For most of my life as a photographer I was constrained by a full-time job as the pastor of a local church. I snuck in photo outings on days off or early in the morning before showing up for work. I could hardly ever travel further than what a day’s round-trip in the car would allow. These limits were certainly frustrating at times, but I’ve come to see this anchored life as mostly a gift and blessing.
Instead of fantasizing about exotic, far-away places, I was forced to pay acute attention to the Inland Northwest region that I call home. I made frequent trips to the rolling hills of the Palouse,
and Wolf Lodge Bay on Lake Coeur d’Alene to photography the annual congregation of bald eagles.
I grew to love the architecture and history of the City of Spokane,
and discovered the wonders of the northern lights at Priest Lake in north Idaho.
Along the way I was surprised to learn that there are people that travel from all over the world to enjoy and photograph these places in my own backyard. Go to Steptoe Butte State Park at sunrise on a spring morning, and you’ll be greeted by a half dozen tour buses filled with photographers who traveled thousands of miles to be there. It turns out I live in a region that others might consider a far-away, exotic destination.
I’ve certainly been blessed by these rich surroundings, but the reality of most busy days of work and family commitments meant that there wasn’t time to venture further than my own immediate surrounding. When I got home from work at 6 p.m. and the sunset was at 6:30 p.m., I was forced into the non-negotiable math of human transportation. It was always, grab the camera and tripod, get in the car, and try to figure out where I could get to in time to catch some color and light. Most days, the subject matter was limited to my own neighborhood in the west valley of Spokane, which is a nice place, but no one has ever mistaken it for a world-class photography destination.
I suspect this is the reality for most creatives. The artistic journey is often limited to the margins, snuck in between the imperatives of everyday life, confined to small local places that few would consider unusually fertile ground for a rich artistic life. Our preoccupations with beauty and mystery are caught up in the gravity of ordinary neighborhoods and unassuming landscapes.
Despite these limitations, I felt compelled to head out with my camera, and over time, strange things started to happen. I got to know my neighborhood really well. I discovered places that had been hidden in plain sight, and stopped to explore. I developed a keen sensitivity to the rhythms of seasons, weather, and wildlife. Little local adventures became a training ground for my skill and vision as a photographer. Over time, I did get to spend time at famous photo destinations, but my best images always seemed to come from places close to home.
I was reminded of this recently when National Geographic featured one of my images on their Instagram feed. I regularly share images to the Nat Geo Your Shot community, including photos of famous wolves from Yellowstone, and iconic scenes from photo destinations like Glacier National Park and Antelope Canyon in Arizona. When the editors from National Geographic recently looked over my photo feed, they skimmed right past those shots and selected a scene from my neighborhood to broadcast to their 1.6 million followers.
This is one of those places I discovered in my local excursions. It’s 5-minute drive and 15-minute hike from my house, and has become a go-to spot for sunsets because of the smooth water and westward view. I’ve been there over a hundred times with my camera and tripod in tow. You can scan through this slide show to see some of the photos I’ve taken from this location through the years.
I recently wondered what it would look like to include myself in the scene, so instead of hiking, I paddled out with my kayak, and set my camera up to keep taking photos, as I floated around in the frame. Here are some of those shots, including two that were recently featured by Nat Geo editors.
When I moved the west valley of Spokane 14 years ago, it never occurred to me that it was National Geographic material, but now I know the truth, and I suspect that what’s true for my neighborhood is true for yours. In every ordinary and unassuming place, there are compelling scenes worthy of the Nat Geo Instagram feed.
Let me offer a word of encouragement to anyone who seeks to live a life of creative expression, but feels stuck in a common place. It turns out that the constraints of being anchored in an ordinary place are not a curse, but can be a gift. Instead of lusting after far-away, exotic destinations, settle down and pay attention. You are surrounded by mystery and beauty that simply awaits the long stay of an attentive eye.
I quit my job six months ago to make way for a season of full-time on photography. I thought this new flexibility meant that I would venture further afield, to finally spend some time in those far-off places, but I’ve mostly stayed close to home. There is so much amazing stuff around here, I don’t want to miss it. This was the view from my neighborhood last week.