Autumn plants growing at the base of a sandstone cliff
It seems that we have arrived at that time when each year my thoughts begin to turn again to autumn photography. That is probably my favorite season as it includes those final warm days of Indian summer, the first inkling of the coming winter, the annual color transition as trees lose their leaves, and the first real winter weather — all of which are favorite photographic subjects of mine. (I’ll be paying special attention to Sierra Nevada fall color this coming season, for a number of reasons, but especially since this is the first autumn following the publication of my book on the subject: “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” from Heyday Press.)
So, an autumn photograph! This one comes from last October, when I had the opportunity to make a photography trip through some of may favorite areas of southern Utah. Partway through the trip I met up with my friend and fellow photographer, David Hoffman. We spent several days poking around in and photographing Capitol Reef National Park. On this evening we passed through a narrow gorge not far from our camp, quickly stopped, and ended up photographing the red rock canyon walls and the autumn colors until the light faded at the end of the day.
The colors of fall foliage and red sandstone canyon rock, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
These are the kinds of Utah colors that make some of us return to California and to find that “our Sierra Nevada” looks a bit more gray than we thought! In my experience, the color season in southern Utah begins in late September with the arrival of aspen color. (I have seen it, but so far have arrived just after the peak color.) It continues later in the month as the lower elevation cottonwood trees become intensely colorful. In some places the show is still continuing in early November.
The fall color show on its own would be impressive, but place those colors against the backdrop of Utah’s colorful sandstone landscape and the overall effect is very powerful. We returned from a daytime adventure elsewhere in Capitol Reef National Park and passed through this canyon area just before sunset. The light in the areas shaded by the tall cliffs was already becoming soft and luminous, and in this light the colors can become even more intense. We stopped and more or less wandered for as the sun continued to drop, photographing in the quite evening right up until the light was too far gone.
Early evening light on the face of a rugged and weathered sandstone cliff, Capitol Reef National Park
Recently I have been thinking about where we find subjects for photographs and about the fact that they are everywhere — I could say that you don’t always have to seek out particularly “special” places, or I might instead say that if you look closely enough almost any place can be special in some way. I do understand the interest in creating photographs of recognizable subjects and perhaps even the challenge of trying to make such photographs stand out in some way. But for me it is far more interesting to use the camera as a means of focusing more closely on what I can find wherever I am, and then trying to clear away obstacles to seeing these subjects in my own way.
Late in the day we had stopped along a section of roadway in Capitol Reef National Park. We knew, of course, that red rock sandstone cliffs and autumn trees were there, but most of all we stopped because the light was so fascinating. We simply walked along the road and looked, and almost everywhere we looked we found something that seemed like it might be worthy of a photograph. There was so much to see in this small area that as fast and furiously as we photographed, we felt like the light was passing too quickly. The subject of this photograph is a rough and weathered by of sandstone cliff that I happened to notice as I looked up from another subject I had been photographing.
Deep erosion gullies below an uplifted rock band empty into the valley below, with rugged terrain extending into the distance
Until a few years ago, although I had heard the term “waterpocket fold” before, I was almost completely unaware of what this geological feature is. Since that time I have visited it several times. On the first occasion I visited the area, but I still did not understand the geology. I “got it” that there was some sort of uplift — the land rising to the west of Capitol Reef was a pretty good clue — but I did not understand or really see any of the connections. I recall stopping at one road side pullout and seeing a sign about it, registering that it is something important, but not really understanding.
On more recent visits the reality of this huge and striking feature has finally sunk in. I began to see it a few years ago on a trip that took we away from main roads and way up on a rocky ridge from which I could look down into the eastern valley and clearly see some of the larger patterns — sinuous lines of angled rock, the valley twisting gently into the distance in the south. On the most recent visit it began to make a lot more sense, as I noticed features like the shadowed cliff band across the center of this photograph, which more or less represents the remaining underside of a layer that long ago continued on up into what today would be the sky. Its edge overhangs the softer material below, though it still erodes into the bottom of the valley. Further to the east in this photograph the impossibly rugged terrain of arid strata continues, eventually rising to a mountain range in the far distance.
Cliffs and eroded towers near Fruita, Capitol Reef National Park
I’m a sucker for juxtapositions of mountains and cliffs, and sunlit and shadowed surfaces. (In fact, “juxtaposition” is a word I think about a lot when making photographs.) This part of the world provides these juxtapositions with a vengeance. Everywhere in the red rock country of the Southwest there are sandstone walls, lined up, building one on top of the other, standing in front of and behind each other, layered with eroded rock and soil, standing above valleys and beyond lower ridges.
We had only a brief time to photograph on this first afternoon in Capitol Reef National Park. I had arrived in the middle of the afternoon and then busied myself with setting up a tent and a few other camp chores, plus catching up on the news with my friend Dave. By the time all of these important things had been taken care of the sun was rapidly dropping toward the horizon, so we quickly headed to a nearby area to see what sort of late-day light we could find. Literally within minutes of leaving our campground (which is just to the right of the shadowed trees visible in the lower part of the photograph) we came upon this intense and saturated late-day light, with shadows starting to stretch across the valley and the low foreground ridges.
A lone plant grows in a crack in sculpted Utah canyon sandstone
These canyons feel isolated from the rest of the outside world. In the narrow sections, the only view of the familiar world may be a small strip of sky directly overhead. The tall canyon walls, which may be only feet apart, block any view of the surrounding terrain, and the focus of my attention narrows down to the section of the canyon where I find myself, the walls where I stand a some short distance ahead before the canyon twists out of sight.
Not only are we visually cut off from the outside, but we are also isolated acoustically. No sound makes it down into the bottoms of the canyons from the above. In the canyon there may be the sounds of quietly flowing water, and perhaps the tinkling sound of water dropping over rocks. A bird may sing. The sound of my footsteps echoes between the walls. In this spot, daytime sunlight high above bounced between the canyon walls, diffusing until a wash of soft red-tinted light reached the canyon bottom. Horizontal layers had eroded at varying rates, a jagged crack cut the canyon wall vertically, and one plant grew in the crack.
A lone plant grows from sandstone walls deep within a Utah slot canyon
I had the opportunity to spend a significant period of time photographing in Utah back in October of 2014. Although I got a late start with Utah (only photographing there for the first time a few years ago) I have been doing my best to make up for lost time. I’ve spent between a month and a month and a half there in total over the past couple of years. During that time I have come to love autumn in the canyons. Oh, heck, I think I love autumn just about anywhere in Utah!
I walked into this canyon early on last fall’s trip. I had arrived at my first Utah stopover place the night before, looked at a map, and figured I might find something interesting in this general area. (I’m not always a careful advanced planner, preferring to wing it depending on the light and my mood.) The walk began in terrain that was more of a wash than a canyon, but before long the sandstone walls closed in and narrowed and I was walking through slots. The light in such places can be magical at the right moments, usually when the sun rises high enough in the sky to project into the upper reaches of the canyon, where it bounces and diffuses as it fills the canyon below with saturated light.