Monument Valley Revisited – again, and again.

I have had the great pleasure of photographing a number of books for KC Publications, owned and operated by the legendary (in my books) KC DenDooven. I’ve photographed books on the Santa Fe and Spanish Trails, Dead Horse Point State Park and the entire Art & Crafts of the Southwest Indians series. (Arts & Crafts, Ceremonies, Tribes, Weaving, Fetishes and Pottery, which I also wrote). Early this past summer I was invited by KC to start re-photographing some of my own work for the Monument Valley book. Ten years ago, KC contracted me to produce a 16-page insert to his (at that time) current Monument Valley book, featuring the photography of Josef Muench. I own a copy of that book signed by Mr. Muench given to me by KC for fulfilling his “order” for photos to bring the book up to date.


That cover photo, by the way, is the first color photo ever taken, nay MADE, of the Totem Pole. I believe the year was 1937. I know this because “KC said so.” KC is history. Not only did he know and work with Josef Muench, but he was also friendly with Harry Goulding and his sister ‘Mike’ who lived on Pleasant Creek in what is now Capital Reef NP. KC befriended Bates Wilson in the early 1960’s as Bates (superintendent of Arches NP) was pushing Congress to accept his proposal for a little “wilderness” national park called Canyonlands. KC also published the first article on Canyonlands written by his friend and then Kennedy administration (and arguably one of the best) Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Need I go on!

Anyway! To infuse my 16-page insert I sought out descendants of the early Josef Muench photos and in some cases older versions of the very people who appeared in the earlier photos!

This past summer KC contracted me to produce a few “replacement photos “ for the current publication. I spent a day at MV photographing and had a few “photo insights” which I share now.

#1 History is Forgotten.
Josef Muench was here in the late 1930’s. Ansel Adams photographed the valley in the 1940s. Back then there were no paved roads leading to the monument or even in the area. The road from Flagstaff to Moab was dirt according to KC, who drove it THEN! There is no record or mention of either of these men in the current displays.

#2 Global Warming is here to stay as is the effect of TOO MUCH VISITATION.
The drought in the greater southwest has really set in. While driving the 17-mile self-guided loop in the valley I paid particular attention to scenes and particular subjects that I knew well, from Muench’s and my own, covering an over an 80-year history of working the valley.
There’s a tree that Josef photographed and I photographed, ALIVE, that is now dead. Dead for lack of water due to the drought compounded by the summer of 2018 heat that likely was over 100 degrees for at least two months, without rain. It was also dead due to visitation. As people trample the ground around some of these obviously good foreground subjects they pack the soil so that when it rains two things happen; 1)the water quickly runs off to other areas over the hardened surface, and; 2) the soil is compacted by the foot traffic exposing roots so they can no longer conduct water (aka LIFE) to the tree.

I drove the valley making a few photos and attempting to locate some of the people I’d photographed for the insert. I’ve been asked to update the current issue this next year and look forward to doing that for it connects me to a fine part of photo history.

Josef Muench is the photographer who made a portfolio of B&W images in Monument Valley who then gave them to his friend Harry Goulding, who then as the legend is told, camped out in John Ford’s Hollywood office for 4 days and then when Ford finally relented and looked at the pics decided pretty much then and there to film his new western “Stagecoach” with an up and coming new kid actor by the name of John Wayne. The rest is…. as they say…..history. KC owns the second and last of those portfolios and intends to produce a book based on them. I was able to trace some of the folks he photographed for the early publication and re-photograph them or their descendants for my insert. What a thrill for them and for me!

Towards the end of my visit I was at the visitor center watching the sun set on the mittens and the two foreground rocks that Adams made famous. The visitor center and parking lot now engulf the spot and the pavement is but 10 paces from the rock. I was watching from the vantage point of photographic history. I know the history of this icon. There were a few photographers gathered near the rock, photographing the light upon The Mittens, hoping for the best. There was one crouched near the two boulders. I knew he must have seen an image of these in the foreground, but wondered, if I asked him, if he’d know who’d been the first to envision that composition? Right about the time I actually thought of interrupting him a tour bus pulled up and out marched (no exaggeration) a group of oriental tourists, methinks Japanese, led by an outgoing gentleman wearing a t-shirt with the Forest Gump name and Monument Valley road scene printed on the back. His air-pollen-face-mask clad clients disembarked and were herded (it is Navajoland!) to the boulders where they were lined up. Evidently he was giving instruction as to how to best photograph the view. Moments later he started to order them to climb atop the right boulder and engage in a pose as he photographed them with their camera and then ordered them to quickly get out of the way. Next!
I watched with a growing amazement and ultimately, admiration, for the way in which he was getting all this accomplished. He seemed to ask for the next person and I raised my hand. There was a short group laugh and he bowed towards me. The crouching photographer did not. Overwhelmed by the event taking place he quickly packed his gear and moved away, noticeably pissed off. At one point in my career I would have been him. I would have been aghast at the sacrilege, called them untold nasty names under my breath. No more. Yes, the two boulders framing The Mittens is a good composition, but it belongs to Ansel Adams AND NOT THE REST OF US. I spent my final minutes photographing the spectacle before me, enjoying every minute of the orchestrated delight this busload of tourists was having in being there in that moment.

Lesson Learned. Many western photographic icons have a history that is to be enjoyed not through our own photography but through just seeing it through the eyes of a history you know and appreciate (with a grin) when others do not.

KC has pretty detailed photo needs and I work hard to complete them. I look forward to spending more time in MV this year making the photos he needs and a few I need ….. Such as…….

There will be more stories on this. Stay tuned.

False Kiva Reality

False Kiva Reality

This past week the National Park Service (NPS) announced that they have closed access to False Kiva, an archaeological site in the Island-in-the-Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. The closure stems from years of abuse that the site has endured from run-of-mill knuckleheads, hikers, well-intentioned photographers simply wanting to “repeat or clone” for themselves a photograph that photographer Tom Till first made several decades ago.

I, for one, totally support the move, not only because of the aggregate damage being done, but also for all those photographers who flock there.

This is the Tom Till shot of False Kiva, made on 4×5 film, back in the 1980s.

I remember going to False Kiva in the early 1980s with my friends Glen and Mr. Till. Tom had a view camera and I had a 35mm. Since it was the 3 of us, it’s very likely that Glen had been there before. Tom’s image became the image standard for this place. It was published widely . . . . . and I don’t fault him one bit. And then people started to figure out how to get there. Landmarks help you triangulate. I’ve actually encountered people with calendars or Xerox copies of an image featuring False Kiva walking across and damaging the natural resources to get to the cultural resource. Not good! A while back the NPS decided that there was so much visitation to the site that they had to establish a “presence” there to let people know that eyes might be looking. That obviously did not intimidate some folks who would camp and evidently “party” in the alcove, move rocks and generally disrupt the environment. I’m glad it’s closed and I hope anyone caught violating the closure is fined heavily.

But that’s not my priority reason for supporting the closure. My real reason has to do with landscape photography and personal vision.

There is a problem with landscape icons. Usually, somewhere back in time, a pro like David Muench, Jack Dykinga, Guy Tal or the like finds an amazing composition featuring a well-known landmark such as the Mittens of Monument Valley, Delicate Arch, etc. makes the photo, publishes it and then the world descends on that spot to essentially make THAT photo. False Kiva is one of several Tom Till’s iconic area shots. Like a few others in the area the image was first made years ago and has simply been copied ever since.

Back in 1972, David Hiser first photographed Turret Arch through North Window and Mesa Arch at dawn with the beautiful under-glow. People flock to these spots now. You practically have to take a number and wait in line at Mesa Arch.

This is Hiser’s much-copied 1972 image of Mesa Arch

This is Hiser’s “FIND!” Turret Arch through North Window.

Basically all you do is go to the spot, found via GPS, image downloads and other means, set up, and wait for weather and lighting to play her part. The essential composition has already been established BY SOMEONE BEFORE YOU! All you do is tweak it a bit and wait, maybe change focal length, over-slide your saturation or make it Black and White.
Oh to have such a personal relationship with a saguaro!

It also happens to much lesser-known landforms as is the case with one of Jack’s iconic photos with a certain, very certain, curved branch saguaro in bloom. People go looking for it and miss the beauty all around them. Archaeological sites are particularly prone to this behavior as excess visitation can lead to very real damage. I’ve seen published (but not located) images of my own cloned perfectly. It makes me wonder if the person spends more time looking at a pirated print of my shot to line things up than he does in actual communion with the place.

The thing is, IT’S NOT YOUR SHOT! You are NOT BEING CREATIVE! Sorry, but not. You are not performing an original act. You’re cloning.

Yes, there is something to learn from cloning a fine composition first made by SOMEONE else, just like many painters paint like a chosen master for a while to learn their technique, their vision, IN ORDER TO ADVANCE THEIR OWN. However, most of these painters treat such paintings, however well done, as an exercise, not as a finished piece to call their own. (Unless they make their living at forging!)

Creativity – where fore art thou?

It does not seem to be the same for landscape photography. I type False Kiva into my browser and there appear pages of imagery, essentially the same composition, as well as a few maps and a video with directions. At one point in my career I would have been happy to have a few of these to call my own. I probably DO HAVE a few that are very similar, but the thing is, they never felt like a true, personal image of mine since my friend Tom made that first one, and so I let that place go and went looking for something I could call my own.

That is why I applaud the NPS decision to close the site. Photographers! Be free of the chains of cloning! Go back up the trail, out onto the land and be original!

(Note: I’m really speaking to those photographers who want to develop and be known for your personal artistic vision. There are those among us who simply “research” other people’s work, find the locations and then seek to fill their portfolios with cloned images in order to perhaps gain some sales and unearned notoriety. Don’t get me started on these ……….hmmmmm…….. how nasty to get?……..these imposters!)

Go With the Flow……unless

There is this saying – “go with the flow” – and it generally means to go along with the crowd, with your feelings, with “whatever!” It does not mean to rock the boat. Here in Moab, with the Colorado River running just north of town the saying is often ascribed to rafting or river running. WRONG! Any decent boater will tell you that if you go with the flow you’ll end up in an eddy, on a rock, over the falls, or getting flipped! It’s NOT good river advice to “go with the flow.” Don’t believe me. Try taking your oars out of the water next time you go through Cataract Canyon or even White’s Rapid on the daily. Call me when you’re dry.

This past weekend I enjoyed two nights of floating on the Colorado River through the Ruby/Horsethief section of the canyon. It’s simple and simply beautiful. Our camp on the second night was at Black Rocks. The stone lining this narrowing of the river channel is pre-Cambrian, 1.7 BILLION years old! This means it is some of the oldest exposed rock on the face of the earth. It was a particular pleasure to camp among these rocks. We made camp in the afternoon and it was about 95 degrees out. The best activity was to find shade or just sit in the river. My two companions and did a bit of both. As shadow traced an erratic line across the river towards us I went scouting. No further than the next campsite upstream (and not occupied) I found a section of this ancient gneiss schist that I’d spend the evening with. This image was made by “going with the flow” of the fluted stone. It seemed to drain the land from left to right where it met the river. The stone was pinkish grey in daylight and in shade the highlights were reflecting the blue of the sky. Though I have a color version that I like I really do prefer the BW. For me, it brings out the dynamic movement I saw and felt in the stone as I imagined eons of water draining through and making the form I reveled in today. I’m showing you both versions, one with a bit of the river beyond and the other without…..I like them both.

This next image is one I’m quite happy with. I’d only been staring it in the face for the whole afternoon and evening….and the morning after until we launched. My raft was about 8′ to the right. The river laps the sandy beach on which we were camped about one foot under the bottom of the frame. My sleeping and shade area was 10′ from there.
I knew there was something there, but all I could think of initially was the White Tree of Gondor (Lord of the Rings, Tolkien). It was in direct sun initially, but as the world turned (the sun does not go down), first the background cliff, then the river and finally the tree entered into open shade. At this point the tree glowed…..seemingly from within and the main trunk, still embedded in the sand seemed more like a long arm arising from the river with one if its fingers offering new life. This got me going enough to get out my gear – Nikon D810 with 24-70 zoom with the Singh-Ray Variable Neutral Density/Polarizing filter on to blur the fast moving current. Here’s the capture.

I like to “go with the flow” of such thought when I am photographing because they are key to making images that are personally meaningful rather than a record of some landscape somewhere. Such thoughts inform my composition on site and my processing goals…….which start on site and end at home. I made 7 captures making slight adjustment to the filter and its effect on the water. Satisfied, I put things away and joined my compadres for a second round of Gn’Ts!!!

For those interested here’s the basic work that went into it –
In Lightroom I first wanted to neutralize the entire background. This meant darkening the top left and right corners and portions of the stone across the top of the image. Yes, that is a railway (California Zephyr and others). I darkened the area left of the tree with the lighter stone so it matched the rest. I then went to Photoshop to use the cloning tool to take out the railway and power lines. We’re still in color at this point.
At this point I enacted the BW layer in Photoshop and altered the orange slider to control the tone of the cliff.
I then added curve layer to the whole image and added a little contrast making sure the tree glowed.
I then went local, first using the Healing Brush to remove some spots, rocks and wave tips that didn’t suit me.

Back in LR, I used the Adjustment Brush to lighten the thicker part of the tree.
I also added contrast to everything below the waterline on the far side of the river, darkening it a bit to almost create a feeling of foreboding. I don’t know why but that’s what I was thinking. I think it has something to do with seeing that the main trunk had been chewed on by a beaver and the tree being all white meant it was dead!

Go with the flow…….unless you’re in a boat on a river with rapids!

Weeping Beauty

Sometimes it just all catches up to you. I’m talking about feelings here, not f-stops. Over Christmas I spent 3 nights at Valley of Fire State Park (Nevada) camped in my cozy 12’ Aliner, a hard-side, pop-up trailer. I arrived Christmas eve and set up Saturday night just before it started pouring rain.
The east side of Valley of Fire is a mesmerizing swirl of colored sandstone cut by 5 different washes. A walk up any of them will make your eyes pop. I spent my first day, the whole day in wash #5. You’d think I’d have covered 10-12 miles, but I doubt I did 4, going up the wash and back, meandering side to side, unfettered, stopping here and there to photograph, to even consider a photograph for a lengthy bit of time.
On the second day I paid a visit to David Muench’s little cave on the east side where he made the image that appears on the cover of his book ‘Windstone.’ I spent what I thought was the rest of the day roaming those same hills, looking in all the nooks and crannies, holes and caves. I felt the air chill about 20 degrees and thought that it must be about 4 pm, but returning to my truck I found it was only 1:30.
I drove back to the east side and parked in lot #2, angled towards wash #3 and started my slow meander up. About an hour in I was on a side of the canyon where the stone is striped orange and vermillion. A few clouds had softened the scene, deepening the color and I found myself caught up in a great emotional flare. I turned slowly around, my eyes moist. Beauty seemed to be dripping from every pore of the land.

What a feeling! It welled up quite strongly. Love? Solo anxiety? Fear? Old age? I do find myself getting a bit moist in the eyes far more often than I used to, but I’ve traced that sentiment to my work teaching children’s art in Moab. Kids will get under your skin that way. This was something different. It kept pulsing through me. I closed my eyes to center and discovered I was overcome with a powerful sense of raw beauty. Everything I love about photographing with nature was surrounding me. The forms, the lines, the light and mostly the color were all so very strong that I just had to sit. Looking back at this moment (that I hope repeats itself for me, for you, for a lifetime) I can see that up till then I’d been walking the wash whimsically making photographs. Then the elements came knocking at my door inviting me to experience them in raw emotional form. To meet them head on. To form a stronger bond and relationship with them. If we are not moved to tears by our subject from time to time then are we fully connecting? Are our subjects just pawns in the game of composition or do they mean more? I hope for the latter and while trying not to be to woo-woo here I personally do believe that engaging the landscape as you would a lover, a good friend or a trusted spouse (with all the joys and entanglements) will net you better, more personally meaningful photographs. I’d just been reminded of that again!

I sat for a few minutes longer and took out my little notebook that I used to jot down words and ideas as I walk, cause you know some of the best ones are like leaves falling from a tree; if you don’t reach for them out of the air the pass you by. I started making a list of what I see when walking for photography. Let me say that I don’t go ‘looking for’ this and that, but instead plant in my head some thoughts, ideas, etc. that I may later recognize in nature as equivalent. The most meaningful photographs I make are those that contain a balance of internal and external landscapes. The internal landscape is one of emotions and ideas while the external landscape contains the raw material of rock, plant, sky, water, light, etc. I employ elements of the external landscape to reveal my internal landscape. My word list included: sinuous, drape, winsome, meander and more. With a chuckle I pretty quickly connected “Weeping Beauty” and wrote that down. That pretty much said it all for me. The land was weeping beauty.

After my “break,” l looked around and followed a glimpse of purple and yellow stone to where the image Weeping Beauty was revealed. How amazing that I could be putting those words together not but 5 minutes before and then take no more than 30 steps to make an image to match them. What a joy!


Weeping Beauty

So here are a few samples of what I walked away with on that trip. Most of them wanted to be color, but I threw in the one B&W for good measure. There’s more in the gallery section of this website. Go to: Go West Young Man/Valley of Fire.
And may you always be warmed by the fire of your photography!






Pothole Paramour


I recently posted this photo on my FB page announcing that I’d submitted it to my first “contest” in over 4 years. Nikonians, supported by Lensculture selected it for their Competition Gallery. My friend Gil sent me a note asking for a look “behind the curtain” as he could not quite believe it was made from a single image.

As I really like this image I’m going to take him up on it…..and here we go.

First and foremost, this image, like I hope all others I make, is steeped in a love and familiarity of place. This is certainly the case for the Needles District of Canyonlands NP. It is the home of my soul. That being said I rarely take the walk out on Pothole Point, a scenic walk and picnic place on the paved road to Big Spring Canyon. On this day I was scouting workshop sites for the Terrific Trio Workshop that I conduct with @Colleen Miniuk-Sperry and @Guy Tal as part of the annual @Moab Photography Symposium, which I own and direct.

It was a cloudy day and we (girlfriend) were returning from Big Spring when I decided we should check out the point. I had my gear and off we went. It was late afternoon and the storm sat heavily across the region. The clouds were low, the air was dry and there did not seem to be any rain in the dark clouds. The light was pretty flat which would have made COLOR imagery pretty dull, but it created some good opportunities for B&W should one find the right image.

When I walk with B&W on and in my mind that’s all I see. I see the land with increased contrast and a range of glowing tones that immediately have me walking in the naturally abstract world that is B&W. There is also a strong NO NOUN filter. I like and practice seeing in terms of line, form, pattern, texture and the rest of the visual art dictionary. I really do not make images “of” something. I’m not reporting on my escapade, rather, I walk in conversation with the land and make photographs when we can mutually agree on a topic or when we might even tease, argue, joke or arrive at an impasse.

I rarely “plan” an image by using Google earth to search it out, employing apps to know when the sun rises and sets and all that stuff. I go out. I’m aware of the current conditions. If they favor B&W then I dial in my B&W brain filter. On this day that’s what I did and it was almost an after-thought to visit Pothole Point. I’m sure glad I did though!

The point is named for the large number of potholes, depressions in the sandstone that hold water and all sorts of small life. I wandered west from the road. The “trail” is a series of rock cairns that lead you past some large boulders to the pothole area that overlooks tributaries of Big Spring Canyon and beyond is the massive sandstone wall of spires for which the district is named. I’d only been walking for 20 minutes or so when I came across “the pothole.” I glanced at it but was intent on going further. I made just a few more steps past it, with it behind me, and then in mid-step, it seemed like a hand grabbed my shoulder and turned me back around. I was stopped cold, and could see that here was a place to work.
This is the raw capture. Though it is what the camera recorded, what I had already seen in my mind was closer to the B&W image I present as the final. I only had to GET THERE!


This is the RAW IMAGE.


This is the image with some GLOBAL ADJUSTMENTS.

Please note that I believe that preparation is both physical (Got camera? Gas? Lunch? Map? Spousal blessing? Other THINGS?) and mental (are you in the mood? In the Zone? Is your mind free?) Unfettered is an excellent word and state of being.

This image was made on a Nikon D810 and my 24mm PC Nikkor. Exposure was f16 and the required shutter speed. There may have been a graduated neutral density figure on the sky. Can’t recall. The composition hinges on the interplay between the broken pieces of dry dirt (just recently covered in water) in the pothole bottom and the reflected cloud forms on the water’s surface. I eliminated the rim of the pothole at the bottom of the image to land our eye in the most important part of the image. I was fairly low and close with the purpose of emphasizing and exaggerating the content at the bottom of the image. The top of the image rather set itself and I was thankful for the clouds as they really make the image. I also find that VERTICAL images help to abstract an image. We spend much of our lives seeing horizontally. Our eyes are set that way, as are our monitors, TV screens, windshields, the way we read, billboards and the horizon! This image moves vertically. So, composition set, f/16, tilt-shift adjusted. I then made a backup beginning exposure and sat with my finger on the cable release and watched subtle changes of light grace the scene. The distant horizon would shadow then gain light, a few light rays would spotlight certain areas and finally a soft caress of feathered light raised the tones ever so slightly on the pothole. Click! Back to the truck and a beer!

We are now home and processing. NOTE TO GIL: All the information needed to make the final B&W image is in the RAW capture. It is our job as photographers to use, manipulate, plead with, pray to and reveal that information in a manner that correlates to what we saw and felt at the time of “capture.”

I brought the image into LIGHTROOM and performed some basic tweaking on the entire image and in the sections shown here.





The image then went to PHOTOSHOP where it received local area work.


To wrap this image up I took it back into LR for a little tweaking and then I printed it! I work on plenty of images, but none of them feel finished to me until they are printed.


So with all that said it’s time to get out for a snowy hike!

B&W Friday!

I’m “borrowing” this term from buddy John Sexton who has a Black and White Friday book sale going on right now…today! So get over there soon.
While most of the world is shopping for who knows what kind of crap on-line or in person, elbowing, tugging, dashing, screaming and ramping their blood pressure up I’m going to be shopping for a campsite somewhere in the desert south of hanksville….I don’t expect to see anyone. It’s going to be a long B&W weekend. A Saturday storm is promised!
Not much of a post I know, but the lesson to be learned is this – if the world gives you time…..invest it wisely. I’ll take a weekend in the (near) wilderness pretty much anytime over shopping….I was in a Sam’s Club last saturday for just about an hour… seemed very uncivilized to me! I think we all behave better with some real walking in our soul.
Sunlit rain on the White Rim
The storm that begat the rain
I love the emotive nature of B&W. As I wander the canyons with B&W on my mind I really don’t go searching for subject so much as I allow it to find me. The receptive mind then alerts me to the call….hey! Look at me! I’m a pretty good subject for what you are thinking. Get over here and work me! When I can keep myself honestly open I am often rewarded with gifts such as I offer here.
I think there might be another waiting down the road….gotta go…..later!

Yucca Dreams

Have you ever had the burning desire to photograph and have it be so strong that it consumed you, blinded you to everything else and even paralyzed your ability to act because the urge to merge with the landscape with lens and light was so paramount in your mind and body that it controlled and intimidated your very being?
No? Well, ok. I have and often do and was under that influence on this day.

I’d driven down an eroded sand road on Cedar Mesa to a point of land overlooking a string of deep side canyons with the intent of walking their rim and finding a few archaeological sites to photograph. No such luck. The sandstone shelves were bare. I felt this strong need to consume my time with photography, to actually make one image that moved me. The previous days’ long hikes had left my legs tired. I was slothful.

A secondary, likely woodcutting road, led further out to the point than I’d stopped. I followed it driving and walked to the far point of land overlooking Valley of the Gods. It was Memorial Day, 3 pm and the sky was clear and blue. Not exactly prime conditions for quality landscape photography. I was an image-addict in need of a fix. I made a few iPhone remembrance shots and feeling unfulfilled dragged myself into my truck to drive home. I drove slowly over rocky sandstone outcrops.

My visual and mental search for sites had blinded me to the bloom taking place. Claret cup and prickly pear cacti. Ricegrass. Peppergrass. Blue lupine, penstemon, scarlet gilia, paintbrush and several versions of yellow sunflowers were all showing their colors. I stopped, gathered equipment and followed the voice inside me saying, “photograph desert flowers,” and began to collect cactus blossom images. One amongst spines. Three amongst spines. I’d seen these compositions before, and not by me. I stopped. A breeze had come up making photography of the slender dancing flowers difficult. Out came my flash, extension cable and a switch to rear-curtain sync.

After that rather furious and fruitless session I drove again and was stopped by a few prickly pear blossoms nestled under a small narrow leaf yucca with its strong radiating lines. I like contrast like this – still flower, dynamic lines. Soft petal, sharp spines.


I’d added my large, 48-inch, collapsible diffusion reflector to my gear. It was leaned over my little scene making the light even and luminous. The breeze blew it off. As I reached for it from my stooped position I turned my back towards the yucca so I wouldn’t puncture myself on its sharp ends. Turning back to work my unfocused gaze was shaken as I peered into the yucca and the random pattern of hair thin filaments that curled and curved away. I was startled and then transfixed.


Here! Here was todays dance in the desert. Each spear had dozens of these delicate spirals attached to it. I was lured in by their movement. Time for the 105 macro!

For the next 2 hours or more I gloried in making a few images deep in the yucca. Georgia O’Keeffe said, “I paint the inner world of flowers, color and light, and paint them large so people cannot ignore their beauty.” I was going into this world as I had not done before. As I peered into the viewfinder and changed focus ever so slightly I felt like a one-person audience at a great modern dance. Even the slightest shift brought new dancers to the front of the stage.

It took quite a while to make the first good images as small camera and tripod adjustments made major changes in my general composition. I was glad for the extension arm I’d brought as it allowed me to swing and angle the camera to more workable positions. I do little macro work and so don’t own a focusing bar, but I certainly understand their worth now.

The first photo left me almost breathless and I stood slowly to relieve the tightness in my knee and ankle joints. Whew! I thought about moving on – but where? I admonished myself. It’s happening right here. Right now. Yep! So I better prepare. I collected my sleeping pad, snacks and water bottle out of my truck, tethered my diffuser and gathered my camera bag close by so I would but reach for what I needed. I’d formed a little creative cluster of comfort and equipment.


I then sat on the pad, pulled the reflector into place so I and the yucca were shaded and stilled myself by openly gazing into the plant. I’d single out one particular curling filament, consider its movement, squint at it to get the out-of-focus feel, and alter my angle by leaning slightly side-to-side. I did this for about 20 minutes until I felt I was in that world and knew what I was responding to. At the forefront of my perception were the delicate gestures that each filament made. Curl up. Curl down. Embrace another. Spiral away. I would isolate and position it in my frame while all the while considering all the out-of-focus movement behind and in front of the principal dancer. In macro, objects between the lens and the main object area as important as those behind the subject.

There was a growing breeze and an oncoming cumulous system. ISO went to 400 from 100. Aperture in this situation is of great importance as the amount of content in focus can make or break the image. Too little and your primary subject is not well defined. Too much and you may have visual chaos and not be able to determine subject from content. Just right and the subject moves and connects to the rest of the frame in a most pleasing way. All 3 of my “keepers” were at f8.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time concentrating on such a small portion of land. My subject was not even a whole plant, but a small portion of the deep and marvelous world within! Feeling finished I leaned back, stretched out on the ground and felt quite relaxed, refreshed and content. A good session within the glass will do that.

At home adding contrast and clarity, reducing highlights and making a slight color adjustment in Lightroom returned me to the essence of the experience. These were a new kind of image for me and I remain thrilled! My ‘idee fixe’ of stone structures had nearly blinded me.
Slow down.
Let go of photo intentions.
Allow images to find you.

Season’s Greeting

The colors have come and gone and I was glad to have driven to Warner Lake in the LaSal Mountains, just 30 minutes from my Moab home late last week. Work and other distractions had taken me elsewhere. Cold weather was approaching and from my driveway I could see that the colors were peaking. Warner Lake is easy access and as clouds rolled and roiled over the mountains and desert below and to the west I had the feeling that something fine could happen. I drove in a blue-grey shroud to the lake and walked to its edge. Colors, brilliant. Parking lot, empty. I’d passed a few flintlock hunters below but had the lake to myself. The open setting allowed for some straight on compositions across the lake of the stunning color. The challenge was to actually say something other than “pretty colors on trees,” with any of my compositions. I walked the edge of the lake slowly for a good 20 minutes scanning the far bank and the slopes beyond. Finally and joyously I found and made “Apart.”


I like the way the one pine stands apart from the others. It seems to be stating its independence, but not too much as it’s still a pine! As you look at it you’ll notice that the single “apart” tree is actually composed of several trees lined up above the main trunk. The tree that stands apart appears to be in parts! It’s position offers balance. The weight of the stand of trees on the left is balanced by the single tree to the right and the attention we give it by it being singular; and the its surrounding aspen color. ATTENTION is a compositional element that has “weight.” Attention can be accomplished by ISOLATION, COLOR, CONTRAST, SIZE and other means.

Sundown was approaching and I knew that if I drove back down the mountain a few minutes that there was a dirt track leading to a small bald mound that was perched over an aspen-rich canyon that led visually up to the peaks beyond. Good choice! The descending drive revealed a mass of storm clouds slowly blanketing the LaSals from the south and east. I waited and watched a small gap in the western cloud bank open and allow a band of crimson light to finger-brush the low side of the mountain where a diverse array of colored aspen waited to embrace it…..for just moments. It was in these few moments that I made the captures that led to “Season’s Greeting.” (below)


The composition I quickly settled on featured the mass of mountain being coldly taken over by the approaching storm and the strip of warm sunset light marking the end of fall color. (Two days later the storm winds has stripped the trees of most of their colored leaves.) The light came and went and I stayed and watched the clouds roll over as the air temperature continued to drop. It was cold, quiet, glorious end of the day.
While driving home I found myself thinking of titles. Titles can sometimes direct processing. The word “weight” kept returning. “Winter Weight.” “The Weight of Fall.” Though I eventually settle on “Season’s Greeting” (as in Winter greeting Fall as fall walks out the door) the idea of WEIGHT certainly guided my processing.

Upon opening the image in LIGHTROOM I immediately used the HIGHLIGHT slider, moving it left to see what details would appear in the sky. I selected what would work for me and made that general adjustment and then worked solely on the sky area adding some CONTRAST, CLARITY, and opening up the SHADOWS, especially among the trees on the mountain. I also played with the color of everything above the colored aspens, choosing to use the WEIGHT of BLUE to say cold, winter, heavy and to set up the contrast with the warm colors on the sun-graced trees. I warmed the aspens just a bit (as there was a blue cast to their color), and added a little CLARITY, CONTRAST and EXPOSURE. I’m quite happy with the final image and spent part of today (Saturday) printing it to 10×15 and 14×21. Season’s Greetings!

Old Friends

In anxious anticipation of our good President Obama designating a Bears Ears National Monument here in southeastern Utah (specifically San Juan County) I’ve been visiting some old friends. Over Labor Day weekend I revisited two archaeological sites that are dear to me. What? You want the names and locations? Sorry, this is not about that.
I have enjoyed making photographs of archaeological sites in this area since the early 1980’s when I first really explored Cedar Mesa. I was living and working on the Navajo Reservation in the Utah town of Montezuma Creek. This made Cedar Mesa my default backyard. The Needles District of Canyonlands was 1.5 hours further north and Moab was beyond that. At first I was lured in by the deep canyons and mushroom rocks at canyon heads and rims. It did not take long for me to become enthralled by the vast array of archaeological sites. Dwellings, granaries, towers, kivas, lithic scatters, stone kilns, and, of course, rock art. All of these and more became part of my weekend walking vocabulary. I was already photographing when I arrived in Montezuma Creek at the age of 24. I had a dream of becoming a ‘national park photographer’ and though I have essentially done that having created interpretive slide shows for Organ Pipe Cactus NM and Arches NP (now gone), that early and innocent outlook did not prepare me for the depth of feeling and commitment that was to develop toward this particular subject.
As I wandered the canyons alone and with friends I began to feel something I had not when traveling to farther locations like Yellowstone, Zion or the Grand Canyon.
It was there in the Needles District, the Maze, Escalante and even Capital Reef, but not this strong. It took a few years for me to acknowledge what it was.


It was home.
Home, to me, is a place, not an address. This is a concept I learned best among the Navajo. Cedar Mesa was my backyard and for the past 30-40 years I’ve been exploring it as often as I can. I need more time, but it seems that time is running out. Cedar Mesa and the surrounding landscape are being overrun by people, by us – for lots of reasons. Some people come because of stringent and enforced group size and camping limitations found in the national parks. Some are after something new and have been bitten by the ‘rock art and ruin’ bagging bug. Others see this vast landscape of BLM and some NFS land as an open playground in which to ride their motorized road maggots (atv and ohv)…….oh, I’m sorry – not!

Let’s move on.
Labor Day. 2016. I was pleasantly surprised to NOT find too many people on the Bears Ears or Cedar Mesa. I assumed it would be packed. I camped high and visited the two sites taking my time and allowing the visits to last for hours.


There is much creative compositional insight that can happen if you give it time. I made but a few photographs (5-7) at each site, but stayed at each for about 4 hours. At both I made an initial “gut” photo, then laid my gear down and just sat absorbing the sounds of the canyon, the light, and re-discovering the nuances of the rock, both the natural and built environments. One of my attractions to this subject is finding a balance between the geometry of the built environment and the natural poetry of place. My seeing has been enhanced by years of large format photography where the image is inverted on the ground glass. Among other considerations the inverted image helps us to erase ‘nouns’ from our mind’s eye and encourages and almost requires us to see in the visual language of line, shape, balance, etc. If an image “hangs together” in inverted form you can be assured that you have a strong working composition. Try it; you’ll like it, Mikey!

I’ve made two dozen or more other images at these sites over the years, but these recent ones seem most satisfying, not out of technical consideration, but that I considered them for a longer period of time and let them work their magic on me more than I sought to work any magic I might possess on them.


The musician Mary McCaslin has a great song titled Old Friends. “Remember old friends we’ve met along the way, the gifts they give us stay with us every day.” I think of the Cedar Mesa region this way, and it’s the reason I’m trying to be a good friend and give back by being involved in its protection. I’m convinced that a national monument is the single best choice for the region and that’s why I serve as vice-president of Friends of Cedar Mesa.


Sleek n’ Sweeet!!!! – a personal encounter with Sleeklens

I just returned from a month-long photographic road trip along the Oregon Coast and a few places in between there and my hometown and landscape of Moab, UT. It’s taken me about 2 weeks to filter out the images I want to pursue with processing. There are a number that lent themselves to my “normal” workflow of making global adjustments and performing some brushwork in Lightroom, then moving into Photoshop to perform select area work with curves and to use the healing and cloning tools to clean up the image. Sometimes I return back to LR for additional processing.

Let me just say for the record that I have been a large-format, wet darkroom B&W and color photographer for several decades. I like to have personal creative control over my work. I have produced interpretive slide shows for the National Park Service and my photos appear, exclusively, in a dozen trade books. I consider myself an artist who employs the camera to do his work. In addition to creating book and personal work I also own and direct the Moab Photography Symposium, an annual gathering of photography enthusiasts to come to Moab for feature speakers, field workshops and camaraderie. I am (overly) cautious about which products I endorse. I am also fiercely interested in spending as much time as I can in the field rather than at the computer processing imagery and watching my butt grow larger.

In this new work there were a handful of images that I knew had potential but I was scratching my head as to how to approach them. Enter Sleeklens Lightroom Global and Brush Presets! Sleeklens is a fairly new (2015), photographer created company that “works ‘with’ you, not ‘for’ you” in creating useful tools for the digital photographer. I was approached by them to test drive one of their collections, and though I usually ignore such requests something suggested I should. Maybe it’s that they are based in Denmark, which makes me think of being relaxed, thoughtful and the birthplace of Legos!

I chose a few problematic images and got to work on them. Here is the before and after of one of them. I’ve outlined its creation here so you can understand how I employed Sleek Lens Landscape Presets and Brushes. To use baseball analogy, Sleek Lens will get you in the ballpark. It will help you get on base easier. But it is still up to you to score!



Image Information –
RAW Capture – Looks quite dull, but all the colors are there! It’s our job to coax them out.

with Sleeklens –
I could readily see that the image had basic compositional elements that appealed to me. Water flow with some texture. Low clouds partially covering the sea stacks and an overall abstract mysterious quality.

I first applied the WATER DEFINITION BRUSH to the bottom of the scene up to the horizon. This got me close, but I then made two additions to the water to make it more to my liking. I created a brush of Exposure +23 and applied it to the left bottom of image and the ripple. I also applied a second brush of Exposure -21 and Highlights -30 to the mid-right area of the photo. I then tweaked the mid-photo water highlights by creating a brush of Highlight +76 and Exposure +14.
That pretty much took care of the bottom of the photo and by doing that work it was immediately obvious that the sky needed work. Now we all know that when there are clouds in the sky that most of us making landscape photos do the happy dance with our tripod. The actual scene had some great low clouds but they were lost in the initial capture. The CLOUDY SKY DEFINITION BRUSH solved that. To continue with the baseball analogy this brush got me on base. Pulling back on the effect using the sliders put me in scoring position.
The overall image was still missing some of the inherent color I both saw and felt while standing on the beach. I chose the DAWN RISING PRESET and presto! My heart jumped as I was transported right back to the time, place and emotion of the original encounter. Sleeklens does not replace any of your current workflow, rather it provides a well thought out set of tools for a wide range of image types that will help you, the creative photographer, to arrive at the image you most desire. Check ‘em out. I’m glad I did.