The Leica File Thirteen

Hey folks, a little something different here. I’ve posted this image before, as part of a story about my travels to Peru. I am by no means a landscape photographer, but there is something about this image that I absolutely love. I wanted to explain what this is, and also how this image fits into the realities of covering something like the Amazon with a Leica rangefinder. Please follow the “travels” link above and see how this image fits into the overall context of the photo-essay. Also, listen to the Macaw soundtrack again, if you haven’t before because one of the surprising things about the Amazon is how loud it is.

Peru black and white. 2011

Countdown to Peru 2013: Amazon Macaws

The countdown to Peru Workshop 2013 is in full swing and I’m checking in with another post relating to my past Peruvian workshop travels. Last year was my first opportunity to enter the Peruvian Amazon. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but after asking Adam about it all I got was, “Spectacular,” so I knew I was in for something unique.

The Amazon part of the workshop is an extension, so not an official part of the class, but most of our workshop group was able to go. It’s such an intense experience it’s nice to be with people you have gotten to know over the course of a few weeks, a few meals and a few laughs. Flying into Puerto Maldonado you look from the plane window and as far as you can see in all directions is a sea of the most intense green you can imagine. The door opens and the rush of humidity blasts in and the long, slow sweat begins. You realize immediately you are in a place unlike any other.

Getting to and from this spot requires, in our case, plane then bus then boat. The boats are dugouts, thin and relatively fast, but speed isn’t of the essence here. In fact, the slower the better. The hours on the boat are a good time to just take things in, sleep, enjoy the heat, or in our case bust open a bottle of Adam’s favorite Pisco, which I have to say was maybe one of the best packing jobs of all time. Thanks Adam.

Ultimately we ended up at the Tambopata Research Center.

The Tambopata Research Center (TRC) of Rainforest Expeditions is situated in the Tambopata National Reserve on the upper Tambopata River in the center of a large uninhabited track of primary tropical lowland forest, very near to the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, in the Madre de Dios Region of Peru.
The area hosts a unique forest environment, with the highest concentrations of avian clay licks in the world. A range of animals comes to satisfy their need for salt along the river banks of the region. Sometimes hundreds of macaws can be seen at the Collpa Colorado clay-lick near to the research center.

As you all know, I’m not a landscape photographer and I don’t normally shoot wildlife. I LOVE both of these things but never feel like I ever do them justice. However, when thrust into these places, environments and situations I make my pictures. They might not look like the normal landscape or wildlife images, but they mean something to me and I enjoy making them. The longest lens I had was a 50mm, so not really equipped for this type of heavy lifting, but I think these pictures still work, and the audio file is priceless. Think the jungle is quiet? Think again.

Perhaps the best part of this entire thing was getting up long before sunrise to walk through the muddy jungle, climb into the boat, get out of the boat, walk through more muddy jungle and then wait. I grew up bird hunting, so I was used to the idea of doing all this, but not used to not shooting the birds I’d come looking for. In this case I was glad I wasn’t hunting with anything more than my trusty Leica. If you haven’t been to this region it is well worth the effort. The Peruvians have done a wonderful job of preserving this place, much better than many of the other regions in South America, but human nature requires constant diligence. My motto, if you can go, go now.

What it really means


As many of you know I’ve just returned from three weeks in Peru. This was my second trip to Peru, and the second time I’ve taught a workshop with Adam Weintraub of Photoexperience. Peru is grand, vast, diverse, remarkable, tiring, loud and life-changing. When I return from these trips it takes me several days to really find my domestic bearings, and as I get older the time to decompress grows longer. I’m okay with that.
Returning home I find myself unable to remember passwords, logins, sign on info, etc. It’s as if my brain has been rebooted.
The focus of my international trips, the vast majority of the time, is to make photographs or teach or both. Peru was about teaching first, my photography falling somewhere down the line. Some of you might think this is challenging, to travel all that way and NOT be focused on my own work, but in reality it’s really not an issue. More than anything else it’s rewarding because I get to see students make progress which I find far more entertaining than making my own images. Over the past twenty years I’ve gained much knowledge, mostly due to the kindness of others, and this knowledge is easy to bestow when I see the right fit. The most minor of suggestions can make the most dramatic of impact. Things like studying light, what I do more than anything else while I’m working, can get overlooked in the modern, high-tech world of photography. A simple reminder to stop and look can be career-changing.

So I sit here today, the sun yet to rise over sleepy Southern California, and my mind is thinking about Peru, about my negatives-rumored to be done today-and I wonder why it FEELS like it means so much. I’m not Peruvian. I barely speak the language. I know little of the history. I know little of the politics. So why does a trip like this FEEL so important?
My first thought is “Well the images of course.” And yes, I am very interesting in seeing what is what when it comes to those contact sheets, but this really isn’t the answer I’m looking for. Say the negatives disappear, no images survive, and I have no record of having been to Peru in 2011. Actually, that’s okay too because I STILL feel something. Is it about teaching? Is that why this trip feels so important? Partly, yes, but that isn’t the full reason. Is it the experience of travel? Again, partly, but that isn’t it either. It took us 30-hours to get home, and believe me, when I woke up at 3am somewhere between Lima and Miami, there were countless other places I would have rather been. No, these trips mean more because of something else.
So when I sat here and asked myself why, over and over, I shed one lame answer after another and was left with only one thing that satisfied my mind. Time to create.

For me, the most important aspect of a trip like this isn’t the photographs or the experience. The most important aspect is uninterrupted time in the field to create. It’s the rebooted brain, cleared of the baggage of “normal,” “daily” life and given the chance to actually see and feel the world. What exactly I create is an afterthought. It’s the PROCESS of creative freedom where long-term gains are made. I think these gains are a combination of physical, spiritual and visual.

Fast forward. So I began writing this post BEFORE I got my film back. Well, it’s back and has been edited, archived, labeled, etc, and I have to say…I’m not thrilled. But, I predicted this and knew this would probably be the outcome long before I ever entered Peruvian airspace. The work is scattered, fractured, shallow, etc, exactly what I should have expected. There are a few hints of success, hints of good moments and good light. There are photos that make me FEEL something, but there is no body of work, no story, no consistent theme. Couple this with the fact I’m critical when it comes to my own work and I’m left with a handful of images, at most. This reality doesn’t lessen the impact of the trip. I still feel the same about the importance of making the voyage, experiencing the place and having those rare moments to create. I wrote, created Blurb Mobile stories, made still images and had a few moments to question everything about my life.

The debate about modern “connected” life continues. Not a week passes when I don’t read another article about what living so connected is doing to our brains, and perhaps that is what is so interesting to me about these trips, about being DISCONNECTED to all things home, normal, routine and seemingly critical. I think about the future and wonder how much more connected we will be. How much is too much? How far is too far? When I look at many of the artists I think are most important, most talented, many of them don’t seem to be that connected. In fact, many seem to exist in physical form only. Everything we do competes for time. If time to create is the key, than what do all these side duties do to us? They shorten our attention span, they suck our time and they fill our mind with hundreds if not thousands of microbits of information we must deal with. But when I’m traveling I don’t feel these things. These things just magically disappear. The rules of normal life don’t apply. This is one reason why our European brothers and sisters are a major step ahead of us here in the United States. When many Europeans leave school they hit the road, and they hit the road for extended periods of time, weeks, months, sometimes YEARS on the road. This isn’t viewed as shucking responsibility, not by any means, it’s viewed as gathering life experience. I think the Euro’s know what a travel education provides. For us, here in the US, the rite of travel passage of post college freedom is looked upon as a good thing, but temporary, and if you stray over the allotted time you are viewed as someone who is running away from something or not coming home and “getting serious.” Personally I think we missed the boat on this one. If we could channel the creativity and freedom we experience on these trips, then apply it to our life plan, passion, etc, we might be better off. Just a thought. Isn’t being our creative best still serious?

The key, the answers to life’s questions are out there waiting to be snatched from the thin air. Like passengers that ride with us our entire life. The length of the train grows and grows, each passenger representative of a journey, a moment, an success or even failure. All I know for sure is I want to go again. I want more, of everything.