit of Perennial spring linking the Tao to nature itself and to what the poet Dylan Thomas alluded to when he wrote in his poem Fern Hill, ” a force that drives through a green fuse a flower.

Chapter 6 of the Tao Te Ching: The Source, Translated by Sam Torode

The Spirit of the Perennial spring
is said to be immortal.
She is called the Mysterious One.

The Mysterious One is the source of the universe.
She is continually, endlessly giving forth life,
without effort.

The Great Pacific Northwest

The spirit of the Perennial spring is the source of all that is . Some may refer to the Perennial spring as mother nature and she continuously brings forward life. She is also mystery. In the best of our nature and landscape photographs we share glimpses of this mystery of the spirit of perennial spring. But neither our images or words can unravel the mystery. At best we can evoke in our images and words some of the spirit of the mystery of the perennial spring. For more on Mystery see my post Mystery: The Holy Grail of Landscape Photography.

As previously mentioned, The Tao Te Ching likens the return to the more spontaneous rhythms of the natural world to a recovery of our child-like nature. Consider this next passage.

Chapter 55 of the Tao Te Ching: Become Childlike, Translated by Sam Torode

The virtuous are like innocent children---
poisonous insects will not seize them,
wild beasts will not seize them,
birds of prey will not attack them.

Their bones may be weak,
and their muscles tender,
but their grasp is sure.

They know nothing of power,
yet they are bursting with life.

Their spirits are strong indeed!
They can sob and cry all day without becoming hoarse;
their voices are harmonious, indeed!

To know this harmony is to know the eternal.
To Know the eternal is to know enlightenment.
To increase life is to know blessedness.
To increase inner vitality is to gain strength. 

As creatures grow and mature,
they begin to decay.
This is the opposite of the Tao----
the Tao remains ever young.
Daughter Caroline running through the Tulip Fields long ago

As a metaphor, the child represents the eternal beginning and the ever springing source of all life. To some the notion of returning to the innocence of our youth may seem overly idealistic and for most of us just not practical. But the message here is that as we grow and mature we move gradually out of harmony with the rhythms of nature that are second nature to the child. This movement away from the rhythms of nature takes us also away from the Tao and our inner vitality and strength. This sets the stage for rigidity and ultimately decay. This is so unlike the child who is flexible, growing, and open to all the world. The child may have no awareness of self and is part and partial of the flow of everything which surrounds him/her. The child lives and breathes in the Tao. How would your your life change if every day you greeted the new morning with the eyes of the child? In Landscape Photography, how would your approach to the landscape and the wonder of nature change if every day you approached life with the eyes of the child-with no restricted awareness, being genuinely open to whatever comes your way?

“The Hills are Filled with the Sound of Music”

2. Negative Space

Chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching: Negative Space, Translated by Sam Tarode

A wheel may have thirty spokes,
but its usefulness lies in the empty hub.

A jar is formed from clay,
but its usefulness lies in the empty center.

A room is made from four walls,
but its usefulness lies in the space between.

Matter is necessary to give form,
but the value of reality lies in its immateriality.

Everything that lives has a physical body,
but the value of a life is measured by the soul.
Dances with Fog and Light

For most of us, when we approach a beautiful landscape, we immediately start picking out subjects against a background. In doing this we are experiencing nature and the landscape as discrete and separate parts. The Taoist perspective, however, informs us that this process of picking out and naming subjects in the landscape may actually be getting in the way of us experiencing the true nature of reality, in other words experiencing nature and the landscape as a seamless whole. Many of you will recall this image that is often used to help shed some light on figure ground relationships and the potential for confusion or misrepresentation.

In this image you will likely first see a couple of silhouetted faces facing each other. But on second glance you will see that the image is also of a vase. The Taoist perspective will take this even a step further and place importance on paying attention first to the background and the negative space. Without the background and negative space no subject or subjects can have any form. “A wheel may have thirty spokes, but its usefulness lies in the empty hub” and “the room is made of four walls, but its usefulness lies in the space between”. When a Taoist first approaches a mountain landscape, he/she is likely to first notice the valley below and the sky above rather than the imposing mountain looming as a primary subject. Focusing first on the negative space and background can go along way toward transforming how we view nature and the landscape and it is my belief that this will be for the better. This helps move us away from our habitual way of viewing the world, glorifying certain objects in the landscape, rather than experiencing what every landscape actually is, an integrated whole. Focusing on the negative, brings us back to a more primordial and intuitive way of experiencing the world, it brings us back to the source of all that is, it brings us back to the eternal Tao.

Scholar by a Waterfall, Ma Yuan, active c 1190-1225

The use of negative space is especially apparent in the long tradition of Chinese landscape paintings. The painting above is by artist Ma Yuan active from c 1190-122. Ma Yaun was a leading artist at the Southern Song painting academy in Hangzhou. His painting titled Scholar by a Waterfall, shows a gentleman in a mountainous garden like setting with the wind sculpted and somewhat jagged rhythms of the pine tree contrasting with the quiet mood of the scholar, and both are looking out into the flowing water of the cascading river and the emptiness beyond. Notice the considerable amount of negative space enveloping all parts of the image. The use of negative space is a consistent feature of Chinese Landscape Painting, where space, emptiness and the void are inseparable from forms, with each depending upon the other. It is out of the Tao and negative space that forms emerge. A recognized authority, Wucius Wong, on Chinese landscape painting in his book, The Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting (9) puts it this way:

“Truth, to the artist, is both mass and void, both the material world and the artist as he fuses himself completely with his subject mater. Void (negative space) is hsu, the opposite of shih (mass/forms), and is generally considered by artists as more important than mass in painting.”

Spirit Angels in the Forest
Secrets of the Forest

3. Yin an Yang

Chapter 42: Yin and Yang, Translated by Sam Tarode

The Tao produces unity;
unity produces duality;
duality produces trinity:
trinity produces all things.

All things contain both the negative principle (yin)
and the positive principle (yang).
The third principle, energetic vitality (chi),
makes them harmonious.
Hypnotized by Beauty

Yin Yang is the principle of natural and complementary forces and patterns that depend on one another and do not make sense on their own. The original meaning of yin and yang is associated with the dark north facing and light south facing sides of a mountain. These two sides of the mountain are of course inseparable as all mountains have north and south facing sides and one side, be it the light or the dark side, will always imply the existence of the other. We cannot have light without dark, or dark without light. Although Yin and Yang are often thought of as as feminine and masculine forces and it certainly includes these two, Yin and Yang encompass just about everything that we think about and experience in the natural world.

Green Fields of the North Cascades

Yin and Yang are opposites that fit seamlessly together made harmonious through the flow of natural vital energy called “Chi”. The yin yang concept is not the same as Western dualism, because the two opposites are not at war, but in harmony. Yin and Yang are a unity. One cannot have the Yin without the Yang! This is often difficult for the Western mind to grasp, because we are accustomed to thinking that good is better than bad and that ultimately good should triumph. But Taoism teaches “When everyone knows good as goodness, there is already evil” and “When everyone knows beauty as beautiful, there is already ugliness” (Tao Te Ching, Chapter Two). At this point it will be helpful to hearken back to this popular ancient symbol of the Yin and Yang.

The dark area contains a spot of light, and vice versa, and the two opposites are intertwined and bound together within the unifying circle. Yin and yang are not static, the balance ebbs and flows between them – this is implied in the flowing curve where they meet. Yin contains some of the Yang and Yang some of the Yin. This applies to ourselves as well as the natural world. Yin and Yang forces are in each one of us in a constant ebb and flow. Likewise Yin and Yang are in the natural landscape in a constant ebb and flow of light and shadow, negative space giving rise to form, high and low, near and far, soft and hard, chaos and order, permanence and impermanence, life and death, feminine and masculine. The Taoist photographer will bring the forces of Yin and Yang present in the landscape and themselves into a harmonious ebb and flow in their photographic creations, mirroring the natural world that is after all a reflection of the Tao.

4. Flow “Wu Wei”

Chapter Thirty Two: Where to Stop, Translated by J H McDonald

The Tao is nameless and unchanging.
Although it appears insignificant,
nothing in the world can contain it.
If a ruler abides by its principles,
then her people will willingly follow.
Heaven would then reign on earth,
like sweet rain falling on paradise.
People would have no need for laws,
because the law would be written on their hearts.
Naming is a necessity for order,
but naming cannot order all things.
Naming often makes things impersonal,
so we should know when naming should end.
Knowing when to stop naming,
you can avoid the pitfall it brings.
All things end in the Tao
just as the small streams and the largest rivers
flow through valleys to the sea.

Small Stream in an Ancient Forest

One of the enduring symbols of the Tao Te Ching and Taoist literature in general is flowing water. Water, like the Tao flows naturally, easily moving around, under, over, or through obstacles without resistance from stream, to river, to sea. This Taoist notion of flow is also known as “Wu Wei” or effortless action. It is not the same as inaction or passivity, but rather going about life in a simple and flowing manner, not trying to force things, but instead living in tune with the rhythms of nature. In his landmark book, Tao-The Watercourse Way (6), Alan Watts said this about Wu Wei: “The art of life is more like navigation than warfare, for what is important is to understand the winds, the tides, the currents, the seasons, and the principles of growth and decay, so that one’s actions may use them and not fight them.”

The Way of the Glacier Lilies

This notion of Wu Wei and going with rather than against the flow of course also applies to vocations including the practice of nature and landscape photography. This is not to say we go out into the field without any intentions or expectations. Although some photographers claim this is what they do, I think at this point this is somewhat of a platitude. Of course we have some intentions and expectations. We are not literally flowing into nature and the landscape at random. At a minimum we have made a choice of when and where to go. What is important is that once we are at our choice of location we are navigating freely with the vicissitudes of nature–not trying to fight it when nature does not cooperate with our expectations. We move more freely with acceptance and a minimum effort cooperating with the ebb and flow of nature.

5. The Best Life is the Simple Life

Ancient Masters, Chapter 15, Translated by J H McDonald

The Sages of old were profound
and knew the ways of subtlety and discernment.
Their wisdom is beyond our comprehension.
Because their knowledge was so far superior
I can only give a poor description.
They were careful
as someone crossing an frozen stream in winter.
Alert as if surrounded on all sides by the enemy.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Whole as an uncarved block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Turbid as muddied water.
Who can be still
until their mud settles
and the water is cleared by itself?
Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
For only those who are not full are able to be used
which brings the feeling of completeness.
Coal Creek Falls Winter Flow

In this passage, Lao Tse talks about the qualities of the sages of old who were examples of living a life in harmony with the Tao. Although these sages were alert, careful, courteous, and fluid as melting ice; they also were likened to the image of an “uncarved block.” The metaphor of the uncarved block” is one of the most enduring and frequently found metaphors in all of Taoist literature. The uncarved block represents nature in its original, unchanged, and natural form. Benjamin Hoff, in the Tao of Pooh, writes “The essence of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed (7)”. This fits in well with the Taoist emphasis on negation and the importance of negative space. Living a life of the sage is not so much about cultivation of various practices such as mindfullness meditation and the like, as it is about the stripping away of much of the baggage we have collected in the process of fitting in with society and getting back to a much simpler and spontaneous life close to nature. The paradox is that when we return to the uncarved block we also unlock our potential to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life. An uncarved block has the potential to be transformed into something extraordinary and worthwhile. But this will only happen when one moves with rather than against the rhythms of nature. In the words of Lao Tsu: “Who can be still until their mud settles and the mud is cleared by itself, Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?”

Palouse Sunrsie Waves of Grain

As a landscape photographer I have found that return to the “uncarved block” is also the best way to grow in the art and craft of photography. Nature after all is what my photography is about, so would not it make sense that living life flowing with rather than against the currents of nature would best support my creative endeavors? Even the creation of good imagery has more to do with pairing down, stripping away, removing distractions, and getting back to a simpler more elemental state of elegance than it does with introducing layers upon layers of additional elements and complexity. Less is more and I have found for me at least simpler is better.

6. Perception: Is this Life a Dream?

Chuang Tzu Chapter Two, Verse 24 , The Butterfly

“Long ago, a certain Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly— a butterfly fluttering here and there on a whim, happy and carefree, knowing nothing of Chuang Tzu. Then all of a sudden he woke to find that he was, beyond all doubt, Chuang Tzu. Who knows if it was Chuang Tzu dreaming a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming Chuang Tzu? Chuang Tzu and butterfly: clearly there’s a difference. This is called the transformation of things.”

Two Butterflies in the Meadow

In this often quoted passage, the philosopher Chuang Tsu dreams that he is a butterfly fluttering about, moving around from here to there wild and free. When he awakens, however, he is utterly confused. He does not know if he was a butterfly dreaming of Chuang Tsu or if he was Chuang Tsu dreaming he was a butterfly. From the perspective of the Tao our perception of our individual self or ego, as something separate from nature and the environment that surrounds us, is in itself a kind of dream or illusion. Whether he is Chuang Tsu or a butterfly in a way does not even matter. What matters is that all of us live life in accordance with the rhythms of nature.

This story provides a beautiful visual image that most of us can instantly relate to that illustrates the Taoist point that distinctions, such as butterflies, us as individuals, reality, dreams—are all just projections. In a sense we live in a dream world all of the time. When I see two butterflies, I am seeing my own perception of two butterflies. The butterflies are not literally in my mind. Experience never puts us in direct contact with reality (5).

As a Landscape and Nature photographer, this story of the the butterfly is especially dear to my heart and I believe it will also be to many of you. How often have you gone into the field with camera and had the feeling that you are part and partial with everything that surrounds you: the air you breath, the trees in the forest, the flowers at the lakes shore, and the birds flying overhead? For many of us this is also the moment where we transcend our individual self and live more in the spirit of Wu-Wei. We move about with effortless action and seemingly unbridled creativity because we are in harmony with the rhythms of nature. We do not resist but rather embrace what nature has in store for us this day, whether it be rain falling in the forest, a glorious sunset, or merely another overcast day.

Hot August Meadow in the Goat Rocks
In the middle of a hot 2020 August, I started my long loop trip hike into the Goat Rocks at sunrise and did not finish until well after sunset. I suppose I could have finished sooner, but what is the hurry? In the evening I passed through this happy meadow just below a ridge top and decided just to hang out and enjoy nature at her finest for an hour or so. Hiking down from the ridge to the car I eventually had to use a headlamp and in order to not surprise animals I played Neil Young music through my JBL speaker attached to my belt. No sooner than I set up the headlamp and music I peered out onto the trail about 50 feet ahead and saw two narrowly spaced bright eyes staring at me. At first I thought it a person because the eyes were fairly high off the ground. Then I saw a big and long bushy tail. It could have been a wild dog or a cat, I do really know for sure. The animal would not move so I turned up the music a bit more , now Neil Young’s Natural Beauty Song. The animal then slowly with grace, almost like our family cat Precious, started moving up the rock talus and then perched onto a flat rock and sat down like a royal cat still looking at me. Amazingly calm I proceeded back out onto the trail but it later occurred to me that if this was a cat it may have just positioned itself in prance position. Nevertheless it was all ok and good—Perhaps thanks to some mellow Neil Young music!
One reader of this story mentioned to me that this perhaps this cat was my spirit animal. This got me thinking about Chuang Tzu and the butterfly story. Perhaps I was this cat staring back at Erwin Buske?! But then again I the cat or the cat as I may not matter. What matters is that we are both in the flow of the Tao, fluttering about our way in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

7. Reality is a Seamless Whole

Those Who Divide Cannot See, Chapter 17 of the Chuang Tzu, Translated by David Hinton

“A sage inquires into realms beyond time and space, but never talks about them. A sage talks about realms within time and space, but never explains. In the Spring and Autumn Annals, where it tells about ancient emperors, it says the sage explains but never divides. Hence in difference there is no difference, and in division there’s no division. You ask how this can be? The sage embraces it all. Everyone else divides things, and uses one to reveal the other. Therefore I say: “Those who divide things cannot see.”

Freedom

In this verse Chuang Tzu speaks of the sage as someone who focuses on the whole of nature, not dividing nature into its constituent parts. The very act of dividing the world into specific objects of this and that can prevent us from truly seeing: “Those who divide things cannot see”. Although Chuang Tzu had no awareness of Gestalt , the influence of Taoist thought is evident in Gestalt including the Gestalt Principles established by its founder Kurt Koffka and the Gestalt Psychology of Fritz Pearls. Gestalt refers to a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts.  This complements beautifully the Taoist perspective of nature.

Last Rays of Light at the Avalanche Lily Fields

As mentioned earlier, the Taoist does not immediately focus on picking out the subject from the background. Attention is first on the background and the associated negative space and only then on the forms that emerge from the background. But the Taoist does not view these forms as discrete stand-alone parts but as part of an integrated whole, in other words as a Gestalt.

The Gestalt Principles include: (1) Similarity –Objects and elements including shapes and patterns that are similar are perceived as a group;  (2) Proximity–The eye perceives that objects close to one another as belonging to a group; (3) Continuation–the mind sees lines and curves as continuing even if visual information is missing or there are objects in the way; and (4) Closure– The mind completes shapes that only exist partially in the image, such as a partial circle or triangle.

Kanizsa Triangle

The kanizsa Triangle shown above has often been used by Gestalt psychologists to demonstrate the principle of closure, which maintains we see objects grouped together as whole even when they are incomplete. In the Kanizsa Triangle we see two triangles and three circles even though technically there are no complete circles and triangles in the image, only three pac-men and several incomplete triangles. Our holistic vision completes the gaps in the shapes. This image challenges the reductionist approach to vision that what we see in a image is merely the sum of its parts. We actually perceive objects/subjects that from a purely objective point of view are not even there. This is similar to the Taoist perspective that councils us to pay attention to the background and negative space as much as the figures and the subjects. Both Gestalt and Taoism challenge our limited way of viewing the world that focuses on discrete objects. Both Gestalt and Taoism challenge us to see a world holistically rather than just the sum of its parts.

Autumn Passage

Some gestalt principles that bring unity to a landscape scene can be seen in the above image titled Autumn Passage. There is a similarity of shapes between the granite rock in the foreground, the upper half of Valhalla, and the top of Lichtenberg peak in the upper left. The proximity of the granite rock with the harmoniously colored sections of golden yellow green and orange red foliage helps form a unified foreground group. The triangular granite rock partially hidden by foliage (closure) points (continuation) down the slope to the lake and peak aided by slightly diagonal lines in the mid ground. The lake itself and the peak point to the sky and warm clouds of sunset (continuation). For more on Gestalt and Landscape Photography, see my blog post: Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact.

Grove of the Patriarchs

As a landscape and Nature photographer I have always thought that presenting my image as well balanced and integrated consistent with my experience in nature is more important than forcing all attention onto a subject. When I see some popular landscape images today the single minded focus on the subject often seems aggressively forced as if the photographer is screaming for our attention. Backgrounds are heavily darkened and directional light is manipulated to the point where the contrast between the subject and background is so strong as to seem unnatural. Some of this may be done to get instant attention on social media where people judge your image in a second or two then move on. This is not the way of the Tao. The Taoist perspective is more about turning down the contrast and volume, focusing first on the background, revealing the often subtle path of light, and creating a well integrated and balanced image where the rhythm and flow of the landscape is presented manner that seems as natural as nature itself.

The Taoist notion of the world is that it is organic and changing in never ending cycles of growth, decay and renewal. The world is an organism where every little thing is related to everything else. In this world there are no truly lone actors, and reality is a seamless whole. In this sense Taoism foreshadows the views of the modern environmental movement. For more on the Environmental Movement see my blog post–“Landscape Photography: Inspiration, Preservation, Conservation and the Environmental Movement.”

Quiet Meadow

8. Self Understanding

Chapter Forty Seven: Explore Within, Translated by Sam Tarode

Without going abroad,
you can have knowledge of the world.
Without gazing at the stars,
you can perceive the heavenly Tao.

The more you wander, the less you know.

The wise explore without traveling,
discern without seeing,
Finish without striving,
and arrive at their destination,
without leaving home.

Fern Hill Forest–This is wonderful place a short walk from my home in the neighborhood woods.

In this passage we hear echoes of Thoreau’s message of Walden’s Pond. Thoreau found self understanding at Walden Pond within close walking distance of his original home in Concorde, Massachusetts. For more on Walden’s Pond see my blog post: Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World. The path of self understanding need not involve going outside of where we are at in the here and now. Travels to distant parts of the earth are not necessary. This is because as we travel in the spirit of the Tao we realize the entire world is also within us. Alan Watts put it this way: “We have been brought up to experience ourselves as isolated centers of awareness and action, placed in a world that is not us, that is foreign, alien, other—which we confront. Whereas, in fact, the way an ecologist describes human behavior is an action: what you do is what the whole universe is doing at the place you call the here and now. You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.” We are part and partial of the world. The idea of ourselves as separate from the world from the Taoist perspective is an illusion. For more on living an authentic life close to nature see my post Finding Your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self.

Let the Light Always be With You

In Taoism, self understanding is paradoxically related to freedom from a sense of  self. Self cultivation involves more a stripping away of various ideas and behaviors we have acquired along the way to help us dominate and control what we perceive to be the external world than it involves adding anything new. The stripping away involves: (1) Surrender–the recognition that ultimately our ego is not in control, (2) Wu-Wei or effortless action–going with the flow in a manner that recognizes there is no separation between our self and the world: (3) Simplicity-the recognition that we can best experience our connection to nature when we live a simple life, free from the weight of excessive possessions and vain pursuits of fame and glory, (4) Grounding–living our life close to the rhythms of nature and the earth, (5) Humility–living an authentic life with integrity that recognizes the limits of our individual self and the corresponding recognition that we are part of something much greater than our individual self, (6) Spontaneity–a return to our more child-like sense of wonder and playful experience of the natural world.

Cedar River Sunset–This is another location within walking distance of my home.

The recent covid pandemic brought home to me this idea that we can arrive at our destination without leaving home. The pandemic, especially initially, placed limitations on my movement and for a few months I took images of only places within walking distance of my home. I began to realize now more than ever how much that goes into creating imagery is drawn from internal sources of inspiration. When I or yourself take an image of a landscape close to our homes, it is not just what is out there, it is also our emotions and passions of a moment in time that are coloring our perception of what is out there. Our internal world can be beautiful and when the photographer integrates the internal and external worlds through an image this is a manifestation of the all inclusive Tao— it is also the art and craft of photography. What might otherwise seem ordinary and mundane receives the inspiration of the life force of the Tao and now seems uniquely attractive and aesthetically interesting, worthy of sharing through the creation of photographic art. For more on the pandemic and landscape photography see my post: Growing Creatively during a Global Pandemic. For more on Sources of Inspiration including Internal Sources see my post on Sources of Inspiration.

Conclusion

There is no time better than here and now to embrace the eternal Tao and the freedom it offers to rekindle a sense of child like wonder, to bring back unrestricted awareness, to experience nature and landscape with fresh eyes and to reflect this experience in our nature and landscape photography. Now is the time to experience the “Watercourse Way”, move in the spirit of Wu Wei, and bring forward your image of the uncarved block. In the words of the late great motivational speaker Wayne Dyer, “Do the Tao Now (8).”!

Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2020

Thanks for reading this blog post. I invite everyone to share with me their reactions to this blog post on The Tao and Landscape Photography. I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on this article. If you think others would be interested in this post, please share it with your friends and other acquaintances. If you like the kind of content I am creating on this blog please let me know and consider subscribing to blog. Thanks again and may the Tao of nature be with you!

References and Additional Resources

(1) Taoism: Essential Teaching of the Way and it Power, 1999, Allan Cohen, Audio Book
(2) The Perennial  Philosophy, Aldous Huxley, 1945
(3) Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way, Translated by Sam Tarode, 2013
(4) Chuang Tzu, Inner Chapters, Translated by David Hinton, 2014
(5) The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions, Great Courses, Jay Garfield, 2013
(6) Tao, The Watercourse Way, Alan Watts, 1975
(7) The Tao of Pooh. Benjamin Hoff, 1983
(8) Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, Living the Wisdom of the Tao, Dr. Wayne Dyer, 2009
(9) The Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting, Wucius Wong, 1991

Landscape Photography: Inspiration, Preservation, Conservation and the Environmental Movement

Long waves of blue lupine glistened in the golden hour light as I slowly made my way up Flower Dome. This was a photography oriented Sierra Club Outings trip and none of us were in any particular hurry to arrive at our destination to watch the day slowly to slip back into the darkness of night.

Waves of Lupine and Light

There was plenty of time for conversation along the way and I used this opportunity to check in with Roger about how the trip was going. Roger, a senior trip leader, was mentoring an aspiring trip leader who created this outing as a photography oriented multi-day backpack. Roger showed great enthusiasm about the landscape and spoke mainly about its immense variety, variety that met us at every turn of the trail on this seven day backpack—forested valleys of virgin trees, tall sub-alpine grassy meadows, fields of boulders stretching out to the distant horizon, steep hillsides of mountain huckleberries and stunted trees, Lyman Glacier leading up and over Spider Gap, mountain lakes, passes with views reaching out in every direction, and flower meadows. Roger did not dwell much on the iconic spots of beauty we experienced along the way, Image Lake and Flower Dome, giving them no more emphasis that all the other parts of the ecosystems along our journey. A long unbroken silence ensued and Roger eventually confided that he was concerned about the type of people that his men-tee and landscape photographer was attracting to the trip. Were these photographers more interested in using this trip as a way to get beautiful iconic shots of small slices of this vast Glacier Peak Wilderness Area rather than experiencing the wilderness in its entirety with its immense variety of landscapes? And were these landscape photographers at all interested in learning about current environmental challenges for the region?

Image Lake at Sunrise

This trip was six years ago which seems like almost an eternity in the evolution of digital landscape photography. Much has changed since then and most landscape photographers are now acutely aware of how their role in publishing location specific images on social media can have adverse effects on the landscape. Even a image of a seldom visited site can inspire thousands and sometimes upwards to a million people to think about retracing our steps so they too can take an image of nature at the pinnacle of its beauty. This burning desire to go to these places will still be there regardless if the specific location is shared or not. As landscape photographers, however, it is still difficult for most of us to reconcile the potential negative consequences of sharing an image with our desire to inspire others to develop the same appreciation and love for the environment that got us into photography in the first place. We want it both ways, to inspire others and also to conserve and protect not only these precious environments where beauty is at its pinnacle but also to be good stewards of the earth in general. But is it possible to have it both ways?

I never question the authenticity of a landscape photographer’s belief that they hope to inspire others through their images to participate in the same love, sense of wonder and veneration for nature that they feel while photographing beautiful landscapes. I believe the landscape photographer’s feelings are honest and genuine. But I think it is important for myself and other landscape photographers to recognize that not everyone feels that this kind of inspiration best serves the goals of conservation and the broader environmental movement and may actually be counter productive. The focus of much of landscape photography today is on the sublime beauty of very small parts of vastly larger ecosystems. This is also the case even when we move beyond well known icons such as Delicate Arch, Mount Rainier’s Reflection Lakes, and Tunnel View at Yosemite. Landscape photographers gravitate toward places where nature’s beauty soars toward its pinnacle of beauty regardless whether these places are iconic or not so well known. Even this pinnacle of beauty will not be high enough for the landscape photographer who aspires to go higher still and through composition, photographic technique and artful processing creates a romanticized vision of the landscape . There is no doubt that many of these images inspire others, but do they really support the goals of conservation and the environmental movement that are more focused on protecting larger ecosystems? We will explore this further in the paragraphs that follow.

American Conservation Movement Early Beginnings

To understand the roots of the American Conservation Movement we first must go back to the predominant view toward nature at the time of the founding of this nation. For this underpinning we need to look no further than this biblical passage:

” Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth. Genesis 1:28”

This of course provides a scriptural basis for the concept of Manifest Destiny. It is our destiny to lay claim to and settle the American wilderness. During this time no one thought much about the consequences of their actions toward the environment. When one looked out west, America contained vast swaths of seemingly unlimited wilderness available for settlement. In his now famous thesis, The Frontier in American History published in 1893 (1), Fredrick Jackson Turner established the settlement of the American Frontier moving further and further west as a stream of events that shaped the psyche of the American People and made them unique-their love of freedom of the frontier, distaste for authority, self reliance and independence—a distinctive willingness to seemingly forever reinvent themselves at places where new settlements met a wilderness frontier. It is somewhat ironic that at the opening of his thesis Tuner announces that at the close of the nineteenth century and with the push of settlements out to the west coast, there is now no new American frontier. While this was true in a geographic sense, the idea of the American frontier even today is internalized in the American psyche as is evident in the attitudes of many that there are vast swaths of unspoiled land out there and no one needs to worry much about developing new land as there is an endless supply. We see this even among photographers who suggest there are an endless supply of wilderness locations of potentially iconic value just waiting to be discovered. At least in Washington State based upon my long history of wilderness travel I know that this is clearly not the case, and yet these attitudes persist–all we have to do is move to the next frontier.

Mind Wandering in the Desert
As much as I love the Mesquite Dunes of Death Valley, it hardly feels like wilderness to me when I see thousands of foot prints going in chaotic directions everywhere I look. Photoshop has made it easy to erase some of the negative aspects of the experience, but it does effect how I feel about the place.

Beacons of Light
Zabriske Point is only about an hour and a half from Las Vegas and its proximity shows. Death Valley is the largest National Park in the continental US and is also one of the most loosely regulated. Social trails crisscross this area every way one can imagine and new ones are sprouting up all the time. Down below in the valley scores of workshops head out onto the mud playa and visible damage is everywhere. How much longer can this be sustained? Are we furthering the cause of conservation by joining this stampede visiting these areas?

With the rapid industrialization of America in the Nineteenth Century and some of its negative consequences, a group of writers known as the American Transcendentalists, chief among the Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, began offering a substantially different view of nature. The transcendentalists held that people through nature could directly experience the spiritual realm without any assistance from organized religion. The path of transcending the ordinary material world was through contemplation and direct experience of nature, both within oneself and in the natural world outside of oneself.

In his essay Nature Emerson describe the experience of transcendence this way:

Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

If nature provides the window into transcendence and living a more fulfilling life, does it make sense any longer to conquer and subdue nature? After all, a conquered and subdued nature is no longer available to support personal and spiritual development.

Who will provide the grand design, what is yours and what is mine?
‘Cause there is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here
We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds
In the name of destiny and in the name of God-” The Last Resort by the Eagles Don Henley/Glen Fry

Denali National Park
If the American Frontier exists anywhere any longer it is here in Alaska, but I must admit with the steady procession of tourist buses headed toward the Denali back country and countless cameras dangling out the bus windows, when I was there a few years ago it hardly felt like a frontier to me.

Emerson met a much younger Thoreau at Harvard and encouraged him to explore transcendentalism and start writing a journal. Eventually Emerson granted Thoreau permission to build a small cabin on his land at Walden Pond where Thoreau conducted a two year experiment living in harmony with nature. The written account of this experience in his book titled Walden Pond provided a modern day source text or scripture, for an emerging environmental movement. For more on Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement see my blog post Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.

With the arrival of the twentieth century, the negative consequences of rapid development were becoming obvious to many Americans-soil erosion due to excessive grazing and poor farming practices, deforestation, and polluted air. This spawned a growing back to nature movement and John Muir tapped into this sentiment becoming a spokesperson and advocate of an emerging environmental movement. Muir advocated preserving wilderness areas for their own sake, and much of this effort was focused on landscapes with breath taking scenery, the Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Mountains. Muir started the Sierra Club as an organization to help promote preserving wilderness lands and the club eventually recruited Ansel Adams to be be their resident photographer to assist in this cause. Adams’s images focused on the sublime beauty of the region bringing to many artistically crafted Black and White images of such iconic places as the Yosemite Valley and the High Sierras.

From Preservation to Conservation

During the early part of the Twentieth Century a battle emerged between preservation and conservation. Although preservation and conservation may seem like they are addressing the same thing, protecting the environment, there is a key difference. The US Forest Service describes the difference this way: ” Conservation is generally associated with the protection of natural resources, while preservation is associated with the protection of landscapes” Conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use. Conservation focuses on the sustainable use of natural resources and therefore accepts such commercial uses as forestry, creation of water reservoirs, and even eco-tourism as long as these uses are consistent with the sustaining the natural landscape as a natural resource.

Evening has Come to Pass
John Muir said of the Mount Rainier Wildflowers “the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I have ever beheld in all of my mountain-top wanderings.” I could not agree with him more!

These two perspectives came into conflict during the later part of Muir’s life with the proposed damning of the Hetch Hetchy River in the Yosemite National Park. The City of San Francisco claimed it needed the water for the city water supply and also falsely claimed that access to this source of water would have prevented the San Francisco Fire. Muir’s, nemesis, conservationist Gifford Pinoget, argued that damning the river to create a water supply was in the best interest of society. Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief Forester of the United States argued that conservation of natural resources was best achieved through management of the wilderness for the greatest public good. With Muir saying “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man” the two view points could not be further apart.

Hetch Hetchy Before and After Photos–the before image reminds me a bit of the Yosemite Valley which managed to dodge a similar fate.

In the end Gifford’s point of view won out, and Congress passed legislation that enabled the creation of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law on December 19, 1913. But Muir succeeded in the elevating awareness of the consequences of Gifford’s perspective on the environment making it easier to win similar battles in the future including one which would have dammed the Grand Canyon.

From Conservation to Environmentalism

As America and the World for that matter approached the twenty first century and beyond, awareness increased of significant life threatening environmental problems such as destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, air pollution, acid rain, and contamination of the oceans . This helped move the focus of attention beyond local, state, and even national borders. With the recognition of these problems that transcend borders, the environmental movement began broadening its focus beyond just preserving wilderness areas with aesthetic value to taking steps needed to confront these much larger issues. Many began seeing the global environment itself as interrelated organism where the actions of humans were the primary cause of major imbalances. Many started to question whether it was even possible to manage resources in a manner that would keep the environment in balance and began advocating more drastic measures to head off the destruction of the planet (3).

Conservationism, properly understood, employs traditional values of environmental stewardship. A good steward takes care of what has been entrusted to him or her, thereby leaving an inheritance for the next generation. In the past many thought this stewardship could be accomplished in a manner that also protects and even promotes economic interests. As the focused shifted from Conservation to Environmentalism many began to doubt this. A divisive political landscape emerged where some political leaders turned a blind eye to environmental threats primarily because addressing these threats would have an adverse effect on the economy and would also move us closer to what they feared was creeping globalism and loss of national identity. This helps explain part of the reason behind the irrational denial of the reality of global warming by many American citizens.

Golden Gate Bridge at sunset
Upon my recent visit to the San Francisco Bay Area I was astounded at the beauty and immensity of the Marin Headlands Natural Areas just across the bridge from the populated city. Are not these wide open spaces just as important to us as distant wilderness areas?

Preservation, Conservation, Environmentalism and My Personal Journey

As a landscape photographer each of these trends in the evolution of the environmental movement continues to effect me. I no longer seek to conquer the next frontier in landscape photography with daring treks to locations known to no other, in Washington State these locations no longer exist as has been the case for quite some time now. My frontiers have moved inward and have more to do with bringing to the photograph my highly personalized experience of the scene. I am still a big proponent of preserving all remaining road-less places commonly thought of as wilderness areas. Designated wilderness areas represent only 2 percent of the continental America landmass and are far too precious to be squandered for any economic gain. The drumbeat of the economy will not skip a beat if we keep these areas commercial free zones, shutting out potential mining and drilling interests. But I now recognize that many of these areas are wilderness in name only with commercial establishments common around their periphery, and through Eco-tourism including photography workshops throngs of people visit these places every day. The idealized concept of the wilderness, a kind of pristine and untrammeled Eden, exists primarily in photographs from professional and serious amateur landscape photographers, not in reality.

Garden in Paradise
This near far focus stacked image is actually fairly close to what a person would see from a low perspective, but am I trying to create the impression of a new found Eden with this image?
St. Helens First Light
With the eruption of St. Helens Nature has taken us from Ashes back to a kind of Eden, but are we overly romanticizing this event in our countless images with similar perspectives taken from roughly the same area Johnson Ridge?

I have also matured in my perspective about conservation and sustainable use of the land. We cannot only focus on preserving areas of sublime natural beauty if this comes at the expense of loosening protections of surrounding areas that provide critical habitat to birds and wildlife. Commercial harvesting of timber in our national forests need not have adverse effects on the environment and may even help control the spread of diseases and provide important fire breaks. Ecosystems extend way beyond National Parks and Wilderness Areas and some lead right up to the door highly populated metropolitan areas. Conservation of these ecosystems and protection of biodiversity out of necessity will need to take into consideration societal and commercial uses of this land. With my increasing awareness of environmentalism and that I live on a planet where all ecosystems are interconnected, I now also realize that although I may act locally I also need to think globally. We cannot solve such problems as global warming and contamination of our oceans without reaching out across national borders. Environmentalism has also taught me that ultimately I may need to make sacrifices to ensure the health of the planet, reducing activities with a heavy carbon footprint such as consumption of meat and use of cars and airplanes to frequently travel to far away wilderness areas.

Rainier Rising Over Nisqually Delta
This wildlife refuge borders the highly populated Greater Seattle Tacoma area, and hardly meets the definition of wilderness, but from a conservation perspective this is one of the most valuable partials of land around for providing essential habitat to birds, fish, and wildlife.

Back to our original question–Is it possible for landscape artists to inspire others through their creations to be good stewards of the environment? First let us look at this from a historical perspective of how one Landscape Painter, Albert Bierstadt, and one Landscape Photographer, Ansel Adams, had a profound impact through their ability to inspire to also shape the perceptions of the public on the environment in a positive way. Although Bierstadt is not a photographer, in his time painting was the primary visual method of artistically representing the landscape and his approach continues to have a major influence on landscape photographers in the present day.

Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West (2)

The Last of the Buffalo by Albert Interstate 1888

In the above image, “The Last of the Buffalo” the legendary artist Albert Bierstadt portrays a dramatic confrontation of a Native American Plains Indian with a large buffalo. In this confrontation both the buffalo and Indian are going to die. The scene itself is heavily romanticized bearing little resemblance to anything real. The landscape itself is a composite of several scenes, with mountains, canyons positioned unusually close to the wide open prairie. Although there is a seemingly endless supply of live buffalo in the distance, old buffalo skulls and fresh carcasses are in the foreground and still other animals look at the confrontation with unusual interest. The image is not only a blend of different scenes but also a time blend of an earlier more Eden like wilderness with the end of the innocence in the decisive moment of the confrontation.

This was Bierstadt’s last painting completed toward the end of the Nineteenth Century close to the time when Turner announced that the frontier in American history had ended. By this time Bierstadt was acutely aware that the once vast heards of buffalo were nearing extinction and that most Native American tribes had already moved to distant reservations of largely undesirable land. Bierstadt intended this painting to not only raise awareness of the blight of the Buffalo and the need for conservation practices to protect remaining animals, but also to raise awareness of how the conquering of the American Frontier Wilderness displaced and brought great harm to indigenous populations.

The painting itself which was very large measuring 6 by 10 feet sold for $50,000, a record price for any piece of American art work in the 19th Century. The Last of the Buffalo in a immediate sense reflects Biersdadt’s reaction to the poaching of the Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. The painting had enormous impact in raising awareness of the near extermination of the Buffalo with influence reaching to the top levels of the US Government and a short time later new measures were put into place to manage and preserve remaining Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park.

Ansel Adams : Landscape Photographer and Conservationist Influencer Extraordinaire

Even today, no other landscape photographer is more associated with efforts to preserve wilderness areas than Ansel Adams. And yet is is difficult to point to any single image as the one that carried the message forward of the need to conserve and protect wilderness. Adams’s ability to capture the beautiful mystique of the wilderness, an emotional feeling that transcends the realism of the physical space that was also accurately represented in his images, is without parallel. When seeing his images, who would not want to preserve the last remnants of America’s beautiful wild places?

Mount Williamson 1944-thisis one of Adams’s most famous images and example of his capturing the “mystique of nature”. Adams took this photograph during his voluntary assignment to photograph life at the internment camp located at Manzamar for Japanese Americans during the second world war. The boulders in the foreground beautifully echo the shape of the distant peaks. Adams was convinced that the beauty of the Eastern Sierra provided the internees some respite from their captivity, but one could also view the field of large boulders as a metaphor for the challenges of living a life in prison when one committed no crime.

Adams’s role in the environmental movement started at an early age, when the Sierra Club took notice of his photos and recruited him as guide and their official photographer. Not long after that Adams was offered a board of directors position which he held from 1934 to 1971. The Sierra Club used Adam’s Images from his 1934 book titled Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail to help promote the creation of a new national park in the Kings River region of the Sierra Nevada.

The book Sierra Nevada The John Muir Trail influenced both Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt to embrace the Kings Canyon Park idea. Ickes showed Roosevelt Adams’s book and Roosevelt was so smitten with the beauty of Kings Canyon he kept the book that Adams had originally give to Ickes. When the Roosevelt administration asked the Sierra Club to help support what they envisioned as a road-less and non-commercialized Kings Canyon National Park, the Sierra Club immediately tapped Adams to go to the United States Congress to help promote the idea. Although there was a fierce debate in congress, the bill passed and the park was formally created in 1940. Imagine this today, the executive branch of government and the Sierra Club joining forces in the cause of conservation!

Half Dome Reflection
I am forever grateful to John Muir, Ansel Adams, and others for helping preserve this National Park Treasure

Ansel Adams is an excellent example of a landscape photographer who could inspire others to support conservation causes through the sublime beauty of his landscape images alone. These images did not overtly support conservation causes or document environmental issues. His ability to inspire, motivate and encourage others to aid the cause of conservation rested primarily on the respect he earned through his realistic representation of the natural world in the creation of his emotionally charged black and white images. In this role he is an excellent example for other landscape photographers to use their influence to support the higher cause of preserving and protecting the natural environment.

Lower Yosemite Falls
I can only imagine the sense of wonder that trailblazers John Muir and Ansel Adams felt with their first encounters of the Yosemite Valley

Reflections on Bierstand and Adams and a Changing Social Environment

These are just two examples of visual artists who had a profound effect on shaping the American perception of environmental issues. There are countless others both in the past and who are currently active, but I chose to concentrate on these two because of their special historical significance. Through their ability to inspire others with their creations, they also helped shape the political landscape resulting in changes the helped preserve and protect the environment. It can be argued that both individuals created idealized representations of the landscape. Their focus was primarily on places where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty, not giving much attention to the more mundane aspects of nature. But it is the more mundane nature that is more typical of larger ecosystems that extend far beyond areas where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty. This might not have been much of a concern during the time period time of these two artists. But as we move forward to the current age where social media dominates as the primary way images are communicated much has changed.

Before and After Pictures of California Poppy Fields during the 2019 Super Bloom
Photo Credit worldsokayesthiker

Captivating images of places that are inherently beautiful (even with just a cell phone snapshot) can draw thousands of people to a site in a very short period of time. We saw this recently during the 2019 super bloom in Southern California where in a short period of time social trails emerged where there were none before due to a rapid influx of social media tourists-tourists who find out about a picture/selfie worthy spot of extreme beauty through posts made on social media. In this new social media reality many Landscape Photographers are reconsidering how they share images of beautiful locations. The initial reaction was to stop geotagging or providing specific location descriptions of where the images were taken. An organization called Nature First: An Alliance For Responsible Nature Photography emerged to offer positive principles for Landscape and Nature Photographers to follow:

  1. Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
  2. Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
  3. Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
  4. Use discretion if sharing locations.
  5. Know and follow rules and regulations.
  6. Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
  7. Actively promote and educate others about these principles.

Latter developments included public shaming of landscape photographers who violated leave no trace rules especially those who wandered off trail into flower fields. Although I believe both of these reactions, along with including reminders in posts about leave no trace principles, have had some impact in slowing down the pace of environmental damage caused by social media tourists, it has not stopped the damage that continues to creep further and further forward.

Future Steps

What is needed at this juncture in our history I believe is for landscape and nature photographers is to reevaluate what they take images of to begin with, not just focusing on the small areas where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty, but to include in our portfolios a more balanced representation of the larger environment in which these areas of often idealized beauty are located. In short we need to get people excited about protecting and preserving nature in the broader sense, the environmental ecosystem/s, not just specific locations whether geotaged or not. For this we will also need to inspire people to develop a reverence for nature, and share more about our experience of nature and less about specific locations. In the remainder of this article I will discuss these steps in greater detail that landscape photographers can take to help shift the focus of attention and accomplish this goal.

Step One: Create and Post More Balanced Portfolios

Rather than put all your energy into creating a single epic image from a location, aim instead to create a balanced portfolio of images that better represent the variety of scenery in the environment you visited including its various ecosystems. In the pre-social media era this used to be more of the norm. Images were shared in collections often using slide shows, online galleries, or even heaven forbid albums with actual paper prints. It was common to see in these portfolios not only images of specific sites of iconic beauty (weather well known or not so well known) such as high mountain lakes and waterfalls, but also images of the macro world, intimate scenes, geological features, trees and the forest floor-in other words all aspects of the environment one has visited. Social media has reduced our attention span to less than a second per image so most photographers shifted their focus to just putting their most immediately impactful (not necessarily their best) image forward. For some photographers this also meant taking fewer risks and going to specific locations that have a proven track record of yielding popular images on social media sites. We all know some of the sites I am talking about: Mt. Rainier’s Little Tipsoo Lake, Delicate Arch, Oxbow Bend in the Tetons and numerous others that appear all to much in social media posts. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as these posts draw even people to these over visited tiny sections of our National and State Parks–this has got to stop and each of us can help. It will not stop through merely withholding location data-people are far too smart for that. As we publish more balanced portfolios and people get exited about the larger environment and variety of scenery, flora fauna, and geology–we will help stop the stampede and inspire others love for all of nature, not just an overly idealized wilderness Eden that Jackson Turner informs us long ago vanished with the settling of the American Frontier.

Creating more balanced portfolios may at first seem contrary to a highly curated approach to releasing nothing but the best images, but this need not be the case. I have seen excellent portfolios consisting of between three and five images. The portfolio taken as a whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts and some of the images within the portfolio such as excellent macro and intimate scene images may actually be rescued from social media obscurity as they achieve better context through their association with a strong balanced portfolio. Providing a backstory behind all of the images along with some natural history will also help establish needed context. Individual images can have their own stories and descriptions ideally presented as mini chapters of the larger story of nature and the environment. Portfolios where appropriate can also include images that are more documentary, highlighting before and after changes to the environment resulting from either good or bad behavior. The recent trend in including stories with multiple images on Instagram and Facebook is a step in the right direction, but many of these posts at this juncture still seem incredibly shallow to me. We need to take this to the next level of actual portfolio posts of images that can be viewed in more depth for longer periods of time than a quickly disappearing story.

Providing context to images will have the added benefit of helping arrest the sense of burnout many of us feel looking large collections of nothing but once in a life time epic images. After awhile we suffer from epic beauty overload. We appreciate images with epic sunsets, rainbows, and flowers at peak bloom in part because these are rare occurrences. But when we see it all of the time it is no longer rare. The viewer will only be able to participate in the emotions and experience of a rare event if the portfolio also has images that include some of the more mundane aspects of nature. These are absolutely necessary for the unfolding of the portfolios story. Consider it a creative challenge to present some of these more mundane aspects of nature in a creative light that will draw the viewer in. This is far more a meaningful test of ones photographic and artistic skill set that taking a compelling image of what everyone already knows is one of earth’s most beautiful places.

Step 2: Inspire Others to Develop a Reverence for Nature

With Thoreau’s publishing of Walden at the time the settlement of the American Frontier was reaching its end, Thoreau introduced to us a fresh vision of nature-not as a wilderness at the frontier waiting to be conquered (or in modern times something to be checked off of ones bucket list), but rather as the source of our personal and spiritual transformation. Thoreau himself found his spiritual fulfillment not in some faraway place of iconic beauty, but rather along the humble shores of Walden Pond only a few miles from his original hoe in Concord Massachusetts. This pond, a symbol for the care of the soul and self realization, can be anywhere and is most likely to physically exist close to where we are in the here and now. Ultimately Walden is beyond the physical realm, and is in the hearts and minds of each of us waiting to be discovered. For more on Thoreau and Walden Pond see my blog post: Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.

Walden Pond Rivisted
The journey to Walden pond for each person will be different, but all of us will share in a common vision of transcendence.  This pond for me is my Walden Pond close to where I live in Washington State USA.    I believe for me that it evokes some of the same mood of  the transcendent that Thoreau felt at the shore of the actual Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. 

In my encounters with Nature and Landscape Photographers I have found that most of them quietly share this Thoreauvian vision of nature as a source for spiritual fulfillment. For most of us Nature and Landscape Photographers Nature is our sanctuary. What better way to inspire others to share in this vision of Nature than taking the example from Thoreau and visiting Nature in close by places? What better way to shift the focus overly visited spots to nature in all of her manifestations than use our photographic and artistic skill set to find and unleash the often hidden beauty of nature in close by and often overlooked places? The beauty of these places in Thoreau’s words may not “rise to the level of grandeur”, but the beauty is there nevertheless. Once others see this beauty in our images, they will not want to retrace our footsteps to the same location but will be inspired to find nature’s subtle beauty everywhere, including in their own back yards.

Bleeding Hearts of the Forest
This is a beautiful scene taken in a quite ordinary second growth forest across the street from my house. I doubt hoards of people will be visiting this spot any time soon!

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions upon our movement and the need for social distancing, it is now more apparent than ever for the need for natural areas within walking distance of our homes. In her landmark book, The Nature Fix (4), Florence Williams explains why. Based on her scientific research, Florence creates a solid case that the natural world has the power to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships. Visiting these areas rather than alternative places far away also better for the environment because we do not need to use fuel/stored power to get there.

Cedar River Sunset
This gorgeous rive still wild and free is within walking distance of my home.


Fern Hill Forest
My place of quiet contemplation in a ravine about a thirty minute walk from my home.

Step 3: Share More of Your Experience of Nature and Less About Specific Locations

Rising from the Clouds
Numerous people asked me for the exact location of this image and I politely ignored their requests. A simple Mt. Baker I thought was sufficient for an image that had more to do with a combination of unusual weather conditions along with my own state of mind.

I have found that when I visit a National or State Park and let my own intuition guide me to what excites me about a place, it usually has more to do with the journey of movement through nature and the landscape and less about specific locations. I will call this the personal experience of nature. Getting this experience and associated emotional reactions into an image we share is no small task. It is relatively easy to go directly to known spots along the way the have high image potential, but our strongest images may not be there. Our strongest images will be those that integrate our internal experience of the place, call it our inner landscape, and the outer world of nature. Many of these images will not be at the obvious places of beauty. Creating and sharing our personal experience is also what will make our images more unique and better aligned to our personal vision. For more on personal vision see my blog post: Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self. There will be less emphasis on merely documenting a scene, however beautiful that scene may be, and more emphasis on creating art that although faithful to the material world leads to the transcendent and encourages others to embark on similar personal journeys through nature. For more on the transcendent in photography see my post: Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Images with Lasting Impact. For more on sources of inspiration including internal sources see my blog post Sources of Inspiration.

Epilogue

Fast forward six years and I am on a return journey to the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, once again with my friends from the Sierra Club. We are doing the 50 miles Spider Gap Buck Creek Pass Loop. Much has changed since my last trip six years ago. I notice there are about three times as many people doing this strenuous loop trip. What brought all these people here? Did I help contribute to the popularity of this loop trip through my social media posts? If hoards of people found this arduous multi-day backing trip deep into the heart of Washington’s most remote Wilderness Area is there anything left unexplored? Is there any longer a wilderness frontier for Landscape Photographers willing to go the extra mile or even the extra 20 miles?

Spyder Gap and Upper Lyman Lakes Basin

As I descend from Spyder Gap down a glacier toward the Upper Lyman Lakse basin I find myself attracted to middle of the day scenes transformed by distant clouds softening the light and changes in my own attitude. I am no longer just going for the iconic shot of Image Lake in epic conditions and am using my intuition and own thought process to help guide how I make my images. But I still feel the pull of social media shaping my expectations. Clearly I have a long way to go in this photographic journey.

Glacier Peak Gentium Flowers

I think back on earlier threats to this wilderness environment. Kennecott Copper had a legacy mining claim and planned to build a huge open pit copper mine on miners ridge that would have forever marred the epic view that we now take for granted from Image Lake. Thanks to the efforts of countless environmentalists and a land exchange this threat was ultimately put to bed. I think back when I was in my early twenties and made my first journey to Image Lake when I saw a huge group of long haired nature loving young people, scores of tents were pitched at the shore, and evidence of lake shore trampling everywhere. The condition of the lake is actually much better now. Are the selfie happy Instagram influencers any worse than this bunch of characters from my past?

Image Lake Viewpoint
I do not think this scene would be the same with a large open pit copper mine in the distance.

The long arm of history informs us that it is a mistake to assume that everything that is important and significant is happening right now. The current challenges may seem immense but there is opportunity to make a big difference just as there was opportunity at the time when Turner announced that Americas Wilderness Frontier is no more. It was not destiny that drove Albert Bierstadt and Ansel Adams to choose to use their artistry and influence to advance the causes of conservation. Although both were influenced by people who came before them, they both had free will and exercised that free will for the betterment of the environment. They made positive choices. As nature and Landscape photographers we too have free will. Will we use this free will to rise to the occasion? Will we use the artistry and craft of photography to inspire others to love and protect nature everywhere-not just in those spots where her beauty reigns supreme, but in all of her manifestations, some close to home, even out our back door? If we accept Thoreau’s message, that nature points to the divine, then our willingness to accept this challenge may also be the key keeping this pathway open for the salvation of the world and all of its inhabitants both human and non human, every living thing, even the spirits in our material world—keeping a pathway open to sources of inspiration for our children’s children and more generations still to come.

“None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild”. John Muir

“In Wildness is Preservation of the World” Thoreau

Erwin Buske Photography, Copyright Originally Published September 2019, Revised Earth Day, April 22, 2020.

Thanks for reading this blog post.  I greatly appreciate this and would love to hear from you.  Please leave a comment with your thoughts on this posts.  If you would like to receive additional posts like this please also follow this blog either through word press or a request for email notifications.  If you feel so inclined please help me reach people who may be interested in this post through sharing.  In addition to this blog I also offer a quarterly news letter. To subscribe click here. Thanks!

References

(1) Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the American Frontier in History, 1893

(2) Peter H. Hassrick, Albert Bierstadt Wintness to a Changing West, 2018

(3) Liz Sonneborn, The Environmental Movement, 2007

(4) Florence Williams, The Nature Fix, 2016

Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World

The image of Walden Pond, a serene place of imaginable beauty with a small cabin close to its shore, is somehow etched in most of our minds.  Few of us have actually been there or even seen a picture of the actual place.  Still Walden Pond has enduring symbolic value that finds its home deep in our personal psyche and our collective soul.  We may have recalled hearing about Walden Pond as part of our early education, but few can remember much about what they might have heard or read, and yet the image of the pond in our mind’s eye lingers and may even come into a clearer view with each passing year.

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Artist’s Sketch of Thoreau’s Cabin included on the title page of the original book, Walden or Life in the Woods, published in 1854.  

This is all consistent with Henry David Thoreau’s vision for the pond.  Although for Thoreau, Walden Pond was definitely a physical place,  Walden was also a metaphor for  an internal journey of self discovery and this metaphor has now been internalized in the hearts and minds of countless individuals.   Ultimately Walden straddles two worlds that are in reality a unity  The first world is an accurate, literal, and often highly detailed description of Thoreau’s two year stay at Walden Pond.  The second is a world of metaphor and symbols that allows us to internalize our own vision of Walden Pond as we travel with Thoreau on his internal journey of self-discovery that points to a transcendent world of soul and spirit.  In both the reader participates in this unity, making it a shared experience of transcendence.

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Walden Pond Revisited

The journey to Walden pond for each person will be different, but all of us will share in a common vision of transcendence.  This pond for me is my Walden Pond close to where I live in Washington State USA.    I believe for me that it evokes some of the same mood of  the transcendent that Thoreau felt at the shore of the actual Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. 

My personal encounter with Thoreau began in in my sophomore year of high school.  As part of our reading assignment of Walden, the class walked over to a close by wooded area.  Each of us was instructed to find our somewhat isolated area in the forest and then to just sit quiet, letting go as much as possible of any preexisting thoughts.   With paper and pencil in hand and using all five of our senses, we were then to record in as much detail as possible our observations, thoughts, and emotions-what ever came to consciousness in our newly found forest home.  This modest assignment is of course what Thoreau did on a much larger scale at Walden Pond.  He left behind what he saw as the corrosive effects of society and moved to a small cabin in the woods close to Walden Pond.  His objective:

“I went to the woods because I wished to lived deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die discover that I had not lived.”

Central Tree

Young Tree in the Forest

I thank my High School teacher for encouraging me to go into the woods for this meditative experience.  It helped sow the seeds  for my almost life-long series of meditative journey’s, some small, others large, into the wonders and beauties of nature.  This meditative experience has also been part of my photographic experience since day one.  But like most of us, I have had many detours along the way of my journey into nature-impossible work schedules, striving for material success, and periods of time where my day to day activities and relationships with others did little to help nurture my soul and spirit.  For a short period of time I attended a New Thought church based upon some of the ideas of Emerson, Thoreau and the Transcendentalists.  But I  found New Thought lacking in one very important area–nature.  Although New Thought placed a healthy emphasis on changing our minds to change our lives for the better, there was little or no emphasis on celebrating ones connection to nature that was so important in Emerson’s and especially Thoreau’s thought.  Getting married to my loving and supportive wife Julia, raising our daughter Caroline, and a renewed focus on nature and photography has done much to rekindle my spirit in the last two decades.  I am forever grateful to Julia, Caroline and living as close as possible to nature for helping reshape my life, making manifest sources of  inspiration to nurture and steadily evolve who I am as a person–my authentic self, my love for nature and ultimately the art and craft of my photography.

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Forest Carpet of Clouds

A couple of years ago I started reading and rereading Thoreau’s Walden again,  It is amazing how a book can take on new life and energy several decades later.  His message contained in the chapters of Walden Pond seemed to speak to me like never before, helping me to better communicate thoughts and impressions that have been going on in my mind for some  time.  In this blog post I will discuss my twelve takeaways from my recent reading and rereading of Walden Pond, offer some probing questions for everyone to consider, along with some questions more directed at  nature photographers.  This article, however, is intended for a wide audience of people, both photographers and non-photographers alike.  We all need the “tonic of nature”!

Before launching off on my takeaways I will lay some groundwork with  a discussion of the  following:  (1) A very brief biography of Thoreau, (2)  Thoreau and Transcendentalism, (3) and Walden Pond-a physical and spiritual place.

Henry David Thoreau a Brief Biography

Henry David Thoreau, (1817-1862) was born in Concord, Massachusetts, which was center of his life.   Thoreau studied at at Harvard University, graduating in 1837.  While still in college, in 1835 he contracted tuberculosis and suffered from recurring bouts throughout his life.  He made his living by working in the pencil factory, by doing surveying, by lecturing and teaching, and by publishing essays in newspapers and journals. His income acquired primarily through side gigs, however, was always very modest, and his main concerns were his daily afternoon walks in the Concord woods, the keeping of a private journal of his nature observations and ideas, and the writing and revision of essays for publication.  Thoreau did not identify himself with any of his lines of work and described his occupation this way  “My profession is always to be on the alert to find God in Nature, to know his lurking-places, to attend all the oratorios, the operas, of nature.”

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A Walk in the Forest

A decisive turning point in Thoreau’s life came when he met Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard.   The older Emerson introduced Thoreau to transcendentalism and encouraged him to start recording  his experiences in a journal.  Thoreau was a member of the Emerson household from 1841 to 1843, earning his living as a handyman. In 1843 he was a tutor to William Emerson’s sons in Staten Island, New York, and in 1847-48 he again lived in Emerson’s house.

In 1845, he received permission from Emerson to use a piece of land that Emerson owned on the shore of Walden Pond. He bought building supplies and a chicken coop (for the boards), and built himself a small house there, moving in on the Fourth of July. He had two main purposes in moving to the pond: to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and to conduct an economic experiment to see if it were possible to live by working one day and devoting the other six to his practice of  contemplation, journaling,  reading, and walking– thus reversing the Yankee habit of working six days and resting one.   In the years after leaving Walden Pond, Thoreau published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) but Walden itself was not published until (1854), a whopping seven years after leaving Walden pond. 
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IMAGE: 37 year-old Henry Thoreau by Samuel Worcester Rowse, as he appeared in the Summer of 1854 when “Walden” was published.

Thoreau who wrote “In wildness is preservation of the world” is often credited with being the father of the American Conservation Movement, not so much because of political advocacy but because he established that nature is essential for society to thrive and for an individual’s own spiritual growth.  Thoreau is also widely known as a nature writer and Walden is often refereed to as the urtext, the place where all American nature writing starts.  In addition to being a champion of nature, Thoreau is also known for his views on civil disobedience, mainly the need to prioritize one’s conscience over the dictates of laws.   Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King referred back to Thoreau to help explain their own acts of civil disobedience associated with the Indian Independence and Civil Rights movements respectively.  Thoreau himself was an outspoken abolitionist, serving as a conductor on the underground railroad to help escaped slaves make their way to Canada.  He wrote strongly-worded attacks on the Fugitive Slave Law (“Slavery in Massachusetts”) and on the execution of John Brown.

In May 1862, Thoreau died of the tuberculosis with which he had been periodically plagued since his college years .    Thoreau’s best friend Emerson wrote and provided his eulogy (exerts):

“He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely no doubt for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature….The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. … His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”

Thoreau and Transcendentalism

The the principal ideas of the American Enlightenment, the celebration of pure reason and the belief that science (at least how it was understood at the time) has an answer for just about everything, played a key role in the development of the American Republic from its founding until  the early part of the Nineteenth Century.   The elevation of reason also played a roll even in the practice of religion and this caused many transcendentalists to abandon the Unitarian Church because they perceived the denomination had an overly reasoned approach to explaining mysteries that defy rational explanation.   Toward the mid nineteenth century we see a counter movement in American culture and life based upon a Romantic notion more centered on intuition, emotion, and direct experience of nature as necessary conditions for developing an appreciation of the sublime and mysteries of life.  We see this in American Art as artists progressed from  primarily documentary portraiture to romanticized interpretations of the American Landscape.  We see this also in the literary world with the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Muir and others.

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Sunset in the Rockies by Albert Bierstadt 

Emerson attributed the philosophical underpinnings of Transcendentalism to the Idealism of German Philosopher Emanuel Kant as explained in Kant’s book titled the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant divided the world into its two aspects: the phenomenal world and the noumenal world. The phenomenal world is the material world we are aware of; this is the world we construct out of the sensations that are present to our consciousness. But if we limit our understanding of the world to appearances only, in other words what we can perceive empirically through our senses, our perception of the world is not complete and may actually be a kind of an illusion, and certainly not what Kant refers to as “the thing in itself”. The noumenal world consists of things we seem compelled to believe in, but which we can never know empirically because we lack sense-evidence of it. Kant also called this noumenal world “the thing in itself”, something that is beyond space and time.

Thoreau as a transcendentalist never denied the validity of the material world, but he also did not see the material world as compete. Both Emerson and Thoreau embraced the scientific method of empirical inquiry as it was understood at the time. This is especially apparent in Thoreau’s work as a naturalist, documenting and categorizing plants. But Thoreau’s inquiry as a naturalist was not limited to the material world, to what can be objectively perceived through the senses.. The path of self awareness transported him beyond the material world and through the embrace of wild nature took him to a noumenal world of soul, spirit and the divine.

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Phlox and Sun Flowers in Paradise–Columbia River Gorge

  Nature often has the ability to lure us deep into a rapidly unfolding scene, but at the same to elevate us to a place that seems beyond the temporal.  For more on Transcendental Nature see my blog post Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact.

In Walden, Thoreau provides to us his personal story  of how in nature he reconnected with his own soul and its inherent divinity, thus fulfilling the potential for an ideal existence in the real world.  In doing this Thoreau takes us beyond theory of Kant and Emerson’s often abstract ramblings, and provides us a very accessible example of what our own transcendental journey might look like.

Walden Pond

Upon first reading Walden’s pond one may initially get the impression that Thoreau is merely providing a meticulously detailed documentary account of his experience living there for two years.  But as the book progresses it is clear that Walden Pond is more than that and is full of symbolism and metaphors for the awakening of the soul and spiritual growth.  This is clear in passages such as this one from the chapter titled, The Ponds, where Thoreau describes the water of Walden Pond like this “It is the earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”  It is also evident with this passage also from the chapter the Ponds:

“Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sites by it, and the railroad has infringed on its water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the changes is in me.  It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples.  It is perennially young.”

What I find remarkable from the above passage is that even in Thoreau’s own lifetime he witnessed the encroachment of civilization at Walden Pond, with a railroad visible from the pond, residences popping up , and the falling of most of the large trees.  But even in the midst of these physical changes, Thoreau thought that the essence of the pond had not  changed, and in a sense seemed to be outside of space and time.  Thoreau  suggests here that the spiritual aspect of Walden Pond transcends this material world and even his own perception.   It is the same pond where Thoreau discovers the depth of his own nature, that is his spiritual  self.  Ultimately Walden is both, part of this material world that is constantly changing and something eternal, beyond the material world and even sensory perception.  It is the genius of Thoreau that throughout Walden Pond  he is able to closely, inseparably, and artistically link  real and ideal worlds.  In this regard he far exceeds even his mentor Emerson and in my opinion anyone who has since appeared on the literary stage.

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Artist depiction of Walden Bond, Frederick Chide Hassan

In the Chapter titled Ponds Thoreau does provide as near to a  concise summary description of Walden Pond as can be found in the book:

” The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it  much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description.   It is a clear and deep green well, a half a mile long and a mile and three quarters` in circumference, and contains about sixty one and a half acres, a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation.”

Cedar River Grove

Cedar River Grove–This is a somewhat ordinary place along side a noisy suburban road that was completely transformed by natures gift of some special mid-morning light.

By Thoreau’s own admission, Walden was a place of understated beauty and not what we would now refer to as iconic or epic beauty.  It was very humble in its origin.  Many people are surprised to hear that Walden was only a couple of miles away from Concord Massachusetts.  This was not a remote spot even by the standards of the Nineteenth century.   But to Thoreau Walden was extraordinary in a couple of ways, its depth and purity.  Thoreau mentions that the shoreline drops so suddenly that one could take one step into the water and already loose touch with the ground and that  no none knew for sure the absolute depth of the pond.  The water is so pure that in the right light ones ability to see into the water appears almost unlimited.  Depth and purity of course are coincidentally qualities we normally associate with the spiritual world.    The Walden Thoreau has introduced us to, however, could be just about anywhere, even in our own backyards, and it is in that context I will now discuss my key takeaways from reading  and rereading several times the book.

(1)   Access to Nature is our Birthright

“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it.  We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.  We can never have enough nature.”   Thoreau Walden Chapter 17 Spring

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Primordial Forest Flowers

This quotation comes in the closing chapter of Walden titled Spring.  With Spring Thoreau experiences a kind of rebirth of his soul.  Awakening from the depths of winter, Thoreau experiences an elevation of his spirit in his experience of the wonders and mysteries of nature.  With this awakening Thoreau recognizes the importance of nature for all of humanity.  Even as science finds explanations for much of what we can observe and study through our senses, there is a part of nature that will always remain mysterious and unfathomable.    The path to self discovery and spiritual growth for everyone goes right through Nature in all of her mysteries.  This is also a major  humane reason why it is so important to protect and nurture nature.   If we do not have access to nature or due to our recklessness we cause the destruction of nature, we are in effect cutting our selves off from the source of our spiritual development.    Ultimately “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World”   Thoreau Walking. 

Drawing inspiration from Thoreau and others, I am a big champion of having wild places close to cities and suburban places.  I wrote about one such place in Waterfalls of Cougar Mountain.  Are there wild or semi wild places close to where you live?  How often do you visit these places?  For photographers, does your photography practice include frequent visits to nearby places where you can stay in touch with the pulse of nature on a near daily basis?

(2) What we need is a Breath of Fresh Air

” So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life and denying the possibility of change.  This is the only way, we say: but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from the center.  All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which it taking place every instant.  Walden Chapter One Economy”

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Olympics Sunset: Come Fly Away

With Thoreau’s decision to live at Walden’s Pond, we see a pattern that was also part of the journey of two other Transcendentalists.  The first is Thoreau’s teacher and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the second is the legendary conservationist John Muir.  All three of these individuals put different levels of emphasis on Nature as the source of renewal, with Emerson’s Nature being often being more abstract, Thoreau’s more internalized, and Muir’s a kind of mountaintop spirituality involving what are now iconic landscapes.  Nevertheless, a  major change that brings each of these men into a new and fresh contact with nature  plays a key  role in their journey of self discovery.  What we also see in all three of these individuals is a pivotal point in their lives when they leave an old world behind to embrace a new world where the vestiges and shackles of their old world can be discarded and left behind.

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Many scholars are reluctant to count John Muir as a Transcendentalist, but any in depth reading of Muir by those familiar with Thoreau and Emerson will see a close affinity of perspective and thought between these individuals.  Muir was a student of both Thoreau and Emerson and actually met Emerson for several days in Yosemite in 1871.  According to the Sierra Club which Muir founded, “Muir’s copy of the twenty-volume, 1906 edition of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau is heavily annotated, underscored, and indexed on the blank pages with extensive commentary by Muir”.  Muir’s interpretation of the religious spirit of nature is remarkably similar to the thoughts of Emerson and Thoreau as is evident in this passage and others.  ““When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”  In June 1893, John Muir visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord and laid flowers on Thoreau’s and Emerson’s graves. ”  

With the untimely death from tuberculosis of Emerson’s first wife Ellen at the age of only nineteen, Emerson leaves the ministry and sets sail for Europe where he meets the romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth.  Emerson’s life is forever changed as he leaves behind established religion, and it is at this time that his new transcendentalist vision for salvation through direct experience of nature begins to take hold.  Later we also see something similar with Muir.  At age 29 Muir was blinded in  a factory accident.  Although his sight eventually came back, this was a tipping point in his life.  He left everything in his life behind, his job as an efficiency expert in the factory, his connection to the Church and his family, and embarked on a 1,000 mile march to immerse himself in nature, starting in Indiana and ending in Florida where he caught malaria.  This experience was the impetus to send him out west to California where he found mountaintop spirituality and set in motion his life long effort to conserve and protect the natural world.  Thoreau’s journey to Walden Pond,  just two miles away from Emerson’s home in Concord, Massachusetts may not seem quite as grand, but this journey also represented his turning away from a society that in the face of rapid industrialization was causing people to live a lives of  “quiet desperation”.   For Thoreau, the true frontier was not thousands of miles away across the sea or land, but within his own consciousness as he immersed himself in the natural wonders of Walden Pond.

Is there a time period in your own life where you broke away from  much of your past and turned your attention to new images and a dream of a new future?   For photographers, has a major life change been part of your photographic journey and does this change still provide to you sources of inspiration?  Sources of Inspiration for Nature and Landscape Photography: Finding Your Photographic Vision

(3) Voluntary Simplicity

“Our life is frittered away by detail.  Simplify, Simplify.”  Walden

Thoreau lets us know his original intention for coming to Walden Pond  in the second chapter of his book title of his book “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For “

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

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Window through an Old Growth Cedar Forest

This quote comes after the first chapter of the book titled Economy where Thoreau provides an elaborate explanation of how he was able to move close to the pond, build a small cabin, and largely become self sufficient with a small surplus that he could barter or turn into a small amount of money.  Adopting this kind of lifestyle for him was necessary to remove himself from what he saw as the unnecessary distractions of living life in a society that that does not nurture the development of ones soul.  These distractions also included not only employment in what was then fast becoming an industrial society,  but also the processions that often serve to complicate our life, weigh us down, making it difficult to follow or even hear the still quiet voice within.  Ultimately he wished to stand on its head the prevailing work ethic at the time of working six days and resting on the Sabbath, a goal which he successfully accomplished at Walden Pond.

Most of us realize at some point along our journey that the world we have constructed around our self, including such things as expensive homes, cars, well paying but demanding jobs, and even some of our complicated relationships with others-are adding unnecessary complexity to our life and standing in the way of living a more fulfilling life consistent with our true calling.  Unraveling this complexity and moving toward a  simplified life seems like a daunting task to most and for some maybe not even an option.  But living a more simple life will be necessary to create the time and space to move toward a life closer  to nature and getting in touch with who we truly are as a person, our authentic self.

Have you ever felt the need to simplify your life, and if so what steps have you taken to accomplish this?  For photographers, do you ever feel the life you have built around yourself including your occupation, even if nature photography, limits your access to sources of inspiration, including nature itself?

(4)  Daily Practice

A good part of the book Walden is dedicated to writing about Thoreau’s daily spiritual practice.  This practice consisted of the following: (A) contemplation, (B) journaling, (C) walking,  (D) conversations, and (E) reading.  All of these practices helped Thoreau establish a daily rhythm that helped him in the process of walking up to his true nature.  This process of waking up was not as much about finding meaning as it was about awareness and feeling fully live in the present moment.

Thoreau would spend hours in front of his cabin and along the shore of Walden Pond engaged in quiet contemplation. In doing this Thoreau was not so much seeking seeking answers, but letting nature reveal itself and speak to Thoreau on its own terms.  Thoreau also kept a daily journal for most of his life and these journal entries helped him describe what he was observing not just in a matter of fact way, but also in a more lyrical and evocative way.   Moving more toward a poetic description was necessary for those aspects of his observations which eluded a more precise description.  For example Thoreau would often feel a surging energy in nature, an experience better suited to poetry than his more scientific descriptions of nature. Walks were a regular part of his routine and these walks were meditative in nature with Thoreau immersing himself and being present in nature that surrounded him.

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Foggy Trail-One of the many trails I have close by access to for walking on a daily basis.

Although Thoreau lived a somewhat solitary existence at Walden, portions of the book are  dedicated to discussing his conversations with visitors.   In Walden Thoreau states: “I had three chairs in my house, one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”  In the chapter visitors, Thoreau introduces his admiration for a wood cutter who would occasionally drop by for conversation.  The wood cutter seemed to be living in harmony in nature, but lacked any kind of intellectual or spiritual awareness.  This helped Thoreau realize that he must go deeper in his own spiritual practice, recognizing that it is not sufficient to just be working in nature such as in his own  practice of farming,  but that a deeper immersion involving deep thought and the mind is necessary.  It is noted in his second year at Walden Pond Thoreau cut way back on his cultivation of his fields to open up more time for him to spend experiencing nature without the distraction of work and toil.

Just like many of us take our favorite book on wilderness adventures (often Walden itself!),  Thoreau was an also avid reader during his quiet hours at Walden Pond.  At Walden Thoreau mentions multiple times his reading of ancient Hindu texts including the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas.  All of these texts came from Mr. Emerson’s library and Thoreau read them without any interpretive assistance finding in them what Aldous Huxley famously termed the “Perennial Philosophy”, common themes that ring true in wide variety of ancient texts and cultural traditions.  To get a sense of the extent to which these texts captured his imagination consider this passage from Walden:

“I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well”.

Thoreau wrote to his friend Harrison Blake in 1849:  “To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi!”     One actually finds in  Walden a beautiful story of one man’s realization of Ātman which is a Sanskrit word that means inner self or soul.  In Hindu Philosophy,  Ātman is the first principle, the true self of an individual beyond identification with phenomena, the essence of an individual, somewhat similar to the previously mentioned numinal world of the nineteenth century German Philosopher, Emanuel Kant.  What goes around comes around!   Thoreau’s genius is that in the creation of Walden he shared his story that made much more accessible to others this idea of moving beyond ego and the material world to self realization.

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Self Realization–Eagle Cap Wilderness Area

I have found in my own life there is nothing like a regular practice focused on nature to keep life in perspective and focus on what truly is important.  My practice includes all of the practices that Thoreau discusses in Walden, but I am sure I am not nearly as devoted to these practices as the master Thoreau!  These practices have also formed the groundwork for my creative pursuits especially photography.  Does your current life include time for daily spiritual practices, especially time in nature?  For photographers, do you often spend time in nature, without camera, just observing, listening, and absorbing what nature has to offer?

(5) Follow the Beat of Your Own Drummer

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”  Walden Conclusion

Thoreau like Emerson and all Transcendentalists puts much emphasis on the need for individualism.  But in this passage Thoreau adds his own perspective.  If  one is not keeping up their peers in what are often competitive pursuits, it may not be because one  lacks the ability to keep up, but rather one is drawn to another calling.  In other words, the feeling of the need to compete in certain endeavors—for example for jobs that convey a sense of status and for bigger and better homes — may actually be taking us further away from our true calling and who we are as a person.  It is following a script set by society that has largely lost its connection to nature.  Thoreau points to another way that shuns conformity and this way involves moving closer to rhythms and pulse of nature.

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Boulder Garden–This image was taken below Little Si, not exactly an iconic spot, and often quickly passed over on the way to the small peak.  But on this day I followed a still small voice of nature that said this is the spot for meditation (and photography!) today.

Are you currently living the life you imagined for yourself?    Are there steps you can take, some small and some large, that can lead you to a life more consistent with your calling?  For photographers, are the images you are sharing on social media those which express your own voice and calling rather than conforming to some standard, not your own, that is associated with achieving recognition or popularity at little or no risk?

(6) Solitude

“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”  Walden Conclusion

I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.  Walden Chapter Five Solitude

Lone Trillium in the Forest

Walking around Walden Pond, Thoreau experiences solitude in nature, but in this solitude he is not lonely, because he is part and partial of nature.  In his participation in nature Thoreau finds freedom: freedom from a societies institutions, competitive pressures, and petty gossip..  Nature prevents him from ever really being alone.  In the company of animals, plants, and the elements, Thoreau finds an inexhaustible source of spiritual nourishment.  Thoreau is careful to differentiate between solitude and loneliness, which one can feel even when one is in the company of other people.  For Thoreau in his experience at Walden Pond, it is solitude, not society, which prevents loneliness.   Even in solitude, one is connected to the natural world and web of life.

Do you frequently set time in your schedule to be alone with nature?  If not, are there some steps you can take to have what Julia Cameroon calls in her landmark book the Artist’s Way, a date with yourself, just you and nature?

(7) Inward Journey

Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find

A thousand regions in your mind

Yet undiscovered.  Travel them, and be 

Expert in home-cosmography.  Thoreau  Walden Conclusion

In this passage where Thoreau is reflecting upon his experience at Walden’s Pond, he exhorts us to take the inward journey because this is where the true frontier of self discovery lies.  To find this final frontier, Thoreau reminds us there is no compelling reason to travel far and wide to disparate locations around the world.  The frontier lies at the intersection of nature and one’s own  consciousness where ever one may be, even at Walden Pond, less than two miles from his previous home in Concord, Massachusetts.  There is no better way to get to know oneself than through the natural world.  But it would be mistake to think one must first travel to a distant place or even a very particular place before taking the inward journey.  The right place and time to  start the inward journey is close to where you are in the here and now.   In every part of nature we can sense the interconnectedness of all of nature,  and every part of nature, however, small and humble, can lead us closer to the  heart and soul of  nature, both within us and without us.  We too are nature.  For more on the inward journey see Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self

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Inner Reflections–Henry M Jackson Wilderness Area

How much to we really know about who we are as a person, our authentic self?  What does it mean to you to direct ones eye inward and how might living a life close to nature help this process?  For photographers,  have you ever noticed that one of your images images of nature reflects both your inner and outer world?

(8) Be Here Now

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” .  Thoreau’s Journal Entry, April 24, 1859

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Bleeding Hearts of the Forest–I found this scene on one of my countless walks through a forest close to my home in a suburb of the greater Seattle area.  We need not travel far to find nature is one of Thoreau ‘s primary messages.

I believe there is no doubt that Thoreau intended Walden as a kind of spiritual guide for finding fulfillment in ordinary places, even one’s own backyard.  It is not just a coincidence that Walden’s pond was only a few miles from the Emerson home in Concord Massachusetts, and in the conclusion of Walden Thoreau specifically states one need not travel far and wide to find fulfillment.  It is a kind of irony that eternity can only  be experienced one moment at a time, but deep down inside I think we all know it cannot be any other way.  All of us must work with the life we have and stop trying to be something we are not.   Even in quite modest places and facing only the essential facts of life, great things are still possible for each of us and that is a key message of Walden Pond.

Living in the here and now at Walden Pond came easily to Thoreau, and  his daily observation of nature using all five of his senses  and documenting this experience helped establish the awareness that made this possible.  Granted Thoreau’s senses were  far more keenly developed than my own and most people reading this article, but living in the here and now is also possible for each of us if we focus on cultivating awareness through a daily practice of spending  quality time in nature.

Examine your own life and your typical daily schedule and ask yourself if you can find a regular time in  each day to be a witness to the wonders and beautifies of the natural world.  For photographers, how might cultivating a greater awareness of nature on a daily basis, employing all five of your senses, help you in continuing to develop the art and  craft of photography?

(9) Waking Up

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.  I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.  It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through we which we look, which morally we can do.  To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.  Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”   Walden Chapter -Where I lived and What I Lived For.

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Dawn of a New Day

For Thoreau the “infinite expectation of the dawn” is a metaphor for spiritual awakening, moving out of our often unconscious lives and living life in a much more conscious manner.  In Walden Thoreau states “to be  awake is to be alive”.  Thoreau thought most of us live lives of quiet desperation, being in a kind of semi conscious slumber, or in the words of Pink Floyd’s lyricist “comfortably numb’.  The script for our lives, however, is often not our own, but comes from a society that places more priority on material gain, status and popularity than spiritual development.  In this passage Thoreau reminds us there is another way and sounds a joyful and positive note.  Through living close to nature, simplifying,  and living a more conscious life, we have the opportunity to create and shape our own destinies.  Here Thoreau uses the examples of a sculptor or painter who are just replicating in their art the beauty that they see around them and comparing this to the sculpture or painter who carves and paints the very atmosphere and medium through which they look.  The later is not just documenting the world that they see around them but through their conscious actions as self aware individuals are creating something new.   The artist does not need to conform to the world that surrounds them.  The artist instead can become the center of his or her world and actually help shape this world making it a better place “worthy of contemplation”.

What does it mean to you “to elevate ones life through a conscious endeavor’?  Is there a relationship between our conscious awareness of each moment, where we focus our attention, and our own potential for growth?  For photographers what does it mean to you “to paint (photograph) the very atmosphere and medium through which you look” rather than just to paint (photograph) a few beautiful objects?  Is Thoreau talking about the process of artistic creation rather than just documenting a scene?

(10) Follow Your Dreams  “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours”.    He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.  In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of  the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. ”  Thoreau Walden Conclusion

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Walking Into a Dream, Mt. Rainier

Once one has embarked on a path of voluntary simplicity, living close to nature and one begins to wake up and discover his/her authentic self and divine nature– it is time to create a vision to develop ones potential for greatness.  By greatness, Thoreau of course is not talking about  material success or ego aggrandizement, but developing a larger sense of self, ones true nature, grounded in spiritual awareness. Thoreau knows from his personal experience, and admonishes us, that the important thing is to move forward in the direction of our dreams.  This is what Thoreau did with his experiment at Walden Pond and in the years following when he created the book Walden, a Life in the Woods, and this path is available to us as well.  Each individual’s journey will of course be different.  In finding our vision, however, we should not just settle for the ordinary.  The vision needs to be challenging and creative.  Once we start to move forward, what at first may have seemed impossible will seem less difficult and step by step our larger sense of self and potential will come into view.    It is as if  all the universe and all of its laws want us to succeed and we will.  Transcendence involves creating a new vision of reality and ones relationship to it.  Once one realizes this new vision, there is no turning back.  It is as though one has passed an invisible boundary and the only way lies forward.

Looking back at the successes in your life that you feel best about, were these also times where you moved in the direction of your dreams without knowing  for sure how all the pieces would come together?  For photographers, what are your dreams for the future?  Do your creative dreams put nature first ahead of plans for commercial success?

(11) Stay Grounded

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them”.  Walden Conclusion

Although Thoreau encourages us to dream big and have lofty goals, he places equal emphasis on staying grounded.  In a sense with Walden,  Thoreau is ushering in the possibility of change and a new vision with nature at its center to help us reach our highest potential.  But this new vision for personal transformation needs a  solid foundation.

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Beauty at the Forest Floor

Emerson wrote in his essay the Transcendentalist   “We have yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character, and eaten angels’ food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how, and yet it was done by his own hands.”  Thoreau gave his dream a solid foundation through multiple actions discussed in Walden,  not just the building of the foundation for his small cabin in the woods and his work in his garden, but also his daily spiritual practice of contemplation, walking, conversations, writing, and reading.  Living our dream will not be a constant experience of divine ecstasy.  Beware of false new age prophets who promise this.  A good portion of our time will be spent finding a balance of tending to doing what is necessary to secure our basic needs and in our free time tending to our daily spiritual practice.  With this foundation work in place, we can direct the remaining energy to pursuing our creative vision.

What activities and pursuits in your life help you to feel grounded?  Is it possible to pursue your dreams but at the same time cultivate those activities which keep you grounded?

(12) Rebirth

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.  Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one”.  Thoreau Walden Conclusion  

When Thoreau decided to embark upon his experiment in simple living at Walden Pond, he did so in part because he thought that his life had become to routine.  Living at Walden Pond taught him many things not the least of which was the rhythm and cycles of nature.  Nature is constantly reinventing itself, not only with the changing seasons, but in the longer term with transformations of the landscape itself.   After two years at Walden Thoreau once again thought his life had become routine and it was time to redirect his energies.

From Ashes to Eden

In an area that in recent times was ashes and dust following the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s, we now see beautiful fields of flowers to direct the eye to this still active volcano.

Although Thoreau kept journal entries at Walden Pond, the book itself was not yet written and it would take him another seven years to finish the creative masterpiece that now serves as a modern day myth and guide for achieving personal and spiritual transformation through immersion in nature.  Thoreau also firmly believed that personal and spiritual transformation through nature would lead one to a higher moral outlook.  Thoreau had much more work to do in gathering and writing his thoughts on the importance of civil disobedience, and his own role in supporting the abolition of slavery.  Had Thoreau lived longer we likely would have seen a lot more from this champion of nature.  His legacy however is born anew everyday in the lives of millions of people the world over, bringing them closer to nature and its protection, inspiring the quest for spiritual growth, and encouraging people to conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with their own conscience.

Do you sometimes feel that you have many more lives to live?  Do these feelings cause you to make changes in you  life to help you to live the life/lives you imagined?

Conclusion

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“The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.  ”  Thoreau Walden 

Walden or Life in the Woods, is a spiritual guide for the process for each of us to wake up to our own divine nature.  Although Walden was a physical place, Thoreau wanted each of us to embark upon a journey to our own Walden Pond.  This pond, a symbol for the care of the soul and self realization,  can be anywhere and is most likely to physically exist close to where we are in the here and now.   Ultimately Walden is beyond the physical realm, and is in the hearts and minds of each of us waiting to be discovered.

Erwin Buske Photography, Copyright 2019

Thanks for reading this blog post.  I greatly appreciate this and would love to hear from you.  Please leave a comment with your thoughts on this posts.  If you would like to receive additional posts like this please also follow this blog either through word press or a request for email notifications.  If you feel so inclined please help me reach people who may be interested in this post through sharing.  Thanks!

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References and Additional Resources:

Walden or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau, 1854

The Journal 1937-1861 Henry David Thoreau, Edited by Damion Searls

Thoreau As Spiritual Guide, Barry M. Andrews, 2000

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, By Laura Dassow Walls, 2017

Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalists, By Great Courses

The Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1842

Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1836

Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Images with Lasting Impact, Erwin Buske Photography Blog

Finding Your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self, Erwin Buske Photography Blog

Sources of Inspiration for Nature and Landscape Photographers

The Thoreau Society

The Walden Woods Project (founded by Don Henley)

The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley, 1944

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, Donald Worster, 2008

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Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact

“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature–Chapter 1, 1836) 

During our current digital age with the predominance of social media as the primary way images are now shared, the life span of a popular image can often be measured in just days and sometimes even in hours.  This is not surprising when one considers that the average time a typical person looks at an image on social media is measured in just a few seconds or less.  Yet even in this fast moving environment, where fame and glory evaporate like rain on hot desert sands, some images have staying power and create their own legacy-these are “Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact”.

This article will discuss in depth each of the following topics that collectively will help you create inspiring images with lasting impact.

  1. Emotion
  2. Self Expression
  3. Story Telling
  4. Light
  5. Color
  6. Contrast
  7. Composition
  8. Gestalt

Before discussing each of these, however, I would like to introduce my concept of a shared vision.   Nature images that have staying power put forward a vision that is shared by both the originator of the image, the Photographer, and the viewer.  The attributes of the image invite the viewer to participate in the photographer’s vision.  American philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson provides us with some insight into how this is possible.  The process starts by finding who we are as a person, our authentic self.  Emerson and two noteworthy legends he influenced, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir pointed out the way.  We must recover our authentic self through separating ourselves from societal influences and immersing ourselves in nature.  Emerson thought nature always points to soul and spirit, the invisible world, that is the source of all creation.  This may sound somewhat far-fetched to some, but in my experience working and collaborating with some of the best nature and landscape photographers, most have confided in me that that there is more to the world than what is seen, and it is this something extra, an often idealized or romanticized vision of nature, that they want to include in their photographic creations.  Because photography, which is anchored in the moment and physical world also points to the universal world of spirit, others can join in and share in the photographer’s vision.  Emerson saw a circular and fluid path between Nature, the Self, and Spirit.  The conventions and distractions of society can keep us from noticing this flow, but experiencing this continuum is available to all who approach nature on her own terms.

Shared Vision

(Unified Field of Consciousness–One = Many)

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I will now discuss each of the eight topics.

(1) Emotion

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Autumn Moods

When someone views one of your images they always have an emotional response, but this response is not always strong and and a viewer’s interest can easily wane.  Images with a lasting impact, however, will evoke a strong emotional response in the viewer.  There are many reasons why this may be the case.  Perhaps they visited this location or a similar location and your image brings back positive memories.  Or like in the image above, the mood and atmosphere of the image transports the viewer into a realm of mystery that spurs their active imagination.  The viewer pictures him or herself walking into the scene experiencing the sense of awe and mystery of the place as if they were actually there.  For more on the active imagination see Forests in the Mists: Windows into the Active Imagination.

“The world is but a canvas for our imagination.” Henry David Thoreau

Next time you are out photographing ask yourself what emotions you feel as you are taking in the beauty, wonders, and mystery of nature.  Do you feel uplifted with a sense of joy, or does these scene bring up darker feelings of  fear or sadness?  Does the scene exude a sense of peace and tranquility, or does it exude more of sense of strong motion and power?  Whatever emotion you feel, try to convey this in the image, both at the moment of capture and in post processing.

(2) Self Expression

“Going into the woods is going home”–John Muir

“Be yourself, no base imitator of another, but you best self”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a sense when reading the profound works of Emerson, Thoreau and John Muir that the path to finding our authentic self and expressing who we are deep down inside goes through nature and the wilderness.  We recover our true self in quiet moments immersed in the solitude of nature.  Once there, nature provides a mirror to our soul and spirit.  But the process of self recovery has a few conditions.  We cannot recover our authentic self if we approach nature as something to be consumed–locations and photo-ops to be checked off our bucket list.  Finding ones self in nature and expressing our true self in our images require that we experience nature on its own terms without any preconditions or desire to control her wildness.   Nature also demands that we eventually come to her on our own without any intermediary–workshop leaders, photography gurus, and the like.  We come alone because we can only understand her secrets through the powers of our direct intuition.  For more on finding your authentic self see my blog post Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self . 

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Rainy Day Autumn Dream

I spent a weekend at Mt. Baker last September but did not see the mountain once.  The thick cerebral layer of clouds and constant heavy rain moved me into a self reflective dimension with this image of the Bagley Lake Bridge best expressing my emotional state.

(3) Storytelling

“Truth is so rare, it is delightful to tell it.”
Emily Dickinson

Images that come with a story almost always have a more lasting impact than images that do not.   Sometimes the story arises naturally from the composition of the image, such as two lovers waking along the beach into the sunset.  Other times the story is provided in a short written narrative.  Stories are successful because they provide context to the image and invite viewers to go deeper into the image and explore how it relates to the narrative.  Sometimes a good title for an image is all that is needed to give additional context to the image that is largely already self-sufficient in telling a story.  Ideally the written story and story told through the path of  light and image composition compliment or even  mirror each other.  Viewers love a good story even if it is brief.  Some of my stories for landscape images have to do with the challenges that often come with getting the shot.  But I also have stories that have to do with the history of a landscape.   Often stories that have the most impact reveal how a landscape awakens an experience at a personal level that is often shared by others as well, such a journey to one’s ideal home as in the image below.  These stories are more archetypal in nature and contain visual metaphors that point to common experiences.  With all types of stories, the story not only helps lead the viewer into the image, but also helps reveal what the photographer was thinking and feeling at the time of capture.

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Walking into  a Dream

(4)  Light

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Remains of Autumn

On this evening beautiful intense front light at low angle came through a crack in the clouds strongly illuminating the trees, clouds and reflections.  The clouds also reflected light back onto the scene.

We live in a time when many of the images that rise to sudden popularity were taken in conditions of underwhelming light.  I personally have watched and listened to a few well known video tutorials where the author even indicated that good natural light is not necessary because it can be created in Photoshop.  Often these tutorials start with images where the directional and nuanced lighting is for the most part absent except for perhaps some lingering light in the sky such as images taken just before dusk.  The reason to start there is because it is easier to manufacture the needed light for these images through painting through a masking in Photoshop.  I have noticed recently, however, a trend recently where the best landscape photographers are now featuring images with beautiful and often subtle natural light.  One of the reasons for this is that we have become numb to the countless spectacular images manufactured in Photoshop with once in a life time epic lighting.  The images now lack context and no longer stand out as they all blend into a vast uniform commonality on platforms such as 500px and Instagram.  It is important to note that Transcendental Nature Photography has no prohibition on introducing sources of light that were not there to begin with, ultimately there are no rules.   The Transcendentalist just wants to preserve the relationship with nature as it is experienced and intuitively grasped, because it is this connection that points to soul and spirit and ultimately a shared vision.

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Autumn Magic:  About 15 minutes before sunset front to side lighting came through an opening in the clouds providing spotlighting to the ridge tops and a warm glow to the grayish clouds that reflected light back down onto the mountain ash bushes and Lake Ann.

Images that have staying power and lasting impact will be anchored in the natural light that was present at the moment of capture.  The reason for this hearkens back to our earlier discussion of “Shared Vision”.  We always start with nature as it presents itself in the here and now.  This is what provides us as a mirror to our authentic self and also what transports us and our viewers into a shared world of soul and spirit.  This does not mean we cannot enhance the lighting that was in the original scene.  If fact, this is necessary to poetically evoke the feeling of nature as the manifestation of the world of soul and spirit.  But the idealization and or romanticizing of the experience of being in nature always maintains a “down to earth” anchor in this physical world even as it points to an invisible world beyond.

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Morning Dew :  At sunrise I shot this image looking directly at the sun that provided back lighting to the tulips and morning dew.

The quality of the light is determined by its angle, direction, color and intensity.  Shooting directly into the sun at a low angle may provide dramatic back lighting of elements in the scene.  Side lighting at a low angle is best for revealing textures and contrast.  Front lighting at low angles can transform a scene when channeled through a small opening in dark clouds.  Diffused light from an overcast sky can help rein in excessive contrast and emphasize subtle colors and textures.  Before sunrise the lighting is cool but transitions to warm as the sun rises.  As the sun sets the lighting gets warmer but eventually transitions to cooler tones.  This is why the feel of sunrise can be quite different than sunset.  How does the movement and transition of light along with the interplay of light and shadow correspond with your own internal landscape and emotional state of being?  Through timing, image framing, and post processing can the external and internal landscapes be brought into a closer union?  We associate light with illumination: the ability to see, consciousness, awareness, and transcendence.  By way of contrast darkness and shadows can represent a limited ability to see, the subconscious, the unknown, and feeling stuck in one’s personal world.  Light and its effect on the physical landscape can be thought of as a metaphor that illuminates inner or even transcendent vision.  The possibilities for the effect of light on an image are endless.  Learn how to read light and you are well on your way to mastering landscape photography.

(5) Color

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Autumn at Spirit Falls

In this image the blue green Red Orange Colors are complementary and green to yellow orange colors are harmonious.

Blotches of bright and saturated color are one of the first things we see in an image which helps explain why certain images capture immediate attention and instant likes in popular social media platforms.  It does not take long for many photographers to catch on to to this as they bring overly saturated color into their images through processing.  After all the average attention span when scrolling through images on social media is only a second or two and color (along with high contrast) is often what wins out given this short period of time.   The problem with these images, however, is that upon closer inspection they do not hold our attention long.  Images, however, with rich, nuanced and carefully selected colors are something our eyes can rest on and explore for longer periods of time and perhaps we can even bring into our homes as wall art.

Although perceptions of color can be subjective and also tied to cultural beliefs,  there are some archetypal and universal responses to color, both positive and negative, that seem to transcend personal and cultural beliefs.  Colors in the red area of the color spectrum are known as warm colors and include red, orange, and yellow. These warm colors evoke emotions ranging from feelings of warmth and comfort to feelings of anger and hostility.  Colors on the blue side of the spectrum are known as cool colors and include blue, purple, and green. These colors are often described as calm, but can also call to mind feelings of sadness or indifference.  Complementary Colors are opposite each other on the color wheel and produce lively attention-getting contrast.  Adjacent colors on the color wheel, such as red, orange-red, red-orange, and orange are harmonious.  There is red in all four colors.  The likeness results in pleasing harmony.  Colors can also have many subtle attributes that invite the viewer to explore the image further including tint (any color + white), tone (any color = grey) and shade (any color = black).  Excessively  high saturation levels can result in the lack of color gradations with fewer  variations of  color shades, tints and tones.

Next time you are out in the field and framing a composition ask yourself what effect are the colors in the scene having upon you?  Are one or more of these colors not consistent with your current emotional state?  Will more selective framing of the scene reduce the number of potentially clashing colors?  Does the intended framing  include complementary colors or harmonious colors, or perhaps some of both?

To a certain extent the color balance, hues, saturation, tints, tones, and shades can be modified in Photoshop.    It is usually best, however, for colors to also have a good grounding in the actual scene and to keep processing modifications of colors more on subtle side of the spectrum.  In processing one can decide which color/s to bring the most attention to and use lower saturation levels on the other colors.  But some of the grace and naturalness of the scene along with its connection to the soul and spirit will be lost with drastic alterations of hues or saturation levels.

(6) Contrast

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North Cascades Aspens

I used my 300mm lens to achieve a compressed perspective of these Aspens that were at some distance away from the dark cliff in the background that was in shadow.  I accentuated the contrast between the Aspens and the dark cliff to achieve a better level of contrast helping make the image pop.

There are two types of Contrast: Tonal Contrast and Color Contrast.  Tonal contrast refers to the difference in bright and dark areas in a photo. Color Contrast  refers to the way colors interact with each other.  In this topic I am primarily concerned with Tonal Contrast.  Contrast can be both at a macro level with the differentiation of the subject from the background and at the micro level helping to reveal important details in the image.  Both macro and micro tonal contrast can help create a sense of depth and a multidimensional aspect to the image.

Maple Pass640-HDR Color Boost Liberty Bell Reflecting Pond

Micro tonal contrast in this image helps make it work.  Micro contrast is especially evident in the trees and clouds, and to a somewhat lesser extent on the mountain and the red huckleberry bush.

Although contrast in an image can help an image pop and direct the viewers attention to the subject/s and follow a path of light, it can easily be overdone.  My experience with my own images and looking at those of others that have staying  power and are also brought into people’s homes as wall art confirms that in most cases more subtle applications of contrast create the best images.  We do not need a sledge hammer to our heads to direct our attention to what to look at in the image.  Excessive contrast (often made possible through the aggressive application of luminosity masks and corresponding curve adjustments) can distract from the organic feel of the image and its connection to the time and place that is the source of our inspiration.  But sensible and somewhat restrained enhancements of contrast showing the path of light, separation of of subject/s from background, illumination of gradations of tonal values, and application of a subtle vignette work wonders and can set the image apart.

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Cavanaugh Pond Tree Reflections

Some images cry out for lower contrast, as is the case here with the trees and reflections on a foggy day at Cavanaugh Pond close to my home in Renton Washington.

(7) Composition

Image composition is simply the arrangement different subjects and visual elements in the frame.  A successful composition will provide a visual path through the image that directs the viewers attention on the subject/s and elements the photographer considers most important.  In compositions with lasting impact the viewer will not only be guided through the scene, but his/her eyes will also thoroughly explore the image, moving around all parts of the frame to fully appreciate both the whole image and all of its parts.  Ask yourself:  Is my image strong enough for eyes to wander through all elements of the scene?  This is what will happen once an image is hung on a living space wall where it will be looked at again and again.  Landscape photography differs from studio  photography in that we have limited or no flexibility to alter the physical elements within our chosen framing for the scene.  But the Landscape is far more expansive than the studio and there are a multitude of if scenes within scenes and even scenes at the micro level.  From all of this we can make an almost infinite number of composition choices.  Sometimes just moving the tripod a couple of inches can create an altogether different composition.

Nature provides exceptions to every rule.  Margaret Fuller

Guy Tal offers three concepts for thinking about composition in the field: Framing, Perspective and Balance.  I have found these three concepts match very well my more intuitive method of approaching composition and will use them to discuss my approach to composition.  It is important to recognize there are no absolute rules in composition.  While rules such as the “Rule of Thirds” or the need to identify a “Primary Subject” help us to get thinking about composition, they are not absolute mandates.  Creation of a good composition is ultimately a more of an intuitive process that flows organically from our experience of the scene.  We know good composition when we see it even if it cannot be attributed to specific rules of composition.  In this regard we do not look for specific features such as leading lines or foreground elements first and then compose the shot around this.  The composition should always start from our experience of the scene, our emotional response, our intuition about its meaning, and ultimately our intentions for the image–these are the compositions that will have lasting impact.

Rock Tapestry

Rock Tapestry

In this composition using a 200mm lens at close range, I chose to emphasis a very small area of the slot canyon wall.   This allowed me to create an abstract image featuring diagonal lines, somewhat analogous geometric shapes, and patterns of colors.

Framing.  The single most important decision one makes in composition is framing–how much or little of the scene to include in the image frame.  When approaching the scene it is best to at first not even take out the camera.  How does the scene make you feel?  What are the elements in the scene that you are attracted to?  What are the elements of the scene you do not like and can these be eliminated or deemphasized?  Does the scene stir up memories–joy or sadness?  Does the scene leave you feeling calm and peaceful, or is there more of a sense of energy and motion associated with changing conditions? Once you have an idea of your intentions for the scene use your hands or better yet your imagination to build a frame- then think about which focal length would best match your rough framing and intuitive grasp of the scene.

Perspective. Once you have identified the initial framing of the scene, it is now time to determine where best to position yourself relative to the scene.  Much of this exploratory work can also be done without a camera.  Get down low, and then perhaps even lower as in right on the ground.  How does the scene look from different vantage points?  If shooting with a wide or normal angle lens, get closer then move away from foreground objects.  Often  movements up and down, forward and backwards, and to the left or right can result in major differences in the composition including its sense of depth.  A very low perspective will provide maximum emphasis to foreground elements but may lack the height necessary to fully appreciate leading lines to a primary subject or place too little emphasis on the mid-ground.   Are both your foreground and mid-ground elements equally important or is it more important to place maximum emphasis on the foreground that might also be your primary subject?  The key is to keep moving around the scene exploring different alternatives before setting up a tripod with camera for fine tuning of the composition.  For more on framing and perspective see my blog post Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty

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South Falls Magic Mushroom Discovery

In this image there are two main subjects, the mushrooms and the waterfall.  I chose a very low and close perspective to give primary attention to the mushrooms underneath and seemingly looking out to South Falls.  The mid-range gets only low to moderate emphasis in this image.

Balance.  Image balance is about the placement of the subject/s and elements in the fame to achieve to a natural flow and rhythm.  In a well balanced image distractions will be eliminated or minimized, there will be no competing elements, and there will not be excessive negative space.  If there is a primary subject, attention will be brought to it through the use of light, contrast,  and somewhat more saturated color.   There will be a visual flow to the primary subject through the use of leading lines, contrast and or a path of light.  In wide angle images, there will be a natural and flowing transition from the foreground to the mid-ground and background portions of the image.  Often balance is achieved through simplification, but more complex and even somewhat chaotic scenes can still be balanced through various methods including darkening and desaturating portions of the scene that need less emphasis and more importantly through the use of  gestalt principles (more on this in the next topic).

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Autumn Cascading Meadows

Color transitions and where the rocks meet the autumn meadow provide a sense of cascading diagonal lines that lead the eyes through the foreground and mid-ground portions of the scene to the overlapping ridges beyond.  The overall result is a great sense of depth in the image and an overall well balanced composition.

(8) Gestalt

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Boardwalk through a Mossy Bog

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Henry David Thoreau

Have you ever wondered  why one image will inspire us to see beyond the arrangement of subjects and objects within a frame and another will not?  Both images are arranged through composition techniques, but only one of the two will move us beyond the literal interpretation of the scene so that we can share in the photographer’s vision  and what inspired him/her in the first place.  Gestalt theory provides us some clues.

Gestalt refers to a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts.  Gestalt helps explain how our vision works in grouping elements into more unified groups and associations.  Our eyes and the corresponding processing of vision in our brain work much different than the lens of our camera.  We can look into the chaos of a forest and still see a fundamental unity, the camera initially cannot.  Often normal vision is identified as what one would see through a standard 50mm lens.  But in  reality our vision is far different from this.  Our eyes move around and within blinks of the eye we go from seeing the world wide to narrow to panning the scene almost simultaneously.   This is our perception creating unified images in our mind that seem to evaporate when  looking through the viewfinder of our camera at a static image.

There are certain principles of the Gestalt theory of perception that can help us in creating transcendent and unified images.

Similarity.  Objects and elements that are similar are perceived as a group.  Types of similarities include shapes, diagonal lines, curves, textures,  colors, the amount or color of light, and shadows and highlights.  It is important to note that these attributes do not need to be identical and in fact it is often better that they are not because this is more consistent with the flow of nature’s often imperfect order.   For example our mind will still group together objects with a roughly circular shape even if they are different sizes and dimensions and occur in different parts of the scene.

Proximity.  The eye perceives that objects close to one another as belonging to a group and these objects do not necessarily need to be similar.

Continuation.  The principle of continuation refers to the mind’s tendency to see complete forms even if a picture is incomplete, partially hidden by other objects, or if part of the information needed to make a complete picture in our minds is missing.  The mind assumes that lines extend beyond the edges of the frame.  An example of this is a trail or boardwalk disappearing in the distance (as in the image above).  In the landscape photo this principle helps create a sense of depth (along with the use of a wide-angle lens) as the mind believes that the boardwalk continues beyond its vanishing point.

Closure.  The mind completes shapes that only exist partially in the image, such as a partial circle or triangle. With time one can recognize shapes in a scene that may not be apparent at first and integrate these shapes with other similar shapes in the scene to create a visual thread that helps tie together and unify the image—think of this as visual poetry.  Seldom is image making a precise lesson in geometry but rather has more to do with identifying somewhat similar shapes, patterns and colors that can create a balanced whole.

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Autumn Passage

Some Gestalt unifying gestalt principles can be seen in this image.  There is a similarity of shapes between the granite rock in the foreground, the upper half of Lake Valhalla, and the top of Lichtenberg peak in the upper left.  The proximity of the granite rock with the harmoniously colored sections of golden yellow green and orange red foliage helps form a unified foreground group.  The triangular granite rock partially hidden by foliage (closure) points (continuation) down the slope to the lake and the peak aided by slightly diagonal lines in the mid ground.  The lake itself and the peak point to the sky and warm clouds of sunset (continuation).

Emergence. Emergence is somewhat different from the other Gestalt principles in that it is something that one sees after initially grasping the unified whole image.  Emergence is about going deeper into the image to appreciate the details, subtle gradations of color and light (recall our discussion about micro contrast).  This flies in the face of those who argue that details do not matter and suggests that once the whole is recognized we need to give the viewer a place to go for awhile to discover more about the riches of the image.  Emergence is a necessary gestalt principle for images with lasting impact.  Emergence can be seen in the above image, especially in the foreground, with the details in the granite rock and subtle gradations of color and tones in the foliage.  It can also be seen in the forests and rocks of Lichenberg Peak.

Conclusion

Images that have lasting impact go beyond the faithful recording of Nature’s handy work.  Some refer to this difference as one between documentary and expressive photography.  I prefer to think about it as moving toward transcendental photography.  Transcendental photography moves beyond the individual subjects and objects in the image, beyond the faithful recording of color and light values,  and even beyond the image where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The transcendent image instills an emotional reaction and evokes an appreciation for still another dimension, the soul and spirit of a place and time and offers the viewer a shared vision.  For more on inspiration and vision see Sources of Inspiration for Nature and Landscape Photography: Finding Your Photographic Vision  The image has strong composition attributes that invite the viewer to come into the image, listen to its story, understand its visual metaphors and explore both the whole image and its subtle and nuanced details. The viewer shares in the creator’s inspiration and participates in the creator’s vision .

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.  Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture.  Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature–Chapter 4 1836)

A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment in time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole.  Each particle is a microcosm and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.  Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature–Chapter 5 1836) 

Spirit Angels in the Forest

Spirit Angels in the Forest

Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2018


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Sources of Inspiration for Nature and Landscape Photography: Finding Your Photographic Vision

Inspiration and Vision: Early Beginnings

What originally brought you to Landscape Photography?  The answer I hear from most people when faced with this question is that “I had a desire to share with others my experience of visiting beautiful places while traveling, hiking and backpacking.  Typically these experiences are charged with deep emotions that have a profound and lasting effect on the individual.  But the resulting images often fall way short of expressing the emotions and feelings surrounding the sense of place.  Instead the images are largely documentary and also are not good even from a technical perspective.  But make no mistake, the photographer felt a great sense of inspiration at the moment of capture.

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“I may pass this way again”

Often we will return to a place as our photographic skills evolve to rekindle and capture the emotions we originally felt as we were just starting out in photography.   This is such a place and last week I made this return journey.

Inspiration and Vision: Progression

The desire to better capture the emotions and feelings surrounding a sense of place helps motivate the photographer to learn.  The photographer begins the process of learning the technical aspects of photography: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus, angle of view, image development, etc.  This is learning photography as a craft.  The photographer also begins learning the basics of composition: lines, shapes, patterns, subject placement, light, creative processing, etc.   This begins the process of learning the art of photography. But as the photographer embarks upon this path of learning, he or she may feel that some of the energy and enthusiasm that originally brought them to landscape photography is missing.  It is easy to get  caught up in the technical and learned compositional approaches to photographay.  The process becomes almost mechanical and may not be in touch with a vital link to the world of feeling and emotion and who one is as a person.  It is at this point that the landscape photographer begins looking for new sources of inspiration.

Morning Dew

Morning Dew

I felt a tremendous sense of emotion that touched the depths of my soul as this scene slowly evolved as the sun rose over the tulips fields shrouded in mist and morning dew.  All of the techniques involved in capturing this image, including the near far compositional approach emphasizing the dew, reflections and sun’s rays— were directed at expressing my emotions and feelings of this place at this most memorable time.  I did not employ technique and compositional artistry for its own sake.

Sources of Inspiration

I will now discuss each of the following sources of inspiration.  Some of these may seem surprising to photographers and contrary to the advice they may have received from other influencers, but bear with me and I will establish the value of each of these sources of inspiration in helping guide one’s photographic journey.

  1. Visiting Iconic Places
  2. Published Images
  3. Other Photographers
  4. Going off the Beaten Path
  5. Alternative Perspectives
  6. Going to New Places
  7. Beauty in Familiar and Ordinary Places
  8. Taking a break from Photography
  9. Keeping a Journal
  10. Internal Sources of Inspiration

(1) Visiting Iconic Places

Wild Geranium Tetons Sunrise

Wild Geranium Tetons Sunrise

This image was taken at the iconic site of Oxbow Bend in Grand Tetons National Park.

It can be challenging to create a unique composition in an iconic place, but if one follows their instincts and intuition for what is interesting in the scene and perhaps also receives a blessing from mother nature of unique weather and flora, it is not only possible but also probable.   Iconic places are iconic for a reason.  They have the power to instill strong emotional reactions and even have symbolic value in our collective psyche that can be tapped into and shared instilling similar emotions in others.  Every year individuals and families make pilgrimages to such iconic sites as Oxbow Bend, Yellowstone Falls, Crater Lake and others for precisely this reason.  Never underestimate to power of visiting an iconic site.

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Eye of the Crater: Crater Lake National Park

(2) Published Images

In our modern internet world images are published in a number of ways.  Some are published in traditional sources such as printed magazines such as Outdoor Photographer or presented in physical galleries, but increasingly images are published in online magazines such as Landscape Photography Magazine.  Perhaps the most accessible source of images is Social Media which includes Facebook, Flickr, Instagram and 500px.  There are also websites where we can find the work of individual photographers and their blogs.  All of these sources of published images can serve as great places for photographers to go for inspiration.  It is important, however, when viewing these images to prioritize ones time, looking at the images that are not only good but also resonate with ones  own artistic sensibilities.  It is also important to engage in what Miles Morgan calls “Active Viewing”.   To quote Miles:

“By “actively view” I mean that you aren’t just looking at pretty pictures. You’re trying to figure out WHY you like the image. What makes the image work vs. the other images you find less appealing? How can you incorporate those techniques yourself? What images DON’T interest you? Why not? How can you avoid the pitfalls that made the photograph less intriguing?”

In viewing published images we are not trying to replicate what others have done.  Although it is possible that a published image may provide inspiration for reinterpretation  of what others have done, the process of active viewing is better viewed as a process that will help us grow and better equip us to fulfill our own vision of an altogether different place and time.

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Epiphany

This image of the Enchantments was recently published as the final frame in the July issue of Landscape Photography Magazine.  For more on my Enchantments adventures see Visiting and Photographing the Enchantments.

(3) Other Photographers

None of us are an island onto our self and we are all indebted to not only those who came before us but also to landscape photographers currently operating in the field.  One can find an immense source of inspiration through following the life and work of photographers who we admire.  I recommend picking only about three or four to follow in depth.  Questions to consider include:

  • What makes the photographer tick?
    • What brought you to photography?
    • Who inspires you?
    • What is the photographer’s signature style, and has it changed over the years?
    • What are the stories behind the photographs

To truly appreciate the work of the photographer we need to get to know who he or she is as a person, which will of course take time and effort.  If the photographer is featured in a podcast, listen to it.  Read their blogs and social media posts.  Watch their tutorials.  Reach out to the photographer, let them know you are inspired by their work, and cultivate some one on one communication, perhaps even friendship.  If they offer workshops, attend their workshop.

As I have progressed as a photographer over the years their are several photographers whose work I admire that I have reached out to.  These include Art Wolfe  (I attended a workshop early on and various presentations and have read many of his books), Candace Dyar (attended a workshop and communicate with her frequently),  Nick Page (regularly listen to his podcast and watch his tutorials) and Michael Gordon (recently participated in a one on one  workshop and tour in the Death Valley).

Along somewhat similar lines, many landscape photographers find inspiration and even a sense of belonging in joining other photographers for social photography in the field.  This can be done formally through clubs or more informally through meet ups and circles of friends deciding to get together.  Companionship and collaboration with like-minded people can also facilitate additional learning as one sees how others approach the art and craft of photography.  My only caution here is that although we are social by nature and need this kind of interaction, it is also true that to fully blossom as an artist one needs to ultimately cultivate more inner sources of inspiration.  I will discuss this more later in the article in the tenth source of inspiration, inner sources.

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Here Comes the Sun by Candace Dyar

I have been following the work of Candace for about five years now and just love her painterly approach and color harmony in her images.

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Unrest: Nick Page

It has been amazing to watch Nick progress as a photographer over the past few years We are witnessing the appearance of a new Northwest Icon (and entertainer to boot!)

(4) Going off the Beaten Path

Going off the beaten path or taking the road less traveled can provide fresh perspectives and inspiration through the process of discovery.  This also increases the likelihood that your vision will be unique allowing you to take better ownership of your vision.  Because these spots are also far less photographed, the influence of other photographers on your vision will be less.  Some of the absolute best times in my life as a photographer occurred when I felt  I was experiencing nature in a way that few if any have witnessed before.  Of course part of this is how we bring our own thoughts, emotions and feelings to the landscape, but the other part of this is the landscape itself speaking to us, sharing with us the unique spirit of the place and time that few get to see.  Going off the beaten path can also take the form of a multi-day backpacking trip into the wilderness, the ultimate source of inspiration.  For more on this see my blog post Multi-Day Backpacking and Photography

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Boulder Falls

Off trail somewhere in the Snoqualmie National Forest

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Rivers Bend: Eagle Cap Wilderness Area

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Image Lake at Sunrise

I reached this beautiful lake in the Glacier Peak wilderness  area, and 18 miles in, as part of a multi-day backpacking trip.  For more on this adventure see Visiting and Photographing the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area: Spider Gap – Buck Creek Pass Loop.

(5) Alternative Perspectives

Most landscape photographers at the current time demonstrate a preference for wide angle color photography that seems ideal for the Grand Landscape, balancing foreground, mid-ground and background elements.  The over reliance, however, on this formulistic approach can often seem contrived to others and also can be self limiting.  Expressing what we feel about a place and time often calls for a different perspective.  One can usually find new sources of inspiration through experimenting with alternative perspectives including the use of Telephoto, Macros, Abstracts, and Black and White.  For more on alternative perspectives see these two blog posts: One: Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty and Two: Forests in the Mists: Windows into the Active Imagination.

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Spirit Angels in the Forest: 400MM Telephoto Perspective

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Jade Vines: Macro

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Rock Tapestry: Abstract

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Mystery: Black and White and 500mm Telephoto

(6) Going to New Places

Visiting a new (to you) place can be a powerful source of inspiration building excitement, passion, and enthusiasm.  One often experiences completely different landscapes than one is accustomed to see and this helps separate us from our habitual way of  viewing and experiencing our small world leaving us open to fresh visions and possibilities.   I try to plan one or two trips a year to places that are markedly different than my own native Pacific Northwest.  This year I visited Kauai and  Death Valley.

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One with the Ocean

When reviewing my images from a a trip in February to Kauai, this one surprised me the most.  I did not at all see my shadow and silhouette in the spray of the wave at the moment of capture.  But there I was, walking into the ocean of Kauai’s Shipwreck Beach, tripod in hand, one with the Ocean!

Mosaic Canyon Wooden Grains

Death Valley: Mosaic Canyon Wooden Grains

(7) Beauty in Familiar and Ordinary Places

One can feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment and inspiration through finding beauty in familiar and ordinary places.  Often this beauty is not obvious and may be hidden.  No where have I gained more traction in developing my skill set than in presenting an ordinary place in the best light.  This is also the ultimate confirmation to others that you have arrived as a photographer through your ability to make even the ordinary look good.  Often this beauty was recognizable to us all along, but conveying this beauty that is often very personal  to others remains a huge challenge.  But if one can communicate a sense of your “Feeling” of a place at these somewhat ordinary and mundane locations, think how much easier it will be to do this at iconic sites and other places where the beauty is so obvious to everyone!

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 Bleeding Hearts of the Forest

I make this small journey  through a quite ordinary forest close to home almost daily but one day last spring this scene jumped out at me, and I rushed home to fetch my serious camera and tripod to create this image! 

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Foggy Trail

Most people zip up or down this section of trail through second growth forest on their way to Mt. Si- a first flank peak close to the Seattle area.  But on this foggy day I immediately recognized the potential for impact and beauty on this ordinary stretch of trail.   This trail is so much more than just a conditioning hike (how it is typically regarded).  It is a sanctuary of exquisite beauty just waiting  to be discovered.

(8) Taking a break from Photography

Many of my colleagues have taken a break from social media.  Social media, although very useful for gaining exposure,  can also consume too much of our time and influence our creative choices if we chase after popularity.  But just as social media can stand in the way of creative fulfillment, so can photography itself.  Often times we need a break of sorts, a vacation free from photography.  When we return from this vacation, we often will have a much clearer view of where we need to go from a creative perspective.  Experts have known for a long time that excessive and obsessive work  toward a goal (the workaholic syndrome) can actually hinder creativity due to loss of perspective.  Landscape Photography is no exception to this rule.

Often time during a break from photography one can find new sources of inspiration through such activities as reading books, long walks in the woods without a camera, visiting art galleries, and reconnecting with old friends.  I regularly listen to audio books while taking long walks in the forest.  These audio books include biographies on Emerson and John Muir, Emerson’s Essays, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and other titles.

(9)  Keeping a Journal

Julia Cameron in her classic book, The Artist’s Way, established two key activities that help the Artist find new sources of creative inspirations.  Both of these activities help connect the artist to his/her authentic self which is the source of all creativity.  The first activity is keeping a daily journal.  Spend 10 or 15 minutes a day writing in your journal what ever comes up-thoughts, emotions, feelings, impressions.  This journal is not specifically about photography and is more open ended than that.  The purpose of journal writing is getting one more in touch with ones inner self and the subconscious, to fully awaken to who one is as a person.  The next activity is establishing a date with oneself at least once a week.  Landscape photographers need time alone in nature to better connect with who they are as a person uninfluenced by the thoughts or actions of others.  These artist dates will also provide the basis for journal entries that no one reads other than our self.  For more on the authentic self, see my blog post Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self.

(10) Internal Sources of Inspiration

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart.  Who looks outside, dreams.  Who looks inside, awakens..” –Carl Jung

“Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self.  There is something which you can do better than  another.  Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.  Do the things at which   you are great, not what you were never made for.”  –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance.

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Submerged Leaves Under Water

Tapping into Internal sources of inspiration should be the guiding light for all of the the previously mentioned sources of inspiration.  What we are talking about here is getting in touch with the right side of the brain, the wellspring of creativity, emotions, imagination and the subconscious.  We leave behind all societal expectations about where we should go with our photography and art.  This is a journey that  marks the return to nature and our true nature and authentic self.  We create images as expressions of this authentic self.  This marks the integration of the internal and external landscape, with a soulful nature guiding us symbolically to a spiritual  world.  This is a world of paradox.  Even as we descend into the soulful grasp of earthly nature, we are lifted up into a more lofty spiritual realm.   We need both.   Images have emotional impact, and images tell our personal story.  Images now move beyond documentation as we share our experience of a time and place.   The images themselves help us and the viewer transcend this earthly world, and evoke a mood that points to matters that may seem beyond comprehension, the world of pure idea and spirit.   This is nature and landscape photography as art.

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Where the Angels Roam: Mt. Rainier National Park

Conclusion

When we are in a creative rut, many of us need to look to new sources of inspiration.  All of these sources of inspiration discussed in this post can help us in our journey to live a more authentic life when the progression is from external to internal sources of inspiration.  Living a more authentic life will ultimately also provide the needed inspiration for reaching our creative potential with landscape photography.

“Man is never so authentically himself than when at play” –Friedrich Schiller

What Schiller meant by play (also often referred to as a state of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)  is when one follows with passion and joy his or her calling,  For me this is Nature and Landscape Photography and I suspect for many who are reading this it is for you also.

Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2018


Thanks for reading this blog post.  I greatly appreciate this and would love to hear from you.  Please leave a comment with your thoughts on this posts.  If you would like to receive additional posts like this please also follow this blog either through word press or a request for email notifications.  Thanks!   Erwin

Multi-Day Backpacking and Photography

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” John Muir

Multi-day Backpacking can provide an immersive experience into the wonders and mysteries of nature providing a powerful source of inspiration to the photographer that is rarely available in trips of shorter duration.  What I have noticed on my many multi-day trips is that it takes at least a couple of days to disconnect from the concerns of the day to day world and tune in to the subtle heart beat of nature’s calling.  At day three the wilderness almost seems like an extension of oneself, and this is soon followed by the realization that we too are nature.  The American Transcendentalist Emerson established nature as the liberator of our creative self.

“Nothing divine dies. All good is eternally reproductive. The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation. Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature – Chapter 3: Beauty, 1836) 

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Walking into a Dream: This  view is looking out to the patrol cabin and Mt. Rainier from Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, one of my favorite places along the 100+ mile Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier National Park.  Although it is possible to do this trip in five days, for photographers I recommend a minimum of 10 days.  I did the trip in 11 days and wished I had more!

Our true nature is that of creativity, but often it is difficult to hear its calling when we are following instead the drum beat of our jobs, societal expectations, and desires to be popular on social media.  What better way to cut loose from these muffling sounds, and listen instead to the still small voice of nature?  Tune out to all this clutter and noise and  tune in to nature and creative renewal as part of a multi-day backpacking trip!  The rewards of this experience will pay dividends once you are back navigating through the day to day concerns of your life and will be spiritually transforming.  Although we cannot all realistically spend most of our life immersed in the wilderness, we can carry this experience back with us through the renewal of our spirit.  This spirit can be creatively renewed again and again through annual pilgrimages to the back-country with multi-day backpacking trips.

 

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Tda-ko-buh-ba Sunrise: Beautiful pasque flowers gone to seed and Image Lake awaken to a rosy sunrise underneath Washington’s most remote volcanic peak, known by the Suak Indian Tribe as “Tda-ko-buh-ba”, but also known as Glacier Peak. This location in the Glacier Peak Wilderness comes as close to heaven on earth as anything my imagination can possibly conjure up. Looking out across the meadow and lake to Glacier Peak one feels the pure essence of a wilderness area, an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by people, and where we are just visitors who cannot remain in a place of such unspoiled beauty.   We reached this location on the third night of our backpacking trip making this trip an obvious choice for a multi-day backpacking adventure.

In this blog post I will discuss the following: (1) Why a Photography Oriented Multi-day Backpacking Trip, (2) What to Carry, (3) Camera Gear, (4) Getting in Shape, (5) Selecting a Team, (6) Finding Your Photographic Vision, and (7) Destinations.  The chart below contrasts a typical backpacking trip with a photography oriented backpacking trip.

Typical and Photography Multiday Backpacking

Photography backpacks are much different from a typical organized backpacking trip. The pace and tempo of this trip is centered around photography.   This means frequent stops along the trail and organizing the schedule to be at the right places for at least a two to three hours window around sunrise and sunset.  Breakfasts on photography backpacking trips are usually eaten late and dinners early because it is important to keep the mornings and evenings open for photography.  Most movement from place to place will occur during the middle of the day arriving at the next camp well in advance of  the evening hours which means keeping daily backpacking distances reasonable where possible.

 

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Rivers Bend, Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, Oregon.  To properly experience the vast Eagle Cap, a multi-backpacking trip is essential. This particular valley originally looked quite unremarkable to me and I struggled to come up with a compelling composition.   This area of Eagle Creek is not typically thought of as an iconic site.   But as I explored further down the valley I saw this bend in the river that caused me to think back on Ansel Adam’s image of Oxbow Bend in the Grand Tetons.  I attempted to photograph Oxbow Bend a few years ago but I felt I was recreating someone else’s composition.  But here in the Eagle Cap, I had no such concern.  The same emotional impact I felt when viewing Ansel’s Oxbow Bend image I now felt with even greater intensity and this helped to provide the creative energy I needed for this image.

What to Carry

Maintaining a good comfort level on a multi-day backpacking trip has everything to do with keeping weight of the backpack at a manageable level of between 35 and 45 pounds. This challenge is especially hard for us photographers because not only do we need to carry a full array of  backpacking gear, but also we need to carry camera gear including a tripod.  For a multi-day backpacking trip, we will of course need the ten essentials, but will need to go far beyond this if the trip is going to be an enjoyable and a worth while experience.

 

Ten Essentials

(1) Navigation (map and compass)
(2) Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
(3) Insulation (extra clothing)
(4) Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
(5) First-aid supplies
(6) Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
(7) Repair kit and tools
(8) Nutrition (extra food)
(9) Hydration (extra water)
(10) Emergency shelter

The following heirarchial criteria will help guide us to the selection of the right equipment.

(1) Need
(2) Function
(3) Light Weight/Ultralight
(4) Bulk
(5) Cost
(6) Style

For every item that we pack one must ask if this item is needed and what function does it serve?  If there is no need that has to do  with protecting us and keeping us safe from the elements, that item may need to go into the nice to have but not necessary list that we keep to a bare minimum–for example camp chairs, bulky and heavy solar chargers, etc.  Although it is important that equipment is light, it is also important not to be so obsessive about reducing weight that one compromises a basic need and function.  For example, taking a minimalist first aid kit for a group of six people for a week or more in the wilderness is not a smart idea.  Accidents can and do happen even to the most prepared and an appropriately sized first aid kit will be required.  The same goes for backpacks.  It often takes weight to carry weight.  One of the most frequent complaints I have heard from ultra light backpackers with camera gear is that their backpack is so uncomfortable and is disproportionately distributing the weight to their shoulders rather than hips.

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Here Comes the Sun: On a cold, cloudy and misty day in the middle of October, the sun likes to tease us, occasionally with breakthroughs, instilling hope, of a clearing to come. These hopes are usually dashed but I love the drama, and would go to the Enchantments again and again to experience it!  The Enchantments are best approached as part of a five to eight day Multi-day Backpacking Trip.  When in this much beauty, why would anyone want to leave sooner?

 

It is not only important that the equipment be light but also of low bulk.  This allows us to use a smaller backpack that is typically lighter and better balanced on the body.  Light and ultralight equipment can be expensive but sales can often be found at the REI Garage and Backcounty.com.  Although style is a consideration, style needs to flow naturally from need and function if it is going to find a place on our equipment list.

Every time I get prepared to go on a major backpacking trip I methodically go through this list before the trip and gather all the equipment together, checking off items one by one.  At the end of the trip I do a post trip analysis of what items I did not use and consider revising the list for the next trip.

 

Equipment List

Equipment List

 

Awakening

Awakening: While camping on Copper Ridge I woke up to this sunrise with the fog quickly rising from the valley below. A few minutes later the entire ridge was engulfed in fog. Copper Ridge is located in North Cascades National Park and is typically reached as part of a 4 to 7 day backpacking trip that also includes Whatcom Pass. This area receives a large amount of rain and fast changing weather even in the summer months which presents its challenges but also some great photographic opportunities. 

 

Camera Gear

My recommendation is to  take only two lenses and at the most three.  The lens that I find most useful on most multi-day backpacking trips is a wide-angle zoom closely followed by a macro lens that also doubles as a telephoto lens.  On my last trip I brought a Sony A7R3 mirrorless camera, a Zeiss 16-35 4.0 lens, and a Sony 90mm 2.8 macro lens. The wide-angle will work great for including important foreground details in the grand landscape composition and the macro telephoto works perfectly for flowers, small area compositions, abstracts, a compressed perspective,  and wildlife at a relatively close range.  With the Sony A7R3 one can easily switch to cropped mode making the macro lens effectively a 135mm telephoto.  One may want to substitute a 70-200mm 4.0 zoom for the macro lens and perhaps bring a small fixed focal length 2.8 manual focus wide angle for stars, but do not fall for the temptation of bringing any more than 2 or 3 lenses.  For more on the use of wide and telephoto lens perspectives in the field check out my blog post: Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty

My entire system including the Induro Stealth carbon fiber tripod weighs less than seven pounds.  Bringing a mirrorless system brought the weight and form factor down considerably .  If I brought my much more bulky and heavy Nikon D810 DSLR and equivalent lenses I would have easily carried an additional three pounds.   It is noted that it is not just the weight that one needs to keep at a minimum but also the bulk of items, because with less real estate one does not need as big of backpack to carry all the equipment.  As previously mentioned, bigger backpacks tend to be heavier and also do not balance weight as good as a smaller backpack.  Mirrorless cameras and most lenses designed for mirrorless are much smaller than their DSLR counterparts.  The chart below compares the weight of the newest Sony A7R3 and Nikon 850 cameras for equivalent systems.

Sony versus Nikon

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Lozier Lake, Wind River Wyoming. Honorable Mention and in the Top 100 finalists for Natures Best/Smithsonian Wilderness Forever Contest.  Wyoming’s Wind River Wilderness Area is one of the best locations for planning a major Multiday Backpack that I know of.

I recommend that you store the camera, lenses, and accessories in a small F-stop ICU.  This fits perfectly into the Kangaroo pocket of my Gregory Baltoro 75 backpack.  I do not recommend backpacks specifically designed for camera equipment and gear from companies such as F-Stop, Lowe Pro and others because they do not carry multi-day backpacking loads nearly as well as conventional backpacks from Gregory  or Osprey.

My Sony A7R3 with 16-35 4.0 Lens and 90mm macro in a F-Stop Small ICU

 

 

The Gregory Baltoro 75 Backpack: Notice the large Kangaroo Pocket on the front that easily accommodates a small F-Stop ICU. 

 

There are two very important photography equipment requirements in multi-day backpacking that I have found many people do not think about until the need becomes apparent.  The first requirement is that you will need a camera available at all times while actually on the trail backpacking.  The second is that once at camp you will need some means to conveniently carry your full frame camera equipment and tripod around.

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Maroon Bells Secret Garden:  A flower meadow basks in the glow of the warm evening light at dusk somewhere below Buckskin Pass in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness Area, Colorado. Although most people know the Maroon Bells primarily through the post card image of Maroon Lake, the wilderness area actually spans a large area that offers multiple opportunities to frame a unique composition. You will need to go backpacking, however, to find these spots. I took this image as part of a seven day backpacking loop trip over four 12,000 foot passes. This was one of the best backpacking loop trips I have ever taken and mid July is excellent to experience the flowers in full bloom.

 

Photographic opportunities abound on a multi-day back trip while actively backpacking on the trail,  but to take advantage of these opportunities you will need quick access to a camera.  Although there are many ways to carry your interchangeable lens camera while backpacking, personally I have found all of these ways somewhat awkward and inconvenient when carrying a multi-day backpack.  I have also noticed that when backpackers use such devices as a holster, a chest pouch, or a shoulder mounted peak one,  the  use of these devices is typically only temporary and then the user gets tired of their awkwardness and into the main backpack the camera goes.  What I recommend is to carry a second camera: a high quality and light weight point and shoot camera that fits easily into a pocket, such as the Sony RX100.   This is the camera you use while hiking from point to point while carrying your multi-day backpack.   It only weighs 8 ounces, has the full array of both manual and automatic controls, and is capable of capturing excellent images and raw files.  As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you!  Once at camp of course you will use your larger full frame camera.  Although an I-phone or the like is good for an occasional snapshot, especially those that include people, the ability to manually control the RX100 along with its much larger sensor size coupled with malleable raw files, makes this camera a better choice for most applications.

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Sony RX100

Many backpacks now come with a secondary built in day pack that can be used to carry a full frame camera, lenses, tripod, and a few essentials once you are at camp and in the field.  I pack my camera in a small F-Stop ICU that fits in a Kangaroo Pouch of my Gregory Pack.  Once at camp I take the ICU out and put it into the pack within a pack that is included with the Gregory.    For an even better option, Marmont also makes an excellent ultralight pack called the compressor that weighs 8 ounces that can accommodate an F-stop ICU, lunch, extra clothes and gear, a water bottle and a tripod.  Although some people just empty out their larger pack and use it as a day pack, in my opinion this is awkward, limits mobility, and also forces one to put all unneeded gear now somewhat disorganized  inside the tent.

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Getting in Shape

Many people are very surprised at the difficulty of the trip once they embark on their multi-day backpacking adventure.  This multi-day backpacking trip requires extensive prior conditioning if you are going to enjoy the trip in comfort.  Before beginning your journey take multiple day hikes that involve elevation gain in the range of two to four thousand feet, for example in the Seattle area: Mail Box, Granite Mountain, and Mt. Washington.  Also before launching off, go on a couple of overnight backpacking trips of six miles or more and two to three thousand elevation gain with a backpack in the range of 35 to 45 pounds.  There is nothing like actually hiking and backpacking for conditioning, and although time spent at the fitness center helps, this alone will not prepare you for the Multi-day Backpacking experience.  The getting in shape experience also includes trying out some of the equipment you will be using in the field ahead of time, especially items like Hiking Boots that need to be broken in and a Tent that you need to be able to pitch quickly without the need to follow written instructions.

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Ediza Lake Sunrise:  The Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, approached from the Eastern Sierra, affords splendid opportunities for multi-day backpacking.  But be prepared for a variety of challenging circumstances including river crossings, the elements, and some cross country travel.  On this trip I encountered one of the worst hard driving rain storms in my life that finally passed over shortly before taking this image.

 

Selecting a Team

For multi-day backpacking trips I recommend keeping the number of participants at a small number, at the most five or six, to make sure each of the photographers has a quality experience and participants are not stepping over each others toes trying to get the image.  Keeping the team size small will also help reduce the footprint on environmentally sensitive areas–as always our motto is to tread lightly and leave no trace.  For more on the potential impact of photographers on the environment see Wilderness Gone Viral.  Participants should also be carefully screened as this is physically challenging, and not everyone may be in sync with the pace, rhythm, and goals of a photography oriented backpacking trip.  Non-photographers can participate in the trip and there are even some advantages of having their presence.  They can offer a counterbalance to the often overly driven demeanor of photographers, reminding us to slow down, and appreciate the natural world for what it is, without always trying to immediately shape the experience into an image.  Non-photographers can also provide needed logistical and other support to the photographers, but as mentioned, they must be OK with the trip being primarily oriented around photography.

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Colorado’s expansive Wemminuche Wilderness Area home to some of the best Mult-day backpacking.

Finding your Vision

Although a multi-day photography trip is oriented around photography as one of its primary goals, finding your vision for the area will require that you meet nature on its own terms.  Before even reaching for the camera, take a deep breath, look around, engage all of your senses and imagination in tapping into the heart and soul of nature.  What are the elements of the scene that you find most interesting and how do they effect you at both mental and emotional levels?  What feelings, memories, and perceptions does the scene and these elements bring to the surface?  This is not an activity that spans just a few moments of time but is a meditative state that can span hours.  Be sure to arrive at the scene well ahead of time to do this necessary inner work before launching off on a photo tirade.   This meditation will provide the necessary support for giving your personal vision expression in a photographic image.  More on this can be found on my  blog post “Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self” and a  related post Forests in the Mists: Windows into the Active Imagination.

 

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Morning Mist: First light over a misty Lake Lacrosse, Olympic National Park. No matter which route one takes, this lake is about a 20 mile plus hike, making it suitable only for a multi-day backpack for maximum enjoyment.  I approached this area as part of a east to west trek through the park involving the use of a shuttle service.

 

Destinations

There are many excellent destinations for a Multi-day backpacking trip and I have provided images of many of them throughout this blog post.  Two that I highly recommend and I have written blog posts about include Visiting and Photographing the Enchantments and Visiting and Photographing the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area: Spider Gap – Buck Creek Pass Loop.  The Enchantments are best accomplished in about a five to eight day trip to fully immerse yourself in this awe inspiring area and assimilate its beauty.  I recommend going in fall when the Larch Trees turn gold.  The Glacier Peak Wilderness loop trip is best done in early August when wildflowers are at their peak and you will want to have a minimum of seven days scheduled and ideally more to experience this heaven on earth.  Be sure to visit the blog posts above for more on these areas.

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Goodbye My Friend:  The Enchantment’s Leprechaun Lake as we were leaving an approaching snow storm.  Fall time backpacking in the Enchantments involves extra preparations for cold weather and the use of microspikes to safely walk on potentially slippery surfaces.

 

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Ripples along the Lyman Lake Shore.  This image is from my multi-day backpacking trip to the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area in August. What a beautiful and restful place to camp after going up and over Spider Gap and the Lyman Glacier!

 

Conclusion

Multi-day backpacking can be a powerful source of new found inspiration with complete immersion in nature for a week or more, an opportunity to temporarily disconnect from the day to day routine and distractions, and connect to Nature, one’s Authentic Self, and source of all creativity.

“The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere, the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling, vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” John Muir-Sierra Club Founder.