Posted on May 4, 2020
Some of the best things that have happened in my life would not have happened had something bad not happened first. Not only does this apply to life’s important things, like relationships and careers, I can also say the same thing about my photography.
In 2013, the politicians we Americans elected to serve us got in a pissing match about the budget and the public suffered. When they shut down the government, the workers who could least afford it lost their income, and people who had been planning vacations to our national parks had to cancel or find alternatives. I make my living conducting photo workshops in the national parks, so to say I was anxious about the government shutdown would be an understatement.
Because of the timing, the shutdown affected my friend Don Smith’s workshops even more that it affected mine—I lost one sunset shoot in my Eastern Sierra workshop (and simply replaced it with an alternate location), but Don lost the Grand Tetons the day before the start of his workshop there (and still managed to make it work with alternate locations just outside the park), and it looked he was going to lose his Arches/Canyonlands workshop too.
As many of you may know, Don and I sometimes trade off assisting each other’s workshops, and I was scheduled to help him in Arches/Canyonlands. Don wanted to find alternate locations for his Arches/Canyonlands group as he’d done in the Tetons, but a schedule conflict prevented him from traveling to Moab early to scout. With an opening in my schedule, I volunteered to do the advance scouting instead. I flew out a few days early and spent that extra time identifying options in areas surrounding the parks’ boundaries.
It turned out that while I was out there, the state of Utah paid the federal government to reopen their parks, so by the time the workshop started everything was back to business as usual. But because of that advance scouting trip, that only happened because of the government shutdown, Don was able to give his participants several really nice spots that would never have happened without the shutdown.
The highlight of the entire workshop was a trip to Monument Valley to photograph the full moon rising above The Mittens that would never had happened without the shutdown. I knew we’d have a full moon during this workshop and was looking for places to photograph it outside Arches and Canyonlands NPs. My first evening in Moab, on a whim I checked the sunset moonrise above The Mittens and realized it would align perfectly. Even though the drive from Moab to Monument Valley was 2 1/2 hours, Don and I thought this opportunity was too good to pass up. When we shared the opportunity with the rest of the group at the orientation, even though we now had access to Arches and Canyonlands and didn’t need to drive to Monument Valley, everyone was excited to do it.
We left early enough to allow the group to explore some of the beauty along the route, enjoy the loop drive through Monument Valley, and even have dinner at the spectacular (and aptly named) The View restaurant. And as you can see, the moonrise itself was a rousing success. All because our original plans were blown up by the national parks closure.
The moral of the story
I’m not saying that a global pandemic is a good thing, and certainly am not trivializing the true tragedies COVID-19 has brought. But I do believe that those of us not affected by extreme COVID loss can find comfort in the positives that come from an experience we can all agree feels quite negative. Here’s my list of things that have happened thanks to COVID that would not have happened with business as usual (in no particular order):
I can’t wait to return to “normal” (whatever that may be), to get out and photograph the nature I love so much and reconnect in person with my workshop students. But in the meantime I find comfort in the knowledge that in many ways I’ll be better for this experience. I hope you can say the same thing.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on October 19, 2011
After a successful and satisfying week co-leading Don Smith’s Arches/Canyonlands workshop, Don and I detoured to Monument Valley on our way home. The evening of our arrival we hired a guide to take us to Teardrop Arch at sunset, but with cloudless skies and a 14+ hour drive home to Central California, we decided to pass on a sunrise shoot that was unlikely to yield anything the world hadn’t seen before. Instead, we rose at 4:30 to photograph Monument Valley by moonlight.
Monument Valley is part of the Navajo Nation; access to pretty much any location off the main road or hotel grounds requires a Navajo guide. Unable to explore, Don and I trekked, still bleary-eyed, to the vista platform adjacent to the hotel restaurant, a hike of at least 150 feet from our room (not to mention a 10 foot elevation gain).
The first thing I saw from the platform was the Big Dipper, to the left of the Mittens, but not so far left that I wouldn’t be able to use it in a composition. I do so much moonlight photography that exposure and focus are routine, so almost all of my time was spent cycling through a variety of horizontal and vertical compositions covered the entire scene and most of the focal range of my 24-105 lens.
Whether it’s extreme weather, a strenuous hike, or sleep deprivation, I find it interesting how frequently the most memorable shoots result from the most difficult conditions. It wasn’t easy to get out of bed at 4:30 a.m., but the experience that followed was one of my most memorable in a long time, and surely had lots to do with the drive home being much better than we expected.
Tuba City, Flagstaff, Kingman, Needles, Barstow, Tehachapi, Bakersfield, Kettleman City, Santa Nella…. Home!