While enjoying a session of “wordplay” on the phone with my good friend “Bubbles” (a.k.a: Colleen Miniuk) the other day, these words came tumbling out of my mouth, “Great Photos – They Happen, When You Happen.”
She immediately responded, “Bumper Sticker!”
After a bit of chuckling and reflecting, I decided it could seed an article instead.
Photography (for me anyways), is not the picture, the print, the technology, or the sale. It’s a state of mind, a way of being. I walk this world making pictures all the time. While my eyes are open, I’m composing, processing, and adjusting color and contrast to about everything I see. I project myself to a better position or angle if I can’t get there because I’m driving or intent on something else. And I’m most often converting to black and white. Nonetheless, I’m making images because that is the primary way I learn and make meaning in this life. When any of those images become important or meaningful enough to me, and if I’m prepared, then I’ll make an actual photograph. Most often, I generate my own ideas and subject matter, but on occasion an outside source is the inspiration. This article celebrates the outside sources that led me to make some favored photographs.
The Quiet Party
This past Spring, I had the opportunity to check-off my number-one bucket list item by visiting Cathedral in the Desert. The world had not seen it like this for 50 years, as it had been drowned by the waters of the reservoir behind Glen Canyon, which people mistakenly call Lake Powell. With water levels at an all time low, and flash-floods during the past few years scouring it out, it now appeared “almost like it had been before the damn dam,” said my friend Ken Sleight (a.k.a Seldom Seen Smith). I had never seen it, but it had become important to me as the living heart of the landscape I live in. I did not go alone as it involved renting a motorboat, camping overnight, and possibly lots of mud. A pilgrimage with a few friends of like-heart was required. We started with a group of 6 that quickly eroded down to two: Colleen and I. The story of our trip is not the point here. What is important is whom you choose to share such an adventure with. I do my best work alone, but I was not. I did some good work in our short time there because with this particular companion I could work as though I was alone and then celebrate as if I was at a small party.
I was able to make this, and the other very personally meaningful images happen because my trip buddy is both the party and the silence.
For those of you who are aficionados of Canyonlands National Park, the name Kent Frost may be familiar. If not, drop this right now and find the book, My Canyonlands. It’s Kent’s account of growing up in Monticello and walking all over that country “back in the day.” Back in 2008, I had the good fortune to assist on a documentary film that my (former) girlfriend was making on him. We’d taken a trip with Kent and a few friends to get some outdoor footage. In his 80s at the time, we followed his quick steps through the Joint Trail to a special perch of his overlooking Chesler Park. This is it! It was so great to stand with him in this spot while he regaled us with stories. This large rib of sandstone stuck in my mind on that sunny, blue-sky afternoon and I didn’t recall it until late last year when I was finalizing my Blurb-published book of black and white images titled “My Canyonlands – and Beyond!” A bit of a riff blending Kent and Buzz Lightyear! Something was missing. This image!
So, one weekend last fall when it appeared we’d have some weather, I slowly trudged along the beautiful trail into Chesler Park with gear for a night or two. While watching the light and reminiscing about him and his many adventures, I felt his presence. Not in any new-agey way but in a matter-of-fact spiritual sense. He’d stood here many a time; we’d stood here together; and I was standing here now. The land connected us through time. Somehow, together across the years, we’d made this image happen together. That’s why it appears on the cover!
Lisa’s Last Gift
After being together for a few years, we parted a few winters ago. It was not easy, but it was right, and it appears to be amicable. A month or so later I received a message from Lisa suggesting that I should visit the part of the drainage that she described. She said that there was something that might interest me photographically, and I better get there soon as the subject was ice. Soon was within the hour. I was so curious. We’d split up a little after Christmas; Happy New Year.
There were tears, and yet now, she was offering me a picture, a challenge, a mystery. I walked up the stream wondering what I might see and as I stepped into the shaded canyon along the stream, I knew what she was referencing. Nothing says ‘smooth’ to me more than flowing water, and that hunk of sculpted ice was the frosting on the proverbial cake. The ice is formed by the spray of the moving water; it is changing every second. The color in the ice comes from the sunlit canyon wall and the blue, of course, from ice and water reflecting the blue sky.
Once I had set the composition, it took only 3 frames to record the flowing water at a shutter speed which said ‘smooth.’ A few days later I made some prints, and Lisa received the first one as a thank you. Relationships are difficult to end. I was lucky in that this one ended smoothly. I thank and respect Lisa for that and for the photo tip! She’s happily married now and I’m happy for her. I could have looked at the message and shrugged it off, taken it as some sort of harassment, but I didn’t. Instead of sadly reminiscing the relationship, I responded to the note and made this image happen.
For the Artists
My current day job is serving as “Art Coach!” at Helen M. Knight Elementary in Moab, making school holidays my targets for travel. Christmas break is an especially important one. With two-plus weeks I can go the distance, otherwise (poor me!) I’m bound to southern Utah. I’ve performed this work for forty-plus years, including ten on the Navajo Reservation and eight with the Eight Northern Pueblo day schools of New Mexico. (How I came to this requires a book, as it includes many acts of following serendipity.)
The abstract expressionists and fauvists, who concentrated on bold color and brush strokes, are my favorites. This “watercolor” blends both and then some. Photograph. Light plus write or draw. This one happened because there’s a party of painters in my head. We’re all light painters, you know!
Death Valley Intersection
On this winter trip I was in Death Valley and had chosen to visit the very southern end for the first time. On my 3rd day out from home I was driving a dirt road headed towards my planned destination, a small dune set. Though dune photographs are ubiquitous to the point of being repulsive, I do find that I’m attracted to those that are very well done, and so, once again, I was setting out to try my hand.
I’d not photographed for weeks, was anxious to do so, and was set on dunescapes. I was thinking, pondering, daydreaming, and imagining the upcoming dunes. When a bump made me pay attention to where I really was, I saw salty, sandy, flat land spotted with dry brush for miles around with low gray hills in the distance.
It was mid-afternoon, clear sky with a few trace clouds, and I was motoring along at a comfortable “old-guy-pulling-popup-trailer” speed. I could see an intersection ahead: a dirt road intersection. A Robert Frost moment was approaching. I didn’t take either road! As I braked to turn, I noticed a large patch of dried “Death Valley mud” outside the driver’s window. In the middle of it was a singular, twisted, thin branch casting shadow. I stopped completely, put my truck and myself in neutral, and did a double-take.
“Something there,” said Serendipity.
I’ve learned to listen to her more, and more intently, over the years and have never been disappointed. The one truth I know of “serendipity,” which is defined in multiple dictionaries as an event caused by chance, accident, luck, coincidence, etc., is that you’ll not experience serendipity unless you have made yourself open to it. I believe that we make it happen by being aware and open to those “decisive moments” swirling all around us.
To make myself happen I first had to stop the truck and get out. I had to break from my plan! I then had to leave the warmth of the truck and enter the cold day. Gear up. I first walked the 30 steps onto the playa and “scouted” the scene by walking around the branch at a distance lest I make footprints where I wouldn’t want to see them in a final composition. Once I determined the primary angle I retrieved my gear, set up, and went to work. I did eventually visit the dunes, camped, and photographed for two days, and as I drove away, I paused at the intersection to thank my own personal serendipity once again. Two roads had diverged, and I didn’t take either, and it made all the difference. This image, simple and direct, and not part of the plan, remains my favorite from this trip. It holds meaning for me as a metaphor for the image gifts that surround us. I had listened to that voice inside and made something happen.
I made this image long before my successful (yay!) heart valve replacement surgery in 2015. I wanted to gift my heart team and knew I had many “WaterSong” images from a blurb book I’d published around an 800-step section of a local stream I love. I didn’t see the heart then, but I sure did as I perused my files! Each team member, including all those who see me at my annual checkup, have a print.
Though I liked the composition well enough then to make exposures, it holds much more meaning for me now. It happened because I needed to thank my health providers who’ve kept me in a state of flow!
Feathered Roof and Poetry of Place
I have photographed ruins and rock art on Cedar Mesa for decades. I have held ancient baskets full of corn and numerous other artifacts now housed in the canyons of eastern museums as part of the Wetherill-Grand Gulch Research Project. My “vision” for photographing sites came together about 20 years ago here. I’d just found a way to teach the major landforms of the area to my third-grade students using only vertical, diagonal, and horizontal lines. I call the lesson Lines of Landscape.
About the same time, my poet-friend David Lee (Utah’s first poet laureate) invited me to do a book with him. It became “Entrada”. I have always been attracted to movement in stone, real or implied, yet had not involved it when photographing sites. I started backing away, reading the movement in the rock, and playing with how the geometry of architecture related to the “poetry of place.” Hmmm. Kids and poets. There’s a poetry to that phrase. My work changed for the better because I let them all in, let them all happen!
More Than A Rock!
Chuck Kimmerle and I turned in amongst the Alabama Hills on a cloudy, wet morning this past winter when I visited him and his wife in their now-new home in Independence, CA. We both glanced to the left and since he had to brake, I opened my door first and stated loudly, “It’s mine!” Neither of us were competitive, until now.
He kindly conceded and I went to work. I’m pretty sure we’d seen the same basic material, though we haven’t mentioned it since. The beautiful soft light enhanced the dull gold-dawn and the blue shadow of the granite. My thoughts went to “resting rocks,” and my mind immediately converted to black and white. Weeks later, during processing at home, I surprised myself by laughing loudly while alone (I hardly do that amongst friends!). “Oh my!” exclaimed I, “It’s More Than a Rock!” Without him on the scene, I’d made a portrait of my buddy Guy Tal!
Sometimes photographs do just happen!
In parting: look to those images you have made that came to you by surprise; words from a friend; dream suggestion; or some other source outside yourself. Give thanks. They were not serendipity, not coincidence. Decisions you made up to that point put you in just the right place to receive the gift. Give yourself a pat on the back.
YOU MADE YOU HAPPEN!