White Sands

Waking up early in the morning while on a school break probably isn’t on too many people’s list of things to do. To tell you the truth it wouldn’t have been on my either but on this morning, my friends and I were heading on a 14-day photo road trip. We have been planning this trip over the last few weeks of our school quarter. It was a long time since I’ve done a road trip that wasn’t for work so I was particularly excited for this one. We had a route of about 15 places of interest. We knew we weren’t going to be able to get to them all. We planned it that way. We wanted to be able to choose day by day which place we would go to next.

Our first destination was White Sands, New Mexico. I was taken back by the how the white dunes stretched toward the mountains. It’s hard to imagine these dunes moving but that’s exactly what they do. They start out as gypsum deposits that are brought down from the mountains during the rainy season. Under the warm autumn sun, the water beds evaporate leaving gypsum deposits, that wait for the winter and spring winds to carry them across the valley. As the wind rolls them alone, they break apart into increasingly small and smaller grains. The desert can travel over a foot in a windy year. It was only about 8000 years ago that White Sands began to form. In a geological scale that is often measured in millions if not billions, 8000 years is equivalent to a blink of the eye.

Despite my contradictory notions of science and spirituality, White Sands connected both for me in a way that wasn’t apparent to me before. The seasonal cycles of rain, and wind, washing mineral deposits down from the mountain, and then being carried over the vast landscape, bring both plant and wildlife to the desert. I couldn’t help but see parallels between the seasonal cycles with the spiritual elements earth, water, air, and the sun, leading me to consider that perhaps science and spirituality don’t necessarily have to be contradicting forces.

White Sands, New Mexico

Reflections on Contemporary Landscape

Landscape photography has always been an interest of mine. Until recently, however, I didn’t understand the depths of its cultural and socio-political significance. In the beginning, it was Ansel Adam’s sublime images of the American West that captivate my attention. It wasn’t until a year ago when I began studying contemporary artists such as Richard Misrach and Edward Burtynsky, that I began to realize the cultural significance and global implications of landscape photography.

It is indisputable that Ansel Adams surreal images of the American West advocated for the preservation of the natural landscape and help establish Kings Canyon as a National Park. Tragically Ansel Adams surreal images had the unintended consequence of making the American wilderness a commodity. It became so popular that it turned the national parks into a highly sought after vacation destination and tourist attraction and as a result, the National Park Service quickly became overwhelmed. While it is not a direct cause and effect relationship, it’s not hard to see why contemporary artists would address issues facing the natural landscape differently. To avoid the unfortunate trappings in viewing the landscape singularly as an object of beauty and awe, modern artist such as Misrach and Burtynsky, address this problem by seducing the viewer with its beauty but at the same time reflect on our encroachment upon nature and as a warning of abuse.

Richard Misrach’s photograph, Submerged Lamppost, Salton Sea, California, stylistically captivates us with sublime compositional elements, such as the warm pastel color hues of the sky, a luminous horizon, and its reflection on the glassy still water but it becomes quickly noticeable that something is very wrong. The devastation of the submerged community as the result of failed damming efforts is shocking. What might be something that we quickly scan and move on from instead has an arresting effect.  I can’t help but consider what has happened, that even seemingly best-laid plans in the pursuit of modernization and development can have miscalculations and grave consequences as a result.

In Edward Burtynsky’s photograph, Colorado River Delta, I was taken by the tree-like representation of the landscape.  I was shocked when I found out what I was looking at and the cause of it. Several rivers were damned and subsequently diverted to vast western communities with developing agricultural industries. As a result, over 1,930,000 acres of wetlands and natural habitats were affected.

It’s clear that development is unavoidable. Reflecting on this both photographers continue to use sublime elements in their work however they also address contemporary issues of man-altered landscapes and give caution by directly documenting the possible consequences of irresponsible development and urbanization.

Stay This Moment - The Photographic Works of Sam Abell

          Like many young photographers, I aspired to photograph for National Geographic. The idea of traveling around the world to exotic places and being paid to do what you love would have been a dream come true. It’s not surprising that one of the photographers that continue to influence my work even to this very day is Sam Abell. Learning photography at an early age from his father, Sam Abell never lost his passion for photography. After graduating from the University of Kentucky, he immediately went to work for National Geographic. It was in 2012 that I got a chance to hear Sam Abell speak. Known for not ever wanting to be in the spotlight, he requested the room be completely dark. The only light illuminating him was the light coming from his laptop. Slowly an image appeared on the screen. It was a photograph he took of his father, on a train platform, leaving for work. The second image was one of himself, just a few years out of college, with a young woman by the name of Denise Myers, who he met on a hiking trip and would later become his life-long partner and wife for many years. This is indicative of Sam Abell’s nature as a humble, introspective, wise, philosophical, contemplative, insightful, sensitive and compassionate, son, husband, photographer, and teacher.

            In 1990, Stay This Moment, Sam Abell’s solo exhibit was on display at the International Center of Photography. Stay This Moment distilled down in three words, the essence of Sam Abell’s work - the power of the quiet photograph. His photographs are carefully composed, utilizing foreground, middle ground and distant background, he layers his compositions with complexity while maintaining a compelling quietness by incorporating light, space and moment into each of his photographs. Through his work, we see a master of composition at work, however, perhaps what gives Sam Abell’s photographs life is his sensitive and insightful understanding of his subject. Whether it is an older gentleman preparing ceremonial tea in Japan or an isolated frozen road in Newfoundland that stretches into an infinite distance, they are compelling because they profoundly show life, and reflect upon who we are as human beings and the world in which we live.

Visual Narrative - Telling a Story

     I used to hate those words. Visual Narrative. Those two words would often strike immediate contempt from me. I realize contempt is a pretty strong word, but nonetheless accurate. My pulse use spike whenever I heard it spoken in the context of photography. To me, at the time, it was “artist speak.” A language used by the aristocratic institutional artist as a way of distinguishing themselves from the populace.  It was a phrase distinguishing the high minded from the simple-minded. It was way to separating valuable intellectualize photographs from what they would consider trivial photographs. I learned photography as a tradecraft as many do. I worked very hard, I was very practiced, I took pride in my meticulous approach, and after some formal training, photography became my profession. So, I resented the words, visual narrative, because I found they were used most often by people of low technical skill to dignify their work while simultaneously demeaning others. It wasn't until I saw a Ted Talk stream of David Griffin many years ago, that I realized I was only hearing the words from the wrong people.

    David Griffin was the Director of Photography at National Geographic when he presented for TED Talks. The focus of his presentation was the topic of creating a visual narrative, or rather the phrase David Griffin made clear to me, “the storytelling power of photography.” David Griffin illustrates by using the works of some of the greatest photographic journalist to work for National Geographic, including Michael Nichols who's photographs tell a story of animals in the most human way. Numerous works of other photographers including Richard Wurman’s work on rural-urban environments; Brian Skerry, and Randy Olson work on the devastation of overfishing. It was great storytellers that I learned the true meaning of a visual narrative, the power of photography for positive change, and how it connects us.

 A photograph by Michael Nichols shows Jane Goodall interacting with a primate. (National Geographic)

A photograph by Michael Nichols shows Jane Goodall interacting with a primate. (National Geographic)

To check out David Griffin's TED Talk stream, click below.

The Wall

     Demarcation was the start of a project that got me thinking about climate change not only from a global perspective but also a human perspective. The idea started out as a personal examination of the subject. For me it represented a change in my own consciousness, shifting from seeing development, industrialism, and globalization through the lens of economic progress, to a socially aware state, questioning the cost of this progress to the individuals, and perhaps not surprisingly, those who benefit from this progress the least. An early subject of study in the project is the low lying coastal regions of Louisiana. This southernmost region was devastated most recently by hurricane Isaac in 2012, and even more so by Katrina in 2004.  

     This image, titled The Wall, was one of the earliest ones I took in the project. It is a section of the old levee system that had failed to allow the city of New Orleans to be overcome by the storm surge brought on by Katrina. For me, the levee represents a socio-political failure as much as a physical one. Arguably the socio-political stance of reckless industrialism and globalism, are the driving forces behind climate change, manifesting physically as Katrina. The levee as a protective system failed, just as the prevailing socio-political climate failed to acknowledge the recklessness of their policies. The levee system was highly criticized for a flaw in its design that created cascading failures along the system. Arguably, I pose the question, whether the levee system was flawed or instead one of economic expediency, was it a design oversight or was it a choice of cost savings.

    While the issue is a global one, I am also addressing the issues locally, photographically represented in The Wall. The United States, while a significant influence on the issue, is not the only one. Certainly the problem exists on a global scale. Originating across the globe, hurricane Isaac traveled nearly halfway around the world before striking Louisiana. In this way, climate change and mankind’s contribution to the problem as a global issue is represented symbolically by hurricane Isaac as well as physically as a manifestation of global warming, the effects of which are discussed globally but tragically, felt locally.

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