Monthly Archives: March 2014
I am a minimalist in almost every way. When I hiked the Grand Canyon I did the rim-to-rim in one day so I wouldn’t have to pack a bunch of crap in to camp and pack it back out. Light and fast – or, light and lighter. My camping trips were one-nighters staying awake all night by a fire, no tent or gear needed. So it should come as no surprise that I was 36 when I went on my first real “backpacking” trip. As with all things, however, anything worthwhile, anything worth having, seeing, or experiencing, comes at a price – and sometimes that price is throwing a load on your back and hauling it around for long distances. While minimal is good in some cases, it can be a cheap fare that holds you back from the unique, exquisite, and stunning landscapes found in remote places. I have since acquired an appreciation for backpacking and have come to associate it with something Edward Abbey said, “Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details.” It’s the details and mishaps of any excursion that provide the ingredients for reminiscing, but doing it on your own muscle and power gives it a unique flavor that makes the subsequent tall tales of adventure alluring to other would-be adventurers dreaming of similar feats.
One of those dreamers was my son, Kael. He was itching to have some adventures of his own and started asking to come along. Being new to backpacking I wasn’t sure what an appropriate age for a kid to start was, but 10 sounded good. The moment came when a friend of ours, Ty Larson, who always conjures up images in my mind of Seldom Seen Smith from The Monkey Wrench Gang, invited us to hike and backpack on top of Water Canyon. It is a popular, spring fed canyon on BLM land near Hildale in the Canaan Mountain Wilderness; a place not burdened by rules and regulations found in a National Park. It sounded perfect, not just because we would get to have a campfire, but because he was bringing his 10 year old son Boden along, who happens to be Kael’s best friend.
We met up at the Merry Wives Café, grabbed some last minute items and used the restroom, and then wound our way through the strange town of Hildale to the base of the canyon. Upon arrival it did seem to have one thing in common with a National Park, visitors. We were surprised at the train of people we got stuck behind and started to worry that we would be sharing the summit with a crowd as well. But our fears were allayed when we passed the waterfalls that separated us from the day hikers and put us on our ascent in solitude as the people and noise faded away behind us. The trail switched back and forth at a steady and gradual incline up the side of the mountain, and though I had been worried beforehand about their stamina, watching Kael and Boden scramble merrily up the trail made me reconsider my reservations about other trips. I listened to the banter and laughter between them and thought of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh where Piglets asks, “We’ll be friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” And Pooh replies, “Even longer.”
Building bonds with other people happens in unique ways, many of the strongest forming either in childhood or by walking paths of daring and courage or trial and tragedy together in life. I wondered about the bond that was being built between Kael and Boden as they tested themselves against the mountain together. Would they be life-long friends? What else does life have in store for them? Such thoughts flickered periodically in my mind as I watched them ascend and then crest the summit. Joining them there, we looked out at a vista of redrock landscape stretching from horizon to horizon, framed by bluffs of Zion peeking out in the background. There were piles of wood and campsites all around looking out over the stunning view, but we had picked a blustery and cold day to camp on such an exposed cliff, and so grudgingly set out in search of a site with a wind break. We gave Kael and Boden the job of scouting out our campsite. Not long after embarking on their scouting exploration they came running back with news that they had found the perfect spot. Excitedly they led the way to their hidden hollow, pointing out landmarks and describing its characteristics. Within a grove of ponderosa pines, nestled in and protected from the wind, was a flat clearing. They had indeed found the second best spot to camp. Stepping inside the circle of trees was like stepping out of a storm and into a shelter. All was calm within, despite the howling wind and swaying branches above and around us, and after exploring look-outs and bush-wacking, it felt good to light up a fire and take a load off. As the sun went down and the fire cast a warm glow against the growing darkness, we cooked up some dinner and spun yarns. The boys poked sticks in the fire making smoke wands, and listened quietly to tales of military hardships and working-world trials. I could see their little minds turning as they watched and listened.
We talked into the wee hours of the night and watched the stars come out and felt the wind die down before turning into our tents. Though the wind loosened its grip of the mountain, the temperatures still dropped low enough to leave a thin layer of ice on our stores of water. Like most of my camping experiences, the night was long and miserable, but still left me laughing in the morning as everyone slowly peaked out of their tents grumbling and shivering in search of fuel and warmth. Once a fire was going, we took our time thawing out with coffee and hot cocoa and watched the sun slowly make its way down the trees. As we packed up our things and made our way back out to the look-out, we noted how calm and serene it seemed compared to the night before when the wind had dominated the landscape. We took in the expansive view on the summit, snapped some photos, and then descended back down into the canyon. The sun was bright and warm and the boys didn’t skip a beat, bouncing easily down the trail. Following behind them I thought, “Well done Seldom Seen Larsen,” it was an excellent first for Kael. As I watched the boys leap frog down the trail, still talking between themselves, I envisioned them in school on Monday, washed of sand and dirt, probably stiff and sore, better friends now for having walked some earth together with tales of their own to spin.
“Of all the species that need rewilding, I think human beings come at the top of the list.” ~ George Manbiot
As I sat warming my hands by a fire getting whipped and damn near blown out by the wind on a cold March evening to please my boys who desperately wanted to test their mettle in such conditions, my mind wandered to an interview I had read earlier that day with George Manbiot (1). Manbiot wrote a book titled, “Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding,” that was released in 2013 in England. It is receiving great acclaim and will be released in the U.S. this year. In it he was asked, “Why do you think the notion of rewilding has been so provocative?”
“My sense is that people like me are ecologically bored, that we possess the psychological equipment required to navigate a world that is far more challenging than our own – a world of horns and tusks and fangs and claws. Yet our lives have been reduced to the point at which loading the dishwasher seems to present an interesting challenge.
…I think all of us have a sense that we’re not quite fulfilling our potential as the human beings who evolved in this really quite thrilling and exciting and dangerous environment, and that our lives are a bit too small and too constrained.
I think rewilding, or certainly the version of it that I’ve been suggesting, has appealed to people both because it gives hope, in that we can reverse some of the horrible destructive processes of which we’re all aware, but also because it introduces into our lives this element of wonder and delight which is too often missing.”
Pulling the beanie tight over my ears and hunkering down next to the fire for warmth against the hard, cold wind at my back, my cell phone playing folk music up on a tree above my head, I wondered how much more alert or alive I would feel sitting by this fire if there were lions, elephants, or birds with 26 foot wing spans hidden out there in the shadows. I smirked to myself as I thought that the scariest animal I bump into regularly are cows out on my trail runs and how despite their docility, I still hate running by them. Even they instill a streak of fear in me as I imagine one charging from 10 yards away.
Though we often don’t think about it in our incubated lives, getting outside, sleeping on the cold, hard ground, and enduring bad weather enables us to appreciate so much more the comforts of home. It is good to get out in the wild and to be touched by it, thrilled by it, scared by it, if for nothing else than to test our mettle and try to answer the nagging question, “Do I have what it takes? Somewhere deep inside, do I have a hidden strength and fortitude to survive?”
(1) The Great Rewilding, The Orion (Jan/Feb 2014). Jennifer Sahn.
Through the Eyes of Regina Pagles
Regina Pagles appeared on my radar screen about a year ago. Photos started to show up all over Facebook, photos taken by Regina Pagles. There was a sort of verbal swagger that accompanied these photo shoots, a sort of, “Oh, I’m doing a shoot with Regina Pagles.” Who is this woman, I wondered, is she a famous photographer? Why do people speak about her with an air of privilege, as if knowing her automatically places one in a special or elite class? Her photos did stand out. They are good – really good. They are simple, clean, crisp – even elegant. But it wasn’t until I went to her studio and looked through all of her portraits that I got the full scope and breadth of her work. People that I knew and didn’t know were transformed before my eyes into works of art, masterpieces. The subjects look like they are glowing, as if God had just breathed life into them, and at that moment, when they were chosen and called out of a dark fog, human not angelic, Regina caught it. Her photos seem to say, “As I see you.” Of course this description comes after putting some serious critical thought into her artwork, my attempt to explain what I see in her photos and why I like them.
So when she said in passing that she was trying to recreate the use of lighting that Rembrandt captured in his paintings, it all made sense. She was imitating a master. Not a master of light, but a master of contrast, a master of what is known as chiaroscuro, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting the whole composition. Immediately, her work made perfect sense. As I conjured up images of Rembrandt in my mind, I could see the similarities and had that, “ah-ha,” moment. After the photo shoot she shared commonly heard criticism of her photos: they are too staged, she directs too much, she is too controlling, she doesn’t bring out the unique personalities of the subjects, or they all look the same. To which she replies, “I am not trying to capture the personality of the subject, I am imposing personality and character on the subject that I want to see. I am shooting the photo for me, for what I like, for what I want to see.” She went on to explain that many of her models hate the photos she takes and she has learned to accept their criticism because ultimately she shoots for her own pleasure and passion. Spoken like a true artist. I was intrigued, asked her for an interview, and yes, wondered how I would look through her eyes.
Regina sounds like a New Yorker, so it was no surprise that she is originally from Long Island. Of course the next obvious question was: how did you end up in southern Utah? To which she explained, “I saw a photo of the Narrows.” By her own profession, she was not a hiker and was scared to death to do a hike like the Narrows, but she had to hike it, and when she did, that was it for her. She went to see the Grand Canyon on that same trip and ultimately visited many national parks. “I had no idea what the Grand Canyon was before visiting Zion. I didn’t know what a national park was. On that trip I talked to a person in the parking lot at Arches National Park and they told me how they were going to all the national parks. That was so foreign to me, that people would arrange their vacations around national parks. I just couldn’t grasp it, but by the time I got home, I realized and I understood that there was a world so far away from New York and the national parks were – they became my ultimate goal.” That was 15-16 years ago. She was in her late 30s when she made the trip. It took her nine months to decide to leave the city and head west.
Regina is the only girl and youngest of four children. Her introduction to photography came through her father, who was a photographer by passion. “My dad was a photographer. He didn’t like to go to work. I would always hear my mom say, dad doesn’t want to go to work again today, because dad was in the darkroom.” Her father worked as a line type operator for the New York Daily News, but he was big into photography. “I followed in the footsteps of my dad. Every step that he took, I followed. And photography was one of those.” Following in his footsteps, Regina started out as a landscape photographer. “Horrible, horrible landscape photographer. I did the darkroom thing and then embraced digital when it came out. My dad introduced me to the first version of Photoshop over 20, almost 25 years ago on my dad’s first Apple computer. We would put my dad’s head on Arnold Schwarzenneger’s body. Ever since then I have wanted to master Photoshop.” She paused, “A photo of the Narrows does not need to be photo-shopped.”
Like her father disappearing into the darkroom, she disappeared into her computer. “I would spend six hours a day, minimum, on Photoshop, and I still only know a fraction of how to use it – enough to get by. But all of that energy was wasted on landscapes. I never considered portraiture. Never.” That all changed at a Photoshop World Convention in Las Vegas. “On the expo floor the lighting company Westcott was doing a shoot-out with live models in different sets. It had professional lighting and professional models and I was instantly obsessed and mesmerized with what lighting can do. I brought my camera. I maxed out my card and had to buy another one and I maxed that one out too. Then the girl at the booth told me they were having a contest on Flickr for the best photo of the shoot-out. She said whoever wins will get $5000 worth of lighting equipment.” Regina went home and submitted her photos and won. One day a big truck pulled up with backdrops and lighting. Regina and her husband rented out the space next to them and converted it into a studio. “We threw the stuff in there. I set it up to see if I liked it and I never turned back. Never took another landscape picture again.”
That was in 2010. She had no experience with studio lighting, “No experience whatsoever. To this day I am very intimidated by studio lighting. Lighting is very technical. It’s very integral, but very technical. I’ve learned that a good portrait is produced through interaction and it’s my responsibility to make the portrait and to bring the person out, it’s not theirs (the models). If I don’t, they just stand there and stare. So it’s my job, but if I’m concentrating too much on the technical, it’s very hard to concentrate on the interaction.” Regina has got her lighting set up in a way that enables her to get the shots she wants with the confidence and freedom to interact with her model. “I’ve read when something doesn’t look right you can be one or two inches off. I’ve nailed it to a certain extent. I’m sure I could make my setup better, but I’m scared to death to try.” When she said this, a quote by T.S. Eliot popped into my head. He said,
“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”
Regina certainly fits this description of a disciplined artist working within a strict framework producing rich artwork.
When I asked her about Rembrandt lighting and if she had studied his work, she said no, but that Rembrandt lighting is all she will ever use, at least until she changes her mind. “I wanted to do pictures like Jill Greenberg. Her lighting setup has seven lights. It’s a very distinct style of lighting, so when you see it, you know it’s her work. So I won a contest, Winner Gets Me, and if you win you get Don Giannatti (Professional Photographer) for the weekend – he comes to you. Our first conversation we were discussing what I wanted to learn from him and I told him that I wanted to do what Jill Greenberg does and he says to me…
“That’s all fine and well, I just want you to know something, when you have all that lighting, it’s about the photographer. You look at that, you know the photographer. The less lighting you use, the simpler the lighting, it’s more about the subject and less about the photographer. The photographer is removed.”
…That resonated with me. It was like a light switch. It was so clear when he said that. I was so fearful of shadows, and it’s not just me, everyone who starts out in studio lighting, I’ve read, is fearful of shadows. When you are first working with lighting I think it’s easier to blast the face with light than to work it with shadows.”
Hence, the Rembrandt lighting. She started this process in 2010, so it has taken her three years to get her photos dark enough that she gets shadows on the face. Now if a photo does not have shadows, she doesn’t even want to look at it. As for knowing if she has gotten to a place where her photos are recognized while at the same time making them about the subject rather than herself she quoted another local artist who had commented on one of her photos saying,
“Although we know who took this photo, and we know the subject a lot of times, you’ve removed yourself as the artist – to the point where you’ve removed your ego from the photo and placed all the emphasis on the subject.”
Regina went on to say, “I don’t want the picture to be about me, well – the picture is about me, it’s all me. It’s a lot about me – it’s about what I want to see in the photo. I know what I want. It’s not about me – it is about me. I don’t know. It’s kind of funny, for how controlling I am as an artist.”
Regina is controlling and does direct her subjects during her shoots. While watching her I felt like I was watching a director, not of a movie, but of a person. She stated that many people don’t like it and ask her why she is so heavy handed, why she doesn’t allow them to be themselves in the photos. To which she replies, “Because it’s not about them, it’s about what I want to see.” And herein lies the dichotomy between the photos being about the subject while also being about her; why people who view her photos love them, but the subjects often don’t. This sort of control can lead one to question if there is insecurity or fear of failure driving it. While we all experience it to one degree or another, artists – people who produce work that will be seen and reviewed by the world, experience it acutely.
“I have been told pretty much my whole life that I am a failure. So to this day, I am a failure in my mother’s eyes. And I was a failure in my own eyes, up until Scott Kelby, the number one selling author on photography and Photoshop, allowed me to guest blog on his blog. I joined twitter – I don’t tweat – I signed up just to send this one tweat, to ask Scott Kelby if I could guest on his blog.” She had written the blog post a year before she asked, so she was ready when he said yes. Her post was the second most read and commented on post on his blog that year behind only the famous photographer Peter Hurly, one of her idols (1). After that she said, “I am no longer a slave to what my mother thinks about me. I have arrived. People like me. I then slowly started to realize – I’m not a failure. When this blog post happened, I felt released from my mother. I no longer needed peoples’ approval, I didn’t care what they thought – doesn’t matter. It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Now, if people don’t like my photos, I don’t care. It’s so liberating.”
So what does Regina want to do with her photography ultimately? What does someone who is not doing it for the money, who shoots for her own pleasure, want to do with it? She’s not sure. She doesn’t take money for her photos because she doesn’t want to be owned – she doesn’t want to give anyone creative control over her work or dictate what they want. In fact, she doesn’t want to take photos of anyone who “needs” photos. “When people need photos they have high expectations” she said, and followed up with, “I don’t want to do it for money.” She is interested in doing workshops where she can help people and give them the opportunity to learn something they might never otherwise get the chance to learn. She would like to get to a place where if she had to, she could live off of her photographic work. I couldn’t help asking her if she had considered hanging her photos in a gallery. Of course, this is because I enjoyed looking at her work – all of it – and would love to see it up on walls under gallery lighting, and I think there would be strong public interest in it as well. She said possibly – she might be open to it someday.
But her future as a photographer also has to do with legacy. She is at the point where she is asking, what does my life amount to? What was it all for? “Tell me my life has meaning, that people will remember more about me than oh, she was that big mouthed Jewish person at the bike shop.” In other words, what will she be remembered for? It is a question that all of us either have or will consider in our own lifetimes. This line of thinking struck a chord with me as I find myself struggling with my own mortality and asking those very same questions – what is it all for? Will I have done something that mattered? “I want to die and know that I left a smile on someone’s face for whatever reason – that they will remember more about me than something mundane. I think I do more in my life now for how I will be remembered when I’m dead.” At this moment in our conversation I couldn’t help thinking of Rembrandt and of Regina’s father. Clearly both of these men had left legacies living beyond them in this one woman. Though both are dead, I pictured them smiling at how their influence survived after them.
I liked Regina the moment I met her, but after the interview, I loved her. What I appreciate and love the most about Regina is her honesty and integrity, not just as a photographer, but as a person. But even if I hadn’t been drawn to her right away, if she had been more difficult to like, I still would have appreciated her work. I love that she is a purist and is uncompromising with it and I believe it will pay off. She has something special – something that sets her apart. If you are looking for a photographer, someone who will capture you, your personality, your character – there are plenty of photographers in the area capable and willing to do it. If, however, you get asked by Regina to be one of her subjects, first, say yes; and second, know that it is not about you and that you may not like the photos – but that your face will go into a portfolio – a gallery – shaped and directed by an artist that more than likely will be remembered long after she is gone.
As for legacy, I can’t help wondering if Rembrandt wondered many of the same things Regina does – struggled with similar insecurities or if his subjects looked at the finished portraits and hated them, and if he was also an exacting and controlling artist. Who knew he would become one of the greatest artists this world has ever seen. I am not saying Regina is the next Rembrandt, only comparing the plight of the artist pursuing an endeavor to uncertain ends – always unsure if their struggle will be worth it and if theirs will find a place in time, history, or the future. As for Regina’s legacy, I am certain she has nothing to worry about.
For more on Regina:
(1) Her guest blog spot: http://scottkelby.com/2012/its-guest-blog-wednesday-featuring-regina-pagles/
(2) Her website: http://www.reginapaglesphotography.com/
(3) Her Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/reginapagles/
This is my go-to meal. When I am out of everything and my cupboards and fridge are bare, I invariably have the ingredients for this soup on hand – or some variation of them. It is a simple, fast, and delicious soup that can be adapted to fit any taste. If I don’t have chili beans I use any beans that I have and add a can of enchilada or hot sauce. If I don’t have cheddar cheese, I use what I have, and though I love the chips, the soup is good without them. But even when I do have everything in the recipe, I keep it simple because my kids are picky eaters.
Bare Cupboards Chicken Enchilada Soup
3 chicken breasts
1 small onion
4 cloves garlic
2 cans chili beans
3 cans chicken broth or bouillon
1 tsp cumin
3 tsps oregano
1 cup cheddar cheese
1 cup sour cream
Cayenne pepper (as much or as little as you like)
Melt butter in pan and grill chicken. Shred the chicken and put aside. Chop onion and garlic and roast in butter. Add all ingredients except cheddar cheese and chips. Sprinkle with cayenne pepper and mix into soup or sprinkle individual bowls. Let the soup simmer for 15-20 minutes. Serve and garnish with cheese and chips.