Monday, July 18, 2011

Thirty Minutes

We've all been there. Wondering silently in our head, why am I not inspired to get up off my ass and create photographs?

The responses are too many to address here. Why does a relationship end? Why didn't the Vikings make the play-offs? Why is the Minnesota Govt. currently shut-down? Short answer, it's complicated.

I had gone with my wife and two of our three kids to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, (BWCA) last week. I love this place. We camped on Saganaga, famous for it's wind and border personality. Its my first visit since my last book, PADDLE NORTH came out last Fall and more than a year since I've been inside the wilderness there. It felt good to return. I felt like I was going home. The familiarity of the surroundings was comforting, like visiting old friends.

Yet, I felt no compulsion to raise my lens. I enjoyed the swimming, fishing, and cooking fancy dinners with family. I was not on assignment. There was no pressure to bring home strong images and work the 15 plus hours of daylight. This was family time and I cherish this time with my wife and kids.

After about four days of camp activities and the current windy conditions, I found myself alone in camp. Everyone else was off taking in a mid-day nap. Too windy to fish alone, too hot to make a fire or gather firewood, I quickly got bored. I really didn't need to go and photograph, but suddenly the urge to explore was ignited.

I didn't want to work....and good photography is more hard work than simply "being there." So, I grabbed a camera and one lens, my 105mm macro lens. I thought I'd go explore the close-up world around our island.

I followed the normal trails that lead campers around campsites and then ventured beyond. Within minutes I found ripe blueberries. But, the ripe blueberries were always bunched together with unripened ones. And, I loved the color of those berries still a few days from picking, with that exquisite pink color. I dropped to my belly and found a bunch to photograph.

Amazing. I had lost myself in a patch of blueberries and felt a soothing transition taking hold. This is what I needed. To get away and photograph. After the blueberries, I moved along to a grove of red pines, attractive in their placement, with a look like they had been planted. But, it was nature's design. Looking for close-ups, the bark patterns of red pine take on a Van Gogh canvas. I found heart shapes, a monk, a ghost, and pine needles stuck in the gaps. My entire world was within a six square inch area.

The dead, still standing had lost their bark but the grooves of insect highways were revealed. I spent some time investigating, looking for the right composition to photograph, but it never happened. It made me think of something Ansel Adams once said that has always stuck with me.
Adams was photographing a mountain scene in the Sierra's. He set up his 8x10 view camera, picked a lens, focused but didn't like it. He chose another location, another lens, didn't like it either. In the end, no photos. He stated, "Sometimes a subject just won't bend to visualization." Wow, well said. I too moved on.

My attention moved back towards the ground. The juniper berries were ripe too and when pinched, smelled like gin. Now, I wanted a beer. I know, that makes no sense but it triggered that
reaction. And, then more blueberries. Feeling satisfied with the images I made earlier, I succumbed to picking. I went on a tear, keeping focused on the ripe berries, scanning the ground for specific colors. It reminded me of agate hunting. Once you develop the eye, its easy to spot them.

Hunched over for at least 15 minutes picking berries and loading berries into my ball cap, I raised up and stretched. Then, I laughed. I recalled a black bear I was photographing on Stockton Island in the Apostle Islands when shooting my book, JEWELS ON THE WATER-LAKE SUPERIOR'S APOSTLE ISLANDS. This bear was 30 yards away was munching down blueberries....just like I was. The bear was so intent on eating it never raised it's head or realized I was right in it's tongue landing path. I kept shooting and the bear kept coming closer and closer. Finally, I got worried it would see my shoes next and freak out. Then I would freak out. So, I made a noise loud enough to get his attention. He saw me, got spooked and ran off. I was concentrating hard in my berry picking, I laughed that I could've done the same thing. We're all animals aren't we? And, sometimes not the sharpest knife in the drawer!

Thirty minutes. That's all it took for me to enter a new world. I felt invigorated and refreshed. Great images don't have to happen when on assignment, on a workshop or personal project. But, they have to happen when you go out and shoot. Its the old saying, "F/8 and be there."

Pleasure came from the spiritual connection the lens offered me. This visual instrument, allowed me, like a pianist tickling the keys for joy, a moment to reconnect with the land. Isn't it always this way? Less is more. It need not be complicated to be rewarding.

If you feel you need such an escape, and want to find the coals to relight your visual fires, I am teaching a photography workshop in the BWCA in mid-August. Jason Zabokrtsky's outfitting company ( is running this session. Jason is an amazing guide, outfitter and enthusiastic photographer in his own right. He's perfect for this adventure. Please feel free to contact Jason with any thoughts or questions about this special wilderness workshop. His number is 218-343-7951. His website is;