Experiments in Nature Photography

A couple of weeks ago I was tagged in a nice Facebook post from an old high school friend and fellow photographer, inviting me to post one nature photo a day for 7 days, as a kind of artistic electronic chain mail.

I've always said I don't "do" nature photography, that while I feel confident shooting and editing images of people and their objects, I don't "get" what makes a good landscape. I can look at two portraits and tell you which one is better in terms of composition and action/feeling and processing style, but nature photos, I thought, left me cold and clueless. A lot of what gets classified as "nature photography" struck me boring, overly clinical and textbook. Where's the feeling? Where's the magic and luck?

In retrospect this lazy narrative has all been nonsense — two of the photographers who have had the most influence on me could often be called nature/landscape photographers: Michael Nichols, and my dad Alan Mathiowetz, both of whose work hangs all over our apartment and whose compositions have startled me, made me think and feel and wonder how.

Just before I closed that window, I thought, "... maybe if I don't know how to do something I should try to figure it out, even if it means a lot of failure? Maybe especially if I don't know how to do something I should do it and do it often?"

So I commented: I'm in.

And then I thought "... now what?"

Walden Pond Trail Trail (Walden Pond)

I went on some hikes, hoping to find this elusive "nature." First stop was the most nearby nature I knew of: Walden Pond! To shoot deliberately!

I avoided the actual Walden Pond and its lines of tourists for some path that wandered off a parking lot where no one was. Then I left the path.

Then I was lost! Hurray!

Self as Tree Self as Tree (Walden Pond)

Spotlight on Pine Spotlight on Pine (Walden Pond)

Tree in Sun Tree in Sun (Walden Pond)

This Used to Be a Lake Center of the Lake, Dry Season (Walden Pond)

Walden Pond Mud Mirror (Walden Pond)

Lichen and Rock Lichen, and Rock (Walden Pond)

Before this photo challenge, I can't tell you the last time I went on a hike by myself. I've gone camping and on hikes with family and friends; I've walked dogs around neighborhoods and parks. But just ... me, and the woods all around? You listen differently when you're by yourself. You see differently when you can stop for whatever you want to, take whatever turn you like, go backwards, sit down, wait. Walks with other people are so directed.

I didn't look at my watch. I kept shooting until it was too dark to continue, and then I walked back to the car where I could happily turn on the radio and the heat, warming my cold fingers over the vents.

My fiancé Janaka joined me for the next trip: on a cool wet Saturday we drove to the Manchester Essex Conservation Trust.

Self in Bog Self in Bog (Manchester Essex Conservation Trust)

branch Green Pine (Manchester Essex Conservation Trust)

Swamp Marsh Lookout (Manchester Essex Conservation Trust)

I hopped over the path and wound up ankle-deep in mud, tangled in a bunch of poisonous berries, so that was more exciting than our usual Saturday of errands and house tasks. Janaka was a very helpful and quiet assistant, lifting me over things, holding lenses and my hand on the damp wood railings. Afterwards we stopped by Woodman's, and despite having solemnly vowed to Janaka that for all of our days together I would never, ever try clam chowder, or anything at all involving clams (because I'm from the Midwest where clams are distrusted, and it's hard to let go of distrust), or really anything involving chowder (because that word is also gross): that day, I did, and it was insanely delicious.

Lesson two of hiking: warm sustenance is necessary afterwards.

After that I had fulfilled the assignment: 7 days, 7 images. (Selection of 10 shown here.) Ta da! NATURE! I did it!

Seascape Seascape (Ellisville Harbor State Park)

But then ... I'd read in a guidebook that Plymouth had seals, and yesterday the forecast was warm and dry. So I headed back out for another solo journey, and despite the hours of traffic and the hot tea from the full thermos spilled all down my coat and the countless times I nearly turned around to go back home since I was sure the sun would be set by the time I arrived ... I'm so glad I went.

Maybe this will become a semi-regular thing, to stay in practice and get better.

Seals Seals Seals Seals! (Ellisville Harbor State Park)

The sound of seals barking is unlike anything I've ever heard before. I would build a house on the beach, just to be near that strange and beautiful cry. That sound alone basically contains all the elements present in some of my favorite films; there is a darkness, and a sadness, but at the same time you're laughing at the absurdity. They raised their heads out of the sea and flopped on the rocks, chattering like rows of anguished "nope" monsters. BWAAAAAAAAP BWAPBWAPBWAP!

Sunset on the Rocks Sunset on the Rocks (Ellisville Harbor State Park)

Night Falls Night Falls (Ellisville Harbor State Park)

I stayed too late; the sun set, and I had a mile walk back through the woods to the parking lot with no flashlight. My boots were wet with algae slime and sand and snow, my cheek cut by a renegade twig. I was happy.