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STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE: Photo Roshambo

Justin Bastien stays in his sleeping bag on a snowy morning in Indian Creek, Utah / Fuji Velvia 50 ISO film / 17-35mm lens / f/2.8 / ISO 200

Times are changing, maybe faster than they ever have before. Today, your recently-ordered camera gear might be obsolete by the time the U.S. Postal Service actually delivers the package to your door.

Like the world of photography, the climbing world is also advancing forward by leaps and bounds. But yet … there remain some skills—vital, life-saving skills!—that will never become obsolete. They remain as timeless as El Capitan itself.

One of these vital, life-saving skills is the art of roshambo—aka, rock-paper-scissors. Being a master of rock-paper-scissors is, actually, one of the most important things for a climber to know. I can’t tell you how many fearsome, dangerous leads a well-tossed rock, or a perfectly played scissors, has saved me from. Roshambo is how we make decisions with our climbing partner.

Justin Bastien is one of my closest friends, and we’ve since traveled extensively together, visiting some of the great mountain ranges around the world. Justin was always that guy who was up for leaving a month-long trip at the last moment’s notice. Many years ago, Justin and I spontaneously decided it was time for a climbing trip to the Utah desert. The decision to go to Indian Creek was easy. But it was 20-hour drive. Whose car would we take?

With two deft, back-to-back “papers,” I easily swept Justin (best of three, always). We loaded up into his pick-up truck, filling his camper shell to the ceiling with all our gear.

We drove through the night and all next day, arriving at our destination in Utah at dusk. The dry spring desert was quite cold, and night was falling, painting the red earth shades of blue and violet. There was enough room for one person to burrow into all the miscellaneous gear filling the pick-up truck’s bed and make himself a little nest in which to sleep. The other person would have to sleep outside in the dirt, which of course neither of us would’ve actually minded. The beauty of being in a sleeping bag, outside in the dirt, implies that you’re at some cool location with full day’s adventure awaiting you at dawn.

Still … being in the truck was going to be a lot warmer. So we roshamboed to see who would be warm, and who would not.

As you can see from this photo, Justin once again clearly lost that game, which went: Rock (Justin), Paper (me), Rock (me).

When I woke the next morning, I slipped my head out of the camper shell, and saw that a light dusting of snow had fallen overnight. The desert looked just fantastically beautiful. And there was Justin, sleeping in the dirt with this perfect dusting of snow on top of him. I grabbed my camera, which, like redneck to rifle, I sleep with, keeping it in the “on” position in case I need to quickly fire off a few frames.

With cat-like stealth, I crawled out of the truck and tiptoed over to Justin. It was perfectly quiet with only the sound of snowflakes falling through the air, and the occasional wisp of wind. I just had this feeling, this innate sense, that as soon as I depressed my shutter button, and Justin heard that first mechanical click-clack of my SLR’s mirror flipping, that would be enough to wake him. If he stirred even a bit, the snow on his sleeping bag would be disrupted and this perfect moment gone.

Everything we see in this world is nothing more than a fleeting moment. Never say to yourself, whether as a photographer or otherwise, “I can come back and get this later.” Seize the moment, and make every frame count because you might actually only get one frame before it’s gone.

I squatted on my haunches in the dirt beside Justin and really took my time composing the image and calculating the exposure in my head. I had a 17-35mm lens, and in this low pre-dawn light, I knew I wanted to be at f/2.8. I was shooting on Fuji Velvia 50 ISO, but I pushed it two stops to 200. I made my best approximation of exposure, massaged the composition until it was perfect and manually focused my lens, both to make sure that his head was in focus and also so as not to wake my sleeping friend.

I depressed the shutter. Click-Clack.

Within a split second of taking this single frame, Justin’s arm shot out of his sleeping bag and punched me in the quadricep, giving me one of the the worst charlie horses of my career.

“Leave me alone,” he grumbled. “I’m tryin’ta’sleep.” And he drifted back off.

And of course the moment was gone. The snow had skated off his sleeping bag in the scuffle, which was all in good fun, of course.

I like this shot because it really encapsulates the spirit of being on the road, and living outdoors. It’s a lifestyle I love.

But beyond the good memories of my dirtbag-climber days, spent on the road with my good buddy Justin, I can’t help but think about how rare it is for photographers today to do this kind of mental exposure calculation, manually focus and be so critical of composition and moment in a single. Is that a lost art to be bemoaned, or is it potentially something to be celebrated?

Most photographers who have come to this craft within the digital age typically don’t seem to understand how ISO, aperture and shutter speed work together—because there’s no consequences in getting it wrong. With film, each shot cost money and lots of time. Digital cameras allow us to fire off a thousand images with instant feedback and without consequence, allowing the photographer to play every permutation of ISO, shutter speed and aperture in a game of something like “photo roshambo.” Eventually, a decent-looking shot comes out.

There’s a small curmudgeonly part of me that wants to bitch and bemoan about the young whippersnappers who don’t know how to calculate an exposure in their head or know what it means to have to push film in the long developing process. Not to mention the fact that every frame counts and costs money so you need to be more contemplative and intentional when shooting.

But yet, I can’t really be that guy. If anything, digital cameras have unquestionably pushed the overall creativity in photography to atmospheric heights. The bar for excellence has never been higher. And to be honest, who cares if people today don’t know the fundamentals because they don’t need to because our cameras take care of all that for us? Come to think of it, had there been mirror-less cameras back then, like the Nikon 1, I could’ve shot hundreds of images without waking Justin.

Today, I am a photographer and filmmaker who has embraced the new world order. I love it. I use all the latest Nikon cameras and lenses, and they have pushed my creativity in ways I could’ve never imagined possible when I first picked up a camera as a 13-year-old kid.

Still, there are these certain values, relics from the olden days of photography, that remain apart of my core. Making every frame count and not letting a moment pass are two of those values. Just like roshambo is to climbers, I think those are two pretty good skills to know.

Comments

  1. Love the story. What Bag is Justin sleeping in?

  2. First of all, I totally love this shot, the story behind it, and your sentiment. Secondly, do you know how to use a slide rule? Crank a motor by hand? Maybe make quick use of an Abacus?

    I know I am preaching to the choir here, and I understand where the curmudgeon is coming from, but even though we don’t NEED to mentally calculate that stuff anymore, there’s still a lot of careful consideration and thought that goes into good/great photographs. It’s just a different game, and a different set of parameters.

    Thanks again for the great story!

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