Category Archives: Essays
It was a brilliant Indian summer afternoon in Elk Lakes Provincial Park in Canada’s eastern British Columbia. Blue skies reigned over pale grey granite mountains and the mercury reached an unseasonable eighty degrees Fahrenheit. There were no deciduous trees in sight to offer any clues that it was, in fact, mid September yet the subtle yellow, orange, and red hues in the meadow grasses and huckleberry bushes betrayed the undeniable and irresistible approach of autumn. Bull moose wading the far shores of the marsh ponds had long disposed of their antler velvet and a fresh dusting of snow from the last passing front adorned the serrated peaks of the Continental Divide, the conspicuous border separating the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.
Elkford’s Chamber of Commerce might have billed this afternoon as “idyllic” but the bright sunlight and robin-egg blue skies reduced this photographer to just another tourist, squinting through the windshield to admire the stunning scenery while stopping every so often to unfold and refold the map before driving yet again with no particular destination in mind. Everyone plays the clueless tourist at some point in their life whether any of us wants to admit it or not.
I didn’t really mind that I was unlikely to do any meaningful photography on this day. I was too busy processing a flood of pleasant memories from a previous trip fourteen years ago when I visited here first time with just a film camera and fly rod. Through the middle of the park flows the Elk River that just happens to host the prettiest, most naive cutthroat trout whose acquaintance I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Toward no dry fly did these fish seem to pass any judgment or discrimination. Rising through milky, glacier-fed currents from the river bottom’s cobbles they would inhale a dry fly from the surface with such dumb innocence, it would almost break your heart.
It’s during the same trip that I also saw my first honest to goodness wild grizzly bear. It was at a safe enough distance, at least 100 yards, and we were separated by a particularly deep and broad section of the Elk River. It stalked the meadow’s edge with the purposeful gait and confidence that only an apex predator of the wild could get away with. When its head spun around on those massive shoulders and our eyes met, the coldest shiver ran down my spine and my toes tingled. I was flying.
If you do enough traveling to North America’s great wilderness areas, you will eventually have to deal with bears – either real ones or the phantom bears of your all too vivid imagination. A good piece of advice to follow when walking or hiking in bear country is to make as much noise as possible, not necessarily to scare any of them away, but to at least make your presence known since startling or surprising a bear at close range would spell certain disaster. Some examples would be wearing bear bells, intermittent clapping or yelling, and talking loudly – either within a group or just to yourself.
I’ve always preferred talking to myself since I tend to do it anyway: politics, religion, the use or overuse of HDR – you know, the usual topics to avoid in polite company. In fact, hiking through bear country is one of the few occasions when talking to oneself is a perfectly sane and reasonable thing to do.
Despite the lousy photography weather (photographers hate bright sunshine and clear, blue skies, unlike your typical tourist) I decided to take an afternoon hike to a small alpine lake for sunset. It was likely to be an exercise in futility – if not merely good old fashioned exercise period – but I was in a particularly beautiful part of the Canadian Rockies on an otherwise glorious September afternoon, so what the hell, right? At the very least, I will have had an invigorating hike through some incredibly scenic country and maybe I’d even take a photo or two.
The trail started out by winding through a fragrant forest of firs, Engelmann spruce, and lodge pole pine and quickly started gaining elevation. The hot sun and thin air conspired to make the hiking slow and burdensome but I was in no particular hurry after all. At each stop I made to catch my breath, small animals and birds would emerge from the forest once I settled down and sat quiet: a few chipmunks, a pika, and one brazen blue grouse that nearly came within an arm’s length of the rock on which I was resting. I’d attempt a few photos of the critters, glance at the results on the LCD display, shrug, and start walking again.
After an hour or so on the trail, I stopped yet again for a breather and an opportunity to answer the call of nature, once I found an appropriate powder room. I set my tripod firmly on the ground, with camera and lens attached, and ducked into a dense labyrinth of scrub birch and willows for a veil of privacy, as if I really needed it. Almost immediately, I heard a loud crash, breaking branches, and a grunting and growling that seemed to be getting alarmingly close. I made a hasty, ungraceful retreat back to the meadow and was closely tailed – a bit too close – by a visibly agitated black bear. I kept a respectable distance and did my best to calm it down by talking in a soft, reassuring voice.
Eeeeasy there big fella. You’re a good bear, aren’t you? We don’t want any trouble now, do we?
That didn’t work. Maybe it was my patronizing tone of voice. Maybe I was trespassing and about to use the loo in its personal living space. Or maybe it had something to do with the undignified visage of me standing in the middle of a lovely alpine meadow with pants dangling around my hiking boots. Whatever the reason, my amateur bear psychology and I were not being taken seriously, if at all. The bear then projected its displeasure on my tripod and camera, with admirable style and flair had it been any other circumstance, by spiking it to the ground like a post-touchdown celebration.
After performing an inspection and concluding that the combination of applied force and gravity didn’t do enough damage to be satisfied, the bear took the camera in its considerable jaws and began doing its best great white shark impersonation. I watched helplessly as shards of black plastic exploded from the exquisite piece of digital technology formerly known as my Canon DSLR. It occurred to me at some point that if the bear was desperate enough to try and extract nutrition from a digital camera, who’s to say that it wouldn’t be as equally desperate to try to take a pound or two of flesh from me? Black bear attacks on humans are rare but nearly always fatal since the motivation is usually food, instead of temporarily immobilizing a perceived threat.
I’ve actually had the unnerving experience of being charged by an brown bear – a coastal variation of Ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly – a few years ago in Alaska. The bear changed its mind in mid-charge (or felt sorry for me) and stopped a mere ten yards before hello darkness my old friend I could now only presume. Time sped up – or maybe it slowed down – I can’t really be sure since most of the details were lost to the fog of fear and surge of adrenaline. It was only a convincing bluff, but I’m proud to say I did everything right as this apparent attack was actually taking place. For one thing, I didn’t run, which is the cowardly half of the primal flight-or-fight response and an impulse that’s difficult to resist. I stood my ground with arms held over my head, avoiding any eye contact while waiting for the fatal impact. I also resisted screaming like an eight-year-old girl, which is another impulse that seemed all too appropriate at the time.
But no amount of screaming, pleading, or outright begging was going dissuade this clearly psychotic black bear from performing a crude camera lobotomy right before my eyes. For obvious reasons, no part of this episode was captured on camera since, short of whipping out my smartphone and snapping the most epic of selfies (which only occurred to me in hindsight), all I could do was stand empty-handed feeling dumb and helpless, which is probably how I looked as well. The humiliation only added insult to the injury.
When the bear finally discovered that my camera did not contain any marshmallow filling, it casually ambled back into the thickets, presumably to find some real food. While my zoom lens and tripod survived the encounter pretty much unscathed, the same couldn’t be said of the camera body. While taking inventory of the damage, I found that I wasn’t angry or upset. I didn’t harbor any feelings of vengeance or retribution. Violence, real or imagined, never even crossed my mind. Instead, I was dumbstruck. It was bizarre. It was surreal. It might have actually been funny had it been someone else’s camera.
And I did try to laugh about it, I really did. But like most attempted humor involving real bears, I just couldn’t find anything funny about it. Bear jokes told by those not accustomed to spending time in bear country usually fail with those of us who do since it either contains too little truth or too much. Punch lines involving bells in bear scat might provoke some nervous laughter from the fervent backpacker or hiker because of the implied irony, but it still overreaches and ultimately misses the mark.
Then there’s the one about not needing to actually outrun the bear, just the luckless partner of the joke’s narrator. Despite the ridiculous notion of running from a bear to begin with, I thought it was funny enough the first time, yet had quickly begun to pall after subsequent recitations. At Brooks Lodge in Alaska during a recent visit to this bear sanctuary, five or six of us guys were talking and loitering in the dining hall after supper one evening when one of the older sports needed to regale us with this particularly stale one-liner. The response, not surprisingly, was almost no response at all, save for the feeblest of laughs I feigned out of face-saving politeness. The gesture apparently went unnoticed since he insisted on repeating it all over again – this time even louder and with more enthusiasm, in case we all missed the point the first time. I excused myself from the table to get another beer.
The remaining daylight soon evaporated and the meadow fell into deep shadow. A cold wind barreled down the valley from the high mountains as a stern reminder that summer really was over after all. I threw on a light jacket I had kept stowed in my pack, gathered my broken gear, and started down the winding trail to the car, talking to myself once again.
* * * * * *
The preceding essay is part of an upcoming book, A Bear is Eating My Camera: Misadventures of a Travel Photographer, which will be released later in 2015. In the meantime, my collection of essays from the Great Smoky Mountains, The Great Smoky Mountains: Behind the Lens, is now available for download.
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“When this is in your hands, you are the center of the universe. Not that anything else exists, it certainly does. You are important, this thing empowers you to do whatever the hell you want.” – Mel DiGiacomo, photojournalist
“On the barrel, pretty white letters spelled out PARTY STARTER.” – Ilona Andrews, Gunmetal Magic
On the tediously long flight from Washington to Johannesburg, I was seated among a small group of middle-aged men decked out in the latest camouflaged fashions. They were, as they say, all in. The affected clothing items and accruements included, but were not limited to, jackets, ball caps, handbags, boots, eyeglass and phone cases, one eye patch, and a tee shirt emblazoned with block letters:
GUN CONTROL IS BEING ABLE TO HIT YOUR TARGET
A hunting party, no doubt.
At this realization, I was for the briefest of moments shocked that these grown men were traveling a great distance to kill the same creatures I was planning to photograph. I was also somewhat shocked at my own naïveté since African hunting safaris have a much longer history and steeper tradition than wildlife photography after all. Grainy black and white photographs of the bespeckled Teddy Roosevelt, rifle in hand grinning over the corpse of some poor Cape buffalo, come immediately to mind.
While casting no judgments on hunting in general – for sustenance (if and when necessary) and as a management tool with oversight by the appropriate authorities (for the benefit of wildlife or a specific species) – I must confess that killing for sport or trophy sickens me, especially African megafauna which has been in precipitous decline in recent years.
Either way, for better or worse, I have zero interest in participating myself. I know many wildlife photographers who are former hunters and they’ve all intimated that the primal “thrill of the kill” is the same, only a good wildlife image is much more of a challenge. The human predatory instinct is still propitiated but without the blood, guts, and guilt. Photography is also more of what I would consider to be a sporting proposition, in that both participants are able to safely walk away from the encounter.
Still, in many ways, photography and firearms are inextricably married, with language the most common bond. For instance, a camera is still said to be fired and so is a flash gun. A collection of lenses is often referred to as an arsenal and all lenses of course have a barrel. Super telephotos are big guns while small fully automatic, pocket-sized cameras are point-and-shoot. So without even having to mention headshot you should already be getting my drift here.
I feel the primary complication lies with the ambiguity of the words shoot and shot. A portrait photographer’s Twitter bio might include “I shoot people,” a joke that ceased being funny a long time ago, if for no other reason it’s breathtakingly unoriginal and old. If they mention that they can legally cut people’s heads off, well, then that makes it at least fractionally funnier.
Shot is a cute, amputated form of the word snapshot, borrowed yet again from weaponry and born in the early 19th century meaning, “a quick shot with a gun, without aim, at a fast-moving target.” Some photographers, I fear, might feel this definition hits a bit too close to home.
I use the words shoot or shot from time to time, but I try to do so as infrequently as possible. It’s not because of the words’ possibly violent undertones but instead I find them to be rather inelegant and crude. As a substitute for shot, I prefer image or photo. Image is snazzy and modern, fully appropriate for the age of digital cameras and smartphones – digital imagery. Stretching photo all the way out into photograph sounds a bit too old fashioned and implies, at least to me, a tangible print. The same goes for picture. The slang pic should always be avoided if you are older than 25 or if used outside the context of an online chat. Under no circumstances should it ever be verbalized. Capture, used as either a noun or verb, is gaining in popularity among photographers but has never fully caught on with me. Epic capture or I captured the sunset tonight is either too disconnected from photography or far too hip for its own good.
I think it’s time we all joined together to find some new terminology.
On the same recent flight mentioned earlier, I was told of a U.S State Department bulletin warning travelers to Johannesburg’s Tambo International Airport of thieves and muggers posing as taxi operators, an unsettling possibility.
As I carefully deliberated over my transportation options upon arrival, a friendly young driver approached and offered a ride to my hotel at a reasonable price. I searched for any clues in his appearance – a ridiculous and futile exercise – then followed him out to his car, which had an illuminated “taxi” sign perched on its rooftop, a good sign indeed.
When he asked about the purpose of my visit, I cryptically replied, “Shooting animals,” just as he reached for my luggage and opened the trunk.
“Ah yes, hunting?”
“You could say that.”
Before the trunk was closed, I reached for my oversized camera pack and said casually, “No thanks, but I’d prefer to keep the guns up front with me.”
May, 2014 – Johannesburg, South Africa
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Driving long, empty stretches of highway alone often lends itself to contemplation and introspection. If I’m not listening to audiobooks or music, I’ll sometimes but not always reflect on some of my shortcomings and how I can improve myself as a human being. Those who know me might find this to be surprising, but I do find that examining yourself – from the outside looking in – can be quite illuminating.
In the process, I think I’ve identified two major personality defects in myself that are somewhat troubling. One is a general lack of patience while the other is the fact that I get bored too easily.
I address the former defect by consciously trying to relax and accept frustrating situations that are beyond my control. This is a challenge and a trial to me but still well worth pursuing. For example, tourists in busy national parks tend to swarm into the scene I’m trying to photograph – all while seeming to have far too much fun in the process. At times like these I feel as if I should carry with me a rectal thermometer to gauge and monitor the onset of becoming an old fart.
Then I remind myself that they are, after all, entitled to be there too and I quietly accept the situation for what it is and wait for them to leave. After all, it’s difficult to justify a disdain for tourists while pretending you aren’t one of them yourself.
The latter defect has no known antidote of which I am aware. So instead of fighting it, I usually feed and propitiate the beast it by giving in and letting it have what it wants. In addition to a strong antipathy toward boredom, I do all I can to not be boring. That means that sometimes instead of agreeing with a conventional line of reasoning, right or wrong, I’ll happily play the contrarian or sarcastically protract an argument for its own sake rather than be bored or boring. In some social circles it’s called being a smart ass but it’s how I sometimes amuse myself nonetheless.
So when I wrote on my Facebook page yesterday that Balanced Rock in Arches National Park is the lamest photographic icon in the world, or something to that effect, I wasn’t necessarily feeding the aforementioned demons of ennui, although some of the comments and outraged private messages I received did amuse me greatly. That was well worth the effort.
George Carlin once quipped, “Somewhere in the world is the world’s worst doctor. Has to be! Process of elimination. And what’s truly terrifying is that someone has an appointment with him tomorrow morning.” George wasn’t disparaging doctors. He wasn’t even putting down the world’s worst….well, maybe he was a little bit. The point is that the world’s worst doctor could still be a pretty damn good one, there just has to be a best and a worst if you’re ranking them.
And so it goes with photographic icons. If I had to rank iconic scenes in U.S. National Parks, I would put Balanced Rock at or near the bottom of the list. It just doesn’t do much for me, especially when compared to Yosemite’s Tunnel View or the Tetons’ Oxbow Bend or the dozen or so other vistas that dwarf the bizarre phallic-looking rock formation that draws carloads of tourists with iPads and smartphone cameras in tow. It’s not a matter of respect for nature, as some accused me of lacking, it’s just that I have really good taste, that’s all.
Oops, I think I’m doing it again.
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You cannot change what you are, only what you do. – Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
In a commencement address to the graduating students of Stanford University, Steve Jobs recalled a quote he first read when he was 17.
“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”
He went on to say that the quote stuck with him though most of his adult life and that he would look himself in the mirror each morning and ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”
If the answer was “no” for too many consecutive days, he knew it was time for a change.
So after waking up too many mornings with a resounding “no” reverberating through my own groggy and tired head, I drove down to the office and promptly terminated a successful corporate career. My own. It was January 14, 2003 – eleven years ago to this very day – which also happened to be my birthday.
Photography was a serious hobby with occasional financial rewards, but not nearly rewarding enough to pay for my lifestyle at the time – not even close. Photography and travel were excellent ways to spend money, not make it (That’s still almost entirely true, by the way). Still, I was determined to give it a go, even if I really had no idea how to get there. The only thing I knew for certain was that my talent and energy were being atrophied as I counted down the days to each bimonthly paycheck.
This was new to me. I was a rationally thinking organism with an economics degree who always made decisions with cold, hard logic and yet there was nothing rational about this line of thought. In return for a six-figure salary, benefits, and financial security, I was getting what exactly? No salary, no plan for getting any income in the near future, no benefits, no financial security? On its face, it was a no-brainer, yet my intuition and heart told me otherwise.
Wilderness and wild places were my passions in life. Capturing and sharing my experiences in these places were what inspired me to get up each morning, not my 9-to-5. It was the first thing I thought about each morning and the last thing each night before drifting off to sleep. If I were going to preach that you had to do what you love to truly be successful in life – as was my mantra to my employees – I would have to buy into it myself and not look back. I was only willing to accept excellence in myself and I could only achieve excellence by doing what I loved and was truly passionate about.
Throughout the transition, I received a tremendous amount of emotional support from family and close friends. I’ll always be grateful for that. Some were genuinely concerned and that was certainly understandable. Others thought it was only a phase I was going through – a mid-life crisis, perhaps – that I would eventually outgrow before crawling back to the real world again. At least no one told me to grow up, get a haircut, and buy a weed wacker.
“But taking pictures isn’t real work,” some would say. “You’re just running off to pretty places and having fun.”
“Right,” I would answer. “So what exactly is your point?”
You see, I never considered being nature photographer as an occupation. The word occupation is derived from the same Latin word that spawned the word occupy, essentially meaning, “to take up space.” That little phrase should paint a vivid enough word picture to illustrate precisely what I’m trying to convey here.
Vocation, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word, vocare or “a calling.” If throwing away a “successful” career and financial security – not to mention rationality – in order to chase down one’s dream and passion in life isn’t a calling, then I’m not sure what is. Being a nature photographer is my vocation. It’s not what I do; it’s what I am. There aren’t very many people who can say the same about their occupation.
So after eleven years of traveling the world, chasing down magical light, and capturing as many unrepeatable moments in the wild on film and digital media as possible, I’d like to think that I’ve achieved a modest amount of success as a professional photographer. But what is a “success” anyway? By one yardstick, I already was a success ten years ago.
But if living an inspired, passion driven life doing exactly what I feel I was meant to do – while managing to live financially comfortable as well – is another yardstick with which to measure success, well then I guess I’ve achieved something after all. It’s also the greatest birthday gift I could have ever given myself.
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Ed. Note: Portions of the post were published in December 2012 on the Earth and Light Blog
Often I’m asked what a typical day is like for a professional nature photographer. I do my best to explain that it’s nearly impossible for me to answer since each day is unlike any that preceded it. In other words, there are no typical days. If I’m in the right mood, I might attempt to outline what I do and how my time is actually spent, which is usually met with disappointment and disillusionment by the questioner. It’s shocking to know what percentage of my time is spent actually creating images, in addition to how spectacularly unglamorous this whole business really is.
So here is a glimpse into my world, if for only a day (and it’s one of the better ones) and which also happens to be exactly one year ago today. The place? Cold, snowy, dark, northern Iceland in mid winter.
December 12, 2012. Akureyri, Iceland
9:10 am: Just waking up and getting out of bed. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know 9 am is embarrassingly late for a nature photographer but please consider the circumstances. First, my body and circadian rhythms are still attuned to Eastern Standard Time. So if you subtract the 5-hour time difference, I’m really getting up at a much more respectable 4:10. Does that make you feel better? Besides it’s still dark outside so I’m not exactly missing out on much.
10:00 am: After a shower and a few returned emails, I am out the door and looking for a quick lunch in town. There’s an intense red glow on the southeast horizon but the sun still has quite a way to go before it makes a proper appearance. I scarf down soup and salad at the Greifinn and drive toward Vatnsskarth Pass for some photos ops. It’s uncharacteristically cloud free. No clouds? This is new.
12:17 pm: I can now finally see visible sunlight as the snowy mountaintops are bathed in a beautiful pink glow. But without any clouds in the sky, I’m just not jazzed about anything. I take a few obligatory images and shrug. Well I am here so what the hell?
12:50 pm: I slip on my snow boots and a down jacket to hike and scout some locations for the evening. I find some rare open water for possible aurora reflections but I’m not entirely crazy about the composition. Yet at night with the aurora overhead, it might not be terrible. I make a mental note of some nearby landmarks so I can find the place later in the dark.
3:05 pm: Back at the car and I’m changing back into my regular shoes after nearly backing the car into a deep ditch. The huge, clunky snow boots I was wearing wouldn’t allow me to step on the gas pedal without also catching the brake. And when I try to depress the brake, I also get the gas pedal or clutch. That almost cost me a hefty towing bill. It’s already nearly dark.
3:44 pm: At the apartment again and it’s time for a nap. What is it about these short days that make me want to sleep so much?
6:25 pm: Sitting on the sofa in my underwear looking over my images from Godafoss yesterday. They don’t suck too bad so I’m somewhat pleased. Next I check the weather and aurora forecast for tonight. Promising. The world news? Wish I hadn’t even looked. I’m bored. I’m hungry.
7:40 pm: Dinner at a downtown Akureyri restaurant. Worst lasagna ever. Not surprisingly, Icelanders don’t do Italian food very well.
8:55 pm: I slip into a nearby bar (Sorry I didn’t remember or write it down) for some local color and a cold Viking brew. The bartender tells me that over half the people here on the island believe in elves. This is my fourth trip to Iceland and it’s not the first time I’ve heard this. I nod knowingly.
9:31 pm: After belting out an inspired rendition of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun on karaoke, I bask in the polite applause of the two German tourists in a dark corner. I’m so outta here.
10:10 pm: Driving out of town and scanning the sky for any sign of the aurora when I am startled by the brightest, most brilliant shooting star that falls slowly toward the northern horizon. It’s so bright and brilliant, in fact, that I reflexively duck my head. This is only one of several dozen I would see tonight as I am to find out later that the Geminid meteor shower is just starting.
10:46 pm: Back at Vatnsskarth Pass and it’s really cold and really dark. There’s no moon and the aurora is looking spectacular – intertwined ribbons of light stretching across the sky from east to west, horizon to horizon. Sometimes the large ribbons morph into smaller strands that slowly dance side to side, intensify, fade, before returning again stronger than ever. It’s easily the best display I’ve seen since arriving here in Iceland last week. The problem, however, is that the aurora has moved further south than the previous nights and the composition I scouted earlier in the day just won’t work. Back to square one.
11:40 pm: Driving north along the Eyjafjordur toward the coastal town of Olafsfjordur when the aurora forces me to pull the car over. I turn off all the lights and begin taking a series of continuous 30-second exposures with the pale, eerie green lights over the mountains. Its not the type of image I had envisioned, but this is the big aurora display I had come here for. I spend the next two hours talking and shouting to myself (I tend to do that when I’m out alone). “Holy #%&@! This is #^&@ insane! I can’t feel my #%&@# fingers!” You know, that sort of stuff.
I mentioned earlier how little of our time as nature photographers is actually spent behind the camera creating images, as a percentage of our time as a whole. But for all the long silences – the travel, sitting around airports, driving, scouting, hiking, waiting out bad weather, just waiting in general, getting skunked, cold, wet, stuck or lost – the punctuated moments of pure magic like these are what we live for. Literally.
3:25 am: Back at the apartment. I drop everything in the middle of the floor and stagger toward the bedroom, zombified. I’m sleeping in, damn it.
If you’re interested in seeing and photographing Iceland in more favorable conditions (think summer), I’m taking a group of lucky photographers there in July and there’s still a few spots left. Epic Iceland with Richard Bernabe
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