black and white

...now browsing by tag

 
 

El Paisaje Perfecto

Friday, October 9th, 2015

I was really happy a couple of weeks ago to be contacted by Pablo Sánchez, who runs the website, El Paisaje Perfecto, a spanish language website about photography and conservation.  Pablo invited me to be featured in an article on black and white landscape photography, and the article was published today on his website.

Black and white images don’t make up the bulk of my work, but they are an important part.  In my interview with El Paisaje, I said that for many photographers, black and white is an afterthought in the digital darkroom, as if color didn’t work the first time.  However, I prefer to start out by visualizing an image in black and white in the field, and bring that through the entire post-processing workflow.  A well-processed black and white image can be very evocative, which is what draws me to black and white.

The ability to conceptualize a scene in the field then bring it to life in monochrome is a great way to exercise one’s vision.  So too is the identification and isolation of the important components of the composition.  I made this image in August on a cloudy day along the North Saskatchewan River in Alberta, Canada.  As you enter the dramatic Icefields Parkway that connects Banff and Jasper National Parks, scenes like this are the low point of the scenery, but the forest and moving water drew me in.  After playing with several exposures to get the riffles in the river “right,” I knew I had something that probably wouldn’t hold up to snuff in color, but in black and white, the feeling of the impenetrable forest was certainly conveyed.

Saskatchewan River Banff National Park

I hope you enjoy the article.  For more great black and white landscape photographers, see the work of Bruce Percy, Michael Gordon, and Bruce Barnbaum.

A Canyon Offering

Friday, June 21st, 2013

Once I got to the ground, I laid down on the cold Navajo Sandstone, preparing to belay  my friends who would be joining me by rappelling over 300 feet into this remote canyon nestled deep inside the Colorado Plateau.  A few minutes ago, on the canyon’s rim, the morning sun warmed me, but now as I lay on the cold rock inside of this deeply shaded crevasse, I become chilled quickly.  Laying on here, I quickly realize that sandstone makes a crummy pillow, and it is my body that is forced to conform to the curves in the rock, not the other way around.  Still, although I have never been to this particular place before, I feel comforted and relaxed by my surroundings and I wonder to myself, “How much is it possible to love a place?”

My friends have joined me now, and the rope has been retrieved.  In a sense, we are now cut off from the world.  For the next several hours, we will work our way through the obstacles in our path.  Of course we will laugh (a lot) and enjoy each others’ company, but for me it is also a time of quiet contemplation, walking alone for brief periods as I soak up my time here.

Canyon Abstract 1

Inside of a canyon, we must embrace the notion that we are very small beings in a very large world.  It is one thing to be awed by a large ponderosa pine that has become lodged twenty feet up between a canyon’s walls.  It’s entirely another to return the next year only to find that the tree is gone, vanished.  Trying to understand the force that a flash flood exerts as it moves through a place like this is utterly impossible.  To escape from these forces inside of a canyon would be equally impossible: we would be crushed and our bodies washed away like the ponderosa pine.  Yet the rock endures, over time becoming more sensuously curved and beautiful in spite of (and because of) the nature of the destructive forces that shape it.

Canyon Abstract 2

We spend much of our time in everyday life searching for the bigger picture.  As I walk through the canyon, I can see pine trees hundreds of feet above me, and  I know that the world is going on “up there,” but I am not a participant in it today, however I have fallen into rhythm with the canyon, engaged in life down here.  There is something strangely liberating about surrendering to a world that rapidly–and voluntarily–becomes small and very focused.  As a reward for relinquishing my place in the world today, I am treated to some of the most sublime light imaginable.  Before my eyes, the canyon’s walls shift between shades of red, orange, purple, magenta, and blue that seem to exist only in dreams.  I can feel the peace deep inside of my soul.

Visitors to pretty much any national park in the American southwest will get a taste of canyons, whether they look in from the top of the Grand Canyon, or upward at the towering sandstone cliffs in Zion.  Of the millions of visitors to these and other parks each year, very few will experience a canyon close-up, and still fewer will get to experience the silence that true solitude can offer in between these extraordinary sandstone walls.

I am, I’m unashamed to say, in love with this place.

Canyon Abstract 3

Potsherds

Monday, March 11th, 2013

I am writing this sitting at a desk that my dad made for my eleventh birthday. In the second drawer is an old pipe tobacco can–Captain Black–filled with Native American potsherds.

My family moved to the Four Corners region in northwestern New Mexico when I was six years old.  Many of my earliest memories of New Mexico involve the typical sight-seeing outings families do;  I remember going to Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.  At that age, the significance of these world-class archaeological sites did not really mean much to me.  However, I started to draw connections to the ancient residents of this area one September day while deer hunting with my dad; we walked through an area filled with potsherds.  I was probably a little bored after several hours of hiking through the seemingly endless piñon-juniper pygmy forest, and the potsherds made for an exciting treasure hunt.  We picked up some of the nicer ones and brought them home.  Since then, they’ve largely lived inside of the pipe tobacco can inside my desk drawer.

I am not sure how old they are.  Some are really lovely bowl rims, with simple triangular black-on-white patterns painted on them.  Others are pieces of corrugated bowls.  Many of the archaeological sites in that area of New Mexico are Navajo–about 400-500 years old.  However, the areas we used to visit do not lie far from Salmon Ruins and the Great North Road.  So, it is entirely possible–probable even–that these pieces are much older Ancestral Puebloan potsherds.

Pueblo Bonito, Tse-biya hani ahi

Archaeologists say that we learn best about ancient cultures by leaving artifacts in their place, admired but untouched.  After all, they tell the stories of the peoples who came before us.   Indeed, much science is lost by looking at these pieces of pottery ex situ.  However, when I look at them, I think of the people who made them.  What were they thinking when they left them?  Did they walk away unflinchingly from their home, or did they take a longing look back, thinking they may someday return?

These fragmented pieces of pottery tell the story of a people who eeked a living off of the land, who knew the landscape and probably felt a deep sense of place here.


I looked down upon hillside after hillside of slopes clear-cut for their timber.  Traversed back and forth by logging roads, the hills were deeply scarred and patterened.  All I could think of were pottery designs.  Beginning there, the entire flight was an aerial Anasazi visual feast of basket weaves made of farmland plowing, river ways drawn out like rock art, and cloud patterns resembling rock forms.”  — Bruce Hucko, Cave to Cave–Canyon to Canyon

Flying from my home in southern California to Colorado at 30,000′, I can relate to Hucko’s evocative impressions of the Western landscape (Bruce Hucko was the photographer for the  Wetherill-Grand Gulch Research Project).  I see landscapes–monoliths, cliffs, and mesas–that are part of who I am, so much so that I can recognize them without having seen them on a map, or even visiting them, in years.  A floodplain in the Mojave desert, the Grand Canyon, the Vermillion Cliffs, Navajo Mountain, Cedar Mesa, Mesa Verde, the San Juans, the Sawatch, and finally we touch down in Denver.  Terra firma.

Mojave Desert

Two hours in the air filled with fragments of landscapes that conjure memories–in the same way those broken pieces of pottery tell the story of a people, these landscapes are my potsherds of the American Southwest.  This is where I have spent my life and I’ve had adventures with friends and family; these stories would fill a hundred books.


It has been over 25 years since my first visit to Chaco Canyon, but it feels like many more.  It’s a sunny and warm December afternoon, and many of the other tourists have left, leaving the halls of Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito quiet and a little lonely and the moon is rising over Fajada Butte.  I sit for a while, watching the reflected winter light bounce through the rooms, which are now open to the sky.   For what feels like the hundredth time, I find myself thinking about the journey of the people who lived here, and of their great road north toward my childhood home, near Salmon and Aztec ruins.  Potsherds lie across the high desert for nearly 100 miles; the stories of these travelers are being told in fragments.

So it is that we tell our own stories in broken, scattered pieces. Our own beautiful stories are being shared and discovered by the people in our lives, just as we discover our own pieces of others.  If we are lucky we find an entire, unbroken, pot now and then.

 Fajada Butte Moonrise

A Bird’s Eye View

Monday, July 9th, 2012

My family and I just returned from a trip to Wyoming.  The primary purpose of the trip was to visit family, so I did not have a lot of extra time for photography.  However, one of the photographic highlights of the trip was our flight from my home in southern California to Denver.  The flight path covers some fantastic topography and it’s always been fun for me to see how many formations I can recognize.  On this flight, I decided to try and do a black and white series of the landscape 35,000′ feet below me.

Can you figure them out?  Some are super easy…others are not.   Images are posted in the order you would see them flying from southern California to Denver.

Hills in the Mojave Desert of southern California

Mystery Landscape #1

Grand Canyon National Park

Mystery Landscape #2

The Vermillion Cliffs in northern Arizona

Mystery Landscape #3

Goosenecks of the San Juan River

Mystery Landscape #4

Grand Gulch Plateau

Mystery Landscape #5

Badlands in southwestern Colorado

Mystery Landscape #6

Colorado Rockies

Mystery Landscape #7

Feel free to post your guesses in the comments section.  I will post the locations in a few days.  I do not know every detail of each image, but am pretty sure I have the locations correct…maybe you can pinpoint some better than I can.

There were some challenges that degraded image quality in these files.  First, I got lucky with a pretty clean window on the airplane.  A dirty window would make these sorts of images difficult.  Second, the glass plane window and interior plexiglass also make focusing difficult.  There are some odd things that happened to some of the files because of my high tech “plexiglass filter.”   You can probably see a few things on some of these files…

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on these, as well as your guesses!

Two new ‘Wind’ images

Monday, June 25th, 2012

In January, I introduced my wind portfolio, a black and white set focusing on shape and form, and celebrating landscapes that have been created (in part) by wind.  I am happy to add two new images to that portfolio.

View from Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, May 2012

The Grand Canyon is a place that has been shaped by the powerful erosional forces of wind and water for millions of years.  Attracting millions of visitors a year, it is truly one of the seven wonders of the world, and has always captivated me.  At sunrise and sunset, the receding hill layers create depth not only in the landscape, but in the imagination, and it is difficult for me not to imagine John Wesley Powell exploring this canyon for the first time, being completely awed.


“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”

–John Wesley Powell


The second image is an intimate landscape from Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  If you have been in southern Utah in spring, you know the wind can blow, and you have have even felt sandblasted a time or two.  How do you think the sandstone walls feel?  The walls of this alcove have been shaped by grains of sand being blown against it for hundreds, probably even thousands or tens of thousands of years.  Beautiful cross-bedding patterns have been exposed, creating some very powerful lines.

A sandstone alcove

Sandstone Alcove, June 2012

My Wind Portfolio is special in that 25% of the sales of these prints is donated directly to the Wilderness Society and I offer special pricing when you purchase more than one image from the portfolio.  Please click here to view the entire collection.

Camas

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Today I received in the mail my Summer 2012 issue of Camas, a publication put together by graduate students in the Environmental Studies department at the University of Montana.  Camas celebrates the literature and photography from the West; the theme for the summer issue is ‘Restoration.’

Although not quite made in Montana, an image I made in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains is featured in the summer issue.  Many of the West’s forests have been devastated by bark beetle infestations, leaving forests of skeletons, rather than trees.  To me, this image communicated the theme of restoration, in that some of the forests in the West are starting to recover from these insects through the use of controlled burns, cutting of infested trees, etc.

Scene in the San Bernardino National Forest

These sorts of university literary publications are common in the West (I’m not sure about other parts of the country); the University of Montana has Camas, and the University of Wyoming has the Owen Wister Review, for example.  I am happy to have my work be a part of this type of publication because they strike me as very grassroots, and are oriented towards a sense of place.  I’ve written before about how I’m proud to be a citizen of the West, and I’m proud to have my work featured in Camas.

Camas is published biannually (summer & winter) and contains literature and photography from the West.  I’m looking forward to digging into my issue.

Camas--The Nature of the West

Camas, Summer 2012

(Digital) Darkroom Confessions, part II

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

In my last blog post, I talked about my opinion regarding “rules” in photography.  In short, I believe it is okay to manipulate exposure or crop (for example) in order to take an image from visualization to the final product.  In this post, I would like to revisit the image I introduced last time and dissect it a bit.

Navajo Sandstone Cliffs

Sandstone & Clouds, March 2012

In the field

I am not normally a “grand landscape” sort of photographer; I tend to focus more on intimate scenes.  However, when I saw these cliffs, what initially struck me was the fact that the buttresses were receding away from me.  Although the mid-morning light had eliminated some of the shadows, I liked that each buttress was casting a bit of a shadow on the buttress behind it.  This alternation of light and dark creates a wonderful sense of depth in images, and was a compositional element I wanted to take advantage of here.

Another confession: guys like me do not normally score skies like this.  Cloudless blue skies are the story of my life.  However, on this particular day, I was loving these high clouds; they were constantly changing and they added a great geometric element to the scene.

For me, the decision of how to balance the composition was pretty easy, and despite the fact I like to think of myself as a rebel, I roughly divided the composition into thirds. I wanted the sky to be the star of the show, so I gave it 2/3 of the frame, and I let the cliffs occupy the remainder.  I like sagebrush, and wanted to leave some foreground in as well; this also gives a good visual “root” for the cliffs to sit on.

To expose the frame, I had a couple of choices.  To underexpose would have meant preserving the shadows that attracted me to the scene.  But, it would also introduce shadows to the foreground, which I did not really want to do.  The alternative I had was to overexpose to the point where the shadows were not as dark while maintaining detail in the rest of the frame.  You have probably heard the phrase, “expose to the right;” that is what I chose to do here.  Phil Colla has a concise and clear explanation of the technique here.

You can always darken a scene in post-processing, but to lighten it up risks introducing noise.

To get the exposure I wanted for the lower part of the image, I had trouble preserving detail in the bright white clouds, so I made two exposures, 1 stop apart from each other.

At home

I opened the RAW files together, and in Adobe Camera RAW I adjusted the images based on the vision I had in the field.  After opening the images in Photoshop, I continued this process.  First I blended the images using a technique I learned several years ago from Younes Bounhar.  You can read about it here.   After checking carefully to make sure the images had aligned properly and there were no artifacts, I made my initial adjustments largely using Nik’s software plug-ins.  The two I used here were the ‘Tonal Contrast’ filter (in Color Efex Pro), and then I used Silver Efex Pro to get the black and white conversion I wanted.

I do not have a lot to offer in terms of strategic choice on this (I did what looked best to my eye), but I only made subtle adjustments and I made careful choices based on my vision.  In choosing the black and white filter, I made sure to keep  the detail in the clouds, but also to make them stand out.  I also kept an eye on the tonal contrast between the sagebrush and the beginning of the cliffs.

I applied a global curves layer, and then used separate levels to mask the cliffs, and selectively darken the shadows.  I saved the TIFF file (with all of the layers), and then flattened, sharpened, and saved a JPEG for the web.

The beauty of image processing is that there is definitely more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.  When you start with a creative vision, you learn ways to arrive at the final product in post-processing.  As you gain experience, you build skills that will eventually become a tool kit that you can selectively choose from when you process more challenging images.

(Digital) Darkroom Confessions, part I

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

When I look in the mirror, I see a man with secrets.

You see, I have broken the rules.


Not only do I consider Alister Benn a good friend, I also consider him a mentor; if I have learned anything from Alister, it is to take control of the image-making process, from visualization to capture to processing in the digital darkroom.  The more I work to embrace this philosophy, the more I realize it involves breaking the rules.  But it also requires a strong understanding of my own vision, as well as the technical capabilities of my equipment.

I have heard the argument several times that photographers should “get the composition right in the camera,” or “get the exposure right in one frame.”   To some extent, I completely agree with the opinion that one should not make a frame with the intent of cropping out an annoying foreground element, or bracket haphazardly, without much thought–these behaviors are often regarded as laziness or a display of lack of knowledge.  As an analogy, this is similar to a student choosing every possible answer on an exam because, “one of them has to be correct.”

However, the other side of the coin dictates that a strict adherence to these “rules” (and others) severely limits the artist’s creative process.  For instance, the image I visualize in the field may not fit perfectly into a 3:4 or 4:5 aspect ratio, and exposing multiple frames for stitching later may not always be practical.  Similarly, if one understands the technical limitations of their camera in exposing for a scene with a high dynamic range, it should be perfectly acceptable to bracket exposures.

In other words, when breaking the rules is in line with vision and an understanding of what the scene demands, it should be encouraged.  Be rebellious.


So, how does an image evolve?  When I was recently in Zion National Park, I was driving along the road and saw a scene that jumped out at me.  Sometimes scenes really present themselves to you.

Navajo Sandstone cliffs

Navajo Sandstone & Clouds, March 2012

It was mid-morning, and I loved the way the clouds contrasted against the cliffs, and the way the buttresses in the rock created layers.  I wanted to emphasize this in the final image, but was presented with a few choices as to how to do it.

In my next post, I will go through my thoughts in the field and a few of the processing steps that led me to the final product.

Silence

Monday, April 16th, 2012

I recently returned from my first trip to the Colorado Plateau this year.  After an extremely busy few months, I welcomed the chance to slow down and relax, as well as to revel in the warmth of the spring sun on the red rock.  I went alone.

While I wanted to explore a few areas that I had not been to before, I also wanted to take some time for introspection; growing up as an only child, I have grown to value silence.  After setting up my tent, I took a walk through a piñon-juniper forest that burned several years ago.  As the red ochre-colored hills receded toward the distant cliffs, the lifeless skeletons of these trees stood before me, each one seeming to take on a different, animated, pose.  I sat for a while, admiring the stark and barren, but pleasant scene.  In the West especially, fire is part of our ecology.

A burned pinion-juniper forest in the Kolob Terrace area of Zion National Park, Utah

The burn, March 2012

I often notice that when walking alone, I find myself whispering.  Why not talk to myself at a normal volume, or like some people, take the opportunity to scream out, knowing my confessions will be my own only?  I have never been a screamer, in fact when I have something important to say, you will find me saying it quietly to myself.  I am not sure whether this is a good trait or not, but part of me hates to muddy the already sweet sound of the wild.  On this particular trip, western bluebirds had already moved into the area (a sure sign of spring) and their song is surely better than anything I could say.

Silence.  When I whisper no one answers back.  At the same time, it can be comforting and empty, exciting and lonely.


“I fear silence because it leads me to myself, a self I may not wish to confront. It asks that I listen. And in listening, I am taken to an unknown place. Silence leaves me alone in a place of feeling. It is not necessarily a place of comfort.”

–Terry Tempest Williams


After dinner and a night’s sleep under a blanket of stars, I explore more canyons.  Part of the fun of a trip like this is not having any expectations, taking the time to poke your head into slot canyons, pretending you might find something no one else has ever seen before.  The lack of both a defined plan and a guidebook are two of the best ways to drive creativity in photography, to let your voice be heard.  In silence, I revel at the sky, the clouds moving over the top of me, dappled light falling on sandstone monoliths.

Shadow play.

A sandstone cliff in the Kolob Terrace area of Zion National Park, Utah

Monolithic, March 2012

I spend the afternoon–the next few afternoons–wandering up small canyons alone, admiring the potholes which are full of water from recent rains, watching tadpoles begin to make their transition from aquatic to terrestrial, and confronting the silence head-on.  There is a lot to see in this small corner of southern Utah–I know I will be be back, soon hopefully, for there is a lot left unseen, both in the landscape and in myself.

One of the things that amazes me about silence is that it so boldly opens our souls; this is at odds with the way we close ourselves off in the hustle of our everyday lives.  I am not sure how to reconcile this.  However, I know until I can return to the Colorado Plateau my daydreams will drift to clouds floating in a sky above red sandstone cliffs, of the cool air inside a tight slot canyon, and the way the morning smells when I am waist-deep in sagebrush.

New Portfolio Images

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Things have been a little quiet here on the blog this year.  I guess, perhaps, I’ve been suffering from a bit of writer’s block, but I have been enjoying sharing a daily image on Facebook.  I’ll be writing more here on the blog soon.

At the end of 2011, I spent a couple of really enjoyable days at sand dunes in Death Valley National Park, including the Eureka Dunes.  So far this year, I’ve spent a couple of days in southern Nevada at Valley of Fire State Park, as well as the surrounding Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and have been on a few rainy-day hikes at one of my favorite places in southern California.

I’ve uploaded new portfolio images to several of my galleries here on the site; all of these images have resonated with me, for various reasons, and I hope you check them out!  A few (that haven’t already been featured here on the blog) are below.

I hope your 2012 is off to a great start!

Gnarled oaks at the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve

A Foggy Day, January 2012

 

Sunrise at Elephant Rock, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

The Elephant & The Moon, January 2012

 

Late Afternoon in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Persistence, November 2011