Musings on: bonsai landscapes in the US south-west
For my first article about the western desert of the US, a few thoughts about how preconceptions of landscapes, as well as the circumstances in which we visit them, can affect our approach to photography – well, my approach at least, but I’m daring to assume that I’m not unique in this!
No, ‘Bonsai landscape’ is not the most usual description of the south western desert area of the US! My alternative title to this piece was:
‘Musings on: how over-familiarity, equipment availability, and travelling style affect the way we view landscapes’
…. but that was a teeny bit verbose; not to mention that I like the term ‘bonsai landscape’ to describe the very small areas, often with tiny bushes in them, which I seem to have photographed predominantly whilst there.
I’ll step back here and provide a bit of context.
I’ve just returned from a road-trip touring around various ‘big ticket’ sites in California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah, centred around Las Vegas as a convenient and pleasingly bizarre place to enter and exit the US. The thing is, it wasn’t a photographic tour, it was a non-solo, driving holiday, and the point was to ‘see the sights’, which meant Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, Antelope Canyon, the Canyon de Chelly and all sorts of less well-known things en route. I’ve written before about the incompatibility of ‘serious’ landscape photography and non-photographer companions, so I reluctantly chose to take just a camera body, two small, light lenses and one [polarising] filter. My graduated filters, the two lenses I use for most of my images, and my tripod all stayed at home.
The effect of this was interesting.
- Firstly, and not surprisingly, it avoided all the problems I’d imagined, had I taken all the normal kit and gone with ‘intent to photograph’: no issues with anyone else having to wait around whilst I set up shots and waited for changes in light, and the big benefit of not having much to carry around either!
- Secondly – and this is the more interesting result, and the subject of this musing – I ended up making very different images, in general, from those I’d expected to concentrate on.
Tiny elements of a vast landscape
The south-western desert area of the United States is a huge landscape, characterised by vast skies, monoliths, and deep canyons – the sort of thing which lends itself to big vistas. That impression is reinforced by a quick on-line search, where the photographic results which come back are predominantly ‘big stuff’ with ‘impressive skies’. I have very few of those shots. Yes, I do have some, but I have considerably more detail shots. And it’s not even medium level detail, the type of thing I generally find myself capturing; they’re real detail of landscape elements measured in single digit metres across the frame – not something I’ve done much of before. Whether I shall again is another question…. I like the results, but I think I prefer my normal work, such as ‘Plateau’, below.
At the time, I didn’t notice what I was doing….
I recognised this concentration on detail for the first time whilst doing initial processing on the captures I made during the trip. Prior to that, I’d not been at all aware that I was behaving differently, in terms of what I photographed, from normal.
I think there are three reason for this – temporary! – change in subject matter:
- Equipment availability
- I had no wide angle lens: my widest was 35mm on Nikon DX format, or about 50mm full frame equivalent; not exactly wide. I had no tilt-shift lens, no tripod, and no graduated filters: all these things are essential to how I normally take photographs, so, inevitably, I couldn’t do what I would typically do. Instead, I gave up on real front-to-back sharpness, any idea of including sky, and any exposure longer than about a 30th of a second. OK, so the sky aspect was no great change – I often exclude it, as discussed before – but the other two things were!
- Time availability
- Generally, I’ll hang around at a site for at least an hour, and more often two or three, making a single capture. Doing that sort of thing at every location on a long road trip would have been…. let’s say ‘not sociable’, nor productive in terms of the primary objective of ‘seeing lots of things’. As a consequence, most of my images took a matter of a minute or less to see, compose and shoot – a bit of a difference from my usual approach.
- Over-familiarity with the landscape
- I think this is the most significant factor. The two above are both strong, practical arguments for a different approach, and consequently for a different set of take-home images, but this is the one which, I can see now, really drove the change.
I don’t mean that I’d been to these places before; I hadn’t. Yet, with these iconic and stunning locations being both heavily photographed and included in innumerable feature films, I found myself acutely and accurately aware of what I was going to see before I arrived in most places. It’s great, for example, to have seen Monument Valley in the real stone (and the real snow, and the real ice, and the real, very bitter, wind), but I didn’t exactly learn anything new, visually, from being there. It looks as it does in the films, and many people have made excellent images of the mesas through a combination of familiarity and repeated visits. I wouldn’t seek, or be able, to emulate those. Essentially, in one day, I didn’t feel that I could add anything on the vista scale.
These three things conspired to make me concentrate, unknowingly at the time, on small elements of the overall photographic possibilities in each place
Lack of time and kit meant that compositions were necessarily simple and quickly made, and my reluctance to try and capture the vast vistas in a manner which was new, or improved upon, existing work, led to abstract and detailed shots. These will, I’m sure, remind me of the trip very well indeed, despite the fact that relatively few of them could be placed on a map with any certainty. Given that ‘making memories’ was the main point of my photography on this trip, that’s fine!
In retrospect, perhaps all of the above was obvious: perhaps I could have predicted the type of capture I’d make? Maybe so, but I didn’t, and discovering this after the fact is quite enlightening – it’s another new thing to add to my gradually increasing understanding of the photographic process as a whole.
It does, of course, mean that, in future, I shall be more aware of the possibilities of different styles – or at least of different choices of subject matter – emerging when I travel in different circumstances, with different equipment, and with overall different objectives from ‘serious photography’. Personally, I think that’s great: change and new revelation in any pursuit is, I strongly believe, a good thing, and it maintains interest :-)
I’m sure much of the above is painfully obvious to many people reading this….. If so, thanks for reading this far! This journal is, as I’ve said before, aimed at recording my progress as a newcomer to landscape photography, and this really was quite a major revelation to me, whether it should have been or not!