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.
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.
I make it a habit to dig into my archives every so often just to see what might jump out at me. I am usualy pleasantly surprised and also find myself wondering why I didn’t see the possibilties of these images back then. The answer is, in most cases, a change in my perspective, or perhaps a maturation of my vision. In other cases, a simple change in long-standing habits, otherwise known as getting out of a rut.
I was in Lake City, Colorado for the Lake City Wine and Music Festival. After the two day event, I took a ride up the road to Cinammon Pass which summits at nearly thirteen-thousand feet. Somewhere along the way I made this photograph of a stand of aspens. I guess I didn’t think it worthy of any further work when I edited my photos from that trip. I let my expectations get in the way sometimes and when I revisit images later, those biases no longer inhibit my judgement.
The shading and texture of these deep erosion channels at the foot of Cainville Mesa caught my eye as we were driving past on the way to Factory Butte. I didn’t have a long telephoto lens with me, so I borrowed my friend Robin’s 70-300 and made this image. I didn’t think anything else about it and skipped right over it when I edited and processed my work from that trip. But looking at it now, I see the things that compelled me to make the photograph in the first place.
The coastal redwoods in northern California are an experience. It’s like being transported to another world, at least it seems that way to me, a desert rat who has lived for more than forty years in the desert southwest. This patch of rhododendrons was growing right along the road; the contrast between the delicate leaves and blossoms, and the looming immensity, and mystery of the trees disappearing into the mist in the background captured my imagination.
I try to do any cropping to an image in camera, in other words, as I’m making the image. I very seldom crop photographs when I’m processing them. But this one was nagging at me. the left side of the image was not doing anything, it was an unwanted appendage. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose too much of the brooding clouds at the top. The answer was to change the aspect ratio from the normal 2:3 of 35mm or, in this case, full frame digital to 4:5. I like the result. The subject is the Yeibichei Rocks in Monument Valley.
I often go to Tucson in February or March to photograph the blooming desert. In a good year, the wildflowers carpet large parts of the desert landscape. I remember very clearly the making of this image. This saguaro cactus was right across a dirt road from where my campsite was located. The sun had just set and, in the twilight’s glow, the clouds were a salmon color. This particular cactus was probably thirty feet tall and in order to isolate it, I had to be pretty close (once again, I found myself without a long telephoto lens. I have since started bringing at least my 80-200 Nikkor along on all my trips). The point is that the farther away you can get from a tall subject such as this, the less vertical perspective will be obvious in the image. I was able to do some correction in Lightroom, but I would rather make the corrections during the making of the photograph.
Here is another photograph from one of my Arizona springtime trips. I had read about crested or cristate saguaros and set about finding one. A crested saguaro is a mutation which causes the cactus to fan out, usually at its head. The mutation is thought to be caused by some event (a lightning strike, or possibly a freeze) which interferes with the plant’s normal growth.
I’m not sure why this photograph escaped me during the first go round. I made the image on my first visit to Bandon Beach. I had been looking forward to photographing there and I spent an entire morning moving up and down the beach making pictures. None of those images met my expectations at the time; this one languished in my archives until just recently. There’s a moral to this story: take the time to review your archived images. There are probably some gems waiting there for you to finally recognize their potential.
Somewhere between the sweeping, wide-open views of the grand landscape and the detail of the macro/close-up is the domain of the intimate landscape. It is a world of waterfalls and dense forests where you pluck an image from the chaos that surrounds it.
I have photographed this waterfall many times. It is only a couple miles from my home and I love its graceful sweep against the dark rock wall. When I shoot moving water, I like to use a long exposure–in this case 1.6 seconds–to capture the smooth movement of the cascading water.
It had snowed the night before and was still snowing when I left the house on this January morning. I noticed this scene along the side of the road; I knew there was a photograph there, but I needed to move around to find it. I made several compositions, changing the spacing between the trees each time. This is the version that I settled on.
I first became aware of Hug Point while researching locations for a trip to the Oregon Coast. I saw images of this waterfall and I was intrigued. All the photos I saw were wider angle views than this and that’s where I started. But, as I worked the scene and moved around, I kept being drawn closer to the falls and the wet stones at their base. Later, while editing the images, I didn’t care much for the wider angle versions, but this more intimate portrait became one of my favorites from the entire trip.
I saw this patch of corn lilies growing in front of an aspen grove in northern New Mexico. There is something about these unassuming plants that always make me look for a photograph. The textures and the visual contrast between the shapes in the lilies and the straight vertical lines created by the aspens are what excited me about this scene. I knew as I was photographing it that it would be a black and white image.
I was camping at Fort Stevens State Park on the Oregon coast and was leaving to head down to Cannon Beach, but decided to explore the area a bit more before heading out. I ended up on the Jetty Road and I drove as far as I could go on it. I was standing where the Columbia River flows into the Pacific just enjoying being there when I noticed this small group of lodgepole pine trees, and this pleasant arrangement of male and female cones nestled in the long needles. Joshua Trees are a member of the yucca family; they grow in a limited range of the southwest, a range that is being reduced by climate change. I made this image in Joshua Tree National Park. I remember having to maneuver my tripod into position and get low enough so that I had the Joshua placed against the sky and also included the weathered sandstone slab in the foreground.
After more than a week of unfulfilled promises from the weatherman, and several half-baked attempts, we finally got a substantial snowfall here in northern New Mexico. So, I awoke in the pre-dawn of the new year to find a foot of fresh snow and more coming down.
I made this image of my home from the southern boundary of my property. The rincon along the edge of Virgin Mesa is just visible through the falling snow to the north. I made several compositions and settled on this one. My main concern during the processing was to preserve the ethereal quality of the light through the snow on the distant rim.
Nikon Df, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8
I call it the Number 10 Cabin, but it’s really just an old barn/shed. I have photogrphed it many times over the years–it is located a couple hundred yards from my house. This image was made, obviously, during a snowstorm. I love to photograph in these conditions; the world seems to shrink down to just the elements within the frame. I used a relatively fast shutter speed to freeze the falling snow, which gives the photograph an almost pointillist feel.
Nikon Df, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8
This river runs through my land. I made this photograph from a wooden bridge located just north of my house. Normally when photographing moving water, I use a slow shutter speed to smooth the flow, but on this cold, snowy morning, freezing the movement with a fast shutter felt like the best way to portray the scene.
Nikon Df, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8
South of the village, the canyon opens up and the bosque has room to breathe. These cottonwoods on the edge of a small meadow stood out againt the low clouds. The world was reduced to the immediate surroundings. As I said previously, these are my favorite conditions to work in. Again, I used a fast shutter to freeze the falling snow, which adds another dimension to the image. I made another exposure using a slow shutter to mask the snow and this version is by far my favorite.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm f4
You can feel the silence and the mystery of the winter forest in this image. The trunks of Ponderosa Pine and Fir trees seem to go on forever and the veil of frozen air in the low clouds adds to the effect. I used a long lens to compress the separation between the trees. The sliver of snow covered ground at the bottom of the frame is essential to the composition; without it the image becomes more abstract.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8
It’s been more than a decade since the Las Conchas Fire burned more than one hundred fifty six thousand acres (244 sq. miles) in the Jemez Mountains leaving a huge burn scar in its wake. Two years later the Thompson Ridge Fire took another fifteen thousand acres. While I mourn the loss of those large areas of forest, I recognize the photographic opportunities the burns produced.
The low clouds partially veil the burned trees in this photograph. There is an obvious contrast between the live trees in the middle ground and the seemingly endless ranks of burned, dead ones on the hills in the background.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm f4, 1/640, f8, ISO 640
I used my 80-200 telephoto zoom to isolate these fir trees in the frame. They are losing their bark and what bark remains is burnt black; the result is an almost abstract image. I also made a landscape (horizontal) version of this image, but the strong vertical lines of the trees lend themselves better to the portrait orientation.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8, 1/400, f8, ISO 400
I processed this photograph in a way that emphasizes its airy, dreamlike quality. It was snowing and the clouds were low, so I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the flakes in the frame. This is a relatively “high key” image for me, but I think it does a good job of expressing the mood of the experience.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm f4, 1/1000, f11, ISO 640
These trees were coated with a filigree of hoarfrost on this cold morning. The delicate icy branches against the black trunks and the cloudy sky creates an interesting visual contrast. Again, I chose a vertical orientation to accentuate the strong vertical lines of the dark trunks.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8, f8, 1/640, ISO 400
Here is the view looking west along highway 4 from Corral Canyon, a beautiful area just west of the Valle Grande. This image shows the indiscriminate path of the fire, leaving large swaths of forest incinerated and others unscathed. Again, I was drawn to make this image by the visual, as well as the conceptual contrast of the scene.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm f4, F11, 1/200 ISO 1250
I noticed these horses grazing at the foot of a burned mountain. This is the area where the Las Conchas fire started. I wanted the horses to be dwarfed by their surroundings to lend a sense of scale to the image. Even so, I had to use a 200mm focal length to produce the framing I desired.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8, 1/640, f11, ISO640
Doorways are often used as a metaphor for life: oopurtunities, events, seasons. They are usually spoken or written. But, in the context of this article, they are visual.
I made this photograph in 2012. At that time, I was spending a lot of my time exploring a particular area in northwestern New Mexico. My intent when I released the shutter was to say something about impermanence, more specifically the slow erosion of the adobe buildings which were built and inhabited by people whose way of life disappeared long ago. This doorway–which no longer exists–is an metaphor for that irrevocable past.
Nikon D700 Nikkor 16-35 f4 F22 1/10 ISO 100
At one time, this hall was full of children going about the business of aquiring an education. Now it is empty and decaying. While I was making this image, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the bustle of its former life. I often do this while photographing abandoned buildings or ruins; it helps me to better understand my subject.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-120mm f4 F10 1/60 ISO 400
Inevitably, the constructs of man give way to nature when left unattended. This adobe ruin with a tree growing in the entry is a good example. The colorful grafitti provides a visual as well as a metaphorical contrast to the scene.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-120 f4 F8 1/320 ISO 400
While I was preparing to make this image I considered moving the tire out of the picture, but in the end, I left it in place. It serves as both a visual and a symbolic element. It is important to take the time to think about what you intend to say with a photograph if you want it to be more than just a representation of the scene.
Nikon Df Nikkor 50mm f1.4 F8 1/250 ISO 400
I have mentioned in some of my previous posts that I do a lot of driving to make photographs, and while that’s certainly the case, there are times when the images come to me. I live in a cabin on a river in north central New Mexico, so it’s not uncommon to see wildlife on my land. I use a long lens when photographing wildlife both for their comfort and my safety, but, long lenses aside, there have been times when I have gotten quite close to my subjects.
This doe was browsing along the edge of my road and she posed for me as I drove by. I like the contrast of the gourds along the bottom edge of the frame and the sere grasses in the background.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-120mm F6.3 1/125
There are several bucks that frequent the area where I live. They use my property as a corridor to access the river. They are a part of a family which also include as many as eight does, their fawns and an ever-changing number of yearlings. As is typical with mule deer, the males only congregate with the females and young during the rut. For the remainder of the year, they live a mostly solitary existence.
Nikon D500 Sigma 150-600 F8 1/800
I made this photograph in late September. Mule deer coats become darker, a greyish brown, going into the winter months. You can see the difference in color if you compare this with the previous image. I’m pretty certain it’s the same individual in both photos.
Nikon D500 Nikkor 80-400 F8 1/160
When the males are young, they sometimes travel in small bachelor groups. These two showed up together regularly through the summer, but as fall arrived, they went their separate ways.
Nikon D500 Sigma 150-600 F8 1/500
This bull elk is a frequent visitor. Here he is in early March looking pretty rough after a hard winter. His fur is matted and almost mangy looking; his antlers have just begun regrowing after shedding those of the previous year.
Nikon D 500 Nikkor 200-500 F 8 1/500
A month and a half later, the same bull is looking much better with a healthier coat and a sizable spread on his antlers. Being in such intimate contact with these animals always leaves me with a sense of wonder and privilege.
Nikon D500 Nikkor 200-500 F8 1/400
The Peter Iredale ran aground in heavy fog while trying to enter the Columbia River channel in October of 1906. The wreckage is still there today just west of the small town of Warrenton. The day I showed up to photograph the wreck, the conditions were just right. The thick overcast created a somber setting; all I had to do was wait for low tide so I could position the breaking waves where I wanted them in the image and capture the reflection and wave patterns in the wet sand.
I used my Nikon D810 with a Nikkor 24-120 f4 lens mounted on a Bogen-Manfrotto tripod. Post processing was done in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. Black and white conversion was done in Silver Efex Pro.
I have spent a great deal of time over the last ten years photographing cranes, herons, and geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. During that time, I have often thought of expanding my horizons to learn more about other birds, so I was delighted when the opportunity presented itself to photograph Brown Pelicans at La Jolla Cove near San Diego, California.
One of the first things that struck me about these ungainly creatures was their humorous behavior when they take a break from skimming the waves looking for dinner to rest on the bluffs along the shore. They can often be found in the company of cormorants and their interactions are sometimes pretty funny.
This one went through a series of gular gymnastics as a Double Breasted Cormorant looked on. The cormorant seemed unimpressed as the pelican turned himself nearly inside out.
Perhaps the most recognizable of the pelicans’ behavior is the stretching of their gular pouches in what has come to be termed the head toss. It’s not really a toss, but more of a steady extension of the neck until the bill is pointing straight up and the pouch is stretched. This is necessary to keep the pouch flexible and healthy. The trick in photographing this activity is catching a bird that is separate from all the others and in full view.
When you witness a head toss without knowing the reason behind it, you could be excused for believing these birds are a bit off kilter. Perhaps they’re howling at some unseen moon, or performing a weird pelican variation of the sun salutation.
Sleeping is a function that these birds perform with amusing inventiveness. The one-eye-open posture is one of my favorites. It’s as if they can’t quite trust that it’s safe for them to drift off. These two may have made a deal that they take turns napping and guarding each other.
And here is perhaps the most unique balancing act I witnessed over three days of watching these unpredictable creatures. He remained in this exact position for over an hour before standing to stretch his pouch.
One thing I have learned from all the time I have spent photographing birds is they are often synchronous in their movements and behavior, and pelicans are no different. These two were grooming on the bluff at La Jolla Cove. Even their feathers are in sync.
Four pelicans walk into a bar, one could care less, one thinks it’s all quite amusing, one is a bit embarrassed, and one is spoiling for a fight. Their antics endeared these birds to me. Watching them go about their daily routines had me smiling to myself almost constantly. I came away with a formative, but indelible image of these graceful, awkward, serious, comedic, eccentric birds.
There are places in this world that defy expectations of how a landscape should look; places that are twisted and broken; places that are filled with other-worldly forms and shapes; and places that shift the spectrum of what we might think are normal hues for a landscape on planet earth.
Utah is certainly one of those places and in a small, overlooked area in the center of the state, where a layer of Mancos shale has been exposed by the elements, there lies an expanse of bluish colored earth, which depending on the light, might be a subtle grayish blue, or a more deeply saturated aqua-blue.
In every instance, the landscape is surprising; the texture can range from rough and deeply creased to smooth and almost sensual. In some places, it resembles a network of arteries (which, I suppose, in a way, it is).
In other places, it is a series of waves advancing on some forgotten beach. But everywhere there is at least a hint of blue. When you are used to red, sepia, or even more common grays and browns, the change can be quite startling. One location, in particular, was a prize we had to spend a little time searching for. Factory Bench overlooks what has come to be known as the Moonscape Overlook. It is a place that changes your perception of how the world should (or might) look.
If the light is right, the whole experience becomes exaggerated by the deep shadows playing over the complex terrain. Every twist and turn, every sinuous channel becomes more deeply etched into the unearthly earth.
Spending a night on the plateau above these badlands was an adventure in itself. A storm, which had been building throughout the day, moved in around sunset. Wind whipped the tent through the night and several times I was sure our shelter would be ripped away from us. But our little Coleman prevailed and by morning, things had calmed down enough that we could have a peaceful breakfast.
This last image was made looking east across the broken, variegated wilderness. Not far from here is the Mars Research Station where teams of scientists and engineers have been spending long periods of time in a simulated habitat to prepare for a possible trip to the red planet. The remote and other-worldly landscape allows them to make their preparations without light pollution or other outside influence.
On this same trip, we spent time in Capitol Reef and Goblin Valley. Probably it was the crowds and touristy nature of those parks that turned me off (I am a hopeless misanthrope), but neither of them had an impact on me as strong as did the blue badlands of Caineville Mesa and Factory Bench.
Sometimes a cherished memory starts with a rumor. I had heard of several ruins lying not quite forgotten in the serpentine canyons of Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah. It was while researching one of them that I discovered another, less well known, but no less visually compelling.
Fallen Roof Ruin,which is actually a group of granaries, is located in Road Canyon which meanders in a, more or less, easterly direction from it’s head, in the heart of Cedar Mesa, to it’s final destination in Comb Wash. The single element that sets it apart from the numerous other ruins in Road Canyon is the staining in the roof of the alcove in which the ruin is located. A large section of the ceiling has fallen, leaving exposed white stains–most likely from minerals in the groundwater which leeched from the mesa top–that are painted across the newly exposed strata.
The hike to the ruin is just under two miles. The trail crosses the mesa top for about a half-mile before dropping over the edge into the upper reaches of Road Canyon. The descent is about one-hundred-fifty feet, and then the trail follows the canyon bottom pretty much staying in it’s watercourse. There is some rock-hopping involved along with some route-finding in the places where the trail leaves the drainage to make it’s way around some of the bigger boulders in the path.
I was not quite prepared for the impact of being in that place. There is something about the essence of these ruins that set them apart from other ruins I have visited. So, as is the case with all of my photography, I attempted to reveal at least a part of the soul of this extraordinary place through my compositions and processing. The large slabs of stone scattered across the floor of the alcove serve to tell some of the story; they are also useful as compositional elements in the images.
One of the most poignant pieces of this nearly thousand-year-old tableau is the presence of several hand pictographs above the entry to one of the small granaries. These were probably made by placing a hand on the stone and then blowing a powdered dye through a reed. Hand pictographs are common in the ruins of the desert southwest, and are thought to be a way of saying: “I was here”.
As the title suggests, this is the second installment of my favorite images from 2015, and, as I mentioned in my previous post, the year was a departure for me in many ways. It is important for me as an artist to feel that my work is progressing. Last year I was able to move my work in new directions while exploring some new territory geographically as well.
As August gave way to September, I was eager to explore the Taos Plateau which I had photographed briefly while driving across it in August. At that time of year, the plateau becomes a sea of yellow due to the chamisa and snakeweed blossoms. The wildflowers, like the mountain asters in this image, accent the scene with bursts of color.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄25 sec., f16, ISO 32
The ultimate goal of this trip was the Rio Grande Gorge which cuts across the plateau to a depth of over a thousand feet. Most people see it from the Gorge Bridge west of Taos on US highway 64. But, there are many places along its length where you can drive to within walking distance.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄30 sec, f16, ISO 50
I tell the students in my Beginning Digital Photography class that you don’t need to drive to exotic places to make good photographs. Of course, it helps if you live in a beautiful place. I made this image of a mule deer buck in velvet in my yard. The blooming chamisa provided the perfect backdrop.
Nikon D300 with Nikkor 80-400 lens: 1⁄200 sec, f8, ISO 1250
In mid-September, we went to Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument which is located just south of Santa Fe where the Rio Grande finally exits the gorge after enduring the indignity of being impounded in Cochiti Lake. The hike to the top where the best views of the tent rocks are to be had passes through a narrow slot canyon which affords a cool respite from the late summer heat.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄320 sec., f13, ISO 800
My favorite images from that trip were these two of Robin in the slot. The second one became the title image for my show at the Jemez Fine Art Gallery: “The Path Less Travelled”.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄160 sec., f10, ISO 1250
In September, we also made a trip to White Sands. As detailed in a previous post, the main reason for the trip was to photograph the White Sands Balloon Invitational, but Mother Nature had other plans. The lightshow at sundown was spectacular as this image attests.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 6 sec., f16, ISO 32
I love to break the rules. Dividing the frame in half is supposedly bad form, but with this image, I intentionally centered the top of the dune horizontally I think it works pretty well.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄8 sec., f16, ISO 32
The combination of the color and the peaceful quality of the dunes created a dreamlike atmosphere which I think I managed to capture pretty well with these last two images from White Sands.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1.6 sec., f16, ISO 32
Both were captured near twilight; the intensity of the reds in the sky increased as the evening progressed. By reducing the clarity in Lightroom, I was able to enhance the dreamlike quality of both photographs.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 2.5 sec., f16, ISO 32
On the return trip from White Sands, we made a small detour to Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. There are over 21,000 petroglyphs on the rocks which cover the top of a ridge a little over a half mile long. Again, the weather cooperated and the light was perfect. This image of a hand petroglyph is my favorite from that shoot.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄15 sec., f16, ISO 32
In October, we made a journey to to southeastern Utah. The first night we camped at Goosenecks State Park and explored the surrounding area. In the Valley of the Gods, I saw this lone juniper tree perched on a rocky slope below a sandstone fin.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄15 sec., f16, ISO 32
On the second day, we drove up the Moki Dugway and then out to Muley Point. This was the surprise of the trip and we spent several hours climbing around the sandstone mounds that lie along the edge of the precipice overlooking the Goosenecks of the San Juan. In this image a small juniper clings precariously to its niche overlooking the serpentine canyons and the monoliths of Monument Valley on the horizon.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄8 sec., f16, ISO 32
Our ultimate destination was Monument Valley. It had been nearly forty years since I was last there, and while there were some changes: notably, the View Hotel, the prospect out over the valley and the sandstone buttes was unspoiled. We camped within view of the Mittens. I made this image of our campsite on our first evening there.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 133 sec., f16, ISO 32
John Ford Point was made famous by the director of the same name in his 1939 movie “Stagecoach”. I did make my own version of the iconic image: a native on horseback gazing into the distance from the point. But, my pick is this image of a rider moving away from the point while clouds hang low over the valley, partially obscuring the mittens.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄640 sec., f16, ISO 1600
As we were driving down into the valley on our first day there, I noticed this raven perched in a juniper right by the roadside. I moved slowly at first , not wanting to spook him before I could get the shot, but the more we photographed, the more I realized that he wasn’t going anywhere. As we packed back into the car, he began squawking. I think he was expecting a tip.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄10 sec., f16, ISO 32
This image is a replication of a photograph that Ansel Adams made in 1958. I don’t make a habit of shooting from other photographer’s tripod holes, in fact I will go out of my way to avoid doing so. But, hey, he’s Ansel Adams.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄20 sec., f16, ISO 32
When we pulled into the North Window parking area, I saw this dead juniper along the roadside and was immediately drawn to it. There is something about the bare bones of a twisted juniper tree in this landscape that just fits together.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄20 sec., f16, ISO 32
In November I travelled to Las Cruces to photograph a group of women for a Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math calendar. On the way I took a detour through Lake Valley and came across this stand of cottonwoods still in their autumn colors. I was attracted by the contrast between them and the drab landscape, and the low-hanging wintry sky.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄4 sec., f16, ISO 32
2015 was an exceptional year for me in terms of photography. Not just for the images, but for the experiences as well. I made an effort to be more adventurous, and spontaneous in my choice of subject matter. I also vowed to be more responsive to the images themselves when it came to post processing. In all, there are thirty-seven photographs, so I will present this post in two parts. I hope you enjoy viewing them as much as I enjoyed making them.
In late January we had a heavy snowfall which made it impossible for me to drive out of my driveway. So, I walked down to Soda Dam to photograph it in its winter splendor. This image seemed to be a black and white candidate from the start.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 f2.8: 1.3 sec., f20, ISO 50
March took me to southern Arizona to photograph desert wildflowers. I didn’t find the showing I had hoped for, so I contented myself by pursuing Teddy Bear Chollas. When photographed in the right light, they have a luminous quality about them. I made this image at sunset in the Lost Dutchman State Park, east of Pheonix. The fabled Superstition Mountains lie on the horizon.
Nikon D800 with 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1.3 sec, f16, ISO 50
I’ve been to Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash many times over the years, but I seldom explore along the southern edge. In April I decided to change that; I made this image looking northwest from the top of the southern rim. This is the section I call the Yellow Badlands. It’s like taking a look back through time.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 f2.8: 1⁄8 sec, f18, ISO 50
In May while exploring a part of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash I had never been to before, I came across this incredible hoodoo hidden in a small ravine along the northern edge of the main wash. I stayed and worked the area for nearly two hours. This is the first of many compositions using what I call the Neural Hoodoo as the main subject.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄30 sec, f16, ISO 50
This black and white image was made from the opposite side of the Neural Hoodoo. If forced to choose a favorite, this would be it.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄25 sec, f16, ISO 50
This final image of the Neural Hoodoo was made from the same general location as the first, but I zoomed in to capture a more intimate portrait.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄15 sec, f16, ISO 50
At the same time I was exploring the far reaches of Ah Shi SlePah, I was discovering some of the amazing and convoluted drainages along the southern rim of the wash. I made this image on a stormy evening in late May. I could not have asked for more appropriate light for this scene.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄60 sec, f18, ISO 50
In early June I went out to the Bisti Wilderness. At the far reaches of the southern drainage, I made this image of a multi-colored grouping of hoodoos. I had photographed this same group several times in the past, but I think this is my favorite. The clouds seem to reflect the lines of the caprocks.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄40 sec, f16, ISO 50
One morning in late June I noticed the chollas around my house were blooming. I set out the next morning for the Rio Puerto Valley to capture the splashes of color in that dramatic landscape. I made the first image (above) in the ghost town of Guadalupe. The return of life to the desert seemed coincidental to the ongoing decay of the adobe buildings.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄6 sec, f16, ISO 50
In this image, a blossoming cholla stands at the head of a deep wash as a rain cloud passes over Cerro Cuate in the distance. Even the slightest precipitation sustains life in this environment.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄10 sec, f16, ISO 50
Early on the morning of July 4th, before the road was closed for the parade, I slipped out of town and drove out into the San Juan Basin. I didn’t really have a plan other than to visit the Burnham Badlands, which lies to the west of the Bisti Wilderness, and covers a relatively small area as badlands go (about one mile by two miles). This graceful hoodoo sits smack in the center of it.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄20 sec, f16, ISO 50
After completing my exploration of the Burnham Badlands, I drove west through the heart of the Navajo Reservation and arrived at Shiprock in the early evening. I drove one of the dirt roads that runs along the lava dike until I found a spot I liked. I set up my camera and tripod then waited for the light. Over the next two and a half hours, I made almost a hundred exposures as the light changed and the sun crept toward the horizon. This is my pick.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄6 sec, f16, ISO 50
Hidden in plain sight, just a few miles north of Ah Shi Sle Pah is the Fossil Forest. At the end of a low ridge which runs east to west, you can just make out the telltale signs from the county road: the striated color, and the deep cut drainages where geologic treasures lie exposed. I went there with an agenda: to find a fossilized tree stump. I’ve related the whole story in an earlier post, so I’ll just say here that we were able to locate the stump after some scrambling and sleuthing.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄25 sec, f16, ISO 100
In July, I made a trip to visit my daughter Lauren in Madison, Wisconsin. She accompanied me on the return trip. Early on the second morning, somewhere in central Kansas, she mentioned the large birds roosting on the fence. I had driven past and hadn’t noticed them, so I backtracked until we found them. The birds turned out to be a committee of turkey vultures sunning themselves and drying their wings. I was able to get pretty close to them without distressing them, and I managed to capture quite a few exposures. This is my favorite.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄640 sec, f9, ISO 500
In August we set out on the high road to Taos. The way passes through many small villages: Chimayo, Truchas, Las Trampas, and Picuris Pueblo to name but a few. At Picuris, we visited the plaza, and there, I noticed the shapes and texture of the adobe walls of a small church. This is the result of my efforts there.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄400 sec, f14, ISO 1600
Farther up the road, we took a fork to visit the village of Tres Ritos. There, in a meadow by the side of the road, was a spray of mountain asters with a small wetland full of cattails just beyond it. The dark foreboding sky intensified the saturation of the colors and was the perfect backdrop for the scene.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄640 sec, f16, ISO 1600
In late August on a trip to Denver, I drove up highway 285 instead of using the interstate. Late in the day, the clouds were hanging in tatters from the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos to the east. The grasses were just beginning to turn and the colors filled the spectrum. When I came across the trees, it all came together.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄5 sec, f11, ISO 50
On my return from Denver, I was driving across the Taos Plateau and the nearly full moon was climbing through the clouds above the Sangres. The Chamisa was in bloom and all I needed to do was find the right combination.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄500 sec, f13, ISO 800
Still on the Taos Plateau. The texture and colors in the grasses and sage, along with the rays of sunlight piercing the dark clouds caused me to pull over again (at this rate, I would never get home). The lonesome Ponderosa Pine anchors this image, but the thing that really ties it all together is the thin strip of light colored ground below the mountains.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄500 sec, f11, ISO 800
From the north, you can see it coming from a long way off. The spires and monoliths peek above the horizon to give you a preview of the awe inspiring landscape you are about to encounter. Monument Valley: the quintessential western landscape.
From the campground located near the entrance to the valley, the well known Mittens and Merrick Butte are front and center. As we made camp, my attention was continuously drawn to the expansive landscape; I felt like I had fallen into an old TV western.
One hundred and ninety million years ago this area was covered by sand dunes much the same as the Great Sand Dunes in south-eastern Colorado. Over the intervening time, the dunes were compressed, hardened, and finally eroded until they formed the sandstone buttes, mesas, and pinnacles we see today.
The landscape here is unique. Perhaps not geologically, but visually it is different from any where else on earth. And, it is recognizable due to its connection to the movie industry. So, making images of the valley that are fresh can be a challenge.
The atmospheric conditions that prevailed throughout our trip ensured some dramatic, and at times forboding, skies. The low hanging clouds shrouded the monoliths and helped lend a bit of mystery to an already awe inspiring landscape.
One of the best ways to assure that your images are different is to move away from the proscribed “scenic views”. For this image I made of the North Window, I walked away from the area where all the photographers were and found this weather beaten, dead juniper by the side of the road.
But sometimes, you just need to go with the flow and make a photograph that’s been made a thousand times before. This is one of several photographs I made at John Ford’s Point. The first one showing a horse and rider moving away from the point under low clouds is more spontaneous.
It seems that everywhere you look there is a photograph to be made. The expansive views, the weathered junipers, and the unique rock formations are an image maker’s dream come true. It is no wonder this place has become a mecca for film makers and photographers.
Ansel Adams was one of my very early inspirations to become a photographer. In 1957 he made an image in Monument Valley and I could not resist the chance to pay homage to the man by making my own version. Standing there and seeing this same view that he recorded all those years ago was a moving experience for me.
There are times when everything just seems to come together; serendipity is a beautiful thing. When I noticed the raven perched in the juniper with the West Mitten as a backdrop, I rushed to get into position to capture the moment. Luckily, the bird seemed to be in no hurry to leave his perch and I was able to work the scene until I found the right composition.
This trip is now a fond memory, but I know I will be returning soon to this magical place where time (and the birds) stand still.
In my previous post: Roaming The San Juan Basin, I described a two-day journey through a place with landscapes as varied as they are timeless. At one point during that journey, I passed a nondescript cattle guard on San Juan County Road 7650. To the north, a little more than a mile from the road is a ridge that has been eroded over time, and which now displays all the telltale signs of a badlands: deeply eroded gullies with unevenly spaced bands of color, large areas of red deposits, and the unmistakeable outlines of hoodoos against the smoother walls of hardened ash and clay. I filed it away for future reference.
Actually I had been aware of this small badlands for several years, but had never explored it. I decided to make the effort in the near future. So, a few weeks later, Robin and I loaded up the car and headed out to the Fossil Forest. At the top of my list was finding a certain petrified tree stump that overlooked a drainage to the south. I had found a photo of the stump online and had a copy of the image on my phone; as it turned out, it was an invaluable aid in ultimately finding the location of the fossil.
From the parking area on the road we walked about a mile to the north until we reached the small drainages and scattered hoodoos that marked the boundaries of the badlands. We then explored some of the drainages to see if there was an obvious, or easy way to the top. No such luck. Eventually, we came across a relatively wide ravine near the eastern edge of the ridge. I recognized a petrified log I had seen on the BLM website; it was partially buried and lying near the mouth of the the wash. This seemed like a good place to begin the climb to the ridge top.
Actually, it was more of a scramble than a climb. There is about a one hundred foot elevation gain from the mouth of the drainage to the crown of the ridge, but it was steep. Once on top, we surveyed the area from our new perspective. To the east lay a jumble of clay hills with bands of black (lignite) and daubs of red (clinkers). To the north and south were more banded hills that fell away into the steep sided ravines which emptied onto the desert floor.
Now that we were on top, we began looking for the features that were visible in the photo I had on my phone. We came across several petrified logs most of which were eroded and broken into small pieces. At each of the promontories that intersperse the ravines, I walked to the point to compare the features. It was after several failed attempts that I looked across the next channel and spotted the stump.
There is a feeling of accomplishment that comes after searching for and finding something that is situated in a remote location, especially if that something is a millions year old relic of a former time. As I made these images, I tried to imagine the way the world was when this remnant of a lost age was intact and alive. It is not unlike the emotion I experience when I stand among ruins that were constructed by unknown hands thousands of years ago.
We spent a half hour or more working the scene from different perspectives before deciding to begin the hike back to the road, the car, the present world. After negotiating the way down from the crest of the ridge, we followed one of the many washes that empty into a series of small arroyos that drain this part of the San Juan Basin. On the way, we passed a mound of mudstone and lignite that was just beginning to reveal its secrets: yet to be formed hoodoos, still uncovered petrified trees, possibly the petrified bones of an, as yet, undiscovered dinosaur. What will this landscape look like a hundred thousand years from now? Will there be anyone around to wonder at its past?
My previous post: Roaming The San Juan Basin-Part 1, was about the first day of a two-day road trip through the expanse of a great bowl shaped depression in the middle of the Colorado Plateau in northwest New Mexico. I spent Saturday night in Farmington and awoke early on Sunday. I had planned to head straight home from there, but as I prepared to leave, I thought better of it and decided to do some more exploring. As I drove up the road that leads from Farmington to the edge of the basin, I began to formulate a plan. I decided that I would avoid any of my normal haunts: the Bisti Wilderness, Ah Shi Sle Pah, etc. and that I would try to stay on dirt or gravel roads as much as possible. With this blog post in mind, I also decided to take a photojournalistic approach to making my images as opposed to my usual process.
I left the paved road about forty miles south of Farmington and immersed myself in the rolling, broken landscape. The San Juan Basin has numerous drainages of all sizes that carve the washes and valleys that form the irregular surface and expose the long buried geological features. I turned south on a road I knew would take me past Ah Shi Sle Pah…forbidden territory on this trip. I noticed three abandoned dwellings off to the west. The walls were of rock; the roofs, non-existent or barely there. They had a melancholy look to them; it was as though they were being swallowed by the great expanse that surrounded them.
A few miles further along the road, I saw a band of horses; one group of seven animals, and a mare and foal off by themselves. I stopped the car and walked to the side of the road to set up my tripod and the larger cluster immediately moved farther away from me. I made a few exposures and decided I would try to get closer, but the horses ran to the edge of the wash while the closest one–a stallion and probably the alpha–stood his ground and began to snort and pound the ground with his hoof. From this behavior, I surmised that this was a wild band; the tame horses I have encountered are typically friendly and will even approach to within an arm’s length.
I took the hint and returned to the car. I didn’t want to alarm the animals any more than I already had. I didn’t make it more than a half mile further when I spotted a smaller group of three white horses on the south side of the road. These were more friendly, but still more stand-offish than usual. They continued their grazing, but were wary of my presence.
Now I dropped down into Kimbeto Wash, a key drainage for this part of the San Juan Basin. I came to a tee in the road; to the left, Ah Shi Sle Pah, to the right, unknown territory. I turned right and crossed Kimbeto Wash. Less than a quarter mile further along was a road to the left and a sign: Chaco Canyon miles. The mileage was illegible. Onward.
I was excited to find a back way into Chaco; connecting the dots on a map has always been satisfying for me. The road crossed a grassy plain with a low mesa on the southern horizon. The only other visible feature was a lone hogan about a hundred yards off the road to the west. After about ten miles there was a sharp left turn and the track dipped down and crossed Chaco Wash before continuing up to the top of a high plateau.
By now, I was firmly into a spontaneous wandering frame of mind; I took a turn onto a two-track that seemed to lead to the plateau’s edge, but the road curved back and dead-ended at an abandoned homestead, complete with old cars and trash burn barrels. I’ve seen hundreds of these forlorn dwellings scattered across the remote desert areas I frequent. They always put me in a pensive mood.
Back on the main road, I soon came to an intersection that put me on the main road into Chaco Canyon. I decided to make a quick tour of the loop.
One of the most interesting elements of the ancient pueblo culture for me is the kiva. There are different kinds of kivas: many were used as places for social gathering, but most of them were ceremonial in nature. These adjacent kivas at Chetro Ketl–the second largest pueblo complex in Chaco Canyon–were used for religious ceremonies. Standing near these centuries-old subterranean enclosures made me feel connected to the ones who contrived and built these amazing communities.
Chaco Canyon is actually comprised of many pueblo complexes which were built over a span of four centuries and housed thousands of permanent residents and visitors from outlying sites. Of these complexes, Pueblo Bonito is the largest with more than eight hundred rooms. Like most of the pueblos in Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito is built close against the wall of the mesa.
A little further along the loop road from Pueblo Bonito is Pueblo del Arroyo. It is situated along the edge of Chaco Wash and had three hundred rooms; it is thought to have been built by residents of Pueblo Bonito who moved due to overcrowding in the larger site.
I had already spent more time at Chaco Canyon than I wanted to, so I made for the exit that brought me to Hwy 57 heading south. As I passed the boundary I stopped to make a photograph of Fajada Butte which rises 440 feet above the canyon floor and is home to the most famous of all the Chaco sites: The Sun Dagger site. Three slabs of rock are set up and arranged in such a way that shafts of sunlight shine through them and onto specific parts of a petroglyph carved on the rock wall of the butte on each of the solstices and eqinoxes. More proof that these early Americans were far more advanced than the “savages” they have been depicted to be.
So, with these thoughts bouncing around in my head, I left Chaco behind and continued my exploration of the San Juan Basin. New Mexico State Road 57 is not what you might expect from the designation. Soon after it starts at US 550 between Huerfano and Nageezi, it sheds its asphalt coat and becomes a dirt road in the truest sense of the word. A good rain will quickly turn it into a quagmire of greasy clay, the kind that will defeat even the most serious four-wheel drive vehicle.
So, although I truly enjoy a good thunderstorm, I couldn’t help but hope that the building thunderheads would hold their water at least until I made it to the pavement of Indian Rte. 9 twenty-five miles to the south. I was about half way between Chaco and the paved road when over a rise in the road came two beautiful horses. One of them, a mare, turned sideways in the road and seemed to be bowing to me. I was enchanted; I spent over half an hour with them and when I finally left them behind, it was with some reluctance.
The remainder of the drive on NM 57 was relatively uneventful. There were a few small clusters of hoodoos and several small herds of livestock and then, suddenly I was at the intersection with the paved road. I looked back the way I had come, again with some reluctance, and then turned onto Indian Rte. 9. Almost immediately I came across three horses drinking from a water barrel. The scene seemed to say a good deal about the nature of this remote area, so I made a photograph of it.
After its intersection with NM 57, Indian Rte. 9 climbs onto a low mesa and emerges at Pueblo Pintado, an outlier of the pueblos at Chaco Canyon. This area is still inhabited by the descendants of the anasazi people, but now they live in houses scattered across the mesa in the shadow of the ruin that was their ancestral home. Another thirty miles brought me to Torreon. It is here that IR 9 becomes New Mexico 197 and turns northeast towards Cuba, NM. I turned onto an un-numbered, but paved road that runs from Torreon to the small village of San Luis in the Rio Puerco Valley. I passed a rock ruin that I had photographed before, but I stopped to make several exposures before continuing on towards San Luis.
As I drew near San Luis and the Rio Puerco Valley, a heavy thunderstorm passed ahead of me, nearly obscuring the volcanic monolith of Cabezon Peak. It seemed a fitting end to my adventure. Even as I neared home my mind began wandering and wondering about another dirt road I had noticed meandering into the vastness of the San Juan Basin…
I have photographed and written about Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash extensively. The place is a unique environment and the relatively small area of interest is still revealing new secrets to me. But, as I stood on the edge of the wash recently, I looked to the horizons and wondered what else might be hiding in that seemingly featureless landscape. The thought stayed with me, so one morning I opened Google maps and began searching for telltale signs of eroded areas along the edges of the wash. As I moved west, I eventually came across a region that looked promising. I then began looking for means of access and found a road that ended right at the edge of the area on the map. A quick look at Garmin Base Camp identified GPS coordinates and I was on the road.
Exploring at home on a computer is quite a bit different from driving out into a remote place where you have never been. The dirt two track off the main dirt road seemed endless–even though it was actually only a little over two miles from start to finish. At one point I drove into a section where the road became extremely sandy, and I had to backtrack or risk getting stuck. I eventually found my way to the end of the road and parked. on one side was the broad expanse of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash, on the other was a wall of incipient hoodoos emerging from a black hillside. It looked like my hunch had paid off.
The more I saw, the more excited I became. Unlike the well-known part of Ah Shi Sle Pah where the features are exposed in an unbroken display several miles long, this small extension seemed to be more recently unearthed in smaller, more intimate areas scattered along both edges of the wash.
I could see more places to the west that looked promising, but by that time, it was getting too late in the day. I wandered and photographed in the immediate area for a couple of hours before deciding to call it a day.
A couple days later, I was on my way to Ah Shi Sle Pah again to further investigate the terrain I hadn’t had a chance to cover on my previous foray. I had identified a place to park that would put me within a mile of the region I wanted to explore. The route took me over a sage covered plain and then dropped into a small tributary wash where I found some hoodoos and petrified wood.
I made a beeline for my ultimate goal, which required several short climbs out of the wash, onto the sage, and back into the wash. I finally arrived at the main wash and began climbing around in the rocks on the northern edge. It was slow going because I had to choose my route carefully due to sudden drop-offs, sink holes, and the possibility of buzz worms (rattlesnakes).
At one point, I looked back to the main wash and across the way I had come and made a photo. But I was drawn by some force to continue to see what lay beyond the next ridge, the next cluster of hoodoos. I came to a crest and dropped into the next tributary. Things were really starting to get (more) interesting. There was an image everywhere I looked.
The landscape was tortured and shattered. Forces of erosion and weather had sculpted an unimaginable (even for that area) jumble of hoodoos, spires, and tables. One small hoodoo bore an uncanny resemblance to a brain on an over-developed spinal cord.
So, there I was thinking it couldn’t possibly get any better, when I caught sight of what is possibly the most bizarre, unearthly formation I had ever seen. It was a hoodoo, but the support column was perforated in places, and the part that remained around the perforations was shaped like some sort of geological accordion. But, my brain stamped it as an exposed part of some mesozoic nervous system.
I spent close to two hours working the thing from all possible perspectives. I was lucky to have an incomparable atmospheric display with light that was constantly changing.
The fluctuating illumination on the scene resulted in mood swings worthy of the subject. In the end, I walked away with close to two hundred images and plans to return at some time in the near future. The fragility of the structure is such that I imagine it could crumble and fall at any time.
But, I have witnessed other such oddities in the vastness of the San Juan Basin that have defied the vagaries of time and weather against all odds for decades, centuries, millennia, so perhaps this wonderful piece of nature’s art will endure for a while.
I spend a lot of time in the desert, more specifically, in the badlands of the San Juan Basin. And, of the nine recognized badlands located there, I usually find myself wandering in either the Bisti Wilderness, or Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. But, I want to step out of the box here and give a nod to the rest: the Ojito Wilderness, Mesa de Cuba, San Jose, Lybrook, Mesa Penistaja, Ceja Pelon, and De Na Zin.
What exactly is a badland? Merriam-Webster defines it as: a region marked by intricate erosional sculpturing, scanty vegetation, and fantastically formed hills–usually used in plural. The pre-requisites for a badlands to form are a grouping of harder sedimentary deposits: sandstone, siltstone etc. suspended in a softer matrix. As the softer material is eroded away, the harder, more dense material is left exposed, often perched on pedestals of the soft matrix.
But, at times the harder deposits may just be scattered haphazardly across a playa or alluvial plain or they may be isolated and in unexpected angles of repose. The seemingly inexplicable arrangement of the features is part of the mystique of the badlands. How did they get here and why? The answer to that question could fill a Geology text, and I am not even remotely qualified to go there. I can say, with some authority however, that the photographic possibilities are as close to infinite that you can get.
As you can imagine, the creation of such an environment takes time…a lot of time. Mesa de Cuba, the youngest is 38-54 million years old. San Jose is 48-64 million years old, Lybrook, Ceja Pelon, and Penistaja are all 60-64 million years old, De Na Zin, along with Bisti and Ah Shi Sle Pah, is 70-75 million years old, and Ojito is the oldest at 144-150 million years old. Each of the aforementioned locations have their own personality, and each of them offer there own version of timeless beauty.
Color is an element that often takes center stage in the badlands. Depending on the mineral content of the soil, there may be layers of red, yellow, blue, or even green. Combine this palette with the other strange and, often, unexpected elements of the landscape and the other-worldly, remote locations become even more surreal.
Possibly the most noticeable feature of such environments are the many erosion channels and drying cracks that cut into the soft bentonite, and mudstone that form the matrices that support the entire system. When the light is right, they stand out in stark relief revealing an almost unimaginable complexity.
As I already pointed out, most of these locations are much smaller than their more famous big brothers: Bisti, and Ah Shi Sle Pah. But, what they lack in size, they make up for in their diversity and surreal beauty. When you add to that the knowledge that these environments have been so many eons in the making (that petrified log emerging from the side of that bentonite mound was a cypress tree in a Mesozoic swamp), and are ever evolving (those sandstone slabs you just walked over will be the caprocks of hoodoos in some distant, future landscape), exploring and photographing them becomes even more significant and mysterious.
Just as you can never step into the same river twice; because of their fragile, and ever-changing nature, you can never visit the same badlands twice.