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The Big Empty Is Anything But
February 27, 2018
The Big Empty Is Anything But
Photographer Jackson Frishman is connected to the giants of American mountaineering. He also understands the pain and euphoria of the West
EDITOR'S NOTE: Meet Jackson Frishman. He's a young man you ought to know, and in the months ahead you will come to understand how he thinks by how he interprets the landscape around him as a photographer. His roots run strong through the Jackson Hole climbing community where his last name is connected to lore. With his column, "Rambling the Big Empty," he will be sharing visual dispatches from remote corners of the West. The purpose: to continually remind us that all landscapes are interconnected and none exist as total islands. To appreciate the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Jackson will keep asking us to view the Big Empty not as a void but the center of a lot of things worth saving. Enjoy the interview below. We know you will find it fascinating. —Todd Wilkinson, Editor
Badlands, western Nevada. Observes Frishman, "This is straight-up BLM land with no protected status whatsoever." Photo by Jackson Frishman
MOUNTAIN JOURNAL: Your first name is "Jackson"? How did you come by your name and what does it mean to you?
JACKSON FRISHMAN: I spent my formative years in Jackson Hole (Wilson, actually), so people naturally assume my name is a tribute to the place. But in fact, I'm A. Jackson Frishman the Third, named after my uncle and my grandfather. Perhaps there was some destiny at work, though: we moved to Wilson from Santa Fe when I was about a year old. My father, Harry Frishman, guided in the Tetons and accompanied Yvon Chouinard, Kim Schmitz and Rick Ridgeway on their ill-fated Minya Konka expedition in 1980, which ended with an avalanche fatality.
Harry himself was killed the following winter on the Middle Teton. So my name brings to mind a family history of outdoorsmanship—my maternal grandfather Kenneth Adam was also an early Sierra climber, complete with a Yosemite first ascent (the Royal Arches), and my mother Libby was an Outward Bound guide for many years. But my name also evokes a lot of early memories of walking in lodgepole forests, playing by the Snake, cold winters, being a child who took things like bison and geysers completely for granted, and generally growing up with wilderness and mountains as a major part of my life.
MOJO: What has your Mom shared with you about that fateful day involving your Dad, Harry in terms of details? It was a shocking event in the history of Jackson Hole mountaineering. How have you tried to make sense of it?
FRISHMAN: I was barely three years old, so my memories of that time are few and vague. Of course I wish I’d gotten to know my father better, I hear so many stories about him to this day. It’s interesting to speculate how my life would be different if he’d lived, but I also think a lot about what I might have missed out on after my life shifted to a different script.
MOJO: You had another influential male figure in your life, this one an outdoor sporting writer of the highest order. He is a favorite of ours. His books on falconry and guns are legendary and his memoir, Querencia, is a classic. In fact, we encourage MoJo readers to follow his work.
FRISHMAN: My stepfather, the nature writer Stephen Bodio who was based in Bozeman for years, taught me to see beauty in less obviously spectacular landscapes, to look beyond superlatives like highest and deepest and steepest, and focus instead on a place's ecology, seasonal rhythms, historical connections. Over the years, I've gravitated towards contemplative wilderness activities: backpacking, rafting, natural history and of course, photography.
: You have a keen, insightful eye as a photographer. How did you get into photography and how has your thinking about photography evolved?
FRISHMAN: Thanks to an excellent and long-suffering high school teacher, I received a solid grasp of the technical basics working with black and white film in a darkroom. But the creative side didn’t click for me until I was working as a river guide in Idaho. Idaho's wilderness rivers, especially the Middle Fork of the Salmon, are amazingly beautiful, but their beauty doesn't shoehorn neatly into people's usual preconceptions of mountain or canyon scenery. The desire to do justice to those landscapes and share them with others drove me to focus on photographic composition and natural light. Ever since, I remain attracted to landscapes that are underappreciated, that intermingle mountain and desert, that have exciting but hard-to-grasp geology, that are perhaps a bit scruffy and disorganized. My other loves, the wildernesses of southwestern New Mexico and Nevada, share those qualities abundantly, but I first fell for such country on the Middle Fork.
MOJO: Riff a little about how you think behind the lens.
FRISHMAN Like most aspiring landscape photographers, I initially sought out very colorful light, used mostly wide angles and organized images around tried and true compositions: the rule of thirds, leading lines, a foreground object in front of a dramatic background. Those approaches abruptly ceased working for me when I moved to the Great Basin. Now I generally prefer telephoto perspectives, gentler colors, soft or stormy light. An image for me usually begins with some intuition of counterpoint in a landscape: small next to large, high beside low, light in the gloom, gentleness amidst harshness, something of that sort. I look for shapes, lines or textures that either echo each other or push back against each other. Once I see that, a composition usually assembles itself naturally.
MOJO: You've seen much of the West, spent years in Greater Yellowstone, and now call Deep Springs Valley home, in the high desert near the California-Nevada border. Your wife, Niki, is an administrator at Deep Springs College. What is it about the Great Basin that you find so appealing?
FRISHMAN: I've spent substantial time in every western state except Washington, and I have immense fondness for all of them. But even when I was young, the Great Basin cast a special spell. On long drives across Nevada, the emptiness, the distance, the sheer number of mountain ranges lined up between the Rockies and the Sierra, it all seemed so full of potential despite the apparent desolation. Even now it remains packed with mystery and possibility, a region where there are still secrets and where the only sure way to find what's out there is to go look.
MOJO: The Great Basin is a contrast to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. We're looking forward to how you explore the West visually.
FRISHMAN: I love how the Great Basin is such a huge, intricate tapestry of biogeography. Great Basin landscapes often affect me like a great symphony, where a composer develops a few simple themes in different keys, different harmonies and orchestrations into a sweeping world of sound. The themes of the Great Basin are based on geology, altitude, latitude, topography, rain shadows and ecological communities, and they interweave into thousands of variations, each becoming at once both familiar and surprising.
Americans have an unfortunate tradition of viewing the region as a wasteland, and sadly this attitude persists, sometimes even among conservationists who ought to know better. It lacks the megafauna herds and great overland migrations of Greater Yellowstone, but it's full of other wonders. It has epic if perplexing geology, the oldest trees in the world, the oldest archaeological sites in North America, major bird migration stopovers and a whole host of remarkable endemic species, including fish and amphibians that have hung on in tiny oases since the ice age.
MOJO: Who are a few of your favorite photographers—and why?
FRISHMAN: My main early exposures to landscape photography came from the great old Sierra Club coffee table books with images by Philip Hyde and Eliot Porter. We photographers are all standing on their shoulders. I love revisiting them to recapture that sense of wonder from when the American west was still relatively unknown.
From the contemporary scene, I could offer a huge list, but for now I’ll limit it to a few. Scottish photographer Bruce Percy creates masterful film images that always challenge me to see purer graphic elements and rawer emotional content in landscapes. Joel Hazelton, an under-the-radar photographer from Arizona, always manages to show me new aspects of a state I thought I knew and his images fill me with the urge to explore. Sarah Marino's eye for detail and intimate scenes puts me to shame, and she's a strong voice in the conversation about ethics and impacts in landscape photography. Michael Gordon does outstanding black and white work with a focus on the California desert, and is an important voice for desert conservation.
MOJO: Any others?
FRISHMAN: I also have to give a shout-out to Greg Russell, who frequently joins me on hare-brained journeys and always comes back with very different images than I do. His style is much quieter and more restful than mine, and it's enormously educational to travel alongside someone who sees with a very different eye.
MOJO: What are you trying to say in your photographs? Is it a reflection of place, yourself, or a combination of the two?
FRISHMAN: My impulse to photograph comes from curiosity about the world and images appeal to me most when connected to specific places. Of course, landscape images often have symbolic or emotional resonances - water in a desert, the lifting of a storm, etc - but I like for those resonances to feel grounded in a particular, real-world location. On a less abstract level, I'm always thinking along the lines of "How would those rock strata look from that ridge?" or "What would this place be like in winter?"
If there's anything I hope to inspire in my viewers, it would be a similar drive to explore and appreciate landscapes. It's been said of Medieval philosophers that they expected to find a world full of wonders and they were not disappointed. Similarly, the American West remains full of amazing places, many of them undervalued. I hope that my work can inspire more people to look beyond the headline parks, the "classic" viewpoints, the "bucket list" attractions, and appreciate that we are inheritors and stewards of more than we will ever know. It's still a world of wonders out there, and many of them are closer than you might think.
"We now find ourselves fighting to defend fundamental conservation laws and principles. It's easy to wish that these debates were truly over. But that's arrogance, and we're paying for it - the older generations have perhaps gotten rusty and the younger generations haven't really had to make that basic case until now." —Jackson Frishman
MOJO: You were raised within an extended tribe of conservationists, both family and friends. If you were talking to other members of your generation and those younger, like the students at Deep Springs, what do you say to them if they ever wonder why conservation matters?
FRISHMAN: If the past year has taught me anything, it's that making the case for conservation is a never-ending project. We now find ourselves fighting to defend fundamental conservation laws and principles—the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the right of the public to comment, the value of public land itself. Like a geologist confronted with a young-earth creationist, it's easy to wish that these debates were truly over. But that's arrogance, and we're paying for it - the older generations have perhaps gotten rusty and the younger generations haven't really had to make that basic case until now.
MOJO: You're not old enough to be old guard. You are a young father. Your own convictions?
FRISHMAN: Something else that's been driven home to me in recent years is that we cannot hope that any place will endure in pristine obscurity. That was my hope for the Great Basin until recently, but things are changing rapidly. Cities on its edges are booming, they want to pump desert aquifers, desert lakes keep shrinking, the military wants to close off more land, fracking has expanded fossil fuel possibilities, all in a region that many people still see as worthless.
Most bitterly ironic of all is the challenge posed by renewable energy. Utility-scale wind and solar installations pose a host of challenges in terms of sensitive species, migration corridors, soil disturbance, water, viewsheds, Native American sites - they are not consequence-free solutions, no more than dams were fifty years ago.
MOJO: Address the tradeoffs.
FRISHMAN: What's really concerning about industrial solar and wind is that the resource being consumed is open space itself. If we don't start looking at cumulative impacts on a landscape-scale, we could be facing a situation where everything not explicitly protected is doomed and large empty spaces are gone in the Southwest. I remain deeply concerned about climate change and I recognize that hard choices will always have to be made. But more environmentalists need to understand, fast, that undeveloped lands and intact habitats are not renewable resources that exist to be filled up.They are the most novel pieces of the country we have left.
MOJO: What photographic projects are you working on currently? What do you expect might capture your attention in the future?
FRISHMAN: I’m working on a photographer’s guide to the Great Basin, which I hope eventually to distribute in some format. If anything, it’s an excuse to write a love letter to the region. I don’t much care for the scavenger-hunt approach to photography, with GPS coordinates and instructions for reproducing specific compositions. The Great Basin’s poorly suited to that approach, and I don’t own a GPS in any case, so I’m attempting something different, focused on the underlying themes of the region’s geology and ecosystems. I hope I can ultimately inspire a few people to explore the region with eyes better attuned to perceive what’s out there.
MOJO: We look forward to where your roving takes you and our readers/viewers.
FRISHMAN: I have a lot of unfinished business with the landscapes of Idaho and New Mexico. I’d also love to spend more time photographing in the places near where I grew up in Wyoming and Montana. And of course, I need to share it all with my family, get my six-year-old son out backpacking and scrambling and boating, let him get his hands on the world and the wild places we still have.