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Photographing the South West USA. Part 3 - The End

So I did mention the Grand Canyon previously and that is where I let off with the last post. It was a very difficult place to leave as can you ever get the photo that sums it up. I believe nothing that big both in physical scale and reputation can be contained or contended with photographically over the course of a few quick days. Photographers have spent their lives living at the canyon making a living from the tourist trade and spending untold days in the remotest areas being back the unique images we all expect to get.

The Shot of the Grand CanyonAt the end of my time there I was happy with one photo, yes just one shot that for me conveyed the things that I believe are the most difficult to do at the canyon. Portraying its sheer immensity, the subtle color variations between the rock layers and the environmental timeline both geological and seasonal are for me what has to be in the shot.

It was a very opportune morning, my first there as it would turn out, where all three of the prerequisites came together. Unfortunately as it would turn out the following early mornings and late afternoons yielded not quite a shot. Here is where it gets tricky being a landscape photographer do I stay with the hope of another perhaps grander shot or do I go to my next location.

I chose to move on. Page Arizona was my next location with two spots that I had hoped to shoot Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon. Horseshoe Bend is on the Colorado River north of the Grand Canyon and as it name suggests it’s quite a bend... shaped like a horseshoe oddly enough. The qualifying geological significance of it however is more the fact that it’s a 300 meter vertical drop from the rim to the river.

Antelope Canyon just 30 minutes away is in the Navajo Nation and is very reminiscent of a place in Central Australia, Redbank Gorge right at the base of Mt. Sonder in the West MacDonnell Ranges. It’s a very narrow Canyon where a creek has carved its way through the soft sandstone. The trick here is the play of light and shadow on the canyon walls as the sun passes over head. The best time to shoot the canyon is summer when the sun is high providing many more opportunities for well lit walls.

It was hard shooting and the clock was ticking every hour I spent there added to the cost of being there which compared to everywhere else was expensive. It cost me $60 to stay there for 3 hours which is cheap when considering the summer prices. I have to say the time limits and constant chatter by the guides helpful to the cause of finding what it was all about and photographing it. However it was still a great location and I did get a shot that I was happy with and with the lack of freedom to explore further I again hit the road.

My next location was something of a mystery as it was a well known park but I could find no information on the National Parks Service website. So after doing what research I could, or was willing to about the park before going I drove the last half hour in. The Valley of Fire State Park was now part of the Navajo Nation and again required a separate fee to enter.

Let it be known the counterproductive nature of additional fees for  parks which are not well setup and more importantly offer little to no cultural experience to warrant the charge. I know it sucks to make such statements and believe me if there was a perceivable value add because of the fee I’d have no problems paying. So as it was going to cost me another $20 just to enter the park and another $20 to camp I simply turned and went, unfortunately sometimes you’ve got to make the call.

A hard decision it was but the second chance prize was another day in Death Valley and it was a great thing to have. Death Valley was my favorite location for this trip because of its abundant differences on the small scale. In a single day you could shoot so many texture rich environments including the famous sand dunes, salt lakes, mountains, canyons and still have time to relax before going out at sunset.

This time around in Death Valley, yep it was my second time for the trip (see part one), I wanted to get onto the salt lakes and explore the textures and patterns as they vanished into the horizon. The first day I was there it was very overcast with heavy clouds and for a few precious seconds it did rain. The clouds and the atmosphere provided a perfectly matched look and feel for a special location where the salt flats are the gnarliest I’ve seen. The scene is what might come to mind when you hear of a place named Death Valley is mentioned in a conversation. For this reason I am very happy with how this image portrayed the environment.

The image is very much not your typical landscape photo with its decisively hellish vision but it is an accurate depiction of what I tell people is a very polarized location. Death Valley is at the very extreme end of environmental systems and for that reason this images sits well with me.  To contrast this hellish vision the very next morning well before sunrise I was treated to quite the opposite end of the spectrum just a few minutes walk away. Pure white salt flats with incredible amounts of built up crust around the edge have always fascinated me and this was the first time I’ve had to shoot such a subject.

But that morning it just didn’t work for me and I just couldn’t find a composition I was happy with. The large plates of salt just didn’t sit well in the frame for me and while I kept trying alas it was just not my morning. The next morning was a little different as during the day while the sun was high I had though of better ways to use the lines to my advantage. This second morning was a very successful morning as I knew my location and I had a much clearer vision to act on when composing the final shot.

Standing on that salt lake as the first glimmers of light rises of the surrounding mountains it really did sink in just how harsh this environment must be. I was there in the middle of winter making it a very climatically pleasant place to be and yet not a single bird, insect or mammal could be seen or heard, I could not recall a place where this silence had been so noticeable. Its moments like these that add so much value to the experience of  being there at such special times of the day. Following up on my previous post to this blog (Landscape Photography, it’s a patient man’s game) I’d have to say that if for the second morning in a row I didn’t get the shot this realization was indeed reward enough.

In conclusion to my time in the South West I have to be quite honest and say that it was hard, I stank and it sucked to eat such crap food and drink terrible coffee. However the grand visions that great the visitor and delight the photographer are numerous and remarkably varied. I’ve been to many places in the world and after an intense trip visiting many places in a short time as this one was I became saturated with scenery and unfortunately lost vision.

Like never before in my life did the South West maintain a constant sense of amazement with every location and around every corner. If I had to think of something I’d do differently next time it would have to be allow time during the middle of the day and night where I photographed the human side of these places. The small town and people that lived in them were as much a source of inspiration as the nature. My rationale for not taking these photos was to concentrate 100% on getting the landscapes on this trip and perhaps later in the year when or if I’m lucky to return with my partner I’d focus on this task more.

If anyone reading this has a desire to get to the South West you can consider my words and experiences testament to it being a lifetime experience photographer or not.