Connection with the Land by Dave Dillemuth
I often fondly reminisce from the 6 years I lived in China. It was a stimulating period, both personally and professionally, as well as a unique opportunity to feast on a smorgasbord of exotic travel locales. During these travels, I photographed at every opportunity across rural China, India, Nepal and throughout South East Asia. The sense of adventure and wonder these trips engendered quickly became addictive and it seemed I was always either off on a journey or researching the next destination.
However, as with all good things, this life phase came to an end. After returning stateside, I began to reacquaint myself with the mountains and deserts of California, the same landscapes that 25 years prior, sparked my interest in photography. Through the process of rekindling my relationship with these wildlands, it became apparent to me that places, only a half-day drive from my home, held personal meaning and a spiritual connection that the locations I had experienced during my travels overseas lacked. This reconnection to past landscapes also marked a new phase in my growth as a photographer.
With more than a terabyte of raw files on my hard drive, I have gradually evolved into quality over quantity photographer. Simply put, I prefer to come away with a single portfolio quality image than two dozen ‘keepers’. I find myself repeatedly traveling to the same locations in the Sierra and high deserts of the Owens Valley that flank the ranges eastern escarpment. While natural landscapes available to photograph in the American west, or even in just California for that matter, are indeed endless, I have chosen to focus on very specific geographies where I believe my familiarity and connection with the land will increase my success rate.
Rather than exploring far-flung locations, I’m now finding my creative fulfillment by chasing good light and delving more deeply into the landscapes to which in some sense have become sacred to me. We certainly can’t will the quality of the light and dramatic weather, so luck undoubtedly plays a role in landscape photography but, in my experience, the importance of intimate knowledge and familiarity cannot be underestimated. A deeper connection has enabled me to become more attuned to patterns in the land, the rhythms of local weather cycles, and how light interacts with the landscape throughout the year.
In my photography, I seek to capture the convergence of compelling compositions with the best possible light and/or dramatic weather conditions. Often through experimentation, I’m able to find scenes that hold potential compositionally for a good photograph.
However, the lighting and weather are often less than ideal. I may return many times to photograph the same scene, refining compositions and seeking to align my timing with the most compelling conditions. I have become increasingly aware of the fleeting nature of light and atmospheric conditions.
I try to keep my schedule flexible and synchronize my trips with the latest radar and weather forecasts. I also find applications like Photographers Ephemeris invaluable in preplanning my shoot. I currently use a Canon 5DSR body, try to be careful with my field technique, and manual focus in Live View to achieve maximum sharpness. I also frequently focus stack and exposure blend in post. Lightroom is my workhorse editing software, although nearly every image goes through some edits in Photoshop as well.
A quick perusal of popular photo-sharing platforms will reveal many images from the landscape photography global hotspots. It's undeniable that these locations are often exquisite and popular for good reason. Having experienced first-hand, I understand the excitement of traveling to novel locations on a quest to capture iconic images.
However, at least for me, excursions and tours to far-flung locales would, by nature, feel somewhat superficial and do not enable me to get satisfyingly connected to the land. Moreover, developing a spiritual relationship with a place takes time. I find this deep sensitivity and connection to the land is what compels me to photograph.
I'm currently living in Southern California and have been photographing the High Sierra and the deserts and valleys of eastern California for nearly 25 years. And while I have traveled extensively to far-flung locations, landscapes a short drive from my home continue to be the greatest source of inspiration.