The Work of Landscape Photography

I like to earn my photographs. I don’t think a robot could ever feel that way, but maybe artificial intelligence will include emotional dimensions. Maybe we are not special as human consciousness. Still, I feel better when I do something hard that leads to a great photograph. 

A lot of it has to do with timing. You have to synchronize your life with the light and the landscape. You have to be in the right place at the right time, and if it is hard to get to that place then you have the added reward of achieving something that is difficult. It is not just what the camera can see, but what the body operating the camera feels and why. 

Riding my bike through the mountain trails gives me a ton of physical challenges and a lot of satisfaction. It feels good to climb up to a ridgeline with the power of your own legs and the view is that much sweeter. It also means knowing the trails and how long they take and how fast you can go. It means having enough energy and physical comfort to be able to stop and compose your shots despite the fatigue or the hunger you feel. 

It also adds the element of the unknown. You have some extra elements of chance at work. Getting yourself in the right spot at the right time is much harder when you are riding a bike, but it is also much more rewarding. 

Mountain Cure

With all of the tragedy going on in the world, mental health is super important and hard to come by. Exercise is key for my mental well being. So is being in nature. With a camera on my back, I jumped on my bike to put in some miles on the trails to achieve both goals and to make some photographs in the pretty early-summer light.JJT.13.June.2020I’ve been thinking a lot about how photography is so much more than a way of documenting the world, and when I experiment with long exposure blurs it sometimes matches how I feel better than a tack sharp image. I like to experiment with drawing with the light. It decomposes the image and shows how cameras work while using all of the points of light to draw lines. JJT.13.June.2020-26I think that there is a value to both kinds of photographs: experimental and documentary. While I enjoy the feeling of experimenting with a camera to get surprising results there is also something really rewarding about a photograph that looks and feels like the world it was made in.JJT.13.June.2020-5JJT.13.June.2020-24JJT.13.June.2020-4JJT.13.June.2020-7JJT.13.June.2020-3

Barney Moon

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One of the side effects of the shutdown, the shelter in place order, or whatever you call this corona virus crisis is weeds. Great bushy volunteers crowding unkept sidewalks. We are in the middle of a drought. Otherwise the weeds would have swallowed us all up by now.

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The stay home order has given people a renewed appreciation for simple things like a walk through your neighborhood park. The last light on Cypress trees indicates the setting of the sun.

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I like to use a 400mm lens to photograph the landscape, especially when the moon is going to be a good subject.

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The almost full moon making us all remember that we are in this together.

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Spring brings winds and longer days to Santa Cruz. You can feel Summer on its way.

JJT.5.May.2020-93Before long, the Southern Hemisphere will awaken and send us powerful long period south swells.

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Last night as I walked back from photographing the moon, I saw a couple of great waves smoking and spitting and generally rolling through in true Steamer Lane fashion right as I passed Barney’s bench. I have some theories about what he’d be doing during this time, but I’ll save those for a podcast sometime.

Doubling Down on Imagining Sustainability

This is not going to be an article on the you-know-what. I’m tired of giving that horrible thing attention. Neither is this an article about silver linings. I’m not trying to peddle some false positivity. Nope, this is back to what I care most deeply about besides my daughter, my family, my friends and my dog: art and the environment, in my case: photographing Wilder.

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For about the past half a year, I have been working on a project that I started with my girlfriend at the time. It is a study of a local park that is accessible on foot from my studio. It started with Madison, and it has continued even while we have not been able to be in contact due to the current situation.

 

The project is about a connection to a place. There is something about hiking, about the slow methodical speed of walking, that makes a great energy for making photographs. Being connected to a place also means being connected to people. Love is always at the core of any artwork I make. That is my motivation.

 

Of course, love is a complicated set of emotions and actions. There is romantic love, familial love, the love of the natural world, the love of art. Love is a drive, and attraction to an idea, thing or action. Love is at the root of philosophy: it is the love of wisdom. If you can cultivate the energy of love as a driving force, then everything you do becomes more meaningful. Coming from a place of love is seriously underrated.

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In our current culture, we have a challenge in thinking sincerely about love. We do not honor or think deeply about the most important things: truth, beauty, goodness and love among the top of the list. We are obsessed with sex, money and power above all else. What happened to the powerful influence of love as an attraction? Love that guides us to protect and build up what we need to survive is lacking in a world riddled with techno-addiction and cyber-war. Fundamental concepts like love come across as childish or naive.

 

And yet, the most enduring things are simple but powerful and we should return to them. Now is the time to start making the work that is coming from a place of love and imagining sustainable development. We are always developing, always in process, never not building, and if we can focus our energies and resist the urge to chase after our addictions, then we might just be able to present a vision to the world that will inspire us to live in a way that makes more sense.

 

What does this mean in the context of Santa Cruz? Santa Cruz is a very strange place, but not in the ways that most people think. I often find myself cringing as I overhear people talking about Santa Cruz from an outsider’s perspective. What does it even mean to be local to a place? Why does it matter? I think it comes down to a matter of respect.

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A side note: for our communications to work we need to have more than a little common understanding as to the meanings of words, but all words have multiple meanings and are interpreted differently. We know that language is a dynamic and slippery medium, so it is always worth doing the work to define terms. That might be one of the most helpful things that writing can do: help us to come up with common understandings of concepts.

 

The push for greater sustainability in our development starts with a locally based love and respect for the landscape which leads to a desire to protect. In Santa Cruz, this plays out with a hyper sharp focus in the area between ocean and land where famous surf spots attract wannabe waveriders from the CostCo riddled hinterlands. Now, it is more than fair to say that nobody can lay claim to a part of the ocean.

 

The ocean is for everyone. But, not everyone deserves it. The ocean should be for those who respect it, who love it and who protect it. These three things are way more important than your home address. Love leads to respect which in turn inspires an effort to protect. You see a lot of people who come to the ocean with a predatory and entitled attitude, looking for opportunities to score one way or another and unconcerned about their impact on the place.

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This is true for our parks, too. The pristine trails climbing through redwood forests and up long grassy meadows with the opportunity to see wildlife and all of the intricacies of light and leaves and the interactions of organisms in an ecosystem at work is beautiful and attractive for good reasons. Access to the parks for everyone tips us in the direction of an egalitarian democracy, and so of course they should remain open to the public, but again not everyone deserves them.
Every weekend and then all summer long, people come to the area as tourists and treat the place with anything but respect. Part of the character of internet culture, which is evident among other places in high relief on Twitter, is a kind of jaded gallows humor and cynical lack of response to the things that happen in the world.

 

In other words, the dominant culture of Twitter is the culture of New York. The dominant culture of Instagram is Los Angeles. Facebook is the Midwest. We have a critical world-weary sarcastic sophisticated style of interpreting the world and an exhibitionistic flamboyant hedonistic showcase of contemporary versions of primal instincts. We have the seen it all by the age of twelve.

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Both of these approaches are what they are, and one thing they are is conceptual straw men. In the context of a megalopolis the need to be heard above the continual cacophony of millions of people all trying to get the same cronut creates a tone of such hyperbole that mainstream culture, porn and the absolutely illicit all merge in one wretched shriek of madness. That’s how I see culture right now. It stinks like 8th avenue on a hot morning, like rotting food, cigarette smoke and vomit.

 

We have ulcerous stomachs and flabby arms. From the couch, we judge the world like disappointed gods condemning our own creations in some twisted self-hating turn, a demonic yoga posture. A new variation on the ouroubourous, we have eaten too much of ourselves and are now instead vomiting up our own being.

 

This is the character of internet culture, generally, but it is not the culture of Santa Cruz. I don’t know what could make one culture better than another unless it is the abundance of love, respect and conservation for the place itself. If people are actively celebrating, taking care of and protecting the place where they live, is there not something better about that then another culture lacking those important qualities?

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The only reason to judge a culture is to promote the version of culture you want to take over the world, and as maniacal as that may sound it is also simply inevitable. If you want to have a world with greater sustainability it has to be the entire world, since we are one global system with oceans and atmosphere connecting us. What Elon Musk sends into space affects all of us for good and bad.

 

In the end it is a competition of ideas. You can’t blame people for liking what they do. You have to give them something better, you have to lead by example. That is what I try to do in my photography and in my life. I chose to create my content by walking to locations and syncing my instinct for making pictures up with the landscape the lighting and the mysterious elements of unpredictable change.

Will it be enough to move the needle? Will it help to push the people of the world to reconsider what we value? Who knows, but regardless of outcome the job is still in front of us and we can choose to do the work or not with attendant consequences. If we want good outcomes, we have to do the work.

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For me, this begins with walking long distances over and over again as I collect images and make photographs. Those are two distinctly different things, as I do one casually and without much work with my phone camera while hiking and then I also have my backpack with camera equipment, and I also carry a tripod for when I want to make a photograph that requires more technique.

 

One of the most ridiculous and counterproductive feelings I can remember from before I started this project was the frantic attempt to find a good location as golden hour approached. Sometimes you could see that the sunset was going to be amazing and so you might be racing around in your car to be in the right spot. What a bunch of horseshit that is. Since I now make photographs while in the middle of a five-hour hike, I have to use a much different set of instincts to get myself into the right position to make a photograph during the best moments of light.

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In order to do that, I have to align my instincts with the landscape. This is an ancient art known by farmers and practiced by surfers. I learned it from mainly from working with Anthony Tashnick, who is the one human most keenly attuned to the ocean I have ever known. All professional surfers have this instinct. It is a prerequisite to the job, just as a fisherman has to find the fish. The surfer has to be where the waves are good. The photographer has to position themselves for the right compositions at the right times. It is all the same in some way. You have to study the patterns and intend to be in the right place at the right time. It is an exercise of using desire to change your behavior. You have to want to get the shot and then work to be there for the moment when it happens.

 

Another, less positive, way to think about it is like the instincts of an alcoholic or junky. The need for that thing is so strong that there is almost a supernatural attraction to it that creates the ability to know where it is at all times. Just like the alcoholic knows where the liquor cabinet is when they walk into a home, the surfer knows where an incoming swell is going to break, and a photographer knows how to be somewhere amazing when the light peaks.

 

I certainly am not suggesting that I have it all figured out, but I do have some things wired. I know that the more I hike the better photos I get. I know that it is a great honor to be a photographer and I respect the art and its tradition, so I feel compelled to work at being the best artist with a lens that I can be. I very much approach the task of making art with some kind of militant warrior spirit. I believe that it is as much about conquering my own fears and temptations through discipline as anything else. Working on photography is one thing: working on the person making the photographs is another altogether. Facing ourselves and being honest about what we find is an act of courage that is transformative.

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This project is an attempt to align those things, too. I want to improve in all aspects of my being, but especially as a photographer and as a person. How can you gauge your improvement? How do you know when you are getting better? It is just a feeling. It is all subjective anyways. But, you have to live with your feelings, so if you can conquer the negative self-talk then you create space for some much more interesting dialogue.

 

The best way to earn the respect of people you care about is by being respectful and that starts with how you treat yourself. Hiking for my photographs gives me a sense of achievement and a confidence that I know something fundamental about myself. My desire to keep pushing myself physically and artistically gives me a sense of self-respect. I know what my intentions are. When I feel tired or sore, it reminds me of my decision to double down on imagining sustainability and it feels great.

 

 

 

 

 

Gear Envy

There are a lot of great photographers in Santa Cruz. I think that it might be our strongest visual art. Santa Cruz County is such a beautiful place, with so many secret spots and microclimates, that it is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. If it’s foggy at the beach, you can go up into the redwoods to use the soft light to capture wooded landscapes. We have rivers, creeks, waterfalls and even a lake. We have bright open sand dunes and dank murky forests. Photography is the perfect match for this truly special place.
It’s not only the landscape that makes Santa Cruz such a great place for photography, though: it’s the people, too. There is a magnetism to this place that attracts some of the more interesting folks to be found. There are the surfers, the marine biologists, the environmentalists, the artists, the skateboarders, the mountain bikers, the professors, the entrepreneurs, the brewers, the chefs, the foodies, the frisbee golfers, the cannabis community, the techies, the hipsters, the coffee enthusiasts, the moms and dads, the teachers, the activists, the homeless, the politicians, and so much more. All of this beauty and diversity is just waiting to be expressed in photography.

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Yesterday, I woke up early to shoot the sunrise as I usually do. There’s a certain spot I like to go for how the waves refract and crash against the cliffs. It’s not the most obvious spot to photograph, but it’s certainly no secret. I often see other photographers using it for their work. I used to always want to find my own spots and if I saw another person with a camera it would kinda ruin it for me. I’d rather be somewhere obscure and unique than crowded next to a bunch of other button pushers getting slight variations on the same scene. Over time, though, I’ve learned that even if people are shoulder to shoulder they end up getting very different shots because photographic style is very personal. Additionally, I’ve come to think that there is a more important element to photography than being unique: it’s connection. Having some sort of personal feelings about a place makes the work more interesting. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get great photos while traveling. There’s something magical about the act of traveling that opens you up to connecting with a place. There’s also something deep about spending a lot of time studying a landscape. These two are the best paths to connection for me: visit new places and keep going back to places you love. Whether other people are shooting them or not is not as relevant.

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Well, this morning there weren’t many clouds in the sky but there were huge sets rolling through and smashing against the rocks. Every so often an especially large two wave set would roll through and pound the cliff making the ground shake and throwing huge explosions up into the sky. There were two shots I wanted to get: the crack of dawn with a breaking wave and one of these macking sets smashing against the cliff. With some luck, they both happened at the same time. I was positioned to catch the day break when the largest set of all created a small earthquake. Right then, two fisherman were standing on the upper part of the cliff next to me and they looked at the lower portion where they would have to stand and laughed at each other. It was cold and the chances were they were going to get wet. Still, fish had to be caught so they hauled their gear down to the wet cliff’s edge and cast their lines. I waited for another set to come through to see what they would do, but only a couple of smaller waves hit the cliff and they dodged the spray with little effort and only a small amount of fear.

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Then, I dashed off to meet my morning subject for coffee. Martina is a meditation specialist and as you would hope she has a tremendous sense of depth about her. Her business is helping people to go deeper in their meditation practice and I’m helping her with her website. She wanted a photograph of herself in the landscape with gold and purple colors only, so I asked her to wear the purple and I led her up the coast to a really mystical beach with long golden beaches and dramatic golden cliffs. I think that the same thing applies for photographing people as landscapes: the most important element is connection. Again, this is magically possible the first few times you meet someone and after you have known them for a long time. If you feel stuck in your photography I would challenge you to photograph someone entirely new to you and someone you have known very well for a long time. The high tide and the large swell made this epic spot that much more dramatic and though there wasn’t that much room on the beach to walk we got some great shots with amazing light.

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After our shoot, I went back to the studio to edit some shots for her to review and then went to the brewery to photograph the new flier for Twisted Tasting 2018. This is an incredible event that my sister came up with where she invites all the breweries and her favorite food artists to come up with something really creative and unusual. Then they all show up in one carnival themed space for a night of eating drinking and carnivalesque fun. It’s a challenging event to organize, to say the least. I had some business to take care of, so I only had a few moments to get a photograph and I asked one of our brewers if he’d like to be in the photo. Although he initially declined when I explained that he would just be holding up the flier in front of his face he was game. He’s a photographer, too, and sometimes photographers can dislike each other by instinct. My uncle sometimes tells a joke about poets. How do you get a poet to hate you? You tell ‘em you’re a poet. Same thing with photographers. We either hate each other or get along beautifully. There’s almost always some element of comparison that goes into the mix whether it leads to inspiration or jealousy. I’m certainly not immune to this dynamic, so I almost always understand it. He was very cool about it, though, and chose the high road by being a team player. There are way more photographers than there are budgets for photography in this town, but I think that can and will change. Social media marketing is so important to business and there are so many small businesses that we can all find work if we get smart about it. I have tons to say about this subject, but I’ll return to it in a future blog.

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The next part of my day was just a bunch of business, but by the time I’d finished my chores it was already time to go and shoot the sunset. We are in the last week of fall during the shortest days of the year and there’s not much time in between golden hours. I decided to head back up the coast for sunset because I had a really good feeling up there in the morning. I decided to go to Shark Fin Cove this time, even though I expected it to be crowded with photogs. I hadn’t got a truly great photograph of the cove yet and I figured this might be my time. I was surprised when I climbed down the path and out onto the beach that there weren’t any other photographers yet so I placed my tripod in the spot I like the best where you can see the channels of water on both sides of the shark fin. I turned around and there was another photographer already right behind me. He must’ve been just a few seconds later than I was. No bother, I though to myself and laughed about how I had made a satirical story about another photog poaching my shot just a week ago. Well, I’m getting my settings figured out and he plunks his tripod down right next to me, but I know that my angle is the one I like best. If I got a shot even three feet to the left where he is I wouldn’t like it, so I don’t care. The waves are huge and are crashing against the cliffs with great drama. My wide angle lens doesn’t do their violence justice. I turn to my comrade and he has a camera on the tripod, but he’s pulled out another camera with a bigger lens to shoot the waves. I felt a pang of jealousy, or gear envy, but I still knew that I was going to get the shot I wanted, so I chilled and just enjoyed the scene. It was still about twenty minutes till the sun set. Remember how I said earlier that there were two set waves every once in a while that would explode against the cliff in the morning? Well, the same was true in the evening. I saw it coming but you could hear it, too because water was being forced with extreme pressure through both channels and then shot right up the beach at us. No problem, I picked up my tripod and scooted ten feet or so back. As I was doing this, though, I witnessed something awful. My friend still had his big lens camera in hand, but he had put his camera bag on the beach and his other camera was still on the tripod. As the wave raced up the beach, I saw him freeze for a second in terror and then rush in a panic to get his camera bag which he retrieved just in time. Then we both looked at his other camera and watched in what felt like slow motion as it leaned forward and finally crashed lens first into the water.

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“Oh man, oh no!” It was another photographer who was just arriving on the scene to witness the disaster. He was a hipster of small stature, but well groomed and with a very beautiful woman toting a film camera. The were both dressed in all black. I could tell that he wanted my spot. At a certain point he asked if he could stand in front of my setup to snap a few shots. Sure I said and I just photographed him trying to get the shot. I didn’t think you could get a very good photograph of the scene without a tripod to begin with and I knew I had plenty of time as the sun had set but the sky was slowly blooming with color. I could tell it was going to be one of those epic 20 minute after burns. He came back to me after snapping his shots and asked me what Sony I was using. I told him it was an A7ii and he flashed me a wolfish smile. How about you? A7R, he beamed back at me. I laughed inside at what assholes we are comparing gear. I really do not give a flying fuck what camera someone has, especially after I saw homeboy with the big lens lose his other camera to the waves. He was still on the beach morosely trying to clean his camera twisting the lens and grinding his teeth to the sound of the grit caught in the lens. By the time the bloom peaked I was very happy with my shots and trekked back up to my car to head home.

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