Sunday, September 04, 2011

Lone Pine Peak from my Campsite

The Group Experience

A few days ago, I received a email from a potential participant about the amount of – or lack of – walking on our upcoming photography trip to Yellowstone. My correspondent noted that we would be spending more time in the van that we would walking trails in America's first national park. She wondered if I knew of any photography trips that were oriented more toward hiking.

That was a fair question, as I'm sure most photographers would prefer to be out and about with their cameras rather than stuck in a van. Certainly on the trips to Yellowstone I've conducted over the past 20 years, we do sit on our keisters during a fair portion of each day.

High Sierra View

In truth, I don't know much about how most other photo trips operate. From my what I do know, most of them rely on horsepower rather than on foot power. That's because, like much in life, trying to be serious about two activities we love at the same time can make it difficult to be serious either activity. It's particularly so when those activities involve items that have weight and need to be manipulated, things like cameras and backpacks.

At the Campground

Photography for aficionados involves cameras and lenses and tripods and filters and memory cards and batteries. A long day hike includes the need to carry food and water and extra clothes. On a backpack trip, there are sleeping bags and tents and stoves and food to carry. That's a lot to shoulder in service of both photography and hiking.

I'm fairly sure that finding a photography leader/instructor fit enough and willing enough to both teach about photography and lead a hiking tour would be difficult (yours truly excepted). And from my many years leading and hiking with groups of backpackers and day hikers, I know it would be very hard to keep a group together for shared moments of photography.

Sunset Above Tuolumne Meadows

The truth is that photography groups need to travel short distances on foot, and/or need to travel between locations separated by any distance by van or in cars.

In a place like Yellowstone, roads were built long ago to take people to all the main attractions. The idea that people would want to walk any distance for fun was an alien concept back in the day. While making such easy access to geysers and wildlife in Yellowstone might have ruined the wilderness experience, it was a boon to photographers.

It's different in a place like Yosemite. With the exception of Yosemite Valley, it's hard to see many of the park's attractions. Most of the geography of the park has either been placed off-limits to motorized traffic, or is too rugged for easy access by road.

To reach the waterfalls, glaciers and high peaks in Yosemite's backcountry requires a serious physical commitment. In 1927, for example, Ansel Adams spent hours climbing to make his iconic photograph, "Monolith, The Face of Half Dome." To plant their feet where he did then, photographers today have to make the same climb Adams did.

In 1870, in order to photograph Old Faithful, William Henry Jackson, the first photographer to reach Yellowstone, had to travel with a mule train for several days. Today, I can drive within a hundred yards of Old Faithful to make my photographs of the world's most famous and most accessible geyser.

The Packer

That's why there are plenty of calendar shots of backcountry locations – of waterfalls and glaciers and high peaks – in Yosemite, and not so many backcountry images for Yellowstone. That easy accessibility to so much that Yellowstone offers is precisely why it's such a fertile field to till for groups of photographers, who can share the experience of seeing and photographing the geysers, the wildlife, and the sweeping views contained within park's mountainous landscapes.

And sharing those moments is the reason for going with a group of photographers. A group acts as a force multiplier, each participant acting to help the rest, everyone sharing ideas and looking through each others viewfinders.

Lembert Dome (Yosemite) Reflection

When I travel to places like Yellowstone and Yosemite with a group to make photographs, we all have to be for photography. We have to leave the hiking and cycling and climbing and skiing and kayaking for other days. We have to be one-for-all, and all-for-one. And that means traveling together, by van or in cars. While we lose something when we join a group – total freedom to do what we want – we gain something, too, which is a chance to learn about the creative vision of others, and in so doing, learn to see more creatively ourselves.

Outflow from Saddle Rock Lake

We don't see creatively only when we're with a group. When the journey ends, we can take what we learn from a group with us. And when we're on our own, we can connect with the world around us, we can make photographs that hold deeper meanings, to ourselves and others, than would mere snapshot images.

Pelicans along Ballona Creek

We can certainly make satisfying photographs when we're on hikes that lead deep into the mountains, or on long bike rides. We don't have to drive up to a Kodak viewpoint, we don't have to be with a group, . All the photographs, for example, appearing on this post were made (except for the one of Sam Chin photographing the night sky) outside the company of other photographers, on trips that didn't revolve around photography. Reaching the state of experience I needed to make these photographs, though, came from my interactions with groups of photographers in places like Yellowstone.

Shooting Stars

Admittedly, sitting in a van in between stops for photographs seems like taking the easy road. However, after a day climbing into and out of a van, after walking with a camera and lenses to and from the van, after interacting with others to think and see and learn in new ways, and after getting up well before dawn and going to bed well after dark, photographers who are part of a group know they have worked hard each day, worked as if they'd hiked all day. Their minds know it, and there bodies know it, too.

Note: Click on any image for a larger version.


Patrick Ashley said...

Excellent post, Dave!

Patrick Ashley said...

Excellent post, Dave!

Bob said...

Dave - having hiked and taken photographs, I could not agree more. You explained it perfectly!