On a recent Photo Tour in the Bisti Wilderness, I decided to change my approach. I did this by bringing my D300 (DX Format) instead of my D700 (Full Frame Format). I also left my tripod at home–something I never do. But I was trying to step outside of my box, get out of my comfort zone, and try to re-charge my creativity.
One of the things I had no control over was the atmospheric conditions. Most of you who know my work are used to seeing dramatic, brooding skies in my images, but sometimes mother nature doesn’t co-operate, so I compensated by limiting the amount of sky I included in my images, concentrating instead on the fore and middle-ground. I made the first image in the area known as the Brown Hoodoos. I wanted to emphasize the variety of colors that are prevalent in the landscape, the reds, blacks, greens, and browns that help make the Bisti a visual feast.
This hill stands alone near the edge of Alamo Wash. It has become a landmark for navigation. Yes, even with a GPS, I still navigate by sight at times.
These two images are from the Bisti Arch. The first is a repeat of an image I made last year using my full frame camera and 17-35 mm lens. The second is from a bit further away and looking past the arch towards the southeast.
The Egg Garden is probably the most well known section in the entire Bisti Wilderness. So named because of the eroded rocks which resemble large eggs, the Egg Garden covers an area about the size of a football field.
The last image was made in a side wash about a half mile beyond the Egg Garden. There are several good size petrified trees and a large number of hoodoos. This is usually the last stop on my tours before turning around and heading back to the parking area.
There was a time not so long ago when I would have gone to extraordinary lengths to exclude anything man-made from my images. But I slowly came to realize that I was being narrow-minded and losing some great photo opportunities. After removing the blinders from my artistic vision I suddenly became aware of new possibilities with subjects I would have previously rejected without a second thought.
I first came upon this car about five miles from where it now sits in the Rio Puerco Valley. I had made a second trip to its original location only to find it had been removed. I thought it odd that someone had gone to the trouble of dragging it out of the small side canyon accessible only by a two track dirt road, but then I thought that perhaps the BLM was making an attempt to tidy up the valley. It is, after all, a wilderness study area. Imagine my surprise to find the old, rusted, topless vehicle parked (for lack of a better word) in the “yard” of a tumble down adobe/rock house not far from Cabezon Peak.
I made this second image while driving through the panhandle of Texas. This whimsical installation lies along Interstate 40 east of Amarillo; I had my youngest daughter in mind when I was making the exposures. She loves VWs.
The image of the bus and the car were made along Torreon Wash near the Empedrado Wilderness Study Area near Cabezon Peak in the Rio Puerco Valley. The bus sits on rusted wheels and is full of old insulation and rat droppings suggesting that it is (was) being used as a storage shed for some nearby construction.
The car sits near an adobe/rock ruin. It is sunk to the rims in the clay soil and so its fate appears to be sealed.
This 1950s era Ford is parked in front of one of the rooms at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona. There are several other old vehicles parked in front of other rooms. I can’t be positive, but I highly suspect that the creators of the Disney animated movie “Cars” may have used the Wigwam as a model for the motel in the movie.
The last image was the result of accidentally being in the right place at the right time. I was driving from Albuquerque to Los Alamos by way of Santa Fe. I pulled off I-25 at the exit where the AT&SF rails cross beneath the interstate. My plan was to get down on the tracks to make an image for my Road Series (as in rail ROAD). As I was walking across the bridge above the tracks on the frontage road, I heard the whistle and soon after that I saw the Amtrak Southwest Chief come through the cut and approaching the bend in the distance.
Somewhere out in the middle of New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, there is a piece of sandstone that sits atop a column of mudstone. Recently, it has become a kind of holy grail for landscape photographers. It has been given a name: “The King Of Wings”. I have known about this formation for a few years and have thought it would be nice to find it and photograph it, but other things kept popping up and the wing remained on the back burner.
In the spring of last year (2012) a fellow from California contacted me about booking a Photo Tour. He wanted to go to “The King Of Wings”. I told him that I didn’t know where it was, but he didn’t want to take no for an answer. So began a long distance collaboration to discover the location of this particular formation.
Over the course of the next couple of months, we corresponded by e-mail and I told him that I thought I had an idea where our prize might be. I went out to the place I suspected and made an exhaustive search, but came home tired and empty-handed. Then one day he e-mailed me with the news that he had found it on Google Earth. We made tentative plans to meet when he came to New Mexico to photograph the wing, but I was unable to join him on that trip.
Over the next six months, the wing was once again relegated to the back burner as other things took priority, but every once in a while a small voice would interrupt my train of thought telling me to go and find that damn wing.
Finally, I put a day on the calendar and made plans to make the trip (and silence the voice). Robin and I set out early on a Sunday morning and made the three and a half hour drive to the area that serves as a starting point for the walk to the wing. When we arrived, there was about six inches of snow on the ground and looking out across the white, featureless landscape, I began to have second thoughts. I consulted my GPS: 1.7 miles (as the crow flies) to the wing; we decided to go for it and set out across the rolling, snow covered plain.
Actually, the hike was more than three miles (since we are not crows and are unable to fly), not very far really, but trudging through the snow, up and down hilly terrain with camera gear and tripod is a bit different than a walk in the park. After finally coming to the wash where the landscape suddenly changed from bunch grass prairie to badlands we knew we were getting close. We skirted a rock outcrop and I consulted my GPS. I looked in the direction the little magic box indicated, and there it was, still a half mile away, but in our sights. What makes this wing special is the cantilever (12 feet) of the stone beyond the supporting column. It’s whereabouts is a closely guarded secret by those who have found it, so I will respect that and keep the secret, but I have to wonder what all the fuss is about.
The day I chose to make this long anticipated trip was clear with nothing to interrupt the agonizingly blue doldrum sky but the waxing gibbous moon. I told myself that this was an exploratory venture, that I would return on another day when the skies were more photogenic. Perhaps, perhaps not.
The last image is the obligatory wing portrait with Robin and me seated beneath the cantilever to give a sense of scale to the thing. There are other formations and hoodoos in the area, but they are really nothing special, so we packed up and hiked back to the car. Now I’m sitting here writing this and asking myself if I’m being fair. I am glad that I finally made it to the Big Wing (King of Wings seems a bit of an over-statement to me). But, in my estimation, it’s a one trick pony.
Of all the times I’ve been to the Bisti Wilderness, this is only the third time I’ve been there with snow on the ground. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have been there this time if I didn’t have a Photo Tour to lead. We met at the Bisti turn-off on NM 371 at 8 AM. After giving my safety briefing, we set out across the snow covered terrain.
The first stop was the Brown Hoodoos. I almost eliminated this part of the tour due to the slippery footing combined with the climb required to reach them, but once we got there, I was happy that I made the effort. The scenery more than made up for the risk and my clients were delighted.
After spending a half hour or so I decided we needed to move on. The forecast called for warmer temperatures in the afternoon and I knew that would mean the snow would melt turning the mostly-clay ground into a muddy quagmire.
We made the hike out to the Egg Garden in good time and here we spent another forty-five minutes or so. I began to realize that there were parts of the landscape that were more defined because of the snow and the contrast it provided, and other parts that seemed less photogenic because of it. The Garden was in the latter category, but my tour participants were having a great time nonetheless.
From the Egg Garden, we moved on to the Petrified Trees and here we lingered the longest. It was while we were here that the mud began to raise its ugly head.
The next stop was the Eagle’s Nest and by now we were walking in the runoff channels which was easier than walking in the ooze. This is an image of the approach to the Nest–it’s the prominent feature in the distance. You can see the muddy water flowing in the wash on the left.
We circled the Eagle’s Nest and then made our way back over to Alamo Wash which by now was running deeper than I have ever seen it run. This meant we had to start walking in the mud, but we were also at the final stop on the tour. Now all we had to do was trek close to four miles back to the parking area. I made this image in a small area of hoodoos just north of the Eagle’s Nest and began to pack up my gear in preparation for the return hike.
It was then that Tomas noticed the cranes. A flock of Sandhill cranes–probably migrating to Bosque del Apache–were battling the winds to make it to their wintering grounds, still more than two hundred miles to the southwest. They were too far away to make a good image, but you can see them (the small dots to the right of the rock formation) in this one that I made of my intrepid clients watching them fly by.
The walk out was more strenuous and it did take longer than usual due to the muddy conditions, but we laughed at our plodding and sliding most of the way out. At one point, we were all stuck on a slight incline and none of us could make any headway; the greasy caliche mud was so slick that we had to backtrack and find another route. It was a good day though. My clients came away with some good images, and I with some nice images and some good stories to tell.
I made my annual “pilgrimage” to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge last weekend. I came home with well over fifteen hundred images to work through. I’m not finished, but I do have some “keepers” from the first batch of processing.
The first image was captured early on Saturday morning at the North Chupadera Pond along Highway 1. I was looking for a full wing shot, but was having trouble catching one.
I have a pattern that I follow while at The Bosque in order to optimize my interaction with the birds. After the cranes have all flown off from the ponds where they spend the night, I drive the entire loop looking for whatever might be there. I can usually find a Great Blue Heron along the edge of one of the channels that run through the refuge, and this year was no exception. This one seemed to be dozing off and on while waiting for his breakfast to appear.
There was certainly no shortage of take-off images. The cranes signal their intention to get airborne by leaning forward and stretching their necks as if they are testing the wind (perhaps they are). If you are a photographer waiting for some action, this should be a heads up that things are about to get interesting.
I captured both of these images as the cranes were running to reach the speed they need to take off. The movement in these images is horizontal and normally calls for a landscape orientation, but when I took the second photo, I was looking for something specific which would be better served by a portrait orientation.
My patience was rewarded when this lone crane spread his wings. The reflection was a bonus.
There are places and scenes that I have photographed so extensively that I often think I shouldn’t bother to make yet another exposure. After all, if you’ve photographed something once, there’s no need to waste time doing it again. Right?
Some of these places have a kind of power over me. It seems I can’t go near without setting up my gear and making an image. That’s as it should be; it’s wrong to think that there is only one image waiting for you in any given location or subject. There is no end to the ways something can be photographed if you dig deep into your bag of creative tricks. The Bisti Arch in the Bisti Wilderness is one of the places that always draws me to it.
I have been to the arch many times. Every time I lead a Photo Tour to the Bisti, I take my clients there, and every time I go on one of my own outings, I find myself there. I could try to take a “been there, done that” attitude, but then that little voice starts haranguing me and I’m soon happily engaged in the process of composing and making photographs.
The result is a rather large collection of images of this formation (and others that I am drawn to in the same way). But, I try to give each version its own voice; whether I change the point of view or the focal length of the lens, or process the image differently, each of the resulting photographs portrays the subject in a unique way.
Sometimes, as in the above image, I give the feature a bit part, making it part of the background with other elements leading the eye to it. And sometimes I change the point of view dramatically
so the viewer may not even realize that it is the same place. The point I’m trying to make here is that making images of places or subjects that you have photographed numerous times need not be a repetitive chore. If you study the place and its environment, there are many ways you can come up with a fresh perspective and a new way of presenting your subject.
Sometimes the best thing about Autumn is the anticipation of the first snowfall, which often happens in early October. Well, no snow yet this year, but we have had some intense skies, and along with the falling temperatures, it sure looks and feels like we could have an early winter.
Fast forward a couple days and the temperature is back up in the 70s, normal for this time of year. I took a drive through Lake Fork Canyon to capture the aspens in their autumn coats. I made the second image at the entrance to Fogon Canyon which is a side canyon from Lake Fork. There is an old abandoned corral built up against the rock walls. I think the weathered wood compliments the color in the trees nicely.
As the sun sank lower in the sky, I reached the head of the canyon. There, on a small side road that winds through the aspen groves, I made this image of the setting sun shining through the red/yellow leaves creating a soft golden glow.
Autumn in the high country is a fleeting thing. Peak color only last for a day or two, but that’s one of the things that make it special.
When I go on a photo expedition or lead a tour, I take two cameras and all the lenses I could possibly need, all packed into my Lowepro AW 300 Trekker backpack with my tripod strapped to the outside. It’s a load and can sometimes become a bit much after trekking through the desert all day. But, I do it because I know I’ll have whatever I need to capture the images that I see.
Recently, I flew to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my lovely daughter Lauren. The baggage and carry-on restrictions prevented me from bringing along all of my gear, so I made the trip with one camera, two lenses, and a flash packed into a shoulder bag. As a result, I was forced to look at my photography in a whole new way, and I am quite pleased with the images I brought home.
I made this portrait of Lauren on one of our early morning dog walks. If you knew Lauren as I do, you would also know that this is the perfect setting for a portrait of her.
I made this image at Lake Mendota, the bigger of the two lakes which border Madison on the north and south. This gull was walking up and down the pier like a miniature Charley Chaplin. It was pretty comical and I made close to forty exposures of him, but when he stopped and looked over the edge, he provided the perfect counterpoint to the fisherman.
Believe it or not, this image was made in one of Madison’s many dog parks. This one has its own wetlands complete with a green heron. Luckily, I spotted the bird before Lauren’s dog did.
This last image is of a lotus flower and lily pads in the Japanese Garden at House On The Rock in southwestern Wisconsin. House On The Rock is an amazing place and deserves more than just a nod in a photography blog. If you’re ever in that part of the world, I highly recommend the tour.
So, aside from spending a wonderful week with one of my favorite people, this trip also forced me to look at my work in a different way. Art, like anything else in life, needs to evolve; otherwise it stagnates and looses its appeal.
In my last post, I showed you images of some new terrain and features that I discovered on a recent trip to the Bisti Wilderness. In this entry I would like to show you some new images of places and things I have photographed before under different light or under different conditions.
Alamo Wash is the main conduit for the southern section of the Bisti. Most of the hoodoos, rock formations and other wonders to be found in the Bisti Wilderness are located in smaller side drainages that empty in Alamo Wash. Although I have been to this place many times, this is the first time I have seen any appreciable amount of water in the wash. I was drawn to the light on the rippled texture along the edge. I think this image tells a great deal about this land of severe contrasts.
As you make your way up the middle of Alamo Wash, if you are in the right alignment, you will see a curios formation in the distance. What makes it stand out to the trained eye is the color variation from the rest of the surrounding landscape. The Bisti Arch is comprised of a dark brown cap of rock which rests on a base of lighter and softer sandstone and mudstone. The base is a gradation of nearly white to a golden brown and is fluted which makes it resemble a freestanding component of Greek architecture.
Just around the corner from the Bisti Arch is the Egg Garden–probably the best known and most popular area of the Bisti. When someone signs up for one of my Photo Tours, this is the first thing they ask about. The Queen Bee is undoubtedly the favorite formation within the Egg Garden. I’ve photographed it so many times, it’s getting hard for me to find a fresh take on it.
The Egg Garden gets its name from the numerous egg-shaped rocks scattered about like, well…eggs in a gigantic Easter egg hunt. The bowl shaped rock in the above image has shifted since my last visit, most likely due to a heavy flow of water through the wash in which the garden is located.
Along with the cracked eggs, the Bisti Wilderness is also known for its ubiquitous hoodoos. They are literally everywhere you look, and, as this image attests, they can stretch to the horizon in some places.
I have been to the Bisti Wilderness more times than I can count; I lead Photo Tours out there, but there are so many nooks and crannies I doubt that I will ever be able to say I’ve seen all of it. Last week we made a quick one day trip just because we hadn’t been there in a while. We visited some of our favorite spots, including the Egg Garden and the Bisti Arch.
Here is a view of the Egg Garden that I haven’t done before and below is a look at the Arch from a wider perspective–it’s in the multicolored formation in the middle ground. Breaking habits (in both subject matter and perspective) is an important step in growing as an artist; you have to keep it fresh.
Next we wandered into an area I hadn’t been to before and in the space of about thirty minutes, we found at least five intact petrified logs; some partially unearthed like the one in the image above and some completely exposed like the one shown below. After who knows how many millennia buried in a sandstone tomb, the fossilized remains of these old trees are once again exposed under the same sun that set on their demise.
Apart from the intact petrified remains, there are also many fractured and broken remnants scattered about. The next image shows several smaller logs lying close together as if placed there in preparation for a petrified campfire.
Not only is this area rich in fossils, it is also home to a large number of hoodoos and eroded rock forms similar to the ones in the Egg Garden. I’m sure that others have been to this part of the Bisti, but I don’t recall ever having seen images of these logs or of the landscapes I have recorded here.
This last image is of Robin and me resting against the large tree with a view to the east. In two weeks I will be back out there leading a tour for a couple from Germany. The best parts of what I do are exploring new places and making new friends from around the world. These things help me realize that we, as people, are not so different from one another, and that we, as a species, are not so powerful or important as we might like to think we are.
I recently posted an entry about my efforts to find an out of the way section of the Lybrook Badlands. Wikipedia defines badlands as: a type of dry terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils have been extensively eroded by wind and water. It can resemble malpais, a terrain of volcanic rock. Canyons, ravines, gullies, hoodoos, and other such geological forms are common in badlands. They are often difficult to navigate by foot. Badlands often have a spectacular color display that alternates from dark blue/black coal strata to bright clays to red scoria.
That’s a mouth full and if that definition is correct, then I think this image is about as close as I can get to capturing the essence of a badlands environment. What I’m trying to get at here is that this image was made outside of the area that is generally referred to as the Lybrook Badlands. It is, in fact right next to a major highway in northwestern New Mexico which sort of destroys any romantic idea of a wilderness miles from civilization. None of that really matters though; this area is as much a badlands as any remote, hard-to-reach, hard-to-find wilderness.
I made this image less than a mile from where I made the first one. You can make out the coal, scoria, and clay strata in the hills right next to the highway. I have driven past this place dozens of times on my way to somewhere else, and as is my way, I find myself wondering why I didn’t take the time to explore the area sooner. I had been drawn to it the first time saw it; a few years ago, I stopped by the side of the road and made this image, but went no further.
If it looks familiar it’s because I used it in a previous entry, but the point is: I knew this place had potential, yet it took me years to turn on to that dirt road.
Less than five hundred feet from the place where I stood when I made the roadside image, I came across this landscape. The small yucca nestled practically inside the shattered rock suggests that the cactus may have just emerged from the rock like a newborn bird from an egg.
The roads in this area don’t go very far; like most around Lybrook, they lead to gas wells such as the one shown in the above image, or well heads like the one shown below.
Natural gas development is what brings most of the people who live and work here, except for the Navajo people who have been around these parts for thousands of years, long before anyone knew what gas was, and, of course, crazy photographers who wander around hostile, but beautiful landscapes with a heavy pack full of cameras and lenses just because they’re there.
I’ll leave you with this photograph to ponder what kinds of natural forces sculpt a landscape such as this: these small round, flat stones seem to have been shed from the larger one, but why are they all shaped like that? I often find myself wondering about these kinds of mysteries when I am wandering around the badlands which are fast becoming a second home to me.
Artistic vision is not something that is easy to define, at least not in terms of individual style. It is something that is (or should) always be changing, evolving. When I look at the work that I was doing five years ago, I am struck by the difference from that which I am doing today. That’s as it should be. If I could see no discernible change, I would be worried that my creativity is stagnating.
Vision has to do not only with the subject matter you shoot, or the way you choose to capture it. It is also about how you take the image from the one in the camera to the one that hangs on the wall. So, post processing is just as important to expressing your vision as the initial capture, perhaps more important. This first image was made one January day on the edge of what was soon to become the Valles Caldera National Preserve and after many years of learning and evolving, both in my shooting style and in my processing technique, this is still one of my favorite photographs.
I tell my Beginning Digital Photography students that they should always be looking for new ways to present their subjects and of course this extends to the work they do in the digital darkroom. I made the above image in 2002. It is a close-up of burned tree bark that I took in the burn scar of the Lake Fire. This is pretty representative of the work I was doing at that time: close-up/macro/intimate landscapes.
The third image was made several years later and it is one of the very few I made during that time that included a hint of anything man-made. All of these photographs were made using film cameras. The first two were shot with a Nikon F3, the second, a Nikon F100. All three were made using Fuji Velvia transparency film.
Sometime around 2005, I began to feel that my strict adherence to shooting almost exclusively macro/close-ups was stifling my creativity and I began to broaden my horizons (both literally and figuratively). I had also purchased my first digital camera, a Nikon D200. Looking back, I think the new-found freedom of no longer being constrained by the cost of film played a major role in my ability to experiment with a new shooting style.
This black and white landscape was an early attempt to further break from my habit of excluding man-made elements from my images. I still hadn’t perfected my B&W conversion technique, but it was a step in the right direction.
When I was shooting mostly macro, I preferred diffuse lighting; no shadows means clearer details, but as I began to see the broad landscape, I began to take advantage of the multi-faceted nature of light. In the five images above, I make use of different kinds of lighting: overcast, early morning, evening, and mid-day with partial overcast. They each paint the landscape with a different brush and each portrays a different mood.
Lately, my work has come full circle, back to the subjects I was pursuing when I first started out all those years ago, which is to say–anything and everything. The difference is, I now have the expertise I lacked back then, so I am able to show my viewers what I saw in my mind’s eye before I released the shutter. That’s a good feeling, but it doesn’t mean that I feel I’ve reached some kind of photographer’s Nirvana; I am excited to see what kind of curve my vision will throw me next.
I have been exploring the area in and around the Rio Puerco Valley for years and I think I’ve driven just about every road out there. But, there is one that had escaped me until recently. I had driven past it many times, but had always assumed that it was a private road leading to a ranch that could be seen in the distance.
That’s what I get for making assumptions. I recently had reason to study a map of the area for a totally unrelated reason, and discovered that the road in question continued on well past the ranch in a long loop that returned to the main road via a BLM road that I am familiar with.
So, this past Sunday we set out to explore what is identified on the map as the Empedrado Wilderness (it’s actually a Wilderness Study Area which means it is being considered for wilderness status). Well, one of the first things I realized is that for a wilderness, there sure is a lot of human impact, both abandoned and ongoing. Of course the former captured my attention.
This stone ruin is perched on the edge of Torreon Wash and if the steep banks continue to deteriorate, it will soon be a pile of rubble lying in the wash. There is something about these recent ruins that touches me. I see the abandoned hopes and dreams of people who were probably toiling here in my lifetime and who may still come to these places to watch those dreams decay.
A little farther along we found this water system that, at first, looked as though it could still be in working order, but upon closer inspection it was found to be, dried up, broken and rusting away.
Just around the next bend in the road is an old school bus that is filled with what could be mistaken for building materials. Most of the insulation has become nests for the pack-rats, and other small animals that have laid claim to the bus.
After the first five miles or so, the evidence of human endeavor began to dwindle and the place began to look more like a wilderness. We drove on for another ten miles making note of areas of interest for future exploration. Then, after turning on to the BLM road that leads back to our starting point, I stopped to make this image of an ephemeral New Mexico rain falling over Cabezon Peak.
I have been stuck in the Photographic Doldrums for the past couple of months, so I have been spending quite a bit of time searching my archived images. I’m not one to live in the past, but I’ve found that it can be rewarding to revisit my older work. I have rediscovered some of my best work rummaging around in old files. I have also found photographs that, for some reason didn’t make the cut when I first edited them, but over time, with my ever-changing vision and some changes in my workflow, they suddenly take on a new life.
This first image was taken in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Mesa Arch is an iconic location for landscape photographers, but the shot almost everyone takes is of the sun rising behind the arch. Being a bit of a crank, and wanting to make an image that spoke of my vision and not some other photographer’s, I made this photograph in the late afternoon and used the arch to frame the incredible landscape that lies beyond it.
I made this image of Shiprock while driving to Utah a couple of years ago. I was drawn by the bright yellow rabbitbrush and I was also going through what I like to think of as my “fence phase”. These two elements made the perfect foreground for the great volcanic plug and brooding skies.
This is an image of the Virgin River in Zion National Park. The overcast settled lower and by the next morning, the rain was continuous, making my hike to the Subway impossible due to high water and flash flooding. But this moment, looking down canyon with the soft light penetrating the swollen sky is one of my best images from that trip.
Twilight at Chupadera Pond in Bosque del Apache NWR. These three cranes were hunting for their dinner. They had just flown back from a day of foraging in the farm fields at the northern end of the refuge and now they were continuing their seemingly endless search for food in the pond where they would spend the night. The color of the light in this image has not been altered. For one magical moment between sunset and the onset of night, the entire landscape was bathed in this golden-orange glow.
This final image of the Egg Garden in the Bisti Wilderness has gone through numerous iterations and I think I finally have it just where I want it. I know the composition goes against the venerable “Rule of Thirds”, but sometimes it’s good to break the rules, and sometimes it’s good to revisit the past.
I spend a great deal of time wandering the badlands of the San Juan Basin and beyond in search of images. I have an unquenchable thirst for desert landscapes. Some people might consider me a little off kilter, especially since I live right in the middle of a place so full of natural beauty and geologic wonders that it draws visitors from around the world.
The first image is of Soda Dam, a large calcium carbonate formation that has been deposited over the ages by a small warm spring which is right on the shoulder of New Mexico state road 4. This naturally formed dam is pierced by the Jemez River which cascades over a small drop in elevation into a plunge pool which is a popular swimming hole for both locals and visitors from Germany, Japan, Russia… I can hear their squeals as they jump into the cold water on a hot summer day. Soda Dam is about two hundred yards from my door.
If I head in the opposite direction from Soda Dam on Hwy.4, it’s only a five minute drive to Battleship Rock, another geologic attraction that is visible from the highway. It was formed during the last volcanic eruption in these parts-around one million years ago. Lava from the eruption flowed into a narrow dead end canyon and hardened. Over time the softer material which made up the canyon walls eroded away, leaving the volcanic rock exposed.
If I continue up Hwy. 4, I will eventually come to the crowning jewel of the Jemez Mountains; the Valle Grande. Actually only one of several valles which were formed when a huge volcano exploded and collapsed to form a caldera about 1.6 million years ago. The Valle Grande was, until 2000, a privately owned ranch. It is now public land, administered by a trust. This is the view from a turn out on Hwy. 4 looking north.
So, you see, I really need not travel all that far to find a photogenic landscape, but I am in love with the desert; I am in love with the stark, naked, truthful beauty of the earth laid bare. The mountains, rivers, and alpine meadows are fine, but they do not speak to me in the way that the desert badlands do.
I recently received an e-mail which made the argument that HDR is a polarizing subject in the photographic community. It led me down that road that forks and forks again and…well, you know. Are we as photographers to believe that we are (and should be) fenced in by rules? In this case the rules are about technique and processing. When photography was in its infancy, it was considered to be outside the realm of “serious art”. Now, nearly one hundred years later, it has become acceptable, but only if it fits in a certain box.
So, I am having trouble coming to terms with the ongoing debate inside the photography community concerning HDR processing. I consider the ability to blend exposures to expand the dynamic range of an image to be a wonderful addition to the photographer’s toolkit. There seems to be some divisive opinion about how much processing is allowable. What bothers me about this debate is one very important consideration: CREATIVITY! If someone’s vision requires that heavy and obvious HDR look, then who has the right to tell them it’s too much? Each one of us is different; we each see things in different ways and wouldn’t life be boring if we all agreed on everything?
This first image was made in the Bisti Wilderness last year. The landscape was other-worldly, and the dramatic sky added even more to that impression. In my post processing, I consciously emphasized that quality by making the HDR effect more obvious. I used a tool to help me achieve my vision.
The second image is from the same trip. It was made about an hour after the first. By then the skies had cleared somewhat, and, while the landscape is by no means common, it doesn’t quite have the alien feel of the previous image. This is also an HDR exposure fusion, but I backed off on the processing; I used the technique to enhance the contrast and to make the sky pop a little more.
So, two HDR images that express two very different emotions. I think I have succeeded in capturing my vision for each of them, and that is the point of art.
Canyon de Chelly is unique in many ways. It is the only National Park that is contained entirely within a separate sovereign nation: the Navajo Reservation. It is administered by the Park Service, but access is controlled by the Navajo people. There have been people occupying Canyon de Chelly since the days of the Anasazi, making it one of the oldest, continuously inhabited settlements on the North American continent. Members of the Navajo Nation still live and farm the fertile canyon floor, but it has also been home to the ancient Puebloans, and the Hopis.
This first image was made from an overlook on the north rim. It is the point where Canyon del Muerto and Black Rock Canyon meet – Canyon de Chelly National Park is actually made up of several canyons, the two main ones being Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto.
There are many ruins within the Park, some are located right on the canyon floor like the Antelope House Ruins, which are located at the base of a towering sandstone wall that served as a huge heat sink in the winter. It was inhabited between about 850-1270 CE, and contains about 90 rooms. The remnants of several kivas can be seen in the bottom center of the image. They appear as distinct round structures.
Other ruins are situated high on the walls of the canyon. The Mummy Cave Ruins are located on a shelf which is nestled in a cave three hundred feet above the canyon floor. It is believed to have been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years. Its name comes from the many well preserved burials discovered at the site.
This last image is a view down Canyon del Muerto from the Massacre Cave Overlook. I realize that, visually, it is a bit confusing, but I was attempting to show the complex structure of the rock strata and this location seemed to be the best place to achieve that.
This was a drive-by shooting so to speak. anyone who is familiar with Canyon de Chelly will realize that these images were all taken from the North Rim. I plan to return soon to shoot the other side of the Park. So, look for Vol. 2 in the near future.
When I was a much younger man, I spent a great deal of time standing by the side of a road with my thumb in the air spurred on by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Edward Abbey. Some of those roads were paved and four lanes wide; some were dirt or gravel and you couldn’t really tell how many lanes wide they were. I guess it really didn’t matter as long as they seemed endless.
These days I’m somewhat tamer in my ways, but I still get a feeling of expectancy when I look through the windshield and see nothing but the road, the sky, and a wide open or unknown landscape. Until recently, however, I would not allow the hand of man to enter the world of my landscape photography, so the roads were banished.
Now that I’ve overcome my phobia of including anything that smacks of man in an image, I am free to express my love of the open road in my photography. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I am working on a project; I am making images of highways and byways as I travel around on my photo excursions. I hope to accumulate enough good photographs to publish a book. The images in this post are ones that have made the cut; some have been displayed in previous posts, but most of those have been re-worked to bring them up to snuff.
The only down side to all this road photography is that I seem to be spending a lot of time standing or kneeling in the middle of some very busy highways. Most of the time though, I’m on a road like Indian Rte. 13 or NM 16 which see very little traffic.
And, at other times, I find myself on unpaved roads such as BLM 1103 in the Rio Puerco Valley, or small access roads like the one in the photo of the Shiprock Lava Dike below where I could stand for hours or even days without being in danger of becoming road kill.
I haven’t been to Ah Shi Sle Pah for nearly two years, but we went out there yesterday to try to locate a rock formation that has been eluding me for some time now.
Ah shi Sle Pah is a dry wash that runs from east to west through the San Juan Basin about thirty miles northwest of Chaco Canyon. Over the course of millions of years, the run-off has eroded the soft mudstone leaving the harder sandstone balanced precariously on the remaining mudstone columns. These bizarre fformations, referred to as hoodoos can stand for thousands of years before finally yielding to erosion and gravity.
The sandstone that is slowly being exposed by erosion was formed in the late Cretaceous period when this area was a tropical forest with rivers which served to compress and cement the sand particles into the sandstone we see today. There are petrified logs lying about as if carelessly tossed aside by some giant prehistoric toddler.
One of the things I find intriguing about Ah Shi Sle Pah is the variations in the visual texture of the place. It is a photographer’s dream come true. The erosion channels in the mudstone are a never -ending source of delight for me.
When the light hits these incredible features in a certain way, especially early or late in the day, the side-lighting makes the textures jump out and the whole scene is electrified with a sense of other-worldly drama.
Did I find the formation I was searching for? Well, I have to confess that I failed, but that’s alright. I guess I’ll have to go back another day.
We went back to the Lybrook Badlands yesterday to do some more exploring and to come up with a format for a photo tour in the area. Just after leaving the paved road, we came across two guys parked on the side of the road. We stopped to talk and learned they are from Paris, France, and are traveling the southwest to photograph some of the more popular places. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Lybrook is on their list.
They were uncertain about the weather and asked if they could tag along with us. We agreed and set out to see what we could see. This photo shows Dominic, his son Frederic, Robin and me in the heart of the badlands.
Because of the conditions, heavy clouds with intermittent rain, I decided to shoot all HDR (exposure fusion) images. I have found that this is a good way to achieve depth and contrast in this kind of light.
These first three images were made right on the side of the main dirt road that leads into the Lybrook badlands. We weren’t more than a couple hundred yards from our vehicles as we photographed this small collection of hoodoos.
There was some blue sky as you can see in this image of what I dubbed the Hoodoo Playground. At this point, no rain had yet fallen, but I could smell it on the wind and knew it would be only a matter of time. As some of you who have read my previous blog entries may know, I am energized by this kind of weather. So, why the sudden shift in my attitude? The roads in this area have a high clay content; when it rains hard enough they can quickly become impassable quagmires. As much as I enjoy spending my time making images out here in the rocks, I didn’t relish the idea of spending a night in the Jeep waiting for the roads to dry out.
As we entered the main section of the badlands, the lightning began to flash and the thunder began to roll, but none of us showed the slightest hesitation at continuing the trek into the oncoming storm. By the time we reached the place named Hoodoo Cove, the rain began to fall, not hard, but steady, so we headed back towards the parking area to be in a better position in case we needed to make a run for the cars.
I couldn’t resist making one more image before we left. Even though the rain had begun to fall, there was a break in the overcast that allowed the sun to light part of the rim. It seemed somehow fitting that this dwarf Ponderosa Pine was sharing some of the rays.
When we were about a half mile from where we parked, the rain let up and then stopped altogether, but the storm still moved all around us. We headed up a wash between two prominent buttes to continue our exploration. I made this image from a high point on our trail, we then continued on through the notch towards the darkest part of the cloud cover.
We spent another two hours wandering the washes and climbing around the incredibly complex terrain, getting to know the place a little better. As we made our way back to our vehicles (again), I made this last image. to remind myself how fragile life is and how easily it can come to an end in a place such as this. At the same time, I was looking forward to our next trip out here.
Edward Abbey once wrote an essay called “TV Show: Out There In The Rocks” It was in the form of an interview with an old codger (Abbey) who had been a Park Ranger at Arches National Park in Utah. He wrote about this time of his life in “Desert Solitaire”, the first of his works that received the recognition it deserved (forgive me Ed-he was not a man who recognized his recognition).
These images are not from Arches NP. They were made in the Lybrook Badlands. No matter, either place is definitely out there in the rocks. I recently found myself driving the gas company roads that criss-cross this section of the San Juan Basin; they branch off here and there, ultimately dead-ending at gas wells. Actually, Robin was doing the driving, I was navigating with the help of my friend Garmin.
We were searching for the elusive heart of the Lybrook badlands. We had already seen them from the mesa-top, stretching out before us like some huge geological maze. Now we were down in the midst of them, down there in the rocks exploring and looking for one certain spot in these miles of desert landscape.
As it turns out, the journey was as rewarding as the final destination. The search for a unique landscape in this case was more a constant visual feast. Being a seasoned desert rat and badlands connoisseur, this is not a new experience for me, but I am always pleasantly surprised when it happens. Because many of the roads in this area are not on any map (even the topos on my GPS), we made many false starts on dead end tracks. It was all good though; the scenery was spectacular, and the ride was an adventure in itself.
Finally, after nearly a full day of bouncing over rocky and rutted not quite roads, we reached the co-ordinates we had been searching for. By now, it was more about just finding the place than there being anything special about it.
We had enough time for a short hike and a few images before we had to start back home. That’s OK. The hook is set. Another day will find us back out there in the rocks. Ed would be proud.
Being a desert rat in New Mexico is a full time job; there are so many places to polish your craft. One of my favorites is the Rio Puerco Valley. The Rio Puerco is a mostly dry riverbed that winds its way through some spectacular country on its way to join the Rio Grande.
This is the view looking south from BLM Rte.1114. It is a primordial landscape, dotted with volcanic cones and with the addition of a stormy sky, it becomes a journey to the time of dinosaurs if you disregard the cattle-guard in the foreground.
One of the things you can find without too much trouble (unfortunately) is trash. It comes in all shapes and sizes. This piece of culvert, with catch basin attached, is the extra large variety. It lies slowly rusting into the earth with Cerro Cuate as a silent witness.
There is also an abundance of old tires in the valley. They can be found serving as containers at watering holes, on the roofs of old trailers, or as in this case, ornamental artwork hung on a cattle-guard.
But, regardless of the trash, cattle, and other abrasive signs of man, there is much beauty to be found in this unique landscape. I will soon be adding The Rio Puerco to my High Desert Photo Tours line-up.
I made this last image from an overlook near Cerro Cuate. There are no rock walls or steel stanchions at this overlook, so you must be careful. In a place like this, the buzzards will find you long before a rescuer.
If you’ve never been to the desert southwest, you may not be aware of the importance of water to the landscape. Not only is it the source of life for the many hardy species that call this arid environment home, but is also one of the main forces by which the landscape came to be what it is.
These first three images were made in Blue Canyon on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona. Over eons, a small stream and countless windstorms have sculpted the soft sandstone leaving a wonderland of deep chasms and etching the stone with amazing textures.
Just in case you have the idea that this small stream doesn’t have its moments of glory, here is an image of a car that was carried away while the rivulet was in flood. It is now wedged firmly between the walls of the water cave.
This is the place where the stream plunges into the chasm it has carved out over the course over millions of years. I had posted this image in a previous blog about my trip to Blue Canyon, but that was a color image. I made this black and white conversion using Silver Efex Pro and put some emphasis on the structure and texture to show the wrinkles time has etched into the face of this desert landscape
And just so you know that we have our fair share of “Erosion Art” in New Mexico, here is an image I made recently in the Mesa de Cuba badlands in the northwest corner of the “Land of Enchantment”.
These places can mean different things to different people: Some may look at such a place with a mix of wonder (wonder that anyone could find beauty there) and fear-fear of the unknown, fear of what may be lurking around that next bend, and fear that somehow they may, as I did, develop a deep sense of love and respect for such a harsh, unforgiving environment. One thing is certain if you take the time to look around you and think about how things work in a desert ecosystem, you will come away looking at life a little differently from the way you did before your visit.
Happy wandering! Oh, bring a GPS and plenty of H2O.
I am a self–proclaimed desert rat; there is something about the harsh, elemental landscape that touches my spirit and makes it soar. It’s little wonder then that I recently found myself back in the Bisti Wilderness loaded down with cameras, lenses, my tripod and my GPS (not to mention plenty of water). I had an agenda: there are several well-known landmarks that, for some reason, I had not yet photographed–at least not to my satisfaction.
Robin and I set out from the parking area with our sights set on the Brown Hoodoos, the first on my list. I had GPS coordinates, but it’s not that easy. It seems a frontal approach was not the way to reach our goal; there were too many obstacles and too much fragile ground to make this route acceptable. So, we made a flanking maneuver, gained the elevation we needed, and approached from the rear. It still took several aborted attempts before we reached the hoodoos, but it was well worth the effort.
I made this image from the place where we first came upon the Brown Hoodoos. I call it “The Valley Of The Earth Gnomes”. I was struck by the implied activity taking place. Even though nothing was actually moving, it seemed we were gazing down upon a small village going about its day to day routine.
After leaving the hoodoos, we headed for the Egg Garden. I had been there many times, but I couldn’t resist stopping by to see what images might be waiting for an enterprising photographer. I found the Queen Bee right where I left her months before, but the atmospheric conditions were much better than any I had encountered there previously.
The next place on my list was the Eagle’s Nest. The Nest is another mile and a half beyond the Egg Garden and as we walked, the clouds began to gather. By the time we got to our destination, it was spitting rain. There was also lightning; I began to worry about our exposed situation and the nearly five mile trek back to the car. Still, I couldn’t help but wish for a lightning strike as I composed this image. I call it “My Inclement Muse”, a nod to the force that sends me off into such places in such weather searching for beauty.
As we began retracing our steps back to the parking area, the rain stopped and the clouds lifted a bit. I still had one location on my list that I had not been able to find, and I had already decided that the Bisti Arch must have collapsed. I had previously come across a spot that looked like it could have been the arch, but it was nothing more than a pile of rubble when I found it. As we walked past the place where the arch was supposed to be, I turned to have a look back at the way we had come, and there it was. It was much smaller than I had imagined it to be; that’s the reason I had had so much difficulty locating it. As I set up my camera and tripod, everything came together. It was as if the muse was rewarding me for my diligence.
As we packed our gear into the car for the ride home, I was overcome by an emotion not unlike the one you might feel after finishing a good book: satisfaction mixed with melancholy. I had completed my Bisti bucket list. Then I realized that there are still many surprises hidden in a place like the Bisti; I knew then that I could easily spend the rest of my life out there and still not uncover all of the little known treasures stashed away in the washes, slot canyons, and rolling bentonite hills of such a place.