Friday, October 28, 2016


# 5   |   Evolution Lake, Kings Canyon National Park, California [2012]
Canon S70, 1/125th sec, f/8.0, ISO 50, 5.8mm (28mm @ 35mm equivalent)

This image is, in some ways, an example of the exact opposite of visualization. It is an example of what is commonly referred to as luck. Lots of incredible photographs happen out of sheer luck. The light and subject and vantage point of the photographer all align to make possible a memorable image. It was, also, regrettably made on a tiny, point-and-shoot camera so, looking back on it, I am admittedly a bit remiss for not having the foresight to use either of the other cameras I had hauled on this particular trip up and over Lamarck Col, through Darwin Canyon, and into Evolution Basin (I had, back at camp, a 4x5 Wista field-view camera, as well as a Canon 7D, each with a myriad of lenses). But no, I captured it by accident on the ol' S70, not realizing at the time the power the image would have on me once developed. The island, illuminated by the surrounding light, dwarfed by the monstrous walls of Mount Mendel dominating the view north. The shadows, the late-afternoon light, the clouds.

Returning, by a twist of fate, three years later to camp once again at Evolution Lake, I foolishly attempted to re-create the image with a 5D and 24mm prime lens. It was close, but (and I guess I knew even then, at the time) it would never equal the original. Re-creating an image never works, for in the mind of the photographer the original already exists, and the light and shadow and time will never again be the same. Indeed, that little fact is what makes photography powerful. Even if the image is made on a tiny, point-and-shoot camera.

Five stars.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


# 4 | High Camp, North Cascades, Washington [2012]
Canon 7D, 1/40th sec, f/9.0, ISO 400, 60mm (96mm @ 35mm equivalent)

Ansel Adams spoke at length about his idea of, what he called, visualization. So much, in fact, he dedicated the first chapter of his book The Camera to this idea, and revisited the concept in the following two books in his series. He always returned to it, this idea of visualization, what he considered to be 'the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph.' A process that starts with the camera-lens-shutter (in the case of digital, the camera component also includes the sensor, whereas, in Adams' time, the film was a piece of visualization he spoke of separately) and how that system 'sees' in a way the same, but in a way, different, than our eyes. Then, and I'll touch on this in a latter photograph in this series, there is the development of the photograph, and how that contributes to the characteristics of the final image.

This photograph represents that first part of visualization, through the choice of the camera and, primarily, in this case, the lens.

I 'saw' this image, in my mind, before I made it. And, in doing so, I was prepared with the camera and lens I knew I needed. I had been to this spot before, so I knew the geography and had a vision of what I wanted to capture. Here, the tent in the foreground, and the vast sea of mountains behind, trailing off to the horizon, infinite. On our return from the summit, I let Damon and Katie continue back to camp while I fiddled about with my camera and searched for the right spot to encompass, in the viewfinder, what I envisioned. It required a long (telephoto) lens, to compress the scene in just the right way, so that infinite sea of mountains was rendered finite, approachable, yet still vast, wild, incomprehensible (in fact, this image ended up weighing into my decision about which prime lens focal lengths to get when I made the switch from zooms to only primes: I selected the Canon 100mm f/2.0 because this image would have been possible with that lens). I didn't direct the two to stand, but rather patiently waited, waited, for the right moment. They scrounged around camp for awhile, digging in the tents until, at last, both stood up and just, stared. I took the shot.

And there, in this image, was exactly what I visualized.

Admittedly, it rarely works this way, and my example of the trip to Yosemite where I also had visualized all of the images I ultimately came to despise is proof of that. But, where there I was not relying on any spontaneity or magic, this image only is what it is because of that little bit of magic, of Damon and Katie realizing, on their own, where they were, and stopping for a moment to absorb this place, surrounded by mountains. Without them, the image would just be another shot of mountains from a high camp. With them, and how I visualized the scene, it is this.

Five stars.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


# 3 | Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park, California [2006]
Canon G2, 1/200th sec, f/8.0, ISO 50, 21mm (100mm @ 35mm equivalent)

This was made on Jeff's and my second annual autumn holiday, back in 2006 (on our first, we explored Utah's Monument Valley and Goosenecks of the San Juan River, then drove through the San Juan range of southwest Colorado). On this second trip, I drove overnight from Seattle south to pick him up at the Sacramento Airport, and onto Yosemite National Park and the eastern Sierra. It was on this trip where I learned one of the most valuable lessons of photography, and this image, really, is the only one I cherish.

We spent three days in the park, camping at Tamarack Flats and visiting all of the iconic viewpoints. In anticipation, I had read Michael Frye's book The Photographer's Guide to Yosemite and had in mind all of the images I wanted to make using an old Mamiya RB67. And I shot them all, picture-perfect.

Upon returning home, I excitedly developed all the rolls of film to realize, ultimately and instantly, my utter failure.

Maybe it was because these were all of the iconic views of Yosemite, which, each and every one, had already been photographed millions of times by thousands of photographers much better than I. Maybe it was because I had a pre-conceived notion in my mind about how and what I wanted to photograph, leaving no room for the unexpected, the magical, the spontaneous. But whatever the reason, my resolve after seeing the films was absolute: I sold the Mamiya in disgust, then shoved all of my remaining camera gear into a dark recess, both literally and figuratively, and vowed I was finished with photography. Done.

But this one print survived; I don't know why.

It was shot right off the side of the road, just a short walk from the parking lot at Olmsted Point. I made it on both a single frame of 6x7cm film as well as the little sensor inside the G2 (at the time, I shot them side-by-side). Maybe it's the shadows on the trees in the foreground. Maybe the sliver of Tenaya Lake that's seen from this angle. Maybe the clouds, hiding Mount Conness from view, and the light and shadow across the granite.

I still have the original darkroom print made from the negative, matted and stored safely in a box, tucked up in the attic. Every so often, I pull it out and stare at it, every detail. Eventually, I found solace in this image, and in the words of Edward Abbey, who wrote. as if to remind me in my sheer disappointment, 'Our job is to record, each in his own way, this world of light and shadow and time that will never come again exactly as it is today.'

Five stars.

Friday, October 21, 2016


# 2 | Eldorado Peak, North Cascades National Park, Washington [2010]
Canon 20D, 1/160th sec, f11, ISO 100, 163mm (260mm @ 35mm equivalent)

This is one of those photographs that made me re-think my approach to making images. Matthew and I were climbing to our high camp on the shoulder of Sahale Peak, attempting the north face of Mount Buckner, when I glanced over from high on Sahale Arm at this scene unfolding around Eldorado. It was late in the afternoon, so the shadows cast from the ridgeline above the upper Eldorado glacier were long, angled, perfect. The cumulus clouds piling together above and behind the peak, immense. There was motion happening, and emotion, something ominous, but peaceful, mysterious.

My camera was in the Clik chest bag I always carried, so easily accessible. I grabbed it and the little kit 55-250mm Canon lens, swapped it from the 18-55mm kit, zoomed to what seemed right, and snapped the photograph. Shoved the camera back in the bag and continued climbing, intent on reaching camp before dark. So now, I look at the photograph, remember the hurried process, and wish I had spent more time. More time composing, so I would have allowed into the frame the bottom of that ridgeline at the lower edge, which would have removed more of the cloudless sky out of the upper edge. Balance.

So when I was considering changing my camera system to an older, full-frame body, and discarding my collection of zoom lenses for a new collection of a few particular primes, I thought of this photograph. How, if I had been forced to shoot through a prime, had to move and zoom with my feet, in other words, it would have made me pause, slow down. Because sometimes slowing down is necessary, needed, in order to make better photographs. And in doing so, maybe I would have caught that lower edge of the frame and re-composed.

Still, I tend to be hard on myself, overly-critical. And this image is one of only a handful that capture, for me, in the way I envision, the silence of the North Cascades. I can hear the shadows moving like whispers across the glacier. I can hear the clouds building, rolling, folding, effortlessly overhead. Looking at it, I am made aware, reminded, of the quiet found only in the mountains.

Five stars.


# 1   |   J and I, Ansel Adams Wilderness, California [2008]
Canon G2, 1/50 sec, f4.5, ISO 50, 18.8mm (90mm @ 35mm equivalent)

Ugh, the days when I dyed my hair… But I still pack and wear those same glasses when I'm out in the backcountry, and yeah, they're kind of dorky. This was our first backpacking trip in the Sierras, when J was all of eight years old. I was a terrible father, planning two ambitious trips back-to-back for us. First, we were supposed to hike into Thousand Island Lake outside Mammoth for an overnight, then hike back out and drive a hundred miles south to hike over Kearsarge Pass for another couple of nights. Probably about thirty miles of hiking between the two, and five thousand feet of elevation gain. And yeah, J was all of eight years old.

We didn't make it to Thousand Island Lake that night (we did, though, make it to Kearsarge the next), falling a couple miles short after I carried his backpack partway along the PCT, heading west from the trailhead at Agnew Meadows toward the Ritter Range, far off in the distance. At the end of I-forget-how-many-hours of hiking, the sun sinking lower above Banner Peak, we pulled off the trail at Badger Lake, where I thumped my pack on the ground and started setting up camp. J ran off with a newfound energy, climbing up the rock wall at the southern end of the lake, still in sight. We ate dinner. It was quiet. It was so quiet, and I was already falling in love with the Sierra (we have returned every single summer since to spend a week backpacking throughout Kings Canyon). I took out my contacts and put on those dorky glasses. J ran around some more above the lake, amongst beautiful lodgepole pines and granite, surrounded by a sky that turned shades of pink and purple. At some point, we set the little camera on self-timer, clambered up on this rock, and smiled. Tired. I put my arm around J, his little right cheek smudged with dirt, me in flip flops. Proper.

Five stars.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


t h e   F I V E - S T A R   P R O J E C T .

My workflow with photography goes like this… I import images into my catalog, then take a first pass through them, where I give anything worth a second look a single star. Sometimes that is as far as the photographs go, but sometimes I take another pass and give ones that are better than others – particularly where I gave a star to several in a series – a second star. That then is, most times, as far as the photographs go. But indeed sometimes a few stick out above even those, and so I give them a third star. Oftentimes that is far as the photographs go, to remain quietly in my catalog, for me to pull up and look through from time to time.

Rarely, a photograph stands above all of those, and so I give it a fourth star. Currently, I have a little over forty-thousand photographs in my catalog; I have about a hundred or so that I've given four stars. Some of J, a few of the Bechstein, lots of mountains. A bunch from our wedding, and a handful from our honeymoon in New Zealand. K reading in a journal. Sunsets and alpenglows, clouds and shadows.

Of those hundred or so photographs, there are an even more rare few that, yes, get the coveted Fifth Star, the highest rating of all. And of those forty-thousand photographs, there are twenty that have five stars. Twenty. Zero-point-zero-five percent.

This project is going to pull those twenty out of my catalog and put them out into the world, with a little blurb about why or how they received a fifth star. There are stories, there is sentiment, and there are memories, all wrapped up into these twenty photographs. There are learnings, there are surprises, and there is randomness in them all. They were taken with four-megapixel point-and-shoot cameras, eight-megapixel consumer DSLR cameras with plastic lenses, and full-frame cameras with pristine prime glass. They are the reason I have multiple backups of my files. They are me, they are my family, and they are my history.

So, in no particular order, I present the Five-Star Project…

Wednesday, June 1, 2016