Living in the time of COVID is a confusing mess. Art can help us untangle that experience.
This past year of COVID isolation has presented us with one of the most unexpected and challenging existential crises of our times: Just what exactly is the human experience without connection to others and moreover to the natural world? My latest gallery, currently hanging at Fulton Crossing Gallery in Santa Rosa, CA, explores that theme.
I’ve been fortunate to maintain the social aspect of my humanity by sharing four walls with a beautiful wife, daughter, and recently acquired pandemic-puppy. However, my relationship with the natural world which I usually experience and express through travel, rock climbing, and regular family camping, has been complicated by the pandemic. Staring at the walls, I’ve often found myself reliving an experience from my childhood in which I first really experienced a starry night.
I was perhaps 7 or 8 years old, standing on the deck of my father’s fishing boat on a clear and moonless night. Out on the Pacific Ocean, miles away from civilization, the night sky is impossibly black and the stars mesmerizingly bright - like someone has cleaned a window you didn’t know was dirty. Under the immensity of that view I suddenly felt the reality of our fragile existence on this tiny mote of a planet. It was utterly overwhelming.
This experience is, of course, not unique, and there’s a handy word for it on our language, “numinous”. This little adjective is helpful, but I dare you to try to really capture that feeling in language and express it to someone succinctly. It’s just not possible. For me, trying to understand this numinous feeling of being so alone and yet so connected came to define my human experience and my art.
Art is such a wonderfully human tool; it allows us to transcend the limits of our language and capture the stories, emotions, and truths that remain otherwise opaque. Creating imagery that affects emotion and how that emotion affects behavior has been my life’s work. I never thought, though, that my own emotional-image-wizardry could one day affect me.
This year without my regular connections with the natural world, I’ve turned to revisiting experiences and places through the landscape photography captured on my journeys. Viewing them from this new perspective I came to see a voice in my work that I’d previously ignored - a conveyance of my most numinous moments. In the best examples the camera was acting as an invitation, welcoming the viewer to fall into this experience, not just this place - and I found myself falling in all over again. How fascinating that what I had perceived as such a conscious process of composition was, in fact, largely motived by the subconscious, by a distant memory of a child standing on boat, swaying in the gentle roll of the Pacific, under an ocean of stars.
This past year of isolation driven introspection allowed me to make a new commitment to my work - creating the space and time to pursue this theme of connection to nature directly. It’s a strange and abstract space to work from. Occasionally a story intersects this journey and I follow it along in the language of documentary, learning how others are experiencing the same connections, and losses. More often I lay awake late at night, my mind a mess of raw imagery trying to make sense of a world that transcends language. Most recently I decided to try a new way of showing my work that explored ideas that didn’t fit neatly into every day conversation. I decided to start pursuing galleries.
My first gallery showing of 2021 is currently hanging at Fulton Crossing in Santa Rosa, CA. I’ve selected 4 uncomplicated landscape images, that are easy to look at and easy to fall into. For me, these images are windows for the walls that we’re currently trapped within. They provide us with a way to remember that we are alive on earth.
Yesterday I was invited to an Instagram Live interview with a good friend of mine, Abby Dione. She wanted to talk about staying happy, healthy, and creative in this time of COVID-19 and being stuck at home. She and I have a way of communicating in the abstract that can be infuriating and impenetrable to listeners. When she asked me to share a story about working as an adventure photographer and director, I have to admit that I flailed to find an appropriate story. Put on the spot I wasn’t ready to draw on the right anecdote. A close critic pointed this out to me and I vowed to repair that malady, both in the immediate sense (below) and as a vow of character going forward.
I’ve written before (admittedly in the abstract) about the experience of making the film ”Chu Bien” with Osprey Packs and Dan Holz. Below follows a more personal exploration of the experience of making a travel/adventure film. I hope you enjoy reading it:
Getting the Shot
The night was calm at least. Waves lapped at the mottled planks of the hull and the noisy cities of Vietnam were far beyond reach now. Still, my consciousness ebbed and flowed relentlessly. Dreams and half-woken moments in the sweaty berth of the junk were equally plagued by obsessions about the direction of this damned film.
We’d been shooting for a couple days now and I still wasn’t seeing the full scope of the story. Somewhere in this character piece was an arc that would tie together into a watchable documentary. We were supposed to be trolling the emotional depths of this elderly Vietnamese man, but whether it was pride or shame that kept us from breaking through, we weren’t getting anywhere. He was joyous and happy, we knew that - perhaps that’s all we’d ever know. Careful not to wake Dan sleeping next to me I made a night-blind note in my moleskin journal, “pre-interview subjects before production starts”. Too late for that now anyway.
I gave up on sleep sometime before dawn. Half naked for the oppressive weight of the southern heat, I wound my way through the narrow doors and halls to the aft deck. Chu (Uncle) Bien had left somewhere for the night - he would be back soon, probably expecting to wake us all with the clatter of his little diesel runabout. Eventually we would use his little coracle shaped boat to shuttle our crew to the overhanging limestone climbs for which this bay is so well known. Deep water soloing sounded like a reward that I hadn’t quite earned yet.
A fine misting rain began to fall just before the sun could color the skies of Cat Ba. What little quiet we could have expected from an early morning shoot were rapidly disappearing into the fattening patter of rain on the ocean. The sun, likewise, disappeared, flattening the landscape in a two dimensional, drab monotone pallette. Grey limestone karst jutting from a grey ocean reflecting a grey sky.
Chu Bien had spent over a decade of his life fighting for either the North or against them. He was vague on that point but here in the country where the blood had been shed, the importance of that detail seemed somehow moot. He’d buried that detail along with most other personal inquiries over the past few days. His character, his spirit, his person, remained hidden behind an armor of smiles (even if that armor was missing a few teeth).
The sound of a diesel engine began to chatter. Whether distant or close it was impossible to tell as the sound echoed over water and stone only to be muffled by the heavy air. My chance to finally break through the social armor of this old vet was approaching. I went back inside to put on a shirt, collect my camera off the floor, and wake Dan.
Chu Bien clattered his way up alongside our anchored junk - the little vessel drifting to a gentle and respectable stop at the edge of the larger. His hair was parted neatly and was wet with morning mist. He wore the same shirt and trousers he’d worn the last several days. “God Mohnin,” he smiled broadly, as we climbed down onto the loose planks of his boat. How he managed to make that maw of broken teeth look so friendly was sometimes beyond me. Perhaps that’s what we’d answer this morning.
The rain intensified and pinged loudly off the taut tarp strung over the otherwise open wheelhouse/focsle/galley. Chu Bien had been preparing for this moment, we knew, so I asked if he could help us get tucked away from the rain so our audio could be cleaner. The below-deck engine, which he controlled mostly with his bare feet and a piano network of strings chattered up to a dull roar. Some deft maneuvering placed us in the eroded hollow of a massive karst. As long as the tide was down, we’d be able to camp under here away from the rain. Chu Bien pushed a wooden lever one notch along the deck, pulled on a short string and the engine cut to silence. Other than the sound of his little stool creaking on the deck, we were in a moment of bliss (or at least manageable environmental ambience).
“Camera A speed”.
“Camera B speed”.
“Sound Speed…Ok Chu Bien, ready?”
A shaky song started in Uncle Bien. His voice warmed through the first verse and began to swell. Something simple, something he knew well, but resonant with the history and sense of place he’d otherwise been unable to communicate to us through interview. He was vulnerable to us for a moment now, his face younger but at once infinitely older. The rain abated and he picked up a paddle to push us out from the shelter of our little limestone amphitheater, his voice growing as we drifted into the bay.
“Vietnam, Vietnam!” That song is still echoing in my mind today, years later. The courage of his youth bouncing off the calm waters of the bay and reverberating back through him. He was proud. Proud of the modest life he’d built, proud of the hard work he’d put into his dreams and his country. He’d kept it simple and pure and left the rest of his life open and ready for an easy laugh.
We’d wanted to break down his armor to look for wisdom, but he’d lived such a spartan life that he wore that he had nowhere to hide anything. His wisdom was his armor was his joy.
Being based in San Francisco allows me the opportunity to work with a lot of great tech companies. I love this field work because it’s always creative, always new, and always well directed.
One of my regular clients is the excellent meditation app calm.com. I’ve been able to shoot everything from product to portraiture for them - and I thought that spread was about as wide a gamut as I could ever hope for in a client. Until the reached out to me with an absolute dream job that I could have never imagined coming from the tech industry: Landscapes!
The in-app backgrounds for Calm are peaceful looping scenes of nature. I use the app and I have my favorites…or at least I had my favorites, until I was given the chance to create new, exclusive landscape scenes for the entire user base to interact with.
Last Summer, Calm hired me to scout and shoot new background videos under the headings of, “Peaceful River” “Waterfall” “Rain on Leaves” and “Field/Meadow”. All of the videos had to crop perfectly for 16:9 for desktops and conversely 9:16 for mobile - all from from 1 shot (not an easy composition range to manage!). The scenes also had to be shot in perfect daylight conditions, and (without the camera moving) perfect “dusk” light conditions for Apple iOS’ night mode. And, of course, they had to loop perfectly with whatever movement was occurring in view. It was arguably a technical nightmare to execute on…but I thrive on this kind of thing - I couldn’t have been happier :)
Getting a landscape angle to work in both lighting scenarios was surprisingly challenging. A whole set of criteria had to be met with regards to orientation of features, time of moon-rise, and clarity of evening skies. Camera choice was no gimme either, but fortunately RED had just released its new Gemini sensor which meant that I could deliver the highest quality image in both peak light and near perfect dark. Of course, this meant that I had a lot of weight to shlep into the backcountry with me - but hell, I was going to be spending hours with a beautiful view, alone.
This assignment ended up taking me from a lavender farm in Sonoma County, California, up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains around Tahoe, CA and back down to my backyard where I designed and built an outdoor “rain studio”. I was challenged, sunburned, un-showered for days, and at absolute peace with myself for the entire week. It was a beautiful experience that makes me think perhaps Calm.com should start having me lead landscape workshops for their users!