It’s half past night in the west and quarter till nautical sunrise in the east.
From my perch on a rugged outcrop along the Grandview Trail, I can see the split light of the deep dark in the west as it slants into the advancing, luminous blue from the east. Stars seem near to me in each segment, and yet each sky has its own intangible but identifiable moments of the rising light. Below me, my night sight picks out a glimmer of star shine on the trail’s slick rock, a mile-plus ledge overview hike in the Canyonlands National Park.
When I arrived thirty minutes ago, I claimed a flat dirt square of trail and set up my tripod. I am the only human here, perhaps for miles. With my camera focused on the receding night sky, I made a few exposures of the stars above the sandstone pinnacles, rock spires, and the dark nothingness directly below me. Now, I wait for a full-blown blue hour and a hopeful horizon when, for a few precious moments, the light will skid from cobalt blue to deep magenta.
While I wait in the dark, my mind is already in the light as I chew through thoughts of how I will make this image connect with my emotions and the emotional weight it may stimulate in viewers of this work. As an art photography teacher, I teach— demonstrate, lecture, tutor— that our photographs of the landscape have tremendous, though sometimes difficult to explain, expressive mass.
A Vision Beyond Documentation
In another three days, workshop students will join me on this trail. There is much to teach in this enormous red rock land. However, my lesson plans will not focus on negative space or compositional rules— plenty of time for that. I know that most of these students will see and capture comfortable moments of iconic images with precision cameras that frame the landscape into dynamic archetypes. After all, the Island in the Sky District of the Canyonlands National Park is filled with a paradise of iconic truth and beauty images.
They will explore formations on backcountry dirt roads with frequent stops at intermediate-range land crevices, find the light in the horseshoe bends of the Colorado River, and work their cameras as we find metaphors in the times past with cattle guards and fences. It’s a lot— it feels like everything, but it’s not. There is more.
And the ‘more’ I will teach is to reach, push, and pull to create images that are a personal vision beyond documentation.
Landscape Art is the Product of Connection
The Canyonlands landscape can overwhelm photographers as they see and feel the scenery for the first time. It will be essential for each of them to internalize that the true essence of landscape art lies not in the grandeur of the scenery but in the connection between the artist and the environment. It’s a journey of exploration, emotion, and expression, and the challenge for photographers is not just to capture the overwhelming beauty but to embed their emotions and perspectives into each frame to create expressive pieces of landscape art.
I’ll do my best to help each of them understand that Landscape Art must be visualized, intentionally captured, and thoughtfully processed to realize the photographer’s expressive beliefs and values.
A Hopeful Horizon
The blue hour has opened. I leave the lesson plans stirring in my head and leap off my perch. I fall in behind the tripod and begin to work the camera and work the scene with small changes in framing and exposure tweaks. A muted magenta light is forming as I connect with the cross-canyon cliff face that has a vanishing point in the still dark distance. I shoot into the limited time that nature is granting me.
The horizon rises from the dark. A magenta light is forming in the quickening blue hour.
I am Hopeful.
Bob Killen is the senior instructor for the Canyonlands National Park Masterclass workshop. Learn more about the class and download the workshop curriculum HERE.
If you’ve been to Canyonlands as a photographer, please leave your thoughts below!