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Traveler: A Personal Project About Fatherhood, Legacy, and Breaking Generational Cycles – Shot on the GFX100SII and GF500mmF5.6

This is a real special one for me to finally write about. Outside of getting to use a brand new camera and lens in the Fujifilm GFX100SII and GF500mmF5.6, I finally got to create the most meaningful project of my career… alongside and with the help of my oldest son. Let’s dive in.

6/13/24 Update: The short doc we filmed is finally live! Check it out:

I’ll start with a short backstory: (if you don’t care and you just want to see images, scroll down a bit)

In 2020 My son Miles was four years old and we were staring a terrifying global pandemic in the face. Fresh from an amazing three-week trip to the Middle East in 2019, it was really tough to be locked down in the Midwest with no hope of travel in sight. It really took a toll on my mental health and my creative drive. Miles and I began going out locally and driving rural backroads and photographing together. Bonding like this was like a whole new layer to our relationship. He loved being able to go out with his own camera and participate. But, of course, for him, the main draw wasn’t the photography; he just loved to be ‘out with dad’. This realization had a profound rippling effect on me that is really hard to articulate, but I’m going to attempt it.

Being together with family 24/7 made me see so many things that I think I would have otherwise missed. Prior to the pandemic, Miles spent 40+ hours a week in daycare while my wife and I worked. It always bugged me how much I missed out on seeing, so when the pandemic stuck us all together it certainly had its difficulties, but overall I was very happy about it. I was getting to watch him experience everything, some things that I know I experienced myself as a young child but had no recollection of. Think about this: Is there something in your life that you would kill to go back and experience again for the first time?

Well, it occurred to me that I was getting to do just that, through him. Only this time, I had weird existential fatherhood glasses on that allowed me to glimpse into the world of childlike wonder.

"Traveler 001" X-T4 + XF56mmF1.2 (the only image in this post that isn't new)

That was the origin of “Traveler” as it was originally conceived. We made some images over the course of the next few years, but deep down I wanted it to be more. I wanted to be able to take him with me to a place that neither of us had ever been so we could experience it together for the very first time. But to go even deeper than that, I wanted these images that we made to have a more personal connection that I could never quite wrap my brain around it.

Fast forward a bit, we had another son, moved, I quit one job to take my dream job, only to be laid off from said dream job 9 months later. It was back to back some of the most challenging experiences of my life, and thankfully therapy was helping me realize where a lot of my emotional issues and shortcomings stemmed from, and in those realizations I started to draw correlations from the difficult relationship I had with my father growing up, to the kind of father I wanted to be, as well as new revelations about how not only was “Traveler” about my relationship with my son, but also about my own childhood, and my strained relationship with my own father.

When it came down to making a decision on location, what I wanted most was for us to visit a place that neither of us had ever been, so that we could experience it for the very first time together. Out of all the location options, White Sands National Park in New Mexico seemed the perfect candidate. Not only because it seemed to have the perfect aesthetic for the images I hoped to create. But it also has SO much space history tied to it that made it all the more symbolic for us. 

And on an even deeper level, even the color of the sand being the perfect symbol for childlike innocence and youth – there couldn’t be a more perfect location to make these images.

Image from the New Mexico Museum of Space History
Meet GFX100SII and GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6

This kicked off a whirlwind of reading, research, and most of all planning. Thankfully Fujifilm came along for the ride and allowed this “landscape photographer” to moonlight as a conceptual photographer.

Every single prop involved has deep meaning linking back to elements of my own childhood, whether good or bad memories, to really provide a through-line from where I come from to where I am now. Creating the symbolism and depth of each photograph was a very cathartic experience for me, and helped me to heal from some of the emotional pain from my own childhood. 

Knowing that I always wanted this project to be elevated to something “more” in every way, we started bringing to life a new suit. Something that wasn’t just an off-the-shelf astronaut costume. I wanted it to have a bit of a retro-twist (a nod to my love of scifi) so the silver reflective material was perfect for that, and added little flourishes to really bring it to life. We  hand painter a new helmet, designed logos that would be 3D printed for various elements (thanks Chris), created a “space pack” that had a bit of a DIY lost in space vibe. I really wanted the overall look and feel of these shots to feel like this little Traveler was off on his own, distant from everything and everyone he knew. Hand in hand, Miles and I collaborated on most every decision that was made. Which made my dad heart very happy. It was a tremendous family effort, where my wife pitched in with some sewing on the pack, and cutting us vinyl for the logo on the wagon, and of course emotional support… SO much emotional support. 

GFX100SII + GF100-200mmF5.6

In my research I looked at how fatherhood was portrayed across art history. And what I found was very interesting.  There are lots of images of mothers in art history (lots of madonnas) but not as many of fathers. When we find them, they often are seen as someone to be feared or who was head of the house. It isn’t until much later on that we begin to see them as loving, caring figures. 

This was super eye-opening for me. I feel like recent generations are the first to really truly embrace the sensitivity and care of fatherhood in a more openly emotional way. I see it all around me when I drop both of my sons off at school. Sure there have and will always be outliers to this, but it feels to me like the days of the overly-masculine father who sees his primary role as bread winner are over. Dads want to be involved in their children’s lives now more than ever and I am here for it.

GFX100SII + GF55mm1.7
GFX100SII + GF55mm1.7
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mm5.6

We went ALL IN on this from a conceptual standpoint. Taking it from a visual concept that was just “cool and fun” and turned it into what I consider the most meaningful work that I’ve ever created. Let’s dive a little deeper into some of the concepts.

"Don't Play With Fire" GFX100SII + GF80mmF1.7

This was the first image created for this project. My biggest concern was being able to communicate the themes and meaning behind this series effectively. As a landscape photographer, I like to let people find themselves in the work that I create. But with this conceptual series, it was more about communicating some of my inner most feelings.

“Don’t Play With Fire” is a perfect example of this. I wanted to distill down to the most basic idea of “childlike wonder” that I possibly could. And what could be simpler than a single sheet of paper folded into a paper airplane? It represents the purest form of artistic freedom and wonder that we have as children. The flame that is slowly overtaking the plane is symbolic of the responsibilities and stresses of “growing up” that slowly chip away at our innocence as we transition into adulthood until, in some cases, it’s stripped away from us entirely.

As a love of art history, my primary goal for the visual direction of this image was to convey a deep sense of depth and shape using the light from the flame to achieve a chiaroscuro type effect which is mostly associated with Baroque art.

GFX100SII + GF110mmF2

So much of this project was pushing outside my comfort zone and lean more into the themes of childlike wonder, but I also wanted to nod back to the inception of where the entire project began. This shot was made in our driveway a few weeks before we left for New Mexico. 

Being that there was SO much up in the air with the potential for weather or logistical issues, creating some of our images prior to the actual production dates helped to take some of the pressure off, and it also allowed us to “screen test” the new gear and make sure that it all was going to line up in the limited time that we had out in the field. 

The way the focus is shifted to the moon in the above image is a way to represent how, as humans, we are constantly looking on to the “next thing” when our present circumstance is right in front of us. Too often we find ourselves focused on climbing the corporate ladder to the next phase, or looking to the next echelon of social media engagement, while overlooking the beauty of our present circumstances. This image is a reminder to be present in the moment, and live my life in the moment, because we are not guaranteed another day on this earth, not to mention the fact that it’s human nature to constantly strive to achieve more. If you can learn to be satisfied with your current circumstance, there is no doubt in my mind that we could all live happier and more fulfilled lives.

There is SO much more to each and every one of these images that I might share in time, but know that they were all carefully crafted and mean a great deal to me as both a son and a father. 

GFX100SII + GF55mmF1.7
GFX100SII + GF80mmF1.7
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF55mmF1.7
GFX100SII + GF55mmF1.7
GFX100SII + GF55mmF1.7

Beyond that in my research, I really drew a great deal of inspiration from Chinese landscape painting with ink on parchment. 

This Chinese art was a mindfulness practice. The concept was simple: Empty the mind, and into the emptiness flows inspiration and a sense of relationship with the natural world. It was mainly an act of spontaneity and authenticity. 

A few things that really drew me in was the use of  negative space. They traditionally worked with 3 planes inside one painting: foreground, middle-ground, and background. These landscape painters did not use perspective as we paint it in representational art (or see it via the one-point perspective lens of a camera), but instead showed depth with three vertical planes.

To go even deeper “The foreground usually consists of “earthly bound” objects like people, animals, buildings, and forest. The middle plane often represents emptiness in the form of clouds, mist or water. The background plane often includes “heavenly” elements such as hills and mountains as well as sky.

All of this was deeply inspiring. Knowing that I wanted to create my work with GFX for the utmost quality, and having fallen in love with the 65:24 X-Pan crop, I decided to quite literally flip this concept on its head and create a triptych of 3 vertical images as both a nod to traditional landscape painting, but also to be able to imbue the entire thesis of this project within 3 images.

GFX100SII + GF55mmF1.7

These three images tell a dual story of both me as a child escaping my reality into books, stepping out of the shadow of my own father, and over time overcoming it all, but they also tell the story of me AS a father, symbolized in the moon overlooking my own son in the first frame, and all that I hope for him to become in his future by shining his headlamp up into the stars in the final frame. Everything from the sky above and what it contains, to the placement of the subject and lighting in each frame holds meaning. These 3 images connect experiences and emotions from my own childhood, to my own hopes as a father moving forward.

In the middle image, the bright sun is illuminating our Traveler and casting a long shadow before him. The harsh sun symbolizes my own father who’s shadow was ever present in my life growing up, impossible for me to step out of. The hourglass in the foreground that our traveler is desperately walking toward represents my own struggle to overcome his shadow in my life, and over time, to finally break this generational cycle.

In the first image, our Traveler is sitting alone in the dark reading a book. As a child, books were my constant escape from the stress and emotional abuse from my father. The light pouring out from the book symbolizes that escape, and how beautifully it helped guide me down my own path. The full moon overhead symbolizes me as a current father, taking the harsh sunlight that was cast upon me and softening it for my own children.

In the final image, our silhouetted Traveler stands triumphant atop a massive dune. The scale helps to convey how small we are in the scheme of the universe. He is looking out into a vast sea of stars which symbolize him stepping out into his own future.

X-S20 + XF16-80mmF4

Sorry for the lack of actual “review”. This is definitely a bit different than you are normally used to reading on the blog, but you’ll be able to read all about tech specs pretty much everywhere else. This camera and lens were absolutely instrumental in making this project a reality. I am beyond thankful to have the opportunity to finally make this project a reality. 

Reala Ace is the REAL deal. So many of these images are slightly color graded JPEGs that were shot exclusively in the new Film Simulation mode. It made for the absolutely perfect vibe that I was going for with this body of work. The new GFX100SII performed flawlessly, and the new GF500mmF5.6 lens will be added to my lens arsenal as soon as humanly possible. 

Being able to handhold such an insanely long GF lens due to the incredibly IBIS + OIS was remarkable, and helped me to achieve these shots exactly how I envisioned, without the constraints of having to be tied to a tripod.

GFX100SII + GF55mmF1.7/GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF100-200mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6

For me, this was so much more than a camera and lens launch. It marks a pivotal point in my life. My son and I got to create core memories together. There is SO much more to this that I can’t even being to express through text. There will be a short documentary film coming in the next month that I will attach to this post that will hopefully capture more than my words ever could.

And with all of that said, I’m happy to leave you with “The Finale”:

Though it was a bit odd sharing the final image of the project before I’d ever shared the project itself, on April 8th, 2024 we put a bookend on the Traveler project by creating this image. Since experiencing the 2017 solar eclipse, I knew that I wanted to share the next one with Miles by my side, and we did so in spectacular fashion.

I’ll end with the following images. These are some of the first images that I took when Miles and I experienced the park together for the very first time as well as some of the images from our time at the nearby New Mexico Space History Museum. So much of this trip was wanting it to be a learning and bonding moment, and I can rightfully say that we absolutely had the time of our lives far beyond making all of these meaningful images together.

GFX100SII + GF55mmF1.7
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF500mmF5.6
GFX100SII + GF23mmF4
GFX100SII + GF23mmF4
GFX100SII + GF55mmF1.7
GFX100SII + GF55mmF1.7
GFX100SII + GF55mmF1.7
GFX100SII + GF55mmF1.7

A special thank you to Varina, Jackie, David, Nilu, Stacey, Victor, Tani, Sergio, Rayell,  and the entire Fujifilm and Paradoix team for your part in helping me to make this happen.