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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Stalking Landscapes

Legendary scenic master Tom Till describes how to use Native American wisdom to find and create dynamic and original images

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In addition to being patient and open to the environment while stalking your next landscape photo, Tom Till has learned that Native American wisdom has imparted additional guidance. Till scouts locations for light and weather, as well as relying on timing instinct for the "Pounce" to shoot compelling images. Above: At the 822-foot drop of Kaieteur Falls, Till knew when conditions would be prime for this dramatic triple half-circle rainbow, Kaieteur National Park, Guyana.

Before me in the setting sun, three half-circle rainbows rose from the mists of Kaietuer Falls in Guyana. They had appeared as if on cue. The colors were arced in shades of orange, red, violet and green. Because the Kaietuer Falls are the highest in the world, and they have such a great flow, I had been told that such unusual phenomena occurred there with frequency. I quickly composed my shot and pounced for the kill. What had brought me to this special moment? I understood the possibilities of my subject as "prey." I had pursued the photograph with commitment, spending time, traveling far and working through obstacles in my path. I had spent time with the waterfall and learned to love its changing moods through the course of the day and had waited for the right moment to shoot. I had been humble—uncertain of my success until the last moment.

The Wupatki National Monument, near Flagstaff, Arizona, captured during a lightning storm.
All these techniques, and more, have become standard procedure for me when pursuing landscape images across the globe. Although I've had an interest in Native American culture and religion since I read Black Elk Speaks in Anthropology 101, recently I've begun to see a connection with the Native American art of stalking as similar in many ways to the techniques I've used in the field for decades. With some Native American ancestry myself, and with the help of a friend who has studied with a shaman most of her life, those connections have become more clear to me, and I believe any photographer can utilize the basic tenets of stalking to improve their photography and work in a more morally centered and selfless way. At the very least, thinking about how we work in the field in a different light is always beneficial.

I'm a down-to-earth Iowan originally and not really a "New Age" guy, but I loved the books of Carlos Castaneda, and I first learned about stalking in those tales. Whether truth or fiction, the stalking described in Castaneda's books is often a life or death matter—that's not what we're discussing here. Also, stalking doesn't literally mean hunting and killing another living thing. I've thought over the years, however, that photography and hunting, whether real or metaphoric, come from a common human drive. My brother has been an obsessive hunter with a gun since childhood. I've been a hunter with a camera for decades.

The Nankoweap Ruins were multistory housing communities created in the Pueblo III Era, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
Perhaps the best way to discuss stalking is to link its precepts directly to working outdoors with a camera. One of the major goals of stalking—harmony with the environment—directly relates to our mental and emotional attitude in the field. I've seen recent Tweets by nature photographers that are far from respectful toward nature and view the outdoor photographic process as their ego pitted in a war to wrench a good photo from an uncooperative universe. Our greatest landscape photographers, like Ansel Adams and David Muench, approached the natural world with an open heart and with the desire to contribute to the highest good—and, in most cases, the desire to preserve what they were shooting. This seems only logical. If your photograph doesn't contribute to the highest good and work as an advocate for the endangered natural world, it's time for some soul-searching.

Prey, in the shamanic view of the world, would correspond to the subjects we hope to capture in our photographs. I think it's interesting that the very word "capture" has come to describe taking a photograph in the digital age. The idea of respect for the subject is paramount. I've often said to workshop groups, and in my writing, that our subjects, whatever that may be, are vastly more important than our photography goals. Ultimately, the more harmonized the stalker/photographer is with his or her prey, the more chances for success become possible. The highest form of this harmony is love for your subject. Most photographers enter the field of landscape and nature photography because they like landscapes. As humans, we've been tied to the land for millennia. As photographers, we shoot landscapes because we love them. I've been to very few places on the face of planet Earth that aren't beautiful, and I fall in love with every landscape I visit.

Besides harmonizing with the photo subject or "prey," stalking works well only when a stalker understands his or her prey. In photography, this means being as knowledgeable about the subject as possible. David Muench once said that hoping to arrive at a landscape location on a random day at a random time doesn't give a photographer much chance for success. Muench's tactic, and one I've imitated, is to find out as much as I can about prospective landscape locations and arrive on site at a time of day and year most conducive for events like strong foregrounds, good storms, optimum sun angle and seasonal variations. Last year, I "stalked" a photograph of a site I had seen in the motion picture Gladiator—an ancient city in the desert. Information in the movie credits helped me find the subject, the Saharan desert city of Ait-Ben-Haddou, in Morocco. I determined that the best light on the subject would, fortunately, come in late fall when I also would have the best chance for clouds and cool weather. I climbed atop the restaurant nearby for the best vantage point and shot as all my preparation and my understanding of the subject created the image I had hoped for.

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