Dealing With Nature – Part 2: Staying Safe

We’ve all seen those glorious landscape photos on cards, in books, as screen savers, in galleries and museums.  And for the fine-art photographer, landscape and nature photographs are the most common of the fine art subjects.  We all want to take images that would make Ansel Adams jealous, and yet, we rarely venture out off the highway turn-out to find those incredible shots.  Why?


Fear is the biggest obstacle for many photographers when contemplating heading out into nature to photograph her on her own terms.  Of all the emotions, fear is the worst.  It is the most debilitating, the most paralyzing, the most likely to end up in hatred.  We don’t want you to end up hating nature but being comfortable in it, and that means you need to learn the skills to let you feel unthreatened and, as my uncle use to say, “Walk in balance and harmony” with nature.

But first let’s lay a bit of foundation for it all.  I talked in the last post about how nature will talk to you.  I don’t mean it will announce, with a sonorous voice from inside a bush (although I confess if it did it would have my complete and undivided attention…), what you should do; but it will present you with imagery that, metaphorically can bring out emotional responses you can share with your viewers. We are all descendants of dwellers in the bush and there is still a connection there though it has been dulled and shoved aside by modern living and needs.  Consequently, a lot of people, especially those raised in the city, are very uncomfortable heading out into the bush and, to be honest about it, are a little afraid since it is so unfamiliar, and so many stories abound about people running into big trouble once off the beaten path.  And yet… it is in those unfamiliar surroundings that some of the most stunning photographs can be found waiting for you.

It’s important to understand, therefore, that nature will not purposefully harm you.  Now, to be honest, it will blithely let you harm yourself and not get in your way if that is your desire; but it will also not trouble itself to target you for harm.  Indeed, it will not trouble itself caring about you one way or the other, so consequently, unlike humans, it does not lie.  I’ve heard people gush that “I just LOVE nature.”  Get over it.  It does not care.  It does not seek your love because it knows the most common lie among humans concerns love; it only expects you to respect it and learn the rules.  It does not give a hoot if you love it or not, that is meaningless.    But if you respect it and learn those rules, the rewards can be simply awesome for the artist.  If you truly respect it you will come to want to protect and preserve it for your future images hunts and for others as well.  And the more you respect it, the more it will reveal of itself to you, and the more imagery you will have to show for it.  And the more comfortable you will become and want to spend more time in it.  It really is a win-win.

So what are the rules for the photographer venturing off into nature in pursuit of the wily image?  Remember in the last post I said my friend held that an “adventure” was an event that resulted from a failure of planning.  Most of the time, my experience indicates that is true, but there are times when all the planning in the world cannot protect you from being blindsided by an accident.  So, let’s divide our discussion into two major parts.  The first part (this post) will be focused on avoiding that unfortunate adventure via pre-trek planning that will, well over 90% of the time, keep you out of trouble and bring you home safely and without adventure.  The next post(s) will deal with the issues that arise when even that planning fails to shield you from an adventure (or when it really IS an adventure due to bad planning).

Final note before we start.  Reading a few blog posts or books or even watching demos on video will not, repeat, WILL NOT, make you into a viable survivalist or prepper.  Dealing with a true survival type situation where you have to remain in place in the middle of nowhere for several days without the conveniences of civilization and are, worse yet, possibly hurt, IS NOT EASY!  It’s not easy on the emotions and it will demand a lot from you in terms of skills and just determination to make it. This is especially true if there are other folks in your group even less experienced than you.  They will instantly look to you for your skills and knowledge to keep them alive and if they lose confidence in that you will have a full blown panic on your hands which can turn deadly in an instant.  The most I can do here is show you some places to start.  So lets get with it…

Martial artists learn that the best way to deal with an incoming strike is not to be there when it arrives.  For our purposes it means doing whatever we can in advance to reduce or eliminate the chance of something going wrong.  The first item of business is trip planning.  Like a pilot, creating a “flight plan” that is reasonably doable, and then making sure that someone NOT going is aware of it, is critical.  The information should include your destinations, itinerary, and, perhaps most importantly, when you will be returning.  They will need to now within a reasonable “grace period” when they should hear from you that either you are home safe or there has been a change of plans, before they start sending out the cavalry to find and rescue you.  But it will make any survival situation more bearable if you know that before long, someone will be searching for you and have a good general idea where to look.

Do you know your vehicle’s mileage?  Not just on the highway, but when you are off-highway and following a dirt road?  It will likely be much less so do you know when to top off the tank to be safe? (Answer: regardless of where the gauge is, top it off just before you leave the pavement.)

If you have a cell phone and coverage, then try to check in daily with your stay at home backup and give new data if you decide to alter your initial plan.  This alone could save a lot of people major problems every year and all over the country.

If you are not a good map reader, become one.  Learn the basics of navigation and orienteering especially including how to use a good compass and map. This may seem unneeded if you intend to simply do car travel and stay in motels or campgrounds and got yourself one of those fancy GPS thingies.  But if you plan on ANY amount of hiking or exploring, know that most of the survival situations each year start out as simple day or even hourly hikes and then something goes terribly wrong.   You get off trail and get lost; you trip and break a leg, there are any number of ways a simple hike in a National Park or Forest and turn serious and potentially deadly if you are not prepared for every eventuality you can think of.

Do not rely on your clever GPS device which may run out of battery or get broken or lost in the field.  When they work they make navigation incredibly easy, but when they fail to operate, you will be dependent on some more traditional skills.  They are like calculators.  I used to be good at math – until I got my first calculator.  Within a disgustingly short amount of time my ability to do math was severely diminished because I relied on the calculator.  Other electronic devices are the same.  They are wonderful when they work, but don’t let them take away your knowledge and skills of what to do when they are not available.

When walking through nature, slow down, literally, stop and smell the flowers.  Move slow enough to allow yourself to become totally aware of what is all around you: the beauty of it as well as the danger of it.  The glorious outcrop against an azure sky but also the root about to trip you or the low hanging branch about to lay you low.  Learn to see and laugh at the antics of the squirrels but also see the tracks and sign that let know you are not the only predator in the forest.  Having your map and plan in your head so you do not need to be glued to the GPS, will free you to look around and be part of this incredible environment.  Being worried about staying on trail will divert your attention from the often incredible detail all around you just waiting for you — YOU — to see while others go right on by.

And give a copy of your map and planned itinerary to your backup that will be staying at home.  Just as on your copy, it should pin point intended stops and campsites.  If something goes wrong that will give them the ability to better aim the folks coming to your rescue. Then YOU stick to the plan unless you can connect with them to alert them to your changes.

I know, I know… you have no plans for extensive exploration and, at most, intend a few hour, or at most a day trip from the trail head or parking lot hunting for an overlook or unique shot.  So why worry with about all that stuff; surely it is massive overkill… isn’t it?  Well the reason is mathematical.  By FAR AND AWAY, the greatest number of people needing extraction and rescue from the woods and who are in the worst condition when found, are the day hikers.  Why?  Because they are the ones who least expect a problem and therefore tend to be the worst equipped or prepared for emergencies.  Don’t become one of those statistics.

How?  Plan a day hike with the same care you would plan a week long survival hike.  More people are lost and injured wandering away from the official picnic site than whoever attempted serious survival treks into the woods.  Real explorers prepare for everything and rarely get in trouble.  It is the recreationist that uses cheap tools and survival gimmicks, if they have anything at all, and find themselves in trouble.  Ask any rescue service or group if you don’t believe me.

So, with a plan identified and provided to your “back up,” now it is time to make sure your equipment is in good shape.  We all know to charge batteries for our shooting gear, but do you know how to make sure your vehicle is REALLY up for the trip?  Your vehicle is your major transportation but it may also end up being your survival shelter.  If it is not in top condition, take it to your mechanic, tell him or her what you plan, and ask them to make sure the vehicle is mechanically as ready as possible: no leaks, good belts, no electrical drains, good tires and battery, fluids topped off, etc.  If you have an older vehicle, especially, start each day on the trek with a “walk around” check to include tires, fluids, etc.

Now how about you and your party?  We’ll talk about specific skills and techniques in later posts, but first, do you have with you the tools and gear with which to easily apply those skills?  Don’t be misled by movies or TV shows where people get lost or in trouble and have no trouble making a shelter or starting a fire with a couple of sticks, or hunting, fishing, and trapping small game, and whose canteens seem to never run dry like the old westerns where no one ever had to reload.  Hiking out down the mountain side with a broken leg and a tree branch crutch may seem reasonable in a movie… until you have to try it with someone (maybe yourself) with a low pain tolerance and gripped with fear and agony.  I assure you, the reality will be very different… very quickly.

You should never venture into the woods alone unless you are a true and experienced wilderness explorer (and most individuals with those qualifications do not venture off the trail alone either…  And every one in your party should be prepare to take care of the others if something happens.  Don’t designate a single person to carry survival gear.  If THAT is the person who slips on the cliff trail and takes the gear with them you are now ALL in trouble.

No one thinks it will happen to them, and for most of them that is likely to be true.  But not one of the people who gets lost or seriously injured… or die… each year out in the woods thought it would happen to them either.   So what should you really prepare for?  Here is a breakdown of your greatest threats to survival:

  1. You can live for about 3 weeks without food if you seriously conserve energy.
  2. You can live for about 3 days without water if you conserve hydration
  3. You can live for from about 3 minutes to about 30 minutes if your core temperature rises or lowers below normal.

Now put that data into perspective. So what is clear is that in most “normal” survival events (as if any true survival event is normal) the statistics are you will be found (if they know to look for you) within 3-5 days.  Yes there are occurrences that can go on longer but that is the typical duration.  So for most individuals, food is the least of your problems in terms of survival.  However, that figure can be a little misleading.  When you are hungry in such a situation it is easy to let that hunger trigger panic so you will have to keep that from happening just because your stomach thinks your throat has been cut.  A fistful of energy bars you can ration will go a long way toward eliminating this issue.  If your ordeal went a full week, a dozen energy bars will leave you hungry but far from starving.

Then we have the question of water.  In the woods with lots of cover and shadow you can perhaps go for over that 3 day limit if you minimize movement and energy loss.  If you are in the desert where it is hot then that 3 days may be incredibly optimistic.  So make no mistake: water is critically important.  Ideally you would have a gallon per day but unless perspiration is depleting your hydration rapidly, even ½ gallon per day will keep you going.  So make sure your car has plenty of water for you (and for it) plus if you take off on a hike take a canteen or water bottle in your backpack.  Don’t waste it but don’t wait until you are thirsty and dehydrated to take a mouthful of water.  But on the trek “out” from camp, do ration it as best you can without risking dehydration so you’ll have plenty if for some reason you are delayed.  In the next segments we’ll talk about getting water naturally.  But the best bet is always to take it with you.

Aren’t we making a big deal out of nothing here?  You decide for yourself but consider this.  All it takes is a minor slip to seriously injure yourself against a broken tree limb: a trip over a hidden stump to demonstrate that a typical rock is tougher than a typical skull, a hunk of ledge shoulder crumbling under your feet, a braced grip on a wet tree fails, a falling branch, backing unexpectedly into a cholla —  these incidences can be just mildly irritating or potentially deadly.

So do you at least have a good first aid kit with you with first aid cream plus bandages – even band aids???  Do you have some aspirin or acetaminophen to help with pain.  Can you dress a wound if necessary? Can you remove a splinter or cacus spine?  Can you at least splint an arm or leg if necessary?  If you have to spend a night and day in the woods do you have any necessary meds you must take daily with you?

Once you step away from the pavement, all the things civilization allows us to take for granted will fade away and be out of reach.  Are you prepared for at least the little common issues?  Unattended, those common problems can turn serious very, very quickly.

And then we have the part that will kill you fastest: “exposure” which is a rise or lowering of your core temperature.  That means that your number one consideration should be shelter either from the heat or from the cold.  Let’s deal with heat first since here in San Diego we are so close to the desert.

Overview of Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley NP

Overview of the Mesquite Dunes near stovepipe wells, Death Valley NP

HEAT.  Once you have spent any amount of time in the desert, especially in the summer, you will know clearly that “warmer is not always better.”  Excessive heat will deplete your hydration at a very accelerated rate, and as water is lost, lethargy will set in as your muscles fail to work normally until the most critical muscles, your brain and your heart, fail.  As you approach terminal hyperthermia your skin will get pale and clammy, your tongue swells, you will get a brutal headache, and as your body literally dries out, you become less and less coherent, and then you die.

You can only take off so many clothes and then you risk burning your skin and it is worse.  The solution is to reduce the heat; get in or create shade, get in a place with some breeze if possible, stay hydrated if you can.  If you absolutely must travel and can do so safely, rest in the day out of the sun and travel at night.  During the day plan your route and then follow it at night.

By the way, do you have a good broad brimmed hat or at least a modern Keffiyeh or Shemagh style scarf from which you can make a good head covering to protect not only from sun but from blowing dust and sand.  Cowboys used neckerchiefs and bandannas but they were not the little pocket hanky style, they were much larger like… well… lie a shemagh.  (Go ahead and look it up…)

Joshua Trees and Rocks 01

Late afternoon light on Joshua Trees and rock piles in Joshua Tree National Park

But do you know where to head? Do you actually know exactly where you are?  And from that, do you know where your car is or, from your map studies, where the nearest Ranger Station of other help might be?  Can you actually backtrack yourself back to safety?  Did you pay attention to your route, looking behind you frequently to see what THAT view looks like?  Do you know your trail well enough to know if it is faster to go back or keep going or try to cut across country and if that is your best option, can you navigate your way across desert flats to that safe haven?

If you can find water or even moist soil by digging in the eddies of the now dry stream beds and old water flows, remember, it is probably not safe to drink, but it can help cool you down by evaporation. Soak a handkerchief or shirt in it and place it on your head and neck. If all you can get is moist sand, use it in a scarf.    Also keep your wrists cool the same way.

Do you have with you the tools to make whatever you need to survive?  Do you have a way to hack bushes and materials for a shelter, to cut open certain cacti for liquid (and of course a guide to tell you which ones are safe) or dig for water?  Do you have a way to deal with a scrape or wound or snakebite?  Although we’ll go into more detail in later posts let me insert here that cutting desert ironwood or succulents or making digging sticks with your Swiss Army knife as your only tool will leave you incredibly frustrated.

If you are headed into the desert for longer treks (anything more than short hikes from the vehicle – meaning anything that takes you out of shouting distance from the parking lot) read everything you can on desert survival and practice it where you are safe.  Just never forget that in that type of terrain, water is life so make sure you set out with plenty on hand and in reserve.  Better to come home with a few still-full jugs than to have someone find your carcass somewhere with an empty canteen nearby.  And remember that most rescues are for people NOT expecting (and not equipped for) anything more than a few hours hike — if they are prepared for anything at all.

One last quick note, in the winter, even thought the desert is still warm during the day, the temperature can drop suddenly when the sun goes down and the enormous temperature differential will make it seem a LOT colder.  Are you prepared for that too?

tree in ridge 02 for blog

Bristlecone Pine high on a ridge in the White Mountains of California.

COLD.  The heat issue noted above is not normally given much thought since we think “warm is good” and often think it is only cold that will do us in… as indeed it will.  If your core body temperature drops below body normal (98.6° F for most of us) then the brain re-routes blood away from the extremities to protect core organs.  That can happen from more than a drop in the air temperature; it also can come from being wet (evaporative cooling) and wind.  Always – ALWAYS – have a dry change of clothes available.

Hypothermia will set in with unexpected speed and your cognitive abilities will suffer first, then fine motor skills.  Then you’ll start to shiver, a little at first then more energetically then uncontrollably.  And then your brain shuts down, commiting suicide by routing blood to the heart, and as blood to the brain is lost you lose consciousness, and then you die.

If your trek takes you anywhere where the air temperature is at or below the 60° – 70° range (which is well below your body’s core temperature) without proper clothing or shelter and especially if you get wet, you can get and succumb to hypothermia.  Do not play with this or ignore it!

Can you start a fire with what you have carried with you?  That doesn’t mean just making a spark, it means getting fuel, tinder, kindling together, laying a fire that will actually burn but in a way that will not set the forest around you on fire, and which will provide heat to you and your shelter.   We’ll talk in a later post about some easier techniques to learn and practice first around the barbeque before you head out into the bush. But the time to acquire that skill is in your back yard not when your life or the lives of others depends on it.

But what if it is not all that cold?  Fire also has a major impact on morale even where it is really not needed for the heat.  Humans seem to have an atavistic love of fire; it calms them and makes them feel safe.  It lets you see into the darkness and wards off those scary things we just know are lurking out there just beyond the light.   So there will be times when, as the leader, you will need to get a campfire going just to help keep up group morale.

You may also need to know how to make some hurried and makeshift shelter from rain or snow.  Made correctly it can keep you warm in the worst blizzards and can, like fire, help make an improvement in morale.  Can you do it?  Can everyone in your party do it if you should be injured or taken out?

losing the Light, Salt River Canyon

Late afternoon light accents outcrops in the Salt River Canyon, Arizona, near Globe, AZ. Canon 5D MkII

Navigation in the woods and mountains is quite different from the flatter terrain of the typical desert.  Your view is obstructed and there are a gazillion trees to confuse you; light is filtered and harder to detect directions especially when the wind is blowing the trees.  Although counter-intuitive, it has been shown in study after study that without external guidance, humans cannot walk in a straight line even if they know what general direction they should be headed.  The moment you think you might be lost or at least a little bewildered as to your exact location, STOP.  (Now is time for the 30-second stare.)

Get out your map, look for recognizable landmarks, and try to determine where – at least generally – you are and where you need to be.  If your GPS is working and can “see” the satellites it needs, great.  But if not, you will need to rely on some pre-GPS orienteering skills.  Knowing where you need to go is useless unless you know where you are.  And knowing the target is due east is not all that helpful if between you and the target is an unscalable cliff that you can’t see from where you are.  Can you read a map and understand what all those contour lines bunched together mean?  Can you then plan the best route around the obstacle?  This is not a rhetorical exercise; people get in big trouble and some die every year because they cannot solve this simple problem.  It is easy to solve when you know how… so learn how long before you really need it.

If you are headed into the mountains, especially if you are someone from low altitude and expecting to be spending time above about 5,000 ft in elevation, then also read up on altitude sickness and plan to deal with it.  It is not a small issue so take it very seriously.  I include handout material on it with materials for all of my workshops into the high country.  It can be completely debilitating and, in some cases, deadly, and the only cure is getting to a lower altitude where there is more oxygen.

I hope I’ve gotten your attention with this post and made you aware that although most photo treks go smoothly resulting with the capture of great memories and gorgeous imagery, when they DO go off the rails, things can get serious – deadly serious – in a moment.  The best approach is planning that will keep them on the rails.  The more you plan and prepare, the more unlikely an “adventure” will occur and that is the result to be hoped for.  Preparing for the worst makes you more aware, more careful, more attentive, and that alone can keep your photo train on the rails.

The next post(s), however, will deal with some issues when, despite your planning, things go awry.  And with that discussion we’ll talk about some items you ought to have with you, either on you or perhaps in your camera gear, when you trek out of shouting distance from the parking lot.

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Dealing with Nature – PArt 1: Letting It Talk to You

To paraphrase Minor White, an iconic figure in photography and photo education, (and the author who co-wrote the book that made Adams’s “Zone System” intelligible to us mortals), if nature sees in you a heart it can trust, it will wait for you.  I’ve found that to be true but it will do a lot more than that: it will even tell you HOW to it thinks you should photograph it.  Like a stereotypical Hollywood starlet who knows her best side, nature knows itself and will reveal that knowledge to you.

The problem is that nature’s voice is so soft and quiet, the photographer whose ear drums are calloused by the raucous noises of the city, cannot easily hear it. It speaks in a very quiet whisper as it interfaces with your spirit and mind and via recalled memories speaks metaphorically to you.  Some of you sci-fi and “trekky” fans may recall a “Next Generation” story of the crew trying to communicate with a race that only spoke in metaphors.  Well nature is like that and, to make matters worse, it only whispers.

Now if you come out with some preconceived idea of what a scene is all about then by all means keep the ear phones blasting heavy metal and blaze away.  Then you can add your postcard snapshot to the several billion nearly identical shots of that amazing scene.  For example, when you pull into the parking area at the “Tunnel View” overlook in Yosemite, go ahead, run to the overlook and take the shot.  It’s beautiful and if you can shove your way through the crowd (especially if a tour bus arrived a few minutes ahead of you) then by all means, go ahead and get it out of your system.

But then settle back, let the crowd disperse, and consider this: art is the product of interpretation – not of narration.  The artist (we’re talking photography here but it applies equally to painting or drawing) seeks to understand the subject, filter that understanding through their own experiences, histories, associations, emotional responses, etc. and then, using their skills and mastery of tools, create the image that (it is hoped) will best render that interpretation. In short, the artist/photographer endeavors to capture NOT what specifically they SEE, but what they FEEL.  But, for that image to be honest and accurate, that process starts with understanding, and that understanding is best achieved by letting nature tell you about herself while letting you tell yourself a bit about yourself.  That does not happen in the blur of a rush to get your shot before having to get back on the bus.

So how do you start?  You start by letting your heart tweak you when it recognizes something important. When you are moving through the landscape, clear your mind of other thoughts and sounds and disruptive things.  Just open yourself to the sensory input from your surroundings.  When it happens, that tweak might be a gentle nudge that makes you want to pause and look again, or it might be a strong kick in the gut.  There might be a quiet moment of recognition or a hard jolt to your senses.  But when it happens, the very first thing to do is STOP.  Sit down if you can.  Be STILL.  Give it what a barbarian friend of mine used to call “The 30-Second Stare” where you get quiet and still and really start visually and emotionally inventorying the scene in front of you.

That friend first used the term with me to address a major problem back exploring in the Rockies.  His definition of an “adventure” was the result of a failure of planning.  He believed we actually knew what to do but the panic and fear overwhelmed us and we could not access the data needed.  Hence… the 30-second stare (in my case it often took a bit longer…) to quietly assess the situation, look at intended resolutions, examine the resources needed to solve it, and then set about doing so.  But it is exactly the same exercise needed to let nature talk to you and help you hone in on how it wants to be rendered by you and you alone.  Another artist will respond differently and interpret the scene differently.  That is why it is an art not a science.

Start a series of “What” and “Why” questions and drill down as far as you can go.  First, as you scan the view in front of you, ask yourself what specific thing in that scene was what actually caught your attention.  A tree?  A rock?  A lake?  A trail?  A structure? A leaf?  A cloud? Or was it the awesome visual power of the whole scene?

Whitney Portal: incoming storm

Storm drops over Mt. Whitney and down the Whitney Portal Canyon in the Sierras of California near alabama Hills and Lone Pine

I once was given the project of updating the off-road trail maps for a large section of the Colorado Rockies.  We were given the original USGS topo maps the original teams had used and which had their notes on them.  They had marked places they thought would provide great vistas usually with a simple icon.  But in all of the maps, there was one only spot where the team, in a red marker, wrote the single word “WOW!”  We had multiple vehicles and had split up sections and another driver had “drawn” that section to cover.  Over the radio he hailed me in this excited voice and I thought maybe he was in trouble.  But he said to me, “Do you remember where the map had the note, “WOW!” on it?”  I said I did.  He simply said, “’WOW’ doesn’t quite express it…!”  We lost a day’s work but the entire team stopped where they were and went to see for themselves.  Wow.

Any and everything could be a potential magnet for your attention here, even if meaningless to someone else, so don’t overlook the tiny while overwhelmed by the mighty.  Remember the old adage about not seeing the forest for the trees?  Well, here, don’t fail to see the trees for the forest… or the leaf for the tree.  And don’t worry about what others see or feel.  Your art needs to express YOU and your reaction, not theirs.

So whatever it is that has caught your attention, sit and study it; let its presence flood your mind and heart and then ask yourself “Why?”  Why did it grab you?  What was it about the object that captured your attention?  Was it the shape, the form, the texture, the color?  And then ask “Why?” again.  What emotion did that elicit from you?  Awe?  Terror?  Something pleasant?  Something irritating?  And then again, ask, “Why?”  What is it you are remembering from your own experiences or history that was triggered by seeing that object?  What does it remind you of?  Why does that memory elicit the emotion you felt, however weakly?

Patriarch Bones

Taken at the Patriarch’s Grove, Ancient Bristlecone Pines Forest, White Mtns, CA. B&W version of the “Bones of the Patriarch” shot several years earlier. Rhinocam mosaic using Hasselblad-Zeiss 180mm f4

Now work your way back up the chain.  What is it about the subject that most strongly elicits that emotional response?  Now review the whole scene.  Does the response come from the subject alone with the rest of the scene remaining more or less irrelevant?  Or do other elements in the scene support that response or even add to it? What is the real core of the scene – the focal point?  What elements need to be eliminated or subdued?  What compositional devices, e.g. use of perspective, directional lines, element placement, etc. would best convey your response?

When you have those answers… you have your image in mind.  Now and only now is it time to get technical.  What is, based on your mastery of the craft and tools of your art, the best platform for you to create your image.  What vantage point?  What lens?  What aperture?  What shutter speed?

So what’s holding you up now? Don’t just stand there with your face hanging out…take the damn shot!

Red Oak on Old 80 - 05 for blog

Skip Cohen, photographer and instructor, wrote that you can’t tug at a viewer’s heart strings if your own heart is not in the shot.  Once again for emphasis: quite worrying about capturing what you see and start putting everything into capturing what you feel.  That lets you present to the viewers something they would not or could not have seen themselves, would not or could not have felt and experienced for themselves – and that is YOUR response now available to them.  You can practice that anywhere and should be doing something concerning your photography every day.  Then you’ll be ready for finding those stunning images when heading into the bush.


But some people are really nervous heading off the trail and out into nature.  But if you learn nature’s rules and follow them, a whole new world of wonder can open before your eyes. So next time, we’ll talk a little about the “rules” so you can be safe and comfortable out in nature.

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Why Do (or Teach) Landscape Photography?

I confess I’m getting really excited about potentially being able to do another Landscape (Photo 245) course at City. (For details click on the link in the banner at the top of this page.)  I’ve not yet heard if it was approved but since students had been asking about it I’m very, very hopeful.  I’ve worked on a preliminary itinerary for topics to cover because I want to make it the best we’ve ever had.  But I also have to be aware that the world of photography is changing and changing dramatically — after all I just wrote a book on it (  And perhaps, more important to us, from a professional AND educational level is that the world we work in is also changing dramatically and it will have a profound effect, some of it quite negative, on not only how we do our work but how we make a living from it.

Most of you are aware that even the great iconic landscape photographers (think Ansel Adams as the easiest example) did not make their livings just from their landscape images.  Adams was a master darkroom technician but he was also a master marketer and understood that being able to merchandise his images would bring in extra revenue hence the books and posters and calendars and postcards of his images.  He also did commercial work and (you might want to be sitting down for this…) did commercial work for one of the (then) major oil companies taking photographs of their gas stations around the country for calendars and posters. In my case I was primarily a commercial product and editorial portrait photographer who used landscape as a personal artistic and emotional outlet that had the wonderful by-product of getting me into the bush and out of the studio and town.

Many modern landscape photographers support their artwork with teaching, school or workshops or both, and/or by writing books or producing tutorials and demos for the web.  Still a major goal was always the creation of “take your breath away” wall hanging shots to rival even those of the master landscape painters such as Bierstadt or Moran.  One of my fun facts is that I have a landscape photo hanging next to a Rubens painting in a castle in Colorado… what a rush.  But before one gets too enraptured with this, do some math and budgeting.  How much do new, as-yet-not-famous photographers get for a photograph?  What does it cost you to produce that photograph counting travel and actual print and display costs?  What is your net?  If you hang in a gallery you will be lucky to get 50% of the sales price.  So how many prints must you sell per month to maintain the revenue stream necessary to maintain the standard of living to which you aspire? Those were the issues in the good old days when people had homes with wall space that could visually support such art and had the discretionary income to afford it.

That was also before everyone with a cell phone thought they were God’s gift to photography, an attitude reinforced when their social media friends see their beyond-mediocre images made with frenzied filter use and then posted on Facebook, and pronounced them as beautiful and stunning imagery.  And it was before photo-feature magazines like “Life” or gorgeous outdoor magazines like “Arizona Highways” and “Colorado & The Rocky Mountains” succumbed to the web’s unrelenting assault on publications, books, magazines, and newspapers.

Well, you may ask, if I have that grim outlook, why do a course in a genre that is tough to make a living doing?  Or, more to the point, as a student you might ask why would you take the time and cost to attend such a course?  I’m glad you asked, otherwise I’d have no real reason for writing this post.

One of the biggest reasons is that it is in this genre where you can openly and unabashedly work on the artistic component in your imagery.  Yes, I believe it will be increasing the brilliance of your unique vision and concept that will be required to set your commercial work apart from the competition as technology continues to level the technical playing field.  But honing and growing that conceptual ability along with the tools to render your vision, not to mention the exercises to develop your vision in the first place, can best be done away from the constraints of clients and art directors whose vision is often at odds with yours but whose vision and successful rendering may determine whether or not you walk away with a check.  In landscape work it is yours – and only your – vision and story that counts and will support the image you are creating.  Art is about interpretation not narration.  To interpret a scene you have to “feel” it so there is something to pass on to the viewer.  Without a story that elicits an emotional response and some reflective thinking there is nothing to attract, much less hold a viewer’s interest.  Landscape scenery presents itself to you stripped of the marketing needs and advertising copy attending the commercial piece; you and you alone can let the world see it as YOU see and feel it.

You and you alone can make the choices of tools and elements to bring to bear to render your own unique vision; you and you alone can make the artistic decisions as to what is the real subject of the scene and what do you wish to tell the viewer about it.  Minor White told his students that if a subject in nature saw in them someone it felt capable of rendering its “portrait” it would wait for them.  And it is true that at times nature can be extremely patient with you, unlike a client or director hovering over you pressing you to “get on with it” or losing confidence when you hesitate to think through a visual problem.

The really successful commercial shooter is one who can take the most mundane product and produce an image of it so appealing that someone can see it, and even having no clue what they are looking at, want to buy it anyway.  The conceptual and technical ability to do that shot after shot is often best honed in the quiet moments looking at something most people pass by and never notice – a rock, a leaf, a cloud.

Arthur Koestler in his book on creativity, wrote that the truly creative people he had studied and done biographies about all shared a common trait: they were able, “…to see the familiar as strange.” They could look at some common item and somehow see it as if they were seeing it for the first time without all of the normal limitations prior experience has placed on it.  That ability is as necessary to the advertising image of a muffler as it is to a nature detail shot of a crack in the sun-baked desert floor.  But it is easier to learn in the quiet unrushed environment of nature.

Nature photography also allows time to really learn one’s tools and how they all uniquely render a subject; one can learn how lens focal length and distance changes perspective; one can learn about lighting through observation of what happens as the sun moves across the sky to change the visual appearance of the  world under it; one can learn about color and color correction by having to deal with and exploit not just neutral color of normal daylight, but the so-called “golden” and “blue” hours.  Outdoor photography requires the artist to learn to feel the light and deal with scenes where the range of luminosity from shadow to highlight exceeds that of their medium – an ability of equal value in the studio.  And they can learn all that in an environment where their livelihoods are not at stake, and where errors and mistakes can become educational experiences and not strikes against employment.

The artistic skills you can learn doing top-quality landscape work are perfectly adoptable to the commercial world and will, in fact, help to set you apart in the approaching world of increasing sameness.  In our course we will be examining many of those elements to create powerful landscape imagery.  But it will be important to remember, they all have a proper and important place when you are shooting in the studio for a client.  The difference is only in that when doing landscape and artwork, YOU are the client, and your payment is the serotonin released when you can really see that the effort paid off with a great image.

So for me, it is fun to develop this course almost from scratch.  Retirement has given me the time to play with it, turn it over and over and really analyze where, in my own work which, as noted, was primarily commercial, did it apply and help me.  For the successful photographer the marriage of abilities usually seen as separate and apart is necessary.  We think of the “art” photographer as primarily interested in those aesthetic issues of the image and less concerned with the technical.  And we think of the commercial photographer as primarily interested in the technical side of things and less in the aesthetic.  But that is an incredibly false dichotomy.

The truly superb art photographers, like Adams (to bring this full circle) were absolute masters of the technical and “Craft” sides of their work. After all he was the co-creator of the Zone System for exposure and development mastery.  And the really superb commercial shooters were and are masters of the aesthetics and artistic sides of their work.  Both were masters of rendering a vision of that familiar object now seen as strange.  White told students to see things, “…not for what they are, but for what ELSE they are.”

So landscape photography can be as important to your photo growth as any specific skill and discipline if – IF – you also learn to take advantage of the less stressful shooting environment to hone those skills you will need in the professional world.  And while you are at it, you may produce some imagery that actually does generate some revenue directly or indirectly.  And best yet, you can do it in some of the most beautiful places on the planet.

How could that not be attractive to you?

In subsequent posts I’ll address some of the specific issues and elements we will be addressing in the course and in other photo courses and topics as well.

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Vision and Simplicity

One of my favorite photo-authors is David Du Chemin.  He writes with clarity and beauty about constructing the photographic image.  Among my favorites is “The Soul of the Camera.”  I could not possibly recommend that book and his writing in general more strongly.  If you are serious about your photography do yourself a favor and get that and other of his books.

But I’m also on his newsletter/blog list and this past week received one of the best documents on composition and the quest for simplicity and power in the photographic image.  I rarely re-post the material of others but this was so well written I felt that trying to paraphrase it would diminish its power.  So I wrote him and asked for permission to copy it here.  He graciously consented to it, so here is a real treat for you.  And here is the link to his blog so you can go directly to it:

Thank you David for letting me repost your thoughts.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify.” 
~ Henry David Thoreau
“One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed.” 
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
It took me years to figure out that photographic composition is about organization of elements in the frame, that making a photograph has so much more to do with my decisions than it does with the scene in front of me.
Before that realization, I raised the camera to my face secure in my assumption that the subject of the scene was amazing enough to carry the photograph as long as I nailed my focus and exposure. I was OK with my photographs documenting what I saw, but had no idea that I was learning to speak a language that would allow me to interpret, and to comment upon, what I was seeing. And to do that I needed to compose intentionally.
Composition allows us to organize the photograph. My choice of lens, orientation of frame, where I place elements in that frame by my position relative to those elements (a little forward, to the left, or getting lower than) can change everything. It can make one thing important and another thing trivial, or vice versa. It can lead the eye into the frame or out of it. It can create a unified whole of the elements or make a jumbled mess of them. It all depends on my choices.

Because how we think about something determines our choices about what we do with it, I have three ideas about composition and the power of simplicity that can change the way you think about your craft.

Intent is Everything

Without vision, there’s no starting point from which to make our decisions about how we compose. I know, I know—I’ve gone on about this before. But unless you have a sense of your vision or intent, or are open to discovering it through the process of making your images, then you will have no direction and no sense of whether your efforts at simplifying are getting you closer to, or further from, “adding the meaningful,” to quote designer John Maeda.
“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious
and adding the meaningful.”
John Maeda
No one can do this for you, and it’s the hardest part of the art-making process. Making a choice. Being willing to try and fail and try again. Being willing, on some level, to be profoundly selfish about it: What do you want? What will please you? What do you want to say? How do you feel about this? Don’t look over your shoulder for the answers. Look within.

You. On some level art is first an act arising from the self. Only then can it be concerned about speaking to, engaging with, or pleasing others. The more clear you are about your intent (even if you have to explore with the camera to your face for a while before you find that clarity), the more simplified (not simplistic) your vision, the fewer barriers you’ll have to contend with as you figure out how to express that vision with your composition.

Think About Unity

Photographers don’t often talk about harmony, but that’s one of the touchstones of good composition. Do all the elements work together to support the image? Is there one unifying idea or theme? These are helpful questions because the answers help determine what you can exclude. The result of not considering the idea of harmony is a chaotic image that supports no one idea, intent, or vision.

“Three rules of work:
out of clutter find simplicity.
From discord find harmony.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
~ Albert Einstein
Making sure the elements all work together doesn’t mean having a boring image; it means being intentional about creating contrasts that support the main idea, or a rhythm created with elements like shapes or colours that maintains the harmony but also giving variety; that’s what rhythm is.

Think Simply

An image can really only support one idea or theme well. It may touch on others, but we work with a very limited medium and trying to do too much with a photograph will usually result in the image doing very little. It will be diluted, its potential power lost to too many elements. The eye can only take in so much and assign meaning to so many elements in an image: 2 or 3 is usually the real limit; the rest is background.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add,but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Antoine de Sainte Exupery

Look at the best images—the ones you love the most from the history of photography—and I think you’ll see most have only one main subject expressed through one key element, a secondary element, and very few tertiary elements. Generally speaking, the more you cram into the frame, the less power each of those elements will exert in the frame.

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”
~ Painter Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)
The take away? Simplicity is key. Identify your main idea and choose only as many elements as absolutely necessary to work in harmony and support or express that one main idea.
Find a way to cut the rest out. Be ruthless about it. There is power and elegance in simplicity.
Use whatever isolating device you need to do this to get me to the heart of the image in the simplest way possible, and your photographs will be more powerful than their cluttered, chaotic, or confusing alternate versions.
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I Can’t Stay Away from Teaching…

As the cartoon character Cathy used to say… “Aaaaack!”  Retirement must be wonderful for people who do not like what they did for a living and are now free to go play as they always wanted to.  Good for them!  But I’m someone who IS what they DO… I loved what I did — teach and shoot — and it was actually all “play” for me.  So retirement has actually been, for me, not what it was cracked up to be.

So I had fortunately done the paperwork for retirement in such a way as to allow me, after a semesters separation from service, to return to teach what they refer to as “pro rata,” meaning I can teach a limited number of hours but do it as an adjunct would (meaning all I have to do is show up and teach (well, with the prep and grading, etc.) and not have to deal with the political nonsense.  And that means that I can return to teach a class in Spring of 2020.

To that end I’ve worked with my old full time partner, Dave Eichinger, to plan that return.  Apparently a number of students have asked about the old Landscape Class, so in Spring I’ll do one of those.  Full details are on the page listed in the banner above.

What will be interesting is that because my limited number of hours is less than that class offers I’ll team teach it.  I’ve asked one of my colleagues who specializes in photo history to be my “team mate” so material on iconic landscape photographers and artists can flesh out the course and make it even more comprehensive than I could do it alone.

I’m really quite excited about it and love the idea of getting back in a class room.  Now I need to get out and do some shooting for new material and also do some promo/marketing work for it including a video… cool!  I’m so glad to be back onto chatting about photo stuff here.  It is ever so much more pleasant to deal with.

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I Wish I could Say I Was Surprised…

I can’t tell you how much I’d rather be out making images and writing about them… but sometimes the world gets in the way.

While still reeling from Gilroy then El Paso, we got Dayton.  I am not surprised though I am profoundly saddened by it because, to me, it reveals a total breakdown in the cultural morals, ethics, and values that I’ve been writing about for years.  And still, idiots rush to politicize the incident(s) and sometimes by giving the despicable killer precisely what they wanted: exposure and in a truly perverse way, a score card to show their achievements.  Committing mass murder has always been about body count with the murderers believing the more they can kill the more they will become famous.  They study the web for data on previous killers to learn from their mistakes and hope to better their score.  And you cretins giving them that broader exposure are doing far more to facilitate more such incidences than any stretched connection between the words of some stupid politician.

Achievements?  Have you been so hung up on one issue solutions you’ve failed to see what was in front of you?  Yes, Achievements.  Whether it is a younger school shooter or an older mass shooter, there may be all sorts of rationales thrown up on their screeds to explain and promote their actions to their simple minded social media followers, but the bottom line is they are all driven by the same level of percolating, sub-surface rage flowing from a sense of rejection, abandonment, and disrespect that started in childhood and has never been dealt with by the actual adults in their lives, much less by the people who they have looked to for solution, their parents.  And so it builds and builds… and builds.

Finally, wound tighter than a drum, some emotional critical mass has been reached just waiting for the trigger of some acceptable pretext in their own warped perspective to ignite it.  But those “causes” jumped on by the press and by political partisans are just pretexts. I understand why you partisans would jump on those because they advance your agenda.  But they are not helpful and simply are distracting us from real issues.

What the killer wanted and achieved was attention (which the press and social media morons gave to him) through which, among those of his “friends,” he achieved some immortality with his score of bodies.  But any ideological aspect was simply a pretext to allow him to finally visit his revenge and reckoning on the world at large.  IF the shooter is drawn to a given hate-filled rhetoric it is because the rage was already there and he was simply looking for reinforcement from like minded morons.

Don’t think so?  The air is filled with the pundits’ blind certainty that the El Paso shooter was fueled by white nationalism and the rage at the “invaders” of other races victimizing the poor “real” Americans.  After all, that was what he wrote, wasn’t it? Isn’t that what his literary mentor, Ragnar Redbeard, told him?  Isn’t that what the histrionic partisans would have you believe Trump told him?

But who did he kill?

Did he select and murder just those he saw as Hispanic-looking sub-human invaders? If he actually believed what he read and wrote, or even if he was truly motivated by the hated Demon in Chief  and was in anyway doing good work for the country, he would have done his best to cut down the numbers of those identifiable invaders but spared the victims of that invasion.  But that’s not what he did.  No, instead he killed or tried to kill any and everyone he came across.  The truth is the screed is a smokescreen.  He just wanted to kill, period.

The published rant of the El Paso killer was to try to explain, perhaps even to himself, why he was driven internally to do strike out and kill and also to get him noticed by the other killers on social media.  But it was, and is, no more than a cover story happily slurped up by those whose political agenda is served by it.  It is far from the whole or even real story.

The Dayton killer murdered his own sister in the process of his uncontrolled rage and rampage. And he did it in a hot tourist spot that was not even predictably filled with logical targets of any ideological war. His screed was from a different perspective promoting socialism and “the squad” but in the end it too was simply a smokescreen.   He just wanted to kill and needed an excuse.  Finding the solutions to that is a very different effort than trying to stop truly dedicated ideologues killing targeted enemies for their honest faiths.  Theology is a lot more powerful than ideology, but both are trumped by psychology and hate.

And the next one, and oh yes you can be sure there will be a next one, will be just the same.  Because while you are arguing over how to limit the chosen tools not a single effort is being made to examine and address the root causes of what turns some of humans into wanton depraved killers while the vast majority of citizens, many of whom are far better armed, trained, and better able to wreak havoc if they chose to, in fact do NOT chose to.  Their access to weapons, their skill with them, their awareness of global and domestic events, their struggles in life on all levels from emotional to economic are no less stressful.  But they are not out there killing people wholesale in mass killings.

The self-credited brilliant sociological minds posting on FB make much of the concept that these shooters are all white males and then, in the next post tell us how horrible the conditions are for the minorities in this country… and never see the connection.  For purposes of this post lets stipulate to that.  Let’s accept that minorities are the ones with the real grievances and especially against their white oppressors.  We also know that there is a high percentage of weapon ownership in those communities.  So why have they not fielded competition in the sport of mass killing if that was the real cause.  They may fight back over particular events rightly or wrongly but they do not typically go collect massive firepower and assault some bastion of so-called “white privilege” to rack up a high score.

They certainly have those from their community saying no less by way of encouragement to violence than Trump has ever done.  Farrakhan, Omar, Wright, and Sharpton, the sleazy holder of the Tawana Brawley award for astonishing hypocrisy, have all said the problem is white males and hinted or openly asserted that the world would be better without them.  And yet, where are the minority communities’ entrants into the contest for who can be the most cowardly, disgusting human being devoted to death or those, in their own minds, out to persecute them? OR where is the righteous warrior riding out a la Don Quixote, to tackle the windmill giants of oppression?  I’ve looked and I’m not seeing them.  So maybe there is a different cause…  After all if even your mother told you to jump off a cliff would you do it?  I’ll bet not.

Perhaps for another time, this does raise some very interesting points about why have the minority communities seemed to have held on to some of those values and morals better than the majority community but that is not the point here.  The point here is dealing with what we have unfolding before us: another and another and another individual who went over the top on a killing spree.  After the last blog post, in an FB post where I asserted the poster(s) were all wanting a one size fits all answer because that fit their narrative from a political ideology, I was asked, basically, “Oh yeah, what would YOU (Mr. Smarty pants) suggest we do?

I assume they thought I had another simple answer just a different one.  But I don’t because I do not think one exists. There are multiple parts to this complex issue, and, worse yet, multiple issues within the multiple parts. There are many answers and all of them will need to be addressed in a unified approach if we are to succeed.

But if we do not, as a culture and society, seriously address them ALL, if we only continue to bicker about whose approach is the right one, as if there were actually A RIGHT ONE, this carnage will simply continue.

As an example let me pass on an interesting anecdote on point.  England has one of the toughest gun restrictions that side of Chicago.  But unlike Chicago, there is no easy place to get guns and import them.  So what to do when you want to kill people?  Easy.  Use a different weapon, in this case, knives.  You’ll not see the American media talking about it since it does not fit their agenda, but Parliament has been sufficiently concerned to discuss various types of knife bans.  Unfortunately since virtually every description of a knife used in both domestic and public attacks also fits more banal kitchen utensils, a workable and enforceable law has been elusive.  If  you honestly believe that someone whose inner rage has reached the point of killing will be dissuaded by not having the easy weapon to do it readily available, you are delusional or perhaps from another universe.  Humans grew adept at killing each other long before there were any firearms.

But lets get back to the topic of finding solutions for us.  Broadly speaking we have the following areas of inquiry to search for answers (there may be more but these are ones I thought of off the top of my head):

  1. The Beginning.  How are these shooters created?  Are they just born with an evil gene or are they created and formed?  This is perhaps the most important inquiry since if we can stop them at the beginning, there is no point in going further because there would be no place to go.
  2. Before the Event. This is what is referred to as “pre-incident” and is a two part issue…
    1. What can a potential victim, which is to say all of us, do to avoid the event by recognizing and then acting on the pre-incident indicators? And,
    2. What can be done to “harden” typical target locations such as schools, government buildings, places of worship, malls and even private businesses, and now parks and open air event locations, etc. (You do realize, do you not, this now includes basically EVERYWHERE?)
  3. Surviving the Event. The shooting has started… now what? You hear gunshots close by where there should not be any gunshots.  And they are getting closer.  What can you do to give yourself better odds of being a survivor.

Regarding Issue one, I covered my views on the genesis of these killer in my book, “Making Schools Safer” as the conclusions to its discussion of school shooters.  But aren’t those school shooters different from these mass shooters?  For the most and most important parts I think they are different only in age but I think the derivation of their psyche’s and undercurrent of rage are exactly the same and initially set in motion by the same group… parents.  If you don’t believe it get and read the book then let me know if you still don’t see it.

However this is a huge area packed with individual issues to deal with that may seem unrelated.  Many of you know I’m a huge fan of “Complexity Theory” and as such am inclined to look for and see the connections between those points in the larger system.  Here are just some of them that I think have an impact on the creation of the shooters and need cultural and societal attention.

However before I list them, let me be clear, I don’t think any ONE of them accounts for any of the shootings, nor are they all in play all the time.  Just as if Guns were the definitive cause since we are awash in guns this would be a lot worse.  If video games were the only element it would be a lot worse.  But I believe in greater or lesser degrees, all of these things play into the mix of influences and need to be looked at.

  • Parenting This is THE one that I believe is an issue of far greater importance and far more commonly found in all of the shootings.  But parenting methods are the result of both philosophy and economics so even here this is not as simple as it might appear.  I personally think it significant that with a single exception mass killers are male, and that a recent study revealed that 26 of the 27 recent killers of 8 or more people, were, in the words of the study, “dad deprived.”  That doesn’t just mean that there is no father, it also covers situation where the father seems to take no interest in the child or what they are doing.  Remember the song, “Cat’s in the Cradle?”  Think it was only a song?  Bottom line is that boys who are hurt and angry are the ones most likely to hurt us.  When a kid feels abandoned, even if that makes no sense to the adult minds around them, some of them will go on an occasionally deadly campaign to get that attention.
    Does that mean that not having a father is a guarantee of creating a mass killer?  Of course not, that’s just stupid.  But it is an influence prevalent in killers and has to be added to the mix of potential influences.
  • Entertainment media that promotes the idea to formative minds that violence is an acceptable solution to problems
  • Video Gaming that, as military use indicates, is good at desensitizing our natural inhibitions against killing other humans.  The industry argues there is no direct causal link demonstrated but that’s not the point.  Causing some one to do something is not the same as desensitizing them so that when they do succumb to the urge to kill it is easier.
  • News media and social media that consistently gives these shooters precisely what they want: exposure and attention
  • Social media and the culture of anonymous/semi-anonymous ad hominem attacks on those who look and think differently basically fueling the pretext collection for the killers.
  • The political environment of unvarnished hate for those who think differently. The rhetoric from all sides successfully blocks any indications of any side being willing to really work with the other and that means that not only is the running of the country paralyzed but to our point, it increases the acceptance of hatred especially when it appears to come from the top whether that is accurate or not.  Remember (for those who read the book) the logical adult/parent’s perspective is meaningless, what counts is what do formative youth “hear” and especially what do those just looking for a pretext to act hear?
  • Weapons availability. I’m including this as a discussion point though I personally think it is a bogus point given the ocean of weapons out there and the relatively rare (historically speaking) incidents of mass shooting compared to the ability to do it.  Nevertheless, to me this issue is worthwhile as a “trade goods” issue.  I do not think guns are the problem.
    However, I understand the fear behind those who know little about them except what overwrought folks tell them yet also see no logical reason behind the obsession with scary looking guns either to own one or to ban them.  What I do know is that fear trumps logic and when fear drives legislation than all hope for sanity for law abiding gun owners will be lost so it is in our vested interest to do something to get things moving.
    Hunting and self defense has been successfully practiced for a very long time with far less scary looking gun for those frightened of guns per se.  Nevertheless I do not ever recall hearing of a home invasion carried out by a platoon of 20 or so miscreants, nor a mugging by 100 or so muggers.  Unlike police actions where hundreds of rounds may be fired, most missing the target, in actual reports of personal or home defense the situation is resolved either no shots fired or no more than 3 or 4.   For myself, a long time shooter, my own selection for home defense would not be a rifle of any configuration and though from near childhood I’ve hunted small, medium, and large game I’ve never needed more than 2 shots to bring home the meat.  So if – IF – I could be convinced that a ban on scary looking guns was not simply a foundational step on the so-called “slippery slope” to total gun bans, I’d put them on the table and say to the politicians on the other side, OK, here’s your bone, now lets see if you can deal in good faith on other issues.
    I’ve also written about my being in favor of a federal CCW program that licensed everyone to own and carry a gun following specified training and testing.  The Federal database would then be incredibly easy to query when data was needed.  Since very often illegally procured guns are used I think background checks are overrated (by the way I’ve purchased several guns over the years at gun shows and every time had to wait for a background check ) but if they could actually demonstrate efficacy in finding and stopping the occasional problem, then great.
    But we all know that a dedicated bad guy will get a gun somehow and skirt the law. And the real problem is the coordination of systems locale to locale, store to city to state to feds.  Without that cooperation and interconnection it serves no purpose to gather data one place that is unavailable to another.  And we would need standardized definitions of the condition needed to refuse the purchase.  Good luck with that one.
    One last thing, there was one “good guy with a gun” who violated the mall’s gun free policy to go in several times and rescue kids and carry them to safety.  And for the record he was African-American.  Of course the media is pretty quiet about him too since that REALLY does not fit the narrative.
  • Red Flag Laws. These sound great and in principle could be of real value. The perfect complement to put some meaning and teeth into the “See Something, Say Something” efforts.  But before I’d back a specific law I’d want to read it all to make sure all due process was in place to protect the innocent in an age when we seem, politically, have transformed into a “guilt by accusation” mode.  When we can act on the basis of what someone might have done then we have fundamentally altered the basis for our legally and naturally given rights.  I think that needs to be addressed but with great care.  I also believe these laws need to be absolutely “clean” with no riders attached to them to force a vote one way or another.
  • Mental Health Issues.  Lots of controversy here and it does make an easy scapegoat.  Mental health experts insist the connection is vague at best.  The recent Secret Service report on Mass Killings, noted that very few of the perpetrators had a current mental issue that would have been treatable or at a level to require confinement.  However, and it is a big “however,” that report  noted that nearly all of them had past mental issues and had suffered from symptoms such as depression, paranoia, etc. that had warranted observation and or treatment or medication though not all of them have availed themselves of the help.
    To add “sport” to it various jurisdictions have very different criteria for mental issues sufficient to prohibit firearms purchase.  Those need to be standardized and, much as I hate saying it, may be one of those areas needing Federal oversight.

Regarding issue number 2b, I’ve already talked about it at length in my book noted above.  In fact that book also got into the weeds on ideas being floated for “hardening” schools in various way as well as the issue of arming teachers.  As I wrote in the book and in the last blog post, I’m not a huge fan of that, but in fairness I have to admit I learned after my book was finished that in the aftermath of the Florida school shooting (which had been the catalyst for me to write the book in the first place), a major review panel consisting largely of parents of victims and survivors plus law enforcement and security experts and counselors was convened and one of the primary recommendations from their report to the governor was to train and arm teachers who were willing to do it.

Issue 3, as noted both in the book and in my last blog entry, is covered well by specialists providing approved and licensed A.L.I.C.E. and RHF training to businesses and schools.  My own school, City College, offered the A.L.I.C.E. training to faculty.  I attended and thought is was very, very informative.  Personally I think there ought to be follow ups to keep faculty up to date and practiced so when it happens they will know almost automatically what to do. I’d love to see some “advanced” classes offered that extended beyond the school facilities out into the real world.

It is issue 2b that needs a lot more training and awareness by the public in general but specifically by education and business leaders and managers to be disseminated down among students and employees.  How do we re-awaken our natural intuitions to not just see but mentally react to pre-incident indicators that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. As I said in the last post, these killers work up to this and always, always leave a trail littered with “red flags.”

When I was a kid and my uncle was teaching me to track, what I learned was that only rarely could you follow footprints until you found one with a foot still in it.  Most of the time you were on your hands and knees looking for something out of place, something unusual.  But that meant you had to learn what actually was right in the first place.

When I was in spook school the instructor gave us a metaphor based on the then popular jigsaw puzzles.  Those were killer puzzles of a gazillion pieces and an image that was an abstract painting of subtle hue changes of a basic color.  He told us to image such a puzzle that the box top showed was all blue hues but when you dumped out the pieces, there was one pink one in the pile.  What was amazing was that he had a special puzzle like that made up and when he dumped out the pieces a large number of students did not see the pink one.  Some of you have seen the video of a basketball game in which a gorilla walks through the scene and almost no one sees it… or other events. If not click on the link to see it.

In our cases in the military seeing those pink pieces had a life or death connotation to them so we were motivated to look for them, but most people go through life and never “see” them or the gorilla walking by or the broken branches or the tipped over rock… or the gun under a jacket or the heavy trench coat on a hot day.  In fact we DO see those things we just refuse to accept them through our brain’s filtering process. Sherlock Holmes said that we, “…look but do not see.” No?  Do this little experiment from YouTube.

I hate it; a civilized society ought not to ever have to learn those things.  But if I had kids I’d be training them now to see those pink pieces.  I’d be talking about it to friends and workshop participants, people I would not like to hear were victims of the next shooter.  If I were a CEO or Chancellor or President I’d be looking into inviting an expert like Gavin De Becker in to talk about it.  Bottom line, evil is always arrogant and assumes a position of self righteousness and often being smarter and better than others who deserve to be treated poorly.  And because of that it leaves very visible tracks as it moves.  We’ve got to learn to see them and act on them.

But… since we are not addressing the items in the bullet list above, there most certainly will be a next shooter.  Will you be ready? Probably not because you’ll be having too much fun blaming personalities on the other side of the political spectrum for inciting this.  What could be more divisive than that? Because when you accuse the politician you also accuse their followers and then you haven’t just created a one-person divide or one enemy, you’ve created many.

Sorry, that’s just dumb.



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See Something… Say Something — A Sad New World.

Well, this will be a departure from normal photo topics.  But once again a horrible event has happened and I’ve had people ask for my opinion, given my somewhat unusual and rambunctious past and my book  on making schools safer from school shooters.  The event was the shooting in Gilroy, CA at the annual Garlic Festival there.  Unless you were a vampire on a personal jihad, what could possibly bring one to open fire on festival goers and in the process kill kids?

As usual there is the knee jerk responses blaming the tools.  But media was oddly quiet on details about the shooter since, it turned out, he was possibly an adherent of a very strange “Might makes Right” concept that make Themistocles and Ayn Rand look like toddlers in a sandbox squabbling over a lost rattle.   On his computer were posts instructing people to read an obscure novel glorified by white supremacists: “Might Is Right,” published under the pseudonym Ragnar Redbeard (real name, Arthur Desmond).  The book, published in 1890, includes discredited principles related to social Darwinism that have been used to justify racism, slavery and colonialism.

His hero, Ragnar, was also a fervent anti-Christian and since that does not fit the media’s current political narrative, little is mentioned of it.  His own social media screeds are full of it as well as a singular hatred for Silicon Valley the spiritual home of the equipment he used to rant on about… that spiritual home.  He used a weapon (utterly mislabeled in the media) that is illegal to own in California, so those prohibitive laws proved useless.  But meanwhile the wringing hands crowd goes off on guns and right-wing extremists and racists, none of which is really applicable here.  The FBI insists that the conflicted writing collected by the young killer has not allowed them to say with certainty if any particular ideology drove the incident.  That means it could have been something very personal as it frequently is.  But even if we do not know the precise reason, we are left with the critical question of how do we stop this type of carnage?

One can argue that its occurrences are vastly over-reported, and while that is factually true, it completely misses the point: it should not be happening AT ALL.  There is really no acceptable number of mass killings that should slip under the radar of a civilized culture.  So, what can we do to try to minimize or, better yet, eliminate the occurrences?

In my book on school shooters, where most of the shooters are essentially kids themselves, I argued that our modern culture in its material quests and worship of things material by media and entertainment have created a world in which parents are overwhelmed trying to keep up, to provide the things they seem to think are important and for which the kids clamor, and in the process have created an environment where the perception of the child is one of rejection and abandonment.  It is pointless to argue from the adult perspective that the parents are doing it “for the kids” to better their lot because whether or not it is true (and I personally suspect it is not true more often) the only perspective that counts is that of the child.  Giving the kid everything they say they want, protecting them and carrying them even into semi-adulthood often simply fuels the sense of abandonment because what they REALLY want is the attention, love, respect, and guidance of the parent.  Buying them off with the latest fashion or toy is not a substitute for those things.  Following the shootings at Columbine (I was close by when that happened and was on contract with the Denver Police when that happened so got some good insight into it) it was found that one of the kids was making their pipe bombs in the family’s garage and components were found laying around.   Neither parent noticed.  Indeed they would often go on vacations and simply ask neighbors to look in on them to make sure they were OK.

And as the child gets angrier and angrier at the sense of rejection his babysitter, the TV, tells him clearly that the appropriate outlet for such abuse and its righteous rage is violence and the elimination of the sources of that anger.  We are all familiar with the concept of a kid throwing a tantrum to get attention and instead of discipline the overwhelmed parent often gives in and gives the kid what they want.  That is a life’s lesson for the young mind.  This is a simple escalation of that concept.  In order to achieve some form of recognition for their efforts they seek to generate violence in which they “win” by scoring the highest body count precisely as do many of the video games they play endlessly.  And even if killed in the process they know the news media will breathlessly and publicly tell of their successes as if singing their praises and at last, even if in death, they will finally be recognized for doing and being something special.

In short, I argued that our culture and its modern liberal parenting are manufacturing these shooters wholesale and until we address that issue, no focus on tools will have much of an effect.  The problem, of course, is that our culture will have none of that and, I predict, will continue to be unwilling to change any of it which, to me, shows that the gathering of family goodies is not and was not ever really about the kids and their needs and well-being.  At its core this is an issue of parenting and as such would require a review of issues like ethics and values and morality unlikely to take place anytime soon.

I would argue that these adult killers are simply individuals whose final straw was not loaded onto their psyches while they were still in school so their target operate in different environments.  But if we are socially unwilling to change and try to slow down the creation of these killers, what does that leave us as viable means to try to lower the incidences of mass shootings whether at school or elsewhere?

The most common idea, after banning tools, is to create workable defense mechanisms.  This was especially true regarding school shootings when all manner of hare-brained ideas were floated around for “hardening” the facilities from metal detectors at the doors to putting an officer on each floor.  My book deals with those in detail… and rejects them.  Another idea, now adopted by Utah and several local jurisdictions, as examples, is to allow teachers to be trained and armed.

This may come as an enormous surprise to people who know me, but I’m not solidly behind this idea.  I accept that in many public locations it is possible – possible – that an armed AND TRAINED citizen could stop the shooter before law enforcement arrives (statistically about 10 minutes after the call) and more innocent people are killed.  But expecting a teacher to fire on a student, even one actively killing other students, is to ask them to throw away everything holy to good teachers who put kids’ safety first and have never ever faced death in a fire fight or never, like many combat vets, seen kids set explosive traps that killed their friends and comrades.

In fact, to be fair, I know several teachers who are vets or ex cops that I’d love to know were armed but they are the rare exceptions.  Their often-unfortunate experiences allow them to see the action and throw the internal switch that changes the shooter from a kid and perhaps known student into a wanton killer that must be stopped with whatever means it takes.  Most of my colleagues, on the other hand, are nice enough individuals but the idea of them packing a weapon would scare me to death.  I’m not convinced many of them could make that transition in time to save others and perhaps even save themselves.  Returning fire while under fire is not like a range exercise, no matter how complex or “realistic.”  No range target is likely to kill the shooter if they miss or delay.

Having a bullet fired in anger go by your ears for the first time is a life altering event and the common response is to freeze, soil your undies, and thank God you are alive rather than to return deliberate well-aimed fire.  And it is even less fun if you are hit.  Unlike the westerns where an arm shot or shoulder shot was waved off as a flesh wound with a brave declaration of, “…they only winged me!” getting hit with modern ammunition can turn even a non-fatal wound into an experience with pain — from torn flesh and hydrostatic shock as internal muscles are ripped apart by the pressure wave — the likes of which few have ever known; and it will stop virtually anyone not high on some contraband substance or hardened with precious experiences, right in their tracks.  You’re not sure if you are terrified of another shot or you want to stand up and embrace a good one so it will stop the pain.

Ego driven Concealed Carry Permits aside, a real gunfight is not a place any rational human wants to be and if their training is not so constant and well honed that they can respond automatically, a phenomenon called by some, “psychotachia” will slow down their perception of the world, create very narrow tunnel vision, and overwhelm them with so much adrenaline that based on skill alone they could not predictably hit the Pentagon at ten paces with a blunderbuss.  This person is not the one you want protecting the classroom with a small gun of questionable accuracy in their shaking hands when all fine motor skills are gone.  Additionally, no one with any combat experience would want to go into an expected firefight armed only with a weapon that can be easily concealed.

Besides, simply making this type of activity an extremely hazardous occupation has little meaning to the perpetrator because most mass shooters expect to be killed in the process.  It is their lasting story and score that is important as a legacy.  Those things and the attendant fame, they believe, will live on beyond them; and until we can convince the media and the consumers of media to make them anonymous except in the most negative of ways, it will continue.  Until we quit rewarding their deadly tantrums as they wish, until we stop trying to remove negative consequences from negative behaviors and choices and get over the idea of situational ethics, it will continue unabated.

So if we as a culture will not remedy the manufacturing of shooters, and we cannot really eliminate the incidences on the spot, what is left in the meantime?  Are we helpless?  I don’t think so.  What we can do is learn what is needed to give us as individuals and groups a better chance at surviving such an event.  And it begins long before the event starts.  It begins for the potential victims with a skill set based on the acquisition of “Situational Awareness.”

Every shooter for whom we have data has, it turns out, left a clear set of preliminary indicators that they were building to some horrific act.  And all of them fell within the limits of certain required conditions (according to their own perceptions).

Every one of them!

There may have been some trigger that set them off and makes it appear almost spontaneous, but it never really is. The old cliché that you hear all the time when someone is trying to make sense of what to them is a senseless act is that the perpetrator, “just snapped.”  That is NEVER true.  Never.

That final act has been building usually over a long period of time until some final incident occurs that pushes them over the top.  What unfolds, after an analysis of every  mass or school shooter, reveals that the shooting (or bombing or knifing, etc.) is the result of long hours spent sulking and pouting over their perceived grievances and thinking about their action to make it right; planning it in their minds, studying everything they can that will help them prepare, gathering and or making their tools, often ranting their manifesto speeches in social media or to their friends (or enemies), often casing the possible locations to exact their retribution and reckoning.

What is important is this:  ALL of those steps leave tracks.

But if that is true why do we not see them?  The answer is simple… we have.  But we don’t want to believe what they tell us.  Huxley wrote that humans tend to believe what they tend to prefer.  How can that be when we all see the same things?  Well… no we don’t.  Studies have shown that we do not really see with our eyes, we see with our brain.  And the brain “sees” only a fraction of the potential sensory input available to avoid overwhelming us.  It filters the rest out.  Based on what?  Preference and a firm and desperate grip on its unique sense of what is “normal” which it will try to retain and accept contradictions to that only when some huge jolt of reality forces us to do so.

What about mental illness?  Well, in the Secret Service study of the shootings in 2018 it turns out only a very few of the killers were currently suffering any related mental illnesses.  But…  ALL of them had a history of symptoms reflecting deep issues related to mental health problems from depression to addictions. Some were evaluated but found not to have issues serious enough for treatment.  But, and what is important here, they HAD been evaluated because someone noted what was, to them aberration behavior.  Many had been treated and pronounced “cured” or put on meds which they stopped taking.  But in the end, mental illness was just one of the indicators to be fed into the mix to determine if the tracks you were following were likely leading to a shooting or not, but alone was not determinate.

In his best selling book, author and security consultant (to government, corporate, and celebrity clients) Gavin DeBecker gets deep into the weeds to give very detailed data on these conditions and indicators along with actual case histories to support his firm’s approach and conclusions.  The book is called “The Gift of Fear,” and if this subject is important to you, if you spend time in places that have historically been the types of places targeted for mass killings,  then that book and several others he has written or recommended on the subject are ones you really need to read.  But they are long and unpleasant reads because they take you into minds’ dark places most of us would prefer not to go.

However the bottom line of his and others’ studies clearly show that we all see those tracks; we all understand them on a subconscious level, we all have an internal sense or intuition that makes us apprehensive or uneasy, and justifiably so… but we ignore it and go on about our lives following our concepts of normal.

This is a blog entry not a book and there is not a reasonable amount of time here to go into detail on the indicators or conditions that spawn these incidences.  If you would like me to expand on them then let me know.  But I cannot over-emphasize this: if you spend time in schools or businesses or government offices or public events or restaurants or places of worship, etc. where these incidences have happened, sometimes more than once, and if you’d like to better your chances of survival should an incident occur near you, then this grim topic, horrible as it is to contemplate, is something you need to take seriously and inform yourself as best you can.

Our world is changing as values and ethics teaching is evaporating, as parents become more overwhelmed by work and the material world, as new media rewards bad behavior with exposure, as the entertainment media continues to glorify violence as a viable solution to problems, and as social media and video games makes us less sensitive, less sympathetic, and less empathetic to others who look or just think differently than we do, then I believe these types of incidences will continue to happen and may even escalate in frequency.

You basically have three optional ways to deal with it.

  1. You can ignore it and assume it will not happen to you so there is no point in talking about such unpleasant topics.
  2. You can be overwhelmed by it, live in fear and deep anxiety and have your life ruined by something that is still – so far – a fairly rare.
  3. You can accept the reality of this possibility and learn what you can do to better your odds of survival should it happen so you can live your life aware but not debilitated by fear.

The third option involves two areas of training.  The first is to learn to let your intuition show you warning signs and then act on them – to do as the signs say, “If you see something, say something.”  The second is to take as much training as you can get in dealing with active shooter scenarios such as the “A.L.I.C.E.” training or the “R.H.F” approach.  Learn to see the signs that let you avoid the danger as much as possible, then learn the approaches that will enhance your chances of survival if you find it happening around you.

It’s a truly sad thing that in the early part of the 21st century in the United States that we should have to even think of these things much less seriously need to prepare for them.  But we ignore that reality at our own and our loved ones’ peril.

At least that is my opinion on the subject for those that asked…


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