This is the time of year for best-of lists, so I’m taking some stock of my own work during the last year. This was an eventful year overall for me. I have an enormous amount to be thankful for and many opportunities presented themselves to me during the last 12 months. Still, not every change was positive. No one knows the final outcome of the changes; things might turn out for the better over the long term. Or they might not. The objective and the challenge, as always, involves finding a goal that’s worthwhile and putting your shoulder against it.
Photographically as well, 2018 was interesting year. At the end of 2017, just before Christmas, my wife and I took a road trip to see family in Wisconsin, Chicago and the St. Louis area, before getting home December 23rd. There were opportunities to photograph in both cities. In March, I was in Phoenix and Tucson, in Arizona, and in Seattle, in April. In May, I had the opportunity to participate in a photography symposium in Moab, Utah, and in July, I completed a canoe trip with my son and son-in-law in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in northern Minnesota. All of that was fun and provided interesting challenges photographically. And much of it would seem to contradict one of the key themes of this site, which focuses on the landscapes of the upper Midwest. But the outcome of a sad circumstance—the death of my wife’s uncle who succombed to cancer in late July—meant that I also had opportunities to photograph in rural North Dakota.
If the desert landscape differs dramatically from the Midwest, and if the Pacific Northwest differs from both of them, it’s also the case that each landscape contains myriad photographic opportunities. For that matter, each landscape presents inspiration for many forms of artistic expression. Taking advantage of the opportunities to work in different locations, completely different regions, allowed me to learn and refine my photography during the year. So the collection of favorite, or best of, photographs of 2018 contains images from locations outside the Midwest.
Southeastern Utah presents grand vistas and the Puget Sound region offers some consistent possibility for mystery along with exquisite land- or seascapes; and the mystery in ordinary moments increasingly appeals to me these days. I want to say that again in less new-agey terms. The older I get, the more experience I acquire, the more practiced I become as a photographer, the more I find that ordinary stuff, captured in the right way in the right light, results in more satisfying pictures, in which the interest is more durable. That’s helpful, and hopeful, as those moments arise everywhere, every day.
The poet, Christian Wiman, said that “poetry increases the stock of available reality.” But what does that mean? I think it refers to the fact that most of us go through life immersed in the struggle to get through the day, striving toward objectives that are more accepted than deliberated, and in doing so we miss a lot of what’s in front of us. And when we pause long enough to look, or when something interrupts the short-term focus that stands between our routines and the larger, deeper beauty of reality, we can be confronted with the astonishment that Annie Dillard wrote of when she said, “We write to give voice to our own astonishment.”
Flannery O’Connor said, in a letter that the role of art is to increase the sense of mystery in the world. And she went on to note that contemporary people have a lot of trouble with mystery. Or at least my generation does. (I’ve heard that part of the popularity of books and movies like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter is that they return some sense or recognition of mystery to our lives, and that appeals a lot to subsequent generations.) My generation doesn’t seem to want much mystery in our lives. When confronted by mystery, we want to identify it, measure it, categorize it, label it, replicate it and control it—in which case it’s no longer mystery.
But life does include mystery. Life is bigger than homo sapiens and the parochial concerns of our species. Our lives will be richer when we see that. So one reason to work, whether our work is writing, photographing, painting or dancing, is to find bits of reality, add them to the existing stock, and give voice to our own astonishment.
Hope you have a great year in 2019!