Nostalgic look at Rocky Mountain from 1919

Melissa just happened upon an interesting find on Project Gutenberg. The Book of the National Parks, by Robert Sterling Yard was originally published in 1919. The author describes the book this way: 

In offering the American public a carefully studied outline of its national park system, I have two principal objects. The one is to describe and differentiate the national parks in a manner which will enable the reader to appreciate their importance, scope, meaning, beauty, manifold uses and enormous value to individual and nation. The other is to use these parks, in which Nature is writing in large plain lines the story of America’s making, as examples illustrating the several kinds of scenery, and what each kind means in terms of world building; in other words, to translate the practical findings of science into unscientific phrase for the reader’s increased profit and pleasure, not only in his national parks but in all other scenic places great and small.

What grabbed our attention in particular were a few of the picture included from Rocky Mountain National Park. 1919 reaches almost back to the NPS’s foundation which is being celebrated this year. And yet, these photos instantly took me back to places I was able to visit just one year ago.

The image of Flattop, Hallett and Otis is exactly the view we saw from our porch every day. Andrews Glacier, I slid down during my descent (interesting note, for some reason it actually appears larger in my photos than in these historic photos, but maybe that’s just optical trickery). And lastly, this image of Chasm Lake looking toward Longs Peak is instantly recognizable. 

All this to say, it is pretty humbling to think about the roll my images of the National Parks may be able to play as part of their history.

The (sort of) Calm before the Storm

These last few weeks have been sort of calm. I’ve been compiling my classes for the upcoming semester every night for a couple hours and doing some preliminary planning for my residency. But tomorrow, the semester starts for real and today I just got some news that is going to keep me a lot busier.

This semester, I’m listed to teach 6 classes for 2 different schools. 4 of those classes I’ve never taught before (2 of which, I developed). So that has led to quite a lot of prep work leading up to this semester. However, it looked like 1 or possibly 2 of those classes would not be running. That’s fine, that’s why I’m listed on so many. But today, I found out that those last 2 classes did indeed get enough students to run, so I’ll be teaching an incredibly full load of 6 classes, for 2 schools, at 4 different locations and 1 online. (For those of you keeping track, a typical “full load” for a full time professor is 2-3 classes).

So now, I’m feeling overwhelmed but blessed, because I know there are too many out there in higher ed that weren’t as fortunate with their classes running. Time to take a deep breath before I dive in. Something tells me it’s going to be a wild ride.

A short update on my game: Park Trails

I just received a small order of my Park Trails card game that I am now sending off to some reviewers and vendors. We’ve also contacted some local stores in Collingswood and Haddonfield, and they’re very interested in carrying it on their shelves. Hopefully we can get some wheels turning before Christmas. We’ll see.

The Road to Acadia

So if you look at the map, the part that most people associate with Acadia National Park is the large center island called Mount Desert Island. Cadillac Mountain, Bar Harbor, and all the classic calendar shots are on that island. However, that is not primarily where I’ll be. The Schoodic Peninsula is that little spot of green over to the east, just below Winter Harbor. We’ll be staying at the very southern tip of that peninsula (schoodic point), walking distance from the waves crashing on granite shores. I’m sure we’ll make several day trips over to the main island, but it isn’t really my goal to recreate all the iconic Acadia shots, so I’m not really that concerned. There will be plenty to explore on schoodic (and several Maine locals have recently told me that’s there favorite spot in the park!)

The other spot I would like to explore, though I’m not sure if it’ll happen, is down to the far southwest, Isle au Haut. It is by far the most remote and least visited portion of the park, which makes it inherently interesting to me. But getting there is a bit of a pain (couple hours in a car and then a ferry), and honestly if I’m going to make the trip I’d like to stay over night to get more shooting in. However, there are only 5 camping spots on the island (no b & b for me), and they require reservation. I’m hoping there aren’t any major weather issues on my trip, but there could be a hurricane, so I’m not really too keen to reserve something just yet. I think I’ll just bring the basic camping gear and ask about availability when I get there.


Countdown to Acadia 2

So, I’m about a month out from heading to Acadia for a couple weeks for the artist residency. I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. For so long it has been that thing that will be happening in a long time and recently I’ve been so focused on getting all my classes up and running for the start of the semester that I haven’t really had much time to think or plan. I’m sure once the semester starts I won’t have any extra time, so it’ll probably only sink in once I’ve actually started driving north.

There is one thing I’ve been mulling over a little though, and that is the question: how mobile am I going to be? Am I going to be traversing the whole park, hitting every hot spot at the golden hours? Or am I going to stay stationary as much as possible, and settle into the landscape directly around the Schoodic Institute?

I think my residency time in Ireland taught me to really appreciate a slower pace of creating. I was there for a month and didn’t have a car. All my favorite work that I created was walking distance from where I was living. The same was true in Toronto.

In Rocky Mountain I did travel more. I think I was trying find deeper wilderness areas where there were very few or no other people. I’m happy with what I was able to accomplish in my time there, but it had a very different quality than the other two. More hurried, less contemplative.

So, it’s clear which way I’m leaning right now. Staying close to home, really spending time in slow, careful observation. But at the same time, I feel compelled to go and see the most iconic sights. You know, the ones that have been shot a million times before from all different angles in every feasible lighting scenario. So yes, I want to see them, but realistically, what am I going to do that looks significantly different than the thousands of shots that already exist? 

Yes, I’ll visit those locations, but I’m not going to make it my focus. I will move slow, observe details and respond to the space that is closest to me, in order to make work that is most in tune with the park itself.

And on a final note, I am running a small pre-order of a few select items that I’ll be producing during the residency. Click here to take a look and find something you’d like to order.

Rocky Mountain National Park: First Full Day

The first evening in the William Allen White Cabin

The Artist in Residence program here at Rocky Mountain National Park is awesome. Everyone is so nice and helpful, it really feels like the VIP treatment. I walked into the main, bustling visitor’s center my first day, expecting to have to explain to a couple people who I was and what I was doing there, but instead they recognized me as I walked in and greeted me with an enthusiastic “Hi Ben, we’re so glad you’re here!”. That is a nice way to start, I’ll be honest.

The William Allen White cabin is incredible. It’s spacious and perfectly situated on Moraine Park for incredible panoramic views. I am soaking it all in. You know how special a place is when one of the best views around is from your own front porch.

My First Day:

I got up for an early start today, (5:30) hoping to get a feel for the sunrise (not quite so easy to figure out when there are so many mountains around) and explore a couple of the more popular locations before the crowds. I’m told there’s been some moose around there too, so I’ll probably be back several times to try and catch a sight of some.
Then later this morning Melissa and Jed and I were able to go for a good 3.5 mile hike up a canyon along a picturesque stream. Jed got to ride in the pack most of the way, but we’ll break in his hiking legs soon I think.
So, here are just a few photos to give you a quick glimpse into the incredible landscape and experience. I don’t think I’ll be able to post something everyday, but maybe every other. There are just so many things to see and do in the park, it’s hard to pull myself away and look at a computer screen.
Jed’s enjoying the great outdoors.

Part of the view from the porch.

Sunrise at Sprague Lake 
After sunrise at Sprague Lake


This is the view from the bench at the visitor’s center where I am writing this post…. not too shabby. There is also some kind of swift or swallow (I’m no birder) building a nest right next to me.

Beaver Meadows Visitor Center

New Year Restart: Short and Sweet

I’ve been insanely busy over the past few months, but in a good way. I unfortunately don’t have enough time to share everything that has been going on right now, but I wanted to at least do a kick-off post for 2015 with some good news I just got in the mail. It was a contract from Rutgers University, hiring me as a part time lecturer for the department of fine art. Specifically I will be developing an online photography course over the next month or so and then will teach it starting in the summer! There is of course a lot more that has been going on around here and a lot more I could talk about with this opportunity, but that will all have to wait until my next post.

Making Work

I’ve forsaken my blog over the summer (and then some), but that doesn’t mean I’ve been idle, and I’m pleased to report some progress in two areas. First, I got accepted as a Creative Quarterly 32 Runner-Up. Now, this is clearly not as exciting as being a finalist, but it does still mean my work gets included in the website gallery, which is always nice, and definitely makes submitting feel worth it. I’ll get ‘em next time. The work isn’t up yet, but I’ll post a link to it once it is.

Thinking about submitting to shows like this always creates a conundrum for me. They always want you to submit work in specific categories, in this case, Art, Photography, or Illustration. When I see this I just scratch my head… so photography is not art? Does this mean they only want commercial photography in this category and anything else is just blanket labeled “art”? Or is art painting, drawing (not illustration) and sculpture, and work that used a camera is photography? It just gets so confusing, especially with some of my work that is anything but traditional photography yet in no way could claim to be a painting (or rather, in no way do I claim it). Anyway, there is no answer I suppose, just an interesting little mind game I play by myself when I submit work and it makes me wonder if others have the same issue.

Secondly,  wanted to post some new work that is in process. I’ve started shooting a portrait series (only one model so far) still focusing on the unique definition that digital culture gives humanity. I don’t know how many portraits I’ll do or even if I’ll follow thru with the series more than a few shots, since I’ll just have to wait and see what is successful (or not). But it feels really good to be editing some photos that I took as opposed to ones that I collected. Don’t get me wrong, I really loved the direction of my thesis, but I think I’ve been longing to really produce something myself, and I’m on the right track. So, take a look and the beginning stage, there are a couple other shots I want to edit and see which I like best.

Finally, I have been revisiting some ideas I had jotted down in my final semester that I didn’t have time to really explore, but wanted to pursue in the future. I think one or two of them are interesting enough to bear some fruit. Hopefully I’ll bring tidings of that work soon.

Disorder and Dilemma

Sometimes, Yes.

Then I decided that this disorder and this dilemma, revealed by my desire to write on Photography, corresponded to a discomfort I had always suffered from: the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical; and that the heart of this critical language, between several discourses, those of sociology, of semiology, and of psychoanalysis – but that, by ultimate dissatisfaction with all of them, I was bearing witness to the only sure thing that was in me (however naive it might be): a desperate resistance to any reductive system. For each time, having resorted to any such language to whatever degree, each time I felt it hardening and thereby tending to reduction and reprimand, I would gently leave it and seek elsewhere: I began to speak differently.

Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida; part 1, chapter 3

I started looking at Photography Professor positions today for next fall. Aside from the insane lists of qualifications they are looking for in a candidate (which no mere mortal has the chance of possessing in entirety) almost all of them make a point to mention a “strong understanding of contemporary critical theory”. This makes sense of course, a perfectly reasonable requirement, but it made me start thinking of my own troubled relationship with critical theory. Sometimes I wonder if the mandate to be making and talking about work in the scope of critical theory stems from Artists trying to justify to the world the value of Artists. That we aren’t just beautifying the world or enriching culture, we are tackling deep sociological and psychological issues that are crucial to society’s advancement.
But that seems slightly false to me, which is why I’ve always remained wary of the critical discourse. Not that there isn’t value (for it certainly does) but that it feels like that is the only lens through which to make or talk about art.But as Barthes said, it is a reduction. Maybe it is an important part of the artistic puzzle, but it is not the essential quality that it is often made into. When I look at the situation I see a certain amount of circular reasoning. Art is talked about in standard contemporary art theory terms, so contemporary art theory is taught to students, who in turn make work that is framed within that reference, and when it is shown, must be talked about on those terms… and the cycle goes on. I know there are a lot of artists that talk about being fed up with the “art world”, but at the end of the day it smacks of bitterness that they have not been on the receiving end of its collectors. Thus far I harbor no bitterness towards the system (of which I am barely in) but I do long for the freedom that exists beyond its reach. 
Another way of illustrating my frustration/realization is a story from last summer. One of our visiting artists was pushing all of us (as was his job), but it seemed to be towards the obscure or obfuscating (to use a word from my dad). He took us to several shows and it was clear that he most valued the work that was beyond difficult to “get”. As my classmate put it, “I think he likes to be confounded”. That is the complex which I think many artists don. If a viewer cannot understand it, then the work is inherently higher and therefor more valuable. But when I look at it all I see is something inaccessible that doesn’t draw me in. 
So what can I do? Maybe not much. But I can at least agree with Barthes and resolve to “speak differently” about my work at the very least. Its not that critical theory isn’t valuable and not that I won’t use it, but why must we always begin with a reduction of something that is infinitely broader?

Referent & Signifier in Photography

I began re-reading Barthes’ Camera Lucida.  I forgot how good it is. It talks about photography not as a part of the art world or a technology, but rather what specific qualities make a photographic image unique to photography. I was surprised that in the first chapter was discussing a the unique relationship between a photograph and its referent, which had I remembered, I probably would have mentioned in my thesis when I was discussing the unique relationship between technology and the referent.

A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent, or at least it is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent: it is not impossible to perceive the photographic signifier, but it requires a secondary action of knowledge or of reflection. By nature, the Photograph has something tautological about it: a pipe, here, is always intractably a pipe. It is as if the Photograph always carries its referent with itself, both affected by the same amorous or funereal immobility, at the very heart of the moving world: they are glued together limb by limb, like the condemned man and the corpse in certain tortures; or even like those pairs of fish which navigate in convoy, as though united in an eternal coitus. The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape, and why not: Good and Evil, desire and its object: dualities we can conceive but not perceive… In short, the referent adheres. And this singular adherence makes it very difficult to focus on Photography.- Barthes

 I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Show Opening at Moore

The opening for the 5 into 1 show was yesterday. It was a good time. I got to meet and talk to a few people and see what other people in the area are working on. I do think that the more I look at work and think about my own work, there is at least one thing that I’m sure of. I want my work to tell the viewer that it is carefully made and that specific decisions were made for legitimate reasons. Maybe that is some kind of elitist perspective, but an increasing amount of work that I see doesn’t strike me as being  careful. Maybe it has become popular to be so “intuitive”(to use a trendy word) that specificity and even reason is lost, and to me communication is wrapped up in both of those things, and if that is completely lost, then what’s the point?

Here’s a link to a review of the show, both me and Sarah are mentioned: