Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - November 5, 2010

Hunting the elusive image

Nature photographer braves storm, snow and desert for his art

by Rebecca Wallace

Some nature photographers are the picture of patience. They'll sit for hours waiting for that faultless angle of light. Other people bounce from stone to stone, waterfall to waterfall, curious lenses at the ready for anything new.

Joe Decker puts himself in the latter group. "For most situations I'm more of a hunter than a farmer," he said.

For his current solo show at Palo Alto's Pacific Art League, Decker had plenty of rocks to choose from. His photos come from a 2008 monsoon-season residency at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, a residency granted him by the National Park Service.

The park closes at night because of past problems with people stealing rocks under cover of dark, Decker said. But during his residency he had nearly free rein of the long, narrow expanse of land. He roamed the painted desert and areas of petrified wood, photographing sunsets, ripply textures in the land, ancient petroglyph rock engravings, and "beautiful, rolling, often surreally colored hills." In all this beauty, Decker said, deciding what to photograph was "often an intuitive call."

Storms were subjects worth sitting still for. One night he perched atop a mesa for some time, watching and photographing a lightning storm coming across the desert. "Lightning is very easy to shoot at night; you leave your shutter open for a long period of time," he said. "It's hard to shoot during the day. You have to take hundreds of photos sometimes."

On this night, the storm served itself up perfectly to the photographer — who then realized that perhaps the bolts were getting too close. "I grabbed everything, ran for the car and got low."

While there is sometimes risk involved in nature photography, Decker finds this life much more rewarding than the high-tech world he left behind. After earning a math degree from Caltech in 1984, Decker worked in programming and engineering management. Marriage to his outdoorsy wife led to spending more time in nature, and shooting more wilderness photos. He wasn't trained and he wasn't always happy with his images, but he felt increasingly drawn to photography.

A turning point was New Year's Day, 1991, when Decker was in Yosemite during a snowstorm. By daybreak the flakes had all fallen, and Decker awoke to an inspiring sight. "There was this effect where the first glints of sunlight were lighting up the north end of the valley," he recalled. The sun warmed the snow on the cliffs, and the face of El Capitan shone golden.

Decker had a little camera that yielded tiny squares of film, and he did his best to capture the scene. When the photos came back, he was disappointed: "It wasn't what I saw."

Now, in his Eichler house in San Jose, he shows an interviewer some of those photos while a shy Russian Blue cat looks on. The images have a ethereal, painterly glow, but even now Decker looks dissatisfied, saying, "It looked better than that."

That New Year's Day began an ongoing quest for Decker: to capture and do justice to what he sees. Throughout the '90s he read about photography and took workshops with Galen Rowell, Richard Knepp and other photographers, while still working Silicon Valley start-up hours.

"By '99 I had some basic chops," he said. He took off the month of October 1999 and spent it shooting in the eastern Sierras, periodically sending the film to a lab and having it sent back to him as slides so he could learn from his results as he went along. "Gee," he said with a grin, "when I spend a month doing this, I get better. That was the beginning of the end for my tech career."

By 2002 Decker was ready to make the leap to full-time photography, a move he likens to "a dive into the fog." He worked on learning to market his art, and now also teaches private workshops and Pacific Art League classes, along with having solo exhibitions at the art league, Stanford Art Spaces and other galleries. In 2003, he had a photo shown at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., as part of the Nature's Best Foundation Awards Exhibition.

Decker travels two to three months a year, to such destinations as Iceland, Patagonia, Utah, Oregon and Mono Lake. In August he had an arts residency aboard a cruise ship in Greenland.

All along, Decker remains inspired by Rowell, the late wilderness photographer who had his work seen in National Geographic, Life and other publications, including his many books. Rowell reinforced Decker's desire for truth in his pictures, the kind of photos that Decker describes as "both art and documentary."

"He had a strong sense of those kinds of ethics," Decker said.

Shooting mostly using Canon film or digital SLRs, Decker says he does very little computer-assisted alteration to his photos other than some minor touches, such as lightening of dark areas.

Decker particularly enjoys passing along what he's learned to students during his traveling workshops, which often include camaraderie-filled week-long sessions along the Oregon coast. Many new photographers learn to focus on composition and patterns, he said. "The eyes are attracted to high contrast and lines and S-curves. It's the same rules as in painting."

And a big part of teaching is sometimes just letting the students get out there and shoot, not checking in until later, he said.

"It's so interesting to see what people point their cameras at," he said. "Sometimes the most inexperienced photographers will look at something no else sees."

What: "Painted Hills, Electric Sky," a solo show of Joe Decker's photography from Petrified Forest National Park

Where: The Pacific Art League's Norton Gallery, 668 Ramona St., Palo Alto

When: Through Nov. 26. A reception is planned from 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 5. Gallery hours are weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to Joe Decker's website at http://www.rockslidephoto.com/shows.html or call the art league at 650-321-3891.

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