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Four Corners

Friday, September 1st, 2017

I am interested in the way a man looks at a landscape and takes possession of it in his blood and brain. For this happens, I am certain, in the ordinary motion of life. None of us lives apart from the land entirely; such an isolation is unimaginable. We do not act upon a stagnant landscape, but instead are part of it. Place is created in the process of remembering and telling stories and the ability of the receiver to understand the meanings of place encapsulated in language.” – N. Scott Momaday

I grew up in the Four Corners area of the Southwest and my parents still live there. Every summer we make a trip back there to visit. Growing up, I didn’t appreciate the incredible diversity of ecosystems that were in front of me. Most teenagers are like this, I guess. Of course piñon-juniper pygmy forest dominates the landscape, but (very) high mountains aren’t that far away, nor are rivers or badlands. In their own way, they’re all lovely, and I feel most at home in this landscape.

photo of small red and black pebbles on badlands in northern new mexico

The Navajo Sandstone we so closely associate with the Colorado Plateau is buried thousands of feet below the surface in all but a few areas of northern New Mexico. Much younger rock is exposed, primarily from the Nacimiento and San Jose Formations, formed between 38-60 million years ago. In your hand, it feels “looser” than sandstone elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau. Big sand grains and inclusions make it feel like it could easily break apart. It’s also paler in color, more closely resembling white Cedar Mesa sandstone.

photo of a sunlit arch near sunset, with piñon pines and junipers surrounding it

Whimsical rock shapes aren’t as common here as in other areas of the Plateau. Indigenous rock art and ruins (both Diné and Ancestral Puebloan are common, as well as some Apache)–while present in high densities–are more hidden. I suppose its subtle nature leads some photographers to shy away from this landscape. However, all of these things are worth searching out and exploring for; its subtleties are worth embracing. In fact, after over 30 years, I can still see the landscape in new ways and discover new things. The excitement and wonder of discovery then deepens my sense of place. And so the cycle continues.

photo of an arch in the four corners region after sunset with pink and violet clouds in the sky

The feeling of being home becomes more pervasive each time I visit. Ellen Meloy wrote often about landscapes choosing people, and if she’s right, then I’m so happy the Four Corners area chose me.

You can see more of my New Mexico landscape photography by clicking on this link.

photo of bentonite badlands and whimsical rock formations in predawn light in the Bisti Badlands of northern New Mexico



Chaos Theory

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

In walking around southern California, I notice many people are starting to doubt the legitimacy of the rain this record El Niño was said to bring us.  Fair enough…we’ve had only one honest storm so far, but meteorologists say it is really just starting to come into its own. Despite not rearing its head too badly yet here, much of the Sierra Nevada is already at 100%+ of snowpack, and wildflowers are starting pop up in the desert.  More on that in a minute though.

At the end of fall, right before Christmas, I made a quick trip to the Grand Canyon.  While there, I got to experience a fairly stormy day on the south rim, complete with howling winds, whiteout conditions and closed roads.  A couple of images from that trip easily made my Favorites of 2015.  Then, Jackson Frishman and I headed to Death Valley National Park, and the weather was equally spunky.  There was no snow in the valley, but there was plenty of rain, great clouds, and even a few surprises thrown in along the way.

Visiting the Grand Canyon and Death Valley so closely together in time is sort of a surreal experience.  As if I had lost it, I quickly regained my appreciation for deep geological time.  Nearly 75 million years ago during the Laramide Orogeny, the Colorado Plateau was pushed upward nearly two miles and the Colorado River (which flowed from the newly formed Rocky Mountains) started to cut into the rock, forming the Grand Canyon.  Today, the river has cut about as deeply as it can go–to the basement Vishnu Schists–giving us a look back in time about 1.7 billion years.

Death Valley’s geologic story is a bit more complex (and violent), but as the Vishnu basement rocks in the Grand Canyon were being formed, Death Valley was already in a state of unrest, with rocks in certain areas being twisted and folded.  One area of particularly complex folding has been dubbed the “Amargosa Chaos” and is found in the southern end of the Black Mountains.  Fold, fold, fold…then separate.  That’s how the Basin and Range Province creates its mountain ranges–plates are pulled apart until they tilt upward creating massive mountain ranges with deep valleys between them.  In this part of North America, as John McPhee writes, the continent is literally being pulled apart.

You also start to understand a scale of spatial immensity in these two places.  While the Grand Canyon is typically thought of as the “deep” canyon at around 6,000 feet, it’s got nothing on Death Valley, which is over two miles deep (at its deepest).  If you’re not interested geology (I know…how can you not be?), it might be just as easy to stand in awe of both of these places, allowing yourself to feel small, both as a part of the landscape, and as barely-a-blip in geological time.

It’s worth noting briefly that while spring on the Grand Canyon’s rim is a few months off, it’s already happening in (especially) the southern end of Death Valley.  Jackson and I saw fields of Desert Gold (Geraea canescens) that created a wonderful lace-work pattern among the volcanic rocks in the southern Black Mountains.  All of the other usual suspects were starting to bloom as well, but are several weeks off from peak.  Hopefully some dreary, drizzly conditions continue in Death Valley, and it’s got the possibility of becoming a very good year for wildflowers.  Jackson has several photos and more commentary on his blog as well.

A winter evening at the south rim of the Grand Canyon

Death Valley mountains and wildflowers

Stormy winter morning on the south rim of the Grand Canyon

Salt Creek Hills, Death Valley

When it all comes together

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Sometimes in photography, as in life, things just come together perfectly.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, located in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico.  The Preserve lies on one of the largest volcanic calderas in North America; this supervolcano (as it’s classified) has the capability of altering weather patterns to the point of causing a small ice age if it ever erupts.  Try to imagine 1,000 km³ of rock and debris spewing from the earth–1,000 km³–I can’t quite wrap my mind around that.

The land was acquired by the federal government in 2000 as a trust, with a board of trustees making decisions about its management.  Still a working cattle ranch, the Caldera is administered using a combination of those policies used in national forests, as well as in national parks.

The thing that strikes me the most is that any event on the Caldera–whether it is hiking, sightseeing, or even hunting–is kept very small.  The idea is to give the visitor a sense of solitude.  Quiet contemplation.  Can you imagine if only 25 people were allowed into Yosemite Valley at a time?  That’s a very novel idea indeed.

Visiting this historic place, I knew I wanted to come home with both memorable and meaningful images.  First of all, I knew I may never get to visit here again, and second, it was important to me to make images of my home state that carried a sense of belonging.  Not knowing exactly what to expect, I hoped for dramatic light, and the time to let the landscape present itself.  Great light is often caused by crummy weather.  Fortunately, I got it.

Arriving late in the afternoon, rain was already beginning to fall from the thunderheads that had been building strength all day.  After looking at the map, we decided on a small pond that looked like it could get good sunset light.  By the time we drove up the mountain to our location, the rain had turned to sleet, the ambient temperature was in the mid-30s, and it was indeed beginning to feel a bit like autumn.

The rest of that afternoon was spent watching the fog rolling through the trees, constantly evolving, moving, transforming the landscape.  I thought of Sigurd Olson as the fog galloped through the trees like a herd of white horses.  The hauntingly beautiful bugles of bull elk looking for a fight came out of the mist from all directions.

A feast for the senses.

Fog and trees, Valles Caldera National Preserve

White Horses, September 2012

As sunset neared, the clouds cleared just a bit, and as I’d hoped, the fog settled in on our little pond, our small corner of the world.  All ours…tonight anyway.  The sky lit up giving us a perfect sunset.  Few things could have made it better.

Sunset on a small pond at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico

New Mexico sunset, September 2012

So it went for the rest of the weekend: New Mexico autumn.  Wildlife abounded.  Rain brought a last bit of summer life to the forest before winter’s grip tightens.  Light danced at the perfect times.  And, of course, green chiles were on the menu.   Thank you, New Mexico, for the perfect start to my favorite season.

Rainbow and thunderstorm in northern New Mexico

Autumn Rainbow, September 2012

Grove of aspen trees (Populus tremuloides) in autumn

Aspen Grove, September 2012

Redondo Peak, Jemez Mountains, New Mexico

Redondo Peak, September 2012

Fog drifts through trees

Fog & Trees, September 2012

Photo(s) of the Month–November

Friday, November 4th, 2011

I think this is the first time since beginning this blog I’ve broken from my Photo of the Month tradition.  Its not really for lack of wanting.  The truth is, I have had trouble deciding on just one image.

Instead I’ve decided to share a few new images that I’ve been working on, all with a common theme:  long exposure.   In the right situation, a long exposure provides extra time for either the camera to move, or elements within the frame to move (like clouds or water), adding unique drama to a scene.

First, I recently purchased an 8-stop neutral density filter.   I’ve wanted one for quite a while, after seeing some great long exposure work from other photographers.  Mac Danzig has a great tutorial/informational blog post on them here.  I waited for a stormy morning with dramatic skies to try it out at a local beach, with some great rock formations.  The rock in the second image reminds me of a molar from a Pleistocene-epoch carnivore…

Stormy morning at Little Corona Beach, Newport Beach, California

Stormy morning, November 2011

A clearing storm at Little Corona Beach, Newport Beach, California

The sea's jaws, November 2011

In addition to letting the scene move, interesting effects can also be achieved by moving the camera while the shutter is open.  Zoom blurs have become more popular over the last few years, but I added another element.  In addition to zooming the lens during the exposure, I also rotated the camera.  The subject I chose to try this out on is California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum); I have always loved the fall color palette of this plant, but haven’t been able to make an image of I like.  Finally, with this technique–although it won’t appeal to everyone–I feel like I’ve gotten the colors to blend in a way that’s appealing to me.

An abstract image of California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum)

Hallucination I, October 2011


An abstract image of California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum)

Hallucination II, October 2011

Looking out my window, I think autumn may have finally come to southern California!  I hope you have a great November; in the U.S. its a time we give thanks for many things–what are you thankful for this month?


The Grand

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

I remember my first trip to the Grand Canyon in 1992–it was not only my first backpacking trip ever, but also my first memorable trip to a national park.  We went over spring break, in late March, and it was snowing hard at the South Rim when we arrived.  I remember being cold and wet the night before our hike began, being completely terrified on the icy (and steep) South Kaibab trail the following morning, and sweating as we walked into Phantom Ranch later that afternoon.  The rest of the trip was rainy, often very cold, and wet.

Despite all of that, I had a great time.  A funny thing happens after outdoor experiences like this one: we seem to forget all of the “bad” parts of a trip, remembering the good things.   Do the bad experiences really go away?  Not completely:  We learn from them.  As a novice backpacker, I learned several things about hiking in poor weather; I learned them the hard way, but I survived.

The thing that stuck in my memory more than anything else from that first trip to the Grand Canyon was the magnificence of the place.  The sheer drops, layers of sandstone, and of course the power of the Moenkopi-colored mud flowing in the Colorado River.  I’ve returned to the Grand Canyon more than almost any other national park.  During my first trip it was simply breathtaking; since then it has become breathgiving.

Vishnu's Temple at dawn, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Vishnu's Sun Salutation, May 2011

Since 1992, I’ve backpacked the Grand Canyon once more, and have camped on the rim multiple times.  Each time I say to myself, “Why don’t I visit more often?”  Yes, its packed with people, especially on the holiday weekends when I find time to visit, but there’s a magnificent peacefulness that surrounds it.    There are small pockets, places, you can go and hide, and despite the hordes, its almost as if you have this huge amphitheater to yourself.

Just like so many other geologic wonders on the Colorado Plateau, there really is nothing like the Grand Canyon on earth.  Although I’ve enjoyed it for 19 years, I just now have images of it.  Click the image or here to see the rest.


Shelter from the Storm

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

All rocks are not created equally; not only do they vary in surface characteristics like color and shape, they also vary in properties that aren’t immediately visible.  Rocks erode at different rates, and the elements that make them up oxidize differently, giving rock formations different colors as time passes.  These characteristics are what gives the Colorado Plateau its uniqueness–there really is no other biome on earth quite like it.

Any visitor to the southwest should become quickly acquainted with hoodoos–rock spires usually found protruding from a drainage or badlands.  Hoodoos are typically formed when a rock or boulder from a newer (therefore stratagraphically higher) layer of sandstone falls onto an older layer.  The boulder erodes more slowly, but it also protects the rock underneath it from eroding, leaving the characteristic spire with the cap rock on top of it–in this way the cap rock almost shelters the underlying rock from erosion.

On my recent trip to Utah, I made a couple of sunset visits to the Toadstool Hoodoos, located in the extreme southern end of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.   Like other hoodoos, the Toadstools were formed when boulders from the Dakota Formation fell onto the older rock of the Entrada Formation.  Dakota Sandstone erodes more slowly, leaving vibrantly colored hoodoos in a stunning badlands setting.

(Click on the diptych to view it large.)

Toadstool Hoodoo, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Toadstools , March 2011

A large part of the draw of the Colorado Plateau is the interesting geology.  For me, its one thing to marvel over a beautiful formation; its another, more fulfilling, thing to marvel over how it formed.

Rimrock Badlands, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Hoodoo Garden, March 2011

The Sandman’s Castle

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Often, the best traveling companions have a lot to teach you.  My friend Brent is one of those guys.  I can’t remember a trip with him where there wasn’t some sort of field guide pulled out for most of the drive, and I was busy learning about the natural history or some other facet of the land.  On one road trip to Utah, we had the “Roadside Geology of Utah” out for 90% of the drive.  Although I got tired of the updates at every mile marker, I have to admit that I missed Utah (and the updates) when we crossed the state line into Arizona.  I definitely learned some geology on that trip, and I have a greater appreciation of it now.

Geology, as a science, studies the forces responsible for shaping and changing the earth.  Sometimes those shapes and changes can simply be otherworldly.  On my recent visit to the Vermillion Cliffs-Paria River Wilderness in northern Arizona, I was able to witness the magnificent results of some of these forces firsthand.

On a hike early one morning, we found ourselves on a small sandstone plateau.  The sandstone was beautifully colored, but what really grabbed my attention were the bizarre rock formations.  They reminded me of some petrified prehistoric gargoyle or ruins of an ancient civilization.

Sandstone formation in the coyote buttes north, arizona

Gargoyle, January 2011

What’s happening in this image (and the one below) is called boxwork.  The idea is that the sandstone was fractured at some point, and then some sort of fluid intruded and precipitated out, but it was more completely lithified so the surrounding rock eroded before the boxwork.  I’m not entirely sure what intruded (calcite?), but it does make for very cool formations.  I hope you enjoy the images.

Sandstone boxwork in the coyote buttes north of northern Arizona

Broken Cathedral, January 2011

Photo of the Month–January

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

Happy New Year!  I can’t believe 2011 is already here.  While my to-do list from 2010 hasn’t gotten any shorter, I’m very much looking forward to the new opportunities, friendships and collaborations that 2011 has in store.

Over the holidays, we visited family in central Wyoming.  While there, I had the opportunity to visit Devils Tower National Monument in the northeastern part of the state.  Devils Tower (yes, the apostrophe has been eliminated from the name) is an igneous intrusion that arose when the Rocky Mountains and Black Hills were uplifted, allowing volcanic magma to leak through the earth’s crust about 65 million years ago.  The tower is the result of that leakage.

I took this image on Christmas Eve morning; one of the coldest mornings I’ve ever done photography.  The temperature was near 0°F with high humidity; in the hour or so before sunrise I had frost forming on my camera’s tripod and lens hood.  My breath caused more frost to form on my ball head.  But, once the rising sun illuminated the tower, it made the very cold wait worth it.  I thought the setting moon was an added bonus here.

I hope you enjoy this image; have a great January!  Click here to see the rest of my images from Devils Tower.

Dramatic sunrise light illuminates Devils Tower, in northeastern Wyoming

Devils Tower sunrise, December 2010

Vasquez Rocks

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Last Friday, after stopping at the Antelope Valley to photograph poppies, I drove down the 14 freeway to Vasquez Rocks County Park near Santa Clarita.  I’ve always wanted to visit this park, but its always been slightly out of my way.  I’m glad I stopped.

Vasquez Rocks was set aside, in part, because of its unique geology; the rocks were uplifted as a result of activity in the Elkhorn Fault (an offshoot of the San Andreas fault), and with time the erosion of sand away from the sandstone left rocks that jut out of the ground at very picturesque angles.  The sandstone has a variety of mineral deposits, giving it unique colors.  In addition, I found a rich lichen diversity, and enjoyed taking detailed shots of it.

Triptych of lichen photographed at Vasquez Rocks County Park, California

Several examples of the lichen present at Vasquez Rocks

In addition, Vasquez Rocks’ proximity to Los Angeles has made it a popular filming location for several movies and TV shows, including Star Trek, Zorro, and MacGyver.  Because I visited in midday, I wanted to focus primarily on intimate compositions (like the lichen above) or contrasty black and white shots; fortunately the clouds were on my side in providing an interesting sky.

Famous Rocks at Vasquez Rocks County Park, California


In addition to the great scenery, the upside of stopping here is that the rocks didn’t move in the wind!

Cross bedding abstract, Zion National Park

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Sedimentary rocks are normally deposited as horizonal layers. Even when folded or tilted by faulting the originally horizontal layering is obvious. Upon closer examination, however, you may see very fine layers (usually 1 to several mm thick) that are at an angle to the main bedding. These tilted layers contained within larger layers are termed cross bedding.

What a mouthful right?  As sandstone is formed, sand is laid down, either by prevailing wind current, or water current.  However, over geologic time, those currents shift, causing sand to be laid down in a different direction.  What you get is cross bedding.  I love all the cross bedding in Zion National Park and thought it would make for a good abstract photo.  To make this, I intentionally underexposed the photo by ~1 stop, to emphasize the shadows, then I converted to black and white in Photoshop and applied a very light tint to the image.

Cross bedding abstract photo, Zion National Park, Utah

Cross bedding abstract, Zion National Park, January 2010

You can see all of my Zion National Park images here.