Landscape Photography by A. Jackson Frishman
For the second year in a row, it’s been a challenging season, and for the same reason as last year: I have a new home. I am now settled in a small town in the Palouse region of far eastern Washington. It’s been a strange and often surprising journey to get here, but we’re very happy to have arrived and anticipate staying for many years. I’m quite pleased to be relatively close to some of my favorite country in central Idaho, as well as near many places I’ve always wanted explore in northern Idaho and northeastern Oregon.
And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Palouse region is itself a major and justly-famed destination for landscape photographers! What with all the necessities of moving and settling in, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface and I still have a lot of exploring to do. But I do have a few preliminary observations.
The Palouse is really fun to photograph.
I have to humble myself here and admit that my attitude towards this beautiful region was not always a healthy one. Like almost every American landscape photographer, I had seen many, many images of rolling hills, colorful fields and picturesque barns, and I tended to dismiss the region as cliched and overphotographed. Then I actually came here and could no longer ignore the glaringly obvious, viz. this place is really pretty and shooting it is a blast. It’s going to be an interesting challenge to dig deeper into this landscape and create original interpretations here, but playing photographically with the form, lines, colors and light is irresistibly fun.
The Palouse is connected.
For all its unique character, the Palouse lies at a nexus of many different landscapes and is in many ways a mingling of all of them. It’s a transition zone between the austere desert of the Columbia Basin to the west and the forests and rivers of the Clearwater and Bitterroot Mountains to the east. The greater Hells Canyon region and the massive and wild Salmon River drainage lie to the south and southeast. The basalt beneath its lush soils represents lava flows that stretched from Idaho to the Pacific and its taller buttes are geologic outriggers of the Rocky Mountains. The fates of local wheat fields and chinook salmon are bound together by the Snake River. I’m really looking forward to getting to know the area in the context of the entire region.
The Palouse is dramatic.
Photos from the Palouse tend to be all flowing curves and lush colors that paint a picture of a kind and gentle land. This depiction isn’t wrong, but it’s incomplete. The bucolic fertility of these windblown hills is a delicate veneer laid above and beside two of the most cataclysmic geologic landscapes in North America. Just below the soil lie almost unfathomable amounts of basalt, frozen lava that once poured from the ground as rivers of fire hundreds of miles long. The Columbia River Basalts are measured in cubic miles, tens of thousands of them, so many cubic miles that they depress the surface of the earth in central Washington. And to the west the wheatfields become increasingly broken by massive scars in the ground, as though a maniac giant struck the land repeatedly with an ax. These are the Channeled Scablands, the erosional marks of the largest floods we know of, floods that stripped the flesh off central Washington with sudden gushes of water greater than the volume of all Earth’s rivers combined. The Palouse hills feel like Tolkien’s Shire, a soft and pleasant land with a much bigger and more violent world lying just beyond its borders.
The Palouse has surprises.
It would be easy for a jaded landscape photographer to conclude that the view from Steptoe Butte and a smattering of old barns is all the Palouse really has to offer. This would be a mistake. I, for instance, was not expecting to be able to photograph autumn larches within a few miles of my new home. I also didn’t realize that there are many lovely wooded valleys tucked between the wheat-covered hills. There’s also a remarkable abundance of kestrels (I’m going to need a better long lens!). The meandering course of the Palouse river is intriguing and not often photographed, as are the more forested parts of the Palouse across the state line in Idaho, not to mention its sister farming regions south of the Snake and on Idaho’s Camas Prairie.
And with lower Hells Canyon, the Blue Mountains, the Wallowas, the Seven Devils and my beloved Salmon and Selway Rivers fairly nearby, I’ll have no trouble keeping busy.
Time: I simply do not have it right now. I’d love to write a thoughtful, intelligent post about the biogeography of the Washington Cascades, but that is not going to happen. So please enjoy some alpine gardens from the Goat Rocks Wilderness.
The Goat Rocks are a deeply eroded old volcano, essentially what Mt. Rainier or Mt. Hood will become after a few hundred thousand years of dissection by the elements. The rich volcanic soils, augmented by periodic dustings of ash from neighboring volcanoes, notably St. Helens, is conducive to very lush plant growth, and the wildflowers of the Goat Rocks are stunning. (The area has some striking resemblances to the San Juan Range in Colorado, which has very similar, albeit larger, geology.)
Summer had not yet fully come on for my first visit in July. The flowers were just getting underway, but were already quite impressive. A few weeks later, the lupine on the drier east side were certainly thriving.
I still haven’t fallen in love with the Washington Cascades, but the flowers and views (when you can get them) are fantastic!
A geologic closeup from Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness. The Goat Rocks are the deeply dissected remains of an old Cascade stratovolcano, basically what Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood can be expected to become after a couple million years of erosion. It’s also remarkably similar geology to the San Juan Range in southern Colorado, and San Juan afficionados should feel at home in the Goat Rocks. Persistent mist and rain limited the big views for me this week, but there was a lot of smaller scale beauty to be seen.
Washington does have its bright sides. We finally got out for a good overnight ridge ramble west of here, in the William O. Douglas Wilderness. Views were excellent, flowers were good and poised to get better.
Connoisseurs of Washington landscapes will have to forgive me for indulging in straightforward photographic play for a while. I’m new here, and just beginning to build an actual relationship with these places.
Some entirely gratuitous and unremarkable pictures of Rainier and Adams at sunset. I assume my official Washington Photographer Certificate is now in the mail.
Rainier has such a dominant presence, even from a distance, it’s impossible to ignore, either in real life or in the viewfinder. If you don’t exclude it entirely, it pretty much has to be treated as a major element of the composition.
View towards Mt. Adams and the Goat Rocks:
It still feels like a foreign country to me up here after so many years in the southwest and the Rockies, but it is thoroughly beautiful!
Moving to Washington state has not been easy for me. After living in the beauty of Deep Springs Valley, almost any change would have been difficult, but nevertheless it feels like we have faced constant headwinds and disappointments since the day we chose to come here. This has been true for my photography as well. Washington was the last state in the west in which I had not lived, worked or spent significant time, but I felt that my experience in neighboring states and my decade-plus of serious photography would ease the transition. But honestly, I have been stunned by just how foreign Washington feels, even here east of the Cascades, and by how difficult it has been to feel any real connection to this landscape. I have felt voiceless up here and it has a times been intensely frustrating and depressing.
During last winter and spring, I made a conscious decision to tackle my disconnection by attempting to make images with darker sides. Nature photography has a reputation, sometimes deserved, for offering only saccharine feel-good images of flowers and sunsets. I’ve always tried to look deeper in my work, but this year I’ve really leaned into expressing harsher emotions. I’ve been quite jealous of musicians’ ability to evoke frustration or sadness with just a few bars, as well as of painters’ option to assault a canvas with pigment in a physically expressive way. I can’t find a direct equivalent in photography, handling a camera angrily achieves nothing (if your experience is different I’d be interested in hearing about it!). Instead I’ve been doing lots of experimentation and searching for subject matter and compositions with harsher or more austere aesthetics and darker symbolism.
(I should probably add before going further: I’m alright. Frustrations certainly continue, but none of my personal friends reading this should feel any need to be alarmed or to intervene, though emails, phone calls and blog comments are always welcome and appreciated. And any artists who find that this resonates with them should be sure not to neglect getting any support and help they may need!)
Minimalism is always a promising approach to this sort of work.
Seeing how minimal I could go:
A more traditional landscape, but in a very minor key:
Winter is a natural season to work the dark side, but I found spring surprisingly productive in this regard too. Coming to the Northwest, even the to the rain shadow, was a huge change from the clean beauty of the desert, and the riotous growth certainly lends itself to tense, chaotic visuals and symbolism.
These two images in many ways epitomize my experience of the last eight months. Tangled, thwarted, patternless obstruction, nothing worthwhile visible on the other side. I tried these in black and white, but felt that treatment gave them an elegance I did not want, so I left them in muted, unattractive color.
I’m know this kind of work is not to everyone’s taste, but I appreciate your looking: regularly scheduled programing of flowers and mountains will resume shortly. Have any of my readers attempted to wrestle with negative emotion through nature and landscape photography, either as creator or viewer? I’d be very curious to hear other people’s observations on the subject.
Sigh…. I know, I’m not posting anything this year. Photography is rather on the back burner right now. I might have some odds and ends from Washington soon. But in the meantime, here’s one from the archives that I always meant to process but somehow never did. A friend was asking for Colorado backpacking suggestions, so I revisited this September trip in the San Juans. I miss mountains with colors and stripes!
As is the tradition, here is my end-of-the-year collection of favorite images. This is now my tenth such collection – I suppose this photography hobby is working out!
January 2018 lunar eclipse setting over Sierra crest:
Lifting storm, Eastern Sierra:
Lizard on metal, Keene Wonder Mine, Death Valley National Park:
Sea light, Channel Islands National Park:
Kelp and ripples, Channel Islands National Park:
Rosy evening light over Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park:
Aspen in eroded tuff gullies, eastern Nevada:
Luminous haze on the Golden Gate Range, Basin and Range National Monument, Nevada:
Reflecting water, Deep Springs Lake playa, California:
Light beams over Panamint Valley, Death Valley National Park:
Precambriam fossil mud cracks, White Mountains, California:
Blooming indigo bush in monsoon rain, Deep Springs, California:
Dune and mountains, Kelso Basin, Mojave National Preserve, California:
2018 was a strange year for me, and a difficult one. Lots of plans were cancelled unexpectedly or failed to pan out. I really didn’t take many trips devoted to serious photography, but instead spent a lot of time on outings with family and friends or in casual rambling. Hanging over most of the year was the prospect and logistics of leaving the California desert and moving to Washington, a process which sapped much of my mental energy and inspiration.
Atmospheric haze was something of a theme for me this year. Even before skies across the American West filled with wildfire smoke, it seemed that I much of the best light I saw was filtered through a lot of soft and hazy air, challenging conditions in which to make images. During a two-week trip through Washington and Oregon in August in the thick of fire season, I barely saw blue sky at all, and scarcely a glimpse of a mountain.
Despite these challenges, I had my share of good moments. I took many fun hikes with friends, saw lots of really interesting fossils and geology, explored some new territory in eastern Nevada, took my son on four backpacks, and got to spend some time on Santa Cruz Island, a landscape I hadn’t visited since I was nine years old.
In 2019, my main hope is simply to explore Washington, particularly the Channeled Scablands and the North Cascades, and perhaps deepen my connection with landscapes in western Idaho and eastern Oregon where I’ve always wanted to spend more time.
It seems that many of my friends and acquaintances also found 2018 to be a challenging and unpleasant year. Here’s hoping that next year is an improvement for all of us! Happy New Year!
The annual collection for family and well-wishers: this year we managed four overnight backpacks, spent two nights on Santa Cruz Island, saw lots of fossils, built a 13-kilometer radius scale model of the solar system, repeated climbing camp with Sierra Mountain Guides, summited a Sierra 13-er and checked out Mojave National Preserve. Oh, and we moved to Washington.
Five years and four months since we arrived from New Mexico, the rodeo’s over. I’ll dearly miss the geology, the night skies, the quiet, the black toads, the mostly-dry lake that always feels like the center of the universe, the unpredictable flower blooms, the winter fog, the views. And I’ll miss many excellent students, staff and faculty at Deep Springs College. But it’s time to move on. By the time you read this, we’ll be headed north for Washington and new landscapes. Washington is the only remaining western state in which I have not either lived, worked or spent serious time. It’ll take time to settle in, but I’m looking forward to new terrain. At least we’ll be east of the Cascades and still in the rain shadow! In the mean time, I still have quite a backlog of desert images to share.
Born in New Mexico, raised in Wyoming and Montana, the mountain west has always been my home. I come from mountaineering families on both sides: my maternal grandfather was a pioneering climber in the Sierra Nevada, while my father guided in the Tetons and climbed in China and Nepal. Both my parents guided for Outward Bound. I ran my first river at nine months old, and have been hiking and backpacking longer than I can remember. My other major influence has been my step-father, Stephen Bodio, a nature writer, falconer and traveler, and as fine a family member as I could hope to have.
I studied black and white photography in high school, under an excellent teacher, but failed to apply myself. After high school, I began guiding for ARTA River Trips, and my interest in photography gradually rekindled as I endeavored to share with friends and family my work in the finest landscapes of the American West. Meanwhile, I studied classical literature, philosophy and history of mathematics at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 2005. I am currently living with my wife and son in Deep Springs Valley on the Nevada-California border.
Photographically, I travel light and prefer to shoot off pavement and explore unknown locations. My favorite landscapes include the unknown expanses and little-visited mountains of rural New Mexico, the canyons of Dinosaur National Monument, and the vast wilderness of Central Idaho. I have also been fortunate enough to travel in Turkey and Mongolia, and can’t wait to do more.