The first time I backpacked with Don Nelson I got mad at him. He would lag back on the trail, falling so far behind the rest of us that he’d disappear from sight. Periodically I would sit and wait for him — long periods of time spent wondering where he had gone and what kind of shape he was in. He was holding things up.
“I was taking pictures,” he would say when he’d catch up, and I would then wonder what he had seen that was so photogenic. How long does it take to snap a photo? I would think, though I was too polite to ask.
That was years ago and it was later still – after that trip, after seeing his photographs -
that I realized Don had seen many things the rest of us had missed. He had an artist’s eye.
Through the years Don Nelson ‘91MCA, who has been this magazine’s art director for a quarter century, became skilled enough with a camera to let the rest of us see what he had seen, and to see — to really see — poignant conjunctions of light and line, moment and matter.
In some ways, that vision is elemental: stone, wood, sky, water. Yet there is in his photos a tactile quality, a meditative essence, and an arresting pause in the normal stream of life. When you stop and look at the images, you feel drawn in. You lean forward a little, to look more closely. Some invite you to a place suggestively waiting through the curtain of the photograph; others make you glad you’ve been shown this detail in life’s canvas at this particular instant in time. On one page is a natural still life teeming with an inarticulate presence; on another is a coarse plane of creation you want to lightly rake your fingers over. There is a stark simplicity in the viewfinder, a holy etching frozen on film.
Like most of us, Don is a summer traveler. He will get in a car — heading to a family reunion in North Dakota, a wooden-boat-building workshop in Maine — and follow the two-lane roads for things to see. He makes regular pilgrimages to favorite haunts in the red-rock Southwest and to northern Michigan, where land and sky and water meet. He takes his camera and he takes his time. Unlike the rest of us, he is in no hurry to get over the next hill, around the next bend, to keep appointments with tour guides or city dwellers. He reminds us of treasures right before our eyes, if we would only pay attention.
What Joseph Conrad once explained as his responsibility as a writer is as true of any artist: “The task of the writer is, before all, to make you see. That, and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed you shall find there encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand — and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”
Most of us hurry down life’s trail, not stopping, not really seeing, forgetting to ask for any glimpse of those elemental truths represented by stone, wood, sky and water. Here are some images you may have missed.
Notre Dame Magazine, summer 2002