This article begins what I hope will be one per month during 2020, the goal Of which is to focus on a specific destination and trip. The idea is to treat it more like a journal than a formally written periodical, letting go of propriety and allowing content to wander where it might. Thanks for baring with me as I work out the creative kinks… we’ll see how this goes…
Since returning from Canyonlands in early January a few things have been swirling around my mind while sifting through frames and its been a challenge to organize them into a cohesive Structure. So for the moment I’ve put that on pause and am just going with what’s top of mind…
Expectations: one morning I was working just of the road in Arches National Park and a rental sedan pulled up, the driver rolling down her window and asking, “what are you finding to photograph? Everything’s grayed out!”
This led to a 5 -10 minute conversation, me struggling a bit to answer the question as politely as possible while keeping watch for what I was hoping would emerge through the icy fog of Arches’ Garden of Eden. And to be honest, I’d been hoping for blue sky too.
I’ve been traveling to Canyonlands for over 30 years, the first trip one Spring in the late 80’s. The reason that first trip is memorable was the weather. Colorado had a significant snow storm the day of departure and driving I-70 through the mountains was white knuckle. It wasn’t until west of Grand Junction the roads began to clear and the grip on the Subaru’s steering wheel relaxed.
By the time night fell along Utah Highway 128, a route I’d been told held spectacular scenery along the Colorado River, the shores of the river were damp and cold beneath my down bag but clearing skies above revealed stars and I was hopeful. The next morning I awoke to indescribable beauty, obscured by dark the night before.
Later that day – and the most prominent memory of the trip – was seeing Arches National Park for the first time, with snow on the ground for the drive into the park, and sunny blue skies with bare, red ground half a day later on the drive out. It remains one of the most beautiful memories I have exploring Utah.
Fast forward a few years, returning from a college Bowl game in Arizona and spending the night in Moab. Early the next morning my wife and I grabbed coffee and jumped in the car for a quick lap through Arches. It was New Years Eve day and again, the snow on the ground provided a supernatural beauty. I marked this as a time to return and spend more dedicated time shooting. That time finally came this January.
Focus or Stubbornness? I could be categorized as ’goal oriented’ and shifting gears quickly isn’t something I’ve been historically good at. Used to be, I could become somewhat locked into a plan and struggle to deviate. This can be a positive attribute, sometimes benevolently labeled focusing – and believe it’s one of my greatest strengths. On the other side though, there’s a point where focusing turns into stubbornly refusing to adjust to variables not aligning with your goals.
This is wear shifting gears and learning to roll with what ever happens becomes a real asset. I get a little better each time – but it doesn’t come easy and takes work.
Return to the roadside in Arches, January 4, 2020 talking with someone who’d all but given up on photography for the day. “This is the day to be out shooting! The anomaly, the outlier; the rare and unusually beautiful time.” Yes, initially I’d hoped for something else too – but when I saw this, everything changed.
You Can’t be Everywhere at Once: FOMO isn’t a helpful condition when photographing the land. Learning to slow down and look intently where ever you are is a skill that develops over time. This icy cottonwood against the sandstone was spotted while heading towards the Windows Area, where so many of the landmark arches reside. Abandoning those to stop and peruse this scene felt like the right thing to do.
Something else noteworthy about this image is that it was made with a plain, old 50mm lens. Nothing fancy or exotic – just a normal focal length lens you can pick up very inexpensively. In fact, this 50mm lens is perhaps the most used lens in my bag. It’s small and sharp – easy to have on the camera most of the time. Further proof you don’t need to spend a fortune on exotic camera gear to enjoy photography. OK, the F6 is pretty exotic, but still…
Garden of Eden: in my many visits to Arches over the years the Garden of Eden has remained largely unexplored – until this trip. From the moment I saw it in the dense fog I was intrigued. Often times during the 4 days I’d revisit to see what the light and fog were doing. Often times the sandstone pillars were completely obscured and invisible. Other times they emerged as ghosts hovering above icy, snow covered bushes. Their looming presence adding a unique and dramatic touch to the black and white frames and I’m looking forward to printing these in the darkroom.
Island in the Sky: The temptation all weekend was to think I could get above the cloud ceiling by going higher. The highest point in the area is Island in the Sky, where Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park reside. Not many travelers to the Island area this weekend and I enjoyed the relative solitude of such a lovely – all be it cold – place.
Doubling Up: Sometimes it’s hard to know if a scene is going to work better in black and white or color. If you’re shooting a digital camera you can of course switch easily back and forth between the modes to see. But with film it’s different. Yes, you can make a color scan black and white in Photoshop. But it’s just not the same. So I often bring both color and black and white film in both formats, 35mm and 120. Maybe crazy to some, but when it comes to film, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” (“used to express someone’s intention to complete an enterprise once it has been undertaken, however much time, effort, or money this entails.”)
Heading for home: Alas, all good things come to an end and it’s time to leave. The good news is, there’s a spectacular route home so the trip’s not really over… not until you hit I-70. Gas up, grab some coffee and head back out Highway 128.
I don’t think the solemnity of Dead Horse Point hit me until this last visit. We prefer celebrating the beauty and grandeur of things. Who wants to focus on our failings? Though that was far from mind when I set out for the trip to Canyonlands early January, it’s one of the most pervasive and lingering thoughts from the trip.
This trip I brought 4 cameras, each with a specific use in mind: 2 x 35mm Nikons (F5 & F6), and 2 x 645 Mamiyas (1000S and ProTL). The F6 ran mostly black & white Ilford Delta 100, with a little FP4. The F5 ran mostly E6; some new Ektachrome 100 paired with Provia 100F. The Mamiya’s were relegated to C-41 films and I was really excited to try a fresh box of Fuji Pro 400H, and of course favored and familiar Portra 400. I always have Delta 100 loaded in one of the ProTL backs and will often double up shooting color and black & white if I really like a scene and think it will print well wet.
This was my first experience shooting Fuji Pro400H and I’m impressed. Anyone familiar with Portra knows its warm bias, which is pleasing and beautiful in the right circumstances. Fuji Pro 400H has a much cooler, blueish bias I imagined would be excellent to convey the cooler palettes of Winter. Turns out having both on hand was a great way to better interpret different scenes.
The C-41 films were rated at ISO400 and shot at ISO200, then processed normally (at ISO400). This produced the lighter look I was after and prevented worrying about the bright fog fooling the camera’s meter. I still employed over exposure on some shots knowing full well how much latitude both films have. Slide films and Delta were exposed at rated speed ISO100.
I like the faster ISO400 films in the Mamiya because I can shoot hand held more easily. But since films have such tight grain, especially in 120 size, I know anything I shoot will enlarge beautifully. I had chrome films with me too but decided to save them. The fear was with such a featureless sky, chrome films with their inferior exposure latitude would render the skies pure white and not pick up subtle tones as the C-41 films successfully did.