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)
“Blue Lupine & Water Droplets”
There’s nothing quite like a country rain. In the region where I live, summer thunderstorms bring the arid landscape to life as everything seems to shimmer and glow, and the scents of wet sage, pine, juniper, earth and fresh air assault one’s olfactory sense like a heady brew. In this image from the late 1990s, this blue lupine had found refuge beneath a pinyon pine and rode out the storm relatively unscathed, unlike many others that were damaged by the intensity of falling rain and were left standing among tatters of petals. Macro-photography is fascinating, especially when exploring the hidden inner worlds of wild flowers, and this lupine made a perfect subject with its brilliant hues and clinging raindrops. I’m left with the impression of each individual blossom craning skyward, open-mouthed, in an attempt to drink in as much rain as possible. In an area that receives around ten inches of precipitation annually, summer rains are vital for the environment to remain balanced (and also pose the threat of wildfires). The beauty of wild flowers is exquisite and all-too-brief, so capturing these examples of nature’s haiku was a priority for me during my days as a nature photographer. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)
“Juniper Tree on Rocks”
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)
“Green & Brown Acorns”
Green & Brown Acorns, Southeast Utah (c) Mike Utley
When we think of oaks, we tend to envision stately, majestic, robust trees with brawny boughs festooned with squirrels and tree houses. However, the farm on which I was raised in southeastern Utah sported no such giants. Instead, their gnarled, stunted cousins—Gambel oaks—thrived in the arid climate. We called them oak brush or scrub oak, and this species belongs primarily to the Four Corners region of the U.S. (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona). Small copses of this species covered much of the farm, and in the fall their dull brown leaves were the epitome of anti-climax when compared to the canary yellow of the elms and aspens. Brilliant palettes of lichen covered the twisted trunks of these trees that could sink roots even in sandstone. As a kid, I considered them the apotheosis of banality. I mean, it’s pretty pointless to climb a tree that will buckle under your weight, and when you’re a kid, an unscalable tree is a tree without a purpose. All they seemed good for was giving perch to squawking magpies and providing shade for cottontails. But their acorns were little treasures, lustrous green with finely textured cupules that resembled tiny little kilts (a shout-out to my Scottish heritage).
One autumn in the late 1990s, I gathered a couple of handfuls of these green gems, most of which had fallen to the ground and were destined to end up in a magpie’s beak or a squirrel’s belly. They seemed to glow of their own inner light, and I wanted to capture their hues and textures on film. I arranged them in a rusty pie tin on an old splintery wooden bench in the backyard and photographed them beneath an overcast sky to eliminate any harsh contrast. I added a lone brown acorn to the shot to liven things up a bit, placing it near one of the power-points to draw the viewer’s eye. I was pleased with the final result. And an interesting thing occurred… Nearly everyone who viewed this image immediately began interpreting it, all because of that single brown acorn in the corner. “This image is obviously a treatise on life and death…” Or, “This photo speaks to the evils of ageism, where the elderly are being pushed out of society just as the youthful green acorns are shoving the old brown oaknut right out of the frame…” Or, “Racism. This image is all about racism…” And I’d sort of grin and shrug my shoulders. How could I disappoint these folks with the truth? How could I burst their pretentious intellectual bubbles by telling them, “Hey, I just liked the colors and textures, and I stuck the old brown acorn in just for contrast”? To paraphrase Freud, “Sometimes an acorn is just an acorn…” And for those who are wondering, yes, I did pick a few from the branches, but after the image was made, all the acorns were distributed beneath the oaks where the magpies, squirrels and chipmunks would easily find them and deposit them in their larders. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)
“Big Indian Rock”
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)
“Spruce Sprout on Stump”
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)
“Split Rock & Pinyon Pine”
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 & La Sal Mountains at Sunset”
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)
“Rocks & Tower at Big Spring Canyon”
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)
“Textured Boulder & Big Indian Rock”
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)