Without a Camera

One thing lightweight philosophy taught me, as I spent more and more time scrutinizing ounces, was to evaluate the role of a camera. I remember writing, in my first concerted gear list ever, that I felt a camera critical to my full enjoyment of my trip. What I meant was that I liked the process of seeing beauty, framing a shot, balancing light and subject. I liked to sit at home, months after a trip, and regain a sense of the experience as I flipped through images.

Eventually I started to question myself. What did a camera offer my experience and what was I comprising during my time in the wilderness for a sense or recognition, accomplishment or permanence? Was it about longevity or showing off?

I think for many it might be a sense of durability that we are seeking when we bring our cameras into the backcountry. We are uncomfortable with the briefness and immediacy that the wilderness presents to us. It isn’t enough simply to be once. For me, it takes serious focus to be in a moment so genuinely that a camera becomes trivial. But time is telling me that no lens and no set of pixels can fully imagine the overwhelming, multisensory gift of me, in nature, right now.

And it isn’t permanent; and it is better for it. But I didn’t get there quickly. Last fall, packing for a trip to Coyote Gulch in the Escalante of Utah, I decided to take the old Canon SLR my dad had recently sent me. I like the imperfect feel of film photography, it makes pictures seem unique. But standing alongside my car rubbing the red canyon dust out of my eyes, worrying about those tiny grains working their way into the Canon, I thought better of it. After all, my friends had their cameras.

Recently the social network alerted me that I was tagged in a photo, the thumbnail was the blocky reds, browns and yellow of southern Utah in the fall. Excited, I clicked on, examining the record my friend made of our trip on her digital camera. But wait, this isn’t the canyon I hiked. The stream I walked down had towering red walls on either side that crumbled into arches and alcoves. It was by covered with a blinding, deep blue expanse. Its bed was a network of ripples, ridges and spines, brushstrokes through sand and gravel. It echoed sage and cottonwood. The canyon I visited has been a home for millennia. And her pictures didn’t show me that.

When you have time: check out Barry Lopez (yawn... skip to minute 16:00)

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