On Patagonia, Film Photography, and the Beauty of the Unknown
A journey to the end of the Earth reveals breathtaking alpine views and reflections on the value of optimism in the face of uncertainty
Nikon FE2, Fuji GSW690 III
120 & 35mm Kodak Portra 800
Danny Thorn is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York, interested in film photography and the outdoors.
I remember my friend Steph reading me a quote from Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, a book she had on hand when we were there. “Patagonia is the furthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness. From its discovery it had the effect on the imagination of something like the moon, but in my opinion more powerful.”
To get to Patagonia was a huge mission. We had to take three flights and travel over 6,000 miles just to get to El Chalten, then rent a car and drive another five hours into Chile. We learned quickly that this was a place that would live up to its reputation as the edge of the earth. It looked as if it had barely even been settled much since humans first arrived.
What we thought were towns on the maps were just names of old farm estates. We came upon gravel roads that Google Maps told us to take, and bypassed them thinking it was mistaken. Then we realized that they were, in fact, the "highways." Driving upwards of four hours on a gravel road. Nothing for hundreds of miles. Endless prairies dotted with condors, foxes, guanacos. The occasional animal skeleton.
Three days of traveling and we finally made it into Chile. We then had to leave our car and take a bus to the trailhead with our huge packs and only then could we begin the hike in.
The first morning on the trail we woke up at 4 AM to leave camp and hike another 2.5 hours to Las Torres for sunrise. This was a huge gamble considering the state we were in, how far we had come, how tired we were, how absolutely freezing it was, and how unpredictable the weather could be in Patagonia.
It was miserable at times, freezing at the top. Numb hands shaking as I changed lenses and film rolls. But there’s something about the difficulty that made the end result that much better. I remember the sky clearing and the sun hitting the mountains, everything coming together. It is a moment I will never forget.
"Not everything you work for will work out. But when it does, it's that much sweeter."
People often ask why we put ourselves through this when we are supposedly taking vacation. Backcountry hiking isn’t easy and can be torturous at times. Heavy packs, restless nights, aching joints, filthy clothing, crappy food. There’s a lot of work and planning involved, and you’re never guaranteed good weather or access to places you thought would usually be accessible. Disappointment. Pain. Deferred gratification.
It’s analogous to my thoughts on why I use film. Besides the obvious visual superiority and timelessness, I love the process and extra work needed to get the image. Buying the film. Transporting it. Convincing foreign border agents not to fry it in the scanners. Cradling it from the elements. Hiking it in, packing it out. Paying, developing, waiting. You pay a lot more for that photo, not just financially. Why not just use digital? So much time, money, and hassle can be saved.
With film, there’s a lot more at stake. You can’t immediately see if your shot was successful. When you’ve traveled thousands of miles and hiked for hours, and if/when you get that perfect moment of light during a sunrise, you have a narrow window to get it right. Everything is on the line.
And then what if it didn't work out? You wouldn’t even know until you’re home. No instant viewing—you have to wait. A sense of deferred gratification. And what if you lose the film, or it gets damaged on the way back? What if you get back and realize your shot wasn’t even any good? A sense of failure, loss. I think this is a good thing. Not everything you work for will work out. But when it does, it's that much sweeter.