ESSAYS: ICONIC LANDSCAPES
and personal discoveries
Certain landscapes can alter our lives in deeply profound ways. They are so rich in form and fantasy, so suggestive of a separate reality, so far from the normal geometry, the normal texture and color, look and feel of our everyday lives that they cause us to view life differently. These are places that occupy a special niche in my imagination. Places that seem to mean more, or suggest more, or sometimes even symbolize more than just another beautiful spot ought to. Iconic landscapes.
The history of landscape photography is in part a story of such iconic landscapes. Yosemite and Carmel exercised a fierce hold on an early generation of American landscape masters. A later generation discovered Antelope Canyon, and the twisting world of southwestern slot canyons. Bruce Barnbaum was perhaps the first serious fine-art photographer to respond to the eroded magic of slot canyons with intense black and white compositions. Having only seen a few black and white images when I first visited Antelope Canyon about 20 years ago, I was unprepared for the fiery reds and golds of this hidden landscape beneath the surface of the Colorado plateau. I was fortunate to discover these places so early. This was long before Navajo guides put up ladders and began to charge entrance fees, long before Antelope Canyon became a mandatory stop on the southwest’s sandstone photo circuit. I remember rappelling down into Lower Antelope on climbing ropes, past coiled rattlers in dried mudpockets, and asking myself how such a hidden landscape could be.
My response was classic: investigate, explore, and return again and again, each visit deepening the way I looked at these swirling fins and crevasses of subterranean rock, and changing the way I was able to photograph them. The sinuous, twisting, slot-canyon, sculpture garden that was Antelope canyon kept me hooked for years. Once you stumble on such an iconic landscape, you have to come back. Your photographs are good, but not yet good enough. With each visit the latent image of this mysterious landscape that you carry inside you becomes clearer, sharper, truer. Finally with enough work and enough images, you have made it you own. The fascination doesn’t go away, but somehow the obsession is tamed. The urgency needed to wrestle with the elements of that place is reduced. This iconic landscape you fell in love with is still other-worldly but that “other world” has become your world. And then?...
Nothing, it seems, lasts forever. Landscapes too, even the strangest and most powerful, landscape can grow tired, predictable and ultimately repetitive after being photographed by hundreds of photographers. Even such iconic landscapes. This, I suppose, is the price we pay for loving them, and photographing them too hard, too much.
And just how many such personal discoveries should a photographer hope for? Encountering one fresh iconic landscape is already a lot. Twenty years after my first visits to the slot canyons near Page Arizona, and then the eroded fantasies of Coyote Buttes, I found myself wondering if I would ever find any other virgin mysterious landscape that would move me quite as much, any other fresh new place that would so completely capture my photographer’s imagination... Against all odds I did.
The marble caverns of Lago Carrera were just such a discovery, just such a new iconic landscape. Unexpected. Complex. Constantly changing with the seasons, the weather, the time of day. Constantly challenging and rewarding. A photographic inspiration that has teased my vision for a few years already and whose attraction shows no sign of diminishing. A real iconic landscape — the slot canyons of the far south.
How far south? Central Patagonia. 47 degrees south. Six and a half hours drive from the nearest city, far enough. Far enough to seem like a real destination. Or sometimes a pilgrimage. Lago Carrera in Chile—across the Argentine border to the east it is called Lago Buenos Aires—is the second largest lake in South America (after Lake Titicaca). It is a shinning sweep of turquoise water, arcing from glaciers and icefields on the west to vast pampas on the east; fed by melting glaciers so the water level can vary more than a meter at different times of year. And not quite a wilderness, although definitely a frontier. Puerto Tranquilo is tiny town at the northwest corner of this lake. Think Big Sur in 1900. The locals have discovered that they can make some extra pesos guiding visitors to see the cavernas de mármol, the marble caverns, in small boats. Pedro Contreras and his son Jony, are the masters of this guiding game. Jony is a subtle artist with the outboard motor on his small boat or bote. He delights in easing the boat into tight slots, under low roofs, and around columns. Patience itself; he holds his small boat motionless, suspended over transparent turquoise gulfs, as long as you want, as long as you need. Hour after hour.
And you really do need time, and patience, and persistence to make friends with this watery blue landscape. I’ve found the marble caverns of Lago Carrera to be amazingly analogous, although strikingly different from the slot canyons of Arizona. They are also caverns of living light—bouncing, reflecting, echoing light. But the light itself, the color of this light is 180 degrees from the glowing warmth of a desert sun striking desert rocks. The marble caverns are a private world of cool blues. Many blues. Shimmering, trembling, echoing blues, blue-greens, turquoise and teal and cyan. Light trapped inside the glacial melt water, under the water, and rippling and reflecting off grey and white veined marble. Pure marble hollowed out by centuries of water-level wave action. But just as in the slot canyons, light that refuses to stay still, always moving and dancing.…
The time was right for me to stumble into this coastline honeycombed with marble caverns, passages, free-standing formations. Because on my first trip to the marble caverns—a few years ago—I already had a digital SLR around my neck. With film I would have given up. I couldn’t even have started. Flash would not have worked. The caves are too large to light with an on-camera flash, plus there are too many reflective planes of water and marble. Tripods are out of the question when you are working from a boat. And ISO 800 and 1600 became de rigeur to “light” these dim watery passageways between curving marble walls. This place was made for digital, I thought, on that first trip into the marble caverns. And every succeeding trip I have been able to pull more light, more detail, more sharpness out of these dim, mysterious other-worldly marble passageways. Another one of Nature’s sculpture gardens. Another iconic landscape. Unexpected and undeserved, but not unappreciated. Another opportunity to explore both a landscape, and my own deepening reaction to it. Another gift.
WESTERN EYE PHOTOGRAPHY
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