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Monday, November 16, 2009

Into The Caves Of Patagonia

New camera technology comes to the rescue when one of the world’s pristine wonders is photographed

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Working from a small boat in open water, George Lepp captures the entrance façade of the marble caves of Lago General Carrera in a three-image panorama. The gracefully carved stone reflects the clear blue light of the sky and the intense color of the pristine glacial-fed lake, one of South America’s largest and loveliest. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS at 105mm, ISO 800.

The lake is bluer than the sky, and the sky is very blue indeed. Today the water is banded in saturated shades of azul: turquoise, cyan, teal, sapphire, aquamarine. Only yesterday morning its surface was a mosaic of bright tiles, frothed by wind into wavelets tipped with blinding white sequins. By afternoon, its turmoil had ebbed to an intriguing greenish waffle of opposing currents. But today, the lake is glassy and crisp, mirroring central Chilean Patagonia’s iconic mountains, their ragged black peaks capped with snow and caped with ice fields. We’ve entered a different time and place, where landscapes are drawn large and bold, and where mountains and water are all that separate people from the endless sky.

The Road To Patagonia
It’s summer here. A few days before, we had left our home in Colorado in the midst of a winter storm, our visions of sunshine, wildflowers and this lake calling us 7,000 miles south. Months previously, our friends, the landscape photographer Linde Waidhofer and her poet/graphic designer husband Lito Tejada-Flores, had shown us Linde’s haunting photographs of a group of marble caves accessible only from Lago General Carrera. We were intrigued by the unique and mysterious beauty of the place, but most of all, driven to photograph the collection of watery arches and grottos known as the Capilla de Mármol (the Marble Chapel). Linde and Lito, who live six months each year on the shore of the lake near the small town of Puerto Guadal, generously invited us to visit, and the plan was hatched.

More than 30 travel hours finally has brought us to the shore of a lake where we find a small house, two aluminum boats tied to a sturdy dock and an informal campground that harbors several two-man tents. And best of all, we’re enthusiastically greeted—¡Hola! ¡Bienvenidos!—by the owner, Pedro Contreras, who has agreed in advance to guide us to the marble caves this morning and for each of the next several days. Months of planning and days of packing gear and traveling are done. Now the photographic journey begins.

The Marble Caves

A whale’s breakfast. The intricate, jagged structures within the caverns evoke the ribs of a giant whale, while an extreme wide-angle lens opens the perspective. The Canon EOS 5D Mark II’s expanded ISO capability made the image possible while shooting from a rocking boat in low light. Canon EF 15mm ƒ/2.8 fisheye, 1⁄90 sec. at ƒ/11, ISO 800.
Not many photographers have worked on the marble caves. It’s not just that it’s difficult to reach them. A body of water as large as Lago General Carrera can develop ocean-worthy swells and waves. Because the caves can be entered only by small craft, conditions often make the trip impossible. But on this gentle day, Pedro helps us and our gear into the boat, takes his place at the outboard motor, and we scoot out of the protected little marina and along the shoreline toward two large mushroom-shaped islands. The spray from our boat blows back on us, and we move the gear out of the puddles forming around our feet. A moment later, Pedro cuts the engine, and we drift into the first cave.

A host of photographic opportunities and challenges hits us all at once. The caverns are made of gleaming white stone laced with veins and edged with delicate fins of brown and black. Light enters the passages through shadowy doorways and unexpected bright windows to the outside. All in one space, the sun hits the walls and the water at blinding angles while the blue light and the cyan water color the marble with an eerie glow.

Everywhere there are arches and grottoes, graceful curves, stilettos and jagged teeth, revealed as clearly below the water as above. A slender, fragile column rises from the depths to support the massive weight of the marble ledge above us. The only sound is of the wavelets that tap at our boat and lick the rocks around us. With quiet pride, Pedro watches us take in the place. His outstretched arm braces the boat against a smooth, cold wall of ancient marble.

We can see that successfully photographing the marble caves will require all the digital tools we’ve brought with us, and then some. We’re equipped with Canon EOS 5D Mark II bodies and a variety of lenses. After viewing Linde Waidhofer’s work on the caves, we’ve anticipated the problems of high contrast, low light and unstable platforms. Still, the complexity of the structures and the constricted space present obstacles we had not anticipated.


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