The Nature of Nature Photography

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This post was submitted by Jerry Downs and you can check out more of his work here and here.

What follows is an adaptation of one of my email-photo-essays that I send out to a couple of thousand friends and fellow photographers around the world after my personal photo adventures for a book I’m writing called The Present.

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Taking great nature pictures does not always require that you hike in for days and wait for the perfect light. But, it always takes the ability to be present and actually see how you, personally, are picturing the world.

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On a road trip back to my home in California from Colorado I took the Southern route. It was mid-afternoon on my second day out and I wanted to make it to Monument Valley in time for sunset. I decided make an hour side trip to Four Corners. Though the landscape surrounding the place is not particularly notable, it is the only place in America where you can be in four states at a time. I just had to go. I love being in multiple parallel states at the same time.

By the time I was back to the main road from Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, the late afternoon light was already beginning to bring out the beauty of the surrounding buttes. I had to get busy if I wanted to make it to Monument Valley in time for sunset. I had to step on the gas. I had to pee. I had to hold it. I had to sacrifice. I was passing picture possibilities left and right. I had to get where I was going. I had to laugh. I slowed the car to zero, left the camera in the car, walked to the nearest butte and let it all go. I let the anxiety that I had created in the past half an hour go. I let the perfect picture in an imagined future go. I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath. I took in the smell of the earth and sage. I opened my eyes and let in the light that had been on the surface of the sun eight and a half minutes earlier bathe the buttes in a warm glow.

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When it is all I can stand, it is really all that I need. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect present. I drove on in peace and stopped for a picture whenever the spirit moved me.

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By the time I reached the entrance to Monument Valley the sun was already going down. This sacred place for the Navajo may also be recognizable from innumerable calendars and movies such as Stagecoach, How The West Was Won, Back To The Future, 2001-A Space Odyssey, and Easy Rider. It is the place where Forest Gump had his epiphany and stopped running.

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The main towers were still 20 miles away. As they came into view, shadows were already moving up the spires. There was no making it to them before dark. This was it. I spotted a black horse, grabbed my camera, tripod and a few lenses, stepped over the barbed wire fence and witnessed the wonder until the horse disappeared in the dark.

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As I reached the Navajo Tribal Park all the people who had been there for the sunset were leaving.

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Now remember, at this time, to the eye, it was dark. A long exposure allowed the monumental buttes to appear in the picture. The swirl of light on the dirt road, in the perfect position, is a car traveling through the thirty-second exposure. I was happy that I had let go of my expectations so that I could actually be there when I arrived. Finding myself all alone in this much magnitude required that I continuously let it all go to allow the space in. I let it all flow through me. It was a part of me and I was a part of it and we were both connected to the Earth and the heavens above and below us.

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