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Braced against the wind

Friday, January 6th, 2012

In Medicine Bow, Wyoming, they say the wind doesn’t blow twenty four hours out of the whole year.  Even in July, the wind is cold, noisy, all-consuming.  One morning, my friend, hiking in the wind near Medicine Bow tripped, and at the last second looked down to see a small prairie rattlesnake strike right between her legs; if she hadn’t stumbled, she would have been bitten.  The wind silenced the snake’s warning rattle.

The wind can be harsh, cold, brutal, and at the same time it can be life-giving, sustaining.  It shapes who we are, and what we have yet to become.  If you’ve lived with it for any period of time, you know what I’m talking about.  It may be much more tangible to see how the wind shapes the landscapes we love so much.  I’m excited to present four new images (See the portfolio here, as well as below) from two of our national parks–Bryce Canyon and Death Valley–that are devoted to the wind that shapes these beautiful, mysterious, and awe-inspiring places.

Bryce Canyon National Park is hugely popular, being part of the “Grand Circle” of the Southwest, and its no wonder why.  Bryce’s hoodoos–formed by the brilliantly colorful Claron Formation–simply glow like no other rock in southern Utah.  In concert with water, the wind shapes the hoodoos into various shapes–from hammers, to broken palaces, to entire cities.  Jagged and raw, Bryce inspires imagination and creativity, and as Ebenezer Bryce pointed out, “its a hell of a place to lose a cow.”

Contrast Bryce’s ruggedness with Death Valley’s seemingly endless sand dunes.  The wind shapes the sand into sensuous, almost erotic, curves that perhaps could be an abstract nude study rather than a grand landscape.  The light plays on the dunes on both a micro and macro scale, providing endless shapes and forms.

Hoodoos in late afternoon light, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon #1, 2011


Hoodoos in late afternoon light, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon #2, 2011


Ibex Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Death Valley #1, 2011


Ibex Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Death Valley #2, 2011

These images signify–in part–the forces that have shaped our national parks.  To help with the continued protection of our public lands, I’ll be donating 25% of the profits from the sale of these prints to the Wilderness Society, which works to make visits to our national parks more meaningful and inspiring.  This is not a limited-edition series of prints, and this offer doesn’t expire–I’ll make the donations forever.  Finally, I am offering special pricing for the purchase of all four of these prints, in any size.  Please visit my purchase page, or contact me for more details.

“The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly, light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding. Finally, the lessons of impermanence taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life.”   –Gretel Ehrlich

Wind Song

Monday, May 30th, 2011

If you have never listened to the wind, you should.  It can really have a lot to say.  This last week, it screamed, violently, through the midwestern United States, leaving a terrible path of destruction in its wake.

Some areas are known for their wind.  Medicine Bow, Wyoming (home of the Virginian Hotel, made famous by Owen Wister), for instance is one of the windiest places in the United States.  When I lived in Wyoming, a rancher once told me that the wind doesn’t blow 24 hours out of the whole year in Medicine Bow.  I’m not sure how true that is, but I do know that a still day is difficult to come across.  The wind’s constant howling through the rafters and windows of homes has driven people mad in Wyoming.  Although it can’t be stopped, it can be used.  Wind farms are becoming more and more common in the windy areas of the West as an alternative to coal-powered energy.

However, just as easily as it can destroy, wind can also be gentle, almost loving.  The wind is a vital component of the weather, moving storms the feed plants and animals alike.  The wind is a pollinator, and in polluted areas, it helps to clear the air.

Recently, on a quick trip out to Joshua Tree National Park,  the wind blew all afternoon, and it must have been really blowing in the upper atmosphere, because a breath-taking lenticular cloud formed over the park.  It dissipated before sunset, but these Parry’s Nolina (Nolina parryi) almost looked like they were dancing, sexily swaying their hips, in the late afternoon light.  You can see the tail end of the lenticular in the sky.


Parry's Nolina, Joshua Tree National Park
Wind Song, May 2011

The wind is definitely talking.  What do you hear?

Just Like Everywhere…and Nowhere

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Despite my love for the high desert, I have to confess that it feels pretty good to be back in the mountains for the summer.  This weekend, we headed to the San Bernardino mountains for a quick, local, Mother’s Day camping trip.  On the way home, fog from a very heavy marine layer was working its way inland, and up into the foothills of the mountains.  I loved the way it was drifting through the valleys, and watching it move slowly gave a lovely sense of peace.

Click on the image to view it large on black (highly recommended)

Fog drifts in the valleys of the San Bernardino Mountains above Redlands

In the Clouds, May 2011

One of the things that gives this image its uniqueness is the skeletons of dead pine trees scattered throughout the hillside; however, its also those trees that make this a not-so-uncommon scene in the West.  The trees were killed by mountain pine beetles, which have not only devastated forests in southern California, but all over the West.  They burrow into the trees, and block their ability to assimilate nutrients.  Its interesting to me how the appeal of an image can be imparted from the biology that killed the trees.

This scene is also is a reminder of the nature of landscape photography in general.  Although you might see other scenes similar to this, no one will ever be able to make this same image again.  As I made this image, I thought to myself about coming back on a day with similar weather, when I have more time to try making images.  I probably will return at some point, but this was really serendipitous weather.  Running into (or in my case, haphazardly stumbling upon) an ephemeral scene like this, and being able to make an image of it, is really the essence of the craft.

I hope you had a fantastic Mother’s Day!


The Paria, part III: mud

Friday, April 15th, 2011

In addition to its immense, subtle beauty, another overriding theme of the Paria River is mud.  The river bed has a high clay content, and if you’ve ever been in clay soil when its even a little wet, you know it can be a disaster–its slick, sticky, and vehicles can get stuck in it in a moment.

In the spring, runoff from high elevation prevents some mud (by way of keeping from drying enough to reach that sticky, goopy, phase), but its always a factor.  What I like about clay is that it always forms beautiful patterns as it begins drying out.  This little patch was reflecting the red rock cliffs on the opposite side of the river early in the day.

Beautiful mud formations on the Paria River, Utah

Mud & Reflections, March 2011

I also ended up finding a few areas of quicksand, involuntarily, on my hike in the Paria.  I felt the area with my hiking pole, and feeling solid, I stepped, only to be swallowed up to my thigh almost instantly.  Fortunately, it was easy to pull myself out.  People who haven’t dealt with it have a misconception about quicksand.  It can’t really suck you into oblivion like childhood cartoons and TV shows lead you to believe.  But, as Ed Abbey writes,

Ordinarily it is possible for a man to walk across quicksand, if he keeps moving. But if he stops, funny things begin to happen. The surface of the quicksand, which may look as firm as the wet sand on an ocean beach, begins to liquefy beneath his feet. He finds himself sinking slowly into a jelly-like substance, soft and quivering, which clasps itself around his ankles with the suction power of any vicsous fluid. Pulling out one foot, the other foot necessarily goes down deeper, and if a man waits too long, or cannot reach something solid beyond the quicksand, he may soon find himself trapped. … Unless a man is extremely talented, he cannot work himself [into the quicksand] more than waist-deep. The quicksand will not pull him down. But it will not let him go either. Therefore the conclusion is that while quicksand cannot drown its captive, it could possibly starve him to death. Whatever finally happens, the immediate effects are always interesting.

Finally, the most beautiful effects, in my opinion, happen when the mud begins drying.  Because clay expands so much when wet, it cracks in beautiful, wonderfully stochastic patterns.  You can find little pockets of dried mud all along the bases of the sandstone walls.

Cracked Mud, Paria River, Utah

Sandstone and Mud, March 2011

Mud is a major component of the landscape in the Paria, as well as throughout any ephemeral drainage in the southwest.  While it can be viewed as a nonphotogenic nuisance, sometimes, its helpful to look at it in a new light.

Big Adventure, Small Scale?

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

I have to admit that although I’m fortunate to find great photography subjects close to home–often in my backyard!–the act of working really hard for an image brings a lot of satisfaction.  Sometimes working that hard for an image can bring big adventure–and some hair-raising experiences to the table as well.

As I write this, I’m reminded of two such days.  The first is last August, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  A friend and I drove up from southern California, and my dad drove out from New Mexico, and we spent a few days making images in the canyons of this wonderful wilderness.  On our second day–my dad’s day to pick how we spent the day–we hiked into Neon Canyon to visit the Golden Cathedral.  The hike was fantastic–7 miles round-trip, all cross country–and the photography was phenomenal.  However, it was August, and we were feeling the August heat–95+ degrees.  I remember standing knee-deep in the Escalante River that afternoon thinking that there really was no place on earth I’d rather be at that moment.  Hiking out of there was also the hottest, hardest work I’ve done in quite a while.

The second day was satisfying in a similar way, but a little more hair-raising.  Again I was with my dad, and we were hiking through the Left Fork of North Creek–the Subway–in Zion National Park.  If you’ve hiked it from top to bottom, you know that the descent from the upper bench into the canyon is a bit hairy.  Although I’m not normally one to flinch at such things, I decided to try an alternate route down that day, as I saw a small trail heading off to my left.  It seemed like a good idea for a while, but suddenly the earth gave out from underneath me, sending me head over heels down a gully…and toward a 75-foot drop off.  After the second turn in the gully, I slid out of my dad’s line of sight, so all he could hear was me cursing and grasping for roots as I slid by.  Finally one stuck, and I stopped, but not before I was bloodied and pretty battered.  To add insult to injury, I landed in someone’s cathole (fortunately I didn’t land in “it” but it was too close for my taste)–don’t ask me who would find that a convenient spot to relieve themselves.  I crawled back up and the rest of the day all I had to worry about was soaking my camera gear.  My elbow still hurts from that day.

Recently, I was talking to a big wall climber who sort of guffawed at my sense of “adventure”.  I guess because I’m not scaling El Capitan, my adventures weren’t quite worthy of praise–maybe because my pack is filled with an SLR body and a bunch of glass instead of a climbing rack, I’m not as cool.  C’est la vie.  Its important to remember that adventure comes in all sizes–its your perception of it that makes it special and memorable.

What are some of your adventures?  Do you have any especially memorable experiences that have come out of working for an image?  Maybe you got caught in an epic storm, or had to outrun a rabid badger.  These are the experiences that make our “backyard adventures” just as cool as redpointing a new route on El Capitan…

The Golden Cathedral, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

The Golden Cathedral, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

A strange visitor at Badwater

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

This weekend, a friend and I drove to Death Valley National Park.  I had heard there is currently water in Badwater Basin, and wanted to see it, as well as photograph it.  Since Death Valley usually does not get enough rain to allow for standing water in the basin, this is a rare event (since January 1, Furnace Creek has received over 2″ of rain).  On Friday, we arrived at Badwater about 3pm, and immediately headed to the West Side Road in search of photo opportunities.

On Friday, another storm moved into the area.  In my experience, bad weather can either lead to amazing light conditions, or to very poor conditions for photography.  Unfortunately, in this case, it was the latter.  There wasn’t much of a sunset on Friday night.  However, after dark, we headed back over to the Badwater parking area and walked out on the salt flat.  Because conditions were poor for star trail photography, my friend and I did some light graffiti–one of his newest hobbies.  I have to disclose that I really did nothing here, except for stand behind the camera, but this one is called ‘Badwater Blooms’.

light graffiti on Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, California

"Badwater Blooms", Death Valley National Park, February 2010

As we were experimenting with different bloom configurations, the strangest thing happened.  We thought we were alone on the salt flat, but off in the distance, we could make out a figure walking towards us.  Ours was the only car in the parking lot, and no one had arrived, so we tried to say hello, thinking the person may be lost or need help.  The figure didn’t say anything, but as it got closer to us, a bright light appeared behind it, and the figure disappeared, almost as quickly as it had appeared.

I managed to snap this photo before it disappeared.

a strange silhouette in Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California

A strange visitor, Death Valley National Park, February 2010

Was the visitor from another dimension?  Did it exit through a portal that’s only open when Badwater Basin is full of water?  I’m not sure.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have much better light the next morning; in fact, we had really poor light.  However, Saturday night, we had the best light I’ve had in quite some time.  I’ll share those images in my next post.

You can see all my Death Valley images here.

House on Fire ruin–a vertical panorama

Monday, February 8th, 2010

In my last post, I discussed a few techniques that can be used to effectively shoot panoramas.  All of my examples were of grand landscapes, and they were all landscape-oriented panoramas.  I want to use this post to point out another time you can shoot panos to yield great results.

Last November, we visited the Cedar Mesa area near Blanding, Utah.  Since we were limited on time, we chose to visit a familiar and often photographed Ancestral Puebloan ruin that’s been nicknamed the “House on Fire” (also called the Flaming Roof ruin).  I blogged about that visit here, in November.  While at the ruin, I envisioned someday wanting to print it very large, and wished I had a medium format camera with me.  Additionally, I really wanted to emphasize the “flames” exiting the roof of the ruin.

So, I took 3 landscape-oriented images, but rather than putting them next to each other, I stacked them on top of one another,  thus producing a larger image.  If you click on the image, you’ll see a larger version–the detail is amazing!  That said, it would look even better printed on canvas over your couch 🙂

A view of an Ancestral Puebloan ruin near Cedar Mesa, Utah

"House on Fire" vertical panorama, Utah, November 2009

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.

A quick visit to Joshua Tree National Park

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

Last week’s Veteran’s Day holiday enabled me to sneak out to Joshua Tree National Park for the night.  In my ongoing series on Topophilia (there will be more posts on that in the near future), I have featured photographers who inspire me to think outside of the box.  In that spirit, I headed out for Joshua Tree, vowing to myself that I would making more images of the park’s namesake plants.  My goal instead was to visit a natural arch, called Arch Rock (and sometimes White Tank Arch), I had recently read about.  

Located on the Pinto Basin Road, the arch is a short hike from the White Tank campground, and I had the place to myself.  I’m still editing images, but here are two I made on my trip.


Arch Rock I, Joshua Tree National Park, November 2009

Arch Rock I, Joshua Tree National Park, November 2009


Arch Rock II, Joshua Tree National Park, November 2009

Arch Rock II, Joshua Tree National Park, November 2009

The Minarets at dusk

Friday, October 30th, 2009

I’ve always been attracted to rugged mountains and jagged peaks.  Some of my favorite mountain ranges have had this characteristic: the San Juans in Colorado, the Tetons and Wind Rivers in Wyoming, and of course California’s “Range of Light”–the Sierra Nevada.  As the Sierra moves north from its southern foothills, the peaks get more jagged and rugged, and this is especially evident around the Mammoth Lakes area.  Behind Mammoth Mountain lies the Minarets, a series of jagged peaks, located in the Ritter Range.

I took this simple, graphic, shot of the Minarets at dusk one night in early October 2009.  I waited as the cloud moved south from over Mount Ritter and Banner Peak to hovering over the Minarets.  It only stayed here about 1 minute, before disappearing completely.

The Minarets at dusk, Sierra Nevada mountains, California, October 2009