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TWAIN: Adventure and photography in the Sierra

By ThisIsReno

By Ryan McGinnis | Images by Justin Majeczky

Writer’s Block

When Justin Majeczky first picked up Mark Twain’s “Roughing it,” nearly 150 years after its original publication, something clicked. 

For years Majeczky had been capturing some of the most captivating landscape photos of Lake Tahoe; a knack that ultimately established him among Tahoe’s most prominent outdoor photographers. And it garnered him an equally respectable social media following.

However, despite years of experience and expertise, Majeczky essentially found himself in a state of writer’s block. Not in a traditional sense — like what Twain may have encountered while writing late into the night in Virginia City. Instead, he needed to find a way to make use of the voluminous collection of time-lapses of Lake Tahoe he had gathered over the past six years.

It was finally reading Twain’s rich prose of the American West that inspired how he should create his time-lapse film. What was missing in his multi-year catalogue of Tahoe was a narrative thread; something to tie the contrasting seasons, perspectives and weather of the lake into one neatly wrapped video.

The resulting conviction felt like “cork out of the bottle,”  Majeczky said. He just needed Mark Twain — in a very literal sense — as a character in his film.

The video that ultimately bore out of this idea is a unique retelling of Twain’s most famous passages of Lake Tahoe.

“The fairest picture the whole earth affords.” — Mark Twain “Roughing It”

What one may not know, is that this is a mere one line of Twain’s 500-page account of traveling west. Inside, he describes his arduous journey from the Great Plains to Virginia City, where the writer as we know him came to be. His short stories, which were testing grounds for his later masterpieces, spoke at length about the Sierra Nevada and are forever preserved as some of the earliest — and most remembered — passages about our own backyard, a feat shared by John Muir and only a few others.

Photography, like writing, are both professions that can deeply connect one to a place.  And to no surprise, reading Twain consequently strengthened an appreciation for his own work, according to Majeczky; he was exuberated to be able to connect to Twain’s writing in a way he felt his followers connected to his photography. 

Majeczky claimed he was never talented in school and quickly shifted his efforts to camera work.  So one can imagine, in a sense, his affinity towards Twain is akin to admirers of his photography, who may not know the language of exposure, contrast and composition, but know, innately, when the perfect frame is captured. Majeczky is not a writer, but he sure as hell knows when Twain gets it right. 

Justin Majeczky skins across a fresh layer of snow at Lake Tahoe
Justin Majeczky skins across a fresh layer of snow at Lake Tahoe. Image: Justin Majeczky

It’s not hard to imagine why time-lapse photographers have a strong grasp of Twain’s call to adventure. Capturing images can be a tumultuous affair at times, especially in the beginning, when hunting for shots with a camera and tripod can feel as fruitless as finding water with a divining rod; the sun may hide in the clouds, a tree might obstruct an otherwise perfectly conceptualized shot, one may hike hours to a destination only to arrive early (or late), adding wasted hours in an already laborious process. 

These affairs are ultimately what photographers pride themselves in, whatever a modern-sense of roughing it may be, which is why Twain’s stories have an immortal lust to those that enjoy spending as much time in the mountains as he did.

Yet, that is not the most striking part of Twain’s “Roughing It,”  nor may it completely describe why Majeczky gravitated so close to his writing. 

Unfathomable beauty, blood-curdling adventure

Ten years ago, Majeczky drove west from Pennsylvania.  When he finally ascended Mt. Rose Highway and reached the pullout that reveals Lake Tahoe’s north shore, “the sky was on fire,” he said.  The far expanse of Tahoe’s west shore, the towering peaks of Desolation Wilderness, all left an impression he has yet to shake off completely. This was a world far different from the aging foothills of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. 

Today, he could very well use his knowledge of composition, color and exposure to capture what he saw that evening in the photograph, which to him (and to most of us) is that inexplicable sense of beauty and adventure. 

Justin Majeczky looks across Lake Tahoe from Sand Harbor.
Justin Majeczky looks across Lake Tahoe from Sand Harbor. Image: Justin Majeczky

But Twain can do what most of us can’t, which is why his writing is as compelling today as it was in 1872. He can describe the unfathomable beauty of the Sierra in a way that is even profound among those who have been spoiled their entire lives in the mountains.

And that’s where Majeczky’s respects, talents and motivations run parallel with Twain’s: they both are chasing the freedom of adventure, which gives words — and photographs — an alluring and magical appeal.  Tahoe may be one of the most photographed places on earth, but that won’t stop Majeczky from photographing the lake “until I die,” he said.

Twain, too, had many such adventures on the lake after his chapter on Tahoe, ones that include many “hair-breadth escape and blood curdling adventure which will never be recorded in any history,” as he puts it.

Most of Majeczky’s adventures are recorded in photographs on social media. But not all share a story behind the frame.  So when watching TWAIN, remember there is a photographer’s tale of roughing it that’s far richer and voluminous than the video’s three-and-a-half minute runtime.

Justin Majeczky
Justin Majeczky

Justin Majeczky is a partner at Kimera collective, a production company based out of Reno, Nev.  View more of his work at justinmajeczky.com/

TWAIN was made in partnership with Tahoe Fund.  Visit tahoefund.org/

View TWAIN on YouTube at: https://youtu.be/hsel6M4QRcY

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