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Michael Kircher

Potomac Gorge

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“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  — Thoreau

For me there is no better place to stretch myself as a photographer than in the natural world. Just minutes outside of Washington, DC is the dramatic wildness of the Potomac River Gorge. It is a spectacular bit of nature that beckons to the adventurer, the explorer and also the quiet wanderer.

For five-plus years I’ve been documenting this unique environmental area. No matter the season, no matter the weather. I continue to discover the new and unseen every outing. Clambering over boulders along the aptly named Billy Goat Trail, hanging precariously over a sheer rock cliff, quietly stalking white tail deer, trying to identify a particular bird song; this project has no end.

Yet, like most photographers who take on the environment it is not all about peace, love and happiness. Getting in touch with some atavistic back to nature sense of self is not the only force at work here. Global climate destabilization, environmental degradation, the collapse of major fish populations, battles over dwindling resources, this is happening – right now. And it is not getting better. Unless we conjure up the personal and political will to make major changes this will only get worse. Your children’s children, my nieces’ and nephews’ children, will likely suffer the most.

This is what drives me, and it is compounded by the apparent lack of any real interest or concern for the environment (climate change in particular) by the many representatives in that Romanesque building just down the road.

And so I return season after season, year after year. I explore. I document. I photograph the wildness that must be preserved.

Pretty pictures? Well, the natural world is beautiful. We are drawn to it, naturally. However, if it all just flitters past us in a superficial way, if in this wildness we see nothing deeper, what good will we be doing the next generation?


Michael Kircher is a freelance photographer from the Washington, DC metropolitan area. He is currently at work on various editorial projects. His images have appeared in National Parks and Maryland Life magazines and numerous non-profit publications. For some years now he has been documenting the Potomac River Gorge, an extraordinary landscape of remarkable beauty and biological diversity.

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Michael Kircher


43 thoughts on “michael kircher – potomac gorge”

  1. I love your work,I am so familiar with that area.
    I take photos in the Virginia side and understand because I am in the same path.They touched me .

  2. Great pictures, Michael. I like nature photography and nature films. Nature is one of the few phenomena in this world that looks better on television than it does in real life.

  3. what a treat….
    to be transported….
    to the luscious,
    the outstretched bird is fabulous!!!
    and your shapes

  4. Michael…

    It’s damn hard for me these days to manage to enjoy landscape photography in general; I’d actually say virtually impossible…but somehow you’ve managed it. It’s even worse with wild life images; I’ve never really liked animals as a photography subject and that’s odd because I’m passionate about all animals and love all them. As you well know I think your bird subjects are especially beautiful and of course my favourite bird image is N2!
    The essay is varied and for once I don’t have to rack my brain to appreciate or understand it…Nothing against all the other essays but there is nothing like just looking at some exquisite photos.
    It’s good to see an American landscape essay not shot in one of the typical National Parks; that is just so, so overdone these days. The typical monolithic rock with the red over-saturated sky behind which we somehow are sure we’ve seen before or the abandoned house in some mid western prairie.
    I love the dark side of life and the typical dark tormented soul essay but your’s is a big breath of fresh air, just the perfect way to start the weekend… 17 months I’ve been on crutches and 17 months I haven’t gone out into the wilderness at 3:00pm on Fridays after work and this is the first time since then I’m feeling the absence of the wild…That’s your fault Mike!
    I can tell straight away you really love this area, you’re pretty devoted to it and the landscape just doesn’t offer too many lucky shots and it is matter of going back again and again to the same place…just doing this is an act of devotion which either burns you out or turns into a kind of spiritual examination of ones soul and the world round us. I’m hoping people round here will stop and look at this essay carefully because it really is beautiful, so unassuming without any of the usual obvious ego tech trips which really in the end seem to take over the actual photo. The best thing of all is you’ve simply managed to express fully your own voice and the question of how will these kind of places survive our bad ways. As I said this kind of stuff isn’t shot in one weekend, week or month… at least if you want this kind of intensity and love.
    Congratulations Mike!

  5. LOVE IT! I feel such peace with these images. They are full of hope. The one looking down the path, the second one, I wanted to step into that photo and walk down that path. Thanks for sharing Michael.

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  7. Michael K: Good work… and nice to see something like this on Burn for a change. I know that DAH will insist that there have been landscape essays on Burn before (and I wouldn’t dispute that), and we have had some singles like Andrew Harrington’s Amur Leopard, but this is the first pure nature photo essay in the classic natural history tradition that I can remember on Burn, so you deserve some credit not only for the quality of your photos but for breaking that barrier as well. I’m not crazy about #4, it doesn’t seem to me to be up to snuff nor work with the other pictures, but everything else is very good and works well together… you have a nice mix of broader and more intimate views, and clearly have a strong identification with this place which you have chosen to share with us. Do I detect the influence of Jim Brandenburg, or is that merely coincidental? I have several friends who live in he same area and I will pass the link on to them.


  8. Nice work.I’ve just come in from a sleep up the woods and this has made the transition to the house so much nicer. Landscapes seem stronger than the wildlife pics but saying that number two is a real stunner.

  9. Michael,

    a great and peaceful piece of work. Adorable.
    I firstly looked at the pictures and then read the text. What makes me wonder now is – besindes the wonderful pictures – is there anything you notice of local change by the global environmental change in that area?
    I mean, there are areas, where one can see dramatic changes, like in the Alps where the glaciers are disappearing. – Did you notice something like that also in the areas you’re documenting?

  10. Lovely, beautiful essay – and one to make one ponder and think. That such images can be taken so close to Washington, DC.

    I am also struck by the thought that the same type of internal force that carried me to my true home of Alaska is the same type of internal force that pulls you out of DC and into this tiny piece of your own Alaska.

    We have taken opposite approaches to our work. You have found a piece of wildness in the midst of a huge swarm of humanity and have created a piece of work that gives a feeling of the place sans human.

    I have gone into the most empty of humans locals in the nation and have built my work on the activities of the few humans who live within.

    You have given me much to think about.


    (Thank you, in Iñupiaq)

  11. Michael, this is very nice. I, like Paul above, appreciate the straight-ahead honest approach to this work. So much photography in this vein these days is a seeming competition to raise the bar on near-far Muench compositions, and saturation beyond anything seen in this world. In the process, the soul of the place, the zen of it, is lost. I have come to appreciate the work of people like Phillip Hyde (no relation as far as I know), both photographer and conservationist, who had something to say and did it with a simple honesty. Your photos here taken in the afterglow of the day are your best, nice mood, and they remind me of the warm quiet nights of Virginia and the times I went to the Great Falls as a child with my father. While we canoed much of the whitewater of Virginia, and beyond, over those years, obviously this one was not on that list (Carter gauge anyone?) Certainly a good place to just marvel at it all.

  12. Damn.. Precision of a surgeon..
    High end quality..Nat Geo standards..
    Wow Mike! Real photog .. Unsurpassed techniques ..
    Mega Caliber shooter… I “envy” your photo knowledge ..
    If I had 5% of your photo knowledge I’d be happy…
    You are a master if exposure and composition …
    Great day today here in Venice Beach after a crazy vampire night I had last night..
    But mr Michael Kircher made it even better..
    I never thought that photogs can shoot that great..
    Eye candy

  13. MICHAEL,

    I am usually not a huge fan of nature shots but your photographs are really georgeous…. like paintings for some and there is a real poetry in these…. I absolutely love 2 and especially 7… glad to have discovered what you were working on!


  14. Nice work Michael, you have a good escape route there. My favourites are 2, 7, and 9 – initial favourites that is.



  15. Good morning (or evening) everyone. A huge thank you to all! I am humbled. To know that this labor of love moved others even in the smallest of ways means so much.

    Thomas B… one of the more concerning issues in this region is the health of amphibians. A very sensitive group of creatures. But no, there is nothing quite as obvious and dramatic as say the receding glaciers that people like James Balog are documenting. (That I’m aware of anyway.)

    Wendy… what a treat indeed to be treated to wendy’s poetic treatment! Thank you!
    marcin… Thanks. Would love to know which ones don’t work for you.
    Paul… I don’t know what to say. Such a thoughtful, generous comment. Gracias amigo!
    Harry… I’m all about easy transitions! Thanks.
    Frostfrog… I still find myself shaking my head in wonder sometimes when I’m standing on an overlook watching herons and vultures and the raging whitewater, and man! the nation’s capital is right over there! Messes with mind! Haha.
    Tom H… please come east and let’s hit the Falls together! (this is an open invite to all of course!)
    Panos… I just love you man! Big hug!!

    Everyone… many, many thanks again. And in the immortal words of our Civilian… What not to love!

  16. Sidney… forgot… Brandenburg is great yes. But to be honest, I believe my biggest influences in photography are non-nature/wildlife photogs… Abell, Allard and our illustrious host.

  17. hey michael! :)))

    First of all, big congratulations on having the essay published!

    As you know, chinese scroll paintings have had a profound influence on my life/work, and as a child i slept beneath an ink drawing of 2 herons (from Taiwan)….and as soon as I saw your extraordinary number 2, all came rushing back in a stream of joy….

    The two extraordinary herons, in flight, in fight, in feed, is such a beautiful photograph in it’s gorgeous painterly quality, in it’s beautiful and muted sense of light and color and ‘calligraphy’ (as the yellow and brown tones in the river connect with the yellow and brown tones of their feathers and heads and necks) as well as the gorgeous and lyrical ambiguity of the image: mother-child, samurai vs samurai, daedulus and icarus……

    but, i wanted to call your attention to one simple Chinese scroll painting, featuring a heron…and of course the gorgeous, blue-ink blue beauty of that goddamn beautiful #16…which maybe even more than #2, looks so much like a chinese scroll painting….(look through google images)

    to show you how the beauty and lyricism of your #2 matches the beauty of Chinese scroll paintings:


    but, you should do more homework too on these magnificent chinese landscapes :))))….

    I too rarely enjoy landscape photography (maybe that is why i decided do a project/book on Landscapes) because i find that antithetical to the truth of land, the truth of nature. The power and magnificence of the land, of trees, of water, of animals, is not the ‘silence’ or the ‘perfection’ or even it’s ‘beauty’ (as in pretty) but to the contrary, Nature is extraordinarily powerful, large, overwhelming….its shapes are beautifully violent and broken, its power lay in its uncontestably honest exposure to life and death, it’s strange, mishappen, rugged, haunted beauty defies mostly photography (for me). Nature fills me with calm and ‘silence’ because not of its stillness but because of its ability to still and destill me. Its beauty comes not from its painterly quality (though it has that in magnificent abundance) but from its strange, defying of itself. Look closely at trees, nature, clouds, rocks, streams, the canopy and the floor and its a wonderous, broken cacophony of broken and vibrant things, and we surrender to it and to its embracing, rather swallowing of us…..its outersized shape is the architecture for our meditative smallness….there is death all around, but teaming with rebirth and reimagination…

    the line in our thinning selves….

    In many of your photographs, for me, you have captured this sense. Of course, i love #2 (which is the show stopper for me, and wish it had come later in the sequence,), 8 (that palliative blue!), the luminous light of 11, 12-13-14 (again, my beloved chinese paintings), 16 (!!!!!!) and all the images with the frozen/stopped hair-water pictures (i have always been a stupid sucker for those long exposure/tripod pictures of water, where the water’s movement has been stopped and transformed into white-wisdom hair, like a white water spirit or white water dragon, as if from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away)….

    but what i like in many of these photographs (not all, because i didn’t feel anything for some) is the visual subversion of their ‘pretty’ qualities…movement,refraction,fog,smoke,blur,reflection…something that rather than gives us straight easy beauty works toward something more odd….it is there in many of the pics…some of the animal pics (deer, hawk) did nothing for me, same with the green #6….but…

    their is poetry in your chesire smile michael and i loved that within these pictures…..

    sending u big hugs :)))


  18. Bob B…

    Much obliged. You give me homework… love that! The chinese painting you link to is gorgeous. I promise to delve deeper into these paintings… you are correct, that painterly feel is all over the Gorge! (BTW, my wife too thinks highly of #16! Great minds.)

    Your line “…ability to still and destill me”… ever have a feeling or emotion, yet can’t quite express it? You just did with that. My every foray into Thoreau’s “wildness” stills and destills me.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Bob. You and everyone who’s commented have only just pushed me… harder still, to dig deeper. Much work left to do.

    Peace, my friend.

  19. michael :))

    yea, if #2 has the beauty of a chinese painting with the drama of japanese/greek mythology, 16 is quintessential Asian poem….glad the Mrs. loves 16 too…and u should know that i looked at the essay 4 times this morning (without wine, of course) before writing….proud of you….

    now, go buy yourself a book of chinese paintings/scrolls as you continue to work on this project…

    you can thank me later ;))))))


  20. Number one is an excellent establishing shot. That’s the big attraction, the thing we all see when we drive out there for an afternoon, though probably not in such wonderful light. What follows is what you, the photographer, see; the things most people who drive out there and stand on the rocks for a few minutes don’t see and probably never will– unless they look at photographs.

    I agree with the consensus on number two. That’s just a fantastic shot. If those ancient Chinese saw it, they’d probably throw away their brushes and take up photography.

    I also liked numbers 13, 14, and 16 quite a lot. Number six, the one of the frog, is an excellent Nat Geo type shot, but doesn’t do anything for me. Neither do any of the ones pointing at the sky or the tighter, patterned shots. And I’m surprised David let you keep both 5 and 21, two similar trail shots, one of which is not in the same class as the other.

    Speaking of number 21. for me that one demonstrates the highest level of expertise. So many scenes in nature — the more accessible ones, not the El Capitans or Grand Canyons — are incredible when you’re there but come out mundane at best in the photograph. I think you’ve aced it with number 21. That’s what it’s like to be there. You can feel it.

  21. Michael,

    So great to see your work in its full glory here on Burn, the product of your dedication and personal vision! I particularly love the new work, or that which I have not seen before! 3,6,16,19,& 21 especially. Sixteen is a page stopper.

    Always a pleasure to come home to Burn and read through so many insightful comments.

    I have been with you numerous times on the Potomac (never deterred by inclement weather…it is quite possible that we may have dodged a lightening bolt, or two, on that first day), I have seen first hand the beauty you have captured here so honestly.

    It has been great to watch your work progress as you have dedicated yourself over the years to this personal project, and now I am seeing your voice come through as a journalist, an artist, and an activist.

    In the footsteps of Thoreau indeed. Well done Mike!

    Your friend, Jeremy

  22. Jer,

    There were very similar storms here today! Rough weather all across the continent, actually. And yes, not too smart that day were we?! haha.

    Thanks so much for your comments. And for your inspiration.

    BTW… you picked the exact same five images that another close friend picked! Cool, eh?!

  23. Akaky…

    Thanks very much.

    Nature is one of the few phenomena in this world that looks better on television than it does in real life. Haha… There is much truth in that!

  24. Michael Kircher wrote:
    “But to be honest, I believe my biggest influences in photography are non-nature/wildlife photogs… Abell, Allard and our illustrious host.”

    Well Michael, I guess you could do a lot worse in your choice of mentors.

    Bob Black wrote:
    “now, go buy yourself a book of chinese paintings/scrolls as you continue to work on this project…
    you can thank me later ;))))))”

    Well Bob, may I suggest (humbly, of course) that now you go buy yourself a book of Birds of America as you continue to wax so eloquently on this project… since what you referred to as a ‘hawk’ is clearly a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), a common bird of the eastern US… you can thank me later ;(((((


  25. Not easy to bring out in a personal way, such subject, but you did, and there is definitely much poetry unearthed, and moreover, with total simplicity (the best poetry!), both of stance and looking/seeing. I like this essay, I need no references, artistic, photographic or literary, to enjoy it. And it seems wrong-headed, or rather idiosyncratic for me, to take it as pretext for intellectualizing. Sure, not every image scores as high as others, in relevance to your vision (and mine, I suppose), definitely #8, #16 and 19 are my winning “podium” .

  26. Michael Webster and Herve…

    Many thanks for the kind words.

    All… (for those who may be wondering)
    The creatures represented are, in order of appearance:

    -great blue herons
    -American toad
    -great blue heron
    -double crested cormorant
    -yet another GBH! (geez!!)
    -juvenile snapping turtle
    -white-tail deer
    -broad-headed skink
    -immature turkey vulture

  27. Sidney ;)))…

    well, yes, true, it does look like a turkey vulture (though no way for me to guess whether that was a mature or immature one)….i accept blame on my ignorance of fauna thriving along the Potomac, for the following reasons: 1) i hadn’t scrutinized the bird pic, as i had some of the others, (just as i didn’t the white-tail deer or snapping turtle, as they weren’t the pics i was drawn to) and 2) though i do know something about n.american fauna, it is true that while i own a bunch of books on chinese scroll and i own a rather overly-thick book of Audubon’s paintings (and have seen many of the originals in the New York Historical Society as well as some of the copper plates in the Natural History museum, and have even been to the house in Key West), I do not have a copy of Birds of America….

    but i like being assigned homework as much as assigning…..


    p.s. I do know about Herons however :))))

  28. herve ;)))

    i ain’t intellectualizing….i like a river that runs fast and stumbles rushed over rocks….and i like herons and i like broken, black trees….and i like chinese paintings and if one reminds me of the other, it is just the makeup of my body and the makeup of who i am…offering visual referencing isn’t about intellectualizing but about complimenting…and i associate, it’s the way i see things…call it having grappled with ways to ladder up from the well of blindness as a kid….

    but a tree is a tree is a tree and thank god for that :))


  29. Michael

    Your holding out on me. Many of these I have not seen. Of course you know how I feel about #2 after seeing the print in your home.

    Very Nice.

    Now back to the bathroom renovation… we will talk more later.


    Glad I checked in today…Your essay is breathtaking! You have transcended the Nature genre and soared into Art, an art imbued with an Asian sensibility with hints of Abstract Expressionism. BRAVO!!!

  31. Michael

    Late jumping in here, but just wanted to congratulate you on your project and on being published here.

    I DO like landscape. I just don’t like the over the top over-saturated, over sharpened, super sweetened stuff. This is not at all like that.

    You’ve chosen to celebrate and revere your subject. You’ve chosen to idealize it, (I mean that in the best possible sense) to focus on the moments, the points of view, and the details that show it at it’s most beautiful, and it’s most mystical.
    I love your approach. It feels quiet, soft, un-hurried, respectful, worshipful even.

    I hope you continue with this project for a long time.


  32. Pete… thanks! Now get back to work!

    Patricia… so good to see you in here. Really appreciate your comment!

    Gordon… I was long ago told to shoot what I was passionate about. To give a damn, otherwise just wasting time. (something like that.) This is far from finished.

    Thanks for looking and for your comment.


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