So here it is … two weeks and my residency in Rocky Mountain National Park is complete. I thought I would write some concluding remarks along with the last photo I took in the park, before I headed down to Denver to check into a hotel to wait for my flight tomorrow morning back home to Anchorage, and to Michelle.
This was my third artist residency with the National Park Service. It is so difficult to really compare the overall experiences, as each park and experience, as well as the focus of my photography, is different. But so many things made this a wonderful experience – I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for an opportunity to develop their art in a truly inspiring place. First, the volunteers and staff were fantastic – especially Betsy, who formally welcomed me into the park in my first morning, and her husband, Roger, who along with Betsy, run the weekly programs presented by the visiting artists. I additionally need to thank Roger for his excellent suggestion of the Bear Lake to Lake Helene to Odessa/Fern route – some of my best morning photography during the entire trip, and a great hike. I have to thank Marilyn, another involved in the artist program, for her overall checking in on me to make sure that things were going well, and for doing such a wonderful job of giving the artists a clean, beautiful place to stay. Jean Muenchrath, the AIR coordinator, was very enthusiastic about my projects and was particularly helpful, no, key, in getting me the bivy permit for my night at Chasm Lake.
I also cannot forget to thank Lowe Pro for its donation of two Sling Shot 200 AW bags to give away as door prizes to my weekly presentations. I certainly hope that it was an added value to the audience. One lucky winner’s wife indicated he had been shopping around for that very thing. Thanks also to the Estes Park-Trail Gazette for a nice feature article on me.
But there are so many others involved in making my experience possible. There are the members of the selection committee who decided that I had something to offer for their program (one even told me after my last presentation at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center that I had “exceeded expectations” – always great to hear). And then there is the public, who through entrance fees and contributing to affiliated natural history associations, allow such opportunities as this to be possible. For Rocky Mountain National Park, that would be the Rocky Mountain Nature Association.
It is hard to point to a key experience for me in the park, as it was a collection of several things that made it memorable. One thing that was different, though, was the early rising for landscape photography. Not that I am not used to getting up early to go shoot, but getting up early enough to drive to a trailhead and then hike a couple of hours before sunrise – that was different. In Anchorage, all the best landscape shots are dependent upon evening light, as the sky is open to the west but a wall of mountains to the east. The best locations for morning shots are completely from the road – no hiking is required.
I also enjoyed my exposure to the mountain climbing culture here. When I was up really early, up to two hours before sunlight, the only folk I would run into was mountaineers. In Alaska, there is no mountain that requires technical climbing that I can think of that is accessible from a road, let alone a trailhead. Additionally, the mountains that are technically climbed in Alaska are never clear of snow – Alaska has all ten of the ten highest mountains in the United States. I think that when I come back, I would like to photograph and interview mountaineers who climb in the park and explore more the role of climbers in the present and past of the park. Many parks have a strong mountaineering connection, and in many ways, those climbers can be influential, for better or worse, in the shaping of the park. I certainly know that they shaped my experience in the park – I made several “trail friends” who were climbers on their way up or down, who shared in conversation and helped to make the hike worthwhile.
Then there is the inspiration and legacy of William Allen White, in whose historic cabin I stayed during my residency. White used the cabin from 1912-1943 as a summer retreat, and did many of his writings from there. I used the very desk he used to write to do my photo editings and write most of my blog posts (which I would later publish using the free WiFi from Kind Coffee in Estes Park). All Mr. White did was write and try to influence the policies of his day, winning two Pulitzers and becoming close friends with Theodore Roosevelt among other key figures of his day. I am sure he could not have imagined that, sixty-six years after he left the cabin, a photographer from Alaska would come down to take shelter in his cabin and join a long list of artists who have spent two weeks of their time finding solace and inspiration in the cabin, with its majestic view.
Thinking of Mr. White made me think of the actions we take in our lives and their later significance. As I told the audience members who attended my presentations at RMNP, I gain my primary motivation to photograph wild things and wild places from the act of doing it. In so many cases, I am completely alone, capturing a moment in time that only I have the pleasure to see. It’s a powerful experience, and often so envigorating, I am simultaneously working furiously at capturing it while cherishing it in ways I cannot photograph – the smells, the sounds, the feel of the air or the sun. Secondary to that motivation, I gain pleasure in sharing my photography with others. My motivation changes depending on the subject – on one hand I might hope it would inspire others to explore away from the roads to find magic of their own, on the other, it might be to share a place with others who may never experience it and hopefully help them understand that such protected places are vital and necessary.
Finally, taking a back seat to those two goals, I simply wonder and hope that maybe my art may inspire others to create their own. After my second presentation at RMNP, a young boy named Graeden from Kansas came up to me, with two obviously proud parents in tow, and told me that he was interested in photography and that my talk had truly inspired him. He informed me that he had also recently become a junior ranger. I asked him about that and his interests, and he asked me for my autograph. In that moment, I felt more humbled than I ever had before, and inspired myself to keep doing what I have been doing. I thought about how I must have been at that age, and could not think of whether I could have had the courage to do what this boy did. With my autograph, I wrote that nature is truly the best inspiration you need to be a photographer.
And perhaps that is the greatest value for experiences such as being an artist in residence for one of America’s oldest and most visited national parks – the renewal or birth of inspiration. For the visiting artist, it is certainly the renewal – we would not have been in that place if we did not already have some level of inspiration and skill. And for those who attend our presentations, may we inspire them as well – whether to get out more, practice an art, fight to protect our public lands – whatever it may be. My own personal gains from what I create are limited to me, but hopefully in sharing my art and inspiration, others can gain as well.
And now, I go to sleep, getting up at o’dark thirty again, this time to go home to Michelle and our cats. I save these last lines to thank my lovely wife for all her support, love and encouragement. It may have been my photography that brought us together, but it is our relationship that helps to keep my photography going.