Stephen Berger—Street Photography in Nature

Stephen BergerBy Stephen Berger      October 2, 2020

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Stephen Berger—Street Photography in Nature
Above: -Wild Willys Hot Springs, Mono County, CA.- My girlfriend loves hot springs. I love high plains areas with mountain peaks around Mono County. California has both in abundance, so it has become a regular destination for us. On our first trip there we sought out Wild Willys Hot Springs. When we arrived, the parking area was full of vehicles and the makeshift boardwalk to the hot spring itself was crowded with people. Our shoulders sagged as we thought we had found a place that wasn’t well known. Then a storm blew in, quickly and fiercely. We soaked anyway, then walked back to our car to see that most everyone else had fled. I hadn’t planned on it being a photo trip but from the parking area, I had a clear view for quite a ways. I grabbed my camera with a knock-around lens and grabbed it for two shots—this one and a vertical version—before we drove away. Photography is a moving meditation for me. Of course, I love when I get “the shot,” but the act of being in nature with my camera makes me feel present and connected and hyper-aware of what’s around me moment to moment. I feel grounded and alive. It’s also an interactive process. My photographs are what I would call “street photography in nature.” To this point, handheld, I wander with my camera, see something that inspires me, and press the shutter. Then I move to the next moment. Between the meditative awareness and the interactive process, these photographs represent my sense of the energy, beauty, and feeling of those moments.


-Lone Iris, Sonoma Coast-

-Lone Iris, Sonoma Coast-
A simple photo of a simple thing as part of a bigger story. A friend and client whose wife was making a film, needed an editor. A version of the film had already been made but needed help. I watched it and resonated with the theme (maintaining hope in difficult circumstances) and imagery. We all met in Healdsburg, California, and I agreed to re-edit it. I had brought my camera and asked about the best way to get to the Sonoma coast. It was a 90-minute drive, mostly in the wrong the direction, but I wanted the drive, time, and space to see a part of California I’d never seen before. I wound up in a state park and, much to my liking, wandered with my camera, virtually alone in that scraggly, weathered kind of rough environment. I took many photos I like, but the film was buzzing through me and I felt like I was floating on creative possibility. This lone Iris really spoke to me.


-Tecopa Hot Springs, California, next to Death Valley-

-Tecopa Hot Springs, California, next to Death Valley-
On our second trip to Mono County for hot springs and high plains, we booked three nights in Mammoth Lakes over Thanksgiving. The night we arrived, a severe winter storm warning went into effect and Mammoth and the 395 were expected to be snowed in by mid-day the next day. This time we were the ones who fled. Straight east to Tonopah, Nevada, a crazy beautiful drive that included amazing views of two mountain ranges and a close-up encounter with wild horses (I did not have my camera with me). We then went south to Tecopa Hot Springs, California, next to Death Valley. It was basically a trailer park where natural hot springs have very rustic facilities built around them. The following day we drove home knowing we wanted to go back and explore the area. On that return trip, this, to me, was a classic, still life desert scene that caught my eye.


-The road between Death Valley and Pahrump, Nevada-

-The road between Death Valley and Pahrump, Nevada-
Same trip as #3. After a couple of days near Tecopa, I started to feel like there were too many people around. We heard there was a wildlife refuge in Pahrump (about an hour away) and the idea of traveling on isolated back roads to get there intrigued me. This shot, like the previous is a kind of classic-desert, open-space, on-the-road kind of shot that I’ve tried to capture in different places in different ways but the combination here of emptiness and distance, combined with my explicit desire for such in the moment, made this one of those one-of-a-kind shots.


-Vik Iceland-

-Vik Iceland-
This winter trip to Iceland in 2019 was almost a bust. The first five days included bad jet lag, catching a bug, terrible weather, and a real letdown at must-see spots due to crowds (on tour buses) and roped-off areas for tourists. One couldn’t just wander, which is how we most like to explore and I most like to take pictures. Just out of frame on the left side of this image is a black sand beach that was overrun by tourists and tourist buses (it’s a spot where some Game of Thrones scenes were shot). While the framing isn’t atypical for me, I used it out of a bit of frustration and consider it a happy accident as I love the image. It has the feel of the kind of solitude I seek and of the unspoiled (to the extent possible) types of natural environments I like to be in and photograph.


-Seagull at Kehoe Beach-

-Seagull at Kehoe Beach-
a place in Point Reyes, California, where I often went to take photos and for solitude during a six-year period, starting in 2010, when I lived close by. I often went at sunrise. Between the physical isolation of the place and the early hour, there was almost never anyone else there. I took many photos I like and love, from crazy stormy ocean shots to peregrine falcons flying and eating. On this morning there was a ton of squawky, active seagulls skittering around and pelicans flying by and the light lent itself to some nice long-lens, down-the-beach landscapes but this seagull was hanging by itself and truly seemed like it was being contemplative, which generally and in this case, quite specifically fit my mood. To me, this captured that contemplative feeling, making it—despite just being a seagull—one of my all-time favorites.


-Tule Lake, California-

-Tule Lake, California-
This was during a four-day road trip to a wildlife refuge where bald eagles congregate in winter. I didn’t see many eagles but I did see lakes of ice, gorgeous morning and evening colors, giant flocks of other birds flying by, and coyotes. I also had time in some wide-open spaces which I cherish. On this afternoon I was walking in an area that allegedly had owls in the trees and didn’t see, but the bushes were covered with these red-spotted black birds. It was so quiet and devoid of human activity that these hundreds of birds took off as a reaction to a single crunching step of mine, before I’d gotten very close. I had time to snap a couple of shots while they were still massed together and while this is the only shot in this presentation with so much activity, the activity felt borne of the solitude of the place.


-A Turkey Vulture and Sunset-

-A Turkey Vulture and Sunset-
Not much of a story here. After a rainy afternoon we went up to Top O’ Topanga and hopped out to take pictures because there was an enormous rainbow over the valley. When that faded, as we were walking back to the car, my girlfriend said, with her arm pointed, “Take a picture of that!” I lifted my camera and said to her, while hesitating a moment, “It’s too far away,” but being a dutiful partner, snapped the picture anyway (a single shutter depression) and this was the result. It certainly captures the feeling and spirit of a sweet kind of solitude and, despite my initial hesitation, it’s one of my all-time favorite photos.


- Iceland-

- Iceland-
This was while driving away from the Golden Circle area back to Reykjavik. It’s a lake that’s in Thingveller National Park but we drove to the non-park side of it down a long dirt road as that was the way with no one else around. Not a big story for this; just a photo that for me captures the beauty and peace I was looking for on that trip.


-Bee on Lavender-

-Bee on Lavender-
In addition to the landscapes and wildlife, I also love going out with my macro lens and love this image for its richness… I love shallow DOP images with nicely rendered out-of-focus areas (when appropriate). Mostly it reminds me of how much I like the feel of using this lens because, more than any other way I take photographs, it puts me instantly into the meditative kind of hyper-present state where I start noticing smaller and smaller details and the inherent beauty.


-Weeds and Wind-

-Weeds and Wind-
When I’m out with my long lens hoping to encounter some wildlife, I often, if the fish aren’t biting, wind up trying to capture images like this. Isolated bits of flora with those beautifully rendered out-of-focus areas. When that becomes my focus, like the macro photography, it also puts me more deeply into a meditative state. In this case, I was on a project last fall in the Bay area that included 19 straight days of work. On a day off, I went back to Point Reyes to a favorite, seldom busy trail, hoping to see some owls. I didn’t see any (and strangely never have, anywhere) but the time on the trail was much needed. On the way back, I became aware of the flora around me and saw this bit of weeds blowing around and was able to capture what is, for me, the epitome of this type of long-lens, isolated flora, soft-background image.


-Red Tail Hawk-

Soon after I got my first “pro level” long lens, I went out frequently trying to find and photograph hawks. I lived in West Marin at the time so Point Reyes and environs were close by and certainly, compared to my life in NYC and LA, the area was teeming with wildlife. I’d been out before and gotten some, well-lit with beautiful soft green background portraits. This morning, however, was quiet and foggy and a bit eerie. The environment suited my mood and I came across this hawk and, as usual, waited to see if I could step towards it and have it remain in place. It did, so I slowly got closer and closer, pausing between steps. There was a very peaceful and alive feeling while the two of us were just being. I think it was one step closer than this when the hawk finally flew away. I have a photo of it in a very fierce pose as it got ready to do so, but this photo, the lines of the profile, the colors in the beak, and the nictitating eyelid, conspired to make it my “keeper.”
-Red Tail Hawk-


-Roosevelt Elk-

-Roosevelt Elk-
One of the many photography road trips I took while living in Marin was to the Redwood National and State Parks in far northern coastal California. Me, my camera, the road, and an expansive, previously unexplored, natural wild place made it a great trip. One highlight was, after a few hours of wandering around in the redwoods, coming across a herd of Roosevelt Elk near the coast. Roosevelt Elk are huge, and this was during the rut so there were some truly impressive male elks in view. I got to stand fairly close to the herd and there were several small dramas playing out. Males chasing after females. Males jostling with males and a truly impressive bull elk arriving and bugling covered by brush and sending the other males, save for one, to the sidelines. The one for me, however, is this direct eye contact shot with this magnificent creature—he was the bull elk that didn’t run off when that brush-covered bull arrived.


-Humboldt Redwood State Park-

-Humboldt Redwood State Park-
As I came to this spot I had to stop. It felt like a cathedral. As in many of these photos, I was the only one around and during the time I spent there, save for one work truck passing by, it stayed that way. I parked here and walked into the woods a bit and froze. I felt I couldn’t move my feet. I was stuck to the ground in a state of awe and reverence and my insides felt like they were being drawn into the earth. I’ve been around many redwoods, lived amongst them in Marin, have been to Sequoia a number of times, and was in the other redwoods near where I found the elk, but never felt anything like it in those places (although I had a sense of awe and reverence around all of them). I didn’t bring my camera when I walked into the woods—t was meant to be its own un-photographed experience—but this shot, coming to the spot that made me want to stop and take the walk, is extremely meaningful to me.


-The Madison River and “National Park” Mountain in Western Yellowstone National Park-

-The Madison River and “National Park” Mountain in Western Yellowstone National Park-
It was late October, a Thursday, when I went to my local bookstore and found a book called, “The Wild Excellence.” It’s the story of a woman who lived in Marin County and packed up her life to live in a cabin in the wilds of northeast Wyoming (above and to the east of Yellowstone). As I purchased the book, the cashier mentioned that the author would be giving a talk that night. I went back for the talk and heard her describe that part of the country and talk about Yellowstone. The next morning, I was off on a 15-hour drive and five-day trip. I arrived well after dark and early the next morning drove into the park. Soon after passing from Montana into Wyoming, I rounded a bend and came to this valley. I stopped immediately and stood for a while taking it in before taking some photos. One of my favorite things about this picture—aside from the welcome I felt and the positive reinforcement it gave to the spontaneity—is the lone fisherman in the bottom left third. I love the “one man in the wild river” theme but mostly it’s the scale he provides. I was the only other person around. Bliss.


-The view from Mount Vision in Point Reyes near Inverness, California-

-The view from Mount Vision in Point Reyes near Inverness, California-
This is perhaps the most personal of these photos. I moved to Marin because my closest friend had become a single mom and I’d stepped in to help. After a couple of years of that from a distance, we decided that we’d all move in and raise her boy together. They were in Maui and I was in L.A. and Marin felt like the place to do it. After four-and-a-half years, they moved back to Maui (It’s just their place and very much not mine but I’m still actively in her boy’s life). After they left, I stayed in Marin for another year-and-a-half before work and friends drew me back to L.A. Mt. Vision was a spot I’d been told I had to go see and photograph but had never been there. On my last photo outing before moving back, I finally went. It was bittersweet. I loved living up there and being so close to nature. I loved the pace of the place, but I knew going back to L.A. was the right thing to do. In that mood, on my last photo outing and, again, with no one around, I encountered this: layers of fog, clouds, ocean, and sky and a kind of abstract sunset. It was a lovely sendoff and I have no regrets for the move up nor the move back.


Stephen Berger is a film editor and nature/wildlife photographer. “The world is nuts but also (and always) beautiful....” For information: stephenbergerphotography.net; and Instagram.
Stephen Berger

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