Brian Christianson Photography: Blog https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog en-us (C) Brian Christianson Photography (Brian Christianson Photography) Wed, 03 Mar 2021 23:54:00 GMT Wed, 03 Mar 2021 23:54:00 GMT https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/img/s/v-12/u795211623-o254445711-50.jpg Brian Christianson Photography: Blog https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog 80 120 Shaped by Waves https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2021/3/shaped-by-waves Two Stacks Sunset | Port Orford (OC33)Two Stacks Sunset | Port Orford (OC33)

 

Winter on the Oregon Coast presents less like a succession of storms than it does a single, continuous storm with brief interludes. Looking out over the Pacific Ocean on the rare January bluebird day one suspects that they are simply in the eye of the storm, and that, just over the horizon, lies the advancing edge of winter’s eternal tempest.

This, of course, is an exaggeration. It does not rain every day on the Oregon Coast in winter. Nor, if forced to describe the wind, would I describe it as an especially windy place. Having spent a year living on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, I have known the pleasure of living in an especially windy place. Certainly, we experienced our fair share of nights being rocked gently - and sometimes, not so gently - to sleep by the winds while parked on the edge of the Pacific, but these winds generally accompanied discrete low pressure systems, and, as a rule, were not a constant feature of the weather. Although the wind can be fierce, out of all the elements of weather, it is the precipitation that reigns supreme. On average, the Oregon Coast receives 17 days of rain in November, 19 in January and 18 in February. The rain sometimes falls as a gentle mist, usually as soft showers and, occasionally, as heavy downpours: nothing a decent rain jacket, rain pants and rubber boots can’t handle. Finally, in terms of precipitation, If you are lucky, and we were, you’ll be struck by the rain’s frozen cousin, hail. Many times.

As for the temperature, it always seems to be 48 degrees. Day, night, rain or sun, thanks to the thermoregulating qualities of the Pacific, it’s always 48 degrees. I can tell you, with 99% certainty, that it will be 48 degrees on January 20th, 2022. February 8th, 2030? 48 degrees. It appears that the mercury, in the beginning of November, nestles into the 48 degree marker and proceeds to hibernate for the remainder of the winter.

Doubtless, there were times that we went several days without leaving the van, held captive in our 60 square foot metal box by gail force winds and heavy rain. All told, these periods were neither overly prolonged (4 days at most), nor especially frequent (every 5-8 days). We leaned into great books, board games, cooking, napping, tea drinking, YouTube video watching, movie viewing, writing and processing images. Just when cabin fever seemed imminent, a lull in the weather would arrive and so to would we. 

The prospect of persistent wind and rain, at first blush, may sound deeply unappealing. In a vacuum, I’d agree. If this was the winter climate of say, Southern Minnesota, where I grew up, I’d seriously consider trading in landscape photography for crocheting. But, here’s the thing: this is the Oregon Coast, and it is ruggedly spectacular. This special section of the Pacific’s coastline features five hundred foot cliffs that dive straight into the restless waters of the ocean, sandy beaches that extend for miles on end, expansive sea stack gardens, tide pools teeming with alien lifeforms, massive thundering waves and innumerable sea mammals, birds and invertebrates.

Seeing the Oregon Coast in winter is not unlike watching a masterful painter put brush to canvas. It is an act of hydrologic creativity. As an observer, it is an exercise in bearing witness to the powerful forces that shape the landscape. Monthly king tides ravage the coastline, creating, literally overnight, entirely new beaches and dispensing with old ones. Heavy rains saturate the ground until whole slopes succumb to their increased mass and crumble into the ocean. Hemlock and spruce trees stand cliffside, sculpted by the wind. This is the season for this seasonal temperate rainforest: the vibrancy of the forests, the floor covered with ferns and the trees covered in moss, is sublime. In winter, the woodlands of the Oregon Coast make sense. In winter, the entire landscape makes sense. Hydrological and geologic forces are on display in real time. Save for a tsunami, tectonic activity or volcanism, the forces that sculpt the landscape are all present and entirely observable. 

These forces, combined with the spectacular terrain of the coastline, make the Oregon Coast a prime landscape photography destination in winter. In a sense, following the painter metaphor above, photographing the Oregon Coast during its most creative season is an act in capturing artwork in motion. One moment the sand surrounding a piece of drift wood on the beach is perfectly smooth. In an instant, one wave later, the sand is rivuletted with tiny channels, resembling blood vessels. The next moment, smooth again. The next day? The driftwood has vanished. How special it is to engage with the ephemeral! Second-by-second, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, year-by-year, millennia-by-millennia, the coastal landscape is transformed by the artist, Mother Nature. If landscape photography is the art of tuning into the workings of nature, the Oregon Coast has my full attention. Routinely, I found myself perched on a cliff edge, camera firmly affixed atop my tripod, as massive waves crashed against the rocks below. Curtains of rain, bifurcated by crepuscular rays, hung out at sea, periodically passing over my position. I could not have been more engaged with the environment than I was in those moments. The camera was simply a tool that allowed me to experience the coast more deeply, more honestly and more sincerely than I would have without it. Most importantly, the camera forced me to be fully present: to not just see, but to feel the interconnectedness of light and form. Landscape photography requires that you be present to be effective.

Ostensibly, my tour of the Oregon Coast was fueled by the pursuit of photography. In practice it was a period a personal transformation. Forced to be present, I was also, for a moment, pulled out of my head. The worries of the day receded as surely as the tide. ‘Where will we park tonight?’; ‘What are we going to do about the leak in our roof?’; ‘What if the inflammation flare-up from rheumatoid arthritis (RA) continues to escalate and I can no longer hold my camera?’; ‘What if the van breaks down?’; ‘How is our travel budget doing?’; and on, and on, and on. For those moments, engaged with a composition, I experienced freedom from anxiety. It’s just me and the land. It’s perfect. It is bliss. Those calm, blissful moments, became addictive in the best possible way. They gave me space to feel relaxed, happy and grateful. I wanted more of that!

Those moments inspired me to to begin making small changes in my daily routine. I was inspired to exercise agency: control over what I had control over. I cut out alcohol. I researched, procured and began taking the best supplements for RA. I transitioned to a heavily plant-based diet. I drank more water. I bought a meditation app and began meditating (nothing like paying for something to keep you committed). I had flirted with all of these things over the years, but never all at once and never with such resolve. Living in such a small space allows for an incredible amount of control over habits. I can reach my supplements, the sink and a banana from bed.

The Oregon Coast was the teacher that I needed this winter. Raw, unfiltered, rugged, nature. The most beautiful beaches and grandest sea stacks are shaped by waves and, I think, so too, are we.

Check out the full Oregon Coast gallery!

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2021/3/shaped-by-waves Wed, 03 Mar 2021 18:25:26 GMT
What catches YOUR eye? https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2021/1/what-catches-your-eye

This scene caught my eye: giant waves crashing against sea stacks, forcing the resting gulls to take flight. I was transfixed by the scene as the sun caught the waves and birds, leaving the sea stack in shadow. I hoisted by 100-400mm lens onto my tripod and fired away for about an hour in an attempt to capture the movement of waves and gulls.
 

 

What catches your eye?

This axiomatic inquiry shows up routinely in landscape photography books and instructional videos. In my experience, it is an example of advice that is so simple, so self-evidently true that, it has, until recently, escaped close examination. Not unlike the phrases “follow your heart” or “you do you,” it is easily dismissed as a trite aphorism: forgettable at best, annoying at worst. Curious to see the impact of employing such a simple mantra, I decided to use it as a guide on my daily photographic wanderings on the Oregon Coast. A month later, these are my thoughts.

‘What catches your eye?’ has nothing to do with anybody else. The phrase bears no resemblance to the latest composition or processing trends on Instagram. It does not even acknowledge generally accepted composition “rules” and guidelines. The phrase has everything to do with you. Your vision. Your interests. Your sensibility. Your eye. If landscape photography is the art of capturing the interplay of form and light, then we are all students of observation, responding with our cameras to the elements that compel us. Our predilection for one scene over another is of critical importance. It is highly significant, that, when presented with the same scene, you compose your image one way and I another. Those differences, that shift in perspective, is everything. 

The Past

Over the years, I have fallen into the trap of mindlessly combing Instagram and Facebook for the latest and greatest landscape images. Two things happen, one consciously and one subconsciously, when I engage in the social media scroll. First, consciously, I become discouraged. I think, ‘wow, my images aren’t as powerful, impactful or interesting as these.’ The dangerous game of comparison takes hold and inspiration is lost. In the conscious examination of other’s work I tend towards the negative. Instead of celebrating the incredible image before me, I become sullen. Talk about an inspiration killer! Instead of looking at the images and getting pumped about my next photography outing, I contemplate posting all of my gear on eBay. This happens more often than I care to admit. 

Secondly, subconsciously, and I think this is far worse, the most popular style of photography enters into our way of seeing. The algorithm of social media platforms favors what is popular and, therefore, we, unwittingly, are exposed to a distillation of a trend in photography. For example, Instagram set off a wave of simply composed, faded images with muted color palettes. The minimalism, I believe, reflects the nature of the viewing medium: tiny screens require simple, quickly readable images. I suspect the treatment of tones and colors - faded and muted - it is a response to the trend of bold, saturated colors that dominated the 90s and early 2000s. Should we find ourselves spending too much time on the platform, that style, that way of seeing, seeps into our subconscious and influences the way we photograph. Undoubtedly, it has an attractiveness to it. Should we follow the path of what is trending, we may find moderate success amongst the crowd, but we risk losing our personal vision. After a bout of looking at Instagram or Facebook, I find myself looking for specific types of compositions in the field based on what have been viewing on those platforms. That influence is powerful! In allowing myself to be guided subconsciously by the trends, I lose out on the exploration - and joy! - of following my own artistic vision. 

Photography loses its power when we begin adapting and/or emulating other photographer’s points of view into our own. The power of the photograph wrests in each individual photographer’s take on a subject. I am not suggesting that traditional photographic rules - i.e. rule of thirds, use of lines, golden ratio - should be scorned and the viewing of other photographer’s work should be avoided. I think there can be great value in examining images and identifying characteristics that elevate images from ordinary to extraordinary. Rather, I am suggesting that those exercises should be excised in moderation. They - composition rules and looking at other’s work - are useful only insofar as they inspire us to connect more deeply with what catches our eye. 

My style, over the years, has evolved into ultra wide landscapes with exaggerated foregrounds and punchy colors. This came about as a result of initially being drawn to photography books that featured these types of images. It is a style of image has been around for decades, but especially boomed in the early 2000s as a result of digital photography processing techniques - focus stacking and dynamic range management - that allowed photographers to push the envelope on this exaggerated hyperrealism. Undoubtedly, I have been heavily influenced by what many photographers have already done. In spite of the tone of the blog, I am at peace with this. You have to start somewhere. Eventually, and hopefully sooner than later, one has to decide how to embrace their own personal vision and define their own style, contributing their unique perspective to the scene. In this way, I am a work in progress.

The Future

This is all fine to speak about theoretically, but how does it work in practice? For me, it has meant spending less time on social media. I don’t scroll Instagram and I occasionally glance at Facebook. I do spend time on YouTube watching a few choice landscape photographers. These channels (Expressive Photography; Thomas Heaton; Adam Gibbs) precipitate inspiration for me. They delve into the philosophical world of landscape photography. They get me excited to be out with my camera. They promote the philosophy of ‘what catches your eye?’

In the field, everything has changed. With ‘what catches your eye?’ in the fore of my mind, I walk slowly and observe. I leave my camera in my bag or around my neck. I just look. Obviously, looking is nothing new, but it is the quality of looking that has changed. Instead of looking for compositions out of the gate, I simply look for things that catch my eye: a rock with interesting color or texture, light catching a sea stack, patterns in the sand, notable waves, etc. Previously, I thought about the composition before I even knew what unique elements existed in the landscape. I thought about what the epic wide-angle shot would look like. I entered new landscapes with preconceived notions about how I would exaggerate a foreground element - rock, leaf, sand - with an expansive backdrop - sky, mountain, ocean. I may as well have stayed home and built the image in Photoshop! I did not leave space to be responsive to the surprising and interesting elements that makes every landscape unique.

Back to the ‘what catches your eye?’ walk: walking slowly and observing. I don’t think about photography. I think about what is interesting or special about the place. I walk with curiosity. Then, the moment something catches my eye - wow, the wave peaks are catching the morning light as gulls swoop to and fro! - I stop. The rule I’ve made for myself with this mantra is, when something catches my eye, no matter how seemingly simple, I try to photograph it. If it is a static situation - a pattern in the sand, driftwood, etc. - I set my camera bag down and walk around the subject. I look for the interplay of light and form. How does the light complement the form? When I feel like I have a general idea of what angle to photograph from, I pull out my camera and then - finally! - begin the process of composing the image. If it is a dynamic situation - fleeting light, waves, etc. - I skip the subject walk-around and jump straight to composing through the viewfinder. Guided by the subject and the subconscious application of composition techniques I arrange the elements of the image in a way that feels right. I try not to overthink the composition. I go with my gut. Undoubtedly, the broad rules of composition slip in - rule of thirds, balance, simplify, etc. - but ultimately they play a supporting role to the natural composition that the subject suggests. More on this in a future post.

This approach of ‘what catches your eye?’, while not only being a lot of fun, has been hugely rewarding photographically. I find myself enriched by the exercise of tuning into the beautiful minutiae of the landscape. For the first time in years, I am excited about a collection of images. My growing Oregon Coast catalog is filled with miniature landscapes, wildlife, dynamic light, abstracts, and, of course, classic wide-angle images. The catalog is filled with visual representations of my experience in those special places. The images represent what I saw and how I felt in the seeing. This paradigm has turned my previous methodology on its head. Instead of entering the landscape with compositions in mind, I enter with wide-eyed curiosity. I don’t care if the images are epic wide-angle shots. My concern lies in having been tuned into the unique beauty of a place. It is more important to me that the images are reflections of my experience than it is that they are any good. If they are good also, well, that’s a bonus. 

So, it all comes down to this: what catches YOUR eye? Well, this sentence, at the moment. Get out there! Look! See! Write! Photograph! Paint! Connect with the Earth!

Onwards and upwards,

Brian

 

P.S. The 'Oregon Coast' gallery will be up sometime in February. Stay tuned!

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2021/1/what-catches-your-eye Tue, 26 Jan 2021 21:07:18 GMT
The Halfway Point https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2021/1/the-halfway-point

 

In the last two months we have covered the northern half of the Oregon Coast. We just crossed the halfway point on our journey south.

One of our travel philosophies - and a photography principle for me - is to ‘leave no stone unturned’: to dig into everything. If our curiosity is piqued, we check it out. On the Oregon Coast our curiosity is piqued nearly ever mile. What’s more, the dynamic winter weather stirs the emotions and draws us in.

We’ve spent many nights being rocked to sleep in the van by the indefatigable westerly gales. We’ve spent half of our time - sometimes days on end - van bound during especially heavy rains, reading, writing, working on images and, of course, napping. Through trial by fire, we’ve mastered the art of managing condensation in the van during the Oregon Coast winter without a dry heater. And we’ve basked in the glory of the elusive sun when it reveals itself for any moment of time. It hasn’t always been easy, but, as my mom says, “nothing in this life that is worthwhile comes easily.”

Needless to say, this has been the most fruitful season of photography in my life. I’ve stopped posting images of the Oregon Coast as I’ve embraced a new pace/style of production. Instead of posting images as they occur, usually the same day, I’m now sitting on them. I process an image, give it a day, check it out and re-examine what it is and how it can be most visually impactful. Then, a week later, I look at it again. I then continue to build a rough draft gallery of images of the Oregon Coast that I can assess for coherence i.e. color palette, subject matter, visual dynamism and luminance.

I’ve never been more excited about photography and prouder of a set of images. It’s been amazing to slow down and reconnect with photography. There’s no rush. My primary interest is in generating a body of work that I am proud of and reflects my personal vision. This is something I’ve always wanted, but it took until now to learn how to live it. I’ve begun embracing the art of going all in - where I used to be tentative - on anything that catches my eye and/or elicits curiosity (more on this in a forthcoming blog lost).

Practically speaking, what this means, is that day-to-day, I will be posting live videos of shoots, as I am able, and sharing blog posts about the journey. I’ll also be digging back into my MT winter archives and sharing images of my favorite season in MT.

When all of the Oregon Coast images are ready, I’ll create a gallery on my website and share it with you all.

A big thanks to all of you for sticking with me and following along as I continue to refine my process. It’s been a rollercoaster, I know. I was deeply worried that when we left MT on this extended trip that you all would leave me! And, I wouldn’t have faulted you for that.

Be well, remain grateful.

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2021/1/the-halfway-point Sun, 10 Jan 2021 20:21:36 GMT
I have something to say https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2020/12/i-have-something-to-say

 

Linds: Have you written a new blog post recently?

Me: No, I haven’t.

Linds: Why not?

Me: Because I have nothing to say.

 

This has been a regular refrain of mine for years. It is a phrase borne out of a fear of wasting people’s time with, what I perceive to be, inconsequential emotional drivel. Many of my days are passed stuck in my head, worrying about whatever my grubby little brain can exploit for emotional drama: the weather, the integrity of the van, the pandemic and, most pervasively, my health. That last worry is a dominating force. Since the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in my early 20s, I have become hyper tuned and overly worried about every ache and pain in my body. Sometimes, the pain is real and mildly debilitating. Other times, the pain resides in the realm of the imagined, or, at the very least, heightened by my fixation on it. All this to say, I am a professional worrier. It is probably the thing that I am best at. 

Back to this: the feeling of having nothing to say often results in long lapses of communication with friends, family and, well, this blog. The phrase “I have nothing to say” has, over the years, evolved into a throwaway comment that precludes me from having to say anything, whatever it may be. I operated on the assumption that only big outdoor experiences and notable events were worth sharing. This time, after delivering my habitual response of ‘having nothing to say’ to Linds, I paused to evaluate what it meant.

This pursuit of self-reflection is a recent development which arose out of another fear: of wasting my own time. It struck me a couple of weeks ago while traveling along the Oregon Coast. It was a rare clear mid-December night on the coast and we were parked for the night a mere minute walk from a beach. Having spent the last couple of days photographing a large sea stack in the area, I had a suspicion that the Milky Way may be spanning the sky behind that sea stack. I grabbed my camera kit and headed for the beach. Upon cresting the berm above the beach, I clicked off my headlamp, allowed my eyes to adjust and was greeted to a gorgeous display of space rising out of the ocean. Individually, these two entities exist within the realm of the unfathomable. Taken together, the curvature of the Earth visible, flowing into the infinitive expanse of space, the scene verges on comprehensible. Our planet, on the ocean’s edge, takes shape and looks at home in the context of the greater cosmos.

I set up a shot and began taking two minute exposures to capture the detail in the foreground grass, beach, ocean and sea stack. I opted to let the movement of the cosmos remain expressed with slight star trails (as opposed to blending in a shorter pinpoint star exposure). During those two minute intervals, I watched the sky as meteors exited the cosmos for a closer look at our planet, burning up upon further inspection (they weren’t keen on 2020). Winter’s waves lashed the shores, providing a soundtrack of deep earth-moving bass. The whole scene was extraordinary. This was my first month photographing the ocean and my first time stargazing over the ocean. In that moment, it struck me: how lucky am I! I am traveling in a camper van, seeking dynamic landscapes, with my best friend for an indefinite period of time. Wow. Countless people had told me that I was ‘living the dream’, but this was the first time that I really felt it. It had taken me nearly five months of life on the road to deeply feel that something special was happening. This wasn’t just another vacation or hapless romp around the country, this was something more. 

In that moment of ecstasy on the edge of space, dread sank in. It occurred to me that, at this rate of nonstop, unchecked worrying I was engaging in, I was liable to come out of the other end of this multi-year trip unchanged. That scared the hell out of me. The idea of squandering this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was loathsome. By allowing my worries and fears to persist unexamined, I had been allowing them to control me: as I always have. At that moment, I realized that I had a choice. I could choose to proceed without examining and addressing the sources of my anxiety and return home unchanged or, I could dig into those sources of anxiety and seek personal growth. My answer arrived as quickly as the question from which it was derived. I had to choose growth. Living in fear, as skilled as I am at it, was no longer an option. A feeling of peace set in. The choice to seek personal growth, that is, to take control, was immediately binding. All that remained, and critically so, was the ‘how’.

Over the next few days following that “berm-top” experience, I took time to break down individual worries and make action plans for them. Plans were developed for how to proceed with rheumatoid arthritis pain, address a nagging infection, treat a lingering knee issue, etc. I dug into the worries that often paralyze me. It’s not that I am averse to vulnerability or sharing personal things, it’s that I think my personal stuff is highly uninteresting. What’s more, I have always avoided burdening people with my own emotional drama. What I realized through all of this was that I have the choice to share that emotional drama or share nothing at all. What I really meant when I said “I have nothing to say” is “what I have to say I don’t believe to be worth sharing.” I had unwittingly assigned a value judgment to my feelings and, in doing so, allowed them to persist unexamined. 

The convergence of all of this - feeling I have nothing to say and worrying about everything - comes down to grounding myself in appropriately processing my worries and fears. It is about not allowing those worries and fears to control me as they have, but rather to address them head on, determine what I have control over, dispense with what is out of my control and make a plan for what is within my control. Ultimately this exploration into “having nothing to say” has allowed me to realize that I do have something to say. It may not always be cheery, but it will always be honest. I refuse to proceed on this trip held hostage by my worries and fears. I choose to build habits that promote growth, not stagnation.

There, I said something.

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2020/12/i-have-something-to-say Sun, 27 Dec 2020 00:07:53 GMT
Learning to See Again https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2020/10/learning-to-see-again Edge of the Crown | Sue Lake, Glacier National Park

 

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

- Dorthea Lange

Crash!

I tentatively turn my body in the direction of the sound already aware of its cause. There, a few feet away in the rocks, lay one of my cameras, its lens akimbo. The camera had been capturing a time-lapse of the sunrise. The raging wind had picked up the tripod to which the camera was affixed and lifted the entire enterprise a few feet off of its rocky perch before depositing it on the edge of the cliff on which I stood. Instantly, I sprung into action, grabbing the tripod before it could complete the 500 foot drop. I gently set it all on its side for the moment (away from the cliff) and, with a smile on face, turn back towards the splendor which all my cameras, eyes and heart were fixed. 

Standing on the saddle between Cathedral and Kipp Peaks in the heart of Glacier National Park’s backcountry, overlooking Sue Lake and dozens of sharp peaks, as the still hidden morning sun gave light to the upper atmospheric clouds, was nothing short of transcendent (hyperbole withheld). The moment marked a several week’s long journey of learning to see again. That is, learning to really look at the landscape and see order, meaning, harmony, disharmony, connections, terror and beauty, in all of its forms. 

I have two modes: stop and go. Go is my primary way of being. When I am stopped, I am sleeping. When not sleeping, I am moving. I generally walk quickly and for long durations without a pause. I can’t be bothered to stop, not even for a spectacular vista. I’ve carried my body 30, 40 and 50 miles without so much as a rest step. Through my mid 20s, I assumed that that was the ONLY way for me to be. That is, until I picked up landscape photography.

Landscape photography demands the participant to stop. To look. To really look. A glance won’t do. The art of landscape photography lies in the photographer’s pursuit of making sense of the myriad elements presented within the landscape and to organize those elements - choosing which to include/exclude and how they are arranged - into a single still frame that is capable of communicating the spirit of a place.  I love that challenge, and, what’s more, I love what it does in the way of seeing more generally. Certainly it is very rewarding to return from the field with a strong image, but more rewarding still, is to have tuned into the essence of place. To have seen, really seen, the place. The resulting image serves as a memory spark, taking you back to that place and time when you were fully tuned into the moment. It’s great if the image is strong, but even better that it is at all. It’s mere existence represents a moment in time when you were engaged with the spirit of place. 

For example, in the above image, I was presented with a spectacular panoramic scene with the promise of a dynamic sunrise. Camera in hand, I was forced to consider how to translate that scene into a single still image. I considered how my eye would move around the frame, what elements might be present around the edges to create a natural frame around the lake, using the cirque itself to round out the bottom half of the frame. I experimented with moving closer or further away from the cliff edge, ultimately opting to leave part of the cliff edge on the bottom of the frame to anchor the image. The mountains on the left and right of the frame provided obvious bookends to shot. After determining the composition, I proceeded to shoot that some composition for 30 minutes as the sunrise progressed. Minute-by-minute, the mood of the scene was changing with the coming of daylight. I knew that I didn’t know which moment would be ‘the moment’ until the sun had risen to a degree where the light was no longer compelling. 

Those 30 minutes of photography were strictly a warm-up. When it was clear that the most dynamic light had passed, I set down my camera - out of the wind this time - and looked. Breathed. Smiled. Felt. That warm-up looking through the viewfinder of my camera provided insight into the layout of the basin: where the peaks were in exact relation to the lake, where and how the cliffside plummeted its 500 feet, how the light variously streamed - first orange, then yellow - through the hanging valleys in the center of the scene, how the mist skimmed only the summits of the peaks 8500 feet or higher before evaporating into oblivion. I took it all in, without my camera, feeling I had gained entry into a deeper knowledge. I understood the complex beauty of that mountain cirque and its relationship to the autumnal sun infinitely better than I would have without the process of landscape photography. What’s more, I now had a fixed still frame on a memory card - a fitting name for that piece of technology - that could be revisited in perpetuity to reinvigorate the feeling of that morning. Because the actual experience of being there was better than whatever the resulting image may be. 

You see, I have been learning to see, again. I had taken something like a 5-month hiatus from photography - with a few exceptions - through the spring and summer as we completed building out our van and adjusted to our new, nomadic way of life. That is to say, I have been in ‘go’ mode. I had zero creative brain space to spare (my bandwidth, at the best of times, to embrace creativity, is limited). It was go, go go. Over the past several weeks, feeling settled and comfortable, I have begun to happily reengage with landscape photography. It is, at the moment, my sole tool for going slow. I love it. When I starting actively shooting again two weeks ago, it was awkward. I was out of practice. I hadn’t looked closely at the landscape for quite some time. It took me two days of shooting the same subject - a waterfall - to tune into finding compositions. I had to retrain myself on what it meant to slow down and enter into deep observation of landscape: the interplay of light and form. 

Whatever the actual merits of an image matters less than the profundity of the experience. In the end, I am grateful to have landscape photography as a tool for going slow, observing and, ultimately, gaining appreciation for this stunning world that we inhabit. I am grateful to be learning to see again.

Check out the short video about this trip!

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2020/10/learning-to-see-again Sun, 18 Oct 2020 20:11:45 GMT
The Beginning https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2020/9/the-beginning

First Light on the Tetons | We were greeted to this fabulous panorama after several days of the valley being socked in. Behind our campsite, a hill rose up opposite the Tetons, affording a wonderful opportunity to get above the fog for first light. 


 

“Oh no.”

My first words of the day. 

Five seconds of wakefulness had led me the two feet from our bed to our toilet only to discover that the urine jug was overfull. Unbeknownst to us, sometime during night usage, the gallon jug had reached critical mass and released the excess contents into the larger plastic box that contained our solids container. The contents of the jug, urine, had found a weakness in our system (the plastic box), seeping into the wood box that formed the structure of the toilet.

“Bah!”

This discovery, of course, came only as a result of needing to use the toilet. Desperately. Under normal circumstances, the great outdoors would more the sufficient. But, on this morning, we were parked in a friend’s driveway in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Billings. Our friends already departed for work, house locked. The order operations was tricky. I needed to go desperately, but we couldn’t drive the van until the spill was contained and cleaned. Frantically, Linds and I disassembled part of the toilet, cleaned the spill, treated the wood, reassembled the toilet, put several fans on it to dry and sped off to the nearest grocery store to take care of business.

________________________________________________________________

In early March, we watched as a big black box on wheels parked in front of our house. My friend Dave was selling us his work van. It was hard to imagine, as we stepped inside the vacant black cavity that, in three months’ time, our apartment lease would be up and we would be moving into this space. Standing inside, 60 square feet was even smaller than I had imagined. What’s more, Linds and I possessed zero practical woodworking (not to mention insulation, plumbing and electrical) knowledge or skills, much less the tools required to convert this cargo van into a tiny home. But, we were nothing if not determined. We reasoned that between YouTube tutorials and loaning tools/garage space from friends that we might have a fighting chance at seeing the project through.

Linds and I had converted the money that we had saved for a down payment on a house into purchasing the van, building it into a tiny home and living on the road for 18+ months. The financial risk was not lost on us. We would be giving up the seeming comforts that full-time salaries - meager, but consistent - had provided us for over a decade. But, once we committed to the path of purchasing the van, the risk of NOT taking this travel sabbatical seemed much more severe. We were loathe to wait until we were 70+ years of age to experience the freedom of retirement. Time vs. money. All signs pointed to seizing the moment and making thoughtful financial decisions as to how we could live rent/mortgage free and travel without working for an extended period. We wanted time. 

We worked tirelessly on the conversion. On top of our full-time jobs, we spent 30-40 hours a week working on the van for the first couple of months. By mid-May it became clear that we were not going to be finished the van by our mid-June move out date. We requested - and were granted - an extension until July 31st. Final answer. A tenant was lined up to move in on August 1. Ready or not, we would be moving into our van on July 31st. As our jobs in the school district began to wane in early June we ratcheted up our van work schedule to 50-60 hours a week. We ate poorly, slept little and inhaled way too much sawdust. Weary, and nearly broken, we “finished” the van on July 29th. The joy of the moment was quickly overshadowed by the reality of our unkempt apartment which needed to be purged, packed, cleaned and vacated in two days time. We had used the space for little more than sleeping during the final month of the build, neglecting all of the particulars of keeping a tidy house. It was a mess.

Miraculously, in the final 48 hours of our apartment life, we culled and organized everything we owned into what could fit in the van and a small shelving unit that would remain with a friend in Missoula. We did it. That is, we had done all of the prep work to arrive at the point of starting what we had been dreaming of for several years. The moment arrived with little fanfare. When I imagined this moment, exchanging the keys of a house for the keys to a camper van, it was filled with joy, excitement, anticipation and freedom. I had imagined blasting music in the van as we hit the open road, windows down, hands setting sail in the wind as we felt our ways into a new dimension of living. Instead, in reality, all I felt was weariness. We had created a lovely, practical and comfortable tiny home that would provide us a sense of freedom heretofore unknown. We had set ourselves up to live the dream! And yet, all I wanted to do was sleep.

A tangent: one of the more difficult realities of life that I have come to understand is that the more ambitious the dream, the harder the work involved to get there. No surprise there. But when, after months or years of toil, you arrive at the place you have always dreamed of, it no longer possesses the quality of a dream. In the end, the dream, when realized, is simply a more thoughtful version of regular life. It’s hard work. It’s gritty. Sometimes it’s messy, often it’s exhausting. When you dream, you are effectively establishing two points: where you are now and where you want to be. The myriad steps between those two points are yet unknown. To most successfully realize the dream it seems that you have to be fully present within those myriad steps to see through their thoughtful completion. Cumulatively, those steps contribute to the overall fulfillment of the dream. The forest for the trees. 

I am a terrible dreamer. I want it all now and have a difficult time mapping and managing the steps necessary to realize that dream. The process does not come naturally to me. Countless times during the build out process, I would turn to Linds and ask, “this is going to be worth it, right?” She always said “yes” and I believed her.

It took us another week to tie up all of our loose ends - insurance, mail, packing and repacking the van, completing the sales of our other cars, oil change/alignment, etc. - in Missoula. Finally, on August 7th, business done, Linds and I bade farewell to our beloved city. Wearily contented we began. 

________________________________________________________________

On my way out of the grocery store in Billings, I grabbed a couple of donuts - my go-to comfort food - and a coffee and returned to the van. Linds and I smiled at each other. Our toilet crisis that morning had taken us no more than 30 minutes to resolve. A nuisance, but a small one. What’s more, it was another valuable lesson gained as we adjust to living full-time in our van. We headed over to ZooMontana, as planned, where Linds’ uncle and aunt had been waiting for us. The curators of the arboretum at the Zoo, Scott and Nancy had offered us a tour of the grounds. We passed the remainder of that beautiful summer day wandering around the Zoo, chatting extensively about the flora and fauna within its bounds. Under normal circumstances - i.e. working full-time jobs with limited vacation time - such a visit would have likely never happened. Not because it wasn’t worthwhile, but because we simply wouldn’t have had the time. Now, we had made the time. We had taken all of the time in front of us and committed it, for this travel sabbatical, to slowing down and engaging in meaningful acts. We will never be the same.

Not a day goes by that I don’t feel gratitude for our new way of life. To be in good health, have amazing family and friends, and the freedom to roam where we please, as we please, is the greatest gift I can imagine. We, for once, have time. After a month and a half, I am beginning to feel creative energy stirring (hence this post). I am beginning to feel like I have finally recovered from the 6 months of poor diet, limited exercise and stress as we built out the van. The last month and a half have been rich beyond belief. Filled with family, friends, Wilderness, reading, naps, coffee drinking, road tripping, backpacking, hiking, paddling, fishing, running and a wee bit of photography, life on the road has been, in spite of a few hiccups, fulfilling to the max. We’ve bathed ourselves in Wilderness Areas in Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana over the past month.

Now, sitting here, settled into the dream we had schemed so many year ago, photography has regained its allure. I’ve got fall photography on the mind. I will be taking trips into the subalpine in the next couple of weeks and then focusing on valley larch/aspen in October around Western Montana. I can’t wait! The output will include images (of course), regular blog posts (starting now) and a vlog (starting next week). Additionally, I am pumped to finally begin work on my photography book, “Western Montana.” Time: we have it now. Now, it is my charge to use it effectively.

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2020/9/the-beginning Wed, 16 Sep 2020 19:05:21 GMT
Saving the Great Burn https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2020/4/savingthegreatburn The Great Burn through the Seasons

"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." - Howard Zahniser

 

As a rule, I do my best to steer clear of potentially controversial issues on this page. The goal has always been to make it about the act of photography and simply sharing images from around Western Montana. That’s it. Photography is a simple act of visual communication that suits me well. It encourages me to get outside, wander and share. It has equipped me a sense of purpose. What’s more, I am in love with the process of composing an image, determining exposure, calculating focus and, finally, firing the shutter. It is such a lovely cycle of small decisions that carry a bit impact on the ultimate outcome.

However, every once and awhile, a little alarm bell goes off inside my head that indicates, “pay attention.” I sit up a little straighter, focus my attention with greater resolve and scheme what actions I can take to serve the greater good. This is one of those moments. This is about protecting the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness. 

The Great Burn holds a special place in my heart. Named for the Big Burn of 1910 and comprised of 275,000 roadless acres straddling the Montana/Idaho border between Highway 12 (south) and I-90 (north), the Great Burn is as wild as they come. The space contains 33 subalpine lakes, 40 free-flowing streams, old-growth forests, sweeping mountain ridges and loads and loads of wildlife. Black bear, lynx, wolverines, mountain goats, wolves, elk, moose, otters and even the occasional wandering grizzly call this place home.

The Great Burn has been living in ‘Wilderness purgatory’ for over 40 years: ‘Recommended’, but not ‘Designated.’ The vagaries, namely gridlock, of politics have prevented the Great Burn from receiving full Wilderness designation. Fortunately, while awaiting its ultimate fate, the Great Burn has largely been managed by the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest (Idaho) and Lolo National Forest (Montana) as a Wilderness Area: non-mechanized travel only. Unfortunately, all that could change. 

As a part of the current forest planning process, the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest is considering opening up sections of the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness to snowmobiling. This doesn’t concern me from a user conflict perspective: I witnessed no other signs of skiing and know of very few people that make an effort to do so in the Great Burn. Rather, it concerns me from a wildlife perspective. The Great Burn Recommended Wilderness is home to many sensitive species that, under the best conditions, struggle to eke out a living during the winter months. Wolverines and lynx, two threatened species, continue to struggle in the face of a changing climate. The native mountain goat population in the Great Burn is in decline. The added stress of loud machines moving through the subalpine is not insignificant. My Great Burn travels last winter demonstrated that todays snow bikes are incredibly nimble and capable. Places where snowmobiles hesitate to go are easily accessed by snow bikes, further reducing zones where animals can seek winter shelter. Studies have shown that snowmobile use in critical habitats negatively impacts wildlife by straining animals that are already resource deficient.

I have nothing against snowmobiling. In fact, I used one to legally access trailheads in the Great Burn via Forest Service roads. In addition to being great tools for winter travel, I recognize how fun they can be. This is not an anti-snowmobiling letter. I am not advocating to take anything away from currently legal snowmobiling terrain. Rather, I am advocating for retaining the primitive status of the roadless Great Burn Recommended Wilderness. There are so few of these unprotected pristine roadless habitats remaining. It is difficult to imagine regretting the decision to protect the Great Burn in 100 years. A protected Great Burn will ensure that future generations of hunters, anglers, hikers, skiers and backpackers will be able to enjoy the rich experience of recreating in an intact ecosystem. 

We have the opportunity to add our voice to the forest planning process as forest managers collect information from the public. The outcome of this forest planning process will inform the next 20 to 30 years of recreation in the Great Burn. The future of the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness is in our hands. This is our opportunity to make prudent decisions about where and how recreation takes place on our public lands. 

PLEASE consider sharing your thoughts with the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest team via public comment (see below). The process only take a few minutes and carries enormous weight: the National Forest Service reads this stuff. COMMENTS ARE DUE BY APRIL 20TH!

 

A few talking points to share, should you want a prompt to get started:

  • The Forest Service should continue to protect the entire 151,874-acre Hoodoo Roadless Area (Great Burn) as Recommended Wilderness in the revised forest plan.
  • The Forest Service should not allow snowmobile use in any Recommended Wilderness areas. This use is not compatible with protecting wilderness characteristics or potential for designation within the National Wilderness Preservation System.
  • Any part of this blog!

CLICK HERE TO ADD YOUR COMMENT

 

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2020/4/savingthegreatburn Sat, 11 Apr 2020 20:35:58 GMT
Pain and Encouragement https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2020/3/pain-and-encouragement Canada Lynx | Glacier National ParkCanada Lynx | Glacier National ParkI spent four days searching for lynx and landscapes with wildlife photographer Cory DeStein on the edge of Glacier National Park in early February. Although the weather did not cooperate for strong landscape photographing, we found lynx! We spent ~20 unforgettable minutes with a little family of the felines.

 

I have done a poor job of maintaining a rhythm with writing in the New Year. I have come to realize this is not because I don’t have anything to say, but rather that what I have to say isn’t terribly cheerful or photographically rich. Personally, I tend to avoid reading sad stuff and, I suspect, most people do too. Why would I produce something that I wouldn’t want to read myself? Well, I have come to learn, for catharsis and connection. Expressing the good, bad and, especially, the ugly serves as a release valve. It is an opportunity to scream and, instead of screaming into a pillow, share a scream with a group of people carrying similar burdens. Commiseration: good stuff.

Pain 

To the point: the truth is, 2020 has been a painful one. In the early summer of 2019, I had to suspend my immunosuppressant medications after an an attack of a pernicious infection. Bummer. I spent the remainder of 2019 off of my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) meds battling the infection. As 2019 wound down, my RA symptoms amped up. In addition to the routine joint point that is part and parcel with RA, my energy waned, my sleep suffered and my mental health took a nose dive. Again, bummer deal. 

I’ve been playing this RA game for 10 years. None of this is new. There have been awful times - can’t dress myself, have difficulty walking and lay in bed all day - and there have been delightful times (when none of those three things were true). I feel incredibly fortunate to have a naturally optimistic disposition. 95% of the time I am able to charge through the symptoms and have a go at a normal life. The other 5%? I wake up and say - excuse the language - “this fucking sucks.” I go to therapy for that part. 

RA makes landscape photography difficult. When it’s bad, I can’t hold me camera. What’s more, it is difficult to walk/hike/climb/skin/run/crawl to the locations I want to shoot. Thankfully, most of the time, the symptoms are somewhere in the middle: it is uncomfortable to hold my camera, but not impossible. Ultimately, 95% of the time, I am grateful that I can move at all. But, 5% of the time, it fucking sucks.

Needless to say, 2020 has not been a banner year. I have produced very few images and even less writing. More days than I care to admit have been spent in bed. Although I had been planning my biggest exhibit yet, along with a book release, I was on the cusp of calling it all off. In fact, earlier this week, I had drafted an email to cancel the venue I had booked. I was in pain and feeling uninspired.

Encouragement

A month ago, a couple - previous print clients - from Memphis contacted me. They were going to be in Missoula in early March and wanted to meet up. Tickled by the request, I acquiesced. I love meeting folks and nerding out about shared love for landscapes. I also love hearing folks’ stories, where they’re from and what their values are.

We met up for some brews at the Kettlehouse. The meeting was delightful. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about their connection to the Rocky Mountain West and Missoula. We shared a deep love for the landscape. Throughout the evening, they referenced images of mine and previous blogposts. This was shockingly strange to me. First off, people are looking? Secondly, they care!? They were complimentary and kind. Again, it was a delightful meeting. I felt honored that they had gone out of their way to connect with me. It was deeply meaningful and encouraging. 

The meeting reminded me that, although I am in a creative drought at the moment, that photography has opened up so many doors for me to meet people and share my experiences in Western Montana with a broad audience. I was reminded that, in spite of my own thoughts about my images (I think they aren’t great), folks all over the country have invested their hard earned cash to purchase prints. There must be something there. There is encouragement in that. And, as it goes with encouragement, a little is enough. It was just enough encouragement to take another positive step. That’s it. That’s all I needed. 

What’s Next

That meeting was just the push I needed to take the next step towards pulling off an exhibit that I have been scheming for over a year. I am five years into this photographic journey and I have dreamed of assembling a book and exhibit to highlight my favorite images of Western Montana. It is going to happen!

 

Here’s the basic scoop (much more to come in the next few weeks):

Exhibit Opening and Book Release

Friday, April 3rd | 5-8PM

The Public House, Missoula

 

The Exhibit: the exhibit will feature 12-15 large format (4’x5’)  framed canvas prints of my favorite images. Small prints will be available for purchase as will a limited number of copies of the book. 

The Book: the large, hardcover coffee-table book will feature ~40 images of Western Montana. I will be doing a preorder in a week or so. 

Closing Thought

I am taking the encouragement from my new Memphis friends and converting it to gratitude. It was just the fuel I needed to take another positive step. I have discovered that my life, in spite of some setbacks, is nothing more than a series of single positive steps. Some of those steps came easily, while many were the result of encouragement from others. My encouragement for you, dear reader, is to take a single positive step in the direction of your dreams. If you are an artist, scheme a show. If you are contemplating a job change, download the application. If you have a romantic interest, draft a fun/flirty message. If you are considering a move across the country, fill your gas tank (you know, just in case). 

Onwards and upwards,

Brian

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2020/3/pain-and-encouragement Sat, 07 Mar 2020 23:35:56 GMT
Photography as Anti-depressant: The Anatomy of a Storm https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2020/1/photography-as-anti-depressant-the-anatomy-of-a-storm Brennan's Wave IceBrennan's Wave IceThis was shot through a crack in the river ice along the Clark Fork River. Check out the section 'Blue Bird Day' below for more information on the shot!

 

Depression sucks. Put another way, depression is stupid. 

Depression is on my mind because, as of late, depression has been in/on/around my mind. The last month and a half - since my last posting - has been largely defined by the presence of depression. Now, before you feel pity for me, remember that I (like you) am a human replete with my share of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual strengths and deficits. Some people suffer more, some less, but all suffer. I am in what I consider to be a privileged position of having a general sense of control over my mental health and have developed the requisite emotional/mental/social supports in place to withstand the storms. Since a mental health diagnosis in my late teens, I have been building my toolkit and skills in order to be better prepared for those storms. Therapy, anti-depressants, regular outdoor exercise and social engagements form the base of my toolkit, but every now and again, for reasons known and unknown, things slip and the storm overtakes. And so you weather it. That’s what you do.

Now, here we are: 2020. I feel deeply uninspired to delve into photographic goals for the New Year. Rather, it seems worthwhile to explore something more substantive and urgent. Thus, I’d like to examine the role of photography as a healing tool. Any creative act could be swapped out for photography and I suspect similar results would be achieved, but because this is a photography blog this will be through lens of photography as a tool. This is the anatomy of a depressive episode and creative recovery. 

Before the Storm | Early-to-Mid November 

Following the excitement of fall photography and birthday celebrations (mine and many of my friends) at the end of October, I found myself relieved by the newfound sense of free time. The first few days of November passed with relative joy as I basked in the sense of accomplishment from a successful fall and relished unscheduled moments in the day. I continued to go out on shoots, but found myself less and less inspired by the scenery. This has become a cyclical challenge for me in the shoulder seasons: finding photographic inspiration in the landscape. “It’s all good,” I told myself. Time for a break. Simultaneously, in the beginning of November, I found myself more and more exhausted after work. The first few days, I fought against the urge to go home and nap, instead opting for a hike (something I never regret). As the days passed, the urge to nap became stronger and my willpower weaker. Finally, after a week of resisting the urge, I succumbed. I napped. I napped deeply. This, of course, made it difficult to sleep that evening, resulting in an even stronger urge to nap the following afternoon: the sleep disturbance cycle begins…

The Storm | Mid-November to Late-December 

Interest in photography, mountain travel and yo-yoing all but disappeared. My daily routine shifted from a balanced day of activity to sleeping through my alarm, often missing breakfast and other meals, going to work, digging deep for motivation at work, napping deeply for several hours after work, passively watching 3-5 hours of TV until I fell asleep again and then finally, my actual bed and another fitful night’s rest. Repeat. I ate very little and drank way too much coffee. Invitations for hikes, ultra-hikes, photography and backcountry skiing came and went: most days I had little-to-no interest in getting off the couch for such activities. 

In periods like these I tend to feel a deep numbness. I lack motivation and interest in activities that typically make me come alive. I become very quiet and withdrawn socially. It is an odd place to find oneself. Things that, a few days or a week ago, would produce great joy elicit nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders. Pep talks from close friends and loved ones often produce the opposite desired effect. Instead of perking up, I turn inwards and further shut down. “Leave my alone, I just need space and time!”, tends to be my inner dialogue during those conversations. My poor wife, Linds! She has to live with this garbage, the negative energy in the household. Fortunately, she is an incredibly patient person and, after living together for 7 years, has come to intimately know this side of me and responds with a perfect balance of compassion and proximal empathy. 

Thanksgiving passed joylessly. So too did the beginning of December. My thoughts grew darker: “I am never going to feel joy again?”; “My photography days are over.”; “I will never create anything again!”; “How was I ever a photographer?”. Highly negative self-talk pervaded the moments. There is no history or future, just a painfully numb now. Photography, a creative act, held no interest. It was hard to imagine how it ever interested me. This is the peak of the storm. In these times, the Persian adage, “this too shall pass,” undergirds my days. Seventeen years of experience with depression has taught me that I always come through the other side. Thankfully, suicidality - save for my late teens - is not a feature of these depressive states. Just like a real storm, my strategy is to hunker down and ride it out. 

It wasn’t all gloom. I was able to force myself up Mount Sentinel a few times in this period. Those outings provided a brief respite from the storm. Additionally, the Christmas concerts at the elementary school that I work at produced glimpses of joy fueled by deeply lodged nostalgia. These brief lulls in the storm, while hinting at joy, operated in the context of reminding me that I, in fact, was in a storm. 

The Storm Recedes | Late-December to Early-January

I came down with influenza B while Linds and I were enjoying a post-Christmas getaway in Whitefish. In a strange way, the advent of the flu served as a welcome reprieve from the mentally exhaustive process of depression. Finally, a socially acceptable excuse to mindlessly watch Netflix for 6-10 hours a day! We returned home on December 30th. New Year’s Eve included a visit to Now Care, where the flu diagnosis was confirmed and a treatment regimen provided. New Years Eve and New Year’s Day passed without fanfare. Lying on the couch, joy did not come when the clock struck 12:00AM, January 1st, 2020. Passing into the New Year did little more than remind me of the time I felt that I had wasted in this depressive state. 

The funny thing about depression is that just as sneakily - and inexplicably! - as it creeps in, it can recede. A hint of blue sky!

On January 2nd, after three days on the couch, I forced myself to go outside. What a delight! The fresh air cycled through my lungs breathing new life into the new year. The storm was clearing. Although my energy remained subdued, things felt different. There was a tinge of hope in the air. Hope, it strikes me, is the antithesis of depression. And with hope, a little is enough. I took a short walk around the block, relishing in the beauty of the fresh snow on the trees. I thought about how nice it would be to take my camera for a walk. I thought about how wonderful it would be to create something new. The thought of making a photograph, for the first time in a month and half, excited me. 

The next day, I took my camera for a walk. I didn’t yet feel connected enough to any scenes to even take my camera out, but it was a good exercise is positioning myself to be ready for a shot. Landscape photography, after all, is an exercise of being in the right place at the right time. The right place typically falls to good planning and preparation: knowing what subjects and scenes exist where and their relationship to light. The right time falls more to chance. Sure you can set yourself up for sunrise and sunset, but how the light breaks relies on the vagaries of atmospheric conditions. The only way to make ensure that you are there at the right time, is, well, to be there as often as possible. The only certainty is that you will not be successful if you stay at home. 

I repeated this cycle the next two days: pack my camera bag, set a walkable destination in mind and go for a walk with my camera. 

Blue Bird Day | January 5th

On January 5th, something special happened. A breakthrough. Eager to investigate the interesting textures of the river ice, I walked down to Brennan’s Wave, my favorite river photography location in Missoula. The clouds were setting up for what looked to be a dynamic sunset. I scouted a section of ice fissures near the wave for about 45-minutes, looking for interesting south-southeast facing compositions. My vision for the shot was to find a deep crack in the ice that could frame either the Old Milwaukee Building or Higgins Avenue bridge. Nothing clicked. I begin to consider checking out another section of river closer to California Street, but was concerned that I didn’t have enough time. Instead, I scoped out a section of ice a couple hundred feet downriver of Brennan’s Wave. After a few minutes at the new location, I found a large fissure that ran perpendicular to the river all the way to its edge. It appeared to be exactly in line with the Old Milwaukee Building. I got down on my stomach, laid my camera on the snow and looked through the viewfinder. Voila! An image! 

A special thing happens when I go from scouting for compositions to finding a composition that excites me. In an instant I switch from a feeling of uncertainty to total enthusiasm. When the rudiments of the composition are present - lines, color/tonal contrasts, foreground, middle-ground, background, framing, triangles, etc. - an autopilot takes over. Time falls away and flow settles in. Instinctually, I frame up the shot, take a test shot, examine, recompose, shoot, examine, recompose. 

For the first time in a month and a half, time fell away. I was outside of myself. It was the opposite of depression, it was living freely, outside of my head. I started with a broad stroke composition decision: portrait or landscape orientation. Because of the interesting ice formations on the right side of the frame and the way the lines worked towards the opening in the ice, landscape was the logical choice. Next, micro-adjustments to the composition. I worked to find the right balance of sky and ice. The ice possessed so many interesting lines and patterns that it made sense to anchor the lower 2/3s of the image with the ice formations, leaving a window for the building and then just enough room for the sky to breath. Because the camera physically needed be on the ice, I carved out a little spot for the camera to rest securely. The composition determined, I moved on to technical considerations. I knew that I wanted to capture cloud movement: a long exposure would be needed. I opted to use a 6-stop neutral density filter (a dark piece of glass) to allow for a long exposure. On the aperture side of things, maximizing depth of field was a critical part of this image. The closest park of the composition - the ice - that needed to be sharp was a mere 4 inches away and the Old Milwaukee Building, a hundred yards. I considered focus stacking, but instead decided to see if I could make f/22 work utilizing the hyperfocal distance. After some experimenting, I found the sweet spot. Everything that needed to be sharp was. Ultimately, I landed on 20-30 seconds at f/22 with an ISO of 50.

This is my happy place: a composition and exposure locked in with ample time for the light to transform. Lying there in the prone position, snow melting into my clothes, I was smiling. I was thoroughly enjoying myself. With the 2-second timer, I fired off a shot every 10-30 seconds as the light changed. Although the sunset did not transpire in a dramatic fashion, the cool soft blues of the clouds ultimately added the cold winter element that seemed to help with the shot. I proceeded to shoot in this fashion for about 45-minutes. Eventually, it became clear that there was no longer enough light to adequately balance the deep shadows of the ice fissure. The moment was over, but the joy of making an image had just begun. 

Walking home from the shoot, I felt lighter. The heaviness of the depression was lifting. For the first time since early November I felt hopeful about the future. Blue sky abounded: the storm was ending. 

After the Storm | Mid-January

To be clear, I don’t believe this photoshoot was the sole cause of moving beyond this depressive episode. As I mentioned in the introduction, I take a SSRI along with several supplements aimed at supporting my brain chemistry and have strong social/emotional supports in place that assist maintaining balance. Photography, or the act of creating anything, does fulfill an important role in my anti-depressant toolbox. Namely, the ability to exist outside of myself for a moment and to express myself creatively. The very act of creating seems to be antithetical to depression: it hinges on hope, that something new can exist in the face of seeming entropy. What’s more, landscape photography is defined by the lovely combination of physical movement, time outdoors and creativity. These three elements possess strong anti-depressant qualities. 

The act of making an image is just the beginning. Processing the image provides an extension of the initial creative process, whereby the photographer makes creative decisions about the final look and feel of the image based on their interpretation of the scene. From there, a photographer may choose to share the image on social media, websites, prints or simply keep for their own joy and edification. It is a moment in time that cannot be taken away. The photographer bore witness to that scene, captured its likeness, and, in that moment, established themselves as a living being with expressive agency. Depression despises this. It cannot stand the idea of its sufferers having creative agency. 

If the onset of the storm was mysterious, the passing of the storm was less so. Through social supports and photography outings, I had cultivated enough energy to schedule a counseling appointment, which, the very thought of, further boosted my sense of hope. And now, nearing the middle of January, the depressive episode of November and December feels like a distant bad dream. The future, for the moment, is bright. The storms will continue to come and go. The best I can do is keep on this path: getting outside, looking for the beauty in our world, focusing on the positive, surrounding myself with good friends and photographing as much as possible. For the moment, I am incredibly grateful to feel joy. When the next storm comes, I will be ready, camera in hand. 

 

 

 

If you, a friend or a loved one struggles with depression simply being present (even if it means not talking) can be enormously helpful. In my journey a therapist and anti-depressants have been invaluable in providing guidance and chemical stability. Of course, if you are a loved one are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. The folks there are there to listen and love. The storm will pass. Know that you are loved and, regardless of how dark the moment feels, blue bird days lie ahead. 

 

 

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2020/1/photography-as-anti-depressant-the-anatomy-of-a-storm Sun, 12 Jan 2020 20:46:18 GMT
The Most Beautiful Day in Recorded History: A Photoless Photo Essay https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2019/11/the-most-beautiful-day-in-recorded-history-a-photoless-photography-essay July 27th, 2019 | For the third time on this day we walked from Heart Lake to Pearl Lake. The first time was with the photography workshop I was leading. We hiked/photographed one of my favorite subalpine loops along the Stateline Trail in the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness. The hike unfolded with delightful conversation, incredible views, rich photography and spectacular weather. The second walk, again with the group, was for a sunset shoot of Heart Lake. We posted up on a massive rock outcropping perched several hundred feet above Heart Lake. Fissures in the rock were loaded with summer wildflower blooms, lovely foreground subjects. The sunset did not disappoint. Late stage magenta and crimson, analogous to the indian paintbrush reds, rounded off the day’s relationship with the sun. 

Brian and I reached Pearl Lake at a little past midnight. Boasting some of the darkest skies in Western Montana, the Great Burn, on this clear night, granted vivid views into deep space. The Milky Way streaked brightly out of the southern skyline reflecting in the placid waters of Pearl Lake. I framed up a shot, dialed in focus, calculated the exposure and began shooting. With each shot I found my attention being drawn away from my camera towards the landscape. Eventually, I stopped shooting altogether. This was a hundreds of millions of miles view. Deep breath. Slow down. Wow. What a place. What a day. What a moment! This was the most beautiful day in recorded history. 

 

August 13th, 2019 | Our itinerary called for a relatively easy 6-mile walk from Hall Lake to Trinkus Lake on the Swan Crest Trail. My best friend and wife, Linds, and I were on the second day of a 4-day traverse of the middle section of the Swan Crest. On this day, we were grateful for a short walk. The previous day we had soaked ourselves to the bone on account of the wet brush and drizzly afternoon. We spent the sunny morning drying out our tent, sleeping bags and damp clothes. Finally, we packed our stuff, hefted our packs and cruised the trail. What a cruise. The trail snaked along the top of the range, opening up new views with every turn. It was a feast for the eyes. At 7,000 feet, wildflowers were still in bloom. The forest was lush and well nourished by the summer’s rains. Much too quickly we reached Trinkus Lake, our destination for the day. It was still early in the afternoon. We located a lovely campsite at the far end of the lake and laid out on a small beach in sheer subalpine bliss. 

After a bit of reading and snacking, I opted to inflate my sleeping pad and take a nap on the beach. Linds went for a walk around the lake. I quickly dozed off. Many minutes later, how many, I can’t say for sure, I groggily awoke. I was laying on my side, facing towards the trail some 30-feet away. As my eyes adjusted to the bright afternoon light, I felt a pair of eyes keenly fixated on me. There, on the trail, with nothing between us, a large cat stood. In my foggy state, it took me a second to comprehend what I was seeing. Tufted ears, short tail, large body, huge feet, spotted coat, huge back legs: a Canada lynx. It stood silently, perpendicular to me, my presence momentarily interrupting whatever hare-chasing mission it was on. I remained recumbent on my sleeping pad. After a minute or two of eye contact, the lynx sat down. My camera was about halfway between the lynx and I. I knew this was a moment that could not be captured and I was happy for that. No digital likeness of this wildest of critters could match the uniqueness of the encounter on this day at this time. The lynx remained seated, 30-feet away, for 3-5 minutes. We took each other in. Curiosity supplanted fear. Then, as if remembering its mission, the lynx slowly stood up and walked off into the woods. 

This day, most assuredly, was the most beautiful day in recorded history. 

 

September 14th, 2019 | Upon regaining the edge of Lower Rumble Lake, we were greeted to one my favorite mountain views in Montana. On the far side of the lake, a 500-foot waterfall cut a clear path to Lower Rumble’s inlet. At the top of the waterfall, lay the glacial blue waters of Upper Rumble Lake. Of course, Upper Rumble Lake was not visible from this low vantage, but, having just come from its vast crystalline waters, its alpine majesty was still firmly imprinted in the mind’s eye. Directly above the waterfall, and very visible, rose the imposing 1,500-foot west face of Holland Peak. It was hard to believe that a mere two hours ago we - the six of us - had stood on its summit. On this perfect fall day, Holland Peak, the highest point in the Swan Range, had afforded us unobstructed views of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Glacier National Park, the Mission, Bitterroot, Pintler and Cabinet Mountains. 

Now, standing on the edge of Lower Rumble Lake, with the afternoon sun warming our bodies, we playfully plunged into its icy cold waters. The shock of the cold was wholly invigorating. Our achey, but happy muscles, appreciated its healing properties. We laughed, recounted summit stories, ate sugary snacks and bathed in the sun. This, without question, was the most beautiful day in recorded history.

 

October 27th, 2019 | Yet undetected, we began the stalk. The small group of mule deer leisurely grazed, their serenity belying the fact that this was the opening weekend of hunting season. Fortunately for the quadrupeds, we were not hunters. We were a pair of bipeds, Nick and I, walking atop a ridge with the sole objective of traversing the length of the Crater Mountain massif. Nevertheless, we channeled our inner hunter and decided to put a stalk on the deer. The movement felt playful: we were doing this for fun, not for survival. After gaining a few feet on the ruminates, seemingly apropos nothing, one of the deer raised their head, twitched its tail and darted. The rest followed. Nick and I smiled at each other. Had we have been hunters, our freezers would have remained empty. 

We continued up the ridge. Up and up we went. Clear, cool and calm, the weather was perfect. Midday found us on the first of three false summits. There we stood, views of the entire Great Burn Recommended Wilderness, sun on our faces, crisp snow underfoot. The enterprise felt like the first true winter outing of the season. The joy of seeing such a gorgeous ridge unfold before us - knowing that we would be covering its ground - made us giddy. Thanks to the latest storm, the ridge was freshly adorned with nascent cornices and delicate flutings. How fortunate we were to be here at this place at this time. Surely, this was the most beautiful day in recorded history. 

 

Today | Some days rise to a status that demands the use of superlatives. You’re with the right people (and sometimes that means alone), in the right place at the right time. The good vibes stars align. Within our personal stories there is no before or after. That day, that moment, is everything. These are the most beautiful days in recorded history. No day supersedes another, but time rolls on and the opportunity for another ‘most beautiful day in recorded history’ arises. Over time, I have found myself accumulating hundreds of ‘most beautiful days in recorded history’. The outdoors and gratitude seem to be the two strongest common denominators that undergird these experiences. I have yet to have a ‘most beautiful day’ experience inside. That’s not to say it’s impossible: it just hasn’t happened yet. 

Landscape photography has served as an incredible impetus to facilitate these special days, but I have yet to make an image that fully captures the multi-sensory feeling of actually being there. What’s more, to others, images - often displayed as two dimensional 2”x3” digital renditions on Instagram - are evaluated solely on their artistic merits: the audience cannot know the thoughts, feelings and happenings that were embodied in that moment. And thank goodness for that! These days seem best lived. Any distraction from the present moment threatens to diminish the experience.

There’s a reason this is a photoless photography essay. Although each of the above experiences were photography trips, no image came close to articulating the full breadth of the emotions embedded in that moment. Hell, these words fell short. The beauty of these days is that they cannot be fully articulated. Instead, when recalled, we smile into space as a warm feeling spreads from head-to-toe.

What is one of your most beautiful days in recorded history?

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2019/11/the-most-beautiful-day-in-recorded-history-a-photoless-photography-essay Fri, 15 Nov 2019 17:56:17 GMT
The Greatest Show in the West https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2019/10/for-the-love-of-fall The Swan Valley takes fall very seriously. The space between the great ranges - Mission and Swan Mountains - does not yield to winter without first staging a grand theatric performance replete with curtain calls, special effect lighting, and a story arc as improbable as it is compelling. My friend Cory, a wildlife photographer, and I are yearly ticket holders, attending the show every mid-October: it is not to be missed. It is the Greatest Show in the West.

 


 

Cool nights and the seasonal flow of moisture from the Pacific conspire to create the opening curtains of the great show. One moment, cool fog and mist. The next moment, the curtain opens revealing blue skies, snow-capped peaks and hills of gold. The show has begun.

__________

 

If the western larch is king of the Swan, the quaking aspen is queen. And here, royalty does not matter. Beautiful is beautiful. The first act of the show prominently features a strong performance by the aspen. Its stands of clones command the audience’s attention with striking uniformity. Thin white trunks and wiry branches with leaves of gold, the aspens are show-stoppers. In spite of their diminutive presence in the Swan Valley the aspens rise to the status of co-star on the playbill.

__________

Clearing Storm | Swan ValleyClearing Storm | Swan Valley

The first act concludes with high drama. Mid-autumn storms bring strong winds and valley snow. The curtain closes. The audience is left aghast. The sun sets on these stormy days with heightened suspense: what will the next morning yield? Intermission.

__________
 

Fall Flow | Lost Creek, Swan Valley  | MT6Fall Flow | Lost Creek, Swan Valley | MT6

The audience is called back. The curtain opens: act two. The aspens are bare, their golden leaves now blanketing the forest floor. It is in this moment, that the western larch shines. What, from a distance, appeared as a generic stand of coniferous trees, now reveals large swathes of gold. This is the climax of the greatest show. Visually, it teeters on the edge of overstimulating, so abundant is the gold.

__________
 

Larch Light | Swan Valley  | MT3Larch Light | Swan Valley | MT3

The unstable weather of autumn fuels the drama. Broken clouds and streamers of rain and snow move across the Swan Valley providing the audience a dynamic light show. Spotlight here, rainbow there and slopes of golden larch aglow beyond, the valley is a visual feast. Although the sun is the veritable star of the show, the larch steal the show with their radical display of light transmission. With or without the sun’s direct aid, their golden needles glow. At times, so capable are these yellow needles at gathering light, it is difficult to tell where the sun is actually shining.

__________


Highway 83, through the Window | Swan Valley  | MT52Highway 83, through the Window | Swan Valley | MT52

It is at the end of the second act that the storyline falters. In the mountains it is easy to tell when autumn has started, but difficult to tell when it has ended. Or maybe it isn’t that seasons end so much as it is that another begins. No endings, just beginnings. Winter. It is a vertical presence. First, only on the highest peaks. Then, mid-mountain, and finally, the valley floor. It happens almost imperceptibly. Compared to the drama present in early fall, this final stage of the greatest show seems to languish. The larch eventually do perform their final number: dropping their golden needles. It’s brilliant. Soft yellow needles float in the air. Trails, roads and the forest floor glow warmly with a blanket of gold. 

__________
 

Curtain closes. Next up, 'Eternal Winter'.

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2019/10/for-the-love-of-fall Fri, 01 Nov 2019 04:10:08 GMT
Blue Collar Photography https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2019/10/blue-collar-photography  

North Hills Spring | MSLA3North Hills Spring | MSLA3

 

I won the first marathon I ever ran. I lost the second, third, fourth and fifth. In fact, I never even placed in another marathon. The first ultramarathon I ever ran (50 miles) resulted in winning the Montana USATF State Championship. Then, just like the marathon, all subsequent ultras ended less favorably (dropping out, not placing, etc.).

Initial success was met with abject failure, capital ‘F’ Failure. Failure, inherently, is part of any learning process. I get that. You fail, learn something about the process, and try again applying the newfound knowledge. Unfortunately, through my early-20s, I was not open to learning. I was only interested in success and could not handle the prospect of losing. When losing appeared as a likely outcome, I threw in the towel and quit. Consequently, I never improved. I remained largely stagnate both as an athlete and as a human being.

This adverse relationship to failure pervaded all of my interests through my early- 20s, including photography. Straight out of high school I enrolled in a 2-year professional photography program. Undoubtedly, I learned a TON of book knowledge about photography, but when it came to field work time - which was most of the program - I fell apart. I was under the false impression that greatness was innate. You have it or you don’t. That, if you are talented, which at first I thought I might be, whatever you shot would be instant gold. I possessed a quiet ego. I was never braggadocious about it, but there was a quiet inner voice that perpetuated a false narrative that I was destined for fame and fortune. Without working hard? Without failing and learning and failing again? Without cultivating a love for the process? Ha! How misguided I was. 

Those two years of photography school zipped by. I graduated without having put any real work into the program. My brain was loaded with great photography knowledge, but my portfolio had improved only marginally. With the imminent prospect of having a go at professional photography the next logical step, I concluded that if I couldn’t be great I didn’t want to do it at all. The reality of the hard work required to make it as a professional photographer sank it. I knew that I would have to put in the time, struggle for years, fail and learn and fail again. That process did not meet my needs for instant gratification. Upon graduating, I sold my photography gear straight away and focused my sights on long distance running (see above).

I can cite three events (two vague and one specific) that resulted in my change of attitude towards hard work. The vague: 1) general maturation through jobs and social experiences, and; 2) through observation, breaking down the mysticism around greatness (that genuinely successful people, especially artists, work their asses off). 

The more specific experience was the break down of my body and the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that unapologetically attacks joints. RA quite literally stopped me dead in my tracks. Almost overnight, I went from running ultras to being unable to properly wash and dress myself. I won’t spend anymore time on RA other than what is required to move this blog post along: I got on a treatment program, and after a couple of years, was mostly back to normal. I was forced to adapt - work through it - or quit. With photography and running, quitting had been a low-risk choice. I quit and do something else. With RA, quitting would mean being bed-bound, clinically depressed and waiting for your number to be up. Truthfully, I had periods when I did fall into those quitting traits, but eventually I was forced to work my way through it. There was no other way out. 

I’ve changed. Thank GOD I’ve changed. I know now that my mom’s mantra of ‘nothing in this life that is worthwhile comes easily’ is true. The evidence in my late-20s began to stack up. I had worked hard - treatment and therapy - to manage RA. I had stuck with a long-term relationship and the rewards - deep connection - were rich. I stayed in a job for 7 years and experienced the joy of becoming proficient at something. 

In my late-20s, five years ago, I decided to buy a camera again. I wanted to add a creative endeavor back into my life. Even at my most competitive I had enjoyed photography. It seemed like the logical choice of mediums. This time, I committed to doing it differently. I was committed to relearning the craft for the sake of the craft and my own enjoyment, not for the perceived value of achieving success by the world’s standards. I decided that I wanted to commit to a cycle of self-reflection and improvement. This includes shooting/processing every spare moment, daily reading about photography, weekly e-learning (YouTube) about photographic techniques, teaching photography and critical self-evaluation of images. This cycle results in both the joy of connecting with photography and the excitement of feeling greater satisfaction from the images that I am producing. What’s more, it focuses on the photographic process as an end unto itself, not a means. 

Perhaps the most important decision I made when returning to photography was that I wasn’t going to worry about the future anymore. I just wanted to do my thing and if it resulted in success, great, if not, also great. Photography, for me, needed to be about the process, not the outcome. 

Through all of this, I have come to understand myself as a ‘blue collar photographer’. Whatever success has come my way (exhibits, print sales, etc.) has been a result of hard work, not talent. I am humbled every time I sell a print or have folks show up at an exhibition. It is icing on the proverbial cake when people connect with the landscapes I am shooting. Undoubtedly, the praise is affirming and provides additional fuel to continue on this path. But, in the end, only continued hard work is going to result in true satisfaction. It is the idea of knowing that I have done the best that I can in all of these moments and that no shot was left untaken. 

 

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

A few pertinent photography statistics:

  • Over the past 5 years, I have shot nearly 100,000 landscape images;

  • Of those, I considered ~300 worth holding onto;

  • Of those, I can’t stand to look at ~200 of them;

  • Of those, I’ve kept ~150 around on my website;

  • Of those, ~50 images have sold as prints or licenses;

  • Of that group, I remain proud of 5 images.

  • And I can’t wait to keep going!

 

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2019/10/blue-collar-photography Fri, 18 Oct 2019 16:26:17 GMT
Where Mountains become Sky and the Idea of God Persists https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2019/10/gods-home Straight Creek Falls | Great Burn Recommended WildernessStraight Creek Falls | Great Burn Recommended Wilderness

 

I am not a nature-worshipper, I do not seek God in wild places. Truth to tell, I am not overly concerned with where God is or isn’t, but rather where I feel the least anxious, and, consequently, the most free. Those are the places that I tend to wander. For me, the mountains are where anxiety reaches its nadir. The mountains, in this sense, represent ultimate freedom.

All this to say... I think that I found God in the mountains last Sunday (a fine day to find most gods). To be precise, I think that I found God’s residence in the mountains. To be even more precise, I think I stumbled upon God's summer home high in the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness. God was not home, but the place was immaculate. 

______

My hiking partner - also called Brian - and I had camped near a lovely series of cascades in search of some rich early fall landscape photography. This little drainage was idyllic: late-season alders and huckleberries gone red and yellow blanketing the barren slopes of a pair of lofty subalpine summits, the creek cutting a path in a set of five quick waterfalls. Under cool overcast skies that teased rain we photographed the falls for several hours. Stubborn and not overly creative, I spent the better part of two hours on a single composition (image at top of this post). The framing included yellow leaves in the foreground, the falls in the middle and the sharp 2,000-foot rise of an avalanche chute anchoring the background. 

Committed as I was to the shot, my eyes - and imagination - were drawn to the avalanche chute opposite the falls. What was just over ridge? Having looked at a topo map of the mountain [its name omitted to preserve the spirit of exploration] earlier in the day, I had a general sense of what lay beyond the visible ridgeline: a couple of false summits that guarded the true summit a mile or so further. This particular summit - sheer, craggy and especially lofty for the Great Burn - had occupied my imagination since I first laid eyes on it from the Stateline Trail. There was something about its hulking size and barren subalpine slopes that gave it the look of a mountain much larger and significantly more imposing than any of its neighbors. 

Clicking away at the falls, the camera seemed a fine excuse to remain in place and observe the approach to the mountain sanctuary above. Lord willing, on the morrow, Brian and I would wander up that avalanche chute until mountain became sky.

The next morning found us slowly - very slowly - breaking camp. Hurried, we were not. A cloudless sky with mild temperatures portended a perfect fall day. Although the delight of a steady ascent to unknown vistas beckoned, so too did the restorative movement of coffee-sipping adjacent a babbling creek call. By noon the job was done: the coffee was drank, camp was broke and packs were packed. We hoisted our weighted packs to our shoulders and retraced the 1/4 mile of trail back to the base of the avalanche chute. 

The chute rose 2,000 feet in 3/4 mile, a fairly steep slope. The initial ascent included a fine mix of alder-thrashing, game-trail-tracking, rock-walking and subalpine-stepping. In spite of being weighed down by our packs, the ascent was a delight. Each 100-feet of upward movement yielded new and compelling views. 1,000-feet up the vegetation transitioned to the slick, thin, ground covering beargrass and the slope steepened ever so slightly. The beargrass made the walking marginally trickier, but no less enjoyable. Up and up we went. The valley dropped away below and, above, that fabled transition of mountain and sky neared. 

…A funny thing happens to me when I close in on a ridgecrest or summit. An instinct that resides deep within my mammalian brain takes over. I must go! I must see! The world, once expansive, falls away and the singular focus of reaching the top becomes all consuming. This is flow. This is when anxiety, for a moment, ceases to exists. A smile takes over and my breathing shifts to a mantric exhale of ‘high-er, high-er, high-er’…

Click, the gear shifted, the final 200-feet to the ridge was clear. The target was a small saddle between two rock-outcroppings. My pace quickened and everything fell away. My job, worries about trying to be a photographer, health concerns, poof, gone! The mountain, that moment, was everything. Nothing else mattered. Within a few minutes, I was there, a mere step away from the mystery, the distinct edge of mountain and sky. 

I took the step, the landscape beyond the ridge was revealed. A large cirque spread out below my feet. It was idyllic. The bowl was filled with all of the features of a mountain lover’s dreams. There was a small waterfall set below a tarn with subalpine meadows interspered between boulder fields. The 1,000-foot wall, on which I was standing, of the mountain encircled this veritable Garden of Eden. Indeed, this seemed a place fit for God. Surely this must be a summer residence of the divine and, likely, the winter residence of wolverines. It was that exquisite and wild. 

The view immediately spurred two thoughts: wow, this is one of the most beautiful hanging valleys I have ever seen; and, how in the hell is this not a designated Wilderness? The first thought precipitated the second. I have had the immense joy of traipsing around a dozen of Montana's Wilderness areas. All of those places possessed that special quality of nature as the dominant force. Their wildness, their lack of human imprint, is at once inspiring and humbling. The rawness of these places fills my cup. And there, standing on the edge of God's summer home in the Great Burn, my cup overrunneth. I was reminded of how wild places reconnect me with the most stripped down version of myself. The trappings of modernity - communication devices, social media, etc. - are absent. Anxiety dissolves. This is the feeling of freedom. How fortunate we are to have places where mountains meet sky and the idea of God persists. 

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(Brian Christianson Photography) https://brianchristiansonphotography.com/blog/2019/10/gods-home Thu, 03 Oct 2019 23:47:40 GMT