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.

Visit: cedarmesafriends.org

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.