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.
These elegant birds, in their stature, grace, and beauty, their wild fierce temperment, are striking metaphors for the vanishing wilderness of our once bountiful earth…
Peter Matthiessen from the introduction to The Birds of Heaven
This sandhill crane at Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge in Colorado’s San Luis Valley is trying to attract a mate; this dance is part of the crane’s courtship ritual. I could watch these birds for hours, I have watched these birds for hours while photographing them and I never tire of their elegant interactions.
Well, mostly elegant. This bird recovered quickly when he hit an icy spot during his take-off from one of the crane ponds at Bosque del Apache. I really enjoy the antics that ensue on a cold morning when the ponds are frozen. The cranes remain in the water longer and there is more pre-flight activity
I made this photograph of a dancing Whooping Crane near High Island Texas. I was there to photograph the nesting great egrets and met a man who told me about reports of whoopers a little ways north of where I was camped. As I was leaving for home, I decided to detour to the spot he had mentioned just to see if the rumors were true. Whooping Cranes are endangered and I had never seen, let alone photographed, one in the wild. So, I could hardly contain my excitement when I saw this one along with a companion. I found a place to set up my tripod a respectable distance away and waited. It didn’t take long before they both began leaping and spreading their wings. This is my best image from that incredible morning.
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.
A while back, I wrote a blog post about the Fallen Roof Ruin on Utah’s Cedar Mesa. I stumbled upon it while researching another, more well-known, ruin which is located close by.
House On Fire Ruin is situated in the south fork of Mule Canyon which runs roughly parallel to Utah Rte. 95 about twenty miles west of Blanding. It gets its name from the way the alcove in which it is located lights up as it catches the reflection of the morning sun from the opposite canyon wall. When this happens, the texture in the ceiling of the alcove causes it to resemble flames coming from the top of the ruins. This phenomenon occurs mid-morning between 9 and 11 o’clock depending on the time of year.
This first image is pretty representative of most of the images I have seen made at the House On Fire Ruin. It does a good job of showing the ruin and the overall effect of the light reflection. But, I like to have a little more depth in my images, to tell more of the story of the place.
To do this, I simply backed off a little and changed to a portrait orientation to enable me to capture some foreground. This version seems less pinched to me than the first; it shows the floor of the alcove, which lends some context to the scene, and allows for some visual flow.
This final image is a portrait of Robin and me sitting in front of the ruins. I am always a little awestruck when I stand in a place where the ancients stood before me. This setting was even more powerful because of the interaction of the rock with the light. I wonder if the inhabitants of these ruins were as moved by the spectacle as we were.
These images were made in the fall of 2016. I had begun the draft, but, for some reason, never completed it. So, I am publishing it now, more than five years later. A lot of water under the proverbial bridge since then.
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
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
At last, a real winter! One we denizens of the Jemez Mountains can be proud of. We’ve had two substantial snowfalls within the past two weeks, and there is more in the forecast. The day after Christmas I awoke to a world of swirling white. I quickly got dressed and grabbed my gear. There is nothing like being cloaked in the clouds during a fresh snowfall to bring the world into focus.
Jemez Springs has become a “destination”, the road and the village are typically busy with tourists, so it was a welcome relief to see it relatively abandoned with clean, new snow covering the small cluster of buildings that comprise the heart of the village. Luckily, the road hadn’t even been plowed yet.
The Jemez Historic Site (the pueblo of Giusewa) is about halfway between the village and my home. I have been wanting to make this image for quite a while, but due to a lack of the white stuff, I had put it off. This was my chance, and I think I made the most of it. This is what I consider to be the best of a series of seven exposures I made of this scene.
Continuing up the road, I came to Soda Dam. I have made many photographs of Soda Dam over the years; it’s only a five minute walk from my house. With the snow still coming down, I decided to give this image the same treatment as the one of the village seen above. I used a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/250th of a second to freeze the motion of the falling snow. The resulting image puts the tableau in context and serves to convey what I was feeling at the time I released the shutter.
After leaving the Soda Dam, I continued north on the highway into the Santa Fe National Forest. The most striking scenes I found were the ones of areas of forest burned in recent wildfires, their branches covered and defined by the snow. They provided a visual as well as a thematic contrast, and the photographs are a combination of realism and the abstract.
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.
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.
A recent rip to Monument Valley yielded an unexpected, but memorable side-trip. While researching places to camp on the trip, I came across Goosenecks State Park near Mexican Hat, Utah. It’s only twenty-five miles from Monument Valley, and it’s right next to Valley of the Gods. What better place to use as a base camp?
The thing about the Goosenecks is, it’s hard to capture an image that shows the true complexity of the twists and turns the river takes as it flows through this stretch. Maybe a drone next time. Nonetheless, we set up our camp right near the edge of the gorge. As we got in the car to leave for Valley of the Gods, the wind began picking up, so, not wanting to come back to find our tent had blown into the chasm, we collapsed it and weighted it down with rocks.
I took less than thirty minutes to reach Valley of the Gods from our campsite. As we entered the valley, we were nervously eyeing the heavy rain that was moving across the southern horizon. The sky was black and the features of the landscape were obliterated by the walls of falling rain. The dirt road that runs through the Valley of the Gods is seventeen miles long and the last thing we wanted was to get stuck in the middle of it in a downpour. The soil has a high clay content which means that, when wet, the roads quickly become impassable. But, as we drove into that beautiful landscape, our worries about the weather vanished and were replaced by awe inspiring views.
As it turned out, we made the drive without incident, and when we returned to camp, the sky had cleared enough to give us a nice view of the waxing crescent moon. The next morning, I was up before dawn, we made breakfast, struck camp, and were on the road soon after. The destination for the day: Muley Point via the Moki Dugway.
The Moki Dugway is a road carved into the side of Cedar Mesa. It was made in the 1950s by a mining company as a way to transport uranium ore from the mine to the mill near Mexican Hat. It climbs over twelve hundred feet in a little under three miles by a series of switchbacks. As we drove the road, we saw a rusted hulk lying on a bench about a hundred feet below, someone missed a turn. About half way up the route, there is a turn out and we stopped to make some photos before continuing on to the top.
The first thing you notice when you reach Muley Point is the expansive view; looking south the incredible complexity of the Goosenecks of the San Juan River is front and center, and the sandstone monoliths of Monument Valley are visible on the far horizon. We began to explore the terrain along the edge of Cedar Mesa and were rewarded with some breathtaking vistas. I made lots of images, it seemed that around every turn there was something worth capturing.
I was on a natural high the whole time we spent at Muley Point, and looking at these images on my monitor at home still gives me that feeling: grounded, yet chaotic, like the landscape. The next time I go I plan to camp right there so I can explore in a more leisurely fashion.
Each of these images was made from a different perspective, and although they are essentially of the same place, they each tell a different story about how it all fits in the broader landscape. There is no shortage of great foreground elements at Muley Point, but beyond that the serpentine canyons cut by the San Juan River and the tributary ravines like Johns Canyon put on a show that changes constantly with the light.
I was reluctant to leave Muley Point, but I promised myself that I would return soon. So, we packed up and drove back down the Moki Dugway and past Valley of the Gods, southbound toward our ultimate destination: Monument Valley.
On the way home after our last trip to White Sands, which I wrote about in my previous post, we stopped at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. Three Rivers is located about sixteen miles north of Tularosa, New Mexico, and is administered by the BLM. It has one of the largest concentrations of rock art in the American Southwest–more than twenty-one thousand glyphs.
The petroglyphs were made by a now extinct culture, the Jornada Mogollon, who inhabited the area from 900-1400CE. They are the same people who lived at the more well known Gila Cliff Dwellings located about two hundred miles west. I always feel a connection when I see evidence of these ancient people’s existence. I imagine them there in the dim past, standing in this same spot and creating their art.
Many of the petroglyphs at Three Rivers can be seen along the one mile trail which follows a basalt ridge. The artists used stone tools to carve their works into the dark patina covering the rocks; and in some places, nearly every square inch of available “canvas” is covered with drawings.
Visiting such a place makes me realize that, as an artist, I am a member of a long line of humanity that has felt the need to express their interpretation of things or events which defined their lives. Were these artists-of-their-day respected members of the clan? Were they rebels? Did they rail against social injustice?
The real significance of these works, aside from recounting the lives of a long lost culture, is their ability to connect us, as people, across the chasm of time.
The last time I was at White Sands was three years ago for the White Sands Balloon Invitational. Since then, they have been launching the balloons from a park in Alamogordo; somehow, it’s not quite the same. So, it was a pleasant surprise when I discovered that the balloons would be launching from the monument again this year.
We arrived in Alamogordo in the late afternoon, made a quick stop at the motel, and drove to White Sands. There were storms over the San Andreas Mountains to the west and the cloud cover resulted in a soft, glowing light, as well as a dramatic sky (right up my alley!)
One of the first things I noticed about the dunes was the softness of the texture. Usually, the ripples are sharply accentuated, and side lighting makes them stand out. But, now they were softer, probably from the effects of wind and rain. The whole feel of the place was different from other times I have visited.
The result was a calm and peaceful energy that found it’s way into my photographs. A distant figure walking on the dunes became a dream-like vision. The rain falling on the San Andreas Mountains twenty miles away was transformed into a sheer curtain partially obscuring the mountains. And all of it was lit by a soft, gauzy light.
As the sun began to set, the sky was ablaze, and the dunes were dressed in evening blue. it’s rare that I am so excited by a scene that I can feel my pulse quicken.
It was well past sunset when we had to leave for the night. But, I was quite satisfied with the images I had made, and I was looking forward to the balloons the next day.
The next morning, we awoke at 4:30 in order to be at the gate in time for the 5:30 opening. After driving to the parking area near the picnic areas, we set out onto the dunes to find a good spot from which to photograph the mass ascension. But the sky to the east was dark and the winds aloft delayed the 7 AM launch time. We meandered around the dune field making images and soon lost track of time. By about 9:30 we began to realize that the launch was not going to happen. It was somewhat disappointing, but we were having such a good time with our cameras, we soon got over it.
Once again, the atmospheric display made a stunning backdrop for the never-ending story playing out on the dunes. The dark sky provided a stark contrast to the white sand, and the soft glow rendered by the overcast made a fitting palette for the dunes and the soaptree yuccas.
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?