Today, I embarked on an adventure with a group of hikers and explorers, and we spent the day exploring miles of slot canyons, many of which were new to me, and most of which were unnamed and relatively or completely un-photographed. All this in places most Californians are unaware exist at all, much less in their own state, even less their own county!
We were joking about how we could all go back home and when friends asked us what we did over the weekend, we'd say, "Oh, a bunch of Indiana Jones type stuff, you know…" To which they would respond, "Haha yeah right, that boring, eh?" Well, here's a small bit of proof for the doubters! Haha.
The more we explored, the more slot canyons we found. We soon felt as though we were in the midst of a massive living organism, the arteries and veins of which were the slot canyons. In a way, that's a good metaphor. Slot canyons exist in the desert, and are entirely formed by rain - the fewer than 5 inches of rain that falls in an average year. These rains feed an entire desert ecosystem, much of which depends on those rains for opportunities for resupply or reproduction. Often, it is not the average rain that creates them, but rather one massive deluge from a thunderstorm lasting mere minutes which creates the powerful and violent flash floods which rage through these arteries in the rock, filling them with water, rock, and mud in seconds. If you've ever seen a video of a mudslide, you can get a small idea of the sheer power of these flash floods. Often after a single flash flood, a canyon may be scarcely recognizable in places because of the transformation. The flood will raise or lower the floor of the canyon, change the shape of the walls, move boulders around, and more. All in just minutes.
Perhaps most incredible, however, was not the canyons at all, but the strata they were formed inside of. The entire area was composed of wildly varied layers of conglomerate, sandstone and mudstone, which were layered in strata with layers of stone pebbles embedded in them arranged vertically or on various steep angles of say 45-80 degrees! Further, the layers were curved or wavy. Now, gravity only goes one way, straight down. So you need to realize what this implies: that this entire area was soft mud, all at the same time, at one point in time, and then that mud was violently pressurized, forcing it into these shapes, before the waters receded and they dried, forming the stone we see today. Only then could the flash floods even begin their work crafting these masterpieces.
The light that fills these canyons makes them incredibly varied and beautiful to behold. The key to the colors is very simply reflected light. The sun shines directly on upper and exposed areas of the canyon, which then reflect that light in a bright golden color into the shaded areas. Each time the light bounces off a canyon wall, a portion of the color spectrum is lost, which has the effect of making each opposing wall reflect a different hue, with the walls working their way through the color spectrum from warm oranges to cold blues.
The human eye can see at least a portion of this effect, which makes a walk through these canyons in good light a thing of beauty to behold. Usually, most people don't take the time to allow their eyes to adjust to the light and really be mindful and present to observe the colors, so they miss out. This is why it is important not to rush through but to take your time and really be observant and in the moment, rather than rushing to much to see what is around the next bend.
Modern cameras really excel at capturing these color subtleties. However, you might not realize this because they generally try to "compensate" for the "too warm" or "too cold" colors, by automatically adjusting their white balance to cancel out the effect in an effort to maintain color neutrality. Further, they are programmed to expose the scene to an average value of 18%. This is great for creating a balanced exposure, but it all but ensures that the contrast of the scene will not be ideal. With bad contrast, the human eye is unable to correctly judge colors, which makes for a bad image and viewing experience.
So as part of my post-capture workflow, I manually adjust the color spectrum and black and white points to bring out the best of the color spectrum and contrast that was present there and accentuate it in a way that the human eye can easily appreciate.
This also gives me an opportunity to bring my artistic vision to the scene so that I as an artist can show you what I visualized in the field. My goal is rarely (if ever) to bring you a robotic representational image that is enslaved to some Japanese engineer or programmer's (the people who made the camera) algorithmic interpretation of reality, but rather to bring to life a pre-visualized work of art that conveys what I felt there in that moment.
I feel that it is extremely important to differentiate between representational photography and fine art photography, as the two are to photography as objective journalism and subjective fantasy novels are to writing. Each has its place, but while one is limited to the conveyance of literal facts, the other allows us to bring our creativity and humanity to bear in order to show others a world as we envision it in our mind's eye. This is the role of art in photography.
It is through art that photography can transcend its limited existence as a technical capture medium, and ascend to a higher one as a medium of creative expression. When photographers say things like, "I am just in the right place at the right time," or "I'm just operating the camera, nature or fate makes the scene," they mislead viewers and do humanity a disservice by eliminating artistic interpretation and creative vision – the vital human elements – from the equation. If a drone could have been programmed to make the image, why was a human needed at all? Humans bring creativity and imagination to the table, and those very things make the image and give it emotional meaning and relevance.
As a result, the fine art world often fails to take photography seriously as an art medium, and who can blame them when we have a lot of self-professing robotic machinery operators producing and selling images, and placing emphasis on automated technology rather than inspired artistry? An artist with a camera can and should use it in much the same way a illustrator uses a pen or a painter uses a brush, and should not be ashamed to do so. This is the role of humanity in photography.