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Tag Archives: Landscape Photography

On the Road—Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois

The Van trip continues—my last blog post was from a hotel room in Rock Springs, Wyoming—a town full of empty hotel rooms, located between the national parks of Utah and Wyoming. The hotel we stayed at was cheap—a nice room for $45—with a special discount based on the fact that the building heat wasn’t working properly—we had a small electric space heater to keep the room warm.


Wyoming December 2019

The worry in Wyoming was the wind. Gusts up to 60 mph, warnings about blow over potential for high, light vehicles. Our van doesn’t do well in the wind, so we got off of I-80 and followed the lower, slower Route 30 through Medicine Bow.



Wyoming, December 2019

Out of Laramie, we decided to head south, into Colorado, to meet up with my old bicycle trip route from 1984, which began in Denver and headed into the high plains east of town. The road between Laramie and Fort Collins had a few patches of blowing snow, and a few cars and trucks in the ditch, but we made it through safely. Fort Collins and Greely were crazy—traffic—and we noticed that we were getting a pronounced wheel vibration—perhaps a thrown wheel balance weight—but perhaps warning of a tire failure—the tires were new in 2002. We stopped to have the tires checked in Fort Morgan, and decided to have them replaced at a Walmart there. The ride was much smoother after that.



Colorado, December 2019


Colorado, December 2019

After buying new tires and fretting about why we didn’t do that before the beginning of the trip, we realized that when we began this trip, we weren’t sure how the trip would go, and the possibility of needing to abandon ship along the way is something we discussed. When I first tried to start the van last summer, the van wouldn’t start—dead battery. I bought a new battery, still wouldn’t start, spun over without catching. I bought a can of starter fluid—and it started—drove it a quarter mile to the end of the driveway, then back to the house. The van was covered with decaying leaves and moss from years sitting idle. The windshield had a crack, but we weren’t sure it was worth replacing. In early November, we drove the van down the hill so it wouldn’t get snowed in at the farm. We weren’t sure the van would make it to Spokane, but it did—so we took it to the car wash and got the worst of the accumulated grime off the outside, and vacuumed most of the mouse poops out of the inside. The fan belt failure was a warning about how old this vehicle is—and how the rubber parts especially were aging.



Western Nebraska, December 2019

After the new tires were installed, we noticed that the van seemed to be running quite well. In Hastings, Nebraska we stopped for coffee at a Casey’s and met a man who seemed shocked to see the old van still on the road—he had been a dealer for them back in the 1980s—“we sold a ton of those rigs”—and told us that people were restoring the campers and selling them for a lot of money. Looking on the internet, I’m not so sure that there’s a real market for them—all the older units I can find are priced low—I think we’re still in the “junk” stage of collectability. Which is fine, as long as it runs…


Nebraska, December 2019                      Western Nebraska, December 2019


When I rode bicycle through eastern Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa in the mid 1980s, the towns seemed to be emptying out, a process that seems to have continued. Most of the small towns are now filled with empty main streets, the exception being the county seats where there seems to be enough work to keep a viable community going. Even there, though, it seems that Walmart and Dollar General have replaced the local department stores, and most of the businesses are small and fragile—Mexican restaurants, antique stores (almost always closed, please call this cell number), real estate offices, insurance salesmen…


Bloomfield, Iowa, December 2019

The grain elevators are bigger—huge steel tanks, ground piles, always next to a rail line. The smaller elevators are abandoned and decaying. Many of them have already been demolished, but a few ghosts remain.


Illinois, December 2019

The small towns in Iowa seemed to be doing better than the places further west, maybe because there seems to be more small scale manufacturing scattered among the farms.

We were stopped by snow in central Illinois—got a room at a motel with a whirlpool. It’s good to be in a warm, dry place when the snow is falling…


Calumet C1–First Pictures–New Jersey January 1987

I’m selling two 8×10 cameras on Ebay right now, along with about a dozen lenses. Feels good, at least so far. I promised  my wife I would do this when I bought the Sony A7 RII last fall—it’s time to let the stuff go.  Hopefully some other photographers can make pictures with these great tools.

I think I was drawn to the 8×10 because of the photographers I admired who worked in that format–Eugene Atget (OK, his camera was slightly smaller), Edward Weston, and Walker Evens.  I knew a few photographers who tried to make the step up from 4×5, but found the format just too hard–but George Tice seemed to think that 8×10 was the only “real camera” out there.  But I must admit being a bit timid about making the jump–which is why I first bought the Calumet C1–a very affordable, but dependable, 8×10.

There are some photographers who fetishize their equipment—they keep it stored carefully most of the time, and only take it out to use on special occasions—and you get the feeling that they care more about the amount of money they paid for a camera or a lens than the pictures they make with it. I’ve always been the opposite kind of a photographer—I want the pictures, and am willing to use the equipment hard to get them. In Alaska, I had a term for it: the “bottom of the river” camera. If the camera wound up at the bottom of the river, I didn’t want to care. The other mantra I had was that the best camera for making any picture was the one you had with you. The sharpest lens in the world doesn’t make any pictures sitting on a shelf at home. For years, I carried a Rollei Twin Lens Reflex (the cheaper Tessar lens version) camera in my backpack every time I went to the field—into the rain and the snow and the mud. I wore out that camera in about 5 years, and bought another one just like it. After a few years, the second one started falling apart, thankfully in a different way, so I took both of them to my camera repairman and told him to take the two cameras and make one useable one out of them, and keep the rest for parts.

I bought my first 8×10 in early 1987, after seeing an exhibit by a somewhat famous photographer at a local college, who was selling 8×10 contact prints for $500. I had just started a job at a big corporation, and thought about buying a print, until I went to the lecture by the photographer. His arrogance convinced me I didn’t want to invest in his work—instead I went out looking for an 8×10 camera to buy. I found a camera (a Calumet C1), a lens (a 16 ½ inch Goerz Gotar) and a tripod (a Davis and Stamford) for slightly more than the cost of a single print. Within about 6 months of making that purchase, my wife and I moved to Alaska, for the summer, but we stayed on, for 26 years.

Calumet C1–Front Street, Kotzebue, February 1988

Working with an 8×10 camera is in many ways, a deliberate act of frustration. Since the camera is so big, you need to find a safe place to set it up—no pictures from the middle of the road. There is often only a small number of safe places to set the camera up—so you need to find a picture from that vantage point.

The camera is big and heavy, hard to carry. It takes a big tripod to support the camera. Then the camera needs to be set up—a process that takes a few minutes, to adjust the front and back standards and attach the lens. Then the fun begins—open the lens, go under the dark cloth, and go through the process of focusing the image. In landscape, this usually means finding a plane that goes from the foreground to the horizon, an action that requires a simple tilt of either the lens plane or the film plane. Then the real moment of pleasure—looking at the image on the ground glass—upside down, of course—but somehow that transformation turns the subject in front of the camera into a picture—a two dimensional representation of the subject.

Ice–2005. 8×10 image–can’t remember the camera.

Then comes the actual moment of making the exposure. The light is metered, an exposure calculated. The lens is closed, the f stop adjusted, the shutter cocked. The film holder is inserted into the back of the camera, the dark slide pulled and sometimes used to shield the lens from the sun. Then the shutter is tripped. That’s it. Dark slide back in place. Film holder pulled. Camera disassembled and put away.
But there are a host of issues that can happen to ruin a shot. Light leaks in the bellows, or the film holder. An unnoticed slip of any one of the movements on the camera. Wind vibrating the camera.  And then the process back in the darkroom—developing the film (I used open trays in total darkness), labeling the negatives, doing a contact proof print. And then reloading the film holders for the next shoot.

Before Walmart opens, Fairbanks, 2004. First shot with Deardorff 8×10

And then there is cost. B&H is currently selling 8×10 sheet film for $4 a sheet, and then there is chemistry and negative sleeves. My guess is $5 a shot. When I shot 500 negatives a year, that’s $2000 in just film—about the price I just paid for that Sony 42 MP digital camera body.

Fairbanks, March 2006. Deardorff 8×10

And time. I figure that every 8×10 shot I make is an hour out of my life, between the camera time in the field, the darkroom time, and the scanning time. The agreement I have with myself is that if I make the shot in the field, I will make at least one proof print—even if it’s a bad picture, I want to try to learn something from it.

Gulkana Glacier, Deardorff 8×10, Summer 2008

So what makes working with an 8×10 worth it? The obvious answer is that the big negative gives a richness to the print that is difficult to achieve with other formats—but there are excellent cameras and lenses in smaller formats that also make splendid photographs. My own reason for liking the format have to do with the directness of seeing a picture on the ground glass that translates into the final image. I once said that the reason I use an 8×10 is because it’s the fastest camera I’ve ever used—the fastest way to a finished print. When working with smaller cameras, I had to first do a contact sheet, spend time editing, go back to the darkroom, make work prints, edit again, and then make finished prints—three trips into the darkroom, and lots of wasted time in the process. With the 8×10, one trip to the darkroom and a little luck can get you a print you can look at for decades.
That moment of seeing the image on the ground glass is often burned in my brain, sometimes for decades. When shooting with the 8×10, the last thing I do before falling asleep in the evening is to try to recall every shot I made with the camera that day—I can usually do it. I’ve never been able to do that with a handheld camera—too many pictures to remember. I can still recall some images that do not exist because of technical difficulties–they are still framed and still in my mind.
I don’t know if I’m done with the 8×10 yet—I’m working on a couple projects now (grain elevators, crowds) that are well suited for hand held work–the 8×10 is just too slow—but I haven’t sold all my 8×10 equipment. I am holding on to the Phillips—a balsa wood and carbon fiber camera—light and easy to carry, by 8×10 standards—and three lenses.

Last shot with the Deardorff 8×10, Grand Coulee, December 2016

What I think I have learned from working with the 8×10 all these years is the importance of taking time to find and frame a picture. Working hand held with a tilt shift lens is much faster—but I still find myself thinking about the pictures in the same way—find the light, find a place to stand, look through the camera—how does the image fill the frame—is it level—is it focused—is it worth pressing the shutter? And then, where’s the next picture…

As a young photographer decades ago, I was the beneficiary of the encouragement and generosity of several older photographers.  In 1983, when I was in my mid 20’s, I decided to purchase a 4×5 camera—several photographers I admired were working in large format—and so I started looking for a camera to buy.

I recall looking at an older, small wooden camera with red bellows in the window of a camera store in Lynchburg, Virginia—I was traveling with my parents to visit my sister who was attending Liberty Baptist College—but it was Sunday, and the store wasn’t open.  Lucky for me.  When my old photo instructor and friend, Bob Lowing, discovered I was shopping for a 4×5, he offered to sell me his—a Linholf Technika IV—his daughter was taking dancing lessons, and he needed the money.  He agreed to let me try out the camera, and to pay him the appraised value.   I took the camera to a used camera/repair shop in Philadelphia, and was told the camera was worth $500, the sum I paid for the camera. (Later, when I brought the shutter in for repair, the same person told me the camera was worth much more—I suspect he was trying to purchase the camera from me at a low-ball price when I asked for an appraisal.  When I told my friend that I may have under-paid him for the camera, he laughed, and said it was in good hands.)  My recollection is that the deal also included a few film holders and some other accessories.

Kool Jazz, Philadelphia, June 1983

Kool Jazz, Philadelphia, June 1983–First day in the field with the Linholf

The Linholf Technika is a “field camera”, a similar design to a collapsible Speed Graphic press camera—when not in use, the camera folds into a compact box.  To use, the front folds out, exposing a rail that the front standard and lens slide out on.  The Linholf is a metal camera—virtually indestructible—in the 33 years I owned the camera, the only servicing I had done to the camera was an occasional shutter clean and adjust.

I didn’t own a car while I lived in Philadelphia, so I would strap a tripod to the rear rack of my bicycle, put the Linholf in a backpack, and ride around the city looking for photographs.  Only in retrospect did it occur to me how ideal this was—I never had to find a parking space—I just got off the bike, set up the tripod, and made the picture.

Snow White, Philadelphia, June 1983

Snow White, Philadelphia, June 1983–First day in the field with the Linholf

By this point in my photographic career, I’ve owned something like a few dozen cameras—from a key chain digital camera to a 12×20 inch banquet camera—and each camera seems able to make only certain pictures.  The best pictures come when the photographer and the camera learn to work together—sometimes an easier process than others.  But right from my first day in the field with the Linholf, the camera helped me make great pictures–ones I still look at with pride.

The Linholf was my primary camera between 1983 and 1987, when I purchased my first 8×10 camera.  I was goaded into the 8×10 by George Tice (I took a class with him at the New School in 1986) and Michael A Smith (he had a show, I attended the gallery lecture, and decided to buy my own 8×10 rather than purchasing one of his prints—they cost about the same).

Fishing for Tom Cods, Kotzebue, Alaska, November 1987

Fishing for Tom Cods, Kotzebue, Alaska, November 1987

When my wife and I left New Jersey to spend the summer in Alaska, I decided to leave the 8×10 at home and take the Linholf—we were headed to a remote field camp on the tundra, and I wasn’t sure that bringing along a huge camera was a good idea.  I think it goes under the Ansel Adams rule about cameras—“use the biggest one you can carry.”  There are times when the 8×10 is just too much—the Linholf was the perfect smaller camera.  Which is why the Linholf went with me to the northern Brooks Range in 1996.

Karupa Lake, Brooks Range, Alaska, August 1996

Karupa Lake, Brooks Range, Alaska, August 1996

One issue with any sheet film camera is the problem of loading and unloading film holders–you can do it in the field, but it is a real pain in the butt. In about 2006, I decided to switch to redi-loads–individual sheets of film packaged in cardboard holders–they weren’t cheap, but it eliminated the issue of handling film while traveling.  About 5 years ago, I discovered that redi-loads were no longer available for purchase–another victim of the digital revolution.

A few years ago, my friend Ben Huff and I had a long conversation about Adak, an island that has a recently closed military base on it.   Ben took a couple trips there over the past year, and got a grant to continue his project–I volunteered to join him on his next trip–which we did together in September.  I took along the Linholf and the last 62 sheets of redi-loads.

Sea and sky, Adak, September 2016

Sea and sky, Adak, September 2016

The Linholf was a great camera for Adak–I could carry it on walks around town, the camera was stiff enough to work in the constant wind–and the camera movements were more than adequate for the architectural pictures I wanted to make.  But I have to admit, my eyes aren’t what they used to be–I did a lot of guessing about the focus on the ground glass–and did a lot of the movements based on experience.  The scans I’ve done so far look pretty good, though.

But Adak was the end of the road for my work with the Linholf.  I don’t want to go back to sheet film holders in 4×5–I much prefer the experience of looking at the 8×10 ground glass–I make different pictures with the bigger camera.  So I sent the camera home with Ben.  He has a project or two in mind for the camera, and I’d rather see it in his hands, making new pictures, rather than sitting on my shelf.

Snow Fence, Adak, September 2016--Last picture with Linhof

Snow Fence, Adak, September 2016–Last picture with Linhof

In all, I made about 2800 images with the Linholf in the 33 years I owned the camera.  Not that many, especially compared to the number of pictures I make with a hand-held digital camera.  But many of those images still hold my interest–perhaps a direct result of the care and time needed to make each picture.  And the steady, comforting quality of working with a great camera, like a friend.

Gary Pfaff

September 13, 1944- August 26, 2016

Rest in Peace

Gary and Erica, 1984

Gary and Erica, 1984


My dear friend and fellow photographer, Gary Pfaff, passed away on August 26, 2016.  His death was preceded by a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

I first met Gary on the street in West Philadelphia in about 1983—I was out shooting with a 4×5 when a man holding a small girl came up and said—“hey, I have a camera like that”, and started talking cameras  (I hate talking cameras.)  When he learned I lived a few blocks away, he invited me to his house for dinner—I was a little surprised by the invitation—but I accepted.  The little girl in his arms—two year old Erica—seemed to take a shine to me—and I was unofficially adopted into the family as “Uncle Dennis”.

Gary, Safe Harbor, Susquehanna River

Gary, Safe Harbor, Susquehanna River


When I first met Gary, I was a graduate student, living on a small stipend, but very interested in making photographs.  I couldn’t afford a lot of things—but Gary had very nice cameras.  He loaned me a Leica camera—an M3 that many consider to be the best 35mm camera ever made–for a cross country bike trip—something I could never have purchased on my own.  Through the years, he has given me cameras and film—my pictures are better because of the gifts he gave me.  I have tried to repay his generosity as I could, giving him photographs made with the equipment—but mostly I’ve tried to honor his gifts through passing on my own excess equipment to younger photographers, those with time, energy, and ambition, but limited money.   Gary taught me to share the toys–it’s more fun that way.


Gary and LD 1995                                                                  Gary and LaDorna, 1995


Gary also gave me my first bicycle helmet, a gift I must admit I ruined when a dog hit my bike when I was going down a hill fast—I broke my collar bone and the helmet, but my head was fine.  In 1984, we did a cross-Pennsylvania bicycle ride.  One short story—we stopped to camp at a fairground in Broad Top City—an old coal mining town—we set up our tents, and went into the local bar to have a beer in the evening.  There were a couple older gentlemen at the other end of the bar that looked like they had been working their stools since morning.  There were two beers on tap—Schlitz (forty cents a mug) and Strohs (forty-five cents a mug).   We decided to spend big, and went for the Strohs.  The beer came served in a 12 ounce frosted mug, filled completely to the brim, no head.  Gary laughed, and noted that this was a coal mining town—people worked for their money—and expected to get beer for their money—if the bar tender didn’t deliver, he probably would wind up at  the bottom of a coal mine shaft.  The next evening, we stayed at a hotel in Carlisle, and had dinner in the hotel restaurant.  We ordered beer–$3—which came in a tiny crystal glass—maybe five ounces of warm, flat beer.  After dinner, we went to a convenience store next to the hotel looking for ice cream (we had ridden 100 miles that day—we thought we deserved the calories)—bought a half gallon of ice cream, planning to just discard what we didn’t eat—but we managed to polish off the entire box without much trouble.

--Through the snow--Christmas Card

–Through the snow–Christmas Card


Gary had a sense of humor, though it was sometimes a little wacky–a bit on the punny side.  Here’s one joke I remember him telling—“Three strings walk into a bar, and try to order a beer.  The bartender looks at them, and says, ‘get out, we don’t like strings here’, so they leave.  One string ties itself in a knot, then starts beating itself against the wall.  It then goes back into the bar and orders a beer.  The bar tender looks at it, and says, ‘say, aren’t you one of those strings I just threw out of here?’  and the string replies, ‘no, I’m a frayed knot.’”    Gary’s sense of humor was also on display in the Christmas cards he and LD put out every year.  My favorite was a blender with a can of peas—“Visualize whirled peas”.

The last decade of Gary’s life was defined by his struggle with Parkinson’s disease.   I visited Gary when I could—about once a year—and watched his slow, steady decline.  In the beginning, there was talk of the possibility of new treatments, but, the progression of the disease was relentless.   Gary bore the ravages of the disease with as much grace and patience as I think possible—aided always by the love and care of LD.  Most difficult to watch were his struggles to express himself—Gary was still in there, a clear mind trapped by a body failing.

I think of Gary when I’m out photographing—I  often use a camera from him—mounted on a tripod from another friend who passed in 2010—and I’m grateful to still be able to do my work.  Our days are all numbered, one day our work will be done.  My work, and life, is better because of the gifts he gave.


Gary made wonderful pictures, which he put in boxes and hid in his basement.  Here are a few examples:


Gary Pfaff, Pawn Shop, Warrenton, VA 2001

Gary Pfaff, Pawn Shop, Warrenton, VA 2001


Gary Pfaff, Warrenton, VA, 2003

Gary Pfaff, Warrenton, VA, 2003


Gary Pfaff, Ocean City, 2003

Gary Pfaff, Ocean City, 2003


Gary Pfaff, Gainsville, VA, 2000

Gary Pfaff, Gainsville, VA, 2000


Gary Pfaff, Hatcher Pass, AK, 2003

Gary Pfaff, Hatcher Pass, AK, 2003









The increasing number of fires in Alaska and the possible connection to climate change has been a hot topic in Alaska for several years now, especially during the huge fire seasons of 2004-2005 and the more recent very hot early fires of 2010.  This year, though, the weather turned quickly wet and cold in June, and the fire season petered out rather quickly in Alaska.

I did manage to revisit the site of one fire I photographed in June, 2010, and made some new photographs—with the new Sony NEX camera rather than the bulky 8×10—capturing the beauty of the second season of fireweed (it soon gets overtaken by grasses and bushes—it really thrives only just after the fire)—

2010 Fire site, Elliot Highway, Alaska, July 2012

The other fast moving topic is me—I’ve moved out of Alaska—a fast move that was a long time coming—I’ve spent 25 years in Alaska, I’m now 55, and the long winters have become oppressive, not just for me, but for my family.  The cold streak of last winter may have been the last straw—I know many long term Alaskans who thought that the winter of 2011-12 was one of the hardest ever—and my whole family rebelled at the thought of another winter like that one.  This summer, we spent time on our property in northern Washington, and visited a few other places in Oregon and Washington—but elected to move to Spokane, partly for a good school for our son, and partly because Spokane is within easy weekend commuting distance from our farm.

I sometimes think about Isak Dennison writing her classic book Out of Africa,  how she spent only 20 years in Africa and didn’t even start to write until she was back in Denmark. Her book dealt largely with the first few years of her time in the country—after she established the coffee plantation, much of her time was taken with the day to day operation of an agricultural enterprise— Which is somehow to say, 25 years in the country counts for something…  I may be gone, but the country is not forgotten…

Shortly after arriving in Spokane—I planned a day looking for apartments—I had a list of five apartment complexes to look at—one of the first questions asked was when I needed the apartment—my response was always “tonight”—only half in jest—I was willing to spend a few nights in a hotel until an apartment opened up, but the fewer the better—and one place had an apartment almost ready—when we walked in, the view through the apartment was into a meadow with cows—and I knew I was home—at least for now.  While waiting for our credit check to clear, we drove into the country just beyond the city limits, and immediately saw smoke.

Just south of Spokane, the wheat country begins—rolling hills covered with huge fields—and I had heard, long ago, that those fields are sometimes burned to get rid of  the stubble, and knew what the smoke was coming from.  I tried to drive to the fires, but distances are tricky in clear air—I drove into Idaho (not that far) but couldn’t seem to get close to any of the fires—roads kept twisting in the wrong directions, dead ending in casino parking lots, or barricaded to prevent access—but eventually I found a view of a fire about a mile away.  I sat and watched as a small fire grew, then suddenly billowed in front of the wind—an unexpected gift.

Wheat Field Fire, Western Idaho, September 4 ,2012

I struggle to think about the differences between the wildfires in Alaska and the wheat field stubble fire I just saw—one triggered by lightening, the other deliberately set, one bursting beyond containment, the other bounded by the soil carefully turned at the edge of the field.  But I also think of the scene in the movie version of Out of Africa, when the servant comes to the bed of Isak Dennison, to announce “I think that you had better get up, Munsab, I think that God is coming”—his way of announcing that a fire was destroying the coffee mill, and that her time in Africa was ending.

Has my time in Alaska ended?  I don’t know.  When Karen Blixen traveled to Africa in 1910, travel was by steam boat and rail—the journey required days if not weeks to complete—I’m still only a few hours jet ride away from the country I’ve come to know and love.  But I know, for now, my home is elsewhere.  As Thoreau said, “I dwell in civilization again”.

Photographer Robert Adams, in the beginning of his retrospective “The Place We Live”, notes that the “details of one person’s journey through the art world are mostly not worth the trees to tell them”—a comment on both Adam’s love of trees and his antipathy for much of what passes for art.   That his own retrospective, in three volumes (twelve pounds of paper for each copy) has required the lives of so many trees is, we must assume, quite embarrassing to him, but the project is executed with such beauty and grace that it honors not just the trees incorporated into the paper, but all trees.


Robert Adams, Harney County, Oregon


For the committed readers of this blog (I assume there must be at least a few), my appreciation of the work of Robert Adams is no surprise.  I first became aware of his work in 1982, when I saw an exhibit of “The New West”  photographs at the Philadelphia Museum—a group of about 50 relatively small (5×5 inch) black and white prints simply presented—photographs so straightforward and clear that they seemed to be like life itself—that changed both the way I saw photography and the world around me.  Many of his images referred to the suburbanization  of the west—in the naked landscape of the high plains around Denver—but I had just left the farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, after my father, failing to make a living, had sold much of his land for building lots.


Robert Adams, El Paso County, Colorado


What is most revealing in this retrospective is the depth of the moral and political force behind Adam’s work—from his initial attraction to the ministry, diverted to a career in teaching English, eventually turning to photography—beginning with images of the natural landscape (he purchased a print of “Moonrise” from Ansel Adams in 1966), but turning to the open plains rather than to the mountains—but eventually focusing on the man-made landscape around Denver in 1968—the height of the Vietnam war—in a place being changed by the impact of returning veterans.   Over the years, he has occasionally played an overtly political card—like the essay in “Our Lives, Our Children”—but mostly he has silently played his cards—like the savaged trees in “Turning Back”—images that seem to be intended to invoke the dead in Iraq—now followed by the empty boots of the fallen (though the broken trees remain profoundly more eloquent).    Buried in the chronology section at the back of volume 3 is a group of photographs of the Peetz table, a landscape perforated with intercontinental ballistic missile silos, but a place that remains open and beautiful despite the intrusion.

When “Beauty in Photography” was first published in 1981 (about the time I became aware of his work), Robert Adams was best known for his pictures of the damaged landscape—“The New West”, “The New Topographics”, and “From the Missouri West”—photographs that were not pretty—so his discussion of beauty seemed somehow at odds with his body of work.    But “The Place We Live” is full of images of grace and beauty, in neighborhoods and meadows—a testament to the balance that sometimes survives despite our errors.

When in China, the trip involved participating in “discussion” with Chinese photographers—although direct conversation was difficult because of the language barriers (even with a translator that spoke very good English, some concepts were difficult to convey).    There was an exhibit associated with the event, so the most effective conversation was visual—the western photographers got to look at Chinese photographers work, and they got to look at ours.   One of the most obvious differences between the work was that all of the Chinese photographers were working in color, while about half of the western photographers were working in black and white.   Even in color, the Chinese work was in sharply brighter colors—to my western eye, at least some of the pictures appeared to have the saturation knob turned a little higher than my comfort zone—

Discussion in Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

So the question was asked, why the difference?  And the answer, of course, is one of traditions—I and most of the other western photographers were working in the context of and in response to a landscape tradition defined by American photographers—my own list includes O’Sullivan, Watkins, Muybridge, Weston, Ansel Adams, and Robert Adams—with not a single color image in the bunch.  It seemed to me that the Chinese photographers were working in response to the tradition of Chinese landscape painting—and within the realities of the Chinese landscape—which includes a brash color pallet, which can be seen walking down almost any street in China.

Street Scene, near Zhungzhow, China, August 2011

Street Scene, near Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

On Labor Day Weekend, shortly after returning from China, my family and I took a trip out into the landscape.  I took along both my digital camera (right now a Canon G12) and my trusty 8×10, loaded with black and white film.

Liberty Falls, September 4, 2011

Part of the discussion in China had to do with color being closer to nature, and therefore a more accurate representation of the world, as if to say that black and white was useful only before the invention of color.  But a photograph is always something less than nature—a two dimensional representation of what was in front of the lens—and sometimes something more—usually a carefully selected moment in time, sometimes with exposure adjusted in the camera or in the presentation, sometimes parts of the image manipulated to emphasize parts of the image over others.

8-6038 Liberty Falls

So which is better?  Here, the digital color image feels real to life, the green trees and the hint of fall colors add an accent to the image.  In the black and white image, the water and it’s motion lend a sense of stillness to the scene.  The black and white picture appears older—more settled—mostly because of the tradition it refers to—even though the two images were made  a few minutes apart.  I like both images, but probably the black and white will become part of my finished work, while the digital image (and the fifteen other similar exposures I made there) will disappear on my hard drive…

Last week, I traveled to China as part of a photographic tour—I and several others were invited to present our work about “place”—a topic that suddenly changed into “photography and tourism” a few days before the trip began…  While I feel very comfortable discussing “place”, the connection between photography and tourism is a much less comfortable discussion for me.  Obviously, photographs can be used to generate interest in tourism—it’s just a form of advertising—the best example being Ansel Adams, who married into the gift shop at Yosemite—a wonderful marketing tool for both the photographer and the tourism industry.

Americans believe that nature is best experienced as wilderness—defined as the natural world without the influence of man—exemplified by many as the vision of Ansel Adams–and we have created a park system to allow that illusion for visitors.  That millions of people crowd the most well known of these sites is thought of as, at best, an inconvenience, one we try to politely ignore.    I worry that my own photographs of the Alaskan Landscape will attract people to come and see for themselves—places that I was fortunate enough to experience in solitude might become overrun—to become a tourist attraction—and thus destroyed as wilderness.

The Chinese seem to have a different view of nature and man—one that is comfortable with experiencing nature while being part of a crowd.   Our tour group went to the Baijia Cliff site at the YunTai Mountain Geo Park—a site designed for massive crowds—stone sidewalks and steps, signs, guards, and little boats with men with traditional straw hats to continuously pick up any litter that might fall into the water—intended to accommodate 10,000 visitors a day, all on a path about a mile and a half long.  And the only way to see the place was to join the crowd.  One of my American colleagues remarked that this little excursion perfectly matched his vision of hell.  My own feelings were more positive.

What surprised me was the beauty of the place—red sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, reflecting pools, mountains in the distance—all experienced in the comfort of a happy crowd.   The new emerging Chinese middle class is sufficiently affluent to travel to the park—and it’s nice to see so many people doing so well, reveling in the freedom of enough.

Some in our group noted the similarity to Disneyland—perhaps a not inappropriate comparison—both places are actively managed for the pleasure of the crowd—but US parks are really no different—we only manage them for a different illusion—that of wilderness.    And it is possible to create the illusion of wilderness (especially with a camera), even in a crowded park.

But the path through the gorge reminded me of 19th century railroad photographs—a balance between nature and man—and while the absence of the railroad might make for a picture more closely aligned with our vision of wilderness,  including the railroad makes for a more interesting picture.

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on a question I’ve been asking myself for years—why photograph landscapes?—only to discover that the job has been done already, splendidly, by Frank Gohlke, in his book Thoughts on Landscape:  Collected Writings and Interviews.  The book was apparently published in 2009, and I bought a copy several months ago, picked it up briefly after it arrived, but didn’t really begin to read it until a few days ago, when I took it along for light reading on a long plane ride.  The book (like many such collections of essays) is arranged chronologically, which provides the editor with a simple structure for ordering the book, but doesn’t necessarily provide the reader with an easy entry into the book—but I found the book coming alive with the interview with Mary Virginia Swanson (particularly the discussion about the New Topographics show), and suggest that as a better entry into the book.

Frank Gohlke--Grain Elevator, From "Measure of Emptiness, 1992"

Gohlke defines landscape as “a human creation, even when the only interaction involved is the act of perception” (page 140), and quotes JB Jackson’s dismissal of our national parks as “just scenery”.   He goes on to note that “In other times and places, there has been a real conversation between people and the landscape they occupied; what people did, the kinds of places they created, had something to do with the messages they received from their surroundings about the effects of actions already taken.  It was important to know what the place needed and to provide it.  Somewhere along the road to civilization, important groups of people forgot or unlearned the trick of how to listen to those messages.  The process has accelerated dramatically, some would say catastrophically, since the Industrial Revolution, so that often the only message we’ve been interested in is the one that tells us how much force will be required to impose our wishes on resistant material.  I would like to suggest that one function of landscape art in the late 20th century is to help restore that lost faculty, if nothing else, by providing examples of careful listening.”  (page 179)

Frank Gohlke, Mount St. Helens

Gohlke’s own work has been published (although his output of monographs is modest compared to Friedlander or Robert Adams), in “Measure of Emptiness:  Grain Elevators in the American Landscape” and “Mount St. Helens”.  These books are notable in part for the long gestation periods between the making of the photographs and their publication—15 years in both cases—giving some weight to the argument that perhaps new is not necessarily better.  The grain elevator project deals mostly with great spaces, and the human occupation of the great lands of the American west, while the Mt. Saint Hellens work documents a natural disaster on a grand scale, but is presented as perhaps the only way of imagining the destruction that could be unleashed by a nuclear holocaust.

I’ve been staring at the Pond for more than 20 years, ever since I found a discarded review copy at the Strand in New York, cheap (dust jacket more than slightly battered), and I am still unable to say why the book charms me so completely.  The landscape these photographs were made in feels used and seedy, many of the individual images seem jarring, the selective focus seems pointless and pretentious.  But matched against this seemingly irrelevant content was a beautifully produced book—elegant printing, thick paper, lovely book cloth—and hidden under a prime contender for the ugliest dust jacket ever made was a lovely silver print (it took me years to find it).  And while the current reviewers act like John Gossage was part of the New Topographics movement, it is certainly worth noting that he was, in fact, excluded from this group in 1975, and that the publication of the Pond in 1985 might have been an attempt to snub that movement as well as the more traditional predecessors in the landscape.  After all, this book seems like a turning away from the broader landscape, a furtive escape into pathways suitable for drug dealers and child molesters, precisely the opposite of an attempt to describe a larger space.


John Gossage, The Pond


Looking at the book now, what strikes me is how the book both documents the ubiquitous damage we inadvertently do to in the interstitial spaces in our landscape, but also shows the beauty of these places, especially notable in the spring, when the images in the book were made.  There is comfort that the path of the book leads home—maybe not the suburban home of the American dream, but one on a quiet, safe street, nice enough.


John Gossage, The Pond


The new and improved “The Pond” has three new pictures, a thicker dust jacket with an inverted color scheme (though equally jarring), thicker boards under an even more lush book cloth, thicker paper,  and better printing.  The three new images don’t really change the feel of the book at all (I suspect they were put there for fools like me, just to get me to shell out the price of the new printing)—and the pictures are just as frustratingly obtuse as before.


John Gossage, The Pond


And Gossage’s lovely essay—a page ripped from Thoreau’s Walden (maybe even from the edition I read repeatedly while in high school) with every word crossed out except for “The Pond”—retains the feeling of a found fragment, an act of violation against both literature and the landscape—but also a celebration of what is left—this path is still worth walking, this pond is still worth photographing, and this book is still worth having and reading.