“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)

“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)

“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)

“Lone Cone & Wild Flowers”

Lone Cone & Wild Flowers, near Groundhog Reservoir, SW Colorado (c) Mike Utley

The Lone Cone is a local icon in southwest Colorado. Located in the San Miguel Mountains about 24 miles from the town of Telluride, its 12,618-foot cone can bee seen from many miles in all directions. It resembles a pyramid on the horizon, and was clearly visible from the farm on which I was raised in southeast Utah. It’s a favorite local attraction of mine and I have several images of this peak. This particular image was made just beyond Groundhog Reservoir, about an hour and a half from where I live. It was early summer of 1995 and the wild flowers (mule’s ears, monkshood and lupine in this case) were just beginning to proliferate in the mountains. This vast meadow leading to the Lone Cone was awash in yellow and purple, and the late-afternoon sun warmed the flowers and the peak while a host of perfect summer clouds caressed the the sky.

This image was selected by the Bureau of Land Management’s Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores, Colorado for the cover of an archaeology textbook and accompanying CD in the late-1990s. Art Director Wayne Rice used the image as a background and layered several graphic elements on top. The original cloudy sky was removed and replaced with a gradient fill to allow the text to stand out more effectively. I was given proper credit for the use of my photograph on the credits page inside the book.

Textbook Cover–Wayne Rice, BLM

In 2001, this same image was again chosen by the BLM’s Anasazi Heritage Center for a poster commemorating National Archaeology and Historic Preservation Month in May of that year. Once again, Art Director Wayne Rice replaced the sky with a gradient fill and added graphic elements to the image to convey some of the historic aspects of Colorado’s past. A total of 7,000 posters were printed for this project and distributed throughout Colorado. After the release of the posters, I was told that Gale Norton, then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior, had one of the posters on display in her office in Washington D.C. What a thrill this was for me! It’s next to impossible to see, but the last two lines in the credits at the bottom of the poster list my name as the photographer. As a perk for contributing to the project, I received five copies of the poster.

Poster–Wayne Rice, BLM

It was a pleasant experience to work with Wayne Rice at the Anasazi Heritage Center on these two projects, and I was honored to be recognized in the credits of both projects as the creator of the image. Seeing up-close the process of a single image making its way into a finished product was intriguing and satisfying. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Columbine Cluster on Talus Slope”

Columbine Cluster on Talus Slope, Alta Lakes, SW Colorado (c) Mike Utley

Alta Lakes are a handful of small alpine lakes in the Uncompahgre National Forest near the town of Telluride in southwest Colorado. Perched above 11,000 feet in elevation, these tiny lakes epitomize the wild, rugged beauty of the Colorado Rockies. As I hiked near the lakes one summer afternoon in the late 1990s, I came across a talus slope at the foot of a cliff near one of the lakes. The broken rocks were painted with multi-hued lichen, and navigation of the slope was treacherous (these rocks were real ankle-breakers). Columbines clung to life amid the slabs of stone, and this particular cluster nestled precariously on the steep slope. The overcast lighting was perfect to enhance and saturate the already brilliant colors of the flowers and lichen and to eliminate harsh shadows—perfect lighting for flower photography. I like how the blossoms and leaves are separated along a diagonal line, and how the textures of the stones just seem to beg to be caressed. The contrast between the harsh, rough surfaces of the rocks and the delicate softness of the blooms and leaves is startling, and shows how tenacious life can be in high-altitude alpine settings. There’s a timeless feeling to this place, a silence that permeates the forest and peaks, an almost reverential hush in which these flowers exist but for a moment in the eternity of the embrace of the mountains. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Cimarron Range & Fall Colors”

Cimarron Range & Fall Colors, Owl Creek Pass, SW Colorado (c) Mike Utley

M19-1(S)—Cimarron Range & Fall Colors, Owl Creek Pass, SW Colorado
Several years ago, while exploring the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado near the small town of Ridgway, I came upon Owl Creek Pass. The San Juan Mountains are spectacular as only the Rocky Mountains can be, and Owl Creek Pass was no exception. I’d never driven these backwoods gravel roads and had no idea what I’d stumble upon as I navigated the dusty path. As the evening sun stretched its warm rays across the landscape, I was greeted by the Cimarron Range, located near Silver Jack Reservoir. It was autumn and the fall colors weren’t at their peak, but the aspens tried their best to oblige this day, and the deep blue sky was eager for attention. The blues, greens and yellows played counterpoint to the serrated gray crags of stone, their striations glowing like bands of quicksilver. I like how some of the white aspen trunks are so prominent along the bottom of the frame, and the diagonal split (upper-right to lower-left) between the sky and the earth pleases my eye. Generally, I prefer clouds in a sky to add character, but this sky had such a unique depth and clarity to its hue that it has a fascination all its own. You never know what you’ll find off the beaten path, so when those gravel roads beckon, heed their call. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Rocky Mountain Columbine Cluster”

Rocky Mountain Columbine Cluster, Taylor Mesa, SW Colorado (c) Mike Utley

F39-1(S)—Rocky Mountain Columbine Cluster, Taylor Mesa, SW Colorado
One long-ago overcast summer afternoon I wound my way along a lonely dirt road on Taylor Mesa in the mountains of southwest Colorado. I was looking for wild flowers, and it was the height of the season for columbines. I came upon a lush meadow which was liberally sprinkled with these flowers and others, and as I stopped and began to walk around, this cluster fairly screamed at me for attention. It was as though they had expected my arrival and had dressed up in their Sunday-best and posed for me. I was more than willing to oblige them. The lighting was perfect for wild flower photography—high overcast, no shadows, brilliantly saturated colors—and the verdant green of the meadow provided an ideal background to make the flowers’ colors pop. Columbines are beautiful, but being long-stemmed, they tend to move around in even the merest suggestion of a breeze. Fortune smiled upon me that afternoon, however, and the day was calm and tranquil. In a strange way, the manner in which these four flowers are posed reminds me of a choir, and I can imagine them singing nature hymns in voices only mountains and trees and clouds can hear. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Chimney Rock & Courthouse Mountain”

Chimney Rock & Courthouse Mountain, Owl Creek Pass, SW Colorado (c) Mike Utley

M20-1(S)—Chimney Rock & Courthouse Mountain, Owl Creek Pass, SW Colorado
Years ago, I was exploring near Ridgway, a tiny town in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. I had photographed the famous Sneffels Range prior to that and was driving along and noticed a sign that said “Owl Creek Pass.” On a lark, I took the road and sort of stumbled across this scene in the Cimarron Range. I’d never heard of Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain and was surprised I’d never seen it in any of my photography books, magazines or calendars (this was during my pre-internet days). It’s a startlingly majestic place. I was there just as the leaves were turning, but it was a bit early as far as capturing the brilliant fall colors of that area. This is a place I’d love to revisit to observe its changing personality during different seasons and weather. The San Juan Mountains are world-renown for stunningly beautiful landscapes that would take a lifetime to photograph. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Rock, Sheep Mountain & Trout Lake”

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

W39-1(S)—Rock, Sheep Mountain & Trout Lake, SW Colorado
Trout Lake is located about ten miles from the small tourist village of Telluride in southwest Colorado. Situated at nearly 10,000 feet elevation in the Lizard Head Pass area, it’s my second-favorite spot on the planet, just behind Heceta Head Lighthouse on the Oregon Coast. This mid-’90s autumn image was taken after most of the leaves had turned and fallen and a dusting of new snow blanketed the mountain. It was bitter cold when I made this image. My hands were frozen and my fingers were numb, making the operation of the camera difficult. I was hand-holding a rectangular two-stop soft-edged graduated neutral density filter in front of my 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens to hold back exposure on the snowy mountain to balance the scene (the filter mount didn’t work properly on wide-angle lenses, resulting in vignetting in the corners, hence the hand-held improvisation). I was shaking and trying not to cloud the lens with my breath. The tripod’s legs were in the water in order to get the rock where I wanted it in the frame. It took several minutes to finally get the shot, but when the slides came back a few days later, it was all worth it. This image is among my favorites. I wanted the essence of simplicity for this shot, a Spartan approach to evoke a sense of loneliness with just the basic elements of the rock, the water and the mountain. The varying shades of blue add to the austere nature of the scene. There is silence here, and contemplation, and a feeling of being part of the scene for me, not just someone behind the camera. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Fleabane & Dead Log”

Fleabane & Dead Log, Taylor Mesa, SW Colorado (c) Mike Utley

F43(S)–Fleabane & Dead Log, Taylor Mesa, SW Colorado
I’ve always liked the stark contrast between the small flower and the “eye” of the dead log–sort of a counterpoint of life and death, color and a lack thereof, softness and the dry, almost bone-like texture of the wood. There’s a sense of longing in this photograph, a loneliness, as though the flower is looking skyward in search of hope and compassion, and the “all-seeing eye” is perhaps blind to its supplications for love and mercy. This image was probably my late-mother’s favorite of all of my nature photography. She kept a framed 8×10 of this image on the wall for decades. It brings back a lot of memories. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)