The American Landscape is a vast array of interlinked details and immense wide-open spaces compressed into a web of real and imagined suggestions. Every location is its own special vision or nightmare, filled with all of those huge, clear and unique details that are exquisite and crystal clear while you are in it, but then you try to imagine the details and convey them as photographs—its then that they all slip into a white fog and seem just a bit beyond the reach of your imagination or creative abilities. No doubt the places are there, you were there… and in there you saw the limitlessness of the land, and you sensed with your own intuition so many visual connections… but then, as you try to steer the visions in your head, the landscape narrative gets all chaotic and the connecting details too complicated to sort, remember and navigate.
So then how the hell are you supposed to capture with your camera something that you can’t possibly describe in words but only feel anyway? You can crank out some low life, default and hapless snapshots but none of them can do visual jack compared to what you saw and felt. More often than not, you, I and we simply leave the location(s) or projects with your feeling, your intuitive knowing… your sense of what you want to express stuck like an incomplete story plot… deep inside your head and on the edge or your heart.
And yet as an art photographer you know that you don’t quit, you go back and get into the wind. So off you go, and the gusts roar past your ears and say, “shoot it again, feel the fear in post and do it.” Out and down the road you go, propelled, pushed and pulled as trail dust and sunrise lights your way. Once again you are exploring what you see, feel and ultimately work to finish.
I feel all these psychological constructs in the first person as I work a Hoodoo landscape art photography theme. It is a visual and logistical challenge, and I have been working with this geological phenome steadily, but the project is in the early stages and not fully committed or accepted. Given the preliminary nature of the work, I thought I would write several posts over the next six months or so and share the process I use to decide to complete or abandon a thematic project.
It all begins with research and if you have never met a ‘Hoodoo’ let me introduce you.
Hoodoos are solitary spires of rock that have an eroded sand-mud like column and a more resistant cap on top and often look like toadstools. They are more totem pole like then geological pinnacles with color variations throughout their length. These gravity-defying formations are commonly found on the Colorado Plateau and appear in abundance in the northern section of Bryce Canyon National Park, The Devil’s Garden in The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Goblin Valley near Hanksville, Utah.
When found in groups such as in Bryce or Goblin Valley, hoodoos generate an eerie, spooky feeling and while no one is certain of where the “hoodoos” name originated many historians attribute the term to the Paiute Indians,who inhabited much of the plateau for hundreds of years before the arrival of European explorers. In their lore, they claim hoodoos are ancient “Legend People” who were turned to stone as punishment for bad deeds. While there is ample evidence that the Paiute lived in these areas, there is no evidence of them living among the Hoodoos as they feared the magical, mystical, spiritual, stone ghosts might cast spells on them.
As a landscape art photographer, I found myself under their spell and enchanted with their shapes, textures and sometimes human likeness. Lighting, particularly pre-dawn and first light, emphasizes a filigree of stonework with whites and pinks that present as glowing embers. In some locations such as Bryce Canyon, it seems as if we are among a playground of childhood fairies. In Goblin Valley, early morning light creates soft shadows and the Goblins, which are much smaller hoodoos in height then found in Bryce or Escalante, seem engaged in deep, secretive conversations with each other. As the light turns brighter and redder one senses a smoldering inferno where goblins and demons might dwell among flames and embers. It is easy to understand what the Paiute saw— they visualized a deathly fate if they ventured among the hoodoos. On the other hand, interpreting what the camera sees is more of a challenge for I need to visualize how to translate what I feel which is more then I see, and thus I am visualizing the post-production work as I capture images.
CONCEPTUALIZING THE THEME WORKFLOW
After completing my background research, I began the theme development process with concept photographs, which are snapshot-like images, taken quickly as a stream of consciousness exercise, one where I let my eyes quickly connect with whatever is in visual range. I use one single focal length lens or a short zoom such as 24-105 mm. I’ve been ‘snapping’ concept photographs of Hoodoos for more than a year, and while these snapshots may seem trivial and with little purpose, it is the process of capturing these images that is important for it helps develop intuitive visual connections. During this exercise I work the camera and quickly try angular compositions, exposure brackets, compositional construction, focus points and eventually what I see will speak to me— or not. I Work the Scene as well and explore sky and ground dominate approaches and take time to see the scene cinematographically with subject closeups, medium views, and wide Grand Scenic images.
We all see, and I have seen and photographed many hoodoos in several locations, but I’m past seeing— now I’m looking. Nonetheless, I have not yet defined a theme because emotionally I am overwhelmed with the shapes, light, textures and not sure what I feel. In my journal I write random, often disjointed questions, make notes
about future capture approaches, and I rough in some thoughts about post-production directions. At this point, I am exploring several concepts and let me share a few notes from my journal (reading my handwriting is problematic).
- Human characteristics found in the Goblin Valley Stones, less so in other
- Literal approach is so geological— not me.
- Spiritual values seem apparent… integral in some shapes and light. Need to consider plans for various lighting and atmospherics. Desert light goes flat quickly after sunrise. Contrast inducement?
- Examine the blue hour and night.
- Reduce chaos in compositions. Experiment with tactile qualities.
- Is this an abstract shape story?
- Does minimalism apply?
- What relationships mix with what—don’t know
- Comparatives between hoodoo locations. Is this possible? Maybe not— might be one location per portfolio.
- Maybe a mini portfolio per location. All are hoodoos but of different nations, ethnics or communities… six from Devil’s Garden, six from Bryce, six Goblins, maybe Cathedral Valley north. Seems possible… I’m visualizing the pages—
- Potential for mentor project… maybe.
- Not yet visualizing the art. Imagining some ghostly approaches with layers and blend modes.
- Leaning into the spiritual values more than the tactile and shape. Upon further consideration: starting to see lots of brushwork in post. Still no sense of visual commitment. Unclear about relationships.
- Shoot shoot and test. Go back and back.
For me sketching is often helpful.When I sketch, I work on shapes and notes about light, and for the most part, I am not concerned with accurate illustration. I find that crude drawings often help clarify my thoughts and when coupled with concept photos I get a stronger sense of direction for future capture and post-production sessions. I made several sketches while working in Goblin Valley noting the miniature nature of the stonework
EXPANDING EMOTIONAL RANGE
Hoodoos have default appearances that are rugged, strong, unique and I think gender neutral. These photographs work well and often find themselves on the walls of hotels in Red Rock (Utah) country. They function as informational decorations or as framed illustrations of the enchanting landscape just down the road.
As art photographers, our goal is to transcend representational illustrations and to create images filled with personal and subjective expressions. I periodically review my Hoodoo snapshots and experiment with post-production approaches and share work in progress ideas with others and I learn from their reactions and comments. In these preliminary reviews, it quickly becomes apparent that people seem freer to think about the relationships in the images than about the subject matter for its own sake. The Hoodoos have an intrinsic narrative value even in quickly captured snapshots, and
my early post work leans towards the spiritual values as the Paiute people saw them.
WHERE TO NOW?
One of the great difficulties facing art photographers today is that almost any subject matter has accumulated a representational visual history, especially in this age of phone cameras and their instant gratification of selfies of “I/we were there.” The art photographer must go further and ask the question “but where were you— really or unreally— and why.” Thus, we need to find a new displacement, a space to drift around the subject and then pursue thematic matters, and that is a real challenge. For me, if I know too much, I tend to create illustrative narratives that are well-formed, and while they are often well received, I’m not in the business of creating or teaching others how to shoot documentation.
One of the great difficulties facing art photographers today is that almost any subject matter has accumulated a representational visual history, especially in this age of phone cameras and their instant gratification of selfies of “I/we were there.” The art photographer must go further and ask the question “but where were you— really or unreally— and why.” Thus, we need to find a new displacement, a space to drift around the subject and then pursue thematic matters, and that is a real challenge. For me, if I know too much, I tend to create illustrative narratives that are well-formed, and while they are often well received, I’m not in the business of creating or teaching others how to shoot documentation. With this early stage Hoodoo theme, I sense an ambiguity between the ordinary and the extraordinary and I recognize that Hoodoos are geological wonders and, in some light, and weather atmospherics I can create images that jump off the wall and self-detonate with dramatic color and tactile qualities. Those are story images with more depth than ‘good pictures,’ but I am working to create images that are on the visual edge between narrative and expressive navigation— that is something more and at this stage defining more is problematic, and challenging.
Right now, I sense and seek the spirit of the Paiute Legend People, but in the soft shadows and knife edge highlights something else seems to wait for a visual release.
Onward into the visual winds.