Monday, July 24, 2006


White Mountains Research Station at Crooked Creek
Staff: Stuart Scofield, Virginia Newton, Sam Hipkins, Douglas Vincent

July 9 -17 2006

It was supposed to be a photography course in a starkly beautiful part of California – the White Mountains, just north of Death Valley. At an elevation of over ten thousand feet, in the middle of the ancient bristlecone pine trees, the UC Santa Cruz Landscape-Mindscape class draws people who are interested in photography and the outdoors. However, as I soon realized, the course offered far more than mere photography in a beautiful landscape.

The log cabins of the White Mountains Research Station (WMRS) were welcoming as they stood out in contrast to the bleakness and aridness of the surrounding hills and sage brush. The WMRS staff have made a very welcoming home for the researchers as well as the enrollees of the course.

The course is designed carefully to teach students the craft of photography. The instructors have gleaned the techniques of the masters and put together an excellent curriculum. In addition, they teach the technique and procedures of photography with great rigor and precision. As with any art form, the instructors emphasize that technique and precision are merely tools of expression. The thought or idea that is to be expressed is entirely in the hands of the artist; in this case, us. Stuart Scofield, the primary instructor, studiously stays away from giving guidelines, tips and cheat-sheets for creating art. He always stressed that the emotional impact of a scene, which is the essence of a photograph, is purely in the mind of the observer. An observer trained in the craft of photography should be able to capture the scene and its full emotional impact in a photograph.

Here, in the midst of trees dating back 4,500 years, we learnt to see and feel our surroundings. We became more aware that our impressions of our environment come from more than just the relative positions of the components of nature. Nature can exert a powerful emotional appeal through the interplay of these components under different kinds of light, cloud cover, times of day, presence or absence of wind, the sounds of birds. Not all of these can be captured in a photograph, but these are the inspirations. The photographer has to be receptive to these and then bring to bear the craft of photography to be able to capture it on a two-dimensional medium within a frame. The final image, in the form of a print or on a screen, is a testament to the photographer’s ability to receive inspiration from his surroundings, perhaps even enhance its appeal, and present it to a viewer. The success of a photograph lies in it being able to give a random viewer the same inspiration that it gave to the photographer. Reminds me of Schopenhauer, the 18th century German philosopher who placed great emphasis on the power of the artist:

The artist lets us peer into the world through his eyes. That he has these eyes, that he knows the essential in things … is the gift of genius and is inborn; but that he is able to lend us this gift, to let us see with his eyes, is acquired, and is the technical side of art.

Located in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevadas, the White Mountains with the ancient bristlecone pines are remarkable. The harsh mountain climate (where the amount of precipital moisture in the air is about half a millimeter - the lowest ever recorded anywhere on earth) with its rocky soil is a challenge for all kinds of vegetation. However the bristlecone pine trees and sage brush have found a way to thrive here. The bristlecone pines have adapted by growing dense wood and secrete thick resin to ward off winds, insects and most diseases. They have been so successful that they have become the oldest living trees on the planet. The sight of a gnarly bristlecone pine on white dolomite rocks with its shallow roots is at once a vision of strength and loneliness. They are trees that have no natural friends, their strength is their friend. Harsh soil and high erosion means that the seeds are often washed away. They rely on birds to hide the pine seeds under the soil and the ones that are forgotten have a chance to germinate and grow into a tree.

The open air, high altitude and the atmosphere of the class seemed to expand space and slowdown time. The senses became keen and one could almost feel the surroundings talking. At times they were tales of strength, at times they were tales of loneliness. The abandoned miners’ shacks and the open mine shaft seemed to tell the same story as the trees – that life can thrive here despite the obvious adversity.

The gentle morning light remains gentle for a very short time. The clear and thin air scatters very little light and soon it is the harsh glare from the sky and the whiteness of the dolomite that dominates all the features. Viewed as a photographer, this is the worst light in which to photograph; viewed as an artist this is the best time to experience nature. It is now that one begins to realize and appreciate what a remarkable place this is.

In everyday life, routine and daily chores take precedence over the time needed to appreciate beauty in nature and one’s surroundings. One is sometimes forced to quench the few sparks of inspiration that may arise with cynicism and jadedness. Yet these sparks are the very life blood of an artist. But here in the shadows of the ancient bristlecones the expanding time and space seemed to inspire everyone to become expressive. Keen receptivity and lucid expression, the building blocks of creativity, seemed to flow naturally in every one of us who was there on this course.

We were twelve students and three instructors, and we developed a working, learning and social relationship in a very short time. Perhaps it was the harshness of the surroundings or the beauty of the hills; it could have been the age of the trees or the tales of loneliness and adversity; whatever magic the place and the course structure created, it brought out the best in all of us. By the third day, we were becoming close friends, the surroundings were inspiring us to take good pictures, and opportunities for good photographs were being found practically everywhere. The photography course was transcending its stated purpose. The experience was bordering on the spiritual. On the penultimate day, we had a field trip to Cottonwood Canyon. Towards the end of the trip, a ritualistic head dip in the creek seemed like a form of baptism that bound us all into a special community that had shared a very special time with each other.

At the end of the course, on the day we were to return, the goodbyes were difficult. And because of this difficulty it was also the most memorable. As I drove down the dirt road, I found myself turning on music in the car and cranking up the volume. I was trying to drown out strange emotions. Then with great effort I turned off the music and let the emotions surge through me: the joy of having been fortunate enough to participate in this wonderful class, the pain of having to leave it, the joy of going back to my family and the pain of having to re-enter everyday life.

I felt a twinge of sadness when I left the gravel trail and reached surfaced road at Schulman grove. As I drove away I made it a point to archive the feelings so that I could write this when I got home. This was as close to a life altering experience as I have ever had.

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