Tales Of The Wild Wild West From Behind My Camera Lens
I am not just a photographer but a weather-chaser following the atmospheric changes as they build, threaten and release. I seek out these dramatic shows of nature as they reap spectacular scenes throughout the United States, turning our natural wonders into actors in a wild production. But it’s not easy. It’s long hours on dirt roads, camping out for days or even weeks at a time waiting for the weather to come through, and running as fast as you can, loaded with photographic equipment, as the clouds dump their weight, turning the ground to inaccessible mud, threatening to strand me in the back of nowhere.
The landscapes of the South West are legendary. It is within environments like this that I find my inspiration. Ancient rocks formations, embedded with the earth’s evolutionary data, stand the test of time within seemingly desolate expanses of desert. Over millennia rivers have cut immense canyons where the forces of nature create magnificent panoramas and offer a humbling reminder of our own, small existence. I was drawn here to its grand and unexplored landscapes, the rich red color of its rock formations and desert, set against rugged mountainous backdrops. A good friend and mentor, David Thompson, had opened my eyes to this playground for photographers where the opportunities to create new and refreshing compositions are like offering a painter a fresh canvas. During my first year in photography I had felt restricted, shooting the same things over and over, and struggling to be challenged creatively – a situation many photographers find themselves in. My adventurous (or one might say ‘daredevil’) side craved to explore new territory and push myself to the very limits of my capabilities as a photographer.
It was with this mentality that I ventured off for two weeks exploring the South West, from my home in California, across Utah, New Mexico and into Arizona. The landscapes are wild and remote, the people resilient, and the panoramas like nowhere else on this Earth. It was here that I wanted to put my adventurous spirit to the test, create unique compositions, and capture the beauty of nature on display in all its glory. Accompanying me was my loyal yorkie, Buxton (not just a companion but a reassuring sidekick when times get tough), my Canon camera, (lenses and tripods). Loaded into my Toyota, complete with camping gear and two weeks worth of clothes, we were ready to tackle the unknown.
Capturing sunrise over Dead Horse Point
It all began with a 12 hour drive straight through the night, from my home in northern California to Moab, on the edge of one of Utah’s most impressive protected areas, Dead Horse State Park. Legend tells of horses being led to this viewpoint, fenced in by branches and left to die of thirst, all within achingly close sight of the Colorado River waters below. Here ancient layers of sedimentation, deposited by successive oceans, lakes and sand dunes are exposed in the pinnacles and buttes of the immense Canyonland’s that protrude from the desert. With the Colorado River weaving its course below, the viewpoint of Dead Horse Point towers 2,000 feet above, with wilderness expanding beyond as far as the eye could see
I woke in the pre-dawn dark at a hotel in Moab and negotiated the 45 minute route into the park. By 9am the viewpoint is a bustle of sightseers, but in these early hours it is eerily quiet. I scouted a spot on the edge of the cliff, encapsulating the hairpin turn of the Colorado River, leading towards the volcanically formed mountains that framed the backdrop. And then I waited. Slowly the deep blue of the night de-saturated, bringing with it definition to the rock formations below and edging the river banks in green. Bands of clouds sat above the horizon, emerging into soft purples and pinks in anticipation of the sun’s first rays. This time of day is a photographer’s dream. When the colors are changing so rapidly that every shot reveals a new shade or hue. And then the sun’s first rays peeked over the landscape, igniting the rocks an intense rusty brown. There is such a small window of opportunity at this time of day. Once the sun appears and begins to rise, the colors in the sky fade and those of the Earth are washed away. Every sunrise is different and you never know when you are waking up in the cold darkness of the early hours whether you are just going to be focusing your attention on capturing the beauty of the golden rocks, or the lack of sleep is going to be worth it and Mother Nature will paint a brilliant show of color right in front of your eyes. This sunrise was definitely worth it!
Shooting storm clouds traversing the Bisti Wilderness
I then headed straight for New Mexico and the city of Farmington. This is one of the access points into the Bisti Wilderness, a captivating landscape of heavily eroded badlands. Wind and water have carved the layers of shale, mudstone, coal, sandstone and silt into a seemingly hallucinatory world of dramatic rock formations. ‘Bisti’ translates from Navajo as ‘large area of shale hills’ and while most of the area is protected by the state, three small areas of private Navajo land also exist within its boundaries.
I spent six days shooting here, waking up before dawn to capture the sky transform in all its glory during the early hours, and watching the rock formations re-saturate as the sun descended at the end of the day. In between I looked to capture details within the geology, evidence of fossils and petroglyphs that have been found in the park, and expose the intricacies of the sedimentation layers. But most of all I was following the weather – looking for that perfect combination of awe-inspiring landscapes with a dramatically changing sky above.
‘Weather Underground’ and the ‘National Weather Service’ are the apps that I use, allowing me to track changing weather patterns. Moving between remote locations often limits access, but when I can, I watch these hourly. In the Badlands of New Mexico I got lucky. As a dark storm mass passed overhead, shafts of rain fell like a sheer curtain, evaporating before reaching the rock formations that stretched towards the horizon. Known as a ‘Virga’, this phenomenon creates entrancing images and is such an amazing sight!
Despite creating captivating images, shooting storms in remote locations, accessed by unmaintained dirt roads, has its dangers. More than once whilst in the Badlands I stayed to the very last possible minute to get the shots I wanted before grabbing my gear and Buxton, and high-tailing it back to the car before I get stranded by impassable roads, ankle-deep in mud.
Shadow and light in the grand vistas of the Grand Canyon
News came through that the weather was clearing out – my cue to move on to new landscapes and new challenges. Arizona was my next stop and one of the South West’s most beloved landscapes – the Grand Canyon, exposing a staggering two billion years of geologic history. This location has been on my radar for some time, but the weather had not been in my favor in the past so I was eager to return, see what all the talk was about, and get the shots I had envisioned.
The first thing that hits you when you step towards the sheer-sided walls of the Grand Canyon, dropping more than a mile to the Colorado River below, is just how small you are. Something that strikes me again and again as a landscape photographer is how impressive and immense nature is, revealing its power in the most magnificent ways.
I headed to Moran Point on the South Rim for sunset, just a few miles east of the Grand Canyon Village. It is named after 19th Century artist, Peter Moran, who found inspiration here as countless artists and photographers have done since. It’s undoubtedly one of the best viewpoints in the park for capturing the changing light and shadows of the canyon walls in the early and late hours of the day. I wanted to grab this opportunity to capture these deep orange and yellow hues while the skies were also promising drama – and this time the Grand Canyon didn’t disappoint. With dark storm clouds streaking across the sky, the sun’s rays were illuminated as they passed through onto the canyon walls and the result was pretty magic! I think the Grand Canyon is one of those places that everyone needs to see. No matter how popular it has become, it still stands as one of the country’s most incredible landscapes.
On Navajo Land at Hunt’s Mesa
Three hours drive to the north east on the Utah/Arizona border lies a landscape of immense sandstone buttes that protrude from the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. Used as the backdrop for countless films, the region has come to define the ‘American Wild West’ and you can’t help but expect John Wayne to come sauntering past on horseback. With the weather clearing, my first inclination was to do some Milky Way shots in the clear, starry nights, but then I met Ray. A Navajo Indian, Ray Begay was my ticket to some of the less-accessible regions of the nearby Navajo Indian Reservation and as I’m always seeking out areas few tourists venture to, hiring a local guide was the only way to go.
It was only a 15 mile drive from where I met Ray to Hunt’s Mesa, but it was two hours along almost non-existent roads – Ray’s 4WD hauling itself over rocky boulders and laboring up 45 degree angle hills – one wrong move or jerk and we were rolling to our deaths!
It was three o’clock when we arrived, giving us plenty of time to scout out the best location and angle as the sun edged ever closer to the horizon. It amazes me sometimes the hours of preparation that go into organizing gear, getting to a location, sourcing the best angles, and when that short window of sunset light presents itself – it all happens so fast. Every shutter release captures minute changes in the light as it sets the landscape ablaze in ever-deeper colors, before relinquishing the landscape to darkness. I could have spent a week in Hunt’s Mesa, finding different perspectives from which to shoot this beautifully eroded landscape!
Life lessons at Lake Powell’s Alstrom Point
When you’re out shooting in remote locations you often cross paths with like-minded people. This was how I ended up traveling on to Lake Powell with another keen landscape photographer I met on my second night at Hunt’s Mesa. It was a five hour trip into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, with the last section to Alstrom’s Point along ungraded sandy roads, only accessible by high clearance 4×4 vehicles – something my companion was equipped with and I wasn’t. Our aim was to shoot sunset from this cliff ledge, spectacularly overlooking the now drought-stricken Lake Powell, the largest reservoir in the country. Surrounded by layered sandstone buttes that jut from the landscape surrounding its shores, these glow a brilliant orange when the sun’s angle is low, a magical site against the blue of Lake Powell’s waters.
I set up my tripod atop one of the cliff ledge’s and, unsatisfied with my vantage point, decided to jump across to the next ledge. Time restraints with the rapidly setting sun and my own anticipation for capturing the shot I wanted meant that instead of carefully packing my gear into my backpack to negotiate the chasm, I jumped whilst grasping the legs of my tripod in my right hand, the camera still attached at its ballhead. As I landed, my right ankle twisted and I fell to my knees, the tripod dangling precariously over the cliff and my lens hitting the rock’s surface. In a desperate bid to regain my stance, my left hand was grasping at whatever rocks came within arm’s reach, as I rapidly debated whether to let go of my camera and tripod or risk losing my life for my precious gear. In these split seconds I managed to grab hold of something, hoisted myself back-up (camera and tripod still in my right hand) and took a few deep breaths. The adrenalin-rush that sometimes comes with shooting low-light conditions, where you are under strict time constraints to get the shot you want, can make you act irrationally, unaware of the severe consequences that may lie ahead. I took a few moments to get my head back into place, reaffirm my bearings, and got back to the job at hand.
The drought conditions being experienced in the region, together with large amounts of water being withdrawn for both human and agricultural use, have led to drastically low water levels in Lake Powell and it was this that I wanted to capture during sunset and the magic twilight that followed.
New adventures are always awaiting
With the weather clearing out and clear skies forecast I headed for home, exhausted but satisfied with the shots I had captured in this awe-inspiring region of the United States. I was keen to see them on a wider computer screen and tackle the next stage in the photographic process. But it’s not just the images I take with me, but all of the challenges that present themselves when you are out photographing the wilderness (and storm-chasing) alone. It’s not just the remote locations or the threat of being stranded when a storm catches you out, but also the precarious and dangerous positions I put myself in to get the photographs I want. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Photographing the Southwest was the opportunity I had been craving – to stretch to my furthest limits and push myself (literally) to the edge. Scouting out new territory and unexplored regions is as much a part of my photography as the shoot itself, offering wild landscapes few have had the privilege of witnessing. Combine that with chasing intense, stormy skies and the photographic opportunities that present themselves are mesmerizing. But this is also an addictive passion, and as soon as I arrived home, I loaded my memory card onto the computer, re-packed my bags and headed north to new adventures on the Oregon Coast.