“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)

“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)

“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)

“Sheep Mountain & Beaver Pond”

Sheep Mt. & Beaver Pond, near Trout Lake, SW Colorado (c) Mike Utley

M32-1(S)—Sheep Mt. & Beaver Pond, near Trout Lake, SW Colorado
Trout Lake is located near the small town of Telluride in southwest Colorado and is among my favorite places on the planet. This image was made a couple of miles from the lake. The stark contrast between the black water of the beaver pond and the brightly lit snow stretched the exposure limits of the slide film I used, resulting in some blown-out cloud details. Despite this, I like the image. I’m not a winter person by any stretch of the imagination, so I have few winter scenes. This image has the feel of a black-and-white photograph, and the cloud-shaded mountain in the distance adds a brooding, melancholy tone. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)