“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)

“Blue Lupine & Water Droplets”

Blue Lupine & Water Droplets, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

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)

“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)

“Bear Grass & Peaks”

Bear Grass & Peaks, Glacier National Park, Montana (c) Mike Utley

While traveling through Glacier National Park in 1996 along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, this meadow came into view. I’d never seen bear grass before and had no idea what this unusual flower was at the time. The conditions were a bit tricky: contrasting lighting, a bit of a breeze, a slanting hillside, long-stemmed flowers and very slow slide film. In order to record this image, I had to make some choices.

First, due to the breeze, I needed a faster shutter speed than I’d usually use for such a shot with my 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens (which I typically closed down to f/22 for such images in order to achieve the most depth-of-field possible). This meant opening up the lens aperture a bit to allow more light to hit the film, which in turn meant a more shallow depth-of-field. Thus, I had to let the distant peaks go slightly out-of-focus and zero in on the bear grass, which was fine since that was the purpose of image anyway, and it caused the flowers to stand out more against the background. Depth-of-field (the amount of a scene—near to far—that’s in sharp focus) is inversely proportional to shutter speed at any given exposure setting: the more DOF, the slower the shutter speed, and vice versa

Second, the contrast between the subdued lighting in the meadow and the brightly lit clouds and peaks required the use of a two-stop soft-edged graduated neutral density filter in order to hold back exposure on the brightly lit sections and allow for a more balanced exposure overall. This slowed the shutter speed even more.

Third, the breeze had these flowers moving constantly and it was a struggle to wait for a lull during which I could expose a frame. Patience is crucial in nature photography since so little is under the photographer’s control—he’s at the mercy of the environment and must wait for the proper conditions to manifest before pressing the shutter button.

Fourth, I had to hold the rectangular graduated neutral density filter in front of the lens by hand since the filter mount was not made for wide-angle lenses and would end up darkening the corners of the frame (vignetting). This was more than a bit awkward and can be hit-and-miss and require several exposed frames to get one that works.

And fifth, all landscape photography requires a level horizon for proper orientation and a natural appearance. When shooting an ocean sunset, for example, it’s easy to use the horizon line as a level since all water lies horizontally. Or. If shooting a copse of trees, the vertical tree trunks can be a level indicator. But sometimes scenes have no obvious level indicator and can confuse the viewer. The slight slope of the meadow caused a problem here, and the solution was to make sure the vertical stems of the bear grass were clearly visible to act as an indicator of a level shot. Better quality tripods have built-in levels, but mine lacked this feature and I had to use environmental objects to imply a sense of proper level orientation.

After all of this, it was a matter of waiting for the breeze to die down enough to fire off a shot. And finally, once the slides were developed I checked my wild flower guidebooks to identify the bear grass. All in all, it took about twenty to thirty minutes to make this image, but it was time well spent. (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)

“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)

“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)

“Indian Paintbrush & Bluebird Feather”

Indian Paintbrush & Bluebird Feather, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

F25–Indian Paintbrush & Bluebird Feather, SE Utah
I came across this Indian paintbrush one late-summer afternoon at the farm. It was surrounded by dry cheatgrass, and a long-dead pinyon pine stood nearby. At the base of the flower were several bluebird feathers, the remnants of a recent meal left by some small predator (perhaps one of the farm cats). Immediately, I was struck by the three primary colors–red, yellow, blue–and how the neutral tones of the cheatgrass provided the perfect background to amplify the colors. I rarely ever manipulate a scene (aside from perhaps clearing away dead sticks or debris to unclutter an image), but this image demanded a bit of artistic license, so I placed a feather in the flower and was pleased with the resultant image. (Canon gear, Kodak Royal Gold 100)

“Sheep Mountain & Wild Flowers”

Sheep Mountain & Wild Flowers, near Trout Lake, SW Colorado (c) Mike Utley

M10-1(S)—Sheep Mountain & Wild Flowers, near Trout Lake, SW Colorado
Sheep Mountain is located near Trout Lake, about ten miles from the small tourist town of Telluride in southwest Colorado. This image was made a couple of miles from the lake one summer evening. Due to the contrast in lighting between the sunlit mountain and the open shade of the meadow and distant forest, a soft-edged two-stop graduated neutral density filter was used to balance the exposure of the scene. This image was made before digital photography became mainstream, so all technical effects had to be made in-camera at the time of exposure without having any way to review the final image until the slides arrived in the mail later. Digital photography makes exposure-balancing effects such as this much easier with post-processing tools such as HDR (High Dynamic Range), which can balance the lighting in a scene by combining multiple exposures of the same subject. When this image was made in 1995, photographers had to know how to do all the tricks in-camera before pressing the shutter button. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)