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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Canyon Wilderness

Jon Ortner is based about as far from the landscapes that make up his latest book as you can imagine, and he shows that sometimes the best landscapes come from having an outsider’s perspective

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Balance Rock, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah. Pentax 67II, 55mm ƒ/4, Fujichrome Velvia 50, polarizer
“Nobody even knew what was in these places until the mid-’90s or even the late ’90s,” he says. “I’d see a surreal image from a place like Zebra Slot Canyon, and I’d think, ‘Where is that?’ Around that time I also started seeing images from Coyote Buttes and White Pocket, and that got me very excited about the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and the Paria Plateau. So I started doing research for a whole year.”

A zip code starting with 100 and a portfolio that’s equal parts desert and skyline aren’t the only things that set Ortner apart. What’s most palpable when speaking with him about photography is his passion. It manifests itself in the massive research undertaking that goes into every snap of the shutter. He’s a veritable scientist, a student of the landscape. Without deep knowledge of his subject, his lifetime of work simply wouldn’t have been possible. The same held true when he turned his attention to the desert.

“Very early on, as my interest in the West grew,” he says, “I determined that I couldn’t really understand the desert and, therefore, I wouldn’t be able to artistically interpret it unless I knew the history of the exploration of the Colorado Plateau. I sought out the thoughts and words of the great authors and scientists who have written so eloquently about it. I immersed myself in the great body of literature that has been written about the West. I essentially read almost everything ever written about the Colorado Plateau, including exhaustive web research covering current scientific research and slot canyon exploration.

“Once I read Desert Solitaire,” says Ortner of the Edward Abbey book, “I was finished. I was in love with the desert before I even got there. ‘What does it mean? It means nothing. It is as it is, and it has no need for meaning. The desert lies beneath and soars beyond any possible human qualification. It is therefore sublime.’

Yei-Bi-Chei and orange dunes, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona. Pentax 67II, 45mm ƒ/4, Fujichrome Velvia 50, polarizer
“I delve very deeply into things,” Ortner continues. “When I started reading about the West, I got these other layers of meaning. And then when I studied the geology, that’s another layer of meaning. So when you’re there, finally on location, I think it has a different value. You just look at the whole thing on a different level. Coming from a scholarly background also has tempered all of my artistic expression because I feel that images are just so much more important when they have content.

“What’s the most remote place in the continental U.S.?” he asks rhetorically. “The canyons and deserts of the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. How old is the oldest organism on earth? Bristlecone pines found in parts of the Sierras, the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin, one of which has been determined to be over 4,700 years old. How old are the oldest layers of rock exposed in the bottom of the Grand Canyon? More than 4 billion years. To understand the desert and canyon landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, you must be able to see into the many overlaying dimensions: the visual, the geological, the ecological and even the spiritual.”

An understanding of the complexities of his subjects is crucial in Ortner’s work, and he includes much of his insights in the pages of Canyon Wilderness. He pursues his photographs with a scientific rigor and voracity that the pioneers of 19th-century Western exploration surely would admire.

“Photography without knowledge, images without content,” he explains, “have little relevance to me. All of my photography, whether it be of the Himalaya or the Southwest, starts with scholarship and is finally achieved with artistic passion and drive. If my work refers to, or can be compared to, the accomplishments of the great explorers and scientists who have worked in the West, then that’s the finest compliment I could receive. For it would be very difficult to find men and women of such fortitude, such endurance and such exceptional strength of character today. As I explored these places, their words often echoed in my mind. The desert forces you to ponder, to think about time, the earth and the processes that have created everything we see around us.”


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