“Pussy Willow Catkin on Twig”

Pussy Willow Catkin on Twig, near Trout Lake, southwest Colorado (c) Mike Utley

Trout Lake, near the small town of Telluride in southwestern Colorado, is my second-favorite spot on Planet Earth, just behind Heceta Head Lighthouse on the central Oregon Coast. I’ve posted a few images of the lake itself, snugly nestled in the laps of Sheep Mountain, Vermilion Peak, Golden Horn and Pilot Knob amid pine and spruce forests, aspens and a cornucopia of wild flowers. A dirt road circumnavigates the lake, wending its way closer to the peaks and through the woods and bogs. A narrow wooden bridge, which had fallen into disrepair the last time I was there, spans a creek halfway around the lake. It was here, near the collapsed bridge, while photographing elkslip and other wild flowers one summer evening in the late 1990s, that I noticed a lone pussy willow catkin perched on a twig.

I’ve always been enamored with these diminutive delights, tiny and soft and so aptly named (honestly, the term “catkin” is sort of giggle-inducing). There were no willows where I lived on the farm so I’d never had the opportunity to photograph these little guys until now. The light was quickly fading so I set to work. The compositional goal was to isolate the twig and catkin against the background by using a wide aperture setting to blur the background into a solid mass of color in order to make the subject stand out as much as possible. I wanted to express a little story with this image, too, a vignette of the early stages of life, its uphill battle to reach maturity, and the uncertainty that awaits all of us at the end. The catkin was placed on a power-point in the lower left, with the gentle upward arc of the twig leading across the frame to…what? What lies ahead? What of that sudden drop-off at the end of the twig? In life, we may think we have a plan, a goal for the future, but in reality we’re all flying blind. At any moment, our own personal twigs may end abruptly, plummeting us into oblivion. I envisioned the tiny catkin feeling trepidation at the beginning of its journey, leaning back in fear…perhaps steeling itself to perform a Naruto run to the end of the twig and take flight into the unknown. In this brief pause on the cusp of its decision, the air was utterly still, and not a sound came from the forest. Even the ever-present mosquitoes held their collective breaths as they awaited what was coming. I like to think the catkin was preparing itself, screwing up its courage, and calming itself in the cool air and verdant green silence of the woods. And then…

…it’s up to you to decide what happened next. I haven’t returned to this place in years. I hope the catkin’s journey was a happy one, and as brief as this blossom’s lifespan may have been in the grand scheme of things, its ethereal beauty fit right at home in the green silence of the forest, among elkslip, wild irises and columbines. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Sandstone Formation & Tree”

Sandstone Formation & Tree, Lisbon Valley, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

Lisbon Valley is a relatively nondescript region in southeast Utah near Canyonlands National Park. While its redrock sandstone formations don’t rival the majesty of those found in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, it has its own hidden marvels, its own unique personality. In the late 1990s, I spotted this rock formation while exploring one late-autumn evening. I was intrigued by several aspects of this scene: the contrasting, opposing oranges and blues; the split-personality of the formation, with half in bright sunset light and the other half in dark shadows; and the looming presence of the formation compared to the diminutive form of the lone juniper tree on the left. And above all, a contemplative stillness. Some might say there’s a David-and-Goliath theme here, a sense of immutable power being challenged by stalwart–if fragile–determination. However, I see something else here…a sense of sorrow, a reaching-out from weakness to strength as the tree casts its shadow on the base of the tower in supplication, as if seeking consolation. A sense of loneliness and isolation. I identify with that juniper tree. I feel deeply that sense of yearning to be a part of something but always finding myself standing on the outside, looking in. Try as it might, the closest that tree will ever come to connecting with that rock is by casting its shadow upon it once a day just before the cold night falls. Such is life in the desert; such is life in this world. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Blue Lupine & Water Droplets”

Blue Lupine & Water Droplets, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

There’s nothing quite like a country rain. In the region where I live, summer thunderstorms bring the arid landscape to life as everything seems to shimmer and glow, and the scents of wet sage, pine, juniper, earth and fresh air assault one’s olfactory sense like a heady brew. In this image from the late 1990s, this blue lupine had found refuge beneath a pinyon pine and rode out the storm relatively unscathed, unlike many others that were damaged by the intensity of falling rain and were left standing among tatters of petals. Macro-photography is fascinating, especially when exploring the hidden inner worlds of wild flowers, and this lupine made a perfect subject with its brilliant hues and clinging raindrops. I’m left with the impression of each individual blossom craning skyward, open-mouthed, in an attempt to drink in as much rain as possible. In an area that receives around ten inches of precipitation annually, summer rains are vital for the environment to remain balanced (and also pose the threat of wildfires). The beauty of wild flowers is exquisite and all-too-brief, so capturing these examples of nature’s haiku was a priority for me during my days as a nature photographer. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Juniper Tree on Rocks”

Juniper Tree on Rocks, near Canyonlands National Park, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

I’ve always found something jarring and surreal about desert landscapes, and even more so with regards to intimate desert portraits such as this half-dead juniper tree growing among sandstone boulders. In such a sere, austere environment, life somehow not only manages to exist, but to persist against all odds. I came upon this scene in 1996 while exploring near Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah one late-summer afternoon. I was struck by the sheer audacity of the stunted, crippled juniper as it clung tenaciously to the sandstone, its roots delving between cracks, seeking the sand below in hopes of the promise of moisture. It’s a common tableau in the desert. What lives there has earned the right to survive through adaptation and sheer luck.

I think what really stands out, however, is a sort of duality present in this scene: the split personality of the tree as one half thrives and the other diminishes; the limited color palette of orange-brown and graduated blue –opposing hues on the color wheel; and the curious negative space at the bottom left corner provided by a rocky protrusion in complete shadow. It appears as though someone has torn the corner off the image, creating an odd sense of mystery, and serves to almost throw the image off-balance—a black nothingness to contrast with the vital, living essence of the tree.

From a technical standpoint, it was a simple shot. I used a 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens to frame the image, and a polarizer filter to eliminate glare on the sandstone and juniper leaves, which also enhanced the natural color gradation in the sky.

This image is among my favorite desert photos. It doesn’t hold the majestic grandeur of a sprawling vista, and it’s rather prosaic in nature (it’s a tree on a rock), but it speaks to me of contrasts and opposites, a subconscious pulling and pushing, and an enigmatic, contemplative stillness, a recurring theme in my nature photography. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Green & Brown Acorns”

Green & Brown Acorns, Southeast Utah (c) Mike Utley

When we think of oaks, we tend to envision stately, majestic, robust trees with brawny boughs festooned with squirrels and tree houses. However, the farm on which I was raised in southeastern Utah sported no such giants. Instead, their gnarled, stunted cousins—Gambel oaks—thrived in the arid climate. We called them oak brush or scrub oak, and this species belongs primarily to the Four Corners region of the U.S. (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona). Small copses of this species covered much of the farm, and in the fall their dull brown leaves were the epitome of anti-climax when compared to the canary yellow of the elms and aspens. Brilliant palettes of lichen covered the twisted trunks of these trees that could sink roots even in sandstone. As a kid, I considered them the apotheosis of banality. I mean, it’s pretty pointless to climb a tree that will buckle under your weight, and when you’re a kid, an unscalable tree is a tree without a purpose. All they seemed good for was giving perch to squawking magpies and providing shade for cottontails. But their acorns were little treasures, lustrous green with finely textured cupules that resembled tiny little kilts (a shout-out to my Scottish heritage).

One autumn in the late 1990s, I gathered a couple of handfuls of these green gems, most of which had fallen to the ground and were destined to end up in a magpie’s beak or a squirrel’s belly. They seemed to glow of their own inner light, and I wanted to capture their hues and textures on film. I arranged them in a rusty pie tin on an old splintery wooden bench in the backyard and photographed them beneath an overcast sky to eliminate any harsh contrast. I added a lone brown acorn to the shot to liven things up a bit, placing it near one of the power-points to draw the viewer’s eye. I was pleased with the final result. And an interesting thing occurred… Nearly everyone who viewed this image immediately began interpreting it, all because of that single brown acorn in the corner. “This image is obviously a treatise on life and death…” Or, “This photo speaks to the evils of ageism, where the elderly are being pushed out of society just as the youthful green acorns are shoving the old brown oaknut right out of the frame…” Or, “Racism. This image is all about racism…” And I’d sort of grin and shrug my shoulders. How could I disappoint these folks with the truth? How could I burst their pretentious intellectual bubbles by telling them, “Hey, I just liked the colors and textures, and I stuck the old brown acorn in just for contrast”? To paraphrase Freud, “Sometimes an acorn is just an acorn…” And for those who are wondering, yes, I did pick a few from the branches, but after the image was made, all the acorns were distributed beneath the oaks where the magpies, squirrels and chipmunks would easily find them and deposit them in their larders. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Autumn Colors & Cirrus Clouds”

Autumn Colors & Cirrus Clouds, near Dunton, SW Colorado (c) Mike Utley

In October 1997, a coworker at the camera store where I was employed invited me to accompany him for a day of fall colors photography in southwest Colorado. We headed out early and made our way to the off-the-beaten-path area near Dunton, a tiny unincorporated hamlet which sits at about 8,600 feet elevation near the West Fork of the Dolores River in the San Juan Mountains. My friend Robert, an accomplished photographer and former hang-glider pilot, knew the area like the back of his hand, having hiked, fly-fished and photographed there for many years. I’d been through Dunton as a kid but didn’t recall much of it. On this morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted from no sleep the night before (a pox on my insomnia), it was all I could do to keep my eyes open as we navigated the dirt roads in his white Isuzu Trooper. Robert was talkative and I was hard-of-hearing, so the conversation was one-sided. The morning, however, was brilliant, warm with a cobalt-blue sky and a suggestion of a breeze. Colorado is famous for its yellow aspens in the fall, and after a time we found a pleasant spot to stop and hike. And as exhausted as I was, I ended up with a handful of decent images, including this one of a group of aspens on a slanting hillside. I woke up in a hurry when I saw this scene. The contrast of the yellow and pale green leaves and dark blue sky, accentuated by the horsetail cirrus clouds and the neutral-toned grasses, was stunning. I used a polarizer filter to eliminate glare on the leaves, which highlighted the clouds and darkened the sky a bit. The colors popped with an intensity only autumn foliage in Colorado can summon. I made a few other images that morning, but this one stands out to me. The clouds, the contrasting yellows and blues, and the diagonal slope of the hillside all came together to create one of my favorite fall foliage images. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Big Indian Rock”

Big Indian Rock, Lisbon Valley, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

I was raised on a farm about an hour from Lisbon Valley in southeast Utah. It’s an out-of-the-way place of red rock formations and sage-sprinkled canyons used for cattle grazing and open-pit copper mining (and yes, both activities have damaged the land considerably). I photographed this scene one summer evening in the late-1990s as the sun slanted toward the horizon and shadows encroached upon Big Indian Rock (upper left). I was intrigued by the strong diagonal slope my vantage point provided, as well as the bold blocks of color. It was a contrasting scene due to the brightly lit rock formations and the shadows, and because I was using slide film (which has a significantly narrower exposure latitude than negative film), I was unsure if I could render the scene properly exposed and still capture shadow details. The motto for photographers who use slide film is “Expose for the highlights and let the shadows fall where they may.” My goal here was to focus on composition and color, so I decided against using a graduated neutral density filter, which would have created more balance between the highlights and shadows. I thought that allowing the shadows to block-up a bit simplified the image and helped it adhere to my philosophy of quiet contemplation in nature. Busy photographs are chaotic and cause tension, and I sought peace and stillness here, so the fewer distractions, the better. There is still detail in the shadows, but not enough to distract from the tranquil feeling these rocks convey. I like the composition here, with the two rock formations standing near diagonal power-points in the scene against the brilliant blue sky and dark shadows. The rocks glow with the warm tones of the lowering sun and contrast well against the cool blue and black hues. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Peaks & Waterfall at Sunset”

Peaks & Waterfall at Sunset, Glacier National Park, Montana (c) Mike Utley

Mount Oberlin and Cannon Mountain can be found along the Going-to-the-Sun Road which traverses Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, Montana. These two peaks cradle the remnants of an old glacier that feeds Bird Woman Falls, visible between the two peaks. In this 1996 image, I was on a very rushed one-day tour of the park with a friend when we spotted this sunset scene. I had no way to compose the image with a strong foreground object as I would have preferred as I was on the opposite side of the steep valley from the peaks, so I utilized the two trees seen here to act as a sort of framing device and to divide the image into thirds to create a more pleasing shot in my mind. The fact that one tree is dead and the other thriving was incidental to my decision to include them, but they do provide a contemplative aspect to the image, especially how the waterfall seems to feed the living tree on the right, while the dead tree on the left signifies day’s end as it contrasts with Mount Oberlin’s brightly gilded face bathed in the dying day’s last light. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50).

“Spruce Sprout on Stump”

Spruce Sprout on Stump, Abajo Mountain, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

While exploring the Abajo (Blue) Mountain in southeast Utah in the summer of 1996, I came across this tiny blue spruce sprout growing on an old blackened stump. I was struck by the brilliant green—the color of youth and vitality—and how it contrasted with the dark tones of the stump—age and fatigue. The textures were also a study in contrast, with the smooth, supple flesh of the sprout defying the harsh, rough wood of the base of the old dead tree. I’m fascinated by contrasts in nature, and this mini-tableau was brimming with them. Life and death? Youth and old-age? Color and a lack thereof? Tenderness and harsh reality? Perseverance in the face of all odds? The inexorability of life where none should exist? Anyone who knows me will realize the main emotion I felt when I saw this scene was one of quiet stillness and contemplation. This sprout speaks to me on a fundamental level, telling me there is hope—always, there is hope—even in death. If we take the time to actually see what is around us in nature, we can sense change in our lives and an invigoration of our spirits…and because of this intrinsic truth, it’s all the more important that we are good stewards of our earth. Nature nurtures our souls, and once it’s gone, then there will be no more hope for us. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“View South from Arch Rock”

View South from Arch Rock, Arch Rock State Park, Oregon (c) Mike Utley

Arch Rock State Park is located along the southern Oregon Coast between Gold Beach and Brookings. It features a natural arch just off the shore (not included in this image) where incoming waves burst into whitewater explosions as they shoot through the arch. This image was made in October 1995 on a windy late-afternoon as the light turned golden. This is the view south along the coast, taken minutes before this image which shows the view north from the same immediate area. This scene displays the rugged nature of the Oregon Coast: sheer cliffs which drop into the ocean, sea stacks, forests and cobalt-blue waters. My 24mm wide-angle lens allowed me to include a couple of foreground objects while capturing the infinite horizon beyond. I like the varying shades of blue and green in this image and the way the setting sun seems to gild the cliff faces in a golden sheen. This shot was made just before the rainy season began, which would cloak the coast in overcast skies, fog and rain for much of the next six months or so, but regardless of the weather, the Oregon Coast retains its magical allure and continues to call to me all these years later. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)