I made this photograph a couple years ago while camping in cental New Mexico. I made several wider angle versions, but I like this tighter one.
The images included here are abstractions in that their relationship to their environment is limited by the frame of the photograph. In other words while they can be recognized for what they are, they cannot readily be associated with their surroundings.
The interactions between the thicker prmary branches and the thinner, more fragile branches, along with the changes in color and tone are the elements that catch the eye, and hold this photograph together.
The patterns and shapes which are given form by the colors in this image are tied together by the lines formed by the branches. What may, at first, look like a jumble of twigs becomes, with a practiced eye, a cohesive image.
This image splits the difference between an abstraction and a more conventional intimate landscape. The soft colors and patterns of the willows in the lower half of the photograph give way to the more solid and, readily recognizable, branches of the cottonwood tree. The snow on the branches of the tree lend just the right amount of softening which ties it all together.
…strange how old, obsolete buildings and plants and mills, the technology of fifty or a hundred years ago, always seems to look so much better than the new stuff…Nature has a non-Euclidian geometry of her own that seems to soften the deliberate objectivity of these buildings with a kind of random spontaneity that architects would do well to study.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Random spontaneity; you can’t get much more un-deliberate than that. Robert Pirsig hit the nail right on the head with that one. Time and the elements have a way of blurring the lines, by the weathering of old wood, by the erosion of brick and adobe, and by the desaturation of colors that seem to make these old, ruined structures a cohesive part of the landscape.
I’ve driven for hours over backroads and two lane blacktops that (refreshingly) haven’t been repaved for decades. One of those roads brought me to Claunch. The village still has a functioning post office, but not much else. This old adobe with just the right amount of color added sits alone waiting for passersby to whom it can tell its story.
The front of this small bungalow near the village of Cerrillos is a hodge-podge of materials; stucco, fake brick, and, underlying it all, plywood. The door is beautifully weathered and the textures are all the more evident due to that weathering.
The thing I like best about this photograph is the cutaway caused by erosion of the adobe wall. It’s like a glimpse into the lives of the long gone inhabitants. The double doors were obviously a replacement of a larger one. The melting adobe gives it all an organic feeling. To me, these elements speak of lives lived here in times past.
This old wooden shed has been surrounded by Chinese Elm trees. They have grown around its perimeter in an opening gambit to reclaim the ground on which it sits. The scene has a sense of serene finality about it.
There are occurences in nature that are as beautiful as they are short-lived. These small ephemeral miracles are everywhere around us if we take the time to look for them.
Apache Plume puts forth its feathery tendrils after the flower petals drop. These are the seeds which are dispersed by the wind, but when you find them just beginning to grow from their stalks, they appear to be suspended in some hidden undersea world.
Barley Grass seeds have a beautifully complicated, interwoven, geometric structure which to me is more interesting than anything built by man. A couple days after I made this photograph, the seeds were mere husks.
This Cliffrose blossom had some rain drops trapped in its petals and the backlit effect was a diaphonous glow which caused the droplets to show through the petals and accentuate their fragile elegance.
Living in a place that is surrounded by National Forest means that I have the beauty and wonders of the wild, natural world literally at my doorstep. It also means that the danger of wildfire is just as close.
These false lupine are growing in a remote area of the Las Conchas burn scar. This image was made three years after the fire. The quaking aspens, usually the first to repopulate after a fire, are also growing amonst the boles of the standing dead conifers.
This photograph is a close-up detail of ponderosa pine bark that was burned in the Lake Fire in 2002. It is a scan of a 35mm color transparency that I made a couple months after the fire. I was intrigued by the molten metal appearance of the bark.
These trees were consumed by the 2017 Cajete Fire. The wet snow clinging to them gives them a high contrast, graphic look. The trunks and every branch stand out sharply as if they are etched by the frigid air
These aspen saplings in their autumn color are growing on a hillside burned during the Las Conchas Fire in 2011. The stark contrast between the burned, dead pine, spruce, and fir trees, and the glow created by the backlighting is what captured my attention. Shortly after I made this exposure the effect was gone as the sun moved higher in the sky.
…but alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sproutlands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by church-going and prayer.
Henry David Thoreau
This small pine sapling stands in solitary splendor in front of its big brethren. which disappear into the snowy background. There is a sense of calm that comes over me when I am in the woods when the snow is falling.
I was attracted to this scene by the snow covered boulder in the foreground and the soft curve between it and the smaller stone. The arrangement of the more prominent trees and their relationship to those in the background had me moving back and forth and side to side until I found this composition.
Some photographs begin as a partially finished idea. But some, like this one, jump out fully formed. The monotone coloration and the chaotic simplicity of the scene made it all the more compelling to me.
I love the spareness of a leafed tree in the winter with a few brown, withered leaves still clinging to its branches. This oak sapling framed by two mature ponderosa pines speaks of the unexpected relationships in nature that only become apparent to the discerning eye.
The title of this post may be somewhat deceptive. Most of us think of writing on the wall as actual markings of some kind made by man (or woman) for the purpose of communicating something to others. And, while a couple of the images included here do feature pictographs and petroglyphs, Most do not. Instead, they are images of natures writing.
This pictograph is on a wall about a quarter mile from my home. It is on the side of a state road, but most people who drive by it are unaware of its presence. Like most drawings of this sort, the meaning is unclear, and lost to the ages but someone in the distant past felt the need to scribe these images onto this rock.
This canyon wall and talus slope is located along the Green River near Hardscrabble Bottom in Canyonlands. I was attracted to the contrast between the rock wall and the living tamarisk as well as the no longer living cottonwood tree. I love the desert varnish on the sandstone and the beginning erosion of what will one day probably be an amphitheater.
These petroglyphs are in the backcountry of Monument Valley. They are called the Eye of the Sun Petroglyphs because of their proximity to an arch bearing that name. It is perhaps someone’s tale of the animals he came across that day, or perhaps a boastful recounting of the game he had killed.
These young aspen trees are growing against a sandstone wall which is covered with lichen. The combination creates a tapestry in which the trees reflect the stains on the wall and overlay them with a filigree of branches.
Here is another example of cross-bedded sandstone. I made this photograph while kayaking with my daughter and her husband in the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior. The colors of the stone combined with the intersecting fracture lines, the lichen, and the small, but tenacious, plants caught my eye almost immediately.
There’s a feeling in the air, and over the land, like a quiet expectation that slowly builds until the first blossoms appear on the wild fruit trees. The river is high and fast with the runoff, and the trees and shrubs in the bosque are fairly bursting with nascent energy and life. Spring: a time of rebirth and renewal, a visual feast.
A wild apricot tree celebrates the warmer weather by putting forth its blossoms. I made several exposures of this scene, shifting perspective each time. There are branches above and just barely out of the frame which I found distracting. I tried to balance my in camera crop so I kept the branches from intruding while giving the tree enough room in the frame so it didn’t feel cramped.
This is a typical scene in the river bosque. What compelled me to make this photogrph was the colors. The tamarisks with their orangish red balanced nicely with what I knew would be a bluish green in the background and the yellow and green of the bosque floor. Again, the spacing of the trees became a dance of changing perspectives. Even though those on the right appear “heavier”, this composition seemed the most natural.
This photograph is more about the contrast between the elements than anything else. The blossoming tree is fighting the sage and chamisa for purchase and attention. At the same time it is standing out from the looming willows in the background. It has a subtle joie de vivre that I find attractive.
The colors are my favorite thing about this image. But the patterns and textures run a close second. The chamisa, the tamarisk, and finally, the cottonwood and willow trees in the background all work together to create a tension that feels just right to me.
There are times when the atmosphere puts on a show that, combined with the right light, cannot be ignored. If you happen to be in a place that provides a suitable setting for such a show, you may be able to capture it all in a way that reveals the power and beauty that nature paints under these conditions.
I made this image in 2007. I was in Canyonlands at Grandview Point when I noticed the storm moving across the buttes and mesas to the south and west. The ethereal nature of the light through the clouds and the haze of the falling rain was stunning. It took me a moment to realize that I should make a picture of this. If you look closely at the bottom right corner, you can see the Green River where it exits Labyrinthe Canyon at Hardscrabble Bottom. A few miles downstream is the confluence of the Green and the Colorado Rivers.
I was driving to Las Cruces for a calendar shoot and decided to take the scenic route through Lake Valley. As the clouds lowered to obscure the tops of a small range of hills, I rounded a curve to find these Cottonwood trees still wearing their autumn colors standing out in an otherwise sere landscape.
I was leading a tour in the Bisti Wilderness in December and by the time we arrived at the Egg Garden, the clouds had moved in and dropped down low on the landscape. Looking to the southwest, I noticed the sun attempting to shine through the thick cover; the result was a number of beams which died in midair much like virga (falling rain that never reaches the ground). Of all the times I have been to this location, I never witnessed better light than this.
The Jemez River bosque south of Jemez Springs nestles close to the base of the wall of Virgin Mesa. I made this image on a winter morning a few years ago. The low clouds were veiling the canyon wall and created a sense of mystery and helped to define the branches of the cottonwoods and willows that line the bosque in that part of the canyon.
Closeup photography basically requires an observant and discerning eye, as well as a willingness to witness in the commonplace a display of the miraculous.
John Shaw-Closeups in Nature
All of the photographs in this post were made on my property within a quarter mile of my house. That is the wonderful thing about close-up/macro photography: there is a world of subject matter literally at your feet.
Also, all these photographs were made with my thirty-something year old Nikkor 105mm f2.8D macro lens mounted on one of my Nikon Df bodies. I normally don’t mention gear because it seems superfluous, but in this case, I have had a long-standing love affair with this lens and it still makes beautifully sharp images, so it needs to be recognized.
I have spent hours photographing leaves; cottonwood–as in these photos, aspen, willow, oak, birch, etc. You get the picture. I never grow tired of it, and I usually come away feeling fulfilled and happy with the day’s work. The first image encased as it is in ice is a bonus for me; when I’m working in these conditions, I don’t feel the cold. I get so focused that I am unaware of anything going on around me. Not such a good thing if you’re in a crowded city, but working in a field with not another soul within a mile or more, it’s an exhilerating freedom.
The everyday patterns found in the natural world are pretty much perfect. No amount of rearranging can possibly make them better, but rather it will usually leave them looking, well…re-arranged. So I take things as I find them and rarely touch any of the elements. The only caveat is I will sometimes remove a distracting element if it can be done without disturbing the rest of the composition.
This image of a small group of seed pods required a lot of forethought and some delicate maneuvering. It is a 1:1 magnification ratio, so the working distance was about twelve inches. At that distance, depth of field is measured in fractions of an inch; I needed to be sure my camera’s focal plane was parallel to the pods, and that my aperture provided a DOF that was wide enough to keep all the pods in reasonable focus, but was shallow enough to ensure a nice soft background. Add to all that the fact that I was working just a few inches above the ground and if I bumped the fragile pods with my equipment, they would be destoyed. Enough said.
Walking along the river one afternoon I looked down to find this arrangement of cottonwood and willow leaves, twigs, and grass at my feet. I actually shot this handheld (something I usually won’t do when making close-ups), so there was really no set up involved, I just squatted down, composed the image, and released the shutter.
Out again a couple days ago, I found these red birch logs lying near the river behind my house with the leaves tucked in between them. It took a while to set my tripod in the optimal position for this image because there were quite a few downed trees close to the subject and I needed to balance the legs of the tripod on them and get the whole thing close enough to the ground to achieve the right perspective.
It’s been a while since I’ve done any close-up work and I had forgotten how rewarding it can be. Getting out and crawling around in the dirt again brought it all back to me. I hope you enjoy seeing these photographs as much as I enjoyed making them.
I remember vividly my first encounter with a cholla cactus. It was a teddy bear cholla growing on the flank of Thunderbird Peak northwest of Pheonix. The year was 1970 and I was living (temporarily) in a garage apartment on the fringe of the fast-growing, but still relatively small town. I and a few of my friends had walked several miles through orange groves, happily sampling the low hanging fruit. We climbed the trail up to the top of Thunderbird Peak and were clowning around in our youthful exuberance; it was then that I backed into said teddy bear which left a number of its spines in my backside.
Fast forward a half century or so and I have come to appreciate the beauty of the cholla. People’s rear ends are not the only thing they are good at catching; the bristly chollas can turn the light of day into a soft glow that seems to illuminate entire hillsides, or in the case of this image, a large tract of desert. I made this photograph of a colony of buckhorn cholla on a path near the Carefree Highway (yes that one) north of Pheonix. The cactus seem to reflect the shapes in the distant mountains. I moved around amongst the spines very carefully to find the right composition.
This image was made in the Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park. It is not a very extensive area because it is at the margin of the Teddy Bear’s range. Again, the backlit spines were luminous and beautifully in contrast to the Hexie Mountains in the distance. I spent several hours photographing in this spot before moving on.
I cannot walk or drive past a display such as this without stopping to admire the soft ethereal glow. This small group of Teddy Bear Chollas stands amidst a grove of Saguaros in Tucson Mountain Park. Teddy Bear Chollas are found only in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts of Arizona, California, and Sonora and Baja, Mexico.
In my travels photographing the roots of my home state, I have travelled mostly the two lane blacktops, what William Least Heat Moon called blue highways because that was how they were shown on maps. The back roads of New Mexico often bring surprises, things that are unexpected, things that fire the imagination. I have included a few of these treasures here. There are countless others out there waiting to be rediscovered.
This road grader sits in a yard behind a gabien/rail fence. It was owned by a friend of mine who died several years ago. He was a good man, a hard working man who did not tolerate fools. When I saw it with the falling snow I made this image without much thought other than of the technical aspects.
The Ayers Family built this house from a kit sold by Sears in the 1920s. Now it sits slowly deteriorating near Estancia, NM. I wanted a somber, brooding sky to emphasize the haunted look of the place. The two dead trees complete the picture and the feel of decay. While making this image, I felt the ghosts of the place not far from the surface.
This building, an old neighborhood bar, sits on the edge of a small village in the Rio Grande Valley. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much. I was drawn to it because I noticed the tree growing inside, but I was not expecting the eye; it seemed so out of place. Looking closely, it appears as though it has been there for quite a while. Whatever its origin, it adds an eerie presence to the scene. I shot through the opening to frame the interior and to reflect the shape of the opening in the far wall. This also has the effect of preserving the secret hidden within.
In the early days of the Manhattan Project, a woman named Edith Warner was living in a small house along the Rio Grande where the one lane Otowi Bridge crossed the river giving access to the Pajarito Plateau and Los Alamos. She often hosted the scientists and dignitaries who worked at and visited the site. The house on the right was her residence and the small building on the left was the tea house where she served many people over the years including friends from nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo.
I was on a one lane dirt road near the Rio Grande Gorge when I came upon this 1940 something Chevy pickup buried to its wheel wells in the sandy earth. There was not a single soul that I had seen within a mile of the place. After I finished photographing, I had my lunch while sitting on the fender enjoying the solitude.
I photographed this church in Taiban, NM long before it became a destination for social media photographers. I looked for quite a while for the right composition and finally settled on this head-on perspective with the dead shrubs in the foreground. They seemed to fit the mood of the moment and the lonely desolation of the scene.
I was about as far off the beaten track as you can get, even for central New Mexico. The windmill lying by the side of the road seemed bigger that it would look in its accustomed place: high on a tripod along a single track ranch road. It was November, so the trees were in various stages of decline; I would not not have made this image in the spring or summer when the trees were leafed out.
For many years, I led photography tours in the badlands of the San Juan Basin in northwest New Mexico. The Bisti Wilderness was, by far, the most popular, so over the years I have gotten to know the landscape quite well and have amassed a large archive of images from that most famous of New Mexico’s badlands.
This boulder field is not far from Hunter Wash on the northern edge of the Bisti. I have always been fascinated by the dispersal of the boulders in this one particular area. I’m no geologist, but I’m pretty sure these stones were buried in a softer matrix which eventually eroded away leaving them (the boulders) scattered about the field.
These steep-sided, broken hills are actually parts of a once continuous dike of clay, mudstone and sandstone. The sandstone still perches on the tops of the isolated formations. The slender hoodoo in the center I call Scheinbaum’s Hoodoo named for David Scheinbaum a Santa Fe photogrpher who, in the 1980s made the images for a University of New Mexico Press book titled Bisti which became instrumental in the Sierra Club’s fight with the Public Service Company of New Mexico (the biggest elctrical producer in the state) and the Sunbelt Mining Company who together had plans to strip mine the entire area. The result of that battle is the Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness Area. In his caption of the photograph of this fragile formation he lamented the fact that due to coal mining activity in the area this hoodoo would likely soon be destroyed. I was happy to see that now, nearly forty years later, it still stands.
in the forward to Scheinbaum’s book, Beaumont Newhall calls the Bisti …an area of land that extends not only in space but in time. These mixed clay and volcanic ash hills are testament to that description; they are multicolored depending on which other minerals were present at the time they were deposited. These yellow and black deposits near Hunter Wash were probably influenced by sulphur and coal respectively at different times during the sedimentary phase of the area’s formation.
This hoodoo fairyland is in what’s called the Brown Hoodoos section of the Bisti. It is only about a mile from the Alamo Wash parking area, but requires some climbing and scrambling as well as a walk around deep, steep-sided drainages to access. I think the trip is well worth the effort.
These last two images are of the two most popular features of my photo tours. The first is the Stone Wings in the north section, not far from Hunter Wash. They are a series of deeply eroded pedestals with sandstone caps that are exposed on top of a tall bentonite mound.
And finally the Egg Garden, probably the most well known and most requested location in the Bisti tour. I was leading a client, a PhD in Nuclear Physics, who upon seeing the ovoid formations for the first time began jumping around and laughing like a child. Moments like that were the best part of my job.
This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.
I found the opening quote by Edward Weston in Guy Tal’s book More Than A Rock. I thought it appropriate to introduce this post. The book is also worth a gander.
I love the diffuse light of an overcast, snowy day. All the images in this post were made along the Jemez River Bosque during a snowstorm last week. I used my 80-200 telephoto lens set at the upper end of its range. The result is a compression of the elements of the scenes. That coupled with the soft, misty depths of the bosque due to the falling snow serves to enhance the intimacy of the images.
My intention for this outing was to capture the delicate, subtle relationships between the various forms of vegetation. What I discovered is something I knew all along: nature is a master of design; it is subtle; its forms are deliberate; and its colors blend as naturally and effortlessly as the confluence of two rivers.
I have been doing this photography thing for a long time. When I was first starting out, I was keenly interested in the work of such luminaries as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and, the master of color, Eliot Porter. Today, some fifty years down the road, they have been joined by the likes of David Meunch and William Neill. These images are a return to the things that sparked my initial interest in the art of photography.
As I worked, I was repeatedly drawn to the similarities, and the contrasts between the chamisa and the cottonwoods. Later while processing the images, I saw that the blue color shift caused by the flat light on this cold morning was very complimentary to the yellows and reds of the chamisa, the dead oak leaves, and the tamarisk. I deliberately made use of that effect to convey my feeling of the experience through the photographs.
I had noticed this red sandstone boulder several times while exploring the area and I knew I would use it at some point. When I saw it on this day, it was immediately clear to me that this was the time. Environmental conditions and of course the light can transform a scene such as this from one of mere interest to one that speaks of the nature of things.
If there is magic on this earth it lies in water.
Water, without it life cannot exist. It is elusive, you cannot hold it long in your hand (unless it is in its frozen state and even then it soon melts away), yet it carves mile deep canyons through billion year old rock.
I made this first image on a cold day last week. I walked up the East Fork of the Jemez River at Battleship Rock looking for water and ice, and while there was plenty of both, it took a while before I found a composition worthy of an image. This small cascade was exactly what I had in mind; the ice suspended above the rushing water and coating the small branches has a fragile elegance that is all its own.
After leaving the East Fork, I walked a ways up the Rio San Antonio to this waterfall. It is a favorite of mine; I have been coming to this place for many years. I used to bring my daughters here on hikes when they were little girls, so I have a deep connection to it. Again, I was looking for ice, and again I found it. I don’t know how many photographs I’ve made of this waterfall over the years, but this is certainly one of my favorites.
I made this photograph of upper Guadalupe Falls, as well as the two that follow, in the mid-nineties with my Nikon F3 using Fuji Velvia transparency film. To achieve this intimate perspective, I had to set my tripod on a boulder which was lodged above the falls where they drop about ten feet. It is a precarious platform with not much room to work from, but the results seem worth the risk. The snow and ice on the rocks and the greenish color of the icy water give this image a frigid feel.
This is the same waterfall as in the second photograph. It is an abstract to some degree, but the reality of the falls is still obvious. I have always loved the visual and physical contrast between liquid water–particularly if it’s moving–and its solid state when it appears to be moving. Here the immutable basalt face of the cliff provides yet another contrast to the ephemeral nature of the water.
This is the lower end of Guadalupe Falls; the rock in this location is granite, part of an ancient upthrust. The shapes and the solid presence of the rock juxtaposed against the relentless flow of the river through this narrow passage along with the figurative connection between the two provided by the ice are the elements I was reacting to when I made this photograph.