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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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Ama Dablam, Khumbu, Nepal. Nikon F3, 180mm ƒ/2.8, Kodak Kodachrome 25, polarizer
Not only is Ortner’s research and photographic prowess worthy of praise, but his ability to find and photograph little-known locations is equally evocative of the earliest pioneers. A feat made easier thanks to technology, it’s also more challenging due to the vast amounts of overphotographed landscape in the American desert. Ortner’s knowledge affords him the ability to more easily avoid treading in the footprints of his predecessors.

“The classic locations are iconic for good reason,” he says. “They usually provide a perspective that epitomizes the natural power, the unseen geomancy of a certain place. The Native Americans were the first to find these special sites, and they described them as power places. They were revered above all others. Photographic images from those locations often convey the emotional feelings that many people in our modern culture are searching for. This is why we travel to the wilderness. We go on pilgrimage, to see and feel the rejuvenating energy of the land.

“Every photographer in America, in the world, wants to go to Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion, the Grand Canyon,” Ortner adds. “They’re right here, our own natural treasures, and ecologically threatened, so it makes the images even more relevant. It was a constant thought in my mind that many, perhaps even most, of these places had been photographed countless times before. I asked myself, Why am I here? I had come to admire, but more than that, I had come to revere.”

Though he doesn’t use particularly exotic camera or computer techniques to render the landscape different from his predecessors, one technical aspect does set Ortner’s work apart: the large-format panoramic film camera. A technique that arose out of New York necessity turned out to be the ideal format for rendering Canyon Wilderness, particularly since Ortner knew he was competing for attention with world-class photographers of the American West, and he needed every advantage he could find.


Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah. Fuji GX617 Panorama Camera, Fuji SWD 90mm ƒ/5.6, Fujichrome Velvia 50
“I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to create images on that level,” he says of the work of Jack Dykinga, Tom Till and David Muench. “All of that stuff came together, and I said, Well, if I’m going to shoot the place, I might as well pick a format that has been used the least out there. After doing my research, I decided that the Fuji GX 6x17cm panoramic view camera, with its interchangeable lenses, light and strong carbon-fiber body, and extremely sharp Fuji lenses, would give me the best quality. Although many of the classic locations had been shot in panorama, the slot canyons and more remote regions had never been photographed with equipment that creates images of such superior quality.”

Armed with a camera capable of doing particular justice to the wilderness landscape, Ortner doesn’t make many other technical interventions in his photographs. He shoots Kodak T-MAX 100 for black-and-white and Fujichrome Velvia 50 for color; he makes high-resolution scans of his large transparencies and generally avoids over-retouching. He relies on both an understanding of his subject, gained through research, and a willingness to watch as environmental conditions impact the appearance of a place.

“It turns out that weather became one of the most important and critical aspects of my photography,” he explains. “All we have to do is to look at Ansel Adams’ image Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite Valley, and we see the gold standard for scenic photography. Storms that bring rain and snow are my friends. When fronts come through, unusual clouds are my good fortune, and the ephemeral, changeable light of sunrise and sunset, my palette. A gift from nature.”

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