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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rediscovering The Grand Canyon

A quest to find photographic depth in the remote areas of this favorite national park

The Isis Temple in the Grand Canyon as seen from Shiva Saddle. For Bill Hatcher, a major part of the allure of this photo was in the experience of getting to the spot from which he made it.

Since moving back to Arizona from Australia, I've been spending a lot of time exploring remote locations in Grand Canyon National Park. Like many, I'm compelled by the staggering beauty of the Grand Canyon, but that's not its only appeal for me. Below the canyon rim lies the most rugged wilderness in the lower 48 states. It's the sort of place you could spend several lifetimes exploring if your knees hold out. The Grand Canyon can be tough and the numbers are telling; hiking from the South Rim to the river is a pounding 5,000-foot descent in just under 10 miles. In winter, the South Rim, situated at 7,000 feet, can have temperatures in the single digits, while in summer, the air in the canyon bottom, superheated by the black Precambrian rock lining the inner gorge, can rise above 120º F. It's 285 miles long—285! The Grand Canyon can be a vast, overwhelming space, especially to photographers. It is for me, and I found recently that even the pace of walking through the canyon is too fast to absorb all the details of the land I'm passing through.

In February of this year, I hiked out of the Grand Canyon with another memory card filled with images. Since I was there to scout a potential story, I enjoyed the rare freedom to shoot whatever I wanted to. The results were many snapshots—photos shot on the fly without considering more than the surface appeal of the scene I was looking at. Once I had a look at the images on my studio monitor, I had an edit of the best few photos from the week. That's when I started to see a trend. The best photos seemed tied in some way to the deeper, more intense experiences that occurred when I was exploring. The snapshots included many photos of rocks and pretty canyon views. This is to be expected since, when I'm in the Grand Canyon, I'm drawn to photographing the towering cliffs of rock bands like the Coconino sandstone, the overhanging rock of the Tapeats or the ghost hoodoos of the Supai rocks.

As a rock climber, my eye is always drawn to a spectacular climbing line, but sadly, it's rare that photos of cliffs are as dramatic as the emotions I felt at the time I made the photo. Careful composition and good light are important, but even rigid attention to these factors in the Grand Canyon may not prevent the photo from looking common.

What I discovered is that, to make the best photos, you really need to become immersed. Slow down, look, listen and remember the stories you know of this place—your own and others'. In this slowing down, you may discover new ideas about what the landscape is communicating as you move through the canyon. I think to capture rich depth in a photo, you need your own, often complex, experience with that place. The photo here was taken on my fourth morning in the canyon; a caption could read "Scenic of Isis Temple from Shiva Saddle." That's the simple caption, and a pretty boring one at that.

But to see this view, I first had to reach Shiva Saddle, and this was a bit of an expedition. The route required a couple of days of walking and nearly 10,000 feet of elevation change, first hiking to the canyon bottom and nearly back out to the North Rim. The saddle lies 1,000 feet above the head of Phantom Creek, at a place where the creek becomes a trickle, the canyon walls close in and the walking trail turns vertical. The challenge was in negotiating several hundred feet of vertical rock called the red wall limestone, unroped. But here, in telling this story, I should back up some.


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