Audrey and Kevin's Medecine Bow Mountain Top Wedding

When Kevin and Audrey asked me to come to Wyoming to photograph their weddings I was excited. I love the state, wanted to explore its mountains more, and they seemed adventurous, kind, and outdoorsy - my kind of people.

Stelzer Preview (25 of 35).jpg

The opportunity to shoot the Stelzer+VanderBoon wedding proved to be a perfect and encouraging transition dedicating myself to photography as I turned down an opportunity to travel with another company. It was interesting because I'd never met Audrey and Kevin, but we are from the same hometown of Plainwell, MI. Audrey's sister Jess had attended a wedding I'd shot the summer before in Glacier National Park. The small world shrunk even more when I found out Audrey's family lives one street away from my mom's house. Audrey was a few years behind me in school so I didn't know her, and Kevin went to a different high school but they both assured told me they wanted to treat me like family - inviting me for the whole weekend, to the cabin they rented, and even on the river float the day after the wedding.

The weekend contained a successful moose-search, many games of euchre, great food, the world's best coffee, an adventurously fun/stormy river float, and was highlighted by one of the most beautiful weddings I've ever been to.

These two are the epitome of love in motion. The big day started with Audrey taking her bridesmaids into town for a workout before getting ready while Kevin led the men up to a peak over the cabin for a kettle bell workout. By 11:30 am everyone was back at the cabin. The guys were wrapping up brunch while Audrey snuck up into the bird's nest suite. She opened Kevin's gift to her - a bright green climbing rope she'd wanted for a while along with a note from her fiancé.

The men were ready and left to decorate the venue by noon. I've stood in seven weddings, officiated three, and filmed a few and can say Kevin was excited, but also one of the calmest and sure grooms I've ever seen. He only moved to Wyoming a few weeks prior but pulled off the cowboy hat and mountain man persona already. The men left while the girls wrapped up in the bird's nest. Audrey's twin sister Megan was in charge of makeup and the bridesmaids laughed while listening to music before the father of the bride came in for a first look. Sun fell into the room for perfect light. Everyone was beaming as we loaded up the bouquets into cars and left for the hour long drive up to the hillside chapel.

Stelzer Preview (11 of 35).jpg

The ceremony was officiated by Kevin's grandfather inside a slightly slanted stone, mortar, and log open faced chapel with 30 or so friends and family on the rows of log benches. Nearly 360 views of mountains, a bright blue sky, and a grassy field made for amazing pictures right after the ceremony before we left for alpine lakes, perfect golden light, and a portrait shoot that could not have been imagined up any better.

Kevin and Audrey were amazingly easy to shoot. They were so comfortable with each other and in their natural environment. The day before we visited this spot and Audrey and Kevin raced each other up opposite sides of the riverbed. They needed no extra encouragement to jump out on rocks along the lake and out on ridges. We found an amazing spot where sun peaked through the trees lit up Audrey's gown. I had to be conscious about moving on because every bit of light, stream, waterfall, and reflection was perfect.

This is so cool. These two are so cool. Kept running through my mind. My favorite moments as a photographer come when it feels like the photos are just happening, I do not have to try too hard, and I realize I'm witnessing something rather than making shots happen. This was one of those days.

We stopped off at one more pull off on the way to the reception. One last moment before friends and family, along a ridge that gave way to the expansive views and big sky Wyoming has to offer. I took a moment for myself there to think about what this day meant for these two, about their future, the adventures, the families, and felt pretty humbled to be a witness to such a thing. These two amazing people I'm lucky to now call friends joined each other and epitomized the reason why people call love an adventure. I'm just happy I was allowed to capture some of the beauty.

Hannah and Michael's Downtown San Diego Wedding

The Marks' wedding capped off a whirlwind of on the go shooting across the western United States. Before that whirlwind we'd met at a coffee shop to see if I was a good fit for their day, get a feel of the wedding, and get to know each other. We talked for an hour about hiking, the pacific northwest, their honeymoon in Seattle and Vancouver, only after that did we get to photos and the wedding day. They were easy going with quiet smiles and sneaked glances at each other every time the conversation circled back to them.

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.15.11 AM.png

Unlike most, photography didn't seem to be a huge concern for them on their wedding day. Not that it wasn't important to capture the memories for looking back on, but the importance of the photos being a true depiction of the day seemed more important than getting the most amazing shot. Michael didn't want a lot of pictures of himself, didn't necessarily want any video, and his reason was the best I'd ever heard. "I want to remember it my way. I don't want to look back and see something and not see it as perfect as I'll remember it." As a photographer, I'm obviously an advocate of capturing moments, but my background is in photojournalism, action, and landscape. I understood Michael's want to capture the scene that's happening rather than create one that might skew the actual moment into something else.

I told them what I've been repeating to myself since early high school "My goal with photography is to make people feel what it was like to be there." We ended up decided against a first look before the ceremony, bridal party sessions, and limiting poses to family shots. I'd capture pictures of just Hannah and Michael in motion, and the only bride and groom "session" would be right after the ceremony during a short time for them to be alone.

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.08.46 AM.png

I've always said I love shooting mountains and nature because you can't direct them, nor do you need to as they are already beautiful. The same is true for weddings - we as photographers can be tempted to try and create the visual emotion of a love that's already there. Sometimes it comes beautifully from staged portraits and styling a shot, but I loved having the freedom on this day to capture love in motion, unobstructed from my own influence.

Those months after that conversation and coffee flew by. The Marks got ready for their big day, and I traveled on a tour of deserts and mountains through Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, and Northern California before returning to San Diego. The weekend was a busy one, shooting both their wedding and Kaboo (a music festival 20 miles north of their wedding), filling up memory cards and strategically backing everything up. It was exciting and new, a rush for me, and a challenge. I loved it.

The wedding day ended up fitting Hannah and Michael's personality well. The ceremony took place in the courtyard of The Horton Grand Hotel. It was small, with only close friends and family in attendance, which meant a slower, more relaxed pace. Michael hung out with his best man as Hannah and her bridesmaids got ready. Michael's dog Henry was in attendance, walking by his side down the aisle, watching as they exchanged vows, and had kisses waiting for his newly joined family.

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.13.54 AM.png

Cocktail hour was held in a tall alley strung with lights behind The Horton as the ceremony venue was flipped to the reception, giving the same room two entirely different feels. The sun dipped behind the buildings just before golden hour, creating perfect light. Hannah and Michael made sure I got a beer in between shots before we moved inside for dinner, toasts, and dancing. The rest of the night was a packed dance floor and amazing desserts (this photographers' favorite) capped off with a late night churro man.

Some things didn't change from the meeting in the coffee shop with Hannah and Michael. Wedding days can be easy to get caught up in grandeur, raising glasses, talking to everyone, focusing on pictures rather than moments. Their day was amazing too with all the things that make a wedding special, but between the great moments, there were a few nerves along with hundreds of quiet smiles and stolen glances. There's a challenge there as a photographer, to get it as close to the perfection the bride and groom are experiencing. And I hope I was able to come close for Hannah and Michael, to candidly capture what it was to be fully present on one of the most amazing days of your life.

Make-A-Wish: We were just photographers

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 10.16.02 AM.png

Sarah looks through her viewfinder, framing a flower in the Rose Garden at Balboa Park. Plants are her favorite subject. She’s focused so methodically on each individual detail that we could spend ten minutes on a single rose and yet another ten on a cactus just a few feet away. Her eyes get big when I tell her we're not going to shoot out auto anymore and she twists the wheel on her camera to manual.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 10.16.09 AM.png

On day two, we hike Torrey Pines, kayak in La Jolla with GoPros, shoot product for Bradley Mountain Backpack with our stylist (and model friend) Kelsie, fly a drone, watch the light change on the beach, and learn long exposure techniques around a bonfire.

Sarah is goofy and witty. She has a sharp mind that’s quick to learn. So when we walk into some odd lighting and I ask her to look at the light around her and tell me the settings, I’m not surprised when she nails it. Just 30 hours before, words like aperture, ISO, and shutter speed were new to her. Now, she understands lighting.

I wasn’t surprised by Sarah’s ability. I’ve always talked to kids the same as I would adults and trusted them to do their best when given a chance. I was, however, astonished by Sarah’s natural eye for a shot. By the third day, we were just two photographers out shooting.

My travels take me to remote places in a lot of undesirable temperatures and even less desirable times, so I rarely shoot with other photographers. Shooting with another photographer is a fun experience – to share a common bond in the pursuit of capturing something special is in itself special.

For most of our trip, that was the only thing on my mind – getting to hang out with a young person passionate about photography and trying to capture something special.

STAY AVAILABLE TO GOOD

Sarah's Wish (92 of 133).jpg

Some of the best advice I ever got came from Bob Goff a couple years ago. At the time, we were both speaking at a high school event. I told him a little about me and some more of what I wanted to do in the world. Naturally, I asked him for any advice. His response was simple. Stay available to do good things and have good things happen to your life.

I strongly believe good attracts good and opportunities come when we stop saying no, when we stop making excuses that we’re too busy, and when we stop focusing on only the things that bring us money.

This mentality helped connect me with Make-A-Wish and become part of granting Sarah’s wish.

A month before meeting Sarah, I was preparing to film a video for the Make-A-Wish Trailblaze Challenge Fundraiser when Ashley (in my phone as Ashley Wish-Granter, although her actual title is Wish-Coordinator) asked me to help grant Sarah’s wish. Immediately, I thought of the wall I filmed with all the granted wishes and the wishes I saw online – wishes to meet celebrities, wishes to sail boats with captains, wishes to meet Justin Beiber, and even wishes to meet the Pope!

I figured if Make-A-Wish could arrange a meeting with the Pope, they should go get Chris Burkard, Jimmy Chin, Aaron Chang, or any other photography superstar to shoot with Sarah. I told this to Ashley, and she thought I was a good fit since it was in San Diego. I reasoned Make-A-Wish could get a bigger, more talented name than me but also reasoned that, if anything, that person could only match caring as much as me. With that reasoning, I set out to do my best and make our experience amazing.

While I didn't face such a severe illness as a kid, I had grown up as a frequent guest of hospitals. My fascination of the outdoors started as a little kid. This, paired with being a moderately clumsy risk taker constantly involved in sports, led to me frequenting the ER more than twice as many times as both of my older brothers combined. In my defense, my hospital visits started before I could even be clumsy – as a baby with jaundice (note: born on Halloween with orange skin… I’ve always been very festive). Since those early visits, I kept coming back. I jumped out my crib twice in the first two years of my life and got four sets of stitches on my chin in return. Emergency room visits became routine for the next 18 years: getting stitches while potty training, falling out of trees, off rope swings, down the stairs, and accidentally smashing my fingers between rocks. I went to the hospital at the same rate other kids got new shoes or even haircuts.

Sarah's Wish (104 of 133).jpg

Later in childhood, there were genetic problems: surgery at 12 to remove some benign tissue, hip surgery at 13, and reconstructive nose surgery at 17. In total, I’ve had ten broken bones, three dislocated joints, multiple concussions, one massive muscle contusion / blood clot, four surgeries, one partially torn Achilles, a torn plantar fascia, three immobile vertebrae, one bent tailbone, crutches for a year, 15 or 16 sets of stitches, and one memorable doctor visit for being bitten by a bird. (Update: smashed my finger between two boulders while editing this, which should have required stitches but I stubbornly closed it with surgical steri-strips because I hate going to the hospital). Most recently, my mid-twenties included by a couple broken hands from snowboarding, a fractured elbow, and a cancer diagnosis at 26.

Healing

What I learned from all of this is what it’s like spending so much of life in recovery – being on the mend and having the “get better” mentality. I remember a lot about the people around me, mainly my mom since she took care of me during my youth. I remember hockey players and Santa visiting me in the hospital. I remember they brought me a teddy bear from an event where people threw stuffed animals onto the ice rink between periods, which would be given to sick kids like me at the hospital. Later during that same hospital stay, a different Santa walked into my room with a big red bag. I had an adverse reaction to a dose of morphine so the room was spinning, but I tried to be friendly and thankful. Unfortunately for Santa, I ended up puking all over his shiny black boots. God bless you, hospital Santa.

Sarah's Wish (86 of 133).jpg

I’ve had talks about possibly not being able to run ever again, not being able to scuba dive (weird chemo side effect but thankfully we opted for different treatment), losing my leg (possible bone cancer), never being able to have kids, and a very odd talk with a confused nurse when (true story) I tested positive for pregnancy.

I’ve been a kid whose world revolved around sports but whose doctor talked to him about possibly never playing again. I’ve also been a young adult whose life revolved around living but whose doctor talked to him about the odds of living and not living.

My friend Adam and I were diagnosed with the same cancer around the same time. He would call and share encouraging words, calling us cancer buddies. His cancer spread. Mine did not. He passed away two Christmases ago. Then my little brother from my fraternity and a friend’s husband were both diagnosed with this same cancer. Through it all, I’ve seen how illness affects our friends, families, and communities – the look in a father’s, mother’s, husband’s, wife’s, or child’s eyes after the person they love leaves the waiting room for their vitals, CT scan, blood work, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, or surgery. I’ve seen the same eyes of struggle in the mirror.

Sometimes, strong people get tired. At these times, strength takes on a new meaning. It means you’ve got the mental fiber to keep going, regardless of the struggles.

The thing you have to learn about being nearly constantly injured or sick yourself or loving someone who is injured or sick is that you have to learn to heal and mend – both yourself and others. Mental and physical healing takes focus. You have to keep countless appointments, treatments, and bills in order while still keeping the rest of life moving forward. You have to live with a smaller margin for error than most other people. You have to repeat the same conversations with friends, family, doctors, and teachers – with everyone. You should talk to a therapist to help get your mind right, but you hate repeating yourself yet again. It’s the elephant in the room at every event, wedding or funeral. It’s as if you need to introduce your illness along with your name but with a little joke to soften the blow.

The hardest conversations are with yourself – convincing your mind to stop thinking about the illness or the next possible thing to go wrong. At some point, healing means you learn to embrace that life doesn't revolve around being sick, injured or recovering. Then you learn that it’s okay that it stops crossing your mind. Some day, the hope is it will let go of you and you’ll let go of it.

I think this type of healing is the point for Make-A-Wish kids and families.

I forgot we were on a Wish. I forgot the whole point was a step in healing. For three days, we didn't speak one sentence about Sarah being sick. We weren’t worrying. For three days, I taught a girl who loves photography and got to be as enthusiastic as I ever wanted to be about it.

Ultimately, healing sneaks up on you and works the sickness from your mind. Those three days did a little of that for me, and I hope it did for Sarah too. We were just two photographers out capturing some of the beauty life has to offer.

The other side of the arch

A recent trip to Utah had me standing in the shadows of giant sandstone arches, their curves the places where the brush which painted the deserts left canvas, lifting oranges and reds up into clear blue skies. Nature needs no input in these places but merely to be left alone. Perfection without input is a concept humans struggle to understand.

I went on this trip to Arches National Park during fall, when school was in session to avoid major crowds. As with most of the major National Parks (Yosemite, Zion, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, etc.), the parking lots were still nearly filled. Hiking trails filled with people moving to and from main attractions closely resembled ants going to and from crumbs, bumping into each other and communicating "almost there, it's worth it!". I was one of the ants heading to Delicate Arch, named so I'm guessing due to it's position at the top of a massive rock hill which funnels down to a small sandy area dotted with desert flora. The rim to Delicate Arch was crowded with hundres of people enjoying the view. A line of about 30-40 people long led to a photo op below the arch. I knew I wasn't going to get any shot I wanted, so I hiked around to see the arch from the other side.

 

 Over 40 bottles and other pieces of trash fell down below Delicate Arch in Arches National Park

Over 40 bottles and other pieces of trash fell down below Delicate Arch in Arches National Park

Let me pause here to first admit something which is true and should be obvious of every one of us, yet still needs to be said - none of us are the perfect outdoors person. Heck, none of us are the perfect indoors person. We spill, forget to put coasters down, and let the dishes pile up. I have bagged a lot of peaks, camped in snow, cleaned up areas to be more enjoyable for the next person, and don't use "but it's biodegradable" as an excusable reason to leave land littered with orange/banana peels, dog poo, or anything else I have brought in. This being said, outside is more and more unfamiliar territory for most and brings greater opportunity for human error. I still make stupid, ignorant, and unobservant errors (flashback to me, earlier this month, cutting a switchback short and bringing my dog on a no dogs trail by honest mistake). The only thing I have going for me is that I am outside more often than not, enough at least to notice my own shortcomings and those of my fellow outdoors person.

A mistake people often make outside is the same we make in any relationship or endeavor - we become critical of others for their shortcomings while defending our own. The key I've found to enjoy the outdoors in an increasingly responsible way is to be open to the fact that I don't know everything and never will. Even becoming an expert in one area does not mean there is nothing left to learn or that I need to make excuses when someone points out opportunity to improve. We are all at some point or another the newest and thus least knowledgeable person in the room on a subject. There is no better way to learn than to become aware of our ignorance with the aim to understand. There is no better way to teach than to remember being this person.

My visit to Delicate Arch brought me to better understand the ideal of learning and educating with the aim to protect. The lesson started when I heard the "plink, plink, plink" of a plastic bottle rolling down the steep rock face below the arch. The bottle came to a rest at the sand pit a hundred feet down. No one was making moves to retrieve the bottle, so I decided to go down to retrieve it myself. Walking down only took about five minutes or so, but as soon as I got to the bottom I heard it again "plink, plink, plink", this time a Gatorade bottle still half full of blue liquid tumbled down and landed next to a water bottle. After about ten minutes of searching in and around the brush I found over 40 plastic bottles, handfuls of wrappers, and a camera lens cap. I put all of it into a pile, stuffed the wrappers into a pocket, crushed the bottles down to the smallest size I could, and emptied my pack of all camera gear so I could hike the it all out out.

 

 May be cute when it comes up to your feet looking for a snack, but will likely die after becoming dependent on human food.

May be cute when it comes up to your feet looking for a snack, but will likely die after becoming dependent on human food.

This is the other side of the arch, the other side of the successful push to get people outside. My hope for more friends to go outdoors also brings about worry to what our excitement about natural beauty will do to the land through gross negligence and innocent ignorance alike. Those whose lifestyle heavily involves the outdoors have felt a bit of panic and chagrin towards those who look to use nature rather than be a part of it. This comes from watching the effect the recent spike of human presence is having on the experience and ecology of nature. Seeing landscapes as quickly as they have in recent years is alarming. Photographers fear sharing beautiful locations of their photos lest those places become another one of the exploited, overrun, and sometimes shut down places no longer allowed to be enjoyed. Many who feel a relationship to these lands worry those who come in the future will not care enough to learn how to protect it well, leaving it different than they came and less of the experience which attracted them in the first place. I've felt this in the plastic bottles in Arches, in the toilet paper all around Big Sur, with each chipmunk being fed in peak season at Zion and Yosemite which will die when Nature Valley bars become short in supply in the off season. Frustration builds with every orange peel left on a rock in Joshua tree, initials carved into ancient redwoods or sprayed onto rocks in Utah, rock formations knocked over, and cigarette butts flung into the dirt after someone adds the last hashtag to their post.

Conservation and preservation are and always will be an ongoing movement. We must understand with how we struggle maintaining something perfect, allowing it to function absent of human fetters, and must do this by constantly being student-teachers when we pursue a relationship with nature. Pretentious more-outdoorsy-than-thou attitudes and online arguments are not the answer. What will help is loving the land enough to turn the other cheek, using as much energy to pack out someone elses garbage as we do to talk to those around us in a way helping them to realize why something has stayed beautiful, and thus how to be in relation in a way where the beauty stays intact.

 Graffiti, sadly, feels routine. This photo was taken January, 19th. Notice 2018 already carved into the formation.

Graffiti, sadly, feels routine. This photo was taken January, 19th. Notice 2018 already carved into the formation.

We can do this by being a little more open to how we communicate about the outdoors (save the mocking and pretentious talk for conversations over #vanlife buildouts, please). What I'm asking us to talk about is the giant influx of people into nature, the balance of being free and respecting what allows us to feel that freedom, and along the way how to stay open to learning without becoming defensive. People should be getting outside, I'm a huge believer in that, but we need to learn how to handle it without getting in a fight over how to do so. We must, because it's what will prevent trampling down popular areas, neglecting to preserve that which makes the shot special in the first place solely to get a shot for Instagram.

We've got people getting healthy, enjoying the natural world, and being aware of places like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument which needs to be protected from irreversible damage. This also means we have thousands of us who would sign petitions to save land coming to the very places we want to protect without realizing we are also causing damage. The sheer volume of visitors is bound to leave an impact. Even my small mistakes left repeatedly unchecked have the potential to ravish not only the aesthetic beauty of a land but also the base functionality of an ecosystem.

Looking from other side of the arch can be disheartening, but I believe it can stay beautiful. This starts with understanding I can sometimes be part of the problem, but I aim to be a student-teacher of the solution. By having a mentality of humility, to be educators and educated, we should be able to stop the widening of the crack in these places we love.

Why "Grown Up" is the Worst and Most Misleading Term

Most of the time we grow up from children, to teens, and then become adults. The first two transitions are huge. We grow taller, bigger, stronger, our bodies change, and we move away from home. Being an adult however comes with the misconception that we are grown up. It's a done deal. You take care of yourself and you've made it.

I thought about this last week after sitting around a table as I have many times before talking about children's behavior. Issues come up such as one child hitting another, stealing, lying, and being mean. We were there because the kids need help. This is nothing new to me, but I started wondering if 60 or 80 year old people could get around a table and talk about all the 25 and 30 year olds. What would they say? Oh, they've had it together ever since they were 18?

Probably not.

However, we're all adults here. We do what we want. We walk around taking emotional and sometimes physical swings at each other. We lie, cheat, and steal - and I'm not talking about criminals - we all know someone personally, or are someone personally, who does this stuff.

But again, we're grown ups, we pay our bills and live our lives.

At the root of all this interesting stuff is fear and commitment. As a child, we fear things like the monster under the bed. This fear eventually dissolves by looking under the bed, seeing there is nothing there, and seeing it was irrational. However, as adults we solidify fear in a lot of ways. We fear people different from us, opinions, that the opposite political parties candidate might win, or getting close to another person. We live like there is actually a monster under the bed, out to get us.

I just wonder when the last time I checked for my monsters was? Have I tricked myself into thinking that, because I'm an adult, my fears are valid. Or do I just have a more grown up and developed version of irrational fears?

I am realizing that yes, I do. The fears do carry weight sometimes, but most of the time it's all going to be okay very soon. Fear comes from opinions. Fear comes from bad news. Fear comes from someone different from us. Fear comes from being hurt relationally. Most often what causes worry is not end of the world material, and if it was, well I don't have to worry about that thing because the world is ending anyways.

This is not to say it's not all valid. It's just all about what areas need a good old "peek under the bed for a second look" and then not over react no matter what is found. This is the only way to move on and care well about what is going on in the world. We know we're just growing up, making progress, and mindfully moving through our life rather than thinking we've done good enough because we can hold down a job.

The best way to do this is to push the comfort zone in areas you're okay with and apply what you learn to the rest of your life. A lot of people find this in nature, some find it socially, others find it through books, faith, music, sports, or changing what they do or how they do it. Whatever it is, however you do it, find a way to keep changing. Find adventure, make your heart race, find and accept the people who treat you well, actually pushing you to where you want to go, during this process. Perhaps then when the sixty year olds get around the table, they'd be proud of us, we're really trying.

No one is grown up.

Everyone is growing up.

Being entitled to our opinions, fears, and set ways is no different than being entitled to the "fact" that there is a beast living in a hole under the mattress waiting to drag us away the second we step off the bed. The one thing we have going for us as adults is the ability to be self aware. Using that in a kind way is what being an adult seems to be mostly about, but also seems to be what many are missing out on.