Joshua Tree I (for Richard)

I have just returned from a tour of the deserts of the Southwest: Death Valley, Palm Desert, Joshua Tree, and the Valley of Fire. It was good for Susan and me to be down that way: the desert nourishes us, especially in the late winter and early spring. I also received a lovely gift during our trip: the welcome return of the photographic spirit, which had been largely absent for me last year.

Today, as I was editing some photos from the trip, I learned that an old friend, Richard Wanderman, passed away earlier this month while I was largely incommunicado. I had known that he was seriously ill, and that his illness was most likely terminal, but I had hoped that he might make a bit of a recovery. He was often on my mind during my travels, but I wasn’t online enough to check about his condition.

I’ve known Richard in one way or another since the 1980s: he was a subscriber to my newsletter MacInTouch (which I published with my friend Ric), although our interactions were largely at trade shows. After a number of years in the ‘90s where we had minimal contact, Richard reconnected with me on Flickr. Since that time, we have had a wonderful ongoing photographic discussion, with the occasional detour into personal topics. Richard was one of the people who commented regularly on my essays and photographs, and he had deeply felt words of encouragement and care for me during Lee’s illness and after her death. I valued our connection, even if it was electronic and occasional.

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life, photographed


We inhabit a life that dwells near the marshes of mortality, but we rarely have to wander into the darkness of the fens. Sadly, this past week, I had to cross one such bridge, with the passing of a friend. Dede was a beautiful, witty, smart and sassy woman, and while I honestly can’t say I knew her well, she somehow knew me, and I truly loved sitting and chatting with her. She always made me smile.

dede-1965Like many of us, Dede moved over the hills of joy and across the occasional plains of sorrow. She lived a big life, without bitterness or regret, and with more grace and selflessness than one would believe possible. It was a life worth living, a goal to which I aspire.

Dede was also the mother of Meara, a dear, dear, friend, so her death was doubly hard. Lee and I went over mid-week to visit, and we descended upon chaos, as their lively neighborhood had turned into a village focused on helping one of their own. Shortly before we arrived, a longtime friend of Meara’s had just completed one of the most important tasks for the memorial: the gathering of the photographs. And so we sat in a small circle for almost an hour, passing around photos of Dede, her family and friends, photos that included not only weddings and parties, but also the mundane–and no less important–touchpoints of everyday living. For that short time, we were laughing, listening, loving and learning a bit more about this beautiful woman. It was a wondrous island in the midst of a sea of sorrow, part of a soothing ritual that has taken place repeatedly through the years as a loved one has passed.

I’ve mentioned before how much I love the print[1. Missing Photography, July 11, 2011], and this is one of the reasons why. Holding that Polaroid from August 1965, of Dede, hose in hand, with the can of Budweiser off in the corner, I really don’t need to know the story, or think about why this photo was taken, probably forgotten, and now found again. I’m sure Dede could have told me, but it doesn’t matter. And, witnessing the tenderness in a kiss between mother and daughter, long before I knew either of them, made me feel as though I were actually present at that moment. That stack of photographs passed around on a warm afternoon made Dede live and let us all hold her close for a moment, and it made me honored to be even a small part of the lives of my friends.

mearas-wedding-smallI’m told quite frequently that a good photograph must tell a story. There are times when I resist that notion, but I do realize that it is true. You don’t have to know the story, but you do have to know there was a story. Some stories are silent, while others are long, funny pieces that demand explanation. And while a stack of photos won’t replace a life, it does complement it, enrich it, and preserve it.

One of the reasons why I felt such a connection to Dede was because of a photograph. Long ago, I had taken a group of pictures of Meara and her husband Philip at a horse show. Dede saw them, and asked if I would make a print of one of them for her. It was rare in the years since that she didn’t mention to me how much she still loved looking at it. The story in that one is as simple, I think, and as beautiful as any I’ve ever taken. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have had that shared story between us.

philip meara 5

268 miles and the ‘revisit’ tag

mt-adamsGot out on an all-day ride on the motorcycle for the first time in a long while yesterday, and ended up completing a very satisfying 268 miles through Southern Washington.[1. If you want to see (most) of the actual route I took, here’s a KMZ track file, which you can download and open in Google Earth.] Over the past couple of years, as I’ve been discovering the Columbia, I’ve also discovered much of the beauty that is in the corridor centered around the three Cascade volcanoes in Washington: Adams, St. Helens and Rainier (all the shots here with a mountain are of Mount Adams; click any image below to see it larger).


[where was this?]

I wanted to explore, but since I was alone, I had one main rule: no gravel.[2. If you look at the track in Google Earth, you’ll see one spot where I went north, stopped and turned around. You’ll also notice that I ended up riding within a hair’s breath of the final part of my ride. Next time, I’ll push on through the gravel.] I love riding on forest roads, but last year I got into a scary situation on the bike in one of the many “middles of nowhere” in Washington, and I really didn’t want to get back into that spot. Nothing kicks you out of a nice ride than that little bit of fear that you’re going down with a 550-pound machine you won’t be able to pick back up.[3. Ben has one of those Spot Locator beacons, which is sort of a motorcyclists’/hikers’ version of the “Help me. I’ve fallen down!” things they advertise on late night TV and in Reader’s Digest.]

I had the saddlebags loaded with my camera gear, but since I’d be riding during the middle of the day, I knew there wouldn’t be much in the way of photo ops. But, unlike years past, where I’d never pull the camera out, I’m now taking reference shots in places I think would be good candidates at times of striking light and weather, and geotagging the images with my trusty GPS logger [4. I use the Wintec G-Rays 2, but there are a lot of them that do the trick.] and Houdah Software’s excellent HoudahGeo app (Mac-only, sorry to say), which marries the GPS data from my trip to the shots taken along the way. And when I go through my photos at the end of the day, I tag those images taken in interesting places that I’d like to go back to with a ‘revisit’ tag.

I also use my iPhone’s camera and Instagram to help with this[5. Except for the GPS logging thing. Instagram tags the photo with the location where it uploaded the file, not where it took the photo, which is a problem when you’re in a place with no cellular service. (fixed) But I save the original photo on the phone, which saves the real location, and HoudahGeo lets me copy and paste the GPS coordinates.] I get some fun photos, and I don’t have to go to the trouble of taking off all my gear, digging out the camera, mounting a lens[6. Don’t ask. Since I bought the grip for my camera, I now have twice the battery life. Great for the whole time-lapse thing, but now I can’t fit the camera and a lens in my bag. Don’t cry for me, Argentina. ;)], and taking a picture of something that I know really won’t want to do much more with in the end.


[where was this?]

Of course, I do stop, break out the tripod and lenses, and try to capture something worthwhile. Take the image at the very top of this page. I took about 20 shots of various compositions, with different lenses and aperture settings, mumbling the whole time that I wouldn’t really get a great shot. But I knew I could get a good one, and the “working” part of being a photographer is still important; you have to shoot if you want to get better.[1. Years ago, I was talking with a friend of mine, who had been a National Geographic photographer. I told him how inspirational he had been to me, and how I longed to get to the point where I could literally ‘point and shoot’ to get that great image. He laughed and said that I would have been shocked at the sheer volumes of film that they took on an average shoot; most were miles away from being magazine-quality shots.] It’s not perfect, but I came close to what I saw in my head, despite the bright light of the day (Using a polarizer helped too.)[1. And, had I not stopped, I wouldn’t have had the lovely conversation with the man who farmed that land. It opened with, “You know when you want to take that picture? Dawn. I wake up every morning and marvel at how beautiful that mountain is.”]

The shot below was similar. I found this lovely plain[1. Part of the Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge] late in the day, at a point when I knew I was quickly headed to that “I’ve ridden too much and need to stop” place. I found a turnout, and spent a good 35-40 minutes trying to get a decent shot.


[where was this?]

The light was better, since it was later in the day, but I couldn’t get the angle that I knew the shot needed. To be honest, this photo isn’t even halfway decent, but it’s been tagged with ‘revisit,’ and I like the fact that it’s on an ever-growing list of places to get back to. I’m not going to find those roads that fall in love with if I don’t try to drive 268 miles in a day, and I’m not going to grow as a photographer without actually shooting, no matter whether I think the light is right or not.

missing photography


I haven’t felt much like a photographer lately–for various reasons, and despite my best intentions–but I have been looking at a lot of other folks’ work. That’s been good. I love to look at photographs; I have lots of lovely books and places to go on the web, and there are many wonderful artists out there, both famous and obscure.[1. Like Vivian Maier, who I think will be famous, if posthumously. I look at her work, especially her portraits, and find myself wondering what she was like, as a photographer. Did she talk about her work with friends over drinks? Or was she just obsessed, driven only to click, develop, print and stack?]

But, I do need to get out of this rut I’m in, and I’ve decided that what I really need to do is some printing. I love to print.[2. In case you were wondering, old friends, Printerville is back up and running. You can find out about it all in this post. Yay!] One of the things that I’ve learned about myself over the years is that, if I’m feeling at a dead-end behind the camera, I should turn to the print.[3. My good friend Duncan tells me this.] The magic of the print was how I got started down this road in the first place, and there are times when it’s good to go back to the beginning.

As a result, l’ve been going through a bunch of my work from the past six to nine months, with an eye towards creating some long-overdue prints that need to go on walls and into the post. This has naturally led me through images from the cross-country trip Liza and I took in early June. For me, though, this simple photo of my daughter, charged up to shoot with her 4×5 camera, and taken quickly with my iPhone on a cold and windy peak on the back side of the middle of Wyoming, will be the image of that trip. It’s not much, but I see a moment that has since become a touchstone for that short but lovely week (head colds and all). Looking at it reminds me why I can get so charged up about taking a photo, and why it’s such an emotional connection for me.

It also reminds me that I miss America, but that’s another story.