A feeling of freedom is always welcoming, but it’s the mystery of an adventure that I’ve really missed. After suffering a nasty back injury while backpacking on the trail last year, my adventures were instantly put on hold. Expensive camera equipment began collecting dust in my office and I found it difficult to take life ‘easy.’ I’m a firm believer in ‘everything happens for a reason,’ but my injury didn’t make it any easier to accept. While trying to focus on the positive, one advantage I came up with was that by putting my camera down for 8 months, the time off gave me ample opportunity to plan and fine-tune the upcoming year. With a full workshop schedule planned and endless filming locations to explore, I knew it was going to be an exciting season.
This year I plan to take a different approach towards my work. My most important goal is to break away from what I consider ‘comfortable’ and challenge myself to purposefully explore different kinds of areas and shooting techniques. I’ve observed over the years that the tendency many photographers experience within their creative journey is the ‘urge to replicate.’ I’ll admit, I’m guilty of it and many of my colleagues are guilty of it too. Replicating someone else’s work of art is comfortable, often easier, and requires less of you. A lot of photographers begin taking photographs using this ‘replicating’ process; after all, it’s important to learn why an image ‘works’ and why one may not. For example, some photographers feel it’s a good learning experience to go to the famous Mesa Arch in Utah during sunrise, observe how sunlight casts a perfect orange glow on the underside of the arch, and experience how the archway frames a dramatic canyon through its void. I remember feeling the same way as I eagerly captured the stunning phenomenon. During my research about how to get to the famous archway, I remember seeing hundreds, if not thousands of identical images online from this particular arch; unfortunately each image provided a similar composition, moment, and feeling. One major factor I failed to consider was the massive amounts of observers and inspiring photographers who also come to witness the same magical moments I planned to intimately capture. By the time this special event unfolded, photographer after photographer sandwiched themselves within a very small area and began clicking away. Each shutterbug, myself included, spent a half hour or so capturing the same images over and over. At the time, I thought I had achieved something great and felt really happy about it. What I failed to recognize was I had successfully captured an image from the internet and had replicated the same photograph thousands before me had similarly photobombed. Do I regret being part of the herd? Of course not! It was a great learning experience. Would I do it again? Definitely not during a sunrise. The point of the story is that it was a comfortable location and easy to clone the shot however, I’ve realized that being like everybody else took all the fun out of it for me. Wouldn’t it be more meaningful if I came back with an ‘original’ shot that represented me and was created using my unique artistic expressions? This is why I feel it’s important for each artist to challenge themselves by showing us their individuality in the various ways in which they experience, respond, and capture a given moment.
Last month I returned to Joshua Tree National Park to spend some time scouting new places and teach a few workshops. As I began exploring the desert, the ‘comfortable’ side of me wanted to focus on areas I had experienced a few years ago. However, the ‘adventurous’ side of me wanted to seek crusty dirt roads with graveyard like ‘4×4 with high clearance needed’ signs warning me away. I admit, at first I hesitated. I’ve been stuck out in the middle of nowhere with my rear tire 3 feet deep in sand and no one in sight to lend a hand. I’ll be honest, that helpless moment was a traumatic experience so every time I venture out alone on a dirt road I tense up, grip the steering wheel tighter than usual, and start telling my truck, “Don’t get stuck!”
Thankfully the drive was smooth sailing for the first few miles with manageable bumps here and there however, nothing my truck couldn’t easily handle. A few miles later my anxiety started to kick-in because I came upon large pointy rocks on the road impossible for my rig to avoid. Another mile further and I was forced to maneuver downhill in deep sand. Evidence of lonely travelers quickly diminished the further I drove in, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I turned around, so doomed or not, I decided to forge ahead. I finally parked in an obscure area I had previously spotted on Google Earth (I won’t give away locations as that would defeat the purpose of this post) and began to explore my surroundings in complete isolation. Joshua Tree National Park gets VERY crowded this time of year and one rarely snags a campsite in one of its numerous public, first-come-first-serve campgrounds. Headlights from passing cars at night are a constant nuisance when attempting to enjoy and capture the light polluted sky. So to end up in an area not overrun by the masses, without a single distraction for several miles, was pure heaven. I dubbed this area ‘my utopia’ because of how pristine it was compared to other areas I visited within the park. Surrounding my utopia was a grassy desert floor, wildflowers in bloom, trails undefined, healthy Joshua Trees, undamaged rock formations, and little evidence most had ‘gotten lost’ here.
I happily spent 7 days in my remote utopia before deciding to move to a different location. Remaining in this solitary area for so long allowed me to explore diverse perspectives, a variety of unspoiled rock formations, and intricate patterns of the landscape. Able to set up my 3 axis, motion control equipment each night without having to worry about passing headlights or people trespassing into my shots, allowed the rush of creativity to take over. While immersed in wildness, a variety of wildlife ranging from coyotes, birds, jack rabbits, and ground squirrels surrounded me as if to say, “We get it.”
As I look through the images & footage I came home with, I’m grateful I embraced my fears of the unknown. Pushing through my fears gave me the confidence to challenge myself and discover areas not often visited by the masses and therefore allowing myself to focus on my artistry. I was able to break away from the iconic ‘comfortable’ landmarks most photographers blindly settle on, and literally focused in on areas few have experienced or captured.