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Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Dream Chaser

Michael Routh finds inspiration in the solitude of the less-explored backcountry

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Muleshoe Bend, Yellowstone National Park, Montana.
OP: Charlie Cramer said of your work that you tend to take difficult photographs and do them quite well. That approach, shooting as the French say, "contre-jour," can give spectacular payoffs. There's an intensity that can be absent or diminished when the same scene is taken with clear-blue skies and the sun over your shoulder. Are you using graduated neutral-density filters to help harness the skies?

Routh: I do use graduated neutral-density filters. I use those tools, but an important distinction for me is that I don't do HDR, and I don't do photo blends using multiple images. I've experimented with HDR, but I think the results don't look natural. You have straight photography, you have fine-art nature photography, and then you have photo art. I consider myself a fine-art nature photographer, with my wildfire work being photojournalism.

OP: You've said in the past that the Four Corners region of the United States is among your favorite areas to photograph in the country.

Eureka Dunes, Death Valley National Park, Calif.
Routh: What I love about the Four Corners and the backcountry, in general, is the solitude and going to landscapes that aren't the classic iconic landmarks in America that have been photographed a million times. I always strive to find original compositions. I believe that to be a great nature photographer, you need to be able to find your own classic locations, even if it means going back there 20 times to get the shot. The Colorado Plateau and the Grand Staircase-Escalante to a lot of people look somewhat featureless—to me, there are potential photographs everywhere I turn. I love finding a photograph that no one else has found before. That's what drives me to do 15-mile hikes.

OP: You're taking advantage of your physical ability to get to a location that might be inaccessible to others. Galen Rowell was an extreme example of that approach.

Routh: I don't do anything to the extent of Galen Rowell. He was in a league of his own. I'm a scrambler, not a technical climber. Physical fitness is such a big part of life, in general, and for me, it's an integral part of photography. I photographed Clouds Rest in Yosemite, which required a 14-mile round-trip hike carrying a 40- to 50-pound pack from Tuolumne Meadows to 10,000 feet and hiking out after sunset.
I drove up to the top of Wheeler Crest in the Eastern Sierras, which is a Rubicon-class trail. I'll wheel to a very inaccessible location, then hike in from there and see what I can find. Some photographers are half scientists, and they're going to the noaa.gov website, and they're looking at the sun moving here and there, and I do an amount of that—you have to know the weather—but for the most part, I just try and "feel" where the photograph is.


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