Capturing Time

Not much is known about the ancient people who lived around 5,000 years ago in the American Southwest, but they left haunting expressions of themselves and their spirit world as rock paintings scattered throughout the secluded canyons of the Colorado Plateau. I made a pilgrimage to one of the most impressive sites, deep inside Canyonlands National Park. Hiking there turned into a journey back in time, as I descended from high tablelands hundreds of feet down into a long valley of sandstone walls, a geologic storybook carved by water through the ages.

Coming upon the ghostly figures at the end of the hike is an unforgettable experience. Painted high on the wall, they seem to float above the canyon floor, giving them a supernatural aura. These stylized, anthropomorphic forms are the hallmark of the Southwest’s earliest known rock art, and their true meaning remains a mystery.

I sat quietly for a while, contemplating my options for how to photograph this eerie gallery of figures. Showing them up close was one possibility, but that approach seemed too simplistic, so I backed off from the rock wall to look for a meaningful context. Widening my camera view revealed the horizontal lines of geologic time more clearly, and also enabled me to incorporate the figure of my wife as a silent observer whose shape echoed those in the rock paintings, but anchored the scene in the present. Backing off even farther allowed me to include a cottonwood tree in my composition, with its foliage rippling in the breeze. That motion gave me another idea. I put my camera on a tripod and attached a graduated neutral-density filter to my lens, which made it possible to extend my exposure in broad daylight to several seconds. The final image brings together several dimensions of time—geologic, historic and present-day—and as a wind gust tossed the cottonwood leaves, the movement added a notion of ephemeral time.

Sign up now for one of Frans Lanting’s new photo workshops for 2010 at his studio in coastal California. Visit for more details.

Frans Lanting has been hailed as one of the great nature photographers of our time. For more than two decades he has documented wildlife and our relationship with nature in environments from the Amazon to Antarctica. He portrays wild creatures as ambassadors for the preservation of complete ecosystems, and his many publications have increased worldwide awareness of endangered ecological treasures in the far corners of the Earth.