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Photographing a Feeling

Hiker looking out at sea of clouds

“Jaaack!”

Nothing. Silence. Darkness.

I stood there in the warm summer evening wondering if I should try again. Armed with only a star chart and small flashlight who’s only function was dim red, I felt a little vulnerable in the pitch black night.

“JACK”, I chirped once more.

Nothing.

Only an hour before I’d wandered a few hundred meters up behind my uncle’s cabin to an open spot in the forest. My summers were spent at our family property at 8000 feet in a remote corner of California’s Sierra Nevada. With the exception of a Basque shepherd, the nearest anything was about 20 miles away. I was a kid lucky enough to get to Huck Finn around, fishing for breakfast in a tiny creek, panning for gold, learning all about the natural world, and spending time slaving away for my uncle Jack, who also happened to be my hero. I was 10, and I’d taken an interest to learn the stars.

It was clear I couldn’t find my way back to the cabin after wandering around in who knows which direction. I was lost. Admitting defeat, I tugged some branches off a pine tree, curled up in the dirt, piled the branches on top of me and lay staring up the sky.

What does any of this have to do with photography? Nothing and everything. More than 30 years later, I still remember those moments laying in the dirt. I wasn’t scared, I was only in awe of the mountains, the feelings they gave me, and the life I might be able to have in them. Maybe I was too young to understand at the time what was happening, but I’d just locked on to a direction. Those feelings stayed with me. 

Gently, I fell asleep.

I’ve spent most of my life since that time in the mountains, playing, working, living my life. Somewhere along the way I discovered I enjoyed making photos, and I wasn’t too bad at it. I especially enjoy making photos in the mountains, of the things I love doing, the things that give me the same feeling as when I lay under that tree.

As I grow older I spend more and more time thinking about why I do what I do. What were all the influences that made a difference? Why do I make the images I make, and what does my style say about me?

This summer, I’ve been doing an enormous amount of uphill running, which of course provides for long hours thinking. I’ve noticed that on some runs, in some places, there comes a certain time. It’s a time when I feel intensely happy, energized, and alive. Typically it occurs when I’m alone, usually above tree line, and with big, wide open views.

That’s the time, flying solo through the environment where I feel most at home. When that time comes, I’m 10 years old again and laying in the dirt surrounded by the mountains, nothing has changed.

I believe I have been making photos of this feeling for a very long time. 

Val Funtauna, above Davos, Switzerland

Not so long ago, but long after that night. My aunt, Jack’s wife, asked if I remembered the night I got lost studying the stars. 

“Yes, of course”.

“Well, we heard you yelling, but Jack thought it would be best for you to spend a little time out there on your own.”

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Comments 4

  1. “… in some places, there comes a certain time. It’s a time when I feel intensely happy, energized, and alive. Typically it occurs when I’m alone, usually above tree line, and with big, wide open views.”

    Dan, You have just expressed the exact way I feel about the Dolomites. I don’t have decent enough photography skills to really capture what I see, but I do photograph everything with my eyes, and register it in my brain, and then return each year to do it all over again. The joy I feel in those mountains is akin to an overwhelming explosion of happiness. Thank you for this post. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

    1. Post
      Author

      Hi Sharon, I just think it’s interesting what you choose to register, regardless of photo skills, it’s still a “capture” and record.

  2. My sweet Dan,
    I too remember that story, and am so grateful for your love of the mountains and how little fear you had of anything when you were a child. My father (your grandfather, Tony) would be so proud
    of you, he loved the mountains and that special property so much, wish you could have shared it w/ him. I know I would have
    panicked big time if I ever got lost there, would have screamed my lungs out for Jaaaaaaack! I am just glad i was not afraid to send you up there to have great childhood adventures. Thanks for sharing the story.

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