A Conversation with G Dan Mitchell

CFALcover_temp_web800pxWith fall now just a month away, Heyday is excited to seize the season with California’s Fall Color in hand, a new release by photographer and long-time photo blogger G Dan Mitchell. This useful guidebook is filled with vibrant photographs of the freshly colored autumn, as well as tips and tricks on how to head home from your next trip to the Sierra with a camera filled to the brink with beautifully composed landscape portraits. Earlier in August, Monica Masiello sat down with Dan to talk about the importance of making new discoveries in familiar places, the very best way to look at an aspen, and stealing a moment out of nature’s constant cycles.

MM: First off, I’m wondering what prompted California’s Fall Color?

GDM: I have this website where I post a photograph everyday, which I’ve been doing for nine years, and I accompany each photograph with a short written piece. Heyday contacted me–someone had seen the blog, and they said, “It seems like there’d be something you could build out of some of the stuff you’ve done there.” That’s really where it started. The book has some material that expends on things that I’ve written on the website–and then there’s some new material as well. Once we were doing a book, there were some holes that we had to fill.

MM: And you do mention in the book that it wouldn’t be possible to include every location, and that a little mystery is a good thing for the readers. I’m wondering then how you chose to include what you did, and whether those strategic choices in curating the content taught you anything about what you value most when you’re going out and exploring things.

GDM: I picked places that I’m familiar with. I mention a place called Conway Summit, which is on Highway 395, because it’s spectacular, it’s accessible, and it’s not going to be at risk from overcrowding because you have to pull over at the side of Highway 395. Most people don’t look at it.

There’s an aspect of being a photographer that is a way of buttressing yourself against the passage of time in a world in which everything is transitory and impermanent.

I think a lot of folks that go looking for fall color want to know, where is “the place”? There are some really spectacular places, and a few of them are in there. One of the problems is that some of those places–with the advent of digital photography and the internet where people are writing about what they see and sharing it with the masses–are just overrun. There are places where this is a huge problem—say, around a little lake I love where I have seen literally a line of fifty photographers in a row along the edge. I didn’t want to contribute to that.

Also, what I really enjoy about photographing in the Sierra is discovering. I have my own Sierra aspen orientation from the places that I’ve found that are my own. I’d like everyone to have the same experience eventually. A number of places are listed in there, and a number of other places aren’t–or I provide open-ended instructions like, “Go up that valley,” but I don’t say to which lake. You don’t need to know necessarily which lake to go to. You need to know that if you go up that road into that valley, you’re going to find a lot of stuff.

Great! I also wanted to know what the most surprising thing about putting the book together was, from selecting photographs to working with Heyday’s production team.

It was really great working with the production team, because I write on the web, but I self edit, so I get away with a lot. Mostly I don’t write for print very much, and so on the web, I go back and correct things. I’m constantly revising. This is the first time that I’ve written something this long that was going to be printed. Folks here did a great job I think of balancing the need to make me a lot more critical about the writing.

Also, it was phenomenal to get feedback on the photographs from someone else, because as a photographer, you’re the only person who knows your photographs and sees them in the way that you see them; you see the same picture that someone else sees, but you’re invested in it in a different way. You remember actually going there. You remember the decisions you made about it. You can skew your judgment about the effectiveness of the photograph for everybody but yourself.

Yeah, I’d imagine it’d be really different just looking at the photographs not having been there. A lot of these places are very decontextualized for me–I very divorced from what it was like to get there and what was to the left and to the right of the limitations of the camera.

Exactly, and you are like everybody in the world but the photographer. That’s the problem –it’s a tricky balance between wanting to show people what you saw that day and being objective about how it will be seen outside of your unique context. That’s where getting feedback from editors and graphic designers comes in. It ranged from really direct, like, “We’re taking this out,” … ouch! … to, “Why is this here?” but obviously, it’s no news to anybody in the book business, the final product is a heck of a lot better than what I started with.

Why capture nature? Why is it important to do so? I think that you might have a very different relationship with nature than a lot of other people.

I think there’s an aspect of being a photographer that is a way of buttressing yourself against the passage of time in a world in which everything is transitory and impermanent. With a photograph, it seems like you can reach into that and grab something out of it and stop it for a moment. Ultimately, it doesn’t slow the world down at all, but it does let you stop and hold a thing and absorb it, consider it, and think about it apart from that constant change. You’re trying to stop that inevitable flow. Also, I think a lot of us that do nature/landscape photography–we’re just drawn to that world. Because we tend to spend a lot of time in it, so we see things about it that not everybody does.

We get to know the cycles really well– the cycles of the seasons, the cycle of an individual day, the cycles of the weather. We’re waiting for that moment to happen again. I’m already thinking about fall, and here it is August. That happens every year. When fall comes around, I’ll be thinking about winter, even though I’ll be out there photographing fall.

Speaking of cycles, I was wondering in what ways the landscape differs from year to year, and I’m especially wondering if climate change has brought on the diminishment or the advent of any particular phenomenon. Have environmental changes impacted the way that you look at the landscape and interact with it?

I first remember seeing the Sierras and Lake Tahoe when I was four. I’ve been going every year since then. I think I’m fairly tuned in to the small cycles, the drought year, the heavy rainfall/snowfall year, the annual cycles, and so on. I have no doubt that we’re seeing right now the effects of climate change. There are some things that have changed recently that are essentially unprecedented.

In the last few years, just to get back to the aspens, the time at which they change and the process that you watch as they change has been odd. It been starting earlier. Last year I saw the first signs of fall in the Sierra–signs that I might normally see in early or mid September–I saw in August.

I like to say that all photographs lie, and I believe that.

Whether that’s drought induced, whether that’s a result of temperature change, hard to say. Certainly right now in the Sierras the loss of snow pack is pretty remarkable. I noticed in the last year or two that a lot of small snowfields, which normally retain a little bit of cover from the previous year’s snowfall, had lost all that cover and they were basically down to blue ice, and the permanent part’s melting.

There was controversy about how Yosemite Valley was formed. There was a theory that said it was a cataclysmic drop of the valley floor, and there was his theory which said it was glaciation. John Muir went up to Mount Lyell, pounded stakes in what he believed was a glacier, and proved that the thing moved, because it was an active glacier—Lyell glacier, the biggest in Yosemite. He gave what is sometimes said to be the first real evidence that led people to understand how that terrain was created. It’s no longer a glacier. It’s not moving. That’s pretty striking.

I would imagine that this makes photography seem like even more of an urgent endeavor, in thinking that maybe what you see one fall won’t be back next year. Is that in your mind at all?

It is in my mind. I wonder about people whose context for experiencing the Sierra is this more recent time when it’s different than it was, and so their normal is not the normal of the past. They must think it’s a pretty dry, desolate place, except for the monsoon rain this summer.

When you’re photographing something in nature, what’s your goal? Are you really trying to capture reality as it is, or is making a photograph something more imaginative for you?

It’s complicated. I like to say that all photographs lie, and I believe that. I think no photograph can give you the full, accurate, objective truth about a subject. What it shows you is how one person chose to view it and what one person looked for in that world. I am trying to make a usually beautiful, compelling visual image. I want it to be honest, but that’s not to say that what comes out of the camera is what you see on a print. I’m going to do what photographers have always done, which is optimize it. Just like we do with a book–we edit, so that it looks the way that I want to show it to you.

Now, if you look at it and you respond to something in it that wasn’t actually there, then I’ve been dishonest. I’m not going to turn a daytime sky into a sunset or add a bird flying, but if I have a picture with a tree in it, I’m going to do things to make that tree more present, maybe a little lighter, maybe darken something in the background. You see an image on paper differently than you look at the actual landscape. I want the experience to be like being there–but, it’s not the same, and I don’t try to make it the same.

So the photo editing compensates for the viewer’s lack of lived experience.

That’s part of it. I think also what it compensates for is the difference between looking at a real scene and looking at a photograph of that scene.

I make decisions about how to photograph knowing intuitively that looking at the real landscape is done in a tremendously different way than looking at a picture. I’m creating a thing that you’re going to look at on a piece of paper, which can’t be the same as that thing out there. At it’s best, it may evoke your imagination or memory of being in such places, but it can’t be it.

What makes for a good subject for a nature photo in the first place? With technology like smartphones, anyone can be and is a photographer, so what’s the best and simplest way for everybody out there to begin making their photos look compositionally better?

Almost every photographer will tell you that the most important thing is the light and the quality of the light. If we see beautiful light, we’ll stop and try to find a subject that we can photograph in that light because the light’s so beautiful. For example, it’s very difficult to make a compelling photograph in the middle of the day. You can do it, but the light’s generally not as beautiful, so we usually shoot really late. The direction of light is also important; if the light is behind you when you’re photographing an aspen and the tree is right in front of you, it actually can look pretty ugly. It’s a very flat lighting, it’s harsh. But if you move around behind the tree, now some of that light comes through the leaves, and it starts to look better.

Frost-Rimmed Oak Leaves, Autumn

Click to enlarge.

You also always ask yourself, “What is this photograph about?” Usually, it can’t be about everything. There’s just too much. That’s like going to a restaurant and ordering everything on the menu. It’s not going to work. You think, “This evening, I’m going to eat that.”

A lot of it, like editing writing, is a struggle to figure out what you’re going to leave out, what you can take out. You try to leave just the thing that really needs to be there.

So good lighting and carefully choosing a subject are pretty good rules of thumb. You pose a lot of other basic principles in California’s Fall Color about how to take a good photograph; are these applicable to other seasons? Or does fall necessitate a unique set of rules because things occur differently then?

A lot of the ideas about how to photograph are presented in the book in the context of fall color, but they certainly aren’t limited to fall color! There are a couple of little technical things with bright colors, yes– bright yellows and reds can “blow out” the picture if you’re shooting with a digital camera, and so you lose detail in the very, very colorful areas. It happens if you shoot a sunset. That’s maybe a little more applicable to fall color, but most of it’s general.

You don’t need to know necessarily which lake to go to. You need to know that if you go up that road into that valley, you’re going to find a lot of stuff.

So any upcoming plans for a new photography guide might be less of a follow-up to Fall Color, more of a different type of photography guide all together.

Heyday and I have talked about a few ideas that build on my interests, like photographing migratory birds in the Central Valley, geese and herons and egrets and ibises. I’m often amazed at people who are literally an hour away have no idea that you can go out there and see ten thousand Ross’s geese taking off on a winter morning. More generally, we talked a little bit about just migration as a concept. Certainly the birds migrate. You’ve got the real large-scale migration of whales along the California coast. You’ve got monarch butterflies. You have more localized migrations of animals that live near the mountains that go up in the summer, go down in the winter. Maybe there’s something there. I’m also a big fan of photographing the desert, particularly Death Valley, so I’d love to have an opportunity to do something about that. And if anybody wants a street photography book, I’m ready for that, too.

Cool. My last question: just out of curiosity, do you have a favorite photograph that you included in the book?

There are some in the book from the Bishop Creek drainage that I’m real fond of. There’s one in a little grove on the way to a place called North Lake. It was just a turn in a road. I’d been stopping there for years. I kept thinking, “You know, there’s a photograph in here,” and I kept not getting it. Then, one day, it was raining lightly, and I stopped in that grove. The light was soft and it was just perfect. Personally, it’s one of my favorite photographs. Visually I think it works nicely, but it also signifies a story about the time it takes to come to know a place. It’s not a location that most people would necessarily even stop for, but it’s a beautiful little spot. They’re all over the Sierras. It’s one of mine.

Any last words for the Heyday blog readers?

I hope you enjoy the book. I do have my own blog, and there’s actually a page on fall color. There are some kinks there about the timing of when fall color arrives and some of the places I go. As the season gets going here, I’ll be posting updates there all the time. Come take a look, leave a comment and say hi.


Bishop Creek. Click to enlarge.

Bishop Creek. Click to enlarge.