Devin Tolman has a presence unlike anyone else. He speaks softly with intention, and has nothing but kind and encouraging words to offer. I was thrilled when he agreed to let me interview him about his 60 day adventure across America. As I sat on the big leather couch at Oblique waiting for Devin to arrive, I began sifting through his Instagram, bubbling with excitement to hear about his journey. Devin first told me about his journey of a lifetime a few months ago at a party. He was going to drive across the United States to photograph the country’s most breathtaking landscapes. I couldn’t wait to see what magic he would come up with. Little did I know that his journey would help encourage me to take the next steps in my life to chase my own dreams and fulfill my own passions. Devin’s journey was not just a show of photography skills, but a journey of self exploration, perseverance, patience, and emotion, that would help shape his life in a way nothing else could.
What did it feel like to be away from home for so long?
It took about a month for me to stop freaking out about it. Like, the very first day that I left, I left at 5:00 in the morning, and my check engine light turned on two miles down the road. I was like, what the fuck. So immediately I pulled over and pulled my battery, then plugged it back in so I could keep driving and just ignore it. I made it to the beach (Cannon) and I was so tired when I got there, I was just exhausted, that I decided I’m going to take a quick nap. And when I woke up from that nap in the back of my car, and all my windows were blocked off and the setup was exactly how I’d imagined it, I freaked out. I didn’t start driving until that evening, because it took me so long to come to terms with what I was doing. I started putting a lot of pressure on myself to do certain things, to be a certain way, thinking, you know, I’ve got to take take amazing pictures… and it stressed me out. And so I spent that whole day coming to terms with it, and once I felt like I had it, then I left.
So your journey started in Portland, first stop at Cannon Beach... what came next?
So I drove down the whole coast all the way down the 101 to the 1, took the 1 to San Franscisco, then San Francisco over to Yosemite, Death Valley, and Mono Lake. Mono Lake was one of my favorites. They filmed planet of the apes near by. There are these things called Tufas; these huge ancient salt formations, and the water is just the craziest color… It’s really strange.
What inspired you to take this trip?
I feel like I have a very unique position in my life. I've had a lot of strange things happen to me when I was younger, like being at the right place at the right time. So many strange things one after another that were placed in my life that I started to feel like the only thing that made sense to me was that these things happened to me because I was able, and strong enough, to handle it. And given the situation of realizing that my 9-5 was a bunch of garbage and I am worth more than a stupid job, I realized that the next step would be to quit that job (New Seasons, 8 years). So I decided alright, it’s time. I saved up for 6 months, sold everything I owned, decided to live in my car and do this to show other people that they can do it to.
Was there ever a point where you were close to giving up?
When I was in New Mexico, I almost went home. I was having such a hard time, again. I have a video diary, and this one in particular is in the back of my car and I’m just like, I can’t do this. But I pushed forward and went out anyways and decided you know what, do what makes you happy. Get out there, stress free, lets go. And I created my favorite image of the trip. And right after that, I just realized how important it is to keep pushing, because that is what separates success from failure. My favorite image of the whole 60 days traveling across the country is from when I felt the lowest.
I took a piece from Devin's Blog, Daily Day Dreams:
"Sometimes it can be hard when you don’t have anyone to pull you out of the sand, but I dug deep and I’m SO damn glad that I did. I rolled around in the softest sand I’ve ever felt, buried myself in it, followed some bugs, took some pictures, and made my favorite image of the trip so far. Good things come to those who are motivated enough to give themselves the opportunity to see and feel something... Tired is just a feeling, and memories last forever."
What was the toughest shot to get?
I went to Utah, and stayed in Zion for a bit. Which was incredible, truly amazing. It's the one spot I wish I had spent more time on because it was so damn much fun.
So I went here at sunset, and I was like, I want to shoot and stand down there but I couldn't figure out how to get there and there were people all over. I shot the sunset, it was boring, so I left. And then that night I couldn't stop thinking about it. I wanted to go there, and I wanted to stand on that thing. So the next morning, I started hiking at 4:00 in the morning, got up there at 4:30, sunrise was at about 5:15. I set everything up, and from the point that I set my camera up to take pictures, it took me about 15-20 minutes to get to that point, but it took over an hour to figure out how to get to that point. And when I got to the top, there was etched in the sandstone "Bill 1987" It was super sick. Really dangerous. A lot of fun.
How do you capture images like this?
I use a time lapse. I set the intervals for a lot longer, about 4-5 seconds, and then I can go interact with the scene. It gives me much more natural stance and body language, than if I was to just run over there and stand really quick.
And how long have you been doing photography?
10 years. I got into it because my best pal growing up was always filming skateboard videos of us, and it was so sick, I loved it. And then I was playing with his camera for a while and it just stuck, I got so excited about it. It started as, you know, we'd go places skateboarding, and they’d be places I’d want to tell people about, or that i’d like to show them. And so then I was able to start showing people what I was talking about.
Tell me about your last stop at Two Medicine.
Glacier is the shit, it’s in Montana. This is Two Medicine. It's really fucking cool. This is lightening that would freeze the clouds. Like, if you’re taking an exposure, say 30 seconds, the clouds move in those 30 seconds. But because the lightening was so bright and powerful, you would under expose your image... so like when there wasn’t lightening going on I couldn’t even see any of this. But then when it would go off, it would “pew”, freeze it like a flash does and freeze the image so it’s sharp and clear.
What was the biggest takeaway for you from this whole experinece?
Patience was huge. I definitely learned a lot of patience. I also learned the importance of what it really is that you can overcome. I literally went through every possible feeling you can think of. I was sad, I was happy, I was angry, I was bored, I was excited, everything. I was upset enough to scream, but you know, pushing forward... its worth it.
Devin kept a personal journal throughout the trip and shared this passage with me:
"Fear holds us back, and it also motivates us to keep going. It’s quite the tricky emotion, really… When you’re aware of your feelings you can choose to accept them, and move forward. Not let them hold you back or keep you from what you truly believe you’re supposed to do. With a healthy understanding of self, you can accomplish anything.
I feel fortunate to be able to share the places I go, and hopefully convey the feelings I might have felt. I find it so fascinating that when I share an image, most of the time no one has a clue what it took to take it. Maybe I just picked the frame, picked the settings at random, and got lucky? Maybe, I obsessed wildly for an hour before hand trying to find that “perfect” spot? You’ll never know. But I do. And I’ll never know what the images really mean to the viewer, because I’m the creator. But I continue to create on the faith alone that someone out there might see what I’m doing and feel something."
So what is Devin doing now?
Devin told me he was offered the job opportunity of a lifetime- to spend three months touring with Zeds Dead to photograph and shoot video of the tour. When I asked him why he turned it down, he said:
“It doesn’t feel right. I don’t want a life of drugs and partying, and photographing that kind of stuff. Thats not where my hearts is. Thats not why I went on this trip. I went on this trip to do what I believe in my heart is right. And I think giving someone inspiration is the greatest thing on the planet. You can’t buy it. When you give it and you are able to give... that... its incredible. I need to hone in on that, instead of partying my ass off with Zeds Dead."
I respect the hell out of him for that. It’s extremely challenging to turn down a high paying gig when you just quit your job and spent two months traveling. But I also know that listening to your heart always leads you the right direction and taking that leap of faith is always the right choice.
"It’s a little more scary. But thats the thing about your passions… you’re passionate about them. You can’t do anything but them. Even if I got a job somewhere other than photography, I’d still be taking pictures. It drives my soul. It makes me feel alive in so many ways. It’s really weird, if I don’t create images that I’m proud of over like maybe two weeks or something, if i haven’t done anything creative or mentally stimulating, I start to feel really weird. And then the moment I get that image I’m like.. ahhhhhh! And the search for it is amazing."
My Final Words
Devin is such an inspiration to me. Throughout his journey he faced health issues, car problems, lost packages, an eye infection, altitude sickness, frustration, and loneliness. His passion drove him forward through these setbacks and his faith steadied his course to the end. Throughout his travels, his dedication to his journal and his craft allowed him to truly learn about himself in an intimate, raw, and unfiltered way. I have so much respect for anyone willing to go there. He didn't always get the exact image he had hoped for, but the experience he had left an impact larger than any image possibly could. I can feel the passion and the love that goes into every one of Devin's photos. They're magical.
Next week I will be joining him for his class on shooting the stars and I am so excited! We will be camping overnight on Mount Hood and I will get a taste of the adventure he sought. Stay tuned!