Monthly Archives: August 2014

Feeling the Love in Yellowstone

 

Perhaps at no other time do I feel the love of God surrounding me, carrying me along, and permeating the deepest nooks and crannies of my soul, than when I am out in creation forming compositions with my camera. And among the varied landscape beauty that is America, there are a handful of places that God’s gracious love feels especially personal for me.  Yellowstone National Park is one of these.

Yellowstone is famous for its wildlife and rightly so, but what most consumes me when photographing there is the other-wordly landscape of  hot springs and mineral pools. I find these remarkable geothermal features fascinating in their abstract beauty, and to photograph them makes me feel somewhat like a painter putting colorful brushstroke to canvas, with a strong sense that I am making ‘art’. That is not always the feeling I get as a photographer, and I relish how this wild landscape sets me free to explore and play.

 

A golden pattern of lines in the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone

A golden pattern of lines in the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone

 

I was excited to return to this magnificent corner of  Wyoming a couple months ago. The first place I headed upon evening arrival was the upper terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. This place evokes a sense of wonder as I roam about the mineral formations, often grinning childishly and even chuckling out loud at times in sheer delight at the crazy visual goodness before me. On this particular evening storm clouds had moved in, softening the light to enhance a satisfying composition of golden patterns of curving lines in the terrace. Moving further down the trail I was struck by the skeleton figures of two barren trees and used them as a foreground overlooking a mineral flow that resembled the best special effects from a modern science fiction movie. The moment of grace occurred when late-day sunlight made its way under the cloud canopy and gently highlighted the colorful steaming terrace, set against the backdrop of dark blue rain clouds.

 

Late evening sun highlights the steaming terraces set against storm clouds

Late evening sun highlights the steaming terraces set against storm clouds

 

A second day of scouting and shooting brought a short but steep hike up the face of a hill overlooking the famous Grand Prismatic Spring. This largest of all hot springs in America and third largest in the world is surrounded by a riot of color that overloads the visual mind with its in-your-face glory. The usual tourist path to see Grand Prismatic is along a boardwalk at ground level, but the view afforded from trekking up the adjacent hillside is more than worth the effort. From this high ground I was able to look down on the swirling bands of bold color, and selected a telephoto lens to concentrate the eye on the best section of landscape candy. Steam rising from the spring added another element of mystery to this spectacular spot in one of America’s most beloved national parks.

 

Steam rises off the rainbow-colored cGrand Prismatic Spring evoke an alien landscape

Steam rises off the rainbow-colored alien landscape of Grand Prismatic Spring

 

Here is where the love of God becomes so tangible to me: first, that he blesses me simply to be in this stunning place! And that he has given me eyes to see, a spirit to resonate with the unique beauty, and a craft that allows me to physically engage it rather than to only observe. It’s truly the Creator’s art, not mine, yet he invites me to come and experience it and use vision and tools to make something out of his raw materials that I can call my ‘own’ work.  For me this is pure amazing grace! What profoundly personal love from my Father in heaven, the One who knit me together in my mother’s womb and frees me to live out of his exact design for me.

 

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The Risk of Vulnerability

 

Vulnerability.

How does that word make you feel? Do you yearn to be more vulnerable in relationships? Or does the mere mention of vulnerability cause a part of you to wince and pull back?

For me, the idea of being vulnerable is fraught with emotional peril, for by its very definition the word means I am open to being harmed.

I grew up thinking the goal of life as a man was to become strong, capable of handling anything, an impenetrable human fortress. Now after many years I’ve started to learn just how imprisoning this pursuit is. And how unrealistic. It has become blindingly clear that I am weak, incapable of handling much of life on my own, and subject to the pain of human attacks, whether real or imagined. And to avoid this truth of my vulnerable humanity by attempting a show of exterior strength is like being confined to a prison cell with no freedom to embrace and live out of the fullness of who I am.

Learning to be vulnerable with others in relationship has only recently become part of my journey. And I see an ebb-and-flow pattern to it. Much of the time my deep desire is to be truly known by others, and have the honor of truly knowing them. And some days I just want to retreat to fortress-building.

 

Sunset light plays off wet sand in an abstract interpretation of Oregon coastal glory

Sunset light plays off wet sand in an abstract interpretation of Oregon coastal glory

 

Vulnerability became the primary topic in my mind a few days ago when I attended my 30th high school reunion (class of 1984 at North Valley High School in Grants Pass, OR – I love you guys!). I sensed the temptation to put on the old, worn, tired exterior lie of having it all together, but by grace was led to embrace vulnerability and seek authentic interaction with my classmates. The result was several beautiful moments of allowing others to see me, brokenness and all, helped greatly by their invitation to be real as they also embraced vulnerability in themselves. Further lessons on the topic came just yesterday, as my wife and I grappled with the emotional challenges of being a continent apart this summer while we each are necessarily engaged in our respective work in different locations. A breakthrough in the conversation came when she took the risk of being truly vulnerable with me, and suddenly my heart opened with a flood of compassion and we both experienced the comfort and healing of authentic human connection, despite the many miles physically between us.

To be vulnerable requires risk. It is willingly opening yourself up to the possibility of being misunderstood, rejected, humiliated, hurt. As a photographic artist and blog writer I step into what is for me a risky world each week as I express my inward ponderings, my passion for God’s glory, and as I reveal creations made with my camera that express the real me. But today I want to risk a little more, move one steep further into artistic vulnerability as I share images from my heart that are more abstract. These are not the pretty grand scenics that are easily accessible, so they may not resonate with many readers. But these compositions represent for me the exhilirating feeling of having created art, with the excitement of a child showing his crayon scrawling to mom. You probably won’t want to put these images on your fridge :-), but I am thankful if you partake in this moment of me being a little more vulnerable with my photographer’s heart.

 

A lone warm-toned rock contrasts with a pattern of blue beach stones

A lone warm-toned rock contrasts with a pattern of blue-toned beach stones

 

All of this brings me to thinking on the ultimate vulnerability, modeled by God himself, when the infinite eternal perfect all-powerful Creator became like his frail creatures, scandalously setting aside his glory and making himself completely vulnerable to being hurt, entering our world of suffering and pain in his earthly life and taking on the consequences of our brokenness and rebellion in his sacrificial death:

 

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death – 
even death on a cross!

(Philippians 2:5-8, NIV)

If the glory of God shines brightest through the vulnerability of Jesus Christ, what does this mean for living out our lives? Can we take the risks of being vulnerable with each other, day after day, entering each other’s broken stories? Can this be a door we walk through to grace, compassion, and love for one another? Is this reward worth the risk?

 

Warm sunlit cliffs and cool blue sky reflect in beach water and sand at low tide

Warm sunlit cliffs and cool blue sky reflect in beach water and sand at low tide


A Man Obsessed

 

One of the greatest movie-going experiences of my life was in 1977 when my twelve-year-old eyes widened with excitement and intrigue during a theater viewing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The idea of aliens captured my imagination, and Richard Dreyfuss’ masterful performance of a man completely obsessed drew me into the story. But it was the iconic shape of the fascinating basalt columns that haunted Dreyfuss’ character (and his mashed potatoes) that most stuck with me as a boy, and continued to intrigue long into adulthood.

 

The iconic basalt columns of Devils Tower, made famous by the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The iconic shape of Devils Tower, made famous by the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind

 

In 2008 I was able to make my first pilgrimage to this amazing piece of geography – Devils Tower National Monument in northeast Wyoming.  But that visit was a way-too-brief couple of hours. And so finally, after nearly 37 years from the day this piece of rock became lodged in my conscience, I was blessed with an opportunity to spend several days at the monument this June and to make a few images that I felt did some justice to its magnificence.

Driving that first afternoon through delightful wooded hills toward Devils Tower it was sunny with lovely puffy clouds, but by the time I arrived it had turned overcast with a storm brewing. It wasn’t looking good for the late evening light I had planned to get striking the tower, but with the smallest hope I drove away from the congregation of tourists and onto the scenic dirt road where the best view positioned to catch the western sunset was found. Just as I feared there was no light show due to the heavy cloud cover, and I watched as the approaching lightning increased and the storm began to threaten with crackles of thunder. I packed the gear back into the truck and took an affectionate look at this magnificent butte. Though no quality image had been made on this night, I was deeply grateful to our Heavenly Father to be standing there.

As I was getting ready to head to camp for a typical late dinner of sardines and rye crackers, there began the most subtle glow of pink in the clouds around the Tower, the very last bit of warm post-sunset light fighting to get underneath the storm covering. In a panic I grabbed the camera and tripod and furiously set up for the shot right where I stood, and was able to make two exposures before the lights went completely out on the color. The pink glow was subtle on the digital file in camera, but I was hopeful that the incredible raw capture ability of my Pentax 40-megapixel medium format camera combined with the extraordinary tool of Adobe Lightroom software would combine to make the processed image sing with all the glory I surely felt as I witnessed it. And after working on the image, I believe it is indeed singing. What a grace from the Lord that night!

 

Devils Tower before the storm

 

With day turning into new day I found it impossible to leave Devils Tower. No, this could not be a brief fly-by visit. The wooded campground with breathtaking Tower view, the delicious early summer air and perfect warmth, the intrigue of hiking around the base of the tower, and the peaceful location for writing my very first blog post that began AllCreationSings.net, all conspired to stretch my stay here to five nights. And during this time I too became a man obsessed with this iconic shape, or at least obsessed with witnessing another moment of glory and hopefully capturing it well. Each evening here for five days in a row I would head to the scenic dirt road and set up and wait, soaking up the atmosphere of a very special location while yearning for great sunset light.

On my last day, a couple hours before it was time to go wait for sunset, the park rangers drove through the campground warning everyone of a severe thunderstorm headed our way. As the dark clouds moved in the winds became tremendous and water began pouring down in sheets. I was no longer feeling safe in my small pop-up truck camper and I drove through the downpour a short distance to the KOA and was drenched just from walking to their door. As I waited out this crazy storm inside the KOA office with many others our cell phones suddenly went off in unison with an emergency tornado warning! I’m thankful to say the tornado did not materialize in our location, and the high winds and torrential rains eventually subsided. So with the storm moving on I was able to go back to the scenic spot for my final attempt at capturing the majesty of Devils Tower, and that evening was blessed with ethereal warm light glowing behind and to the sides of the tower which made for a pleasing panoramic composition.

 

After the storm at Devils Tower

 

An additional blessing on this trip was  a chance meeting in the field with fellow landscape photographer Bret Edge who truly is one of the nicest and most gracious photographers I’ve ever talked with, along with being a great shooter and writer. I consider Bret a new friend and am looking forward to visiting his gallery this fall in the awesome town of Moab, Utah. You can view Bret’s blog at http://blog.bretedge.com. Scroll down a bit and check out his 2015 Utah calendar – if you love the Southwest like I do it’s a must purchase.

As I’ve pondered this fantastic place of Devils Tower, and considered further the film that inspired me and how impactful Dreyfuss’ performance was, I realize there has been much of my life marked by my own frenzied obsession. Obsession with self, obsession with performance, obsession with being accepted. A desperate obsession.

But something is changing in me. Or more aptly, Someone is changing me. No, I definitely have not arrived, and never will in this brief life on earth, and I most certainly have many days of struggle against an inward wandering. But I can’t help smiling and welling up with joyful tears as I see the journey God has me on, of a life increasingly marked by an overriding passion for His glory, His excellence, His beauty, His power. To delight in all that He is and in all of His works, is becoming my true joy. He is graciously making me into a new man obsessed.


The Life-Giving Fountain of Water

 

I was mesmerized from the moment I first saw it. The image was on the cover of Outdoor Photographer magazine taken by the very great photojournalist-turned-landscape photographer Jack Dykinga: a stunningly lush waterfall with multiple streams cascading down a unique brown rock face, a scene straight out of an exotic tropical paradise. Yet the location was reported to be Idaho! I knew one day I had to find it and attempt my own composition.

Fast forward a decade. The falls that was virtually unknown at the time of Dykinga’s cover photo could now be found with an internet search, and numerous web images revealed that quite a few photographers had brought home their own trophy shots. I had nearly forgotten about my initial infatuation from ten years past until a few weeks ago when I had departed Grand Teton National Park and suddenly realized I was a mere hour away from this place! I figured I had just enough daylight left to get there and make a photograph.

The remainder of my drive that evening took on new purpose. Aided by Google and an iPhone I pulled onto the dirt access road just outside of Swan Valley, Idaho, and slowly drove with eyes peeled for the place where Falls Creek flows into the Snake River. I could not see it from the road but my ears let me know when I had arrived. With anticipation I darted out of the truck and headed toward the top of the falls on a boot path, and soon turned cautious as I came to the edge of the cliff. From this high angle I could not see most of the falls, and looking down I noted the precarious barely-there trail and got a sick feeling in my stomach. I was desperate to get down there with my heavy pack and tripod, but fear was warning me of the high risk involved.

 

Fall Creek Falls #1

 

Some minutes later I saw walking down the road a teenager and her little brother who graciously tipped me off to a safer approach to the falls about 50 yards up river. I felt some relief at this point and thanked God for the direction, knowing that if I had attempted the climb straight down the cliff it likely would have ended poorly for me. The alternate trail dove steeply down an embankment and then leveled off into a soggy marsh. The going was straightforward except for the final 10 yards as I crossed a boggy section of water nearly waist high that sucked my boots into the mucky bottom.

My friend Slav had warned me some time ago that a large section of the rock face had fallen off into the falls, marring the picture-perfect overall composition that had made the shot popular among landscape shooters. I saw that huge chunk of fallen earth as I climbed from the bog onto the rocks, but the sight and sound of what remained of the falls was more than enough inspiration to spur me on to look for my own quieter interpretation. I walked along terraces of shallow water and marveled at the sheer beauty, the impossible lushness, the stunning location on the Snake River in a lovely Idaho valley. It wasn’t long before I discovered a serene section of falls off to one side, and I happily made a few compositions in the soft shaded light after sunset. I was all alone for nearly two hours here, and the simplicity of just being in that moment and at that place was really like the tastiest and most effective medicine you can imagine for whatever might ail you.

 

Fall Creek Falls #2

 

Days later I considered the finished photos on my computer monitor and knew there was a certain scripture I just had to tie in with the images of this fresh mountain stream cascading down into a breathtaking waterfall. It was a few years ago when I first encountered this passage and I was stunned at what I read back then:

My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.  (Jeremiah 2:13)

The pastor/teacher John Piper is helpful in unpacking this verse:

“God pictures himself as a mountain spring of clean, cool, life-giving water. The way to glorify a fountain like this is the enjoy the water, and praise the water, and keep coming back to the water, and point other people to the water, and get strength for love from the water, and never, never, never prefer any drink in the world over this water. … That is how we glorify God, the fountain of living water.

But in Jeremiah’s day people tasted the fountain of God’s grace and did not like it. So they gave their energies to finding better water, more satisfying water. Not only did God call this effort futile (“broken cisterns that can hold no water“), but he called it evil: “My people have committed two evils.” They put God’s perfections to the tongue of their souls and disliked what they tasted; then they turned and craved the suicidal cisterns of the world. That double insult to God is the essence of what evil is.”  (from his book When I Don’t Desire God, p. 33-34)

I’ve meditated on this verse for some time, and it still stuns me today to think on it. First, to see a gracious Creator offering to be everything for us creatures, giving himself fully and sacrificially in the person of Christ to be the only life-giving thirst-quenching water that can and will satisfy the deepest longing of our parched souls. To offer humans that kind of satisfaction in him is an expression of amazing love! And then I think of my own wandering heart, how easily in this world I have turned away from the ultimate fountain of delight in God and instead attempted to find hydration in cloudy mud-filled bacteria-infested water.

This to me is the insanity of evil.  Being offered the very best in the universe for your ultimate joy and good by the loving God who formed you, but turning away in disinterest or unbelief and instead groveling about in the muck searching for some hint of happiness…

 

Fall Creek Falls #3

 

 


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