New Adventures in Photography
In 2000 I was a software developer living in Tucson, Arizona. I had been rock climbing for seven years, and taking pictures of my adventures. I was totally psyched on Galen Rowell’s Art of Adventure Photography. I too wanted to share my passion for the great outdoors – not just how it looked, but how I felt about it and how I thought about it. Simple ideas like this make a young person reckless. I quit my job to “go pro.” This was a hilarious idea by the way – I didn’t actually stop doing software work on the side for another six years.
My first publication was a 2-page spread in Outside Magazine. Climbing in the remote Whetstone Mountains of Southern Arizona, I made a photograph of my hand reaching out into a cave from 40 feet up, clipping my lead rope to the next protection point, depicting the first-person view of what it’s like “on the sharp end” of the lead-rope.
I was hanging from a rope to get this shot of course, not actually climbing. After climbing the line once before, I thought about the idea for a photograph. I went back up with the camera (a Nikon F100) and spent some time getting myself in position for the shot. I contorted myself Superman-style to hold the rope with one hand, shoot with the other, and keep my feet and gear out of the frame. That’s the way a lot of my “adventures” actually went. Out playing somewhere, I would get an idea, marinate on it for a while, and then come back later to create a photograph.
I believe a thoughtful approach to photography is important. Even in the digital age, it’s not enough to just snap away wildly. It’s always a safe bet to assume you are missing something, because your eyes only suggest what your brain will see. Take the case of the blind monkey.
The visual cortex is sort of like Adobe Camera Raw for the brain, responsible for processing visual information. In the 1960s, Cambridge psychologists removed this part of the brain from a monkey named Helen. Amazingly, they found that Helen was able to gradually develop her visual response until her “sight” was nearly as good that of a healthy monkey. The phenomenon was later confirmed in humans: A patient with a damaged visual cortex “could still guess the position and shape of objects,” although strangely, he insisted he couldn’t see. His eyes still worked, but only on an unconscious level. The researchers termed this unconscious vision “blindsight.”
In an Outdoor Photographer article entitled “The Photographer as a Blind Monkey,” the late Galen Rowell noted that Helen did a much better job at “seeing” with blindsight than the human subjects. Unlike monkeys, he suggested, our brains are so obsessed with attaching meaning to the visual world that it hinders our ability to act on impulse when it came to responding to our senses. He likened blindsight to the process of visionary photography – visualizing beyond what is apparent in a scene. “As Helen the monkey benefited from exploring an intuitive world,” he wrote, “so do photographers who seek results beyond what they can directly observe.”
When I started out, capturing “the decisive moment” was the benchmark skill of any serious outdoor sports photographer. It was kind of an “f/8 and be there” game, but knowing the dynamics of the sport helped (I fell plenty on the climb above before I shot it, so I knew where to set up). I honed this skill relentlessly, but I was more interested in shooting concepts that were new to climbing photography, stuff that maybe hadn’t been seen before. Other extreme sports such as skateboarding and snowboarding had already adopted “the look” – Hasselblads and strobe lighting, mixing fashion and action – but climbing photography in the late ’90s was still wide open.
I shot Chris Sierzant on the climb Southern Comfort (above) with a Mamiya 7II medium-format rangefinder, two radio-controlled colored strobes and a handheld meter. The 43mm wide-angle lens requires a special hotshoe-mounted viewfinder in order to frame the image properly. I was triggering two color-gelled strobes remotely using a Pocketwizard radio transmitter, which also had to attach to the camera. I used a handheld light meter, also attached to the transmitter. This is not an easy setup to manage while dangling from a rope. Forget about changing film. This is about when I switched to digital.
As climbing photography went in new directions, it was a great time of sharing, mutual respect, and healthy one-upmanship. Aside from lighting techniques, a lot of recognizable styles were emerging, which was good, because it gave everyone a little breathing room and raised the bar for the future. Digital photography couldn’t have come at a better time. We could work faster and capture images that were more flexible in post, and go in new creative directions – and share ideas! I shot a cover story for Rock & Ice Magazine on the 1990s climbing whiz-kid Eric Scully. The now 20-something Scully was psyched on exploring lots of lighting ideas for the story. When photographing challenging setups like this, it’s critical to have an athlete who can perform anything you want for days on end.
A beginning photographer once asked me, “how do I get into concerned reportage?” I told him, “You have to be concerned.” It’s so important to be passionate about what you shoot. I also agree with the adage that living an interesting life is key to making interesting photographs, but I would add that you have to also believe that life is interesting. I’ve never seen anything that wouldn’t make a cool photograph. It just might be you instead of me who makes it happen.
When the Nikon D3X came out I gathered some friends to shoot some ideas in the studio, above. The music was loud. Every frame was a one-time experiment. This camera is so good I like to think of it as invisible. Nothing gets between you and the picture you want, so its up to you 100%. Today is an exciting time for photography. The amazing tools that exist today blow the hinges off any box that once confined traditional photography.
In 2006 I saw an amazing multimedia piece, shot by documentary photographer Ed Kashi in Iraqi Kurdistan. Thousands of Kashi’s still images were compiled together in sequences, tightly punctuated by music. The technique was not new – think about stop-motion animation or time-lapse sequences – but the end result was powerful. I started experimenting with similar ways of using a still camera to create motion pieces. I gravitated toward what I call “stillmotion” – shooting short clips of action at various frame rates with a still camera and sequencing them together like video. The first stillmotion piece I shot was called Parkour. Parkour is the sport (art, even) of moving efficiently through urban obstacles in the most direct manner. It doesn’t hurt to pull a few heroic tricks along the way.
The first few seconds of the above video are shot on standard video. The rest is stills, from a Nikon D2X. The still frame above, pulled from the piece, is at high enough resolution for print. In fact several images in my print book are stillmotion frames.
The Nikon D3, with its 11fps speed and bigger shooting buffer opened up even more possibilities for stillmotion, and the full-frame sensor allows for lens effects unique to the still camera. I can also shoot with portable motion-freezing strobes at these frame rates, rather than with continuous lighting, adding to the unique look.
Here are several more stillmotion clips, some handheld, with natural light, some lit. All were shot on the Nikon D3 at various frame speeds:
A Day in the Open
I later co-produced a short documentary film about grassroots activism in the climbing community called Heart of Stone. We shot it in HD, but several clips in the film are also stillmotion. Can you tell?
Maybe this is just a quirky rest stop on the highway of evolving technology. Maybe it’s a road to something else entirely. It’s all part of the adventure.
Are we still talking about photography here? I sometimes wonder that. Recently, having aged my expired film stock long enough to be considered legit in the current lo-fi craze, I started shooting analog again, mostly on a Hasselblad 500c, which was literally a ton of fun to schlep around Disney World, above (my son Sam was so disappointed that the Hall of Presidents was closed). I can’t stand the workflow, and I had to break out that handheld meter again, but it’s good meditation, and it’s opened my eyes to a fundamental difference beyond just the death of analog film. Rowell’s lesson regarding Helen the monkey was to let go of what we see, and to pay more attention to ideas. Shooting analog, you are driven by the picture you envision: The blindsighted photographer. With the instant-replay of digital, you’re driven by the picture you see. Now you’re also the spectator. Shooting this way, there’s a constant dialog between the idea and the result. This process, ad-infinitum could be called painting.
“From today painting is dead!” remarked the French painter Delaroche upon seeing the first daguerreotype. Painting, of course, lived on, but is photography as Daguerre and Bresson and Rowell knew it – the Blind Monkey’s craft – dead after all? With blah-blah frames per second, isn’t capturing the moment just a matter of shrewd editing?
I recently read Roland Barthes’ little book on photography Camera Lucida. It’s full of fun made-up terminology. Among other things, struck by a photo of Napoleon’s younger brother Jerome that he can’t get out of his head (“I am looking at the eyes that looked at the Emperor!”), Barthes plumbs photography for the origin of the punctum – that spark in an image that brings a photograph to life for the spectator. He termed this journey toward the “woah, cool!” moment the adventure of photography. Barthes adventure, it seems to me, is independent from technology. Artist Brian Dettmer’s book sculptures above are a brilliant new take on a very old thing. He destroys books, rendering them unreadable, and in doing so creates a new aesthetic adventure. The old methods of photography may be past, destroyed by technology, but the adventure of photography is alive and well.
I feel so fortunate to be part of this crazy world of images. Thanks, Scott for creating a space to share ideas!