Small storms meandered over the high desert as I made my way down a long unpaved road to a remote desert river. The occasional snow flurry gave way to a patch of blue sky, and whenever a long view presented itself, I stopped to watch cloud shadows sweep across the wild landscape. I was on my way to a little known canyon to spend a few days camping in solitude. The plan was to witness the emergence of spring, to wander in the warm glow of reflected light in narrow sandstone passages, to sleep in the open air under a star-filled night sky, to think deep thoughts and perhaps to make a couple of images, too. This was not a rare occurrence for me. On an average year I spend well over fifty nights camping alone in such places.
As I set up my camp on a lofty ledge above the river, I watched ravens perform aerobatic dances in the afternoon wind, listened to the warbling of a male meadowlark and delighted in the rich scents of riparian desert flora.
To say that I was happy may miss the point. Contentment may be a better word for it. Most people associate happiness with fleeting episodes of elation, but contentment is a sustained state, a goal to be pursued in its own right, regardless of any other purpose or outcome. I can make images in many places that are much easier to reach and to work in; places already vetted by other photographers, where a pleasing image is practically guaranteed. But I stay away from such places. The ease and predictability of photographing them makes them not more, but less desirable destinations for me. That is because I chose this life and this career, not for the sake of filling my files with yet more variations of familiar compositions, but so that I can experience what to me is the most rewarding of all states; the sense of serenity to be found in wilderness and nowhere else; a sense that, for a sliver of time and space, everything is as it should be, that beauty has a purpose and that life is an astonishing gift not to be squandered.
To be able to do what I do and to experience the world in the raw is why I live and work as I do. Photography, writing, hiking, staring into the heavens on a quiet night, and sharing these experiences with people I care about, are not the purpose of the life I lead, but the rewards for it, and so long as I can make sufficient income to sustain it, I need little else.
As so many invest their days in promoting, elevating and marketing themselves like so many commercial brands, it may be worth heeding the greatest danger of celebrity; it is far easier to make other people think you live a meaningful purpose-driven life than to actually live a meaningful purpose-driven life, but to take the easy route also comes with the risk of realizing too late that the two are not interchangeable.
I therefore measure my success not by how many images I make, how popular I am or my annual income. Success is simply a matter of accomplishing and sustaining a life that is meaningful and rewarding in its experiences, independent of anything else.
Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 40 of Landscape Photography Magazine.