Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Interpreting the Big Trees: rambling among giants.

When my friend Faith asked if I would take some photos of the Giant Sequoias at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, there was only one answer: YEAH! That was familiar ground. In college I spent three summers on a fuels management crew in this area, up in the western Sierra, half way between Yosemite and Tahoe. It had been years since I'd been back, so I was excited to have an excuse.
Faith Rumm is one of those people who never cease to amaze you, even as you get to know them more and more. Formerly a back-country ranger in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park, she "gets it" when it comes to how badly we need to preserve wild places. In addition to being an inspirational mother, she is an accomplished artist who has painted and designed interpretive nature panels for many organizations including the Panda Bear Preserve in China. I've had the fortune to help her out with a few projects over the years and am delighted to provide my assistance on one of her current projects designing interpretive panels for California State Parks.
Many of my favorite places to photograph and rock-climb lie within Califoria's State Park System, and it is no wonder. A quick look at the State Park website ( reveals that the system includes "nearly 1.4 million acres, with over 280 miles of coastline; (and) 625 miles of lake and river frontage." With the rapid increases in development, urban sprawl and intrusion into open spaces which we've seen just in my short lifetime (34 years), I fear for the future of wilderness. Sure, nature adapts. Peregrines live on downtown sky scrapers and raccoons live under my deck, but is it their job to adapt? No! We have a responsibility to be stewards of the land, and that includes accounting for the plants and critters. If we had the hindsight of just one of the Big Trees, chances are we would assign very different priorities to our lives and make more sustainable decisions.No amount of watching Planet Earth can replace the experience of actually seeing the autumn bird migration, or hiking along a gurgling brook filled with spawning salmon. I grew up camping in our state parks and hope to (some day) take my own kids to them. But with California's budget shortfalls and a governator who is willing to shut down our parks to save costs, it is more imperative than ever that both the park system and nature itself have active and vocal advocates.
I drove up to the Big Trees just after our epic on El Cap in May and spent three days roaming the woods and river making photographs among these stunningly enormous giants. The weather was perfect after a few storms during which an inch and a half of rain fell. One of the best parts of my job is just being out there getting "zen-ed out" with my camera, exploring the intricacies of an eco-system and finding a voice for Mother Earth. No, I'm not a barefoot tree hugger. A balance must be struck in all things, but it sure feels right to be making images that will go to work for a just cause.
As I drove home from the Big Trees I passed through hundreds of miles of urban jungle and pondered how the landscape would have appeared prior to our intrusion. I drove through the East Bay and recalled a passage from Malcom Margolin's "The Ohlone Way" in which he states that the number one cause of death for the native Ohlone tribe of native Americans along the San Franciso Bay prior to white settlement was from grizzly bear attacks! Grizzly bears! He described the wildlife-filled bay as a veritable Serengeti. It will of course never revert back to what it was. Our "progress" is deep and permanent. Even the seemingly pristine stretch of the Stanislaus River I had been photographing that morning is but an illusion of natural tranquility.
The water level is carefully controlled from the dam at Spicer Reservoir to give optimum amounts of power and water to the thirsty valley below. I went fishing for several hours and never saw a single fish.
It's a tough world for optimists and idealists, but you must have hope in something. I hope more people will kill the TV, go for a hike, take a dip in a remote swimming hole, and enjoy a sunset from a high mountaintop. It's the best program they'll ever see, and who knows, perhaps they might run across one of Faith's beautiful interpretive panels and learn something new.

Check out Faith's work:

Motivate. Instigate.

-Jerry Dodrill

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Tahoe Workshop Trip Report

Five days seemed like an eternity to spend with ten strangers. How would I keep everyone focused? What would they be like? Where would we go for our field shoots? Would the light work out? I'd done my prep work, but still felt the anxiety of anticipation. If I were climbing, I’d have stopped to shake out, focused on breathing, smiled, and put my head back together. But I wasn’t climbing, I was preparing to teach a photography workshop in Incline Village at Lake Tahoe’s Sierra Nevada College.
The jitters of the first day quickly subsided and the group settled into a nice groove. After orientation and introductions, we had a couple lectures, and the first of many delicious lunches in the cafeteria. By late afternoon we were in the field photographing near Sand Harbor. Next morning we were up early to shoot sunrise along the north Shore. Group dynamics are always an interesting part of the workshop experience. You want a mix of women and men, ages, and experience levels, and a healthy sense of humor. This class certainly had that. Of the ten participants, four were women, and there were four climbers. This was great and added an instant sense of brotherhood to the group. The age range varied nicely, with the youngest being seventeen. Of all the workshops I've done over the years, the energy of this group was among the best I've seen. With fifteen hours of sunlight, it quickly became apparent that sleep deprivation would be part of the program. The sun set at about eight thirty and rose at five. We were out late at night, up and out the door again by four or four thirty each morning. My philosophy for field sessions is to put people on location at the right place and right time so they have the opportunity to make exceptional photographs. I try to be available to help folks with their gear and equipment, answer questions, creative advice, and offer one-on-one time as participants work. I roam the area seeing if anyone needs help, but of course, also want to make some great images and feel obliged to bring quality work back to the critiques. So as the light begins to peak I’m often running from one location to the next, trying to bag my shots.
After our morning shoots we ate breakfast, downloaded and edited our photos and prepared for critique. The critiques are probably the most important part of a workshop. It is here that what we discuss in lectures, see in the field, and capture in-camera all come together to be evaluated. There are always amazing and unexpected images. You can put folks together at the same place in the field but will never see two images alike. In evaluations, people always say that they learned the most from critique, not just of their own images, but in observing and participating in the critique of what everyone else did as well.
When I was in college I was often frustrated by some of the soft-ball critiques art teachers would give to work that was obviously crap. Then, while working with Galen, I saw a whole different method. In his workshop critiques, he was always encouraging, never cruel, but dead honest in evaluating images. He would focus on the potential that an image had to become a finished piece. In this way, he found a positive way to give a tough critique that would inspire rather than intimidate a young photographer.
As we got deeper into the workshop, the participants really hit their artistic stride and the quality of their work increased with each critique. We all got accustomed to working creatively on limited sleep.
One direction I’ve been pushing is digital storytelling, and how we use photography as part of the way we tell stories and document our lives. So as the end of the workshop neared, we each worked on a final assignment to tell a story in pictures. I wasn’t sure how this would work, but with the mounting pressure of final critique, everyone went deep into the “zone” and came out with amazing projects. (I'll have to post some of those at a later date). All too soon, the class was over. Someone produced a case of Fat Tire (thanks Carol!), we toasted our new friends and parted, each in our separate ways. Over the five days we had a profoundly bonding creative experience. I want to thank all of the participants for a great workshop. I hope to see you again some day and will always cherish the time we shared chasing light on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
-Jerry Dodrill

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Lake Tahoe Workshop June 16-20, 2008

There is still some space in my upcoming five day course at Sierra Nevada College, on the shore of Lake Tahoe at Incline Village. If you've been thinking about getting more serious about your photography, this is a great opportunity to just dive right in. Here is a link to the SNC web page where you can learn about the class and sign up online...

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Class in the Redwoods

Cathedral Grove, Prairie Creek Redwoods

These past few months I’ve been teaching a photography class at Pacific Union College in Napa Valley. Teaching is a fun and rewarding experience, especially when you can get out of the classroom and spend quality time with your students. The highlight of this class is a three-day full-immersion landscape photography field trip. In the past, I’ve taken college students to Yosemite, Bishop, and Point Reyes, all excellent trips. This year we headed north to Redwood National Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park where we packed in a full schedule of shooting and sight seeing. I am hoping to take a workshop up there in the fall or spring. Let me know if you are interested.

Gold Bluffs Beach

Driftwood at False Klamath Cove

Stream in Jedediah Smith Redwoods

Lupine at Gold Bluffs Beach

Trillium at Lady Bird Johnson Grove

Sea Palms and Crashing Wave

Lupine at Stone Lagoon

© Jerry Dodrill Photography