I came to photography as a pilgrim. In my twenties and thirties, I was solitary, a seeker. I worked as a park ranger in Colorado and Utah, and I served my apprenticeship by writing and photographing interpretive booklets for the national parks.
I camped alone, looking through the viewfinder of my Nikon for patterns, for color, for epiphanies. I was searching for relationship—with the world, with people, with myself. I learned to look, to see, to find. I began to photograph the connections we make—the connections we take with us. Each click of the shutter could reveal and capture an insight, an observation, a story to bring back to my community and share.
Utah Wilderness 50 Photo Contest
It’s these kinds of stories—revealed in photographs—that we hope to see in the Utah Wilderness 50 Photo Contest. A couple of years ago, Jeff Clay, a fine photographer and a Sierra Club volunteer, approached me to brainstorm ideas for a photo exhibit to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2014. I helped Jeff develop the ideas that led to the Natural History Museum of Utah contest and exhibit. I’m honored to be judging the contest, along with two longtime colleagues in the conservation photography world with many decades of experience in photographing Utah wilderness: Tom Till and Jim Kay. We’ve just added a fourth judge, Rosalie Winard, best known for her impressionistic images of the birds of the Great Salt Lake.
For the Utah Wilderness 50 Photo Contest, we hope for 50 stunning photographs that capture the spirit of wild Utah. Utah has uniquely diverse landscapes—and I pause before I use the word "unique!" Four great North American ecoregions meet here: the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin Desert, and the Mojave Desert. From alpine tundra to Joshua tree forest, from salt flats and sagebrush to redrock canyons—there simply is no other state with this same array of wild country.
And we hope for broad diversity—not just in the photos themselves, but in the photographers too. I look forward to finding great photos in our submissions taken by a rancher out on the range, a BLM wildlife officer on patrol in the backcountry, a visitor from China, Kenya, or Egypt, an Outward Bound participant, a high school photography student in Cedar City, a retired schoolteacher who loves wildflowers. I’m looking to be pushed to edge of what a photograph can be by a creative photographer responding to Utah’s deserts in digital capture techniques I know nothing about. I can hardly wait to see what we get!
For inspiration when choosing your images for the Utah Wilderness 50 Photo Contest, and to strengthen your photographic eye, I encourage you to look at great work. Lots of photographs. Lots of variety. Look closely. Try to imitate—to reproduce—the work you love. Find mentors; take their workshops. You’ll always filter through your own sensibilities, so your work will be your own.
Words & Photographs Inspired by Utah Wilderness
Join us in celebrating the Wilderness Act: get out and explore, and then enter the Utah Wilderness 50 Photo Contest. Here’s a sampling of my own work that may give you some ideas. My vision as a photographer informs my writing—and my craft as a writer sharpens my eye as a photographer. Let me know what you think via comment or email.
Immersion. I take better pictures and write better prose when I know the subject. I’ve photographed at Capitol Reef ever since I was a ranger at the park in 1975. One recent summer day, rain began falling at the Visitor Center. I knew the storm was moving east; I knew where the floodwaters had to run off the slickrock; I knew where I had to be on the chance that rimfalls would plunge over the cliffs and into the Fremont River. I drove up and down Highway 24, waiting. The flood came, just as I hoped—and I was thrilled.
Stand in at least five places to compare perspectives (but try not to fall off of the Brian Head summit as you look back at Cedar Breaks). Move through a landscape and find the composition that captures the essence of the scene. In both writing and photography, "shine a flashlight" to illuminate the subject from several angles. Think about what each beam illuminates. Exploration leads to epiphany.
Compose Assertively. A writer reveals by nuance, implication, and detail—"telling it slant." A photographer avoids placing the central subject deadcenter. Control the photographic frame and written composition. Focus on the good stuff, leave out the bland. Keep the reader of prose and the viewer of photos thinking, moving, reacting (as they wind through Spooky Gulch in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument).
Writers strive to use active language; photographers wait for action in a scene. Just as I use active verbs when I write, I work to capture the action in a story I’m telling with photographs. This redtailed hawk defending its nest tells a more interesting story than a hawk perched on a snag.
Structure. Sometimes John McPhee diagrams an essay, imagining a lower-case "e”: opening with a dramatic moment, circling back to the narrative’s beginning, passing through the opener, to the end. I favor photographic compositions that trace an "S”— sweeping the viewer’s eye from foreground to background dynamically across scenes like this view from the top of Ibapah Peak in the Deep Creeks.
Wonderful scenes await if we only turn to look. Look up; look down; look behind you. Surprise the viewer, surprise the reader. Graphic details and telling dialogue surround us. Be playful, be interesting.
Find the story in the source. Choreograph the balance between style and information, research and voice. Visit the Cathedral in the Desert when Lake Powell drops in drought, and allow the sense of place to shine through your artistic vision. Absorb your research (know that this shaft of light is legendary); set it aside; and respond in words—or photographs—in your own voice.
Avoid generic images and empty language. "Beautiful" is meaningless. Look for contrast, specificity. Simplify wordy constructions for power. Distill landscapes to their essences—as I do here with details. Don’t bury the punchiest and best sentences. Highlight the most interesting colors, shapes, forms. The concrete has power and presence.
Don’t begin with exposition. Sneak in facts. Start with a scene. Take the reader/viewer with you. Write/photograph the easiest sections first—faces, details, abstract patterns—image by image, scene by scene. The opener—this aerial of Fremont Island, seen on the way back to the airport after a long flight over the Great Salt Lake--might be the last, and best, thing you capture!
In writing, as you omit needless words, your draft grows tighter and tighter. In composition, don’t waste any space, make the eye’s journey an interesting one. See patterns and beauty in the ordinary; do something new with a location as familiar as Delicate Arch--with a new perspective, with simple words. Place yourself in the path of opportunity.
UTAH WILDERNESS 50 PHOTO CONTEST: For more details and to submit photos, visit the Utah Wilderness 50 Photo Contest page. The contest is part of a larger national commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act to raise awareness of the value of wildlands to all Americans. The Utah Wilderness 50 Photo Contest is calling for all photographers to submit their five best photos of Utah’s public lands. Photographers don’t have to live in Utah and entries will be accepted from January 1st to March 15th. Help us celebrate—and let’s see those photos!