White Rim, Colorado River Valley. Canyonlands National Park, Utah. October 10, 2012. © Copyright 2013 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.
The Colorado River winds through rugged country beyond the White Rim, Canyonlands National Park
On our second visit to Canyonlands National Park (the first had been back in April of the same year, when we briefly visited the “Island in the Sky” highlands of the park) we were somewhat stymied by less than astonishing light. Overall the skies were sort of partly cloudy, but that “partly” portion seemed to line up almost perfectly with where we were, and from afternoon on a large mass of clouds sat above us and to the west. For this photograph, that might have actually been a bit of a blessing, in that trying to photograph the tremendously intricate and detailed landscape visible from the “Grand View” overlook in full sun at this time of day would have been challenging, to say the least. This landscape, lit that way, would have contained some extremely bright features along with very deep shadows in the canyons, and the result probably would not have been all that great. The clouds, however, somewhat mute the contrasty light, making the bright areas a bit less bright and allowing diffused light down into areas that would otherwise be dark. At least there was a bit of light on the buttes in the far distance at the upper edge of the frame.
This scene is one of those “iconic” views that, well, everyone photographs. Generally, I’m not that much about photographing icons. In fact, often when I go to places like this I try to not know what the iconic shots are or where to find them, preferring to instead just sort of guess, follow hunches, poke around, and see what I discover. This may not be the most effective way to find the “cool stuff” in a new location, but it does let me start to develop my own relationship with a landscape from the very beginning. So when we went into Canyonlands the first time I basically had almost no idea what I was “supposed” to see and photograph. (For example, I had no idea that iconic “Mesa Arch” is in this park – drove past the road to it and said, “Ah, that’s where Mesa Arch is!” And, no, I did not photograph it.) However, as we wandered about and looked at stuff, we somehow managed to end up at several of “those places” – especially the Green River overlook (which I now recognize as one of the iconic views of this park) and Grand View. In addition, I’ve often advised others to not eschew icons in certain situations. One, of course, is when you find yourself in front of such an icon and have never photographed it before. But another is when one visits a location for the first time and does not yet have a deeper knowledge of the place. For example, I’ll occasionally get asked by first time visitors to Yosemite or Death Valley (places where I shoot a lot) about where the “secret spots” are that not everyone shoots. I tell them that getting to know a place to such an extent that you can find, “see,” understand and photograph the non-iconic subjects is not a reasonable goal for a first visit. Often that takes many visits, perhaps in different seasons, and the time to let the place “get under your skin” to the point that you have a real feel for it.* But everyone has to start somewhere, and photographing icons is a fine place to start when you are new to a place. They are, after all, usually quite spectacular spots – as I say, “They are icons for a reason.”
*For my part, during my first year photographing in Utah I spent over 30 days there during three long visits. It wasn’t until well into the third visit that I really began to feel that I was moving past the “Oh, wow, Utah!” state and starting to really understand the place.
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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