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—Terry Tempest Williams
Jon Ortner isn’t like most Western landscape photographers. For starters, he lives in New York City. Not your average city boy, Ortner has used Manhattan as his home base throughout a career that has included commercial photography of New York City skylines, as well as months-long photographic expeditions to the Himalayas and Southeast Asia. His most recent accomplishment was a five-year project that culminated in Canyon Wilderness of the Southwest, a big, beautiful book of panoramic images of the desert Southwest. And it wouldn’t have been possible were it not for his urban home.
North Teepees, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona. Pentax 67II, 45mm ƒ/4, Fujichrome Velvia 50, polarizer
“For my entire life, I’ve used New York as my base,” Ortner says. “I’ve used contacts and assignments generated from New York to fund my book projects and expeditions all over the world. Whether I’m trekking for a month along the border of Bhutan and Tibet, hiking the sheer Na Pali Cliffs of Kauai or descending into the longest slot canyon in the world, my research and planning always begin in my library of maps and books here in New York. I consider Manhattan my greatest resource.”
Ortner developed a commercial real-estate photography business in New York to fund his projects, which required world travel on a massive scale. He began working with a panorama camera for clients and, ultimately, found an ideal exotic subject, one that worked perfectly with his panorama format of choice. When Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated a National Monument in 1996, he began seeing photographs of the immense, untapped, 1.9 million acres of virgin wilderness—the least-known landscape in the Lower 48.
“My interest in the deserts and canyons of the American Southwest was sparked fairly recently,” he says, “when I first saw images of the sinuous shapes and extraordinary colors of slot canyons, and the majestic rock formations of the Navajo Indian lands. I had traveled extensively throughout the world, but I had never been to the American Southwest. It seemed a lot easier to get to Page, Ariz., than Bhutan or Myanmar. As I started doing this research, I realized that it’s a perfect match. First of all, I don’t have to fly 24 hours to get to Bangkok and then fly another six hours to Bhutan, then take a truck another four hours… Although far from New York, it was a lot easier to access. I wouldn’t have to do 50-day expeditions. And then, as I did more research, I became obsessed with the exploration. I started to see images of landforms in the Grand Staircase and Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness that were as alien and fantastic as anything I had ever seen. They were truly otherworldly. Canyon Wilderness concentrates on these lesser-known areas.
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.”
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.”
White Pocket, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona. Fuji GX617 Panorama Camera, Fuji SWD 90mm ƒ/5.6, Fujichrome Velvia 50
Ortner’s studious approach is tempered by the spontaneity of nature, as well as the changing light in the landscape. The unplanned, the artistic, are equally valuable to the photographer who seeks a metaphysical connection with his images.
“It’s spiritual, it’s artistic, and it’s scholarly,” Ortner concludes. “And somehow I weave that all together to give my images meaning. And I’ve been lucky enough to find people who understood that. That has been the greatest part of my career. My greatest success has been finding those people. It doesn’t really matter so much how many books get sold. I think what matters ultimately is what art have you created?”
Jon Ortner is also the author and photographer of Buddha, Angkor, Where Every Breath Is A Prayer and Manhattan Dawn And Dusk. To see more of his photography, visit www.ortnerphoto.com. To learn more about Canyon Wilderness, visit www.welcomebooks.com/canyon wilderness and go to Look Inside.
For his new book Canyon Wilderness of the Southwest, Jon Ortner, who’s a film shooter, mostly used a Pentax medium-format camera and the Fuji GX 6x17cm panorama view camera. In the digital era, panoramas made with film have become anachronistic, but Ortner found that the Fuji camera and Fujichrome Velvia, as well as Kodak T-MAX, were the ideal tools. A devoted user of Tamrac bags to carry his gear, Ortner trekked deep into the backcountry with the Expedition 8x to get his images.