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An intimate view of Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.
What I try to convey in my photography nowadays is a wild beauty that I see in nature. Just raw nature. No roads, no structures, and more often than not, no people. It’s an intimate connection that I have, one where I get lost in the details of the light, the foliage, the water, and the moment. When those sights vibrate on the same frequency as my heart, that’s the moment the goosebumps come, and those are the moments in which some of my favorite photos have been made… the ones that are most meaningful to me.
So you could imagine that there are places that I almost refuse to photograph. You know.. those popular tourist sites with the parking lots, the gift shops, the people, the structures... the espresso. It’s not because I think I’m above that type of photography, it’s because that intimate experience, those goosebumps, are blocked by those very things. And as such, I would have a hard time connecting to that particular photo, and it would just sit on my hard drive, never to be touched. So instead, I just enjoy the moment and the view. For me, it’s one of those situations where some things are better left to memory.
As an example, I live 35 minutes from one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world: Multnomah Falls. It’s one of those highway rest stops that I swore I’d never shoot in a serious way. It’s the place that nowadays on a weekend, you might sit in traffic on the Historic Columbia River Highway for 45 minutes while tourists wait for parking spots to open. The place where you have to wait 5 minutes for a break in a constant stream of people crossing the street; hot coffee in their hands, ice cream on the kid’s faces, and the smell of public restrooms punctuating the air.
I had only photographed it once, very early on in my landscape photography days, when it was covered in ice. Because let’s face it… it’s DAMN gorgeous during a freeze. And it was. It’s a sight I’ll never forget. But those images will sit on my hard drive never to be touched. Because I was only there for the weather event. It came from the wrong spot inside. I wasn’t connected to it.
But recently I had to photograph Multnomah Falls for a location guide I’m working on. I intended to get there before the crowds, but I just couldn’t motivate myself enough to get out the door that early. I wasn’t looking forward to it. An hour of driving just for a couple of photos.. on a weekend… at Multnomah Falls. But I went. When I got there the parking lots were already filling up, I couldn’t get a clean shot of the bridge in front of the falls without people on it, and the increasing crowds along with the overly perfumed woman on the viewing platform caused me to work quickly. I took a couple of shots, and figured since I had driven all this way, I might as well get a little exercise. So I hiked through the swarms of people to the top of the falls, looked over the railing, hiked a little farther up the trail, and came back down.
I’ve been very reclusive lately and haven’t been talking to very many people, and hanging out with even fewer. The hike to the top of the falls and back was great thinking time and I realized along the way that I was feeling the need to be around people. Not in a way where I wanted to converse with others, but more that I wanted to feel their presence. So when I got back to the viewing platform, which had gotten much more crowded, I decided to hang around. I just stood there on the side and watched. And I did so for over an hour. And you know what? It felt good. I watched the kids excitedly take off for a closer view on the bridge. I watched families get their photos taken in front of the falls, I watched the people with selfie sticks, I watched people who weren’t very mobile putting in the effort to see this waterfall that has become one of the most iconic images of Oregon and I started to see their wonder. I related to it. It’s the same wonder I get when I am in a beautiful place and can tap into those feelings. And even with the people, the structures, and the perfumes I actually started to feel that connection to my environment.
I made the decision to immerse myself in the moment and walked up to the crowded bridge. I stood there with them, saw what they saw, and felt what they felt. I walked to the other side of the bridge and got my camera out. I remained there for 20 minutes getting lost in the viewfinder. I noticed the details of the scene, the light pouring in from above, and the sound of the water cascading down the rockface. And for 20 minutes I marveled at the beauty that is Multnomah Falls in a way I never have before. In my viewfinder I found that wild beauty that I was looking for which was matching the frequency of my heart. For those 20 minutes nothing else seemed to exist. It was just me and Multnomah Falls, existing together in harmony.
This is why I photograph. Photo © copyright by TJ Thorne.