Sunday, March 15, 2015

Crucial Elements

Canyon Sunrise 


I often feel like I live my life lurking around in the dark. I head off to work in the dark and more often than not as I move into a new landscape to shoot I'm heading in to catch the twilight hour or sunrise, thus traveling or hiking in the dark.  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this causes a bit of apprehension and anxiety, especially in an area I've not traveled in before. Going down the wrong dirt road in the pitch of darkness, navigating dark trails even with headlamps, encountering the wildlife on the move, all this can get ones adrenaline pumping. 

I'd recently made a dark trek into the Grand Canyon to shoot some freshly fallen snow and wanted  to catch some beautiful twilight hues. Entering the park before dawn, I headed to the view I wanted to shoot.  I pulled my gear out of my SUV and realized the snow in the area was packed yet slightly melted and slick so I had to dig out my ice cleats. The Grand Canyon being one of the very last places where slipping and falling would be a smart idea, especially while strapped to a 25lb camera backpack. 

The snow had completely obstructed the walkways and as I climbed over a little wall It became very apparent that the snow was now ice on some parts of the ground and even with cleats, a bit precarious.  Out of nowhere and with a jolt to my sensibilities I was approached my a man who said, "Can you do me a favor?"  

Trying to balance my footing and get a clear idea of who was standing in front of me in the dark I could tell that I immediately struck a defensive demeanor. My hands noting the position of my little canister of pepper spray that I keep clipped to my front strap. I said nothing but waited for him to continue and I kept my eyes focused on him. 

As it turns out, he was a photographer from Australia who just wanted me to know he had a wide angle time lapse set up many yards away. Honestly, I don't know why he approached me with such urgency but he almost elicited my trigger finger and that would have been diplomatically unseemly for sure. 

"Are you kidding me?" was all I could get out.  Did he think I was going to touch his camera?  

My plans the night before had been so idyllic.  Beautiful canyon vistas draped with snow as the twilight hues created magic.  Lone moments and hot coffee to meditate and savor the views after sunrise.  Yet at the moment, I was freezing, my hands were numb, the wind kept blowing my headgear off and the Aussie had me frazzled. 

I set up my camera, put my new Tamron 150-600mm lens on and searched for my twilight hour shot. I didn't like the composition so I changed my lens to my Canon 70-200mm.  The wind was blowing so hard as I searched for the perfect angle. I needed one that allowed the sunrise to land on an east facing structure but I could barely see.  The gusting wind  was distracting and loud almost as if a train were barreling down on me, I lost my hat again. Even with two pairs of gloves my hands were stiff and clumsy with the camera. 

The sensitive creative element so crucial to how I work and compose as a photographer had long left me and I knew it.  Like a fire with no warmth, a marriage with no love and as Alanis Morissette would write "ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife" (isn't it ironic),  I can't shoot now. 

I decided to pack up my gear and head to new location hoping to recompose myself, calm down and start over. Knowing that time was crucial as the sun would be fully engaged soon.  I lifted the back hatch of my SUV and neatly packed my bag.  Threw in my tripod and as I slammed down the back hatch, I knew my day had just taken a bad turn. I'd just locked myself out of my SUV as my keys were sitting next to my backpack. Something I've never done before, never.

I was rattled. 

No one around, no cell service and in the middle of the Grand Canyon on a cold, snowy and dark morning.  Thank God, I was at least warm. Trouble shooting my current dilemma at least kept me from going down the path of unproductive self-loathing, a place I really wanted to go.  I set out to find something to pry or break my back hatch window. I found nothing.  

I looked under the SUV just in case there had always been an escape hatch or something, I don't know, MacGyver I'm not.  Finally, some tourist arrived and yet I couldn't find anyone who spoke English. Several hours later, I came across two Canadian photographers who happen to have cellular service and they called the park rangers who in turn called the garage in the village. Help was on its way. 

Long story, short, the tow guy was able to break into my SUV and $100 later I was mobile again. The sun was high was harsh and I was of no mood. Driving out of the park, my check engine light came on and well, that's another adventure. 

Several days later and all is well.  In fact, all is better than well but having a few moments to reflect on the experience I've come to realize how often  I've not been able to pull all the components together to shoot the way I work best.  I'm often extremely frustrated by this, yet for me I just happen to know what elements must be present or I don't shoot. Not saying this is the right approach for everyone but one that seems be essential for me. 

One can be physically there, you do the homework, put the right tires of the truck, pack the chains and you show up. Now that you're there hopefully you haven't left the camera at home or the batteries or drove off and left the tripod somewhere.  It's looking good and you've timed your lighting and all is in place.  Now, this is where I'm either present or I'm not.  Have I preserved the proper state of mind to function creatively and see beyond what's simply in front of me.  Am I an artist or a mechanic. Can I capture the essence, mystery and mood of the place or will I just banally document.  Can I bring myself in spirit or have I come undone. I know the answer before I even touch my camera. 

Once, undone and I've taken my ball and gone home, I simply focus on the other areas of my photography.  I'll try to work out issues and learn from these situations.  Solutions involving placements of extra keys, windy weather head gear, optimized gloves and perhaps a membership with AAA.  I realize this is all a learning curve and as creatively fragile I may be, I can live with that.  I will continually look for ways to optimize my mindset as well so that being rattled doesn't necessarily mean unraveled. 

The whole story, the lesson was perhaps a bit metaphoric. The natural elements came together is a way that ultimately distracted my whole process.  Having your camera locked in your car is a pretty big distraction but nevertheless, I'd started to think about how many other distractions we face trying to work through our own personal and unique photographic processes. 

It's about drowning out the extraneous so the most crucial element in your photography (or your life as well) can show up, YOU.  You are the most important component in the process.  It's also about knowing and being in tune with your own creative processes enough to know when it's game on or not.  I was talking to another photographer the other day noting how few images I shoot in comparison to a year ago. I know myself better and therefore I'm more discriminate.  Strangely, I'm often more proud of the images I didn't take. The ones I know would just end up in my Lightroom trash can because there was no reason or meaning behind the shot. 

I read a hilarious article the other day written by Mark Manson called the "Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck"  once you can get past the title and the 27 times the article is "F" bombed it's a great read.  I thought the timing was spot on after my latest ordeal. 

There's so much stuff and fluff written about "How to" in photography. Thousands and thousands of articles and essays on how to be this or that. Who's an artist and who's not,  follow rules, ignore rules, how to be creative, how to see, how to act, how to sell, how to market and it goes on and on.  Everyone is an expert, has an e-book and has something you need. The thing is, no one knows the path you're taking but YOU.  Read what you need and what will help YOU along your own individualized journey.  Follow those whose work you admire, those who inspire, enlighten and make you excited about your continued education.  Ignore the extraneous, the negative, the spoiled rants, the naysayers who judge and condemn almost everything about photography.   

This just becomes the extra noise that can turn into the proverbial freight train bearing down on YOU. The you that so needs to be present for that unique vision and voice.