photography from the ground up

Archive for March, 2012

In Praise Of Ruins

One of the nice things about living in a dry climate is: things are preserved. They are not washed back to the earth as quickly as they might be in a wetter climate. The desert southwest is famous for its ruins, not only those of the Anasazi, or Ancient Ones, but also of cultures that are more recent. I spend a lot of time making photographs in the desert where I come across a ruin on just about every trip. They may not be as famous as Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, but they speak of the past nonetheless.

Usually these locations are single dwellings, the remnants of someone’s dream slowly being reclaimed by the earth, but sometimes they are entire villages or settlements that were thriving communities, but are now nothing more than abandoned piles of crumbling adobe and rotting wood. The first two images are of ruins in the Rio Puerco Valley in north-central New Mexico

Many of the more well known and much older sites are of Native American origin. Pueblo Pintado is an outlier of Chaco Canyon and was inhabited from around 900-1250 CE. The image below shows one of the kivas in the foreground and the Great House behind it. The people who lived here were the forebears of the modern day pueblo people

Whenever I am in one of these places, I am overcome by a feeling of kinship with the people who lived and died there. I find myself wondering who they were and what they did to sustain themselves. What were their names? Why did these places fail and fall prey to time and the weather? In many cases, such as the ranching communities in the Rio Puerco Valley, it was overgrazing that forced the inhabitants out. In places like Pueblo Pintado or Mesa Verde, it is thought that drought played a large part in their demise.

This last image is one of twenty-three kivas in the Cliff Palace which was the largest cliff dwelling in North America. It housed about one hundred people in 150 rooms. There are close to six hundred cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park.

Black and White (Sands)

White Sands is an incredibly beautiful place. I don’t go there as often as I should; it’s only about a four-hour drive from my door. Every time I do go, I wonder why it’s been so long since my last trip. Of course, for me the attraction is the photography.

The stark landscape provides the perfect ingredients for great black and white images.  Each of these photographs was made on the edge of light. The sun was low above the San Andres Mountains to the west.

Simplicity is the key; images that can be reduced to basic compositional elements are the ones that work best in monochrome. They can stand well on their own without the need for color. Don’t get me wrong I love making color photographs; I will continue to do so, but right now, I am re-discovering the power of the black and white image.

These three started as color versions because they were captured in RAW format. I followed my normal workflow, making global post processing adjustments in Adobe Lightroom and then moved them to Photoshop for the fine tweaks. The last step, the black and white conversions, were done in Silver Efex Pro.

I am pleased with the unexpected turn my photography has taken. As I mentioned in a previous post, I started out as a black and white photographer back in the day of chemicals, enlargers, and safelights. I feel like my work has come full circle.

Take Your Camera

One of the first things I tell my beginning digital photography students is:“Always have a camera with you!”. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have come across a wonderful scene and, without a camera, could only stand there and appreciate it. Not a bad thing, but as a photographer…!!!

I was driving into town for groceries-a sixty mile drive for me-and this scene unfolded along US Hwy. 550. I stood on the shoulder and waited until traffic cleared so I could make this image. Sometimes the light and the conditions combine to create a scene that may never happen again in exactly the same way. Be ready when that happens.

This image was made in a friend’s driveway. I was visiting him and noticed these leaves lying on the snow. I was drawn by the way they were nestled together and slightly embedded into the snow . I was taking my own advice that day and had a camera with me. The next time I visited him the leaves and the snow were gone.

This last image was made while I was driving from Albuquerque to Los Alamos to teach one of my classes. Just south of Santa Fe, these tracks cross under 1-25. I had gotten off the freeway and driven down the frontage road to the bridge over the tracks. I made several exposures of them from different points of view and was climbing up the bank to where my car was parked when I heard the whistle. The Southwest Chief (Amtrak), on it’s run from Chicago to Albuquerque was rounding the bend through the cut in La Bajada.

The point of these anecdotes is to illustrate the importance of being prepared. If you are in the right place at the right time armed with a camera a whole new world of possibilities opens up. To paraphrase Jack London: “You can’t wait for opportunity, you have to go after it with a club”.

The Bones Of The Image

Sorry about the bad pun, but this seemed like the perfect image to drive home the idea that black and white photographs are more about the structure, tones, lines, and shapes of the photograph, whereas a color image can distract from those basics.

All of the various skeletal segments in the left foreground create lines into the image; they all lead the eye in about the same direction-towards the mesas in the background. The eye then should travel in a kind of spiral: up to the clouds and then back down to the distant double peaked mountain. The focal point (hopefully) is the carcass; the lack of color in the (blue) sky, and the (yellow-ish) grasses means that there is nothing to distract the viewer’s eye from it.

I made this image last year on a trip to the Bisti Wilderness. I had some luck with the atmospheric conditions that day and came away with several very good photographs. This one of the Bisti Arch is one of the best from that outing, and while I think the color version is pretty strong, I feel the black and white conversion says more about what I was seeing and feeling when I captured the image.

Also, the second image has more dynamic tonality;  the saturated colors in the first capture the viewer’s attention, but the rich tones in the monochrome version say more about the structure of both the formation and the composition of the image.

The Decisive Moment

Henri Cartier Bresson was a master of “the decisive moment”, that point in time when everything in a scene comes together, the optimal time to release the shutter. How do you know when that time comes? Well, sometimes it will just jump up and slap you in the face, sometimes it might be nothing more than a gut feeling. The ability to recognize such moments is usually the result of long experience. Like most things in life, capturing the decisive moment does not have a formula other than the ability to see and an awareness of what is unfolding before your eyes.

I made this image at Bosque del Apache. It was twilight and I had been watching these two Sandhill Cranes. They were obviously a mated pair-Sandhill Cranes mate for life. I have to say that capturing this moment was partly luck, but it was also a result of looking, paying attention to what was happening, and a knowledge of crane behavior. I came away with not only a great image, but also with a deeper understanding and compassion for these beautiful birds.

What it comes down to is being prepared. Prepared with knowledge of your subject; prepared with knowledge of your craft; and prepared with a patient attitude. The rest is easy.

The Beaten Path

Where do we as artists find inspiration? Exploring new territory is always a good way, at least for me. As a landscape photographer, I am charged with boundless energy–despite my sixty-plus years–when confronted with a place where I have never before set foot. Everything is brand spanking new and this always seems to boost the “WOW” factor to higher levels.

But, sometimes, in order to replenish the well, it’s wise to return to some of the places, or techniques that have inspired us in the past. A great and wise photographer who was instrumental in my early meanderings into the world of nature/landscape photography advised returning to places we had been before at a different time of day or year.

I made this image in the Brown Hoodoos area of the Bisti Wilderness. I have visited the Bisti many times and have hundreds of photographs to prove it, but this time I not only found my way to this particular location which had eluded me in the past, but the atmospheric conditions and the light were especially dramatic. It was like being there for the first time. Not long after this trip, I led a tour and we came to this very spot; the lighting was harsh with not a cloud to be found in the clear, blue sky; nonetheless, my clients were ecstatic. It was their first time and the landscape captivated them. It made me see the place with new eyes.

The Bisti Arch was another well known feature that had, somehow eluded me. I knew the approximate location and even had GPS co-ordinates. Yet, I had wandered around Hunter Wash searching in vain. Finding what could have been an arch that had recently collapsed, I concluded that it was the object of my frustration. Then, on a recent trip, while hiking back to the parking area, I glanced at a small formation that I had passed many times, but had never really noticed. I was in just the right spot and there it was, The Bisti Arch. I quickly realized why I had been missing it: I had the scale all wrong. I was imagining it to be much larger than it really was. Nevertheless, I was overjoyed and spent more than an hour making photographs.

Like the Bisti, I have been to the area around Cabezon Peak many times. I have tried time and again-unsuccessfully-to capture an image of Cerro Cuate which is just south of Cabezon. I’ve made several photographs of it in beautiful light, but the compositions all seemed to fall short of what I was looking for. The images just never seemed to do the mountain justice. On a recent trip, however, everything finally fell into place. We were driving home after spending some time photographing the nearby ghost town of Guadalupe. It was early evening and the sun was low. I had noticed this small drainage earlier in the day, but the light was no good at the time. Now the light was right; we stopped and I made five different exposures, this one, after a black and white conversion is my favorite.

So, don’t make the mistake of thinking that once you’ve been to a certain location you’ve seen all there is to see. The light and the conditions are always changing, and with them, the entire mood of the scene. You may even find an unexpected treasure waiting for you.

Black and White!

Forty years ago when I purchased my first SLR camera-a Nikkormat FTN that I still have-I immersed myself in the world of black and white photography. Naturally, one of my heroes was, and still is, Ansel Adams. I learned how to develop film and make acceptable black and white prints from the negatives. I was hooked.

Fast forward to the present day: Photography has changed in ways no one could have imagined in that long gone time when a computer was still a large room-sized machine with unknown purpose and potential. Most of my work since switching from film to digital has been color landscapes. The portraits I have made are also (mostly) in color. Why? The answer is twofold: First, I lost that connection and, with it, the ability to visualize the scene and the image in the frame of my viewfinder in black and white. And, I just could not make a black and white print that matched those that slowly emerged from the developer under that red safelight. Granted, some of the shortcoming was due to my lack of expertise, but much of it had to do with the inability of the available technology to make an acceptable conversion

Recently, however, I have been re-connecting with that which I had lost in terms of visualizing my images in monochrome, and, with the ongoing development of new and better software, I find that I can once again produce a black and white or toned print that lives up to my expectations. Once again I can get excited about a black and white image the way I used to.

This image was made on a lonely highway in northern New Mexico. A storm was rapidly approaching from the south and the heavy clouds added to the feeling of desolation in the scene. The arrow-straight road with the mountains in the distance suggests a lack of any creature comforts. Even the rough texture of the road and the dark silhouette of the tree compound the sense of total isolation.

I did not pre-visualize this image as a black and white photograph. I like the way it looks in color, but I decided to experiment with it. I used Silver Efex Pro to do the conversion and I am very happy with the results. I think stripping the color adds even more to the bleakness of the scene. It lays bare the basic elements and structure of the image. Sometimes making a change in your pattern can help you to revitalize your passion and creativity. Even something as simple (or as complicated) as returning to your roots can breathe new life into your work.

This final image was made in the Mesa de Cuba badlands in the San Juan basin of northwestern New Mexico. It is a three image exposure fusion which I then converted to a sepia toned image in Silver Efex Pro. What caught my eye when I first happened upon this scene was the almost visceral appearance of the erosion channels. It had just snowed and the thirsty ground was sucking the moisture from the newly-fallen snow emphasizing the tonal contrast between the channels and the surrounding earth. At first I was concerned that it may be a little over the top in terms of the tonality, but I realized that I was merely presenting the scene as I had interpreted it. In the end, that’s what matters. Be true to your vision and you will evolve as an artist.