Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Deja vu, for most people. Mesa Arch is one of the most photographed features in the American southwest. Not so much the arch itself but the view of the canyons below the La Sal range as seen through the exceptionally well placed arch. If there is anything interesting about so many pictures existing of the same exact scene it is that one can compare the method by which the photographer dealt with the problems inherent in shooting into the sun at sunrise. Much of the landscape is facing away from the sun making it difficult to get a good exposure without blowing out the sky. One trick is to wait until the sun has risen high enough that it can be hidden behind the arch in frame. However, if you wait that long, the twilight glow is completely gone. Another choice is to get tricky with a computer and create a high dynamic range (HDR) photograph by basically blending multiple exposures into one even toned picture (for example, one exposure to get the shadows, one to get the sky and another in between the two). I feel that HDR is a cheat that undermines a photographer's creativity by not forcing him or her to think about how to get the best exposure possible of a scene. "Art from adversity", the hard work and thought that goes into overcoming an obstacle give the photographer a chance to consider the scene at length and the result will make the viewer feel like they are really there in the picture.

There are plenty of incredible recreations of sunrise from this location, my picture isn't really one of them. However, looking at it has the desired effect of placing me back in the morning I recorded it. I stayed there throughout the morning snapping pictures as the sun rose, but this particular picture before the sun had even crested the horizon resonates the most with me. To explain, let me describe how I came to this spot. I was staying in Moab and had decided that I would make the roughly 1 hour drive into Canyonlands NP one morning to watch this famous sunrise. I wasn't really sure of the length of the drive or the trail to the arch so I set out early around 4am in late February. I had seen the abrupt turn off from the highway to Canyonlands the day before but it still surprised me, the sign's reflective paint aged and hard to read in the dark. After leaving the highway the road became much darker with few reflectors to give me an idea of what was more than 50 feet in front of me. For what seemed like miles, the road switchbacked up into the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands. I knew that this area had been used to raise cattle because it was a large surface surrounded by canyons with only one way out, through a bottle neck. With this in mind, in the pitch dark I imagined that on either side of the road the ground fell away to the canyon floor 200 feet or more below. I hovered over a thin strip of winding road that seemed to be materializing just as I reached it until I found the pull-off for Mesa Arch. As I found the trail head, I still couldn't see any light on the horizon in the direction that I guessed was east. The trail was slightly illuminated by moonlight. As I went I pulled out my flashlight and turned it on, then instantly turned it off again. Without the flashlight I could get just a hint of everything around me. When I had turned it on, my world had shrunk to a disc of light at my feet and my peripheral vision had melted away to darkness. Without the ability to see any movement that may be occurring at my side, the sound of even a single grain of sand shifting became terrifying. I stopped briefly to regain my night vision after turning off the flashlight and the proceeded along the trail. I had begun to see a glow on the horizon when it was suddenly interrupted by a black band. I had arrived at Mesa Arch.

I was all alone and so was able to choose any spot to set up my tripod. I lay down on the cool rock and watched as the sun started to make a halo over the La Sals. As the light grew brighter I began to get glimpses of the canyon floor. Somehow the rocks appeared to me to be still asleep, waiting for the sun to get higher before unleashing their red glow. As the details of the canyon floor emerged I began to piece together what I must have been driving through earlier that morning. While I had been encapsulated in darkness high up on the road, this landscape had been slumbering below. I wanted to capture that moment of realization before the sun came over the horizon and this was the result.

Just as I had finished taking this picture I saw out of the corner of my eye a pinhole of light bouncing down the trail behind me. I flashed my light at the visitor a couple times so that I wouldn't startle him when he reached the arch, as he must have been sure that he'd be the first one there. After greeting him when he arrived, I turned back to look at the canyon and the sun had come up and the rocks had begun to glow red, just like in the many pictures I had seen of this place. I was content knowing that at least for this morning I had been the solitary witness to the waking moments of this landscape.

No comments:

Post a Comment