The San Juan Basin is a large, roughly circular, depression that lies in the northwest corner of New Mexico, and is a part of the larger Colorado Plateau. What makes the basin special is the fact that, at one time, it was in an area that was covered by the Western Interior Seaway, a prehistoric body of saltwater that split the North American continent from top to bottom.
The location along the shores of a large body of water in a tropical climate allowed an incredibly diverse ecosystem to thrive. As these life forms died, they decomposed and were eventually covered by volcanic ash from the eruption of nearby volcanoes. As the seawater covered the area more sedimentation sifted over the remains and some of the sediment was infused with mineral rich water that seeped through the layers above making it harder than the surrounding matrix. This was an important step in the formation of the present-day hoodoos. The weight of the water compacted the entire assemblage, and it was lost to the the world above the waves.
About 65 million years ago, the waters receded and a layer of sediment nearly two miles thick was left behind. Since then, plate tectonics, volcanism, and glacial erosion have helped to shape the present-day San Juan Basin. Further erosion from wind, water, and annual freeze/thaw cycles exposed the hardened sediment layers which eroded more slowly than the softer sand/ash matrix. The result is a wonderland of hoodoo gardens that are especially obvious along the edges of the many washes that criss-cross the basin. Some of these drainages such as Ah Shi Sle Pah, Hunter and Alamo–the two washes that formed the Bisti, and their tributaries have carved and exposed a treasure trove of unlikely works of earthen art.
The human history of the badlands is of course relatively short. Probably the most significant event in shaping the area in the last hundred years was the discovery of coal and the associated coal-bed methane. By the early 1980’s coal mining, mostly to fuel the nearby Four Corners Power Plant, was consuming large tracts of land throughout the basin. Inevitably, the Bisti became the center of a lawsuit between the Public Service Company of New Mexico and the Sierra Club; PNM already had a mining operation there and it looked like it might become just another large open-pit mine. However, the courts sided with the Sierra Club and in 1984, the Bisti was awarded wilderness status. In recent years, Ah Shi Sle Pah has also become a Wilderness Study Area. So, at least for the present, these gems are safe from the insatiable maw of “progress”.
Of the nine recognized badlands in the San Juan Basin, the Bisti is the largest–at 30,000 acres–and most well known. It includes the Kirtland and Fruitland geologic layers and was deposited 70-75 million years ago. The chief deposits are: sandstone, siltstone, shale, coal, and volcanic ash. Fossils include remains of T-Rex and large cypress-like conifers.
Ah Shi Sle Pah is much smaller than the Bisti, but was deposited around the same time, and thus contains the same geologic layers. It contains the same deposits: sandstone, siltstone, shale, coal, and volcanic ash. The fossils found in Ah Shi Sle Pah include remains of crocodiles, Pentaceratops (which has been found only in Ah Shi Sle Pah), early mammals, and of course, petrified wood.
The other recognized badlands in the basin are: Ojito–the oldest having been deposited 144-150 million years ago–, De Na Zin (70 -75 million years ago), Lybrook, Ceja Pelon, Penistaja (all 60-64 million years ago), San Jose (38-64 million years ago), and the youngest, Mesa de Cuba (38-54 million years ago).
The map shows the boundaries of the San Juan Basin. Rather than being formed by volcanism like the San Juan and Jemez Mountains to the north and east, the basin was uplifted as a single block after which the center collapsed to create the basin.
The idea for this post came from a show I had last year called Badlands Black and White. I chose to print all the images in B&W in order to focus on the graphic elements: tone, texture, patterns, etc.
This image was made in Alamo Wash in the Bisti Wilderness. The cracks that result from the shrinkage of the clay rich soil tell a story of the arid environment. The sandstone balanced on the short mudstone pillars is an example of the hardened sediment and how it weathers in relation to the softer layers below it.
The floor of most badlands is usually littered with small pieces of debris, which is comprised of bits that have broken or eroded from larger structures. They can be shale, clinkers (super-heated clay), siltstone, or even glacial deposits from the last ice age. There are often fossilized bone and clamshells mixed in with all or some of the above.
I made this image of a client while leading a tour in the Bisti Wilderness. The man is standing on an ridge above a deep wash in the Brown Hoodoos section of the wilderness. I wanted to give the viewer a sense of scale and the feeling of being lost in the bizarre surroundings.
These eroded pillars are in a small alcove located in a tributary of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. Some of them still have their sandstone caprocks, while some have lost theirs. The badlands are an evolving story of creation and degeneration, once the protective cover of the caprock is gone, the erosion process proceeds at a much faster pace.
This image is from Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. The squat hoodoos in the foreground are relatively new and haven’t weathered out to the extent that some of the taller, more widely spaced ones have. Like many of the places I frequent in the badlands, I can’t visit this one without making several exposures.
At Ah Shi Sle Pah, there is a small, raised enclosure; I call it the Dragon’s Nest. What caught my eye the first time I saw it were the patterns and textures eroded into the solidified volcanic ash. This formation, at some time in the past, probably had a sandstone cap-rock.
I made this image in Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. This collection of hoodoos sits in the middle of a labyrinthine tributary wash. The small column on the right has lost its caprock and is undergoing accelerated erosion.
This is a formation in the Bisti Wilderness that I call the Queen Bee. It is part of a small area of similar formations known as the Egg Garden. The cylindrical shape of these eroded forms is due to them being formed and hardened inside limestone tubes. As the surrounding layers eroded away, they emerged as distinct egg-shaped forms. The Egg Garden is one of the most popular attractions in the Bisti.
This small arch is another feature that brings people come from around the world to visit the Bisti Wilderness. The Bisti Arch can be deceiving; the opening is only about three feet across and half as high. The first time I found it, after searching unsuccessfully during previous visits, I was surprised by how small it is. The top of the arch is made of siltstone supported by a volcanic ash pedestal, and was once part of a wall which stretched across Alamo Wash.
In his book “Bisti” which was printed in the 1980’s, David Scheinbaum included an image of this formation with the caption: “This unstable hoodoo is just within the Sunbelt coal-mining lease and will probably be destroyed by mining in the near future.” I made this image on a recent trip to the Bisti Wilderness, and I’m happy to report that the unstable hoodoo is still standing.
I am constantly on the lookout for new images. Even while I’m driving, one eye is searching for a photograph. But, to really see, it is important that I be present so I can delve into the potential image, dissect it and study the relationships between the elements. What is the best way to do this? What should I look for as I move through this process?
The first step is to ask myself: What was it that drew me to this scene? Usually it was a singular object, or a play of light over the landscape. The Soaptree Yuccas, the sidelit patterns, and the subtle light on the sand dunes at White Sands National Monument were what grabbed my attention and led to this first image. Understanding my motivation made it easier realize what I want to say with the photograph.
Next I had to frame the scene in a way that would tell the story in the best way possible. I placed the closest yucca up front, but a little off center, leaving little doubt that it was the main subject of the image. This placement also allowed me to separate it from the others in the middle ground and avoid a confusing and static composition. My choices for the exposure had to be based on the dynamic range of the scene, which, In this case, was pretty wide considering the bright highlights on the sand in the distance, and the dark tonality in the shadows near sunset.
The first technical requirement was that I capture a broad dynamic range, so I made a bracketed series of exposures that covered the entire spectrum of tonalities in the scene. Even though I didn’t need to use all the different exposures, it’s better to have them and not need them than it is to need them and…well you know. The next requirement was that the depth of field be wide enough to have sharp details front to rear. Because of the low light level at the time of day I was shooting this, the fact that I was shooting at the lowest possible ISO–to achieve the best possible image quality, and the small aperture needed to get the depth of field I required, my shutter speed was relatively slow–1/10th of a second. That meant that I needed to shoot with my camera mounted on a tripod (something I usually do anyway). It’s easy to see from this cause and effect chain how my creative workflow was based not only on composition and design elements, but also included technical considerations.
The second image of Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was made at twilight, that special time in the evening just after the sun set and the light is bouncing off the upper atmosphere. I was taken by the reflection of the colored sky and the reeds in the placid water of the foreground, and the transition from the smooth to the to the rough texture of the water, which created a layer-like effect because of the sudden change in color and texture. This layer is also where the action takes place: the cranes mingling, spreading their wings, foraging for dinner. There is then an abrupt transition to the golden reeds and the darker background before the final shift to the lighter tonality and magenta shades of the distant mountains and the sky.
I had my camera mounted on my tripod as usual, but I kept the bullhead swivel loose so I could easily pan to follow the movement of the birds. This image also relies on a wide depth of field to preserve sharpness in the details of all the layers mentioned above. I wanted to make the layering effect more obvious, so I boosted the saturation and contrast a little. Once again, the thought process kicks in and the decisions are made. The point of all this is to stress the importance of being involved in the making of an image. If you want a photograph to be yours, you need to put a little of yourself into it, and you need to be intentional throughout the process.
:to be different especially in a way that is obvious
:to compare (two people or things) to show how they are different
:the difference in visual properties that makes an object (or its representation in an image) distinguishable from other objects and the background.
That is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of contrast. As a photographer, I can choose to use contrast in a literal or a symbolic sense, I have the ability to increase literal (visual or tonal) contrast within a scene in my post processing workflow. But, if I want to use contrast in a symbolic way, I must have that in mind as I’m making the photograph.
I think it’s important to point out that this article assumes the use of RAW capture. By shooting RAW, I have the full extent of the information that the camera captures, a digital negative, which provides me with many options I can use in my post-processing workflow to reach the final image that I visualized when I released the shutter.
There are several ways to work with tonal contrast in a post-processing workflow. My usual choice is the tone curve, which affords more precise control over the tones in an image. In my experience, small, subtle adjustments are best; it’s easy to go too far; a gentle s-curve is usually sufficient. Of course there are many other ways to adjust the tonal contrast of a photograph: levels adjustments, brightness/contrast adjustments, and gamma adjustments to name just a few.
Another way to use contrast is color. By finding hues that are opposite each other on the color wheel, I can achieve a pleasing palette. In both images, the blues in the sky, the subtle yellows in the geologic features, and the more vibrant yellows in the plants provide a visual contrast that doesn’t try to steal the show; instead it creates a unity bringing several elements of the scenes together.
I often make use of textures and patterns to create contrast in my work. The rough texture of rocks or plants against the smoother texture of sand, snow or certain kinds of clouds can provide visual contrast. A rough texture that is side lit will also increase tonal contrast, so it can be a double edged sword. In the second photograph, there is texture in the clouds, which reflects that of the distant hillside, while the Chamisa in the foreground provides both a color and a textural contrast to the blue areas of the sky, and the smoother areas of the ground.
By now it should be clear that most of the design elements can be used to create contrast within an image. But let’s not forget conceptual contrast. The concept or idea behind the image can also provide contrast. The first image shows a human figure nestled in a harsh landscape; it’s not the kind of place most of us think of as a comfortable environment for humans, so there is a contrast between the frailty of the figure and the hard reality of the landscape. In the second image, I used the contrast between the obviously arid environment and the blooming Chamisa to make a statement about the plant’s fragility and it’s ability to thrive in the harshest of circumstances.
So, the next time you are making or processing a photograph, remember that contrast is more than just an adjustment layer in Photoshop, or a slider in Lightroom. It is a multifaceted tool that can take your images to a whole new level.
Texture as a design element is often made to play second fiddle to some of its more obvious kin: line, color, even shape; but it can be a very effective tool in our bag of photographic tricks. It is important here to note the difference between tactile and visual texture. Tactile texture is what we feel when we touch a surface whether it be two dimensional–a piece of fabric, or three dimensional– a marble sculpture. Visual texture is the representation of a three dimensional surface in two dimensions. As photographers working within the confines of two dimensions, we are limited to the visual representation.
Everything has texture. It can be rough and aggressive, it can be smooth and subtle, or it can be somewhere in between. In this image the textures range from rough (the trees) to softer (the grasses) to softest (the low clouds). Texture can make an image more interesting by inviting the viewer to explore the interactions and relationships between the visual elements within the frame.
Textural differences add another design element to an image: contrast. The visual contrast in this image of cottonwood trees during a winter storm gives the viewer a reason to delve more deeply into the image; it attracts the eye and lets the person viewing the image know that I found the contrast between the low hanging clouds, the trees, and the grasses interesting enough to stop and make a photograph.
On another level, the repetitive, more aggressive texture of the trees in the photograph creates a pattern or motif which stands out and dominates the more subtle blending of the background clouds and foreground grass, so the trees become the focal point of the image. Finally, the different textures within the image create layers which add depth both visually and conceptually.
It’s easy to fall into a rut. It’s not so easy to climb out of one. Often when we find a certain process, or visual framework that works for us, it becomes hard to move on from there. This kind of dependency works against the creative process by stifling our ability to see things in a new way. Sometimes the only way to escape this trap is to be intentional and to actively seek new answers, new ways of seeing or experiencing the world around us.
It matters little if you are famous or unknown, creative growth demands that you evolve. It is the natural order of things. If you find a niche in which you are comfortable, it is important that you keep exploring new ideas and processes, otherwise it is only a matter of time before your niche can become a prison from which escape will become harder and harder the longer you inhabit it.
So, how do we step out of our boxes? How do we change our habits to attain a new level of creativity? It can be as easy as changing a lens to work from a new angle of view, if your work is predominately wide landscapes, you may want to start doing close-up/macro work for a while. Experiment with black and white and learn what it takes to make a successful B&W image. By changing the way you think about and approach your work, you are, in effect, flexing your creative muscles, allowing the juices to flow, and opening new areas of exploration, thereby broadening your creative potential
I’m not saying that we need to totally discard the things that work for us, but we do need to keep the edge sharp. Like anything else in life, creativity suffers from narrow-mindedness. So, don’t be afraid to try something new or different. The results may surprise you.
It has been well documented that color steals the show when it comes to viewing a photograph. I have written about this previously, but as I have evolved as an artist, my ideas concerning visualization have also progressed. When you look at the two versions of the image below, what is the thing that grabs your attention? What is it that makes one version better or more visually pleasing to you? Do you have the same emotional response to both, or do they each evoke a different reaction?
I love the shade of green in the color photograph. All the variations of shading change subtly from one tone to the next, the trees in the background are almost an afterthought. It is a relatively peaceful image.
The second version is rendered in black and white. There is more tension between the elements because the background trees are no longer visually less dominant. Their repetitive verticality vies for attention with the more random shapes and lines in the False Hellebore in the foreground. The contrast in tonality is also more obvious in the second version, making the image more visually aggressive.
I don’t mean to say that the black and white image is more successful in portraying the feeling I had when I recorded the scene, I am just pointing out that each version places more emphasis on certain elements in the composition. The result is two separate realities (apologies to Carlos Castaneda) that convey two different emotional responses to the same subject.
Telling a story about a place using images isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it may seem. There are many layers of information; some need to be added to, others subtracted from. In the case of the badlands of the San Juan Basin, the latter is the case.
The landscape itself is in fact formed by subtraction. It is eroded by the force of wind, and water over time. Things are not always as they appear. The tree trunk in the first image is no longer composed of wood; it has, over time, become transformed by minerals that replaced the dead organic matter, making it a petrified semblance of its former self.
This layered channel sandstone was infused with minerals which leeched into the ground making it harder than the surrounding matrix. As the accumulated sedimentation eroded, the harder stone was left exposed.
Much like the landscape, these photographs were created by removing some of the information, more specifically, the color. A black and white image presents the bare bones of the subject and allows the viewer to see the underlying structure.
Most of us are subconsciously influenced by colors. We make associations between colors and a certain emotion or mood, so removing the color eliminates the preconceived idea, which in turn leaves us free to experience an image in a more visceral way.
The badlands are a visual experience; the textures, shapes, and patterns inherent in the stone and clay are extraordinarily diverse. So, whether the image is one of more intimate proportions as in this photograph of a small alcove in Ah Shi Sle Pah, or of a grander scale like the image of the Bisti Arch shown below, the simplicity of the black and white image allows the landscape to stand on its own merits.
And while the yellows, reds, browns, greens and magentas which paint these amazing places with an astounding palette, play a role in telling the whole story, the absence of those colors conveys the essence of their austere beauty.