photography from the ground up

Posts tagged “badlands

The (Other) Lybrook Badlands

I recently posted an entry about my efforts to find an out of the way section of the Lybrook Badlands. Wikipedia defines badlands as: a type of dry terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils have been extensively eroded by wind and water. It can resemble malpais, a terrain of volcanic rock. Canyons, ravines, gullies, hoodoos, and other such geological forms are common in badlands. They are often difficult to navigate by foot. Badlands often have a spectacular color display that alternates from dark blue/black coal strata to bright clays to red scoria.

That’s a mouth full and if that definition is correct, then I think this image is about as close as I can get to capturing the essence of a badlands environment. What I’m trying to get at here is that this image was made outside of the area that is generally referred to as the Lybrook Badlands. It is, in fact right next to a major highway in northwestern New Mexico which sort of destroys any romantic idea of a wilderness miles from civilization. None of that really matters though; this area is as much a badlands as any remote, hard-to-reach, hard-to-find wilderness.

I made this image less than a mile from where I made the first one. You can make out the coal, scoria, and clay strata in the hills right next to the highway. I have driven past this place dozens of times on my way to somewhere else, and as is my way, I find myself wondering why I didn’t take the time to explore the area sooner. I had been drawn to it the first time saw it; a few years ago, I stopped by the side of the road and made this image, but went no further.

If it looks familiar it’s because I used it in a previous entry, but the point is: I knew this place had potential, yet it took me years to turn on to that dirt road.

Less than five hundred feet from the place where I stood when I made the roadside image, I came across this landscape. The small yucca nestled practically inside the shattered rock suggests that the cactus may have just emerged from the rock like a newborn bird from an egg.

The roads in this area don’t go very far; like most around Lybrook, they lead to gas wells such as the one shown in the above image, or well heads like the one shown below.

Natural gas development is what brings most of the people who live and work here, except for the Navajo people who have been around these parts for thousands of years, long before anyone knew what gas was, and, of course, crazy photographers who wander around hostile, but beautiful landscapes with a heavy pack full of cameras and lenses just because they’re there.

I’ll leave you with this photograph to ponder what kinds of natural forces sculpt a landscape such as this: these small round, flat stones seem to have been shed from the larger one, but why are they all shaped like that? I often find myself wondering about these kinds of mysteries when I am wandering around the badlands which are fast becoming a second home to me.


Digging Through The Archives

I have been stuck in the Photographic Doldrums for the past couple of months, so I have been spending quite a bit of time searching my archived images. I’m not one to live in the past, but I’ve found that it can be rewarding to revisit my older work. I have rediscovered some of my best work rummaging around in old files. I have also found photographs that, for some reason didn’t make the cut when I first edited them, but over time, with my ever-changing vision and some changes in my workflow, they suddenly take on a new life.

This first image was taken in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Mesa Arch is an iconic location for landscape photographers, but the shot almost everyone takes is of the sun rising behind the arch. Being a bit of a crank, and wanting to make an image that spoke of my vision and not some other photographer’s, I made this photograph in the late afternoon and used the arch to frame the incredible landscape that lies beyond it.

I made this image of Shiprock while driving to Utah a couple of years ago. I was drawn by the bright yellow rabbitbrush and I was also going through what I like to think of as my “fence phase”. These two elements made the perfect foreground for the great volcanic plug and brooding skies.

This is an image of the Virgin River in Zion National Park. The overcast settled lower and by the next morning, the rain was continuous, making my hike to the Subway impossible due to high water and flash flooding. But this moment, looking down canyon with the soft light penetrating the swollen sky is one of my best images from that trip.

Twilight at Chupadera Pond in Bosque del Apache NWR. These three cranes were hunting for their dinner. They had just flown back from a day of foraging in the farm fields at the northern end of the refuge and now they were continuing their seemingly endless search for food in the pond where they would spend the night. The color of the light in this image has not been altered. For one magical moment between sunset and the onset of night, the entire landscape was bathed in this golden-orange glow.

This final image of the Egg Garden in the Bisti Wilderness has gone through numerous iterations and I think I finally have it just where I want it. I know the composition goes against the venerable “Rule of Thirds”, but sometimes it’s good to break the rules, and sometimes it’s good to revisit the past.


HDR: Thus I Refute Photographic Snobbery

I recently received an e-mail which made the argument that HDR is a polarizing subject in the photographic community. It led me down that road that forks and forks again and…well, you know.  Are we as photographers to believe that we are (and should be) fenced in by rules? In this case the rules are about technique and processing. When photography was in its infancy, it was considered to be outside the realm of “serious art”. Now, nearly one hundred years later, it has become acceptable, but only if it fits in a certain box.

So, I am having trouble coming to terms with the ongoing debate inside the photography community concerning HDR processing. I consider the ability to blend exposures to expand the dynamic range of an image to be a wonderful addition to the photographer’s toolkit. There seems to be some divisive opinion about how much processing is allowable. What bothers me about this debate is one very important consideration: CREATIVITY! If someone’s vision requires that heavy and obvious HDR look, then who has the right to tell them it’s too much? Each one of us is different; we each see things in different ways and wouldn’t life be boring if we all agreed on everything?

This first image was made in the Bisti Wilderness last year. The landscape was other-worldly, and the dramatic sky added even more to that impression. In my post processing, I consciously emphasized that quality by making the HDR effect more obvious. I used a tool to help me achieve my vision.

The second image is from the same trip. It was made about an hour after the first. By then the skies had cleared somewhat, and, while the landscape is by no means common, it doesn’t quite have the alien feel of the previous image. This is also an HDR exposure fusion, but I backed off on the processing; I used the technique to enhance the contrast and to make the sky pop a little more.

So, two HDR images that express two very different emotions. I think I have succeeded in capturing my vision for each of them, and that is the point of art.


Out There In The Rocks-Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash

I haven’t been to Ah Shi Sle Pah for nearly two years, but we went out there yesterday to try to locate a rock formation that has been eluding me for some time now.

Ah shi Sle Pah is a dry wash that runs from east to west through the San Juan Basin about thirty miles northwest of Chaco Canyon. Over the course of millions of years, the run-off has eroded the soft mudstone leaving the harder sandstone balanced precariously on the remaining mudstone columns. These bizarre fformations, referred to as hoodoos can stand for thousands of years before finally yielding to erosion and gravity.

The sandstone that is slowly being exposed by erosion was formed in the late Cretaceous period when this area was a tropical forest with rivers which served to compress and cement the sand particles into the sandstone we see today. There are petrified logs lying about as if carelessly tossed aside by some giant prehistoric toddler.

One of the things I find intriguing about Ah Shi Sle Pah is the variations in the visual texture of the place. It is a photographer’s dream come true. The erosion channels in the mudstone are a never -ending source of delight for me.

When the light hits these incredible features in a certain way, especially early or late in the day, the side-lighting makes the textures jump out and the whole scene is electrified with a sense of other-worldly drama.

Did I find the formation I was searching for? Well, I have to confess that I failed, but that’s alright. I guess I’ll have to go back another day.


Out There In The Rocks-Chapter II

We went back to the Lybrook Badlands yesterday to do some more exploring and to come up with a format for a photo tour in the area. Just after leaving the paved road, we came across two guys parked on the side of the road. We stopped to talk and learned they are from Paris, France, and are traveling the southwest to photograph some of the more popular places. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Lybrook is on their list.

They were uncertain about the weather and asked if they could tag along with us. We agreed and set out to see what we could see. This photo shows Dominic, his son Frederic, Robin and me in the heart of the badlands.

Because of the conditions, heavy clouds with intermittent rain, I decided to shoot all HDR (exposure fusion) images. I have found that this is a good way to achieve depth and contrast in this kind of light.

These first three images were made right on the side of the main dirt road that leads into the Lybrook badlands. We weren’t more than a couple hundred yards from our vehicles as we photographed this small collection of hoodoos.

As you can see from the stormy skies, our concerns about the weather were well founded, but we decided to continue on; we all had rain gear and the means to protect our camera gear from the elements.

There was some blue sky as you can see in this image of what I dubbed the Hoodoo Playground. At this point, no rain had yet fallen, but I could smell it on the wind and knew it would be only a matter of time. As some of you who have read my previous blog entries may know, I am energized by this kind of weather. So, why the sudden shift in my attitude? The roads in this area have a high clay content; when it rains hard enough they can quickly become impassable quagmires. As much as I enjoy spending my time making images out here in the rocks, I didn’t relish the idea of spending a night in the Jeep waiting for the roads to dry out.

As we entered the main section of the badlands, the lightning began to flash and the thunder began to roll, but none of us showed the slightest hesitation at continuing the trek into the oncoming storm. By the time we reached the place named Hoodoo Cove, the rain began to fall, not hard, but steady, so we headed back towards the parking area to be in a better position in case we needed to make a run for the cars.

I couldn’t resist making one more image before we left. Even though the rain had begun to fall, there was a break in the overcast that allowed the sun to light part of the rim. It seemed somehow fitting that this dwarf Ponderosa Pine was sharing some of the rays.

When we were about a half mile from where we parked, the rain let up and then stopped altogether, but the storm still moved all around us. We headed up a wash between two prominent buttes to continue our exploration. I made this image from a high point on our trail, we then continued on through the notch towards the darkest part of the cloud cover.

We spent another two hours wandering the washes and climbing around the incredibly complex terrain, getting to know the place a little better. As we made our way back to our vehicles (again), I made this last image. to remind myself how fragile life is and how easily it can come to an end in a place such as this. At the same time, I was looking forward to our next trip out here.


Out There In The Rocks

Edward Abbey once wrote an essay called “TV Show: Out There In The Rocks” It was in the form of an interview with an old codger (Abbey) who had been a Park Ranger at Arches National Park in Utah. He wrote about this time of his life in “Desert Solitaire”, the first of his works that received the recognition it deserved (forgive me Ed-he was not a man who recognized his recognition).

These images are not from Arches NP. They were made in the Lybrook Badlands. No matter, either place is definitely out there in the rocks. I recently found myself driving the gas company roads that criss-cross this section of the San Juan Basin; they branch off here and there, ultimately dead-ending at gas wells. Actually, Robin was doing the driving, I was navigating with the help of my friend Garmin.

We were searching for the elusive heart of the Lybrook badlands. We had already seen them from the mesa-top, stretching out before us like some huge geological maze. Now we were down in the midst of them, down there in the rocks exploring and looking for one certain spot in these miles of desert landscape.

As it turns out, the journey was as rewarding as the final destination. The search for a unique landscape in this case was more a constant visual feast. Being a seasoned desert rat and badlands connoisseur, this is not a new experience for me, but I am always pleasantly surprised when it happens. Because many of the roads in this area are not on any map (even the topos on my GPS), we made many false starts on dead end tracks. It was all good though; the scenery was spectacular, and the ride was an adventure in itself.

Finally, after nearly a full day of bouncing over rocky and rutted not quite roads, we reached the co-ordinates we had been searching for. By now, it was more about just finding the place than there being anything special about it.

We had enough time for a short hike and a few images before we had to start back home. That’s OK. The hook is set. Another day will find us back out there in the rocks. Ed would be proud.


A Desert Rat’s Journal-Chapter 2

Being a desert rat in New Mexico is a full time job; there are so many places to polish your craft. One of my favorites is the Rio Puerco Valley. The Rio Puerco is a mostly dry riverbed that winds its way through some spectacular country on its way to join the Rio Grande.

This is the view looking south from BLM Rte.1114. It is a primordial landscape, dotted with volcanic cones and with the addition of a stormy sky, it becomes a journey to the time of dinosaurs if you disregard the cattle-guard in the foreground.

One of the things you can find without too much trouble (unfortunately) is trash. It comes in all shapes and sizes. This piece of culvert, with catch basin attached, is the extra large variety. It lies slowly rusting into the earth with Cerro Cuate as a silent witness.

There is also an abundance of old tires in the valley. They can be found serving as containers at watering holes, on the roofs of old trailers, or as in this case,  ornamental artwork hung on a cattle-guard.

But, regardless of the trash, cattle, and other abrasive signs of man, there is much beauty to be found in this unique landscape. I will soon be adding The Rio Puerco to my High Desert Photo Tours line-up.

I made this last image from an overlook near Cerro Cuate. There are no rock walls or steel stanchions at this overlook, so you must be careful. In a place like this, the buzzards will find you long before a rescuer.


Time, Wind, and Water

If you’ve never been to the desert southwest, you may not be aware of the importance of water to the landscape. Not only is it the source of life for the many hardy species that call this arid environment home, but is also one of the main forces by which the landscape came to be what it is.

These first three images were made in Blue Canyon on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona. Over eons, a small stream and countless windstorms have sculpted the soft sandstone leaving a wonderland of deep chasms and etching the stone with amazing textures.

Just in case you have the idea that this small stream doesn’t have its moments of glory, here is an image of a car that was carried away while the rivulet was in flood. It is now wedged firmly between the walls of the water cave.

This is the place where the stream plunges into the chasm it has carved out over the course over millions of years. I had posted this image in a previous blog about my trip to Blue Canyon, but that was a color image. I made this black and white conversion using Silver Efex Pro and put some emphasis on the structure and texture to show the wrinkles time has etched into the face of this desert landscape

And just so you know that we have our fair share of “Erosion Art” in New Mexico, here is an image I made recently in the Mesa de Cuba badlands in the northwest corner of the “Land of Enchantment”.

These places can mean different things to different people: Some may look at such a place with a mix of wonder (wonder that anyone could find beauty there) and fear-fear of the unknown, fear of what may be lurking around that next bend, and fear that somehow they may, as I did, develop a deep sense of love and respect for such a harsh, unforgiving environment. One thing is certain if you take the time to look around you and think about how things work in a desert ecosystem, you will come away looking at life a little differently from the way you did before your visit.

Happy wandering! Oh, bring a GPS and plenty of H2O.


A Desert Rat’s Journal

I am a self–proclaimed desert rat; there is something about the harsh, elemental landscape that touches my spirit and makes it soar. It’s little wonder then that I recently found myself back in the Bisti Wilderness loaded down with cameras, lenses, my tripod and my GPS (not to mention plenty of water). I had an agenda: there are several well-known landmarks that, for some reason, I had not yet photographed–at least not to my satisfaction.

Robin and I set out from the parking area with our sights set on the Brown Hoodoos, the first on my list. I had GPS coordinates, but it’s not that easy. It seems a frontal approach was not the way to reach our goal; there were too many obstacles and too much fragile ground to make this route acceptable. So, we made a flanking maneuver, gained the elevation we needed, and approached from the rear. It still took several aborted attempts before we reached the hoodoos, but it was well worth the effort.

I made this image from the place where we first came upon the Brown Hoodoos. I call it “The Valley Of The Earth Gnomes”. I was struck by the implied activity taking place. Even though nothing was actually moving, it seemed we were gazing down upon a small village going about its day to day routine.

After leaving the hoodoos, we headed for the Egg Garden. I had been there many times, but I couldn’t resist stopping by to see what images might be waiting for an enterprising photographer. I found the Queen Bee right where I left her months before, but the atmospheric conditions were much better than any I had encountered there previously.

The next place on my list was the Eagle’s Nest. The Nest is another mile and a half beyond the Egg Garden and as we walked, the clouds began to gather. By the time we got to our destination, it was spitting rain. There was also lightning; I began to worry about our exposed situation and the nearly five mile trek back to the car. Still, I couldn’t help but wish for a lightning strike as I composed this image. I call it “My Inclement Muse”, a nod to the force that sends me off into such places in such weather  searching for beauty.

As we began retracing our steps back to the parking area, the rain stopped and the clouds lifted a bit. I still had one location on my list that I had not been able to find, and I had already decided that the Bisti Arch must have collapsed. I had previously come across a spot that looked like it could have been the arch, but it was nothing more than a pile of rubble when I found it. As we walked past the place where the arch was supposed to be, I turned to have a look back at the way we had come, and there it was. It was much smaller than I had imagined it to be; that’s the reason I had had so much difficulty locating it. As I set up my camera and tripod, everything came together. It was as if the muse was rewarding me for my diligence.

As we packed our gear into the car for the ride home, I was overcome by an emotion not unlike the one you might feel after finishing a good book: satisfaction mixed with melancholy. I had completed my Bisti bucket list. Then I realized that there are still many surprises hidden in a place like the Bisti; I knew then that I could easily spend the rest of my life out there and still not uncover all of the little known treasures stashed away in the washes, slot canyons, and rolling bentonite hills of such a place.


Treading On Sacred Ground

Blue Canyon is a very special place. Of course it’s special to landscape photographers because of the incredible sandstone formations. But, beyond that, it holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the Hopi people. Blue Canyon sits in the northwestern corner of the Hopi reservation and aside from being a remarkably beautiful place, it also contains the only perennial, riparian ecosystem on Hopi land

I recently spent a day with Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, the director of the Office of Cultural Preservation for the Hopi tribe. We spent a lot of time exploring the area that contains the sculpted, layered formations which draw thousands of photographers to this place. It has been closed by the tribe because they fear that the fragile area will be harmed by too much traffic. I was there to photograph the canyon for a book about the Hopis’ sacred places Leigh hopes to publish.

Most of the sandstone formations are clustered in one relatively small area just off the main road, but I think I could spend a week there and never have to photograph the same formation twice. As I wandered, I recognized several places I had seen as images on some landscape photographers website. I made the obligatory exposures, but I wasn’t there to copy someone else’s work, so you will not see any of those images here. Instead, I tried to get a feel for the place as seen through the eyes of my guide, the people with whom this landscape resonates on an entirely different level.

I mentioned that this place is sacred to the Hopi because it holds the only perennial, riparian ecosystem on their reservation. That can mean many different things depending on a person’s experience. In this arid land where water is scarce, it means a small trickle that brings life to this otherwise harsh environment.

I made this image at the place where the water collects in a small pool before plunging into the deep sandstone slot that it has carved over the millennia. As the stream moves down the canyon it disappears into its sandy bed in places-never far below the surface-and then reappears farther downstream, a constant reminder of the fragile balance between life and death in this hauntingly beautiful place.


Give Me A Dramatic Sky

If you’re a landscape photographer, there is nothing worse or more boring than a clear blue sky. Don’t get me wrong, I love a crisp autumn day with cerulean skies as well as the next person, but when I’m out making images, I want some drama from above.

Luckily, here in New Mexico, we get nearly as many days with stormy skies as we do with clear ones. I have always been deeply affected by the weather; when the barometer drops and the sky closes in, I get gooseflesh and I’m out the door with my camera and tripod.

The first two images were made in the Rio Puerco Valley which is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to photograph. There are over fifty volcanic plugs, wide vistas, and beautiful stormy skies. The color photograph above is of the Rio Puerco, a (mostly) dry river for which the Valley is named.

This last image was made near the small village of Torreon, NM. I had driven past these ruins many times, but on this day something told me to stop. The result was several good photographs, this being my favorite of the bunch.

So, the next time you see a storm brewing, grab your gear and head out to make some images. Oh, and you might want to bring a raincoat.


The Bones Of The Image

Sorry about the bad pun, but this seemed like the perfect image to drive home the idea that black and white photographs are more about the structure, tones, lines, and shapes of the photograph, whereas a color image can distract from those basics.

All of the various skeletal segments in the left foreground create lines into the image; they all lead the eye in about the same direction-towards the mesas in the background. The eye then should travel in a kind of spiral: up to the clouds and then back down to the distant double peaked mountain. The focal point (hopefully) is the carcass; the lack of color in the (blue) sky, and the (yellow-ish) grasses means that there is nothing to distract the viewer’s eye from it.

I made this image last year on a trip to the Bisti Wilderness. I had some luck with the atmospheric conditions that day and came away with several very good photographs. This one of the Bisti Arch is one of the best from that outing, and while I think the color version is pretty strong, I feel the black and white conversion says more about what I was seeing and feeling when I captured the image.

Also, the second image has more dynamic tonality;  the saturated colors in the first capture the viewer’s attention, but the rich tones in the monochrome version say more about the structure of both the formation and the composition of the image.


The Beaten Path

Where do we as artists find inspiration? Exploring new territory is always a good way, at least for me. As a landscape photographer, I am charged with boundless energy–despite my sixty-plus years–when confronted with a place where I have never before set foot. Everything is brand spanking new and this always seems to boost the “WOW” factor to higher levels.

But, sometimes, in order to replenish the well, it’s wise to return to some of the places, or techniques that have inspired us in the past. A great and wise photographer who was instrumental in my early meanderings into the world of nature/landscape photography advised returning to places we had been before at a different time of day or year.

I made this image in the Brown Hoodoos area of the Bisti Wilderness. I have visited the Bisti many times and have hundreds of photographs to prove it, but this time I not only found my way to this particular location which had eluded me in the past, but the atmospheric conditions and the light were especially dramatic. It was like being there for the first time. Not long after this trip, I led a tour and we came to this very spot; the lighting was harsh with not a cloud to be found in the clear, blue sky; nonetheless, my clients were ecstatic. It was their first time and the landscape captivated them. It made me see the place with new eyes.

The Bisti Arch was another well known feature that had, somehow eluded me. I knew the approximate location and even had GPS co-ordinates. Yet, I had wandered around Hunter Wash searching in vain. Finding what could have been an arch that had recently collapsed, I concluded that it was the object of my frustration. Then, on a recent trip, while hiking back to the parking area, I glanced at a small formation that I had passed many times, but had never really noticed. I was in just the right spot and there it was, The Bisti Arch. I quickly realized why I had been missing it: I had the scale all wrong. I was imagining it to be much larger than it really was. Nevertheless, I was overjoyed and spent more than an hour making photographs.

Like the Bisti, I have been to the area around Cabezon Peak many times. I have tried time and again-unsuccessfully-to capture an image of Cerro Cuate which is just south of Cabezon. I’ve made several photographs of it in beautiful light, but the compositions all seemed to fall short of what I was looking for. The images just never seemed to do the mountain justice. On a recent trip, however, everything finally fell into place. We were driving home after spending some time photographing the nearby ghost town of Guadalupe. It was early evening and the sun was low. I had noticed this small drainage earlier in the day, but the light was no good at the time. Now the light was right; we stopped and I made five different exposures, this one, after a black and white conversion is my favorite.

So, don’t make the mistake of thinking that once you’ve been to a certain location you’ve seen all there is to see. The light and the conditions are always changing, and with them, the entire mood of the scene. You may even find an unexpected treasure waiting for you.


Black and White!

Forty years ago when I purchased my first SLR camera-a Nikkormat FTN that I still have-I immersed myself in the world of black and white photography. Naturally, one of my heroes was, and still is, Ansel Adams. I learned how to develop film and make acceptable black and white prints from the negatives. I was hooked.

Fast forward to the present day: Photography has changed in ways no one could have imagined in that long gone time when a computer was still a large room-sized machine with unknown purpose and potential. Most of my work since switching from film to digital has been color landscapes. The portraits I have made are also (mostly) in color. Why? The answer is twofold: First, I lost that connection and, with it, the ability to visualize the scene and the image in the frame of my viewfinder in black and white. And, I just could not make a black and white print that matched those that slowly emerged from the developer under that red safelight. Granted, some of the shortcoming was due to my lack of expertise, but much of it had to do with the inability of the available technology to make an acceptable conversion

Recently, however, I have been re-connecting with that which I had lost in terms of visualizing my images in monochrome, and, with the ongoing development of new and better software, I find that I can once again produce a black and white or toned print that lives up to my expectations. Once again I can get excited about a black and white image the way I used to.

This image was made on a lonely highway in northern New Mexico. A storm was rapidly approaching from the south and the heavy clouds added to the feeling of desolation in the scene. The arrow-straight road with the mountains in the distance suggests a lack of any creature comforts. Even the rough texture of the road and the dark silhouette of the tree compound the sense of total isolation.

I did not pre-visualize this image as a black and white photograph. I like the way it looks in color, but I decided to experiment with it. I used Silver Efex Pro to do the conversion and I am very happy with the results. I think stripping the color adds even more to the bleakness of the scene. It lays bare the basic elements and structure of the image. Sometimes making a change in your pattern can help you to revitalize your passion and creativity. Even something as simple (or as complicated) as returning to your roots can breathe new life into your work.

This final image was made in the Mesa de Cuba badlands in the San Juan basin of northwestern New Mexico. It is a three image exposure fusion which I then converted to a sepia toned image in Silver Efex Pro. What caught my eye when I first happened upon this scene was the almost visceral appearance of the erosion channels. It had just snowed and the thirsty ground was sucking the moisture from the newly-fallen snow emphasizing the tonal contrast between the channels and the surrounding earth. At first I was concerned that it may be a little over the top in terms of the tonality, but I realized that I was merely presenting the scene as I had interpreted it. In the end, that’s what matters. Be true to your vision and you will evolve as an artist.


My Inclement Muse

I have been taking stock of my creative drive, attempting to disassemble it and discover what makes it tick. What I have found doesn’t surprise me. I have known it all along, but putting it into words seems to help sustain it. One of the things that drives me is a love of inclement weather: snow, rain, stormy skies–I could do without wind. When the weather turns foul, my spirit soars. I get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, and anything seems possible.

If I can throw a remote location into the mix, then I’m a happy camper. Mother Nature in all her power and glory! Both of these images were made in such locations, under such conditions. The first one is The Eagle’s Nest in the Bisti Wilderness. It had just started to rain, a typical New Mexico summer thunderstorm. I have to admit that I was a little concerned about being several miles from the car, in wide open spaces with lightning flashing, but the muse told me to just make the best of it. I named this image after her.

The second image was made on the side of the road between San Luis and Torreon, NM–Yes you can find stuff like this just lying around next to the road, all you have to do is get out and look for it. I didn’t go more than a hundred yards from the car to make this photograph. Unlike the Bisti image, there was no immediate threat of rain and shelter was within easy reach, but that did nothing to diminish the pleasure and satisfaction I got upon releasing the shutter.


Abandoned In The Wilderness

The Cabezon Wilderness Study Area is a wild and beautiful place in north-central New Mexico. There are endless vistas dominated by volcanic plugs; there are deep cut channels of the Rio Puerco and its many tributaries; there are ruins of a long deserted Chacoan outlier; and there are roadside dumps where someone, at some time, decided that he or she could improve on the scenery by leaving what they no longer treasured to bake in the sun.

I assume that some of the trash that has been left here was discarded by former residents of the area–there are numerous small ranches and ruins of many more that are now slowly making their way back to the earth. The ruins will probably disappear long before the abandoned refrigerators, stoves, culverts, and other artifacts of human habitation that litter the landscape. Maybe we should just learn to accept it. After all it’s human nature to defile the only home we have. No other species has the means, the desire, or the audacity to deface and pollute the earth.

We already have become accustomed to such degradation-and perhaps we  even expect it-in the cities and towns where we gather and live in great numbers, but is it really necessary to leave traces of our arrogance in the wild places where our presence is, or should be, but a whisper?


Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash

Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash is a place of silence, solitude, and visual overload. It is located northwest of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. There are no paved roads within twenty miles and in all the times I’ve been there, I have not seen another person.

Much like it’s bigger cousin, the Bisti Wilderness, Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash is a carnival of geologic attractions. There is eroded sandstone, shale, bentonite and petrified wood. There are hoodoos which defy description, and there are fossilized bones of creatures that roamed the earth millions of years ago

Because of the varying density and hardness of the stone which makes up the structure of the wash, there are variations in the degree of erosion. The result is that harder rock emerges from the side of the wash like some pre-historic dinner plate which was buried over 70 million years ago.

At the end of the Cretaceous period, this entire area, like the nearby Bisti Wilderness was part of a river delta. The deposits of sand, silt, and mud are what we now see emerging in their hardened state. Some of the more exposed sandstone has eroded to such a degree that it looks as though its bones are poking through its tough hide.

On the eastern edge of the wash is a small side canyon which contains an incredible hoodoo forest. It is the first sight that greets you when you start down into the wash. It has been etched into my memory, and is a reminder of the timeless yet fragile quality of our world.

Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash is currently a Wilderness Study Area. The old parking lot is closed to vehicle traffic. Visitors must park on the main road and walk a half mile to the place where the trail starts down into the wash. It is well worth the walk. If you do visit, please leave it as you found it.


The Wind, the Dust and the Bisti

It had been a couple of years since I last made the trip to the Bisti Wilderness. The Bisti is located in northwestern New Mexico between Farmington and nowhere; getting there is an adventure in itself. Last Sunday morning we began driving up US 550 past Cuba with the intention of going to Chaco Canyon, but the weather grew increasingly worse. The overcast spread until it formed an impenetrable curtain, which blotted out the sun. The wind began to gust, lifting the sand from the great expanse of the San Juan Basin, carrying it high into the air, adding to the dome of the darkening sky.

So, we just drove on past the turn off to Chaco. I guess I knew I was heading for the Bisti all along. When we arrived, the wind was blowing even harder, and the air was filled with swirling sand. We never went more than a couple of hundred yards from the car, but we were intrigued by the possibilities nonetheless. Every so often the sun would make an appearance through an opening in the clouds; we continued to make our short sorties into the landscape, and then back to the car for a respite from the wind and sand.

I made this image not fifty feet from the road. Just north of the small parking area at the foot of Alamo Wash there is a large deposit of eroded bentonite (minerals dissolved in a clay matrix). They are formed into small hills and many of them have these small stones on top of them; they look like offerings to some unnamed god.

At one point we pulled into a small parking area on the west side of the road, across from the main section of the wilderness area. The wind continued to howl, but we decided to venture into a draw that looked promising. Behind a large dome shaped hill, we discovered a garden of unearthly delights: sandstone and mudstone forms that seemed to go on endlessly. We were somewhat protected by the hill and the strange geology around us, so we stayed a while, exploring and making images.

I was hoping that the storm would abate. I wanted to hike out to the Egg Garden, but it’s more than a mile and a half from the parking area, the route is totally exposed, and the darkest part of the storm was centered over its location. The garden is an iconic location in the world of landscape photography. I made this image the last time I was there in 2009.

Egg Garden at Bisti Badlands

So, we continued to explore our newly discovered garden, taking shelter, when necessary, behind the strange monoliths. We spent a total of a little more than an hour dodging the sand and taking photographs.

But, the weather steadily deteriorated; the wind blew harder and the sand was stinging our eyes. I took these last two photos about five minutes apart. The sky was threatening rain. We made our way back to the car to leave, but only a few scattered drops fell as we drove out on the dirt road that is the only access to this incredible wilderness area.

 


Landscape Photography On An Overcast Day

Everyone knows you don’t shoot landscapes on an overcast day. The light is too flat to get any depth in your images. Right? One of the things I learned a long time ago is: Learn the rules, but take them with a grain of salt.

One tool that is available to those of us who dabble in the digital realm is HDR or High Dynamic Range for the uninitiated. Normally, if you expose for the highlights in a contrasty situation, the shadows will be blocked up with little or no detail in them, and vice-versa if you expose for the shadows. By making a number of exposures 1/2 to 1 stop apart, a photographer can then combine those images to expand the dynamic range of the photograph–the dynamic range is the spectrum of tonal variations from pure black to pure white that can be captured by a camera. Another effect that can be achieved by combining multiple images is a heightening of contrast in an otherwise flat image.

On a recent photo excursion to the Ojito Wilderness, I had occasion to test the efficacy of this technique. We had started out on a partly overcast day to hike and photograph in a part of the Ojito known as the Colored Bluffs. The closer we got to our destination, the heavier the overcast grew until it obliterated the sun and the nice puffy clouds that had been there a short time before. We began our walk hoping for some better conditions,

As we reached the top of the mesa, the entire landscape changed and we were rewarded with incredible vistas in every direction. The light was still flat, but the visual cornucopia before us made that seem almost irrelevant. Everywhere I looked, there was an image just waiting to be captured. So, I happily started shooting, all the while telling myself that I would have to return on a better day. I realized right away that I would need to blend exposures to get the most out of the images I was capturing. I bracketed five exposures for each scene I shot.

This first photo was taken near the point where we emerged from the wash on top of the mesa. The colors were more saturated because of the overcast, and this dilapidated fence line seemed to invite me into the canyon.

As we continued along the trail, we came across this small clump of rabbitbrush, which was juxtaposed against the colored bluffs in the background. The plant was a contrast in the stark landscape, but it also provided a harmonious counterpoint to the scene.

We were constantly aware of the overcast and the declining sun, but we couldn’t seem to turn back. We had the “let’s just see what’s over that next rise” syndrome. Finally, we came to a high place on the trail which was our “turn back no matter what” point. This is the view looking northwest with Cabezon visible on the far horizon. A fitting climax to a wonderful journey of discovery.

We slowly made our way back towards the parking area. This is the view looking west where the bike trail heads down off the top of the mesa. I was excited about the images and exhilarated by the possibilities this place holds. I also confirmed my belief that it is possible to make passable, or even great images on an overcast day. All of these photos were shot RAW with initial processing in Adobe Lightroom. They were then blended in Photomatix Pro using the Exposure Fusion tool, and final processing was done in Adobe Photoshop.


On Being Freshly Pressed

On Friday I had the honor of being “Freshly Pressed” by the editors of wordpress.com. I am still trying to read through all the comments I’ve been receiving on my blog because of that. I’m not sure I will be able to reply to them all, so I decided to write this post in response. I would like to thank the editors for choosing my blog to be freshly pressed; it is an honor, which I think comes with some responsibility. It’s not that I didn’t take my blog seriously before, but now I feel as though I have some expectations to live up to.

I would also like to thank everyone who has taken the time to view, comment on, tweet, and like, my posts, as well as all of you who have subscribed to my blog. It is quite a humbling experience to be acknowledged by so many from all over the world. I have visited some of your blogs, and I am amazed by the amount of talent and creativity that’s out there.I think this whole experience has made me realize (yet again) that we are all connected, and I don’t mean just through cyberspace.

I hope I can continue to take you to some of the places that you may not have the chance to see otherwise, and perhaps inspire some of you to visit them. Peace!


Life In The Wilderness

This is another image from my exploration of the north end of the Ojito Wilderness back in July. This little clump of cacti was nestled in a small cul-de-sac. The contrast between the green, growing vegetation and the hard, immutable rock is what piqued my interest in this scene. Add a dash of great atmospheric conditions, and voilà, a photograph!

This is a blend of three source images. The dynamic range was just beyond what could be captured in one exposure. When I exposed for the foreground, the clouds were blown out, so I bracketed three exposures. I did my initial adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, then used the Exposure Fusion tool in Photomatix Pro, and cleaned things up in Photoshop. This is pretty much my normal workflow in a situation like this.

Nikon D700, Nikkor 17-35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen 3021 PRO tripod.


The Edge Of The World

Here is a new image from Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah in the San Juan Basin. This was the first photo of the day. I hadn’t walked fifty steps from my truck when I came upon this textured rock right on the edge of what I call The Hoodoo Forest. The clouds were moving fast, and the whole scene looked a bit alien. I felt a sense of satisfaction when I released the shutter; I knew it would be a good day.

I was attempting to portray the singularity of this place for those who have never been there, and those who probably never will be. It is a hidden gem, tucked away in a seldom visited section of the San Juan Basin. The better known Bisti Wilderness is not far to the west, and the ever popular Chaco Canyon is just to the east. But, for all their notoriety, neither of those places can match Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah’s harsh, bizarre beauty.

I used my normal workflow: RAW conversion, white balance, contrast, sharpening, and saturation adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, and a curves adjustment in Photoshop. This is a single exposure image: aperture–f22, shutter speed–1/50th sec., ISO–100.


Pieces Of The Past

I made this image on a recent trip to Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah with my daughter Susan. The clouds had been building all day; we were headed back to the truck when we came across this scene. The rocks and small pieces of petrified wood were strewn about in a, seemingly, haphazard way. It made me think about the forces that painted this bizarre landscape, and the ramifications of cause and effect over a period of millions of years. I couldn’t afford to ponder for long though; the storm continued to build as we walked back to where the truck was parked. We were about fifty feet from it when the first drops of rain began to fall.

I used my usual camera/lens configuration: Nikon D700 and Nikkor 17–35 mm f2.8 wide angle zoom lens mounted on a Bogen tripod, and a circular polarizer. I stopped the lens down to f22 for maximum depth of field, shutter speed was 1/20th second, and the ISO was set at 100.


The Compass Stone

This is an image from my last trip to Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah. This eroded stone seemed to be pointing the way to something. I took the time while setting up this photo to get my bearings with my GPS and I noticed that the stone was pointing directly west. So, it became my compass stone.

The surrounding sandstone has been etched over the ages and in places seems to be carved by a human hand. I am planning another trip to Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah soon. It is a mystical place. It is also one of my Photo Tours locations.

I made this image using my Nikon D700 and my Nikkor 17-35 mm f2.8 wide angle zoom lens with a circular polarizer mounted on a Bogen 3021PRO tripod. Aperture was set to f22, shutter speed was 1/30th sec, and ISO was set to 100.