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The Photographer and Wilderness

Dave Bohn

To learn to hear the great silences of wilderness is to make at least partial acquaintance with infinity.

My guess is that all of the fifty two photographers would be willing--if a way could be found--to give back to Mono Lake more than they took away. And surely this was one of the reasons all these photographers made their work available in the first place-- for what became the "At Mono Lake" exhibit, which has traveled for three years and comes home now to reopen in an expanded version at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco. (The photographs reproduced in the catalogue represent about one half of the prints exhibited). All this, of course, part of the effort to prevent the death of an ancient lake.

In an earlier brochure, it was suggested that the exhibit would be "...a visual statement about a splendid, ancient place, by some of those who love it deeply." As to the exhibit and the catalogue being "visual statements," I have never rested easy with that phrase. I have long been suspicious that a consciously produced and labeled "statement" ends up as photographic autobiography. But at Mono Lake and environs, I think all these photographers were out there along the shores of time just because they love to wander along the shores of time with a camera. (On the subject of giving back more than we take away: If the camera is used to collect wilderness landscapes for an eventual "viewer," then I have to believe the photographer is consuming the landscape, although in the short run this consumption is not as evident as, for example, physical destruction. If, on the other hand, the camera becomes part of the landscape, then the camera becomes an extension of the universe. In this case, it might be possible to give back more than we take away.)

Well then, what is it like to be out there--on ancient landscapes with camera? As one who has done a good bit of this wandering, I dare speak only for myself, however, and do not by any means expect even close to 100% agreement from the others. Thus, I would say that it is the wandering that is most important, that the camera is really an afterthought And out there, along those shorelines--in the wind and the cold and the heat and the silence, the rainsqualls, the snowsqualls, at daybreak, at high noon, at nightfall--a great deal of patience seems to be required. In other words, one has to listen, and listen again, and again...Finally, perhaps, participation with the unique dance of life that is a part of any great natural area. At Mono Lake that dance includes, among other things, fifty thousand California Gulls raising their young on an island in the lake; while off just a few miles to the south, the line of volcanic craters, subdued now and mostly so for the last thousand years--but on the geological morrow they will explode again and rearrange this ancient landscape.

However, lest I wander too far, out there, I might say that if the exhibit and the catalogue make a visual statement to you, the reader, then I am in your corner in spite of some of the things I have just said, and I hope you will see fit to join the dance of life at Mono Lake.

April 1983
Text Copyright 1983 by Dave Bohn.

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