Another year will be in the books just a few hours from now, and then it’s on to 2014–which I’m really looking forward to! 2013 was an incredible year for me where all things photography are concerned. I traveled farther than I ever have before and spent a couple of weeks photographing the incredibly beautiful country of New Zealand (and can’t wait to go back). I challenged myself on some pretty tough hikes to beautiful destinations, especially the hike to Kanarra Creek. I blame the bighorn sheep for that one being so tough (more on that in a minute).
I had (am still having, for a few more days) my first major exhibit as one of two photographers featured in G2 Gallery’s Emerging VI exhibit this year, which has been an amazing experience on many levels. And looking ahead to the new year, I learned a couple of weeks ago that one of my images will again be included in the prestigious Yosemite Renaissance exhibit in Yosemite National Park. That’s my favorite juried exhibit I submit my work to each year, as it focuses on non-traditional views of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada–a real creative challenge. It’s truly an honor to be included with the other talented artists, who aren’t limited to photographers–the exhibit features photography, paintings, sculptures, and this year, even quilts. It’s an exhibit you do not want to miss if you’re in the park any time this spring. I’ll write more on that later; now on to the Big List.
These kinds of retrospective lists serve a couple of purposes; aside from the vanity of showing off your best work of the year, it’s a wonderful opportunity to examine your work in terms of personal and artistic growth. Is my “eye” becoming more refined? Am I expressing my vision and my experience in these places in a way that is not only aesthetically compelling, but true to what I saw and felt? An image is more than just a shutter click and data collected on a sensor, after all. As I have the last couple of years, I’ve gravitated away from the big icons in landscape photography–beautiful places that I love and still photograph, but not the images that stay with me heart and soul. While a couple of locations may be recognizable to some of you, most of them are from lesser-traveled locales. So, in no particular order, these are the images I consider my best from 2013.
1. Aoraki Panorama, New Zealand’s Southern Alps. This mountain, and this location, is so enormous that it’s difficult to know exactly how you want to photograph it. I came back with shots that show the vast tussock grassland of the Tasman Valley leading up to the foot of Aoraki (also known as Mt. Cook), tight shots of the peak taken with a long lens, but it’s this one I like best: a panoramic shot of Aoraki towering above the impossibly turquoise-colored Lake Pukaki. Click on this one to see it (much) bigger. I’m probably a little jaded when it comes to grand mountain landscapes given the time I spend photographing in the Sierra Nevada, but Aoraki and the Southern Alps left me absolutely jaw-on-the-ground in awe. I hope this panoramic image gives you some idea of the scale of the place–and if you ever get the chance to go there, GO.
2. Hilltop Topiary, California Central Coast. The rolling hills just inland from California’s coastal mountain range on the central coast is one of my favorite places to explore and photograph. While most are familiar with the area as a premier wine-growing region, the majority of that landscape is still wild chaparral made up of rolling grassy hills dotted with oaks, cottonwoods and willows. It can also host impressive wildflower blooms in spring, but has been mostly barren of those for the last three years. What I have had extraordinary luck with, however, are dramatic skies over those green, rolling hills, as I had this day. This cluster of trees, which look almost manicured, have grown naturally in this pattern, and remind me somewhat of the wingdings font of nonsense characters, especially the seemingly heart-shaped oak on the left. I have a soft spot for naturally occurring whimsy in landscapes, so this is a shoo-in for my “best” list this year.
3. Kaikoura Sunrise, New Zealand. It took considerable restraint for me not to choose all ten of my favorite or best images from my New Zealand trip–I managed to limit those to just three in this collection, including this one from the lovely seaside town of Kaikoura on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The tiny bay is flanked to the north by snowcapped mountains, and ringed with rock formations like the ones you see here. I only spent one night in this town (would LOVE to have spent more!), so I was delighted to wake up to a sunrise like this, and made the most of matching the cloud patterns to the shape of the rocks, even picking up some nice reflections in the pooled water in the rocks.
4. Stormy Moeraki Sunrise, New Zealand’s South Island. This is one of those locations that, while often photographed, lends itself to endless interpretation depending on how you decide to photograph the mysterious round concretions–the famous Moeraki Boulders. These naturally occurring spheres dot the relatively small beach just north of the village of Moeraki, appearing in lines, clusters large and small, and single boulders. This was one of those cases of not getting the sunrise you hoped for, but getting one which was even more interesting–a stormy, roiling sky with the warm glow of the rising sun just along the horizon. I decided to balance the texture of the clouds with the streaking lines of the receding tide, with a line of the boulders separating them mid-frame.
5. She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Bodie Ghost Town, Eastern Sierra). I very, very rarely give my images “artistic” titles, preferring to stick with factual descriptive titles. But I made an exception in this case. I was in the Eastern Sierra in early September, and decided on a last-minute whim, mid-day, to drive up to the ghost town of Bodie, which I’d never been to before. I hadn’t really planned to photograph much, if at all, as it was mid-day with a flat sky–not the best conditions. This was really just a trip to wander the streets of this old western town and see it in person for the first time. But I did come away with this shot, which affected me on an emotional level most of my more conventional landscapes don’t. This intimate scene of the tumble-down house, with a rusted, discarded wheelbarrow in the foreground seemed to me to capture the lost, forgotten feeling unique to ghost towns. And although the sky isn’t particularly interesting (albeit the characteristic deep blue of the high sierra), the texture of the golden grass leading up to the little cabin supplied the drama instead.
6. Desert Bighorn Sheep Pair, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. I rarely shoot wildlife–not for lack of desire, but more lack of opportunity–unless the opportunity presents itself as a herd of elusive desert bighorn sheep loitering around the visitors’ parking lot very early in the morning. This is one of those experiences that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I’ve looked for these beautiful animals every time I’ve been in one of the places they call home–the Eastern Sierra, Death Valley, Anza-Borrego State Park, and various locations in the Mojave. And I had never so much as spied a speck-sized bighorn on a distant ridge. Until this morning. A fellow photographer and I had arrived in the park just after midnight, where we planned to do some night shooting, quickly photograph the sunrise, and then rush over to our planned morning hike of the narrows at Kanarra Creek just over the border in Utah. But when a herd of bighorn decides to grace you with their presence and linger at close range for over an hour, you take that opportunity! It was immense fun stealthily following these sheep around the canyon once they left the vicinity of the parking lot, and I came away with several really nice images of them–males, females and lambs. This shot, however, is my favorite–a younger male who was courting a female managed to separate her briefly from the rest of the herd, and ended up maybe 20-30 feet away from me. I was able to catch them in profile, with the red rock of Valley of Fire forming a beautiful backdrop.
7. Canyon Passage, Kanarra Narrows (Utah). This location was our destination the morning we encountered the herd of desert bighorn–and given that it was the middle of summer with mid-day temps in triple digits, it was critical that we get as early a start as possible to avoid the worst of the heat. But as I said, when one is given the chance to shoot desert bighorn at close range, one does so, which meant we started the hike into Kanarra Creek right around lunchtime, and temps were already hovering near 100 degrees. This is not something I recommend under ANY circumstances, but we were carrying sufficient water and food, and decided to give it a try. It was a grueling few hours on the hike in, with lots of pauses to rest and hydrate, but once we made it the first few miles and entered the cool, dark narrows, it was all completely worth it. This location seems to be growing in popularity recently, and while VERY popular as a hike for locals, it’s not completely crawling with photographers the way other locations are (and I hope it stays that way, though I’m not optimistic). I hope to go back and do this hike again in less brutal weather–under which circumstances it is surely a beautiful, fun hike. This was a little like a death march thanks to the extreme heat, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat to see those intimate little narrows with Kanarra creek running through cool and clear. It’s unique among the narrows and slot canyons I’ve explored to date, as it’s reminiscent of the much larger Virgin River Narrows in Zion National Park, as you’re wading through the creek that runs wall-to-wall inside the steep canyon walls, but with the size and intimacy of one of the smaller slot canyons found throughout the Colorado Plateau. This image shows one of the small cascades (perhaps 15 feet tall) encountered as you hike upstream, with ad-hoc ladders in various states of repair to help hikers climb up and continue through the narrows.
8. Twisted by Millennia (Ancient Bristlecone Pine, White Mountains). The Ancient Bristlecone Pine groves high in the White Mountains that flank the eastern edge of the Owens Valley is one of my favorite places, whether I’m there for photography or just exploring the ancient groves above 10,000 feet. This ancient place is almost otherworldly, and whether it’s the very thin air or some other kind of “energy” (not to go all new age on you), it is deeply special, and inspires a kind of reverence among those of us who visit. This particular tree (actually a long-dead snag that’s been standing for thousands of years) is especially attractive thanks to its unique corkskrew shape. I’ve photographed–or tried to–this tree on several occasions, but have come away less-than-satisfied either because the light wasn’t quite right, or I wasn’t at my best (thanks to altitude sickness). On this evening, however, I had no issues with the altitude, and a beautiful sunset shaped up and framed that tree perfectly. You get lucky with some images, and others take repeated attempts to get–this was the latter, and worth the effort.
9. Autumn Sunrise over Hot Creek, Eastern Sierra. I lose track of all the reasons I love the Eastern Sierra–there are almost too many to count. Just north of the Owens Valley lies the Long Valley Caldera, which is one of the biggest underground volcanoes on earth and a very active geothermal area. One of the more photogenic geothermal features is Hot Creek, a spring-fed stream that curves its serpentine path just below the looming Sierra crest to the west. I’ve stopped along and above Hot Creek several times, and never could quite get a handle on how to photograph it in a way that pleased me. I decided to take another run at it this fall, and spent a little time in the afternoon scouting out a suitable spot for the next morning’s sunrise, finally coming up with something I thought could prove interesting. As is the nature of the Eastern Sierra in autumn, a (mostly) unexpected winter squall developed just before sunrise, which made for interesting and beautiful conditions. There was no way to tell if sunrise would be a bust–or something better. We trooped out of our motel in Mammoth Lakes while it was still dark, and walked right into a graupel flurry. Oh, east side–I do love your crazy autumn weather! We headed over to the spot we picked out the day before, and set up to wait for sunrise. The clouds to the east that hung over the White Mountains mostly blocked the rising sun, but let through just enough light to give a soft glow to the peaks of Mount Morrison and Laurel Mountain, and turn the sky a lovely pastel pink. The frigid morning temperatures also meant that the air above the geothermally fed creek sent up clouds of fog, adding still more atmosphere. It’s one of the prettier mornings I’ve enjoyed in the Eastern Sierra.
10. Minimalist Dunes, White Sands National Monument (New Mexico). This is one of the last images I made this year–just a few days ago, in fact. I’ve long wanted to visit White Sands with its endless dunes of super-fine gypsum sand (the remnants of which are still caked on the Jeep as I write this). And more than just about any other photograph this year, this one feels closest to my “eye” or vision. The way I shoot is informed as much by painters like Rothko and O’Keeffe as it is by the usual landscape photography masters, and I think this image shows that influence clearly. I really enjoy the opportunity to make minimalist and/or painterly images when the setting is right, and White Sands was perfect for this. We were fortunate to have light, wispy clouds throughout the afternoon, which softened the sky just enough to make for fruitful shooting under the low light of mid-winter. It took a couple of hours of exploring the dunes to find what I was looking for, which is what you see in this shot–a minimalist criss-cross of two white dunes under an azure sky. I think it’s the perfect image to conclude my “best of” list, and the perfect image with which to end what has been a great year of photography for me. Your feedback and encouragement this year has been greatly appreciated, and I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous 2014! Happy New Year!
P.S. A HUGE thanks to Jim Goldstein, who aggregates these best-of lists on his blog each year. It’s a herculean task that I’m very grateful for, and love discovering new photographers I previously wasn’t familiar with. I’ll link to that digest when he publishes it sometime in January, and I highly recommend perusing the list of talented photographers. Thanks, Jim!