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  • Writer's pictureDon Toothaker

The Lessons of Yellowstone

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

Photography is a powerful, intimate bridge from ourselves to the world. What we see and do, and learn, inevitably teaches us lessons about ourselves.  And life.  These lessons at times may seem small and inconsequential; until they are not. These lessons could possibly change the course of our day; or our lives.  Either way, one way or another, we must heed what we learn.  Knowledge is empowering, but the true measure of knowledge is not in what we know, but in what we do. All lessons are significant.

Two weeks ago, I made my first winter journey to Yellowstone National Park.  The photographic experience there was every bit as spectacular as I hoped it would be.  Witnessing and photographing the landscape, set against the extreme conditions of winter, was stunning to say the least.  Observing and photographing a wide array of wildlife in the snow and bitter cold was wildly exciting and deeply rewarding.  The light, moving across the landscape, over the rivers, and in and out of the forests was mesmerizing.  Everything was, in a word, breathtaking.  However, the impact that Yellowstone made on me personally, as a person and as a photography instructor, was not anticipated, but has proven to be equally spectacular. Our time in Yellowstone was a transformative experience that stirred a great deal of emotion and self reflection in me. In truth, my overall experience in Yellowstone has affected me deeply. Yellowstone filled my soul with more raw emotion than any one place ever has and each day since my return, I have struggled to find words, suitable words, that summarize the intense spiritual and personal experience that Yellowstone was. And will continue to be. The conditions and wildlife in Yellowstone inspired me to be at my best as a photographer and as a photography coach, but it also made me realize that I must give more of myself emotionally as both. I believe that I work hard at what I do with favorable results to show for my hard work, but Yellowstone awoke a sense of vulnerability in me that I have not felt for some time. Each day since my return, I have had to accept that not only do I have much more to learn regarding the totality of my craft, but even more about myself personally. And what I have to give. The lessons from Yellowstone are meaningful and lasting.

My first lesson from Yellowstone was a powerful reminder that communication is critical to our personal relationships and our creative success. And in life as well.  Coaching others in their photographic journey, familiar friends or not, is an intimate relationship that requires a great deal of honest, heartfelt conversation about much more than megapixels, camera brand, or exotic destinations. During each workshop there is a lot of time spent talking about compositions, exposures, what lenses to use, and more. These technical discussions are necessary and very productive, but there is more for us to share during, and about, our creative journey than technical details.  How we do things is important, but why we do them is even more important.  To get the most out or ourselves and our creative possibilities, we must make every effort to express ourselves. As a photographer, I work diligently to capture meaningful stories through still imagery.  In conjunction with my photography, I often add the element of writing in hopes of further refining my creative voice. I want to. As a photographer, I have a lot on my mind and even more in my heart that I compelled to share. I must. My creative life is not only what I do, but a substantial part of who I am. I can be better. I can do more. I want to. I must. Personally, I think we as photographers, and the world, would benefit greatly from more open, in-depth relationships and communication.  It certainly cannot hurt. Yellowstone reinforced for me, more than any other experience, that I must articulate my work and myself more succinctly and purposefully.

My second lesson came from the landscape and the wildlife.  Each day looking at the landscape and the wildlife amid the restrictive, dangerous winter conditions, I was dramatically reminded that we need strength and patience in all that we do.  It takes great fortitude to survive. it takes great perseverance to succeed. Upon arrival, I fully expected to experience a sense of barren emptiness from the winter landscape as well as a sense of desperate, day to day survival in the wildlife.  I saw and felt none of that.  In fact, what emanated from Yellowstone was quite the opposite. Trees, everywhere, stood tall and resilient against the crush of winter. Rivers, even in the extreme cold, flowed with confident purpose. The landscape, an ongoing series of hills and valleys, rolled on and on with quiet, immeasurable strength.  Towering mountains did not loom imposingly above, but instead seemingly kept watch as sentinels and protectors for all.  The wildlife, amidst the formidable challenges of winter, appeared bigger, stronger, and healthier than ever.  They were more than just beautiful; they were magnificent.  Trying to live and survive in such a harsh environment requires the greatest of strength.  I fully understand that, despite their heartiness, not all of the animals will survive the winter.  Trees will fall and the land will be altered, but that has more to do with the cycles of life than winter itself.  I felt no sadness in this reality, but instead felt a sense of calming acceptance that life, and living, has unavoidable cycles that are natural and beneficial.  Everything was shockingly beautiful to my eyes, but even more so to my senses.  It seemed that everything in Yellowstone was content in what they were, the conditions they exist in, and their role in all that is Yellowstone.  By the weeks end it was apparent to me, more so than ever before, that strength and determination will indeed carry you far.

Another lesson, one of purpose, struck me most profoundly.  Life should inspire us to not only learn, but to act upon what we have learned.  I firmly believe that if we possess a particular skill then we are responsible to use that skill, to the best of our ability and within our means, to help others realize the best in themselves as well.  I do not create images for the sake of taking pictures as a hobby or even as a profession.  My purpose, I believe, is to help others see how incredibly beautiful and diverse our world is.  More specifically, I want them to understand how precious it is; all of it.  The more people see and understand of our world then perhaps they will take better care of it.  And themselves.  And each other.  For three decades now, I have been a student of photography and can proudly say that I have come far, but Yellowstone made me acutely aware that learning generic facts or merely sharing them as an obligation within the boundaries of a job is not enough. I have known for quite some time that there is more to creating photographs than lens choices, menu options, and pressing buttons.  I have long understood that cameras, lenses, and software are merely tools used to express ourselves and I fully grasp that to fully benefit from our tools, we must first be at our comfortable, confident best.  Typically, I am very open about my feelings, but I now realize that I can, and must, express myself with more conviction to more effectively serve my greater purpose.  I believe my role as a photography coach has more to do with helping others express themselves than anything else therefore, I cannot ask, or expect, others to give their best creatively and emotionally if I am not leading by my best example. Over and over again in Yellowstone, I spoke directly about proper exposures in the snow, beneficial shutter speeds, and impactful compositions, but there were more meaningful conversations to be had and I regret not pushing myself, and others, to share openly what they were feeling about this incredible place and our even more incredible personal experience and journey.  Such feelings are the fuel for our creativity and must be shared. What was left unsaid was the good stuff; the best stuff. 

Yellowstone National Park, all of it, is a giant living entity where the cycles of life are on display every day; all day.  Yellowstone, primal and raw, thrives on balance in nature.  And relationships.  And strength.  And purpose.  Every living thing here, past and present and future, is larger than life for it represents life itself.  As I reflect upon my experience in Yellowstone National Park, I realize that for every one thing I know about this glorious park there are a 1000 things I do not know.  Multiply that by the world and I have much to learn.  Each of us can, and will, learn in a variety of ways, but there is no greater teacher than experience. Therefore, I want to experience as much as possible in order to learn as much as possible.  For me, learning more about the world I live in, and myself, means helping others learn more about the world they live in, and themselves, as well.  Learning together and sharing what we learn fosters togetherness. We are better, much better, together. This revelation will remain the most important lesson of all.

Photograph What You Feel

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Feb 04, 2023

You are an eloquent and sensitive philosopher as well as a wonderful teacher and photographer, Don. Thanks for continuing to inspire us!

Don Toothaker
Don Toothaker
Jan 09
Replying to

You are too kind. Thank you so much for this wonderful note Leslie.

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