Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Musings: John Cusack, Sheer Cliffs, and 15-Year-Old Christ Figures

Angel's Landing, March 2017. Those little dots in the upper-right corner are a couple of brave souls posing on its precipice.

In the summer of 1990*, Troop 649 out of Bountiful, Utah spent its annual Scout Camp in Zion National Park. I was thirteen years old, midway between 8th and 9th grade, and still hoping to play football for the Raiders someday.

The centerpiece of the camp was a 17-mile trek through the Zion Narrows, a gorgeous red rock slot canyon and one of my first lessons in the principle that you can have too much of a good thing. The hike was split over two days, with a sleepless overnight camp in a miserable rock alcove jammed in-between.

My most substantial memory of the camp came a couple of days after we finished the Narrows, when the whole troop decided to scale Angel's Landing, a breathtaking precipice that many consider the highlight of any trip to Zion. I'd never heard of the place before--that camp was, as I recall, my first official trip to Southern Utah--so I spent three-quarters of the hike in blissful if winded ignorance before turning a corner and stopping in my tracks before a narrow, winding ridge with 1,000+ foot drops on either side sitting in front of me.

Now, I'm not a fan of heights. I can't really remember any specific pre-Angel's Landing experiences that drove this point home, but I'm fairly certain that by age 13, I ranked extreme heights somewhere around contemporary country music and tuna fish sandwiches on my list of things I'd just assume never have to deal with for the rest of my natural life. And staring at that crazy zig-zagging ridge ahead of me, with its helpful chains driven into the rocks for optimal clinging, I realized that I was about to face the one thing on that list that could actually threaten my natural life.

Luckily, I had Brad.

Brad was my scoutmaster's teenage son, a year or two older than the rest of us, safely on the opposite side of the tumultuous sea of puberty. Brad tagged along on our camp, and quickly became something of a mentor for me, mainly because he'd brought along a cassette copy of Van Halen's "5150" album for the drive down. We'd spent much of the hike up until that point shooting the bull and getting to know one another, and without realizing it, I began to take on some of his determined enthusiasm.

That's why I only had about a split second of sober hesitation before I followed Brad headlong up that horrifying little ridge. His confidence was infectious, and the difference maker between me completing the hike and staying back at the landing with several of the other scouts. I was terrified as I scrambled over that last red rock incline, clutching those chains, but I never let up, and Brad and I finished the ascent well ahead of the rest of the group.

Naturally, the view was beautiful, and I'm pretty sure we took some discount 1990's-era photographs that have become buried in storage somewhere in my parents' basement. I even got a commemorative award at our next Court of Honor for "First Place up Angel's Landing," so someone must have been aware of how petrified I was on that stupid hike.

But while my ascent of Angel's Landing initially felt like a personal accomplishment, in the time since I have begun to see it in a different light. Over time, it has become one of my most vivid, if imperfect, metaphors for the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was drawn to Brad because he represented the big brother I never had. As a kid, I remember watching "Stand By Me," a Rob Reiner adaptation of a Stephen King novella about four boys who go on a journey to find a dead body. The protagonist, Gordie, is haunted by memories of his big brother, played by John Cusack in flashback, who had died in a car accident. For decades afterward seeing that movie I have had this odd perspective on the Chicago actor as a consequence. Without any older siblings of my own, Cusack projected the big brother I wish I had, and Brad projected the big brother I didn't realize I had.

I'm not sure we can ever comprehend the Atonement of Jesus Christ, but I think that in little ways, at least in part, we can understand it. I think it's safe to say that without Brad inspiring my effort, I likely would have second-guessed myself into staying at that last landing, one frightening ridge away from one of the most memorable accomplishments of my adolescence. I don't necessarily think Brad would have saved me from falling if I'd slipped, but his leadership, encouragement, and support felt like everything I've heard described about the Savior and the role He's supposed to play in our lives. With Him leading the way, we can do things we could never do left to our own devices. At the same time, He won't do the task for us. We have to exercise enough faith to follow His lead.

I've been to Zion several times in the years since that summer camp, but I've never been back up Angel's Landing. I've thought about it, wondered if another ascent would confirm my adolescent conquest, but never followed through. As of right now, my favorite view of Angel's Landing is the one I posted at the top of this article, the one I photographed with my feet firmly planted on the ground.

It's more likely that, rather than worry about facing the exact same fear I already faced almost thirty years ago, I should apply the lesson I was given that day to my more immediate fears, and see what new heights I can achieve with a little help from my big brother.


*Or maybe it was 1989?

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Photographic Therapy in the Funk of 2016

The general consensus is that 2016 was awful. A quick spin through the big news items of the year offers a lot of evidence for the argument, and not all of it is connected to presidential elections or celebrity deaths.

On a personal level, I have to admit that 2016 threw its share of body blows. After a three and a half year run, the KJZZ Movie Show was canceled because of a network buyout. One of my favorite restaurants shut its doors forever, and I faced down a long-dreaded birthday in October. A lot of 2016 played out in a heavy funk, and not the good James Brown kind.

But it wasn't hard to find silver linings hiding in that overcast horizon. By the time fall rolled around, I had a brand-new niece and a brand-new teaching job up at Weber State University. And just before Christmas, thanks to the support and hard work of my buddy Chidsey, I launched a new YouTube channel for my movie reviews, because if there is one thing I know, it is that people need to have a place to watch artificial light reflect off my bald head on a regular basis.

Through all the ups and downs, photography became my therapy as well as my creative passion. Somewhere around the time winter transitioned into spring, I resolved to get out and shoot more often, and shoot I did. I'll post a few favorites below, but if you really want to see this stuff the way you were meant to, click this link when you're on a desktop computer (or at least a laptop), and then click the "play" button in the upper-right hand corner.


The year started off the same way as the last few, with a visit to the Sundance Film Festival and an anniversary for the KJZZ Movie Show. Eventually I got out and started some shooting, in spite of the bleak winter weather. My first real shoot came about two hours before playing church basketball for the Bountiful 19th Ward for the first time since 1998. Later I braved the elements with my buddy Dennis to do some night photography out by Morgan, Utah.

This long exposure was taken off I-84 between the Mountain Green exit and Morgan.

March brought a much needed Spring Break away from a challenging semester at Salt Lake Community College. I decided to take a quick road trip south, stopping first for an afternoon stroll through Goblin Valley before continuing to Capitol Reef National Park, where I rose early the next morning to photograph the Milky Way. Later that day I made quick work of the Calf Creek Falls hike, then continued to Bryce Canyon, where I once again dragged myself out of bed early to photograph the sunrise. Helpful travel tip: If you're traveling through the Capitol Reef/Bryce Canyon area in March, pack a lunch. Because nothing is open in the off-season.

Panorama Point, Capitol Reef National Park

Sunrise at Bryce Canyon on the Navajo Loop Trail.

I wound up spending a lot of time at the temple this year, both attending sessions and taking pictures. On a March visit to the Bountiful Temple I started another 2016 habit, and started compiling images for time-lapse videos:

In April my "get out and shoot" mantra really started to pick up steam, as I marched out into the high winds of a passing storm to photograph the sunset over The Great Salt Lake near Saltair. Then in May I took advantage of my friend Tyler's company Lagoon Day to do some long exposures of the rides just after sunset.


June confirmed the rumors: The KJZZ Movie Show was canceled. After a blast of a three and a half year run, our little (award-winning!) movie program was shut down as a result of a network buyout. We were given the heads-up earlier in the year, but soldiered forward as the sale was finalized in the hopes that someone might decide to keep the lights on. I still hope that some incarnation of the show might come together in the future, but if not, I have a lot of great memories to be grateful for.

My KJZZ co-stars Steve Salles and Melanie Nelson take a break during a 2015 promo shoot for our show.
As I marched through Summer Semester at SLCC, and plodded through a summer movie line-up that just seemed to fall flat, the 4th of July brought some much appreciated photo opportunities. I bought a few modest fireworks from one of those tent stores that pop up every summer, and recruited my nieces to help me add a human touch to the celebration.

In July I also made my first return to Oregon since the summer of 2002, to attend my cousin Jessica's wedding. I left my camera at my hotel for the ceremony and celebration, but took advantage of multiple opportunities to photograph the beautiful Oregon coast.

From time to time through the year I experimented with a post-production process called stacking, where multiple images were combined to enhance the impact of a particular subject. This technique especially came in handy when photographing LDS temples at sunset, since the temple lights usually didn't come on until after the sun had already gone down. I used the stacking technique to create this image of the Bountiful Temple during the Pioneer Day fireworks display at Mueller Park Jr. High, which also coincided with a dramatic wildfire out on Antelope Island, which you can see on the right.

July was packed with great photographic moments, and one of my favorites took place in a remote area of southeastern Idaho called Willow Flats, where two of my best friends and their families invited me to join them for their yearly campout. After rising early to get some images of the sunrise, I returned to camp to recruit two of my friends' kids to help me create the peaceful scene below.

At the beginning of August I wrapped up my last summer course for SLCC, then took a quick trip to San Diego before starting a new semester at Weber State University up in Ogden.

Scripps Pier, San Diego California


Fall brought more than a new teaching job. In September, my third niece arrived, and I made my annual visit to the Utah State Fair.

In October I finished a side project I'd been working on for several months. Earlier in the year I set a goal to photograph seven new LDS temples before my birthday, and after successful visits to the Brigham City, Draper, Provo, Payson, Oquirrh Mountain, and San Diego temples, I took a fall drive up to Cache Valley and finished my project at the foot of the Logan Temple, about a mile from where I attended grad school at Utah State University.

Brigham City Utah Temple
Draper Utah Temple
Provo Utah Temple
Payson Utah Temple
Oquirrh Mountain Utah Temple
San Diego California Temple

Logan Utah Temple.
Late in October, the unthinkable happened: I turned 40. But thanks to a great party hosted by my sister, which included a compilation of personal letters from friends and family offering their condolences, the brick wall of middle age actually became one of my best moments of 2016. A couple of weeks later, I took a quick trip south to Cedar City with the Cheetahman, who was also celebrating his big 4-0.

The Cheetahman ponders mortality while wearing a stylish Rockagator waterproof backpack at the Little Sahara Sand Dunes near Delta, Utah.
Waterfall in Kanarra Creek slot canyon, south of Cedar City, Utah.
By the time December ushered in the Christmas season, I was getting ready to wrap up a successful semester at Weber, launching my new YouTube channel, and looking for every opportunity to shoot that I could find. Often times my efforts led me to an old favorite, and one cold evening I returned to the same spot where I shot the Mueller Park fireworks to catch another sunset by the Bountiful Temple.

Christmas brought the lights on Temple Square, and after a pair of visits downtown, I combed through my archives to flesh out enough content to create a video I could match to my friend Dawn Black's arrangement of "What Child is This?"

The morning after Christmas I lit out for one last trip to Southern Utah, tagging along with a trio of high school track coaches to hike through a snow-draped Bryce Canyon.

Once I got back and recovered enough of my strength, I finished off another short film, this one assembled from footage I shot during several of my photo shoots throughout the year.

Last year I said that life was a delicate tug-of-war between life's trials and life's blessings, and for a lot of people, 2016 swapped out the term "delicate" with "vicious." But I think the principle is still the same. In a way, I'm relieved that 2016 is coming to an end, but I wouldn't for a second suggest that this year didn't see a number of great things. Even if you just look at the titles for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Cubs, I think one of the messages we have to take from 2016 is that anything is possible. And that gives me hope looking forward to 2017.

Good or bad, I'm planning on taking more pictures either way.

Happy New Year!

Monday, June 20, 2016

God Loves Cleveland

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my dad returning from a Cleveland Browns playoff game while we were visiting my family in Ohio one Christmas. I didn't know anything about Brian Sipe throwing an interception to Lester Hayes in the end zone, bringing a stunning and crushing close to a season so full of last-second finishes that year's team had been dubbed, "The Cardiac Kids." But I do remember that it was so cold at the stadium that my dad's jacket had literally cracked open.

A few years later, I watched on TV as John Elway led the Denver Broncos 98 yards through Cleveland Stadium on the way to crushing the Browns' Super Bowl hopes, and a year after that I watched Ernest Byner fumble on his way into the end zone at Mile High Stadium. It was a little less painful to watch Michael Jordan elevate over Craig Ehlo and hit a last-second shot to take Game 5 and a first-round NBA playoff series over the Cleveland Cavaliers, since my hometown Utah Jazz held exclusive rights to my basketball loyalties, but I still recognized the patten: as far as sports were concerned, my mother's hometown was a city of heartbreak.

In those kinds of situations, you learn to appreciate the little things. My favorite memory of watching the Browns came a year after The Fumble, as a 40-year-old career backup QB named Don Strock led Cleveland to the playoffs after the team lost three other quarterbacks to injury. On the last game of the regular season, Strock threw a strike to wideout Webster Slaughter in the middle of a Lake Erie snowstorm, clinching the win a play so photogenic I wish I could take my camera back in time to capture it. They lost the wild card game down in Houston the next weekend, but the triumph in the snow is all I can picture in my mind's eye.

As the years went on, I saw Cleveland hearts ripped out again and again, whether it was watching Art Modell pull up stakes and move the Browns to Baltimore, or LeBron James put a stake in the heart of Cavs fans when he told them on national TV that he was taking his talents to South Beach. It seemed like the only place Cleveland could catch a break was in a Hollywood movie. And in the meantime, the only hometown team I had was enduring heartbreaks of its own, most often at the hands of the same guy who hit that jumper over Ehlo.

Last year, my mom and I headed back to Ohio for a family reunion, and in the middle of a gorgeous green city park, about a dozen diehard fans and I gathered around a tiny portable TV and watched the Browns lose another heartbreaker. It was a likely narrative: we celebrated when the San Diego Chargers missed a tie-breaking field goal at the end of regulation, only to see a Browns penalty give them another shot. The second chance sailed right between the uprights, and the Browns tacked one more onto the loss column.

Things were looking a little better on the NBA side, though. After winning a pair of titles in Miami, LeBron was back in a Cavs uniform, and only the lights-out shooting of Stephen Curry and the suddenly stable Golden State Warriors had kept him from bringing Cleveland a title in his return season. A lifetime of cheering for underdogs and also-rans kept me from committing to the Lebron Bandwagon, but if my Jazz couldn't be in contention, the next best thing would be a title for my family out in Ohio.

That's why I smiled last night as LeBron crumpled onto the court in tears seconds after the Cavs took the rematch series from Golden State, erasing a historic 3-1 deficit in the process. I had just watched him spend two and a half hours desperately chasing his elusive destiny, squeezing out extra efforts that should have come up just short, and finally grabbing hold of the Larry O'Brien trophy with a sincerity he never had in Miami. It was a reminder of why it's so easy to translate sports into movies: the Herculean winner-takes-all effort fits so nicely into a clear, three-act format, unlike the lives of the Regular Joe underdogs in "real life" who adore it.

It was also a reminder of that age-old question of just how much God cares about sports, which comes up whenever a bombastic athlete points to the sky after a touchdown or a player like Tim Tebow shines in the limelight. The answer is yes, of course God cares about sports. But not because he loves LeBron James more than Steph Curry (who is about as likable an NBA MVP as we're going to get), or because my tithing funds the college football team for a university I never attended. God cares about sports because He is a master storyteller, and a master teacher. Sometimes the lesson is that hard work pays off, and sometimes the lesson is that you have to persevere through a lifetime of setbacks, and hope the trophy comes in the next life, even while everyone else takes home the spoils.

Last night, the lesson was that it ain't over till it's over, even if it takes 52 years for that triumphant buzzer to finally sound.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The 2015 Post-Christmas Photo Essay: First Time in a Long Time

As I look through the photos I shot throughout 2015, a theme emerged. There were traditions I continued, and subjects I encountered for the first time. But often I found myself experiencing something--a place, an activity--for the first time in a long time.

The Beard

Shortly after the end of the fall 2014 semester, I stopped shaving for a bit. Then a bit became about four months. Mostly I was curious to see how much gray was in my beard, and there was plenty. But there was still lots of red, too. I took a few self-portraits early in the year to document the first full beard I'd grown in six years, and my favorite was the black-and-white image below.

Sundance #3

January marked two years at the KJZZ Movie show, and at the end of the month I attended my third Sundance Film Festival up in Park City, Utah. By the end of the year I'd reviewed 116 movies, and even wound up on the Rotten Tomatoes critic list. I snapped the photo below in the press tent outside the Village 4 Cinemas multiplex, where we all get into long, winding lines as we wait for different press and industry screenings. On a Saturday morning, I arrived to see a documentary called, "In Football We Trust," about LDS Polynesian football players. Apparently I didn't need to arrive so early.

The Move

In early March I moved out of my loft apartment in Bountiful after 21 months and approximately 21,000 hikes up two flights of stairs. When I moved in I only signed a three-month lease, anticipating a quick stop before buying a house. It was a bittersweet moment, but it helped to have the generous assistance of numerous friends and family, not to mention a cheerful cleanup crew.

Memorial Day

On Memorial Day the whole family visited my dad's brand-new headstone at the Bountiful City Cemetery. My family was a constant throughout 2015. A month earlier, a book called "Unselfish" was published in response to Kim Kardashian's collection of selfies. I was asked to contribute to the project, and wrote a brief essay about my paternal grandparents.

The Rockwell Relay

Summer brought a variety of photo opportunities, starting with a bike race called the Rockwell Relay that I covered with a couple of friends during my semester break in June. The route wound hundreds of miles through Southern Utah from Moab to St. George, giving us plenty of opportunity to see the best of the state along the way.

Chaos at Eaglewood

Towards the end of shooting the 4th of July fireworks up at Eaglewood Golf Course, I started messing around with exposure times, and wound up getting this shot of the finale. It isn't the kind of thing you'd find on a patriotic poster, but I was excited to see how the timing managed to catch the chaotic explosiveness of the spectacle.

The Kawababy

My buddy Travis has always provided some of my most unique photo opportunities. Thanks to him, I've shot everything from State Fairs to giant slip-'n-slides, and the photographs I took of his marriage proposal even wound up with TV coverage. During the summer I documented the brave moment he and his wife learned--in front of family and friends--the gender of their first-born child. The shot below captures the exact moment Mom and Dad found out they were having a baby boy (which arrived safe and sound in December).

The Retirement

One of the most significant events of the summer was my mom's retirement from the University of Utah after over 20 years of service. I took this portrait of her outside her building after a farewell reception. I think the smile has a lot to do with not having to drive up to campus on cold winter mornings anymore.

The New Drum Kit

Thanks to logistics and adult obligations, it has been a couple of slow years for The Atomic Thunderlips. But the band saw a little action in early August when we were recruited to perform at Viewmont High School's Class of 1995 20-year reunion. It was our first show in a year, and the event gave me just enough justification to buy my first new drum kit in 15 years.

The Milky Way

Right before leaving on my annual trip to Yellowstone, I launched a brand-new photography website that provided a massive upgrade over my previous online presence, mainly in that it allows customers to purchase prints online. Maybe it was this excitement that helped me get my first shots of the Milky Way in Island Park after three years of failed attempts. Towards the end of the trip, I chose to spend my traditional sunrise shoot on the shores of Henry's Lake.

The Classroom

Fall semester 2015 marked six years since my return to teaching at Salt Lake Community College. These days I teach most of my classes at the South City Campus, and more often than not I wind up in classroom 2-169. But not everything was routine at SLCC. Back in the spring I taught my first section of English 2100 (Technical Writing) since I was teaching the firemen for the USU Salt Lake Center in 2007.

The Ohio Trip

The most significant "first time in a long time" might have been my first return to Ohio since the summer trip I took back in 2000. Mom and I went back to attend the Turk family reunion, and I also took advantage of the opportunity to go see Ringo's drum kit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and take a rented Ford Mustang convertible down to Canton to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Neighbors

Around the time I was passing the 20th anniversary of my arrival at the Provo MTC, I was cranking through a series of family portraits, including three separate sessions up at the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in North Salt Lake. My favorite results came from a shoot for my longtime friends Steve and Sarah, who also became my neighbors in 2015. About a month after the shoot that yielded the image below, Steve took things up a notch and accompanied me to my first church basketball game for the Bountiful 19th Ward since the late 1990s.

The Force Awakens

Nothing quite felt like coming full-circle more than screening the new "Star Wars" film on a cold Tuesday morning after a massive storm buried the Wasatch Front under two feet of snow. "The Force Awakens" felt like the sequel I had been waiting for ever since "Return of the Jedi." It was the first new "Star Wars" movie in ten years, and the first one starring Han Solo in 32. There was plenty of marketing and promotion running up to the release, and in this group photo below (taken by our MVP editor Scott Terrill), the Movie Show crew posed with some cosplayers and a familiar R2 unit.

The Ogden Temple 2.0

As Christmas drew near, it was hard to find the time to enjoy the holiday as I scrambled to finish my grading for fall semester, buy the requisite gifts, and handle the ramped-up holiday movie release schedule. But I was able to make it up to the Ogden Temple to get a slightly more colorful version of a shot I first tried last year.

Christmas Morning

Since all of my family Christmas Day activities were scheduled for the afternoon, I decided to spend the morning out at the Farmington Bay Bird Refuge, in search of a Davis County sunrise. As the photos below show, the sun failed to make an appearance. But I did get a few nice shots of 2015's White Christmas, including a shot of a flock of birds that was swarming around a huge tree on my way out.

Christmas Afternoon

Later that day, the family gathered for some traditional gift giving and food eating. We made my grandmother's famous BBQ beef recipe and my favorite cookies, and in the middle of it all we took some luminaries out to my dad's headstone.

The Shot Not Taken

Thanks to my sister and brother-in-law, I was able to join in on some Christmas activities in the middle of the season's manic craziness. On one night, we all took the FrontRunner train into downtown SLC to see the lights, and on another, we took my nieces to see Santa Claus at Station Park.

But my favorite activity was probably the night we grabbed some sleds and headed over to Mueller Park Jr. High to take advantage of December's snowstorm. We brought my nieces along, and thanks to the dark and the cold we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves.

After laughing our way through a few runs through blinding white powder, I dropped onto my back, settled into the soft snow, and stared up at the stars I'd finally captured up in Yellowstone. I thought about what I was doing, how great it was, and how simple it was. It wasn't a big production, it didn't cost money, and yet because of the people I was with, it held more value than any expensive gift I could have been given.

More and more, adulthood just seems to be a delicate tug of war between life's trials and life's blessings, and often the difference between happiness and sadness is deciding which side of the fence most deserves your attention. If I'm being honest, 2015 had plenty of evidence for the trial side, but moments of clarity like the one I had on that huge, white expanse of snow are great for grabbing just enough perspective to carry you into the next day.

The last couple of years of my life have seen some dramatic changes, and I can't say that any of them resemble the life I once imagined years ago at the MTC. But the important stuff is still in place, and even the trials have had the unexpected effect of strengthening my testimony of the things I know to be true. So in that sense, warts and all, 2015 was a success, and 2016 has every reason to follow suit.