Erik Gauger Takes His Notes From the Road
A Picture is Worth 1000 Words:
Erik Gauger Takes his Notes from the Road
[editor’s note: Erik Gauger is the founder of Notes from the Road, one of GoNOMAD’s favorite websites, which is known for its extraordinary landscape photographs. Jennifer Bellenoit recently caught up with Eric and asked him about the evolution of his photography and his website.]
By Jennifer Bellenoit
Tell me about your early life: where you grew up, what jobs you had, what schools you went to etc. How did you end up becoming a travel writer?
I grew up in Minnesota, where I had the bright idea of deciding that my passion was underwater photography. I had a yellow submersible camera by the age of eleven, and I yearned to use it. Even though we have a lot of lakes in Minnesota, they aren’t swimmable for most of the year, and in summertime, they aren’t very clear.
Eurasian milfoil, introduced sunnies and crappies – that was the extent of my subject matter. But it was also my experience; cloudy yellowish water can have depth and yield emotions. My photographic viewpoint is from that time; the limitations it put on me are what made me photograph the way I do now.
I went to college in Los Angeles: the move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles was a significant cultural icy freeze for me. I went to college in Malibu, and a lot of people warned me against the school. They said, don’t go there, because there is this perception that the school churns out religious nuts, and that its beachy location doesn’t serve the needs of your social and cultural education.
Did that turn out to be the case?
For me, Malibu and Los Angeles in general was the opposite; it was my education. And the weirdness of going to school in Malibu; the pale-faced bible thumpers, the ultra-wealthy Middle Eastern royalty dressed in all black, all the time, and the rough-and-tumble Malibu locals, who often knew drugs and the absolute reaches of wealth at an early age.
I tried really hard to invent my own social education. I lived off campus and met locals who taught me to surf. Seeing their world, which is nothing like that movie Malibu’s Most Wanted, really opened my eyes. Because here were these people who had everything, but they were miserable, and their isolation made them about as sophisticated as farm boys. That was an eye-opener for me. It egged on my belief that happiness is derived from the pursuit of knowledge and creativity, and not from having it all.
How did the website Notes from the Road first start out? How has it grown since then?
Notes from the Road launched on January 1, 2000. The website was just my place to share my travels with friends. Within a week or two, it became a Yahoo! Site of the Week, and I had one of those traffic counters on the home page. A friend of mine kept clicking the refresh button every ten seconds, and each time, the counter was going up by twenty. So, I had an instant audience. It wasn’t that I had anything spectacular, but I think the web was starving for some real content.
Your photographs are exquisite! Tell me about the type of camera you use and why they produce such rich colors and textures.
My primary camera is a Toyo 4×5 field camera. That’s a metal large format field camera with a bellows. It requires a tripod, is extraordinarily heavy, and requires a handheld spot meter and large sheets of print film, which makes it equivalent to a 500 megapixel digital camera. The difference, though, beyond quality of image, is that field cameras have shiftable backs and fronts, so you solve certain photographic problems such as depth of field, through altering the relationship between the two ends of the camera. The other benefit is that these cameras, which look very similar to the first cameras of the 1800’s, is that they are all mechanical and the parts are very simple, so there is little chance of any sort of failure due to moisture, heat or cold.
I am not a cameraphile, though, and I don’t know much about cameras. I am using the same camera from my entire adult life. But some of the images on my site were created with a five dollar disposable. Equipment doesn’t matter that much.
Why do you choose to take so many landscape pictures?
When you get down to it, landscape photographs will look similar anywhere in the world. Baobab trees and rice terraces may place you somewhere, but landscape travel images are really about composition. They are blank slates of rock, tree and water, and with that blank slate, your job is to compose something that elicits an emotion while also amending your narrative with detail that would slow down prose.
Travel photographs shouldn’t show us the Eiffel Tower in Paris. They should complement the mood of the travel writer’s thoughts. With all the media in our lives now, we have the opportunity to see where we’re going before we get there. I don’t believe in that because I think it cheapens travel. As a travel photographer, I don’t want a photo essay to capture all the highlights of a place. I want it to depict loneliness, or awe, or adventure.
I try to photograph right after thunder-showers, an hour before dawn, in thick fog. These special instances create special light. That light paints the mood and emotion into your image; really good light is not just beautiful – it haunts us, it evokes memories, it stirs us.
Erik Gauger, publisher and photographer for Notes from the Road
Is it a hassle to carry your heavy camera with you during your travels?
No, if my large format backpack is on my back, it means I’m probably in a very good mood. I crave any moment I can wander. I am a father now, and I have responsibilities, and so I have to work and plan to always keep moving.
What has been the most interesting/favorite place that you have been to? Why?
Yesterday, I took my two year old son to an urban park where kids can play in this pool of shallow water. My son was timid at first, but I coaxed him into holding my hand and wading through the water. It was a hot, sunny day and the water was lovely, and it reminded me instantly of wading through shallow, warm water in a dozen places – through mangroves and sandbars and desert canyon rivers.
Something about shallow water and being barefoot, I think it brings us back to our beginnings, when man seasonally foraged for seashore creatures on the East African coast. We haven’t been industrialized and modern long enough for us to have evolved out of the very basic joys of being human.
I have never been able to describe my favorite destination. I don’t have one. I do find that I enjoy places where the people have made something of their community, and are passionate about it. This is true of small communities, cities, and even lodges and resort destinations. If it’s a hotel, and that hotel is owned by a local couple who are really passionate about that hotel and the area, I will almost certainly have a pleasant experience. If I’m at a big corporate hotel where everything is fake, I get anxious, feel trapped, and want to break things.
How do you fund your travels?
Notes from the Road is a hobby. If someone was paying me to do it, it would be a different sort of writing. When I first started Notes from the Road, I made very little money, and had very strict budgets for every travel project. I remember that I would plan three days in the Anza-Borrego desert, for example, and my budget would be thirty-six bucks. Looking back on that, I don’t know how I did it. But in many ways, nothing has changed. Two myths about travel are time and money. You don’t need lots of either.
What are some of the biggest challenges to travel writing?
For me, the process of travel writing is dependent on a very simple thing. If all sorts of things happen to me when I’m on the road, and I meet some interesting people who tell me amazing things, I find that writing is easy. The narrative comes to me in my head and I can put it together without effort.
Alternatively, I can travel to a faraway place and find that, in the end, I haven’t a single thing to write about because I didn’t get a single good interview or run into any sort of trouble. In those cases, I try to pull in some history or botany or something into my narrative. But in the end, the most enjoyable travel writing comes when unexpected events keep happening.
I’m sure your camera attracts a lot of attention from bystanders, is this true?
My large format camera attracts people. If I’m shooting in a city, for example, sometimes I get a crowd of people watching. When lots of people want to talk to you, it makes for a great travel interview setup. Also, when I travel alone, people find it easier to approach and talk to me.
What sort of advice would you give a travel writer who is just starting?
One of the biggest mistakes we make in travel writing is assuming that people care about our experiences, or how open we are to a different culture, or how great this one café is. Readers want to get something out of the writing for themselves. What attracts me so much to travel writing is that it is the non-fiction medium that has the greatest capacity for the consiliance of all disciplines. Travel writing is geography, history, art, zoology, sociology. Travel writing is adventure and sports and food. Travel writing is international politics and humor.
In travel, the only grounding rule is that you are taking your reader on the road with you. The rest – where you go from there – is up to you.
We travel bloggers… do people consider us trivial and a dime-a-dozen? Maybe. But this is no joke: maybe it’s better to think of ourselves as pioneers in a new medium. It’s up to us to set its tone, to set its standards, to let the medium make an impact. I’ll tell you this much – if we stop writing so much about how bad the airlines are, and we stop going on paid press trips to talk about hotels, that’s a good start.
What does the future hold for your website and your journeys?
There is this quote from The Lord of the Rings. “Remember what Bilbo used to say: It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” That kind of defines where I’ll take Notes from the Road next. I want to surprise myself, and hopefully, you too.
Jennifer Bellenoit graduated from UMass Amherst in 2009 and is a former editorial assistant at GoNOMAD.com. She now lives in New York City.
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