“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)

“Split Rock & Pinyon Pine”

Split Rock & Pinyon Pine, Lisbon Valley, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

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)

“Sheep Mountain & Daisies”

Sheep Mountain & Daisies, Trout Lake, SW Colorado (c) Mike Utley

I have a deep fondness for Trout Lake, located in southwest Colorado near the small tourist town of Telluride, about an hour from where I live. Early mornings and late evenings create some wonderful reflections of Sheep Mountain. I’ve photographed this location many times in all seasons. This image was made in the late ’90s during one fine summer evening when the sky was a gentle shade of pale blue and the daisies proliferated in abundance. I like the tranquility of this scene as the day’s last light illuminates the mountain, and delicate clouds whisper in the sky. I also like how the diagonal lines present in the foreground flowers act as a counterpoint to the horizontal line of the lake’s far shore. I’m reminded of early morning fishing as a kid—trout jumping after insects on the mirror-smooth surface–and years later, hiking among the trees with my camera as I sought to find peace and purpose in my world. It’s an idyllic place. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Tetons & Jenny Lake”

Tetons & Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (c) Mike Utley

In this August 1996 image from my trip up north, I spent a couple of days in Grand Teton National Park in western Wyoming. This is a faerie-tale land of serrated peaks, forests, rivers, lakes and majestic wildlife. On this morning, after a rainy night, clouds obscured the peaks and hung low over the lakes and forest; a brooding presence. It was windy as I scaled the bank of Jenny Lake in order to set up my tripod in the water. I wanted a low angle for my 24mm lens to include the foreground rocks to contrast their smooth textures with the jagged Tetons in the distance. Small whitecaps adorned wavelets as the breeze came in off the lake and blew the clouds from the mountaintops. This is one of my favorite images. I like the raw power of the scene: the basic elements of earth, water and sky, as well as the turbulent motion of the water and clouds. The foreground rocks anchor the image and serve as a tranquil focal point / counterpoint to the chaos in the lake and clouds beyond. I also like the limited color palette here—it almost lends the scene the feeling of a black & white image and allows the viewer to focus more on the shapes and movement of the scene. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Day Lily”

Day Lily, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

I photographed this day lily using my make-shift studio, which consisted of a dark blanket thumb-tacked to the ceiling and soft incidental light from a window. I like the understated tones of the flower in this image, which, in bright sunlight, would look completely different. For me, this image speaks of deep thought and contemplation, as well as the still silence that I always attempted to portray in my photography. Imposing order on a chaotic world was my mission when I was active as a nature photographer, and in my world today, these images feel like a healing balm. Flower photography was one of my favorite disciplines in the field of nature photography, and although this image was made in the living room under controlled conditions, it inspires me in the same way my wild flower images do. Beauty is beauty, after all, regardless of where we find it. It’s up to us to seek it out and allow it to heal our hearts and souls. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Balanced Rock & La Sal Mountains at Sunset”

Balanced Rock & La Sal Mountains at Sunset, Arches National Park, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

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)

“Craggy Rocks & Twin Lakes”

Craggy Rocks & Twin Lakes, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Wyoming (c) Mike Utley

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is located in south-central Montana, with a small section overlapping into northern Wyoming. This area resides partly in the Gallatin, Custer and Shoshone National Forests. Named after the two predominant and geologically distinct mountain ranges in the area, this region hosts craggy peaks, conifer forests, glaciers and glaciated valleys, alpine tundra plateaus and deep canyons, along with many streams and more than one hundred lakes. The Absaroka Range is volcanic in origin and contains dark rugged peaks and more vegetation, while the Beartooth Range is mostly granite, with sweeping tundra and ground-hugging grasses, wild flowers and lichen.

While driving through this area in August 1996, I was struck by the desolate landscape of the Beartooth Range, bereft of trees in many places, and the patches of snow which linger year-round. I was surprised to find many species of wild flowers that are present in the mountains of my area in southwest Colorado, only much smaller—under five inches in height–miniaturized due to the tundra conditions. This cluster of shark tooth-inspired rock slabs overlooking Twin Lakes in the canyon below caught my eye as an ideal foreground subject for a landscape image. The weather was spitting snow periodically, windy and chilly, and the lighting changed by the minute as thick clouds dragged their shadows across the tundra plateaus. This image isn’t perfect—the lighting was near-impossible to handle due to the brightly lit sky in the distance and rapidly shifting shadowed areas in the scene, hence the inclusion of only a sliver of the sky in this shot. Using a graduated neutral-density filter to attempt to hold back exposure in the sky would have proven futile in this instance—its use would have been painfully obvious, and in nature photography, a natural appearance is of utmost importance. Transparency (slide) film has such a narrow exposure latitude as it is, so I was surprised to end up with a decent image that captured detail throughout in both brightly illuminated and shadowed areas. I like the overall gloomy look of the image, as if portending doom (or just a snowstorm), and I think the jagged rocks in the foreground add so much texture and foreboding personality to the scene. Once again, my beloved 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens captured the image I had in my mind, and I was satisfied with the end result of this strange, desolate landscape. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)