Craft Matters

Water Play

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Water Ripples - Zion National Park

I love the interplay of light and water. I’ve made “classic” long exposure film images like Velvet Reflections and, more recently, digital-based abstractions like Reflections #17. And I’ll continue to make those types of images as the inspiration arises. But, on this trip, I’m exploring water across different lighting situations, camera angles, and shutter/aperture settings.

In the image here I’m playing with my 100mm Zeiss Planar at f5.6 and exposures in the 1/250th range. I’m trying to isolate wind spun ripples in a certain type of light with limited depth-of-field. The image is handheld (and not sharp throughout) as I’m exploring rather quick subtle changes in position relative to the water and available light.

I don’t love this image. It’s fair and not quite what I’m after. But it’s teaching me things. And that’s the point. There’s a cycle to this stuff. Experiment, try, fail, learn, try again, succeed. You might have to cycle it a few times before you get to the success part. But make no mistake, it’s the way things work. It’s a proven methodology both your great grandfather and the latest psychology self-help book will agree on.

The Well Positioned Camera

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Camera Position is Everything

Position is everything. You can have an amazing subject, amazing light, and an amazing camera that you spent an amazing amount of money on but, when it comes to release the shutter, if you don’t have your camera in the right position, you’ll fail in the opportunity to create an amazing image.

Most photographers don’t really understand this. I recently watched a workshop group fan out at a roadside pullout with a high vantage point of Zion’s West Temple and The Sentinel. They used their cameras on tripods as their axis point for making compositional decisions. After a few minutes of watching this in photographic craft-related horror, I concluded the workshop instructor (whom I really couldn’t discern) must be ritually sacrificed for the benefit of the local carnivorous mammal population (excluding the rock squirrels who are already annoyingly present enough).

If I could converse with those workshop participants (preferably over a 3.2% Utah microbrew), I’d offer this basic compositional 7-step recovery plan:

  1. Go somewhere in the Park you like.
  2. Explore.
  3. When visual inspiration hits, DO NOT take out (or raise) the camera.
  4. Stop. Ask yourself, what am I responding to? What’s important to me about this? What of it best expresses what I’m feeling?
  5. Look at the scene from different perspectives. Forward, backwards. Up, down. Side-to-side.
  6. With those simple explorations, you will see things that change the image. Some will make it better. Some worse.
  7. When you feel you’ve found the best possible position for the photograph, then break out the camera (and the tripod if you have one).

In the photo above, my camera is assuming the little known lean-to-spread-eagle-lotus position. My iPhone pic belies the actual slope of the rock face which is steeper. The camera’s position enables a formal-like direct composition of a trio of pine trees (seen in the background) at a viewing height that helps hide a couple of distracting nearly black shadows in the rock face. Rubber feet on the Ries tripods are a godsend in this situation and the tripod is positioned so its weight leans into the slope helping it to hold steady on the angle.

All that careful consideration didn’t stop the tripod from “slipping” twice as I composed and focused. The canyon echoed a couple of expletives but diligence was ultimately rewarded with three steady exposures.

And the feeling of a well made effort.

Water Reflects Stone

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Water Reflects Stone - Zion National Park

Water reflects stone.
Stone reflects water.

I spent a good 20 minutes musing on a zen-like statement for this image. Once I came up with it, it seemed obvious. Despite its official desert status, water is everywhere in Zion. It’s often hidden. But it’s there. Sometimes it takes its sweet time, literally ten of thousands of years to permeate down though layers of sandstone and emerge as a seeping vernal spring. Other times it rumbles boulders the size of cars in a torrential flash flood. Alongside a raging Virgin River, I’ve felt those boulders quake the earth beneath my feet. It reminds you who’s boss. If you aren’t awestruck and humbled, better check your pulse.

Beyond such dramatic moments, things quieten pretty quickly. You might hike a canyon and only happen upon water in a single pothole. Or be walking a sandy creek bed, your feet on solid footing until a sudden turn finds your boot neck deep in quicksand. In much of my Zion wanderings, I follow water. Often just the hint of it. It took me awhile to understand this subtlety, inspiring more recent explorations into areas I would’ve ignored in the past.

The spring fed creek that allowed for the image here is a trickster. It often dries up in the day as the sandstone warms and evaporates the water faster than it can flow. But the shallow pools, often in shade, remain. Fortunately, I’d witnessed this effect the year before and, after a summer of heavy monsoonal precipitation this year, suspected the drainage might hold photographic promise.

Indeed, it did.

The Goodness Baked In

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Garbage Cleaned up in Zion National Park

This morning, after a particularly productive photography session, I spent 20 minutes picking up trash strewn aside a pull out on the upper east side of Zion National Park. I assembled the items together on a my truck bed, took the photo here, then a detailed inventory. Here’s what was discernible:

  • Two Bud Light Bottles (fairly fresh)
  • The top third of a broken 7-Up bottle (not so fresh)
  • A bottle cap for a Sprite
  • A bottle cap for a Beck’s Special Dark
  • A Motts Medleys wrapper
  • Three Trident chewing gum wrappers
  • Zig Zag paper packaging
  • A Welch’s Fruit Chews wrapper
  • A Regions bank receipt for a $40 withdrawal with a remaining balance of $318.00
  • A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sticker (intact)
  • A Planters Peanuts wrapper (not so intact)
  • Toast Chee Crackers wrapper with the tagline “Goodness Baked In”
  • An empty sheet of what looked to be children’s stickers
  • A DumDums sucker wrapper
  • A 9/13/14 receipt for $100 to Whitney Cowan to rent Apt #1 w/o storage from Aug 1-31 with a $810 balance due
  • A dryer sheet (thinking this was Whitney’s too but that’s just a guess)
  • A burger wrapper from Iceberg Drive-in which I’ve never heard of, but apparently has been in business since 1960
  • The wrapper for Nice! Purified Water. It was Nice! of them to keep the plastic bottle (to be recycled, no doubt)
  • The “non-tare” tare strip off a PowerBar goo pack
  • 13 cigarette butts, mostly Marlboro but I did note one Chinese labeled brand
  • Non-discernible items were numerous clear wrappers for candy, straws, something that cost $1.59 and a number of pieces of broken glass

And what I didn’t pick up was a minimum of 20 separate droppings of toilet paper in varying degrees of stickiness and decay. Ironically, the evening before, I’d met a back country ranger whose duties include cleaning up human waste (i.e. shit) out of the Narrows. Even deadly flash-flooding apparently isn’t enough to flush out people’s creative pooping places within the Narrows. Hint. They like to get very high. And, no, that’s not a Zion pun.

I went to the perversely entertaining trouble to itemize all that trash so I could write this post with a simple conclusion.

Fuck you litter bugs!

Try taking a class on human decency and get some goodness baked into you.

Star Trails – Zion Canyon

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Star Trails over Zion National Park

3 hours. 363 photos. They are the ingredients of this photograph, tracking the stars last night over Zion National Park, my home for the next two months. In celebration of this time, I quote a favorite passage from Robinson Jeffers‘ “De Rerum Virtute”:

I believe the first living cell
Had echoes of the future in it, and felt
Direction and the great animals, the deep green forest
And whale’s-track sea; I believe this globed earth
Not all by chance and fortune brings forth her broods,
But feels and chooses. And the Galaxy, the firewheel
On which we are pinned, the whirlwind of stars in which our sun is one dust-grain, one electron, this giant atom of the universe
Is not blind force, but fulfils its life and intends its courses.

What Jeffers felt in the marrow of his bones, I feel here. Everywhere there is cause and effect, intention, purpose. What may appear random simply veils deep intricate workings of causality. Around me is humbling enormity, bewildering complexity, the most graceful fragility. In my photography I try to honor this, give voice to it, spark awareness, even inspiration. And grow. As an individual, a friend, a lover, a father, a citizen. I want to feel the whirlwind, spin with the firewheel, know my intentions align with a greater course.

Death in the Narrows

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Radar over Zion National Park

Over the weekend I screen grabbed this image of intense precipitation over Zion National Park. The line of thunderstorms and accompanying downpours had remained almost stationary for 5+ hours. For Zion that meant intense, dangerous flooding.

If you’re unfamiliar with Zion National Park, the main canyon is formed by the Virgin River whose headwaters begin high in the Dixie National Forest. The North Fork of the Virgin River carved a deep narrow gorge through Navajo Sandstone forming Zion Canyon. At the north end of Zion Canyon is The Narrows, a miles long stretch of river where the sandstone walls are, for significant stretches, over 1,500 feet deep and little more than 20 ft across.

So dangerous is the potential for flash flooding, the Park Service closes The Narrows anytime the river’s flow exceeds 150 Cubic Feet per Second (CFS). The day I screen grabbed this image, the river hit a peak flow rate of 4,020 CFS. As the USGS image shows here:

USGS Virgin River Gage Height

the river rose to over 14 ft, nearly double it’s normal height. Within the tight confines of The Narrows, the flow rate and height would’ve been exponentially greater. Also note in the image, a flash flood event earlier in September. That day, Zion received its 7th highest single-day rain event in 86 years.

The Narrows is a quintessential Zion National Park hike and, on my upcoming trip I plan to spend a good time exploring it photographically. Monitoring the weather and respecting posted closures, even when the weather may appear benign, is essential. The morning of my screen grab, a Los Angeles duo ignored warning signs and entered The Narrows. The flow rate at the time was only 46 CFS. Within a few hours the flow rate grew nearly 100X. Caught in a raging onslaught, the hikers were able to climb to higher ground but remained stranded for hours. One decided to go for help. Park Rangers were unable, due to the high flow rate, to enter the canyon until the next morning. They discovered the second hiker, dead, presumably drowned.

Hopefully, the story speaks for itself.

Expand your Color Space

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Darkroom Chemistry for Ilfochrome Masking

Dedicated photographers know color spaces well. The picture here represents a new color space for me. OYP. Orange, yellow, purple. It’s the chemical “color space” I now work in when creating black and white contrast masks to help control certain tonal densities when printing Ilfochrome.

I’d known about masking for years but consciously avoided it. I believed I could capably print without the added workflow burden. And actually, I could, to a degree. Then, last November during my annual Fall photographic trip to Zion National Park, I had an epiphany caused, ironically, by the marketing bullshit I experienced in the Michael Fatali Gallery.

I worked for Michael Fatali for a couple years back in the late 1990s. What few people understand is that Michael didn’t print his own work. Back then, it was printed by a master printer, Richard Jackson, the original owner of Hance Parters. In his galleries today, Michael expounds his master printmaking abilities, making statements that are, at best, dubious and, at worst, plainly deceitful. Over the years I’ve met many people who question, often passionately, the veracity of his claims.

Possessing this “inside knowledge” and having to endure the “hail the great master printer” message presented to me by the cluelessly naive gallery representative, sent me into a tizzy. Within hours, I was on the phone with Richard Jackson (we’d never spoken) and, two months later, we spent 3-days in my darkroom intensively engaged in Ilfochrome masking. I’m now empowered with a new tool in my quest to further master the art of print making.

The moral for me is an old and simple one. You’ll never know until you try. Or, in photographic parlance, always be willing to expand your color space.

The Beautiful Chaos

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Beautiful Chaos - Ilfochrome Print

Over the years I’ve familiarized myself photographically with the geography of Zion National Park, particularly its elevations. At higher elevation there is a general zone I like to call “The Beautiful Chaos”. Here the Navajo Sandstone is colored pink and white, its geographic inhabitants random and chaotic. Stones, striations, potholes, weathered tree trunks and springs “litter” the landscape in a visual feast I never tire of exploring.

The image here, a recent Ilfochrome print from my darkroom, captures 5 gently illuminated stones at dusk. I imagine these miniature boulders have a name but I’ve yet to discover it. They consist of harder, more stable sandstone deposited in layers of fragile sandstone, eventually uncovered by erosion. I suspect they inevitably succumb to gravity, rolling downhill, and, in ideal scenarios, splitting neatly apart. The split ones remind me of cinnamon rolls, one of my “culinary weaknesses”. Whatever the forces at work, I find them exceptional and an excellent example of the beautiful chaos present in Zion and throughout the Desert Southwest.

Solitary Oak, Robert Taylor

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Solitary Oak by Robert Taylor

On a recent Bay Area trip, an unexpected car rental upgrade to a Ford Mustang inspired me to take a Sunday drive south through the Salinas Valley and the vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands. My route back traversed west along the Carmel Valley road (a.k.a. “Driving Heaven”) stopping in Carmel to visit the Weston Gallery and Photography West.

My initial desire was to view some Morley Baer photographs, a “west-coast-style” classic black and white photographer whom I keenly admire. But in Photography West, I was introduced to Robert Taylor. A traditional large-format black and white photographer, Robert’s wonderfully crafted silver gelatin prints reveal well-considered intimate compositions. I was won over, and acquired “Solitary Oak” which, to me, conveys themes of serenity, strength, and individualism.

Robert’s photographic endeavors are regional, seldom venturing more than a 4-hour drive from his home in Mendocino County — an intimate approach to photography that resonates deeply with me. In Robert’s own words:

“For me, as is surely the case for other photographers, certain photographs possess a magical quality about them. The reasons for this allure seem to be both personal and universal. On the personal level, I find myself drawn to themes that have abided in me since childhood, such as a love of nature and a nostalgic view of the passage of time. However, other photographs seem enchanting due to lyrical and emotive qualities inherent in the silver image itself. Subtle qualities of light and tonal nuance seem to charm the psyche regardless of theme or personal preference. The quest for such photographs is at the same time elusive and exhilarating.”

I’d be hard pressed to describe my own photographic pursuits any better.

Palouse Granary

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Palouse Granary

My previous Oregon Granary post inspired me to cycle back through images made in 2013 when I spent a few days exploring the Palouse in and around the towns of Walla Walla, Pullman, and Colfax. The weather was frustrating, persistent showers with extended cloud cover and lots of wind. But on the last day the skies parted and the remaining clouds provided dramatic atmosphere.

I happened upon this old well-weathered granary that afternoon and explored it for hours, even chatting with the farmer who owned the land around it. This image, one of my favorites, was made just as the sun was setting in the warm clear light.