Tilting at Tripods – An Ongoing Dilemma in Landscape Photography with Bruce Hucko
This place has long been on my bucket list to visit at least once, but, like the light we seek it remained elusive until Thanksgiving of 2012. Finally, there was enough free time on the calendar and enough free space in the heart and mind to encounter a new and longed for landscape openly, freely, and without the tentacles of day-to-day responsibilities holding me back. I’d left them all at home, packed my truck with 5 days worth of leftover early turkey, a homemade pumpkin pie, water, other food, a little wine and my current tequila of choice …plus an air pump, jack, extra gas, and other necessary tools for traveling down long sandy roads to a marvelously contorted small and potent wonderland of sandstone known simply as ……………..
And that’s the point.
If I name it would you all go there? A host of you already know this place, and once you see the images you may want to put it on your list, or say, “Oh yeah. Been there, done that …. and better.”
It’s impossible to keep a photo-secret these days. Out of curiosity, I Googled the map name for this place – 340,000 hits. The first to come up were photo references and tour guides. That was almost enough to turn me some other direction, but I was haunted by the photographic opportunities that awaited me among the marvelously mangled folds and twists of Navajo sandstone.
I arrived in the early afternoon the day before Thanksgiving to an empty “parking area,” shouldered my gear, strode with anticipation over the sand dune and was soon lost in rapture, as giddy as a kid in a candy store. All this great rock. All these fabulous forms! And I had it all to myself! I blasted a hundred frames on my Nikon D800 before taking a breath and than sat and pondered what lay before me. There was almost too much here to comprehend. I took a quick tour of the images I’d made. Nah. Nah. Nope. Maybe. OK. Nah. Nah. I’d rushed like the forms were all going to quickly slither away and get lost.
First Lesson: In my excitement to be here I had not truly arrived yet. I packed the camera away and for the next hour just walked the area slowly, allowing myself to just feel and see without the obligation to photograph. An hour before sunset I began to really work – deliberately, consistently, contentedly. This first session lasted an hour past sunset, and, once back at my truck with camp set and dinner warming I checked my images and was happy to find a few goodies, images that well reflected my first encounter with this place.
For this trip I’d rented what I soon found to be the very sharp 21mm Zeiss Distagon T F/2.8 ZF.2 lens. I’d heard great things about this lens and it made a great first impression. I roamed this 30-acre plot of photographic glee with it, my 24mm Nikkor PC, the ever-useful 24-70mm Nikkor and a 70-300, which never saw the light of day.
Lenses will help you build the in-camera image, but it’s our software and printing that determines the final outcome. All images for this trip were processed in Lightroom 4 and then finished in Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 or Viveza 2. This was the first ever collection of images that I’ve finalized without some processing in Photoshop. Coming out of the large format B&W printing genre, I’m fully aware of how we can craft our images, pulling out or suppressing detail, burning and dodging and otherwise manipulating tones and colors to achieve a final resolve to our vision. Nik Software allows us to do this with ease.
That first night I lay thinking about a few images, about where to take them once I returned home. Wouldn’t you know that the first one to receive attention once I did return home was the B&W image I call Galaxy Pool. The sun had set and I walked slowly back towards camp that first night. The tufted, dinner-roll tops of the white sandstone had turned an eerie blue. Pothole residue lay in radiating lines. I saw possibilities. The Zeiss captured the details in the bottom of the pothole and in the sky without a need to perform HDR (and I mean that like saying perform CPR, as I’m finding HDR is being overemployed in many landscape photos). After importing the image into Lightroom 4 and applying my import development presets, I tweaked the still color image in clarity and sharpness and then reconciled the file for the 21mm Zeiss. I then launched Silver Efex Pro 2 and made a few whole image adjustments using contrast, brightness, and structure. I created a single Control Point for the pothole interior and upped all three elements until the details separated and started to look a little unearthly. Beam me in Scotty!
Dawn rose clear and cold on Thanksgiving Day and boy, was I ever thankful that I’d chosen to come here. While making predawn coffee, the single large Navajo sandstone butte that marks this spot from a distance lit up with predawn glow so brightly that I thought someone had snuck in and was lighting it with portable lights. My first image of the day was a dawn image of this same butte with a tinge of sun. Enough of the broad landscapes – it is the details that truly give me pleasure. As I worked among the forms I could not shake the feeling that I was looking at bones. Bones of a prehistoric or mythological creature, bones of the earth. As I often say to my workshop students, “own your bias.”
Lesson Two:Practice what you preach. For the next few hours I photographed “‘dem bones,” seeing the rock forms as part of a creature that once had movement and that I was attempting to give movement to again. “Still is still moving to me,” quoth the sage Willie Nelson. And to me, bones say black and white. The day was clear, so I was working in shallow contrast open shade, but I knew that Silver Efex Pro 2 could extend the contrast before me to meet the contrast I was seeing in my head.
Late on the second day of my stay I found an area that completely turned my head and no matter which way I turned there were scores of good compositions to be had. I exercised my right to quickly shoot a bunch of practice images in poor light, which served to warm me up to the possibilities. I visited the same spot first thing the next morning in much better light and made “Rock Root.” As you can see, the RAW image was pretty soft. One of the wonders of Silver Efex Pro 2 is the “Structure” slider and it’s ability to separate and add contrast between the tones of the chosen area. This has always been the challenge of classic Black & White printing. I am pleased with the way Silver Efex Pro 2 does this.
At home I was working on a bone image that I titled “Winged Bone.“ I’d finalized it and closed it back up. For some dumb reason I reopened the image from Lightroom in Color Efex Pro 4. Oops! …Pause…Wow! Before me was a slightly blurred and darkened image that looked like it had been made with an old camera or pinhole. I almost closed it, but tweaked it and I like it!
Lesson Three: Shoot for the oooops! (For your information, the filter was Midnight with these slider settings: Blur (50%), Contrast (40%), Brightness (80%), Color (40%) and Color Set at Neutral.)
For two days I’d had fun but had also been tormented by blue skies. As landscape photographers we all like the effects that weather brings. On my third and final evening camping, a few clouds appeared in the west. They stretched my way ever so slightly, bouncing their warm glow over the immediate landscape. I had time for only a few compositions and am quite happy with what I created. I minimized the sky in them to emphasize the abstract nature of the stone. The sky is the clue that yes, this is real. Viveza 2 easily allows me to make the small adjustments necessary from my RAW files. Was this exactly the color as I saw it? No, but I’m not making a record. If I wanted to simply record what I was seeing I would just sit in a chair and burn the color into my brain. The aim of landscape photography as I practice it is to express what is both seen and felt. Is the color close to what is really there? Sure, but I tweaked it to what I find to be a believable amount to satisfy that part of me that was also feeling the landscape. I placed a couple of Control Points on the sky, usually taking the exposure down and then highlighting a few rock forms.
I have been smitten by the forms I have seen here. I’ve started referring to this place as the Point Lobos of the Colorado Plateau. (I know that this may be overdoing for some of you photographers who know our history) I see what Edward Weston, Adams and the rest were doing when they returned over and over again to that sacred little area of California seashore. Something elemental was at work there. Something special was being revealed there and they were there to witness it with lens and film. This place is like that for me. I want to return. I want to return in storm light. In rain. I could stand to share it with a dozen others during the day knowing that I’d camp for days. I would not want to have to score a permit and so I am going to try to keep quiet about this place. Sure I’ll share the location with some friends. I won’t be publishing GPS coordinates or blogging about its location. I’d rather write about what I was attempting to accomplish photographically. Bones. Lapping waves. Sensual earth lines.
Lesson Four: It should matter less about where the image is made, and more about what is done with the material that is there to work with and what one does with it to create a meaningful image.
I read all too often about where someone went and not enough about what one was trying to accomplish. Would we think any less or differently of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Cartier-Bresson or any other great photographer if they had simply turned their lens and great skill at composition on the freeway overpasses of their closest city? Does knowing that it is “Half Dome” or “Glen Canyon” or any other place name make a landscape photograph better or worse? I don’t think so.
There was once a time when photographing endangered wild landscapes served to help protect them. We have Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Citizens Wilderness Proposal for Utah due to more people becoming aware of these landscapes. During my 3 night stay here I met 4 travelers from Korea, a nice man from China who was guided in, 3 separate two car, 6-8 people groups from Colorado and a Kanab family who left their hard-boiled egg shells on the ground (which I picked up). They’d all arrived here because they’d seen photos of this place linked to its location. Like a lot of other landscape gems, this place seems to be in danger of being visited by too many people just like myself! Yikes!
I admit to being a bit of a photo-Don Quixote, tilting at tripods. Much of my personal works happens on Cedar Mesa, a place where I’ve been working, photographing and engaging in archaeological preservation for 30 years. I’ve seen the effects that becoming popular has had on this place. Photographing ruins and ruin bagging by non-photographers has become a viral fad. Visitation is way up and conscious hiking is down. The ability to find sites via the web is completely out of control. As former Cedar Mesa/Grand Gulch BLM archaeologist Nancy Shearin once quipped, “we have entered the age of digital vandalism,” meaning that the amount of information so freely and carelessly given is now becoming part of the problem. Everyone wants to visit…yeah, that site.
Truly, we are loving places to death. There is a rumor of a BLM permit system to be placed on this place. I would not want that, but I understand. The “Wave” has become strongly administered with good reason. When I visited there in the pre-permit system days there were many more protruding narrow thin fins than there are now. There was no waiting but for the light… It’s crazy now. A local guide told me that he’s seen people go into hysterics when they show up for a permit and are denied.
As I drive through Page, Az., back to my Moab home, I pass the entrance to Antelope Canyon… still the most amazing slice of earth there is. The parking area is stuffed turkey-full of people awaiting shuttle vehicles to carry them through the sandy wash to the canyon’s entrance and visual nirvana. I am thankful I first visited Antelope in the early 1980’s, long before permits, and long before the Navajos even knew what they had. It seems I was there in the nick of time. It’s a people zoo now. Pay your fees, take the tour. Walk in, walk out. Your time is limited. Will this place and others turn the same?
What to do? I invite conversation. I invite you to consider how you name your photographs and what information you share and how you share it. I also aim my questions and thoughts at myself first. But right now I’m just wanting to get home, download the images and get to work on them, transporting myself back to a wonderful couple of days. Enhanced by the Nik work I perform on them at home, these images transport me, not to the physical place, but to that wonderful internal landscape of feeling and seeing that was set in motion by a special little fold of stone.