Sunday, December 31, 2023

Welcome to the Post-Coronapocalypse: Images and Avatars of 2023

Dear family, friends, and our new AI overlords,

For over fifteen years now, I've made a habit of photographing my world, and I've enjoyed sharing the results on social media, on living room walls, and even in yearly blog posts like this one. But sometimes I miss the shot. In early December of this year, while slogging my way through a round of pull-ups at the gym, I looked across the room and smiled. An older man in a VR headset was air-punching his way through a virtual boxing simulation while Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" played on the gym PA. There was a striking, absurd poetry to the sight, and I was tempted to get a few seconds of footage on my smartphone, but I just couldn't do it. The Internet doesn't need another Star Wars Kid.

Still, I think that old fellow could be an avatar for 2023. With the pandemic behind us, pushing forward into an ambiguous future has often felt like swinging at the air with my eyes closed, with or without Phil Collins to cheer me on. If 2022 was the bridge out of the pandemic, 2023 was our first full year in this Brave New World, and I have to admit, it's not making a lot of sense yet. But I might as well try to find some method in the madness, and post some of the shots I did take along the way...


After a frantic finish to 2022, January tossed aside the sparkle and warmth of the holidays to reveal a bleak blank slate for 2023, but things got busy before I had much time to complain. Before the month was half over I launched a pair of online courses for Weber State's film department, and after almost two years in the Sunday School presidency I was called to be my ward's new Executive Secretary. I continued volunteering at the Bountiful Temple, started reviewing the new movies for 2023, and kept hosting the Utah FilmPod. In the middle of all this I got a quick start on my photography efforts, taking pictures at the Farmington Bird Refuge and the still-under-construction Layton Temple.

The local shoots were a warm-up for January's biggest effort, which took me down to Zion National Park for a rare winter photo trip. When my pre-Christmas 2022 plans ran into complications, I decided a modest January excursion might be a novel way to redeem my winter angst, and the towering, snow-capped landscape of Zion delivered in dramatic style.

On the way back I made a pit stop at Bryce Canyon, for obvious reasons.

On the last day of the month, on the way to screen a so-so horror flick from M. Night Shyamalan, I dropped by Top Hat Video for a bittersweet goodbye on their last day of business. I'd accepted the argument that the traditional video store was no longer a sustainable business plan, but lamented to see another valuable social opportunity sacrificed at the altar of convenience and efficiency.

February kept up the early 2023 momentum as I caught a Jazz game with the Cheetahman, and a couple of weeks later I attended the celebrity game when the NBA's All-Star Weekend came to Salt Lake City. But I had the most fun watching my oldest niece play her first season of Junior Jazz Youth Basketball, and even brought my camera along for her final game. Sadly, my church league continued to lie dormant, but I kept up a regular routine at the gym, and got plenty of fresh air when I joined my friend Brian for my first visit to the Midway Ice Castles since 2011.

As February stretched into early March, traditional get-togethers for the Super Bowl and the Oscars helped offset the harsher-than-normal winter. Having made the recent trip to Zion, I decided to push my usual spring break road trip back a few weeks, and instead made the most of the local scenery, photographing a storm in downtown Bountiful with my friend Steve and showshoeing up Farmington Canyon with Randy. As I crossed the midpoint of the semester and looked ahead to spring, I noted that as challenging as the winter had been, I'd seen some genuine blessings alongside the difficulties.

We spent as much time getting my car unstuck as we did snowshoeing. I need to get a truck.


According to the calendar, spring started on March 20th, but Winter 2023 wasn't taking orders from anyone. By the end of the month, Utah officially set a record for snowpack, and it seemed like every couple of days I was out clearing a new inch or two of snow off the driveway.

For me, the spring season kicked off in the last week of March as I got behind the wheel and headed south to Joshua Tree National Park, stopping at Valley of Fire and the Seven Magic Mountains along the way. From there I broke west for my fifth visit to Death Valley National Park, and before making the long return drive north I visited a Nevada ghost town called Rhyolite. I arrived home just in time for General Conference weekend as the first quarter of 2023 timed out.

This is Tom Kelly's "Bottle House," just down the road from the Rhyolite ghost town.

The delayed spring break got me home with less than a month to the end of spring semester, and with a summer schedule that had me teaching brand-new courses, April became increasingly intense as I strained to finish one semester while prepping another. The weather kept pouring it on, conjuring up memories of the floods of 1983, but while traditional subjects like the state capitol cherry blossoms fell by the wayside, I kept busy behind the camera with a series of senior portrait shoots.

Things stayed busy as April turned to May and I jumped from spring semester into the summer term. As I started up a pair of online classes, a long-anticipated flooring install made things crazy at home, but not as crazy as driving through a swarm of bugs on the way to a sunset shoot at Antelope Island with Steve. There were no bugs on the way to shoot the Payson Temple with Brian, but while editing the results I used Adobe's AI software enhancements for the first time.

Between all the photo shoots and completing my first full year of service at the Bountiful Temple, Spring 2023 filled up the calendar, but luckily it didn't bring the flooding many feared. While the water runoff did cause some issues in places like Ogden Canyon, the Wasatch Front was largely spared a 1983 reboot. Instead, the most significant event for me came as the season approached its finish line in late May, when after trying a few test shots with Steve's Canon R5, I decided to take advantage of a promotional discount and pick up my first new camera* in eleven years.

Spring runoff out of Holbrook Canyon...shades of 1983.


Picking up a new camera was the closest thing to a clean break from Spring to Summer 2023, since my summer semester courses and the summer movie season started back in May. But the camera wasn't my only new venture as I made my way into June. While handling the classes and the movies, I also took on some new responsibilities at the temple, and tried to integrate some new health practices after my yearly physical reported some disappointing results. Clearing excess growth out of the backyard wasn't a "new" venture, but it felt like a worthy follow-up to the new flooring.

Along the way, I photographed a couple of local car shows, and whenever I could, I tried to create meaningful images, whether catching one of my nieces while she got some screentime, or dragging a couple ward friends over to the chapel to photograph our pipe organ. I also kept my Funko project going at my church cultural hall, where I must have logged thousands of miles playing basketball over the years.

When July arrived, I joined my friend Tyler for Centerville's annual Freedom Run, and though we decided to skip out on the Independence Day fireworks, Steve and I lined up our cameras for the Mueller Park Pioneer Day show later in the month. Altogether, the first half of Summer 2023 was a hap-hazard, flurry of activity.

Thanks again to my friend Melanie, whose roof made this view possible.

As temperatures approached 100 degrees in Northern Utah, the Cheetahman and I made a well-timed escape to the Oregon coast for a few days in the middle of July. My primary objective was a third try at a  sunset shoot at Bandon Beach, but sadly I found the same overcast conditions that thwarted last year's visit. Gratefully I found success elsewhere, and Randy and I enjoyed some great food and fun hangout time as we explored the coast, visiting the Goonies house in Astoria, doing product shoots at Cannon Beach, and even dropping by Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in Northern California...all at a pleasant 65 degrees. 

Once back from Oregon, I found those sweltering temperatures waiting for me along with crunch time for my English composition classes. But as I slogged through the back half of the summer, I still got out to get pictures where I could, including a special family session for my Utah FilmPod co-host. In an unexpected development, I also got got some use out of my macro lens, capturing dragon flies in my backyard and spiders out on Antelope Island. After investing so much time and money to shoot in exotic locations, it's always illuminating to see a macro lens reveal the beauty of the overlooked.

After the LaRocco family shoot, the hosts of the Utah FilmPod posed for their own picture.

As August neared its halfway point, I got news that my old friend, neighbor, and scoutmaster Frank Richardson passed away. He had played a key role in my adolescence, providing an unforgettable example of leadership while planting the seeds of my future photo expeditions on a summer scout camp in Zion. We had reconnected through Facebook, but hadn't met up in person, and I was disappointed to have missed the opportunity to catch up properly. But as a silver lining, at the funeral I was able to visit with his son Brad, who had hiked to the top of Angel's Landing with me on that camp all those years ago.

By the time I attended Frank's funeral, summer semester was drawing to a merciful close. As I worked my way through the final grading and prepped my fall courses for another quick turnaround, I tried to enjoy the fresh produce and Maddox day trips that highlight every summer, and along the way I photographed waterfalls, temples, and other subjects around Northern Utah. Still, the late summer played out in a melancholy funk, and all the good things felt like they were under siege from a steady stream of discouragement and disappointment. My friend's passing was a sober reminder of things I hadn't accomplished in life, my summer classes revealed some concerning professional issues, and even a new camera couldn't offset a run of listless photo shoots. 

No one event was catastrophic, but in sum they seemed to ask, "where is all this going?" So it helped to spend some time at the Syracuse Temple construction site one Friday night, and see a structure heavy in scaffolding, far from completion. As summer closed, I was well aware of my blessings in life, but also aware that I hoped for something better. I took heart in the idea that like the temple, I was somewhere in the middle of a process that was more planned than random. It was a perfect time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of my favorite coming-of-age movies, and I closed off Summer 2023 with Brian and his family at the Centerville Megaplex, watching a special screening of "American Graffiti."

Easily the best movie I saw in 2023.

F A L L 

September didn't flip the switch on my summer funk any more than it lowered the summer temperatures, but it did bring some fun opportunities that got the year moving in a good direction, as well as a full slate of classes as I kicked off my eighth year of teaching at Weber State. Even having a green lawn at the beginning of September felt like an accomplishment. Things got rolling on Labor Day weekend as I joined Randy and his wife Alex for a special lunch drawn from fruits and vegetables straight out of Alex's garden. I used the opportunity to add her to my lineup of power lunch photos, which continued to grow at a modest pace throughout 2023.

Not a self-portrait. This is my friend Keith, who joined me for lunch in January.

Karl has been a family friend for many years, and may be getting into photography himself.

I've enjoyed getting to know Daren while serving in the Bountiful Temple together.

I don't know if it was the expectation I attached to my new camera, but several of my summer shoots had felt routine as the season drew on. Fortunately Fall delivered a much-needed jolt of creative adrenaline when Steve and I drove out to the Bonneville Salt Flats to photograph everything from Funko Pops to smoke grenades to random strangers who showed up with guitars. By the end of the night, we capped things off with my first Milky Way shoot in years.

Late in September, as I waited for the leaves to turn, I joined thousands of fellow pop culture enthusiasts for my first visit to FanX since 2016. It was fun to get out and photograph the cosplayers, but my primary objective was to expand my autograph collection. After six hours of waiting in lines, taking pictures around the event floor, and enjoying friendly interactions with a handful of my favorite actors, I was completely exhausted.

By the end of the month the fall season was at full clip, and when I wasn't slogging through student papers, I was enjoying peak produce, having dinner with friends, and heading up into Northern Utah's canyons to photograph the changing leaves. I also joined my sister and one of my nieces for the Owl City concert in Salt Lake, which delivered an unexpected but impressive keytar solo.

The effort started slow, but my quest for fall leaves eventually became one of my bigger photographic successes in 2023. Traditional drives over Guardsman Pass and along the Alpine Loop were predictably gorgeous, but closer-to-home shoots up Davis Creek and Holbrook Canyons were unexpected surprises, and the best shoot of all might have been photographing my niece as she rode her bike up and down an Elm-lined street near my old elementary school.

Steve and I found this sunset waiting for us after our hike up Holbrook Canyon.

Getting pictures of the leaves kept me busy while some other autumn traditions saw delays. Thanks to some untimely car expenses, I decided to delay my traditional Fall Break road trip, and the general chaos of life postponed my birthday festivities. But when the family gathered for a taco fest in early November, and surprised me with pastries and artwork from my nieces, there was no doubt the delay was worthwhile.

By mid-November the fall colors were well beyond their peak, and since my students were between major papers, I decided to head out of town. A week before Thanksgiving, I left for Southern Utah, determined to create some unique shooting opportunities in a few familiar locations. In Arches National Park I captured the red rock in dramatic golden hour light, and photographed a group of Norwegian rock climbers in the Garden of Eden. Then in Monument Valley I got a fun surprise during a sunrise shoot when a local Navajo musician started playing a flute just as the sun broke over the horizon. To cap things off, I enjoyed a spectacular drive home through Bears Ears National Monument, and even grabbed some footage of the last of the fall leaves along Highway 24 to put an emphatic exclamation point on a prolific fall season.


A few days after I returned from Southern Utah, Thanksgiving kicked off the 2023 Holiday Season with a bizarre study in contrasts. Outside I was met with dreary gray overcast, and a miserable cold front that made my 60-degree Fall Break conditions feel like something from a past life. But inside, whether at home or visiting with friends, the holiday celebration was one of the warmest in recent memory. In the days that followed, life seemed to kick up a gear, and Fall Semester shifted into its final grading phase as the year-end movie screeners started to pile up in the mailbox. And even though it felt a little later than in previous years, a group of family photo shoots lined up as November crossed into December, starting with my own. 

The outtakes are always my favorite shots.

Once December arrived it felt like someone stomped on the 2023 gas pedal. I knew going in that it would be a busy month, but the days seemed to fly by as I desperately tried to grade papers, screen movies, edit photo jobs, and attend to my other responsibilities. Luckily, by the time Christmas arrived, I had mixed lots of fun activities into the season; I attended family concerts and a holiday dinner with some longtime friends, made my favorite cookies with my sister and my nieces, and ventured out to several spots to capture the local Christmas lights displays.

The "Tree of Life" at Draper City Park.

Founder's Park in Centerville has become a go-to display for photos every Christmas.

Things got a little experimental in Downtown Ogden this year.

Along the way, I stumbled onto an image I had been scouting for over two months. Back in October, Hamas terrorists invaded Israel from the Gaza Strip, and triggered a war that felt like 2023's answer to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This time around, though, the state capitol didn't fly the Israeli flag, and public signs of support were a little harder to come by. So I thought it was poignant when in early December I drove by the same house I photographed last year with an Ukraine flag, only to see that they now had an Israeli flag on display. 

Throughout 2022 I resolved to get some video footage whenever I went out to take pictures, and the result was a fun highlight video that took me back to my amateur filmmaker efforts from fifteen years ago. I kept the practice going in 2023, and once again, the effort paid off with something that put my creative exploits in a fun and different light. The video and the photos and even this blog post can only scratch the surface of a multi-faceted year, but they still serve as a powerful reminder that 2023 had its fair share of tender mercies.

*   *   *   

Back in November, while still in Moab, I decided to hike out to Double O Arch. Somewhere along the way I lost the main trail, and by the time I realized what I had done, I was so far off course that I felt my only option was to head back the way I came and give up on my intended destination. Instead, while doubling back I was able to re-claim the right trail, and finish what I'd started. The hike was just one of many 2023 experiences that suggested setbacks are not final, and that extra effort and patience pay off.

The interesting thing about the hike was that while I definitely lost the trail, I was never lost in the traditional sense. I always knew where I was, and I always knew the way back. Getting to my destination required course correction--and turned a 2-hour, 4-mile hike into a 4-hour, 7.5 mile hike--but it was still worth the effort. It was still worth the wait.

A lot of life has seen me trying hard to reach a destination, only to get derailed somewhere along the way. But thanks to my testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I've never felt completely "lost." So as 2023 closes out, I hope we can take some solace in the idea that in spite of our limited perspective, there is a plan in place, and that the outcome will be worth the wait.

Happy New Year, everyone, and all the best for 2024.


*Technically I bought a new camera prior to my Paris/London trip in the summer of 2019, but that purchase was always intended to be a "safe" travel camera, not my go-to system.