The missus and I headed down for some bouldering in Moe’s Valley this Thanksgiving weekend. The mornings were cold and the middays and afternoons just right, bordering on too warm. For much of the day, the naked sun created a sharp contrast in the scrubby desert landscape that lent itself nicely to black-and-white imagery. Here, a little gallery following Kristin (and our dog Pebble) through a day at the boulders. Did you get out this Thanksgiving weekend?
This week’s guest post is from pro climber Angie Payne. Aside from being one of the strongest boulders in the country, she’s also a gifted, self-taught photographer.
I started climbing in a gym in Cincinnati, Ohio, when I was 11 years old. When I moved to Colorado at the age of 19, spending time outside wasn’t high on the list of reasons why I climbed. I was too intimidated by the raw, inhospitable nature of nearby high-altitude bouldering areas like Rocky Mountain National Park to appreciate their splendor.
My first serious project in The Park was a V12 called European Human Being. The climb required three seasons of hard, often frustrating work, but it was during that period that the rocky armor of the alpine environment began to fracture, revealing a delicate beauty. As I progressed through various climbing projects, I started taking pictures with my iPhone in an effort to capture the beauty all around me. Soon, capturing the essence of the place where I now spent so much of my time became another kind of project that filled the spaces between attempts on the boulders. Climbing brought me to these gorgeous places, but photography added a new depth to my enjoyment of them.
Starting in 2012, I shot thousands of images using only my iPhone 4s. Eventually I added magnetic lenses and some basic editing apps to my quiver and posted my favorites to Instagram. The images below are a small sampling from the resulting collection. They are among my favorites, because I think they convey the essence of certain places and moments that I have experienced mostly thanks to climbing.
I first tried Freaks of the Industry in 2010 and spent nearly 60 days working on it [Angie sent in July 2014 —JR]. During one moment of intense frustration in 2012, the setting sun ignited the sky for a moment, leaving me no choice but to abandon my anger and enjoy the fleeting display of color.
But the distractions didn’t always come to me in the form of spectacular sunsets. When potential success was maddeningly close and I needed to force myself to rest, I would often walk away from the boulder and search for new details I had overlooked, like small ice pillars in a frozen pond. The more subtleties I found, the more at ease I felt up there. It soon became my second home.
I stepped far outside my comfort zone to go to Greenland. The raw beauty was overwhelming, and the volatility of the landscape was intimidating. Trying to capture the huge, magnificent vistas with a tiny iPhone felt futile, but it did help me get more comfortable with the remote cirque.
Greenland had a seemingly endless collection of icebergs, each with its own perfect shapes and lines. Seeing these behemoths opened my eyes to the fantastic artwork that nature can create, like a perfectly fragmented piece of sandstone or an improbable snow sculpture.
Not many places can hold a candle to the splendor of Greenland. Still, armed with my iPhone and a new “project,” I began to recognize beauty in more mundane things: an old chain, the classic airplane view, a puddle outside my front door—when the light, wind, and weather hit them just right, they are all quite pretty.
And then there are the details. One layer below those beautifully mundane things is… well… more beauty. Sticking a small macro lens on my iPhone illuminated a world of intricacies. I quickly learned that capturing these details with clarity is much like perfecting the subtleties of a boulder problem. Frustration comes quickly, but with a lot of patience and a little luck, the results can be rewarding.
I’ve heard it said that the best camera is the one you have with you. My phone is almost always with me, so it just seemed logical to keep using it as my camera. Doing so allowed me to capture moments that would have otherwise been left to my imperfect memory. One such moment came at the 2013 Psicocomp in Park City, Utah, after Carlo Traversi finished an intense race to the top of the wall, careened into the water, and barely dragged himself out again. As he struggled to catch his breath, I snapped a photo that came to epitomize the experience for me.
Another moment of this sort came during the thousand-year flood in the Front Range of Colorado, also in 2013. While cleaning out a friend-of-a-friend’s mud-filled basement, I took a break to wander through the neighborhood. The train tracks had been tossed about, turned into a roller-coaster of sorts. It almost felt wrong to snap that photo, but I did. That there was some kind of beauty in the midst of such devastation seemed deserving of documentation.
Eventually, when the rivers of the Front Range retreated and the routines of life in Boulder resumed, I found myself back where it all began. Beautiful new scenes continue to reveal themselves in Rocky Mountain National Park, even after hundreds of trips up there. Freaks of the Industry, The long-term project that was to thank for many a photo has finally been put to rest. The new interest that it helped birth, however, lives on. In fact, I just invested in a new DSLR. While capturing immense or intricate beauty with my humble little iPhone is still an appealing challenge, it seems I have found a new project in learning to master a more complicated device. And so, the cycle of projecting continues…
Angie Payne is based out of Boulder, Colorado. She’s sponsored by Mountain Hardwear, eGrips, Five Ten, Organic Climbing Company, LifeSport, and Mac’s Smack. In addition to climbing and obsessing over iPhone photos, she enjoys watching TV murder mysteries and washing dishes (seriously). Check out her website and follow her on Instagram.
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.
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…
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
- How to Spot a Climber in the Wild
- Couch Crushers to Widgeteers: 10 Climbing Personality Types Identified
- It’s Not Cool To Care
- Can You Cold-Brew Coffee With A French Press?
- From Chalk to Salve: Crap Climbers Put on Their Hands
- 50 Shades of Plaid: The Unofficial Uniform of Outdoor Retailer*
- Seven Deadly Sprays
- The Rotpunkt Method
- RIP Urban Climber Magazine
- 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!
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.”
- The Blockhead Lord
Shot with a D800 and a Nikon 105mm f2.8 Micro lens.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.