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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Seeing Beyond Grandeur

In the face of overwhelming grandscapes, think about the intimate shots that will paint a full portrait of a place

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To tell a complete story of a place, particularly a place that's famous for its grand vistas, think about getting intimate images that complement the big shots. These sorts of photos help a viewer feel immersed in the locale rather than just being an observer from a scenic overlook. Above: The Colorado River below Nankoweap. All images from Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

On a Grand Canyon rafting trip, you learn to expect the unexpected, and this day was no different. The casual hike we had planned—to photograph the elegantly eroded limestone watercourses of a side canyon called Matkatimiba—seemed to be a bust. A recent flash flood had deposited a dam of gravelly debris at the mouth of the canyon, forming a 40-foot wall-to-wall pool of unknown depth. While we pondered the feasibility of getting across, we seized the opportunity to photograph the canyon walls mirrored in the pool. Then, we went for it. Stashing our gear in dry bags, the 12 of us helped one another wade, swim or float across the pool. The shallowest route across was neck-deep to me, and I'm 6'2". We didn't know what other surprises might await us around the next corner, but we were charged with a sense of adventure and the prospect of exploration and personal discovery, which are the key reasons I keep coming back.

Morning light on Chuar Butte above the Little Colorado River.
Each year, about five million people travel by car, RV, motorcycle and tour bus to look down into this great chasm. My own teenage impression of my first visit to the South Rim—an impression I think must be common—was of a scene so vast and stark under the midday sun that depth and scale were difficult to grasp. This profoundly 3-D landscape seemed compressed into a two-dimensional panorama that had about as little emotional impact as a trite painted backdrop from a spaghetti western.

Through more recent photographic adventures, however, I've "seen the light" and have been moved deeply by the character of the place, which is anything but two-dimensional or trite. The Grand Canyon inspires authentic awe and wonder, invites the curious explorer and rewards generously those who take the time to get to know it. The grandeur and sublime beauty of this complex landscape—carved out over 70 million years by the Colorado River and its tributaries as tectonic forces uplifted the Colorado Plateau in the river's path—come alive at sunrise and sunset beneath energetic August monsoon storms or with a frosting of winter snow on the elevated rim. If the American Southwest is considered one of the most aesthetically inspiring landscapes on Earth, the Grand Canyon must be its crowning glory.

Most photographers who come to the Canyon, particularly for the first time, do so with the admirable goal of making photographs that attempt to capture its grandeur. The process of getting to know the canyon may include making personal attempts at iconic big-landscape compositions like those found at Toroweap or Maricopa Point. Those who take the time to explore, however, will find that one of the most wonderful things about the Grand Canyon is that it may be best appreciated as a majestic sum of smaller, more intimate parts. It hides away real treasures within its folds and layers, just waiting to be discovered.

Watercourse through Muav limestone in National Canyon.
Finding Details
River-polished Vishnu schist, 1.84 billion years old, forms elegant flutes, fins and minarets. Watercourses carve sinuous channels and slots into the Muav limestone layer. Offset faults in sandstone cliffs tell the tale of immense shearing forces. Tapeats sandstone cliffs drilled through by the river are sculpted into arcing loops and curlicues. The turquoise waters of travertine springs tumble over white dikes of precipitated calcium carbonate. Rosy-pink Zoroaster granite intrusions, injected as magma under unimaginable pressure, fill faults in the dark schist. Stones of myriad colors ornament Grand Canyon beaches, often many miles downstream from the formations that spawned them. Sheltered grottoes of ferns and scarlet monkeyflower seem so perfectly arranged that you'd imagine elves were the landscape architects. The sound of your own breath echoes from the walls of serene slot canyons that bare the telltale signs of eons of terrifying flash floods. It's enough for a lifetime of exploration, discovery and artful photography.

The Right Light
As always, the trick to chasing the spirit of these places is in the light, and I let the light be my guide. The canyon photographer is fortunate—good light can be found all day long if you know where to look, and in some locations it even may be best in the middle of the day. The sweetest light down in the depths of the canyon is reflected illumination from the canyon walls. When direct sun strikes a wall, look just opposite for compositions bathed in the warm, gentle, reflected gwlow in the shade. It provides just enough modeling to bring out textures and provide a three-dimensional effect without creating harsh contrast.

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