For most of my life, I have lived on mountainous coastlines in California, Alaska, and the South Island of New Zealand. On vacations, I often went into the high country where I liked to take in the views from a peak or a ridge line. My generic perspective was of a wide vista with vast distances to a preferably infinite horizon where in my photography I relatively reduce the presence of a viewer by placing it in a larger space.
In my formula, my insignificance is inversely proportional to vastness. The larger the place, the relatively less I take up of it. At some point of difference, I conger that I become close to nothing. It is there that I discover my connectedness to all that is around me, the byway to seemingly everything so that the singleness of me, the boundary of my flesh, becomes sundered, porous, and receptive.
It was only when I went into the jungle in Nepal that I realised that the above sentiment rises from a high country perspective. Trying to see amidst trellis and vine, in and under and through deep overgrowth, made me realise that I was habituated by experience and temperament to open spaces. In effect, I was trained to be almost myopic in an environment of dense over growth, and I would not have known it if I wasn’t there with men that were brought up in the area.
The head guide, Gopal, would say, Jay, look, and then point out a deer in the brush between trees, and I just couldn’t see it, not right away anyhow, but he would insist and I would look closer, concentrate, and then, as if out of one of those figure ground anomalies, I would see differently and it would appear, the deer, a hazy spot of line and colour that sharpened as my eye became accustomed to seeing in a more enclosed space. Of course, it didn’t help that I was partially colour blind in the red and green spectrum, especially as much of what is in the jungle is of that hue. Still, I did eventually see the deer or the bird or whatever was there hidden in the prism of jungly entanglement.
My gravitation then to shooting great depth of field in vast spaces rises out of my life in the places that provide me such a view. I am acclimated to it through experience, and, with that acclimation, I feel deep connection and intimacy. Those sorts of photos become like old friends. I reach out to them as part of my personal community. This is where I live, this is how I feel when I am really there, this is how I want to share those feelings with others.
Ah, and here’s the rub, not everyone sees in that way. They live in other places with different horizons, measuring closeness and proximity by other standards. As an example, Gopal picked up a handful of dirt and put it to my nose. Here, smell the tiger, he said. Then he told me how long ago that the tiger urinated on the spot and how far away he probably was at the time when I sniffed its scent. In his mind’s eye, that odour spoke of a specific distance. In a way, he was photographing not with a lens, not with the light that came into his eyes, but through the olfactory particles that came through the air to activate the sensors in his nostrils.
All this helps me understand why I have more difficulty photographing in tighter knit environments such as forests in comparison to mountains and oceans. Amongst copses of trees in the rain forest in Washington, for instance, I struggled to find a satisfying perspective. I kept searching for greater depth of field, which probably comes from my habituation to the high country. I couldn’t see as a person that knows the forest, that is familiar with its patterns, that knows how to draw from it that intimacy which makes each of us realise that we are part of it.
For a long time, in fact, I was baffled and amazed by how migrating native Americans knew when to stop to call a place home, how some tribes gravitated to deserts and others to the mountains and still others to the confines of the forest or the open vistas of a coastline. Somehow something within each person must have declared here it is, this is where I will live, this is the part of me that is outside myself. Such a thought only sends me wondering whether this sense of place is hard wired into our genetics. That the map of a specific locale resonates in our DNA, that we do not stand alone, ever. Together with all members of our tribe, we stand somewhere, always, from the first cell that multiplies to become who we are.
The question arises, then, in photography and in life, as to whether we should try to capture what we know, what is familiar, what we can most intimately convey, or whether we should stray from the due course into the unknown where we feel awkward and incapable and out of place. I can only say that I breath more easily and deeply in the relaxed familiar clarity of the mountains but I also yearn to revisit the steamy dislocation of the jungle. It is there in sweaty unfamiliarity that I feel empathy with the immigrant in all of us, compatriot to that person that has to sharpen his vision to merely survive, let alone thrive, in the strangeness of an alien environment.
As an ex-pat, I have learned that there is no substitute for living a childhood in a particular place. We learn to see at a time when we don’t necessarily know that we are being trained by what is presented to us. We believe that this is it, everything in its entirety, until we leave our safe haven to find that it is only a small piece of a larger puzzle.
In the thirty years that I lived in Alaska, the arctic light, sweeping tundra, narrow ridges and ratcheted peaks seeped into my blood as by osmosis. I became familiar with the land in ways that I don’t even quite understand. In comparison to less familiar environments, when I am in Denali Park, for instance, I don’t need to think about when to snap the shutter to capture an image. The moment that I am trying to convey seemingly already lives within me. I have seen it before through experience. I know it is there, I only have to let it move from my eye to my finger at the moment when it clicks inside me. In such intimate confines, photography is more like a reflex than a conscious plan.
Inevitably, too, feedback on my photos of Alaskan scenery is more positive than those that I take anywhere else. The work is easier and the results more astute and beautiful, an addictive and attractive combination. I feel that urge quite often especially when I shoot images in other places only to discover later when I enlarge them that they simply don’t convey the excitement and energy that initially propelled me to take them.
We do not always think of a landscape as a living being with a particular personality which conveys a whole set of emotions. We often identify it, in fact, with inanimate matter. Somehow, though, when we capture it with a modicum of intimacy, we are struck with feelings that we usually associate with people, such as respect, adoration, repulsion, and fascination. The very decision to shoot at a particular moment incorporates the emotional aspect. I am constantly surprised at how the simple arrangement of lines and colour and perspective can steal my breath away so that I say, yes, that is it, I know that place, that somehow it has always lived within me.