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)