Category Archives: Photodorkery

A Trip to the Zoo

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I went to the zoo this weekend, and as always I departed feeling a little ambivalent. When you see creatures like leopards, lemurs, elephants, and apes in those drab enclosures, mere simulacra of their natural habitats, it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. I doubt any faux rock cliff or pool of hose water will ever fully engage their wild intelligences. As I wandered the paved footpaths between continent-themed enclosures, I remembered how my sensitive, vegetarian friend Ben used to call zoos “animal jail.”

On the other hand, these creatures are safe — from predators, from food pressure, from droughts, from us. And isn’t safety what we humans have been striving for since the very start? Our drive to find shelter and protection, to isolate ourselves from the constant threats of the world (coupled with an overdeveloped prefrontal cortex), is the very thing that’s made us so successful on this planet. Maybe it’s because we’ve grown comfortable in our world of boxes that we feel animals will take some sanguine comfort in a zoo’s protection.

But why then do most of us assign a certain sadness to animals in zoos? Is it because we grok that it’s a fine line between being protected and being trapped? Personally, when I feel that boundary growing threadbare, a trip into the mountains becomes particularly important to my sanity. I can only imagine how the silverback gorilla feels as he peers through the glass day after day, at the gallery of baby strollers and hairless apes with cameras, while waiting for his food to be delivered.

A mother tending lovingly to her young, a playful polar bear, a sad-looking gibbon — you can hear the children exclaiming in surprise how the animals are just like people. Through the fences and over moats, the creatures in the zoo always seem to remind us of ourselves, but rarely do we invert that logic and draw the conclusion that we are like them. Or not so much like them as are them.

Granted, it can be a problematic perspective to take. After all, when the boundary between “us” and “them” grows blurry, so do many things we hold to be self-evident. Better to do as I did and gaze with wonder at that enormous, flat face in the glass, with its black leather skin and dense fur and searching eyes, and then get back in your little box of glass and steel and drive away.

Looking and Seeing

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In the late 1970s, two of America’s best rock climbers were on a tear in Yosemite Valley, putting up new boulder problems left and right. Visionaries, both, neither Ron Kauk nor John Bachar saw the line on the Columbia Boulder, right in the middle of Camp 4, an area packed with climbers all season long. Instead, a climber Bachar described as “a drug addict, schizophrenic, and a wild guy” spotted the line first. John “Yabo” Yablonski, addled as he may have been, he was the one who saw possibility where no one else did.

As a photographer (aspiring and amateur, admittedly), I have been snapping pictures of the world around me ever since my parents bought me my first SLR in the early 1990s. Since then, my time with a camera in hand has taught me a lot about seeing — the first step in the art of photography. Strangely, this is easier said than done. Anyone can look (“A beautiful bridge! How exciting! I’ll take a picture of it!”) But to make that picture even hint at the power of the bridge you experience in your marrow, at least with any consistency at all, you have to condition yourself to see what is there. What is really there.

I know this must sound basic, or hopelessly oblique — of course you have to see! But looking is not seeing. You have to look to see, but it is quite easy to look and not see — In fact, I think it is our default mode. The photographer, the climber, the scientist, the writer — basically anyone trying to make or do anything worth a damn — must strive to see what is really before her. Only then can she decide how to proceed.

There is the bridge: sprawling span of steel and stone, rooted in earth and water. The sun hits it from this angle, throwing shadows in such a direction, stretching shapes from light and dark, illuminating some textures and obscuring others. Now frame it in your camera’s viewfinder. What does the camera see? Will that red and white tugboat be in the picture? Perhaps you should wait until it moves forward a little. Maybe wait a minute more, until it crosses that ray of light. To find the image you seek you must become, as Minor White writes in his essay “The Camera Mind and Eye,” like a sheet of film: “seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it.”

To look, you need only your eyes — to see, your mind comes into play. When you see, you’re not just observing what is outside of you, but also what is inside. Both the external and internal fall under the heading What is There. “He can look day after day — and one day, the picture is visible!” writes White. “Nothing has changed except himself.”

When Yabo looked at that wave-shaped hunk of granite in Camp 4, he saw a way for a human form to navigate its spartan surface. In a similar way Charles Darwin, on observing an orchid with an eleven-inch nectary, saw that there must be a moth with a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar in its bottom. Only four decades later would the actual moth be discovered. Any scientist could look at the oddly shaped nectary, but not anyone could see its implications.

Luckily, like any skill, one can practice seeing (although, as far as I know, there’s no rulebook for it). A simple exercise: next time you’re looking at something, whether the face of a rock, a subject to be photographed, or some problem in your work or professional life, take the time to look for what is truly there. Don’t let other’s opinions or your own expectations overly influence you. Ask yourself again and again, “What is there? What is there?” When you do that and do it well, answers start to present themselves.

What to do with those answers? That’s another story…

Top 10 Most Popular Posts of 2012

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I started The Stone Mind less than a year ago, in February 2012. In some ways, it feels like I just started. In other ways, it’s like I’ve been writing it forever. At first it was just a way to keep me working with words after I left my job as a magazine editor. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted the blog to be about. I posted product reviews, photo galleries, an interview or two, personal essays, even a short story. As the months passed, things came into their own focus, and now most of my posts deal with climbing, nature (human and otherwise), and Eastern philosophy, and the many ways in which these topics connect, overlap, and inform each other.

In 2013, I plan to explore these topics further, while at the same time reserving the right to strike out in new directions — this blog, after all, is nothing if not an experiment and an act of personal passion.

Before moving ahead, however, I thought it might be nice to take a quick look back at the most popular posts of the past year. Here are the Top 10 (out of more than 100), ranked by page views. For various reasons, these are the ones that have garnered the most eyeballs. There are many other posts that are dear to me on this blog that have received only a fraction of the views. I know time and attention are the Internet’s most precious commodities, but if you like any of the posts listed below, you might consider taking a moment to poke around in the archives, too. Either way, I hope you find something that interests you.

As always, thanks for reading.

–The Blockhead Lord

Top 10 of 2012

  1. How to Spot a Climber in the Wild
  2. Couch Crushers to Widgeteers: 10 Climbing Personality Types Identified
  3. It’s Not Cool To Care
  4. Can You Cold-Brew Coffee With A French Press?
  5. From Chalk to Salve: Crap Climbers Put on Their Hands
  6. 50 Shades of Plaid: The Unofficial Uniform of Outdoor Retailer*
  7. Seven Deadly Sprays
  8. The Rotpunkt Method
  9. RIP Urban Climber Magazine
  10. Master of Movement or: Why Bear Grylls Is Running Through the Desert

*This “50 Shades of Plaid” ranking does not include the tens of thousands of page views if you add up all the separate images in the gallery — with those it would easily be the top post!

A Moon for Halloween

Moon and Tree - photo: © Justin Roth

 

The night before last, I was standing in an empty field just as the full moon rose through the branches of a tree. I took this picture. A grand, pale orange form as it mounted the horizon, the moon appeared to shrink smaller and smaller as it rose, until it hung like a bare bulb in the sky above us. The sight conjured a Zen story from Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. The lesson, as always, is one of perspective:

The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you shoud not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow, ” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

Happy Halloween…

- The Blockhead Lord

Photo Friday: Nikon D800 Time-Lapse and Some Birds

Just playing with the D800 some more. So far, I continue to be impressed. Two things on my wish list (and, it sounds like, everyone else’s wish list, too): 1) faster frame rate and 2) smaller RAW image size option. Anyway, minor nits. Of course, now that the D600 looks like a real option on the horizon, I’m starting to wonder if I’ll regret having dropped $3000 on an FX camera when I could have gotten a $1500 FX camera with many of the same features. Ah well, the best cure for inklings of camera-buyer’s remorse is to use the tool to create some cool work.

The following images were captured during last weekend’s Living Traditions cultural festival in downtown Salt Lake City. Strangely, I took most of my favorite images that day at small pop-up tent with a few guys and a bunch of birds, located near the festival entrance. I’m not sure what the booth was all about, but the birds were fascinating to observe.

But FIRST… here is a (somewhat underexposed) time-lapse video straight out of the D800. The camera’s automatic time-lapse function captured the images and stitched them together, in camera, into a .mov file. Pretty slick! For you pros out there, it probably makes more sense to capture hi-res .jpg files with the interval shooting mode and then create your own animation in Quicktime Pro, but for fun projects, this is a very neat little feature.

A parrot outside the Living Traditions Festival in Salt Lake City.

A parrot outside the Living Traditions Festival in Salt Lake City.

A fuzzy young owl.

A fuzzy young owl.

Dancers at the Living Traditions festival.

Dancers at the Living Traditions festival.

The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

Baby birds waiting to be fed.

Baby birds waiting to be fed.

Photo Friday: Welcoming the D800

Succulent on the coffee table. Shot with a Nikon 105mm f2.8 Micro at 1/60 sec, f3.2.

Succulent on the coffee table. Left is the full, right is a 100% crop. Notice how unobtrusive the grain is in the crop, despite the fact that it was shot at ISO1250. Shot with a Nikon 105mm f2.8 Micro at 1/60 sec, f3.2 (click to see a larger version).

I just picked up a Nikon D800 from Pictureline, one of the best camera shops I’ve been to and certainly the finest shop in Utah. I have been shooting test frames around the house, and so far I’m impressed. The dynamic range, noise at high (1250) ISO, autofocus, overall usability, and overall image quality are superb.

I had to download a RAW update for Photoshop, and still can’t seem to get things working with Lightroom (I think I have to buy an upgrade), but I was able to open and pixel pick through a couple dozen images. They are definitely superior to the shots from my old D700, and far better than those of the D7000 I shoot with now. I’m anxious to get this thing out and capture the Salt Lake Valley and surrounding Utah landscapes, which deserve every iota of the D800′s 36mp full-frame sensor power.

So far, the only thing that I am not pleased with is the Live View feature. When you zoom in to focus on an image, the view is very noisy. I have read about this as a possible problem to be solved with a firmware update. Hope it doesn’t prove to be a problem down the line… Until then, here’s a quick example of the detail you can get out of the D800.

[Vid] Aerial Video Rig Tracks Sasha DiGiulian Climbing Era Vella

Behold, a new entry on the list of rad shooting rigs allowing climbing videographers to capture the vertical (or beyond-vertical) act in ways they could never quite capture it before.

The Sea to Sky Cable Cam is a portable camera rig that allows a video camera to travel up and down on rope tracks while an operator controls tilting and panning with a remote control. The Sea to Sky crew has used rigs of this sort to shoot a variety of action sports. Most recently, as you can see in the video below, to follow Sasha DiGiulian up Era Vella a 9a/5.14d in Margalef, Spain. (Unconfirmed: “Era vella” means “old threshing floor” in Catalan, according to one poster on Climbing Narc.)

Big Up Productions worked closely with Matt Maddaloni of Sea to Sky to develop the climbing-specific rig used to shoot this footage, which will be edited into one of the videos of the upcoming Reel Rock Film Tour.

Sasha DiGiulian on Era Vella

Sasha DiGiulian on Era Vella (9a/5.14d) Margalef, Spain. Keith Ladzinski photo.

This isn’t a new invention. The NFL, for example, has been using Skycams for years, but it is an early use in the climbing world. And, of course, due to the hard-to-access nature of rock climbs, it is a welcome addition, allowing for some very smooth, otherworldly perspectives on the act of climbing.

In the past, says Josh Lowell of Big Up Productions, his team has used pulley systems to haul a camera operator up overhanging walls, meanwhile dreaming of an unmanned system that could be operated remotely. So Big Up brought Maddaloni out to Spain to help shoot DiGiulian, and also Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra, who were working a 5.15c project in Oliana together. “It took a lot of experimenting to figure out what worked and what didn’t work,” says Lowell, but he’s enthusiastic about the footage, describing it as “long, continuous, single shots of the best climbers in the world trying the hardest route in the world … the camera silently tracking along with them the whole way.” Sounds good.

Not long ago, I wrote about the use of helicopter drone rigs to produce similar birds-eye shots. We can only assume that as climbing grows, along with demand for high-production-value climbing media, we we see more of these floating and flying perspectives and more of these ingenious techniques for capturing them.

Sea to Sky Cam at Kokanee Crankworx

A horizontal Sea to Sky Cam at Kokanee Crankworx

Of course, fancy shots do not a good video make — ultimately, it is the story and the characters that pull us into any movie. Judging by their previous track record, however, the folks at Big Up and the Reel Rock Tour will not disappoint on this front, either.

Photo Friday: Southeast Bouldering Moderates – Part 1

A few years ago, a group of friends and I headed to the Georgia-Tennessee area for a New Year’s bouldering trip. Originally, the plan was to shoot a Southeast bouldering moderates photo essay for Urban Climber, but another magazine ran a similar piece around the same time, so I put mine on hold. I left the mag shortly thereafter, and the photos have been languishing on my hard drive ever since. Until now, when they become the content for a two-part Photo Friday!

Alex “Lowthzilla” Lowther keeps his head on Guillotine (V4), Rocktown.

When it came time to write captions for this post, I couldn’t remember anything. Not the problems’ names, grades, or even the areas they’re in. The notes in which I took down all this information were nowhere to be found, so I contacted my friend Nick Greenwell to help me fill in the blanks. He’s one of those climbers who ticks off all his climbs in the guidebook and adds notes. If there isn’t a published guide, he’ll find info on the web, print it out, and bring it to the crag. All this seems almost unnecessary, as he has a near-photographic memory when it comes to climbing. When I sent him the pictures, he quickly bounced back the info I needed. Color me impressed.

As you peruse these photos, you will hopefully get a sense of the quality of the Southeast’s bouldering. It is truly excellent. I’ve bouldered in Fontainebleau, Hueco Tanks, Bishop, the Gunks, and all over Utah and still the Southeast is at the top of my list. The biggest strike against the region is the weather: rain, bugs, and humid, blistering heat all conspire to shrink the windows of climbing opportunity. But when the weather is good, the air crispy-dry and cool, as it was during our trip, there is nothing like a climbing day on the diverse sandstone formations of the Southeast. (There’s an excellent guidebook for Rocktown, available here and one for Stone Fort here.)

Thanks Nick.

Justin Vining puttin’ the moves on Dragon Lady (V4), Stone Fort

Robin Maslowski gets The Scoop (V3), at Rocktown. This problem is notable for its beautiful shape, but also for its searingly unoriginal name.

Joey Joe-Joe Junior Shabadoo (not his real name — I don’t know who this is) sending Spyro Gyro (V7), Stone Fort.

Amy Hartman Cryan on the very technical The Crescent (V1), Stone Fort.

Nick Greenwell taking a piss on Golden Shower (V5), Rocktown.

Photo Friday: Night Running Video Shoot, Behind the Scenes

This week, I spent two evenings out shooting video with Salt Lake City-based ultra runners Jared and Mindy Campbell and members of the local production company Camp 4 Collective. The footage was for a Petzl video project highlighting night running with headlamps. Below are some “behind the scenes” images and general scenics I snapped while the Camp 4 masterminds, headed up by Tim Kemple, captured stunning footage of Jared and Mindy doing their thing. (I dig my job.) Plus, down below, three important things I learned while out on these shoots.

Camera phone shot taken near Buffalo Point on Antelope Island.

Camera phone shot taken near Buffalo Point on Antelope Island.

A lesser island in the Great Salt Lake, as seen from Antelope Island.

A lesser island in the Great Salt Lake, as seen from Antelope Island.

Day 1:

I brushed at the tiny black carcasses of dead gnats peppering the hairs of my forearms. Other gnats, still lively, vibrated against my cheeks and into my ear canals. One of the Camp 4 camera guys, Hennie, blasted my face and head with Backwoods OFF, but it seemed to have limited effect. We hiked the short trail up to Antelope Island’s Buffalo Point trying not to swat and paw at the gnat clouds that surrounded our heads like dark halos.

Tim Kemple of Camp 4 Collective, waiting for the pesky golden hour to pass so we could shoot some night running.

Tim Kemple waiting for the pesky golden hour to pass so he can shoot some night running.

Once up at Buffalo Point, the wind kept the bugs at bay and we were treated to an epic sunset. Golden light poured across the island, moving the vibrance and saturation sliders up a notch. Soon after the sun went down, Jared and Mindy started running and the Camp 4 crew started shooting. Lightning flashes popped far to the west, somewhere over the edge of the Great Salt Lake. We shot until it was much later and darker than we’d anticipated. On the way home, I just barely resisted the Camp 4 crew’s tempting offer to hit the In-N-Out Burger for a midnight snack.

Day 2:

The wind was cranking up on top of the hill. The trails of the Bonneville Shoreline system traced the spring-green ridges and valleys all around us. Below, Salt Lake City was a sprawl of tiny houses and buildings, dwarfed by the snow-laced Wasatch Mountains in the distance.

The view from the hill, looking down on Salt Lake City and the Wasatch

The view from the hill, looking down on Salt Lake City and the Wasatch.

I had to make a  phone call to help guide my boss up to our location, but the reception was crap, so I walked up to the top of the hill. There, the wind was its worst, scouring every surface. It rippled mercilessly through my thin, short-sleeved shirt. I looked around, and saw that everyone else wore some sort of jacket. It occurred to me then that I have always been the type of guy who brings the stuff he doesn’t need (on this day: a laptop, a copy of Emerson’s collected works, an empty Tupperware container) and fails to bring the stuff he does need (something to block the chilled, howling wind!). I made the call, but the wind made everything sound like amplified static. I gave up.

Runners and crew on the wind-shielded side of the hill, waiting for the sun to drop

Runners and crew on the wind-shielded side of the hill, waiting for the sun to drop. In this picture, the guy with jean shorts and a moustache is telling everyone about the hipster race he started in which competitors are required to run in jean shorts and moustaches.

The runners, camera crew, and I were waiting for the sun to go down so we could start capturing night running footage. Already shivering in the daylight, I wondered how far the mercury might drop after sundown. But really, my suffering was trivial compared to what Jared had endured just weeks ago, when he ran the Barkley Marathons, a 100-mile race with nearly 60,000 feet of vertical gain and loss through the Blair Witch woods of Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park. I can’t even fathom the mindset required to endure such a journey.

Jared Campbell on camera

Jared Campbell, pain cave explorer, mugging for the camera.

Salt Lake City from above

Sprawlingly awesome: Salt Lake City from above.

Despite the wind and a nagging chance of rain, the shoot went well and the skies had a nice look to them. Jared and Mindy were consummate professionals and never once abandoned their good humor while we made them run back and forth on the same stretch of trail repeatedly or sit shivering in the dark answering interview questions while staring into a huge ring light. I can only imagine that after you’ve run 100 miles, all day and all night, your idea of what constitutes a hardship must change. Meanwhile, I was excited that Camp 4 brought out a RED camera to do some of the shooting. Truly the wet dream of the video gear head set.

Hennie and the RED camera, up on a windy hill.

Hennie and the RED camera, up on a windy hill.

Three things I learned…

The final footage should be coming soon. Already, the Camp 4 guys have left on a jet plane for some big deal video shoot or other. Before we parted ways, Tim told me it was nice to shoot something locally for a change. I realized then that I’d learned three valuable lessons working with Camp 4 and the Campbells:

  1. Shooting quality video is not all fun and games. In fact, it is hard goddamned work, and should not be taken lightly. These guys work long hours shooting and longer hours editing, have to know a ton of technical stuff, have to be creative one the fly, and have to know how to make magic even when things go pear-shaped, which they inevitably do.
  2. Ultra runners are batshit crazy. I have no clue what drives a person to explore their own mental and physical limits like Jared and Mindy do, but I respect it. I respect it from the comfort of my couch.
  3. The Salt Lake Valley, despite being a strange place culturally, and despite have ruefully bad air pollution issues, is one of the prettiest places a person can live. I also realized for the first time that autumn, my favoritest season on the East Coast, is not my favoritest season out West. Here, spring is king, with the green hills and still-white mountain tops. Spring out East is muggy and damp. Here it is refreshing like an Irish Spring commercial. Spring, I lift my glass to ye. Sláinte!

Links to stuff mentioned in this post: