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Land Art

Join Frans Lanting, Tom Mangelsen and Art Wolfe for a unique weekend seminar of photographic inspiration in Denver, April 12-14, 2013. Sign up at

Few places on earth match the scenic wonders of the American Southwest. Many of its most iconic features are preserved in parks that have been documented by countless photographers. Finding a new point of view on that well-traveled ground can be challenging.

But when you get up into the air, a fresh set of possibilities comes into view. I’ve learned it pays off to make a plan before I charter a plane to reduce burning up flying time. I had browsed through geology textbooks of the region, and marked some places on the map that looked intriguing.

One freezing February morning I took off with a pilot in a small Cessna. These light aircraft have been workhorses in the air for decades. They’re reliable, and their high wing construction yields good opportunities for photography. Sometimes I fly with the passenger door off for a less obstructed view, but on this cold winter day that wasn’t an option. A simple screwdriver, however, allowed the passenger window to be opened all the way.

My destination on this flight was a landscape near the Four Corners region that was tortured by eons of upheaval. When we got there the sun was still low above the horizon, which cast deep shadows that enhanced spectacular contours. A scientist would have marveled at the geologic intricacies, but to me, the zigzag forms of uplift and erosion and the boldly defined colors reminded me of a Navajo design. We circled around a number of times before zeroing in on an area whose warm red sandstone layers were complex in themselves, but the countervailing patterns of white snow reflecting cool blue sky added another, almost surreal, dimension. I captured many grand views that morning, but in the frame I like best the horizon is cropped out, which transforms the image from being a record of a specific place into an abstract expression of land art.

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.