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.