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.
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.
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.
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
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?
The plan was to explore a small badlands on the Navajo Reservation. It is close to the settlement of Burnham, which is about half way between New Mexico Rte. 371 and US 491. I packed up the car early on July 4th and headed into the expanse of the San Juan Basin.
I have been wanting to make the drive across route 5 for some time, but I always put it off. The first half of the drive is unremarkable: a straight track across high desert grassland. As the road drops off the plateau, however things begin to get more interesting; the view opens up and you can see across the lowlands clear to the Chuska Mountains along the Arizona border. There are several volcanic plugs visible, including Shiprock on the distant northwest horizon.
These first two images show the landscape looking across the badlands from the top. One shows Shiprock in the distance, and the other is a view of the main part of the badlands area. The route to the bottom is gained by finding a trail across the bentonite hills and between the numerous small washes that drain the uplands. This is where a good GPS system was invaluable, The “breadcrumb” feature made it relatively easy to follow the path back to my car.
When I reached the bottom, I made my way to the most prominent feature, a tall gracefully eroded hoodoo atop a small mound. The colors are mostly yellows, blacks, and reds, the subtle gradients made an interesting compositional element, as did the small boulders strewn across the floor of the wash.
I had heard about a petrified stump somewhere in the area and I set out to locate it. I started by skirting the margins of the flats, moving in and out of each small drainage. I really had no point of reference, but since these badlands are relatively small, I felt confident that, if I kept looking, I would find the stump. I stopped to make a photo near the southern edge of the main wash and as I turned around to continue my search, I saw what I was looking for on the opposite side of a low outcropping. What I found most interesting about this particular piece was the nearly intact root extending down as if it was still doing its job of delivering water to the tree; such a commonplace relationship frozen in time and space.
I continued exploring for the next couple hours and found more petrified logs and small hoodoo groupings before making my way back to the car. As I began the climb back to the top, I made a photo across one of the tributary washes to the jumble of bentonite mounds that surround the lowlands.
As I continued the climb out, I made several more images, including the one below, looking westward to the Chuska Mountains. I was thankful for my GPS, I had to reference the “breadcrumb” feature a couple times to find my way out of the maze.
When I reached the car, I realized that it was still relatively early in the day. Looking out over the landscape, I once again saw Shiprock on the horizon and decided to drive there to photograph it at sunset, hoping for some nice color in the overcast sky. I returned to IR-5 and continued west to its junction with US 491 and then headed north to my destination.
I drove onto the dirt road just east of the lava dike and followed it for a couple miles until I found a good spot and began the wait; there was still a couple hours to go before sunset. I set up my camera and tripod, made a few exposures, and repositioned the setup. I then settled in to wait for the anticipated light show. I made exposures whenever the light was interesting, and read a book I had brought along to help pass the time. In the end, sunset was not what I had hoped it would be, the clouds grew more dense obliterating the evening light and muting what little color there was. But, I had plenty of images with some nice light to choose from. This is my pick out of those, the side-lighting does a nice job of revealing the rugged texture of Shiprock, and also casts a nice glow across the foreground.
I drove to Farmington to spend the night satisfied that I had come away with some good images. I decided that I would extend the trip through the next day and see where the wind would take me.
I have photographed and written about Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash extensively. The place is a unique environment and the relatively small area of interest is still revealing new secrets to me. But, as I stood on the edge of the wash recently, I looked to the horizons and wondered what else might be hiding in that seemingly featureless landscape. The thought stayed with me, so one morning I opened Google maps and began searching for telltale signs of eroded areas along the edges of the wash. As I moved west, I eventually came across a region that looked promising. I then began looking for means of access and found a road that ended right at the edge of the area on the map. A quick look at Garmin Base Camp identified GPS coordinates and I was on the road.
Exploring at home on a computer is quite a bit different from driving out into a remote place where you have never been. The dirt two track off the main dirt road seemed endless–even though it was actually only a little over two miles from start to finish. At one point I drove into a section where the road became extremely sandy, and I had to backtrack or risk getting stuck. I eventually found my way to the end of the road and parked. on one side was the broad expanse of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash, on the other was a wall of incipient hoodoos emerging from a black hillside. It looked like my hunch had paid off.
The more I saw, the more excited I became. Unlike the well-known part of Ah Shi Sle Pah where the features are exposed in an unbroken display several miles long, this small extension seemed to be more recently unearthed in smaller, more intimate areas scattered along both edges of the wash.
I could see more places to the west that looked promising, but by that time, it was getting too late in the day. I wandered and photographed in the immediate area for a couple of hours before deciding to call it a day.
A couple days later, I was on my way to Ah Shi Sle Pah again to further investigate the terrain I hadn’t had a chance to cover on my previous foray. I had identified a place to park that would put me within a mile of the region I wanted to explore. The route took me over a sage covered plain and then dropped into a small tributary wash where I found some hoodoos and petrified wood.
I made a beeline for my ultimate goal, which required several short climbs out of the wash, onto the sage, and back into the wash. I finally arrived at the main wash and began climbing around in the rocks on the northern edge. It was slow going because I had to choose my route carefully due to sudden drop-offs, sink holes, and the possibility of buzz worms (rattlesnakes).
At one point, I looked back to the main wash and across the way I had come and made a photo. But I was drawn by some force to continue to see what lay beyond the next ridge, the next cluster of hoodoos. I came to a crest and dropped into the next tributary. Things were really starting to get (more) interesting. There was an image everywhere I looked.
The landscape was tortured and shattered. Forces of erosion and weather had sculpted an unimaginable (even for that area) jumble of hoodoos, spires, and tables. One small hoodoo bore an uncanny resemblance to a brain on an over-developed spinal cord.
So, there I was thinking it couldn’t possibly get any better, when I caught sight of what is possibly the most bizarre, unearthly formation I had ever seen. It was a hoodoo, but the support column was perforated in places, and the part that remained around the perforations was shaped like some sort of geological accordion. But, my brain stamped it as an exposed part of some mesozoic nervous system.
I spent close to two hours working the thing from all possible perspectives. I was lucky to have an incomparable atmospheric display with light that was constantly changing.
The fluctuating illumination on the scene resulted in mood swings worthy of the subject. In the end, I walked away with close to two hundred images and plans to return at some time in the near future. The fragility of the structure is such that I imagine it could crumble and fall at any time.
But, I have witnessed other such oddities in the vastness of the San Juan Basin that have defied the vagaries of time and weather against all odds for decades, centuries, millennia, so perhaps this wonderful piece of nature’s art will endure for a while.
The one half mile long dirt road that leads from New Mexico Hwy 57 (actually, also a dirt road) cuts through the sage brush prairie with only the slightest sign that there could be anything of interest ahead. The road comes to an abrupt end in a small turn around and a suggestion of a drop beyond the slight rise at the edge of the featureless plain. But, a short walk to the edge of that rise will change any pre-conceived ideas about Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. The land falls away quickly into a jumble of strange shapes that defy the imagination. Usually, when I make this trip, I walk down into the midst of it all, but on this trip, it was my intention to capture the landscape along this southern edge of the wash, to use the incredible shapes and textures to make more broad landscapes to tell the story of how this place was formed, and how it continues to evolve.
It is here, at the edge, where most of the action is. Hoodoos, their caprocks sitting at jaunty angles, are scattered about in clusters, looking for all the world like groups of alien beings assembled for a social gathering. Petrified logs, looking much the same as they did when the tree fell millions of years ago, emerge from hillsides waiting to surprise and delight visitors. All of these features make great elements for a photographer. That’s one reason why these badlands are destinations for landscape photographers from all over the world.
Something else that stands out here on the edge of the declivity is the color. The soft clay/ash matrix which holds it all together, is a yellowish brown that differs from the whiter color found deeper into the wash, this yellow coloration indicates the presence of iron oxides in the soil. In places, the hue can be more saturated and stand out from the rest, thereby becoming a magnet for the eye, as the hoodoo column in the photo below does.
Standing just about anywhere along this southern rim will give you a good idea of the underlying structure of the area. You can literally see the geologic history of the earth at that place. The deeper into the wash you look, the older the formations are. There’s a lot to see, which means it’s easy to overwhelm your viewers with too much information. When composing an image, it’s important to use design elements like color and light to draw the eye to the main points of interest in the scene.
Of course, the way the light lies on the scene, will play a large part in determining the feeling an image will convey. As the sun neared the horizon to the west, it broke through the overcast in places in a series of rays that shone on the vista and, in turn, caused a dappled light which spotlighted parts of the scene, creating a natural vignette, and reducing the general saturation of the colors. The forms and creases were emphasized by the angled light as well. On the downside, shooting into the general direction of the sun requires that you be vigilant for lens flare (unless it’s intentional), and the dynamic range for such a scene can easily overwhelm your camera’s capabilities. I made five exposures of this image in case I needed to blend them in post processing, but I was actually able to complete the final version using only one exposure.
As I was walking back to the car I was in high spirits because I could feel it, you know, that excitement you get when you know you’ve made some good images and can’t wait to get them uploaded and bring them to fruition. Another lesson learned, or I should say re-learned: change your perspective and do things differently; widen your view and look for the possibilities.
I spend a lot of time in the desert, more specifically, in the badlands of the San Juan Basin. And, of the nine recognized badlands located there, I usually find myself wandering in either the Bisti Wilderness, or Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. But, I want to step out of the box here and give a nod to the rest: the Ojito Wilderness, Mesa de Cuba, San Jose, Lybrook, Mesa Penistaja, Ceja Pelon, and De Na Zin.
What exactly is a badland? Merriam-Webster defines it as: a region marked by intricate erosional sculpturing, scanty vegetation, and fantastically formed hills–usually used in plural. The pre-requisites for a badlands to form are a grouping of harder sedimentary deposits: sandstone, siltstone etc. suspended in a softer matrix. As the softer material is eroded away, the harder, more dense material is left exposed, often perched on pedestals of the soft matrix.
But, at times the harder deposits may just be scattered haphazardly across a playa or alluvial plain or they may be isolated and in unexpected angles of repose. The seemingly inexplicable arrangement of the features is part of the mystique of the badlands. How did they get here and why? The answer to that question could fill a Geology text, and I am not even remotely qualified to go there. I can say, with some authority however, that the photographic possibilities are as close to infinite that you can get.
As you can imagine, the creation of such an environment takes time…a lot of time. Mesa de Cuba, the youngest is 38-54 million years old. San Jose is 48-64 million years old, Lybrook, Ceja Pelon, and Penistaja are all 60-64 million years old, De Na Zin, along with Bisti and Ah Shi Sle Pah, is 70-75 million years old, and Ojito is the oldest at 144-150 million years old. Each of the aforementioned locations have their own personality, and each of them offer there own version of timeless beauty.
Color is an element that often takes center stage in the badlands. Depending on the mineral content of the soil, there may be layers of red, yellow, blue, or even green. Combine this palette with the other strange and, often, unexpected elements of the landscape and the other-worldly, remote locations become even more surreal.
Possibly the most noticeable feature of such environments are the many erosion channels and drying cracks that cut into the soft bentonite, and mudstone that form the matrices that support the entire system. When the light is right, they stand out in stark relief revealing an almost unimaginable complexity.
As I already pointed out, most of these locations are much smaller than their more famous big brothers: Bisti, and Ah Shi Sle Pah. But, what they lack in size, they make up for in their diversity and surreal beauty. When you add to that the knowledge that these environments have been so many eons in the making (that petrified log emerging from the side of that bentonite mound was a cypress tree in a Mesozoic swamp), and are ever evolving (those sandstone slabs you just walked over will be the caprocks of hoodoos in some distant, future landscape), exploring and photographing them becomes even more significant and mysterious.
Just as you can never step into the same river twice; because of their fragile, and ever-changing nature, you can never visit the same badlands twice.
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.
: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.
Light can be a funny thing. One minute it’s soft, throwing just the right combination of highlights and shadows across a scene; then the sun comes out of the clouds, the light becomes harsh, and your scene becomes a hodgepodge of extreme contrast. While some photographers prefer harsh light for their landscapes, I have always looked for soft diffuse light in my landscape work. Perhaps my preference has something to do with my earlier close-up/macro work. Whatever the reason, I don’t care for a lot of edgy contrast in my photography.
If you think of your landscapes as portraits, which I do, this makes more sense. Any areas that are in deep shadow are hiding a part of the scene. Not only that, they are distracting and even extraneous. Crafting a fine landscape image can be much like writing an essay or novel: you have to finesse each element until it flows well with the rest of the composition. Of course there are times when you have to just accept the conditions you have and if you’re working in harsh light, you need to be aware of how to use the light to your advantage, and how to make adjustments later in post processing if necessary.
This can be accomplished in several ways. Newer cameras are pretty good at capturing wide dynamic ranges within a photograph. Often, one exposure is enough to get all the information needed to produce a good final image. If you are unable to capture all the tones in the scene, you may need to make a series of bracketed exposures and combine them later in HDR software or by blending the exposures in Photoshop. There was time, not so long ago, when I shot five exposures for every image, and then blended them in Photomatix Pro. Now I try to get it all in one exposure. I only bracket exposures under extreme conditions.
Post processing software is becoming much better at making tonal corrections; the highlights and shadows sliders in Lightroom work wonders on a high contrast image. High ISO and low-light noise reduction are also much better in the newer cameras, and the ability of editing software to deal with these problems in post is advancing quickly. So, the tools are available, making good, even great, images under extreme lighting conditions is becoming easier, and the results look better than was possible just a couple years ago.
On a final note, I use Adobe Lightroom 5 and the latest version of Photoshop CC, but there are quite a few very good options out there. On One Software’s Perfect Photo Suite is just one example.
Check out more of my work on my website: http://www.jimcaffreyimages.com
Here we are again (already) celebrating another year and renewing the circle. In looking back on 2014, I realize that I didn’t spend as much time in the field as I would have liked to. If I made resolutions, which I don’t, I would resolve to get out with my cameras more in the coming year. That being said, I did manage a few keepers over the past twelve months, so here they are.
In March I made a drive up to Abiquiu in search of nesting eagles. I didn’t see a one. But, I did find this scene of the Chama River just north of the village of Abiquiu. The light was amazing and the way it lit the distant peaks was icing on the cake.
Regina, New Mexico is a small village north of Cuba. It has a sleepy feel to it even though New Mexico highway 97 passes through the middle of the town. This old cottonwood, barn, and Chevy flatbed were watching what little traffic was moving by on the road. It seemed a bit nostalgic to me so I made this image.
In May I made several trips to the Bisti Wilderness, but I concentrated my efforts on the northern area off Hunter Wash instead of the more popular southern section off Alamo Wash. I found this nest of emerging hoodoos in a small hollow in the surrounding hills. The skyline is populated with small stone wings which are more prevalent in the north section than in the south.
A little further along on the same day I made this image of Robin making her way across the rolling bentonite hills near the highest point in the wilderness. When these soft hills erode, the incipient hoodoos buried beneath them will be revealed–as illustrated in the preceding photograph. The process is slow, but relentless.
In August we returned to the Bisti Wilderness on my birthday and I made this portrait of Robin and me on a small sandstone throne. We were actually within fifty yards of the highway which cuts through a rocky outcrop downstream from where Hunter and Alamo Wash converge.
This image is a bit of a cliché, but I think it does a pretty good job of telling the story: these places should not be taken lightly. The badlands of the San Juan Basin, or any wilderness for that matter, can be deadly. I never venture forth without enough water and a GPS receiver.
When you shoot into the light as I did in this image, it is called contre-jour lighting. Actually this is not contra-jour in the strictest sense of the word; the sun was not directly behind the scene. But, the effect is pretty much the same. In this case, the backlighting lends a feeling of ephemeral mystery to the image.
This image was made one day after the previous one. In this case I was driving past a place that I see every day on the way home. I was struck by the intensity of the colors and by the uncertainty of the sky.
The last two images were both made at Bosque del Apache NWR. The landscape is a view looking northeast along the south tour loop. It is a peaceful image and the colors are a bit of an emotional contrast.
I hope you enjoyed viewing my images as much as I enjoyed making them, and I wish you all a happy and healthy new year.
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.
Jack London said: “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a stick!”. My stick is solitude, or more precisely, a place where solitude is possible. Usually I am with one or more companions, whether they be clients on a tour, or a like minded friend, but the main ingredient, the thing that makes it possible for me to fly off to a world of my own lies not in the absence of company, but rather in the absence of barriers.
If I make an image that portrays the illusion, I have accomplished my goal. In fact, there are times that a human figure is essential to complete the composition. An inanimate object can also serve to convey the feeling of isolation by providing something for the viewer to empathize with:
A weathered fence post in the midst of multi-colored badlands…
or a horse skull perched on the edge of a labyrinthine wash. These anchors add a sense of scale to the image, and allow the viewer to immerse herself in the “splendid isolation” of the environment.
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.
This is a post about gear (particularly lenses) and why I chose it (them) to make a specific image. I teach a digital photography class at a nearby college and one of the things I cover in that class is the effect that the angle of view (the angle of coverage of the lens) can have on how the image is perceived by viewers. There are four categories: broad landscapes (wide angle), intimate landscapes (normal to short telephoto), compressed landscapes (mid-long telephotos) , and macro/close-ups (macro lens).
This image of a small wash full of water was made in the Rio Puerco Valley after a monsoon rain. It is an example of a broad landscape; the depth of the image from foreground to horizon is exaggerated. I used a wide angle zoom with an aperture of f 22 to give me the depth of field I needed to keep everything sharp.
Nikon D800, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8 @ 17mm; 1/30sec, f22, ISO 100, tripod
I made this image in Blue Canyon on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona. It is an intimate landscape; the area covered, side to side and front to back, is relatively small compared to the broad landscape. There is a feeling of immediacy or closeness about the image, as if it could fit in your living room. I used a medium telephoto zoom set at an aperture of f 11.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 28-70mm f2.8 @ 35mm; 1/25sec, f11, ISO 100, tripod
Using a telephoto lens causes an image to compress, so distant objects seem closer. A telephoto lens does not exaggerate the depth of the image the way a wide angle lens does. Instead, it causes elements to flatten, making the distance from foreground to horizon appear shorter, and making the elements in between appear more closely grouped.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 @ 200mm; 1/25sec, f8, ISO 100, tripod
There is something about the the world that lies right at our feet that is compelling. Although it is normally common and quite ordinary, given a little attention and a skilled eye it can become extraordinary. This is the world of close-up or macro photography. There is no need to travel to exotic locales when there is an unending source of interesting subjects to be found in your own back yard.
Nikon D300, Nikkor 105mm f2.8 macro; 1/60sec, f8, ISO 200, tripod.
Wow! Another year fades into memory. I have spent the last couple weeks editing the images I’ve made in 2013 with the goal of culling my favorite dozen. Image editing for me is a labor of love; I have a connection to my work, so picking “the best” out of hundreds candidates is not an easy task.
I knew from the time I made this photo of a bull elk in my yard on January 3rd that I was setting a high standard for the rest of the year. Also, not only was it serendipitous, but the image was a departure from my usual wide angle landscapes. I had been feeling for some time that my work had been stagnating, so I resolved then and there to take it in a new direction.
In early February, I ventured into an area along US 550 that I had been looking at as a shooting location for some time. I was drawn by some red sandstone pinnacles that were visible from the highway. As I walked toward them, I came across this old section of road that is slowly eroding, being reclaimed by natural forces. The scene made me realize how impermanent our impact on nature really is. In the end, this is the image that stood out above the others I made that day. Again: serendipity.
As the year progressed, I found myself revisiting some places I had been before. The image of the church on San Ildefonso Pueblo (a scene I had driven past countless times before) is more about the light than the subject matter. It is also a more visually compressed image than is usual for me due to my use of a longer focal length lens.
Every year at the end of May–Memorial Day Weekend to be exact–the Pueblo of Jemez hosts the Starfeather Pow Wow. Hundreds of native dancers from across the country come to dance and compete. I made hundreds of images that weekend, but this portrait of two brothers stood out. They are dressed in “dog soldier” head-dresses, hair-pipe breastplates, and feather bustles, all made by their father. Just before I released the shutter, I told them to give me some attitude. I think they did a pretty good job.
Anyone who is familiar with my work, knows that I spend a great deal of time in the Rio Puerco Valley. It was near the middle of July and the rains had just started after several months of searing heat and cloudless skies when I made this image. There are many possible causes for this animal’s demise, but the location of its desiccated remains along a now rain-filled wash and the rain falling from a heavy sky tells an ironic story about the uncertainty of life in this harsh environment.
And speaking of harsh environments, the Bisti Wilderness in July can be a sobering place. The temperatures can soar to well over 100°F. I usually try to discourage clients from booking a photo tour during this time, but if the monsoons have started, it can be relatively pleasant and the cloudy skies lend a sense of drama to the scene. I made this image of one of my clients pondering the maze in the Brown Hoodoos section of the wilderness.
From a land of parched earth to a place where water is omni-present; my travels took me to Wisconsin in August. On a day-trip to Olbricht Botanical Gardens with my daughter, I made this image of the Thai Pagoda. Normally I steer clear of this kind of symmetry in a photograph, but the structure, and the entire environment seemed to demand it.
Autumn is the best time to be in the badlands, especially if the atmosphere cooperates. Even though the ground was soft and the washes were running from the rain, there were still cracks in the earth. It was as though the soil had a memory of the scorching it normally receives and refused to let go. After processing this image, I realized that it was best to convert it to black and white.
During the months of September and October I spent a great deal of time photographing the trains of the Cumbres-Toltec narrow-gauge railroad which runs from Chama, New Mexico to Antonito, Colorado. I spent every weekend for nearly a month chasing the trains and the fall colors. In the end, my favorite image had nothing to do with color and everything to do with the train, the track and the trestle.
To most people, in the US anyway, November means thanksgiving. For me it is my annual trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Over the years, I have come to relish my time with the cranes, herons, geese, and other waterfowl that call the Bosque home during the winter months. Even though I have thousands of images of the birds flying, taking wing, landing, wading, eating, and doing whatever else it is that they do, I still managed to make two of my favorites there in 2013.
This first is obvious and familiar: a crane in the process of taking off from one of the ponds to fly to the fields where he will spend the day foraging. The second is a departure from my normal Bosque images, but one that illustrates the reason that I keep returning year after year.
In December I travelled by train to visit my oldest daughter (an adventure I wrote about in my previous blog entry). Chicago’s Union Station was a surprise to me. I made several images inside the station and when I wandered out the doors to Canal Street, I found this scene. I was immediately drawn by the fact that while some of the elements had symmetry–there’s that word again–some didn’t. And of course the cherry-on-top: the wet pavement reflecting the lights and columns.
I spend a lot of time these days in one of several badlands in the San Juan Basin. These images are from a tour I led recently in the Bisti Wilderness. I normally take a tripod whenever I go out photographing, but recently I have been leaving it at home when I lead tours.
The main reason is that I want to be able to devote my time to my clients and the time involved with setting up my tripod every time I make an image is a distraction.
Also, shooting handheld puts me in another frame of mind, one where I have more freedom to shoot from the hip. I think it also has an an positive effect on my creative vision.
At one point, I saw my client down in the rocks looking around for a shot and was able to capture this image of him processing the scene. If I had to fiddle with my tripod, I doubt the image would be as spontaneous.
I’ve also found that I make images that I would normally pass up. This one is an example; at first glance, I wasn’t really that impressed by this scene, but, I did like the cracks in the foreground. I’m glad I decided to make this photo, after spending time processing the image, it’s grown on me.
This petrified log is half exposed in a small wash in a remote section of the Bisti Wilderness. There are several other relatively large logs in this same area. Actually, I’ve taken this photo before, but I like the light much better in this version.
As we were packing up to leave in the parking area, this group of riders approached us. I called them over and we shared some water with them, then they posed with their horses.
It was a fitting end to the tour and my clients were overjoyed.
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.
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.
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.