Sunday, November 08, 2020

Under a Big Sky

A dozen years ago I took an advanced Photoshop workshops from John Paul Caponigro at the Santa Fe Workshop. To say it was “advanced” is an understatement. John Paul, the son of legendary photographer Paul Caponigro, was already a master of Photoshop and led us through a labyrinth of techniques for which most of us were ill prepared. How I stayed above water is a mystery to me. I had basic PS skills gained from an adult education class at the high school in Conway NH but barely kept up. But all in all it was a great course that has held me in good stead ever since.

JP had asked us to bring examples of our work. I suppose that was to show the kind of photography we favored and our level as printers. Having come from a darkroom background I had a grasp of the basic digital darkroom. The only manipulations I performed back them were the ones I had done in the wet darkroom for fifty years; exposure, contrast and the occasional dodging and burning. I also toned my prints to warm them up. In the wet darkroom I used selenium toner and in the digital studio I learned to accomplish a similar result with Hue and Saturation. That little trick I learned from an LA art director while on a horsepacking trip to Canyon de Chelly a couple of years before. At the time of the Caponigro workshop I was specializing in still lifes, architecturals and the occasional portrait. There were a handful of landscapes in the package but nothing I emphasized at the time. That fact did not escape John Paul’s scrutiny as he declared, “Your landscapes are your weak point.” Duly chastened, I had to admit that was the case.

In the annals of 20th century photography landscapes loom large. We immediately think of Ansel Adams and the other mid-century masters from the f.64 school. And even if landscapes aren’t foremost in my mind even today, they do play a role. That’s especially true when terrestrial subject is enveloped by a monumental sky. An epic sky dwarfs even the most imposing cliff face. And it puts a dwelling, a pasture, a corral, or a human figure into perspective. We and what we have wrought are but specks in immensity of the cosmos.

I was approaching Grand Junction, CO as I drove west toward California’s Wine Country; an annual trek during the vendage or grape harvest. Two miles east of Grand Junction an imposing rock formation came into view. I got off at the next exit and wove my way through a middle-class neighborhood looking for the butte. At the height of land near the freeway I found a grassy hillock with a perfect view of Book Cliffs, so named for their appearance as bookshelves. The sun was descending so that every striation was revealed in glorious detail. The billowing sky above the imposing cliffs illustrated the partnership of earth and sky in creating the monumental landscape.

Darkness fell over Cow Springs, AZ on the Navajo Nation midway between Tuba City and Kayenta. The falling sun washed the row of trailers with a silver glow. It was oddly welcoming. The dusk turning black made the desert seem endless; a yawning empty with 27,413 tribal members strewn across 173,667 square miles of arid scrub. That calculates to 6.3 people per square mile. Manhattan has 67,000 people per square mile which lends some hard to grasp relativity. The Navajo reservation is the size of the state of West Virginia and has the population of Carlsbad, NM.

Driving back through Navajo Country and nearing the New Mexico border past Mexican Water a mesa north of US 160 glowed with the waning sun. Shafts of walking rain dropped a veil before the mountains in the distance.

A thirty-minute stroll from our house in the picture book village of Baudinard sur Verdon was a furrowed field glowing in the twilight. A painter’s sky whipped with wind brushed the scene with a late summer shimmer. The magic hour kissed the stone outbuilding. I photographed the timeless tableau then we ambled home for a local rosé under the grape arbor at our kitchen door.

We drove to nearby Villecroze for a recital at the Chapel of Saint Victoire. Featured was a symphony with all the parts written for and played by the bassoon. Wrap your mind around that unlikely evening; a bassoon symphony in a 15th century church with 80 of your closest friends. 

Before the performance we darted into a small shop and noticed a poster for an exhibition of English photographer, Michael Kenna. 

The next day we drove to Bargeme, 45 miles east to see it. The exhibition at Le Soufflé des Arts was excellent as expected. The surprise was Bargeme which we’d never have seen but for the McKenna show. That he’d even have an exhibit in a tiny, remote town was a puzzle. I later learned that the gallerist was a close friend of the artist. Bargeme at 1,097 meters the highest point in the Var; France’s richest department.  At the height of land or “belvedere” stood the ruins of a 12th century castle, Sabran du Ponteves. The storm swept sky amplified the power of the stone relic which had been left to decay after the religious wars from 1562 and 1598. The war between the Catholics and the Calvinist Huguenots cost three million lives.

From the house we shared with ten painters in the hamlet of Keremma, Brittany, Jacques Rousseau led us on a short walk to the Eglise Guévroc, a medieval chapel nestled in the sand dunes above the sea. Rousseau, the de facto mayor of the family owned village and the son of the military attaché to Algeria during the brutal Battle of Algiers, carried the only key to the gloriously situated church. Pierre told us the macabre history within its walls. They were built with enough space to bury the town's male decedents close to Saint Guévroc. It's a creepy backstory for such an idyllic setting.

Heading south on US 285 toward Cline’s Corners, I was on the hunt for dirt tracks leading into the prairie. As I photographed, I imagined that the deep ruts fading into the shallow hills to the east had been made by wooden wheeled wagons a century before. It wasn’t until I was processing the image that I recognized the contrails pointing into the frame. They made the photograph. Sometimes you only see what’s in front of you and the dawning comes later.

We had just left Wanblee, the headquarters of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The vast reservation encompasses Oglala Lakota County, the poorest in the country with 90% unemployment and 89% of its citizens living below the poverty line. There are no jobs and Pine Ridge has no natural resources or industry. It does have rampant alcoholism and drug addiction and little hope that it will improve. Its life expectancy is 66.8 years. Pine Ridge vies with Trona, California as the bleakest place I’ve visited in America. Both places exude a forbidding vibe, an ominous resentment I either felt or projected. There was palpable fear like I felt in Trona, a drug mecca in sprawling San Bernardino County. In Wanblee it was the simmering anger of despair. Wanblee and Trona feel like the Siberian steppes with a gulag loomed around the bend. Yet there’s a tragic beauty to Pine Ridge’s bleached emptiness.

In the high Moreno Valley 25 miles and 2,000 feet above Taos I came across a tumbledown corral in a high meadow. The Moreno Valley, Angel Fire and Eagle Nest are cattle country and is as close to Texas as you can get and still be in New Mexico. That I admit is a stretch. A lot of New Mexico could be part of Texas. In High Lonesome the sky is once again the difference maker. The swirling clouds complement the collapsing fence and soft grassy hillside. The elements in the image collaborate for the feeling of a day’s end on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristos.

This is the winter trailer or campo of The Last Shepherd, Victor Hernandez. It’s the 29th of January and the next day he’ll begin trailing his herd of 350 sheep back to the ranch in Mogote, Colorado. It will take two days and I’ll walk with him. Victor’s campsite sits on the Taos Plateau between the Pinabetoso Peaks. Look closely and you’ll see Victor’s bent figure next to his trailer. The sheep chomp on white sage along the hillside beyond him on the right. How small they all seem beneath the towering winter sky.

This post which includes images you've seen before is a draft of my November-December article in Shadow and Light Magazine.


Blacks Crossing said...

Another great blog, packed with information, history, and stunning photographs, Steve! Love the Book Cliffs shot, the belvedere castle Sandrade du Ponteves, and of course your long, long roads bleeding into the horizons. I am still trying to wrap my head about the bassoon symphony! Thanks for "Under a Big Sky". With luck, this will be in another issue of Shadow and Light!

Steve Immel said...

Thanks chica. Already is or the final edit has been done and I await the final layout for one last edit before it publishes. Thank you again for your steadfast support.

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