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)
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)
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)
I’ve posted several images from Lisbon Valley in southeast Utah. It’s an out-of-the-way region that lacks the deep canyons and arches of its neighboring national parks, yet it has a charm all its own. While photographing Big Indian Rock years ago, I came upon this large boulder that had tumbled down onto the valley floor below and split apart. Aside from the marvelous texture and color of the boulder, what really struck me was what grew on top: a stunted pinyon pine. These trees, and junipers as well, eke out a hardscrabble existence in the desert of the Colorado Plateau, seemingly surviving in the most inhospitable locales. How this little tree managed to flourish left me nonplussed. I use the word “tenacity” to describe desert life, and it’s an apt term in this instance. This scene spoke to me of isolation, loneliness, determination, tenacity and the will to survive despite the harshest odds. From a technical standpoint, due to the strong direct lighting from the evening sun, the rock face was extremely bright and glary, so I employed a polarizer filter to eliminate the glare in order to allow the texture detail to show. The polarizer also eliminates glare from atmospheric dust particles and haze, thus darkening the sky. This was a conscious choice regarding the sky, as I wanted a deep cobalt blue to provide contrast to the brilliant orange of the boulder. The cirrus clouds added a surreal touch to the sky. The way the shadows blocked up completely black made the color and texture of the rock pop. And the pinyon pine? It seems to glow of its own inner light, a strange sort of confidence and serenity. Despite its hardships and travails, it’s found its peace atop its own personal mountain. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)
Balanced Rock is one of the most notable features in Arches National Park. Rising 128 feet above the desert floor, this curious rock sits precariously atop a sandstone spire, sentry-like, watching over neighboring red rock fins, pillars, arches, and the distant La Sal Mountains. For this image from March 1996, I isolated Balanced Rock and its accompanying tower against the pale winter dusk sky to portray the silent, lonely feeling this icon has always instilled in me. From varying angles, this rock looks remarkable different, and one could almost say its personality changes depending upon one’s vantage point. It inspires contemplation and awe, and speaks to both the tenacity and fragility of this planet. Erosion will eventually topple this rock, but for now it stands in defiance of gravity and the weather. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)
Big Spring Canyon, located in Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah, offers an intimate view of the majesty of the region’s canyon country. It’s a microcosm of the vastness and diversity of the park, sporting canyons, sandstone towers, sheer cliffs, overlooks, and a variety of geological formations. During this particular visit, I caught the late-evening light bathing the landscape in a warm glow as distant storm clouds hovered above the horizon beneath a sheet of cirrus clouds. The multi-layered cloudscape added character to the scene, and the blue sky contrasted nicely with the varied earth tones of the rocks. I like the way the lighter-toned rock in the foreground, replete with lichen whorls, stands out against the darker formations and anchors the scene as the distant brooding clouds ponder the arid landscape. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)
Lisbon Valley is a red rock desert region in southeast Utah which lies a few miles northwest of the farm on which I was raised. Compared to other nearby desert areas such as Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, it’s rather nondescript, lacking the dramatic deep canyons, arches, pillars and rivers of its neighboring kin, yet it holds a special place in my heart. To me, the valley’s stand-out feature is Big Indian Rock, a blade of sandstone reaching above the sage- and boulder-strewn floor below. During my first visit there with my camera, I was fascinated by a huge, angular slab of red rock which had apparently broken off from Big Indian Rock in the distant past and tumbled to the flats below. This boulder was covered in an incredible array of pits, gouges and mottled patches of lighter and darker tones. My first reaction was to juxtapose this weather-etched pattern with the rock tower in the background. A 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens was used to exaggerate the distance between the boulder and the tower, and allowed me to get close enough to the boulder to record its dramatic textures while keeping everything in sharp focus. A polarizing filter was used to eliminate glare from midday rock surfaces in order to better record the colors of the stone, as well as to darken the sky for a more contrasting effect. This image was made in late-March of 1996 and there were patches of snow below the tower (barely visible in this shot), but I recall the day being delightfully pleasant, not just because of the weather, but because it was my introduction to Big Indian Rock and this intriguing “illustrated” boulder. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)
Lisbon Valley is located in southeastern Utah and lies a few miles north of the farm on which I was raised. It’s a dynamic landscape of red rock desert and snow-capped mountains that rise incongruously out of nowhere. It’s a place of canyons and sandstone formations, sage brush and rabbit brush, cactus, cheat grass and fox tails, pinyon and juniper trees, as well as coyotes, foxes, mountain lions, jackrabbits and cottontails, mule deer, antelope and elk, hawks, rattlesnakes and other typical desert-dwelling fauna. I photographed this scene from a ridge where the landscape drops off into the desert valley below. Upheaval thrusts are visible, and the La Sal Mountains cling to spring’s last remnants of snow. This image was made in April of 1996 on a bitterly cold late afternoon, where the chill made for numb fingers and frosty exhalations. Metal tripods act as heat sinks during cold weather and freeze hands and fingers. Still, I’m fond of this image as it represents the varied landscape where I was raised. I’ve explored Lisbon Valley numerous times and felt at peace in the vast silence, surrounded by the scents of desert vegetation, warm breezes and clean air, as well as the stark, harsh environment of rock and sand and life that struggles to persist. Lisbon Valley is also home to a large open-pit copper mine (not visible in this image, fortunately) that is extremely unsightly and environmentally hazardous. Local ranchers are rightfully concerned about the high likelihood of contaminated groundwater, but corporate profits are all that seem to matter. Aquifers, habitats, wildlife and natural beauty are no match for some faceless company’s bottom line. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)
D43-1(S)—Brown Fragments & White Hoodoos, Bisti Badlands, NW New Mexico
The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a sprawling badlands featuring fascinating formations known as hoodoos. These strange formations appear as spires, pillars and other twisted shapes, and consist of sandstone, mudstone, silt, coal and shale. Fossils can be found as well. “Bisti” and “De-Na-Zin” are Navajo for “a large area of shale hills” and “cranes,” respectively. (info courtesy U.S. Bureau of Land Management) I spent an afternoon here a few years ago exploring this remarkable and relatively unknown area about forty miles south of Farmington in northwest New Mexico. Late-evening sunlight drew out the detail in the textures of this barren place of white hoodoos and brown rock fragments. This is a bizarre location. In the midday sun, the rocks are so white it’s painful to look at them. And it’s a good thing it’s a small area because it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinthine confines of the white sandstone formations. In this image, I found remnants of what appeared to be several eroded boulders scattered about, and the russet color contrasted nicely with the white sandstone. The side-lighting created long shadows that gave depth to the scene, and the 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens I used created the impression of the hoodoos stretching to infinity. There’s an alien feeling to the Bisti Badlands, an otherworldly sensation of being in an ancient land of living rock. And even though I’m nearly totally deaf, the silence of the place was surreal. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)
D38-1(S)—Rock Formation & Moon at Dusk, Bisti Badlands, NW New Mexico
The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a sprawling badlands featuring fascinating formations known as hoodoos. These strange formations appear as spires, pillars and other twisted shapes, and consist of sandstone, mudstone, silt, coal and shale. Fossils can be found as well. “Bisti” and “De-Na-Zin” are Navajo for “a large area of shale hills” and “cranes,” respectively. (info courtesy U.S. Bureau of Land Management) I explored this region one day and was amazed at the various shapes and colors of the place. This image is a strange one, however, not because of the rock formations, but due to the bizarre rendering of the evening sky. I used a 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens with a polarizer to capture this scene at dusk. A polarizer is a filter that eliminates glare and reflections from surfaces, increases color saturation and contrast, and removes atmospheric haze. Anyone who has worn polarized sun glasses understands this effect. The combination of a polarizer and a wide-angle lens can create some odd sky properties, however, and this can be used for artistic effect as it was here. During the morning and evening hours, the sky displays a range of tones. Wide-angle lenses capture a large swath of the sky and tend to exaggerate this. A polarizer further dramatizes this by darkening sections of the sky by means of eliminating haze, depending on the angle of the lens axis in relationship to the light source. The result can be quite disconcerting, as pictured here. To me, this represents an alien landscape under unfamiliar skies. This same scene without the polarizing effect would be completely different and lack the character this image offers. To top it all off, the moon is depicted as a mere pinprick due to the wide-angle lens, creating a distant, apathetic and lonely feel in the scene. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)