“I came to photography late. Assisted by my extended family, who loved to hike, fish, swim and ski, I found nature before I found photography. Wandering around outdoors was a habit I inherited. Photography came later.
On the East Coast I grew up with amazing natural beauty. I can readily recall the feeling of back light filtering through a grove of maple trees exciting leaves of yellow, orange and deep maroon ... of blue morning twilight creeping down a mountain ridgeline slowly, almost imperceptibly, growing into sun-up purples and pinks over landscapes like those that had been painted well over a century before by the artists of the Hudson River School.
Grand Tetons - Jackson Lake - Tom Gamache
Like all beginning outdoor photographers I imitated those who came before. In time I became both proficient and dissatisfied duplicating their work. The challenge became one of improving upon it … if I could. During the past 40 years in my pursuit of an understanding and appreciation of the geography and nature of the American West as captured by the masters, one of my guiding principles came from an artist who never witnessed the West - the surrealist painter and photographer Rene Magritte - who said … “To think about an image means to see an image”. “Looking” and “seeing” soon divided themselves into vastly different and separate undertakings and understandings. As I then tried to translate my feelings from my own “inner life” to my work, still further research, realization and practice was needed. It was a long process eventually bringing me to appreciate that I couldn’t extract truthful meanings from my subject matter without even more and continuing observation, deliberation, calculation and ordering.
In proper sequence … I then realized that Magritte’s intuitive discovery was clearly a variation on Alfred Stieglitz’s early 20th century series of photographic cloud images he titled ‘Equivalents’. In these photographs, Stieglitz’s emphasis was on abstraction, adhering to the then somewhat modern idea of “equivalence”, I.e. abstract forms, lines, and colors representing the artists “inner life” as reactions to and understandings of ones own experiences. The frequently quoted Ansel Adams, although less abstract in his imagery, was working towards a similar goal with his often repeated mantra of ‘pre-visualization’. They were each advancing the same idea … what was vital in the making of all true art was an intimate understanding of yourself and your own evaluative thoughts, feelings and visions about your relationship to the subject that would help you imagine and capture the art you hoped to make.
Having since photographed in more than 100 national parks and many more historic sites, national forests and state parks, I have witnessed and worked in almost all of the ‘iconic’ over-photographed locations in the western US. Within my first few “road” years I came to see how easy it would be to fall under the spell of a defeatist mantra of “why bother, everything has already been photographed".
Even prior to the digital age every “iconic” locale I worked in had been photographed far too many times for far too many years. Now, with the digital age fully upon us, in the morass of iconic landscape mimicry we now find ourselves, who remembers the pre Ansel Adams originators of many of his now famous and endlessly copied views – Carlton Watkins, Eadward Muybridge, Timothy O’Sullivan and others? Digital history is slowly closing the door on Ansel himself as other’s work who worked when he did are newly uncovered in garage sales and millions upon millions of lesser ”web” views muddle his accomplishments.
If today’s digital technology was the only issue between making greater or lesser art, we should be headed towards significant improvement in our landscape work. But the very technology that should be making for successive improvements surpassing all earlier advances has, for the most part, yet to result in such expected progress in landscape art. It is not the fault of the technology!
What is absent today is painfully evident in the millions upon millions of digital landscape photographs posted on the web. (Go ahead - Google “images” of Half Dome in Yosemite NP, South Window in Arches NP and Schwabacher’s Landing in Grand Teton NP and many others - you’ll find thousands of each). The remainder of the modern digital equation, now forgotten in a culture of instant “posting” gratification, is the knowledge and understanding of what creates the “eye catching power“ that the Masters of landscape art understood and who’s work we have come to love and imitate.
As I slowly grew to know the west more intimately, I began to seek out unrealized lands and prospects that for me had equal landmark value to the ‘Icons’. Maybe, in this way, my efforts might be helpful in communicating the need to ‘view anew’ and preserve these lesser known and under-appreciated lands? Along with my advancing technical knowledge I finally had a direction, a purpose and a calling. Success was still a long way off.
As with many of the most obvious lessons in life I did not realize that my opportunity to display my own style as well as contribute to the same preservationist ethic that photography had played in creating and sustaining the National Parks over a hundred years before was literally in my own back yard.
I was living nearby and had been wandering around in the Santa Monica Mountains for years before the National Park Service created the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in 1978. It appeared, even with the many photographers living in nearby Los Angeles, that few had ever taken the mountains seriously as a unique ecosystem, biome or artful landscape. I soon discovered that the mountains that divide the world famous San Fernando Valley from the Pacific Ocean and at whose base were some of the most singular, famous and pristine beaches in the world as well as being the view-shed for a large portion of the residents of the country’s second most populated city had, almost a hundred years before, been a hotbed of landscape appreciation and painting. George Gardner Symons, William Wendt, Edgar Payne and others were Southern California’s versions of the earlier celebrated American landscape painters and photographers - Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Bierstadt and Thomas Moran among many others. What a revelation!
Now I had both a locale whose character I could endeavor to define in my own time and manner and a list of predecessors who once viewed the mountains as I now did. I had my own personal mountain range and art school to learn from. I was in good company. More than that, I soon became intrigued with the worldwide history of landscape painters and photographers. Not only the California impressionists who painted the scale and beauty of the Santa Monica’s but, through them, I was introduced to the entire wealth of the humanity and science of landscape painting and photography.
One of the many results has been a commissioned photography art and history book - of the Santa Monica Mountains entitled “RANGE ON THE EDGE – THE SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS” from Angel City Press with acclaimed southwest writer Mathew Jaffe, now in its second printing and heading to its third.
In a way it is sad that the Santa Monica's had not ever been taken in a photographically serious manner before but I am thankful that I had the opportunity to create thoughtful landscape art in a locale that, even today, has yet to be over–photographed. Photography has always been a gateway to an emotional understanding of the world around me. The process of making art is enjoyable and rewarding regardless of the results!
Years later … Wandering Around Outdoors … in a vastly different locale in what now feels like another life, I stand before a Grand Canyon NP North Rim panorama layered up into the Kaibab plateau wilderness by Ponderosa and Aspen forests painted like zebra bands of shadow and highlight.
A few hours later, the same view is transformed. A very different Grand Canyon appears. The sky is now filled with enormous dark purple thunderheads. Dangling from beneath them are deep magenta and orange veils of mist backlit by the setting sun here and there glowing like exploding fireworks.
During yet another visit … the double full-circle rainbow that appeared high above and far below me at nearby Cape Royal on the north rim of the Grand Canyon was a William Henry Jackson moment. His biography noted seeing his one and only double full-circle rainbow in Colorado in 1871. Photographer Galen Rowell reported that it was the kind of rainbow that could only be seen and photographed from an airplane.
There it was with the Grand Canyon stretching out beneath it. The realization that I had been at the nexus of something as impractical and nearly as unrepeatable as a full double-circle rainbow on earth was so stimulating and demoralizing at the same time that I didn’t make another photograph for months thereafter. Nothing else I witnessed was its equal. Why bother?
The challenge of creating images of the uncapturable, the un-imaginable, the un-controllable … the brightness, the darkness and the shapes and colors of nature’s extravagance have become my reward. Thank you for Wandering Around Outdoors with me.”
All rights reserved. ©2005 Tom Gamache Photography.
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