Several years ago some Levenger folks, myself among them, took David Allen’s lively course on his trademark productivity techniques, Getting Things Done. Although my e-mailbox still isn’t empty at the end of a day, I often recall David’s discussion of the various elevations involved in Getting Things Done.
In essence, ideas start up high and lofty. As you execute them, by necessity the elevation drops as you descend into the to-do’s. But both high and low are integral to the result.
From up in the clouds to boots on the ground
Now along comes our new Levenger Press book, Emerson, Muir, Thoreau: A Photographic Trilogy of American Wildness. In their own way, these three pioneers of America’s conservation movement present comparable levels of thought.
Emerson, with his “Nature,” is highly philosophical and up in the clouds. Thoreau, “Walking,” is more grounded and down to earth. And Muir, in his fevered quest to save “The American Forests,” is the boots-on-the-ground activist.
Our book represents the first time these three fellows have come together. The connector is Scot Miller, an equally passionate conservationist who tells his, and their, story through his exceptional photography. (You can frequently catch Scot’s videos on the CBS Sunday Morning “Moment in Nature” segment.)
Judging from the images in the book, Scot worked at elevations both high and low to get the shots he wanted. Enjoy our 10-question interview with Scot on how and why he was inspired to do this beautiful book.
1. Why was it important to you to do a book that connected these three conservationists?
For me, it was a natural evolution. I have admired and studied the works of Thoreau and Muir for years, illustrating several of their books with my photography. Over time, it became apparent to me that Thoreau’s writings influenced Muir, but, I often wondered, how much? I started on a personal journey to “build a bridge” between these two men who were so important to the early American conservation movement. Thoreau died far too young and never had knowledge of Muir. The more I read, the more it became clear to me that Emerson was the bridge. Emerson had interactions with each man, and both Thoreau and Muir were greatly influenced by him. The book emphasizes the interconnectedness of these three writers/philosophers/activists and the role that their intertwined orbits played in America’s environmental coming of age.
2. What was the most difficult photo (in the book) that you took, and why?
The photograph of the river on a beautiful autumn morning in the Yosemite wilderness that appears on page 59 was physically the most challenging photograph to create, not from the standpoint of being there that particular morning, but rather, how hard it was to get to the general vicinity a week earlier. It required a strenuous two-day hike of more than twenty miles deep into the Yosemite wilderness to a remote part of the park that is rarely seen by anyone. Ironically, this was taken on September 11, 2001.
3. What would you like people to know about the photographs?
Photographically speaking, the book covers wide-ranging subject matter, more so than any of my previous books. It is about experiences, journeys, and places visited over a seventeen-year period, from 1997 to 2014, and my artistic interpretations of those places and experiences. Each image captures the spirit of a particular moment (some longer than others), a feeling, or a sense of place. All but three of the sixty-nine photographs were captured with medium-format film cameras, including a large panorama camera. Seventy percent of them were captured in national or state parks, or forests.
4. What was the most serendipitous image you shot?
In the fall of 2014 I traveled to southwest Colorado specifically in search of beautiful fall foliage images, especially those featuring aspens at peak color. The photographs that appear on pages 4 and 84 of the book were both created on this trip.
As fate and good fortune would have it, I hit fall foliage just right. Not only was I able to experience fall foliage at its peak, but I was also greeted with the first major snowfall of the year. It is rare to have photographs that show both peak fall foliage and fresh snow. To get one or the other—peak fall foliage colors or a beautiful blanket of snow in the mountains—is wonderful, but to get both at the same time is pure serendipity!
5. You start with a slew of photographs that you spread out on your dining room table. How do you winnow them down—what do you look for?
Selecting the sixty-nine photographs and accompanying quotations at first seemed like a daunting task. In the end, it was easier than anticipated, and amazing how certain passages and images in essence self-selected themselves. It is a testament to the wonderfully descriptive writings of Emerson, Muir, and Thoreau.
The sequencing of images and accompanying quotations was driven by the photographs (light, color, form, shape), so the text unfolds from page to page in a somewhat random manner. But there are definite connections between the passages and images that I hope the reader will notice.
6. Do you have a favorite?
I like all of the photographs, each for different reasons. However, the image of the impressionistic reflections on a town pond in Maine near Acadia National Park that appears across from the title page is a favorite. I love the strong, primary colors in the image. This particular image has a painterly look to it, by design. Slow movement of the water helped achieve the desired look, and it was captured straight to film as it appears. It's wonderful when a photograph turns out like you envisioned it!
7. How did you pick the three essays that you did? Was it for their content, or because they lent themselves to beautiful imagery?
The essays were selected more for content and their importance to the early American conservation movement, but an added bonus was that they also lent themselves to pairing well with my photographs.
8. John Muir was clearly captivated with Yosemite. From your many photographs of it, so are you. Given that you’ve photographed so many breathtaking places, what gives Yosemite its special allure?
Yosemite was the place that really spurred my interest in nature and wilderness photography. It has a storied history in our national parks system and in photography, for good reason. It is a place of incredible grandeur, with beautiful waterfalls, wild rivers, mountains, valleys, and wide open wilderness spaces. There’s a reason John Muir called the Sierra Nevada Mountains the Range of Light, and why the great Ansel Adams photographed there for his lifetime. Yosemite is a place I’ll never tire of. There’s always something new around the next bend. Attempting to create photographs that do it justice will be a never-ending endeavor.
9. What’s another story behind the lens of one of the photographs?
I was photographing a prickly pear cactus in bloom in the Texas Hill Country one morning. I had set up my camera on a tripod for a nice closeup composition with two yellow flowers and noticed that there was a bright green bug slowly crawling up the stem of one of the flowers. I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this bright green bug would crawl up the stem and into the flower?” I waited for several minutes, my patience paid off, and the bug did just that. I nicknamed this particular photo, which is on pages 108-109 of the book, “Bug Butt” for obvious reasons. Serendipity times two!
10. What do you want this book to do for those who own it?
I like that a person can approach the authors’ writings, and this book, in a variety of ways—from purely literary to philosophical, and more. Interspersing quotations from each man’s essay and pairing them with photographic images combine to present a fresh body of work, one that honors the prescience of the authors and, I hope, inspires readers to celebrate America’s legacy of wild and open spaces.