Going Beyond The Iconic Image

Put your personal creative stamp on even the most overphotographed places

Going Beyond The Iconic ImageAll of us have places we’ve read about, seen pictures of and dreamed about one day visiting, but for one reason or another, the years go by, and we haven’t made that trip. With time, our mental image of that place changes, becomes molded and might even be narrowed by looking at the same photos of the place again and again.

For photographers, there exists a danger when we finally travel to a fabled location—almost by intuition, we create the very same photos that have been repeated a thousand times before by others. What image do you think of when I mention the Mittens in Monument Valley, the ruins at Machu Picchu or the multihued formations
of Bryce Canyon?

One could say the natural wonder has been reduced to the lowest common denominator. To me, the iconic images of these beautiful places are just the starting point when photographing in national parks or any natural wild areas. It’s not easy to expand on what appears to be the perfect vantage from which to photograph a certain place, but as adventure photographers, we can put our personal creative stamp on even the most overphotographed place.

I happen to live within a few hours’ drive of many national parks and monuments. The locations of these parks were originally places selected for their beauty. They have been photographed in every imaginable way since William Henry Jackson first brought his 8x10 camera out West.

It’s tempting for me to race out and photograph in these places again and again. I often do so, but when I make plans to shoot in these locations, I’m more likely to carefully arrange my visit around a unique trip or activity. The creative process works like this: when I know I’ll be traveling to Yosemite, Yellowstone or other iconic locations, I look carefully at who I’m traveling with and what I’ll be doing in the park. Will it be rock climbing, biking, boating, a family trip with the kids, etc?

In this way, I can have an idea of the type of photos I might be able to make that will be relatively unique. An adventure approach to the parks opens extraordinary doors to shooting creative photos. The people and activity in my photos are the creative key, even when I’m shooting at a scenic pullout in the Grand Canyon.

Last fall, I was invited on a rafting trip down the Green River and Colorado River through Canyonlands National Park and Cataract Canyon with the intention of using the rafts to explore a remote corner of Canyonlands called the Maze.

I had never really explored the Maze in any depth, despite the area being so close to home. I first heard of the Maze when I was only 14, back when Outside Magazine was still called Mariah. In the magazine, an article described the Maze as a place of deep canyons that were accessible only by climbing and rappelling. It was inhabited for hundreds of years by a people called the Fremont, who hunted in the canyons and left behind colorful life-sized figure paintings—some of the finest Indian pictograph drawings to be found in North America.

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The Maze sounded fantastic. None of the intervening years or photos I’d see of the location would dim the initial picture I formed by reading that article.

Before my October 2006 trip, my only explorations into the Maze barely touched the edge of the region. In 1995, I circumnavigated Canyonlands on a mountain bike. My only other visits were day hikes during rafting trips in sweltering summer heat.

These previous visits did little to satisfy my earliest image of the Maze. What was missing in those excursions was a good adventure off the river, a team of ambitious hikers, cool weather and a plan to walk some serious distance through the canyons. This rafting trip was custom-tailored to be just such an adventure. Our rafts would act as a well-stocked base camp as we floated through the rugged districts of Canyonlands National Park. Our primary plan would be to hike west from our raft base camp to explore the heart of the Maze.

As luck would have it, our river trip happened just a couple of days after one of the worst rainstorms in recent history. The Moab newspaper called it a hundred-year flood event. Runoff from that storm raised the level of Lake Powell five feet!

Because of deep mud, our loaded 4x4 trucks barely made it down the treacherous Mineral Bottom Road to start the river trip. It would continue to rain during most of the next two weeks in the Canyonlands. But the hard work was worth it for this once-in-a-lifetime view of the Canyon Country. The rain-washed sky as well as the remarkable multihued Cedar Mesa Sandstone walls of the Maze gave great color for photography.

The photo of the Maze shown here was taken on our first overnight hike away from the boats. The next day, we’d rejoin our river party several miles downstream from where we departed the rafts. We had selected a camp on the slickrock just before sunset after a hard day of walking.

I saw this photo come together when my hiking buddies, sans packs, walked to the edge of the canyon for a look over the edge. The earliest image I had of the Maze was the human drama of being lost in a sea of rock; the many years didn’t dampen that image in my mind. I stayed back, climbing up onto a ledge above our camp and moving my vantage point so that I could highlight my friends against a dark shadow of the canyon wall in the last minutes of sunlight.

This location on Jasper Ridge was a world removed from my other experiences in the Maze. Upon reflection, I realized that, if I wanted, I could drive close to the same location where I took this photo. Such a trip would be much easier than the one that produced this photo—merely a half day’s drive on 4x4 roads and a short hike. But I know that, given a hundred opportunities to duplicate this photo, it wouldn’t be possible.

This photo is the result of certain events and people coming together at a certain moment. Our adventurous hike, the wild weather that produced a remarkable clarity of light and being in the right place with a camera before the sun dipped below the horizon all made a difference. My trip through Canyonlands produced a group of photos that now will become my best memories of the Maze since I first formed images of it in my mind 32 years ago.

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