In the depth of canyons

August 28, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I have always loved hiking in open country. Until not too long ago I would not have even considered the possibility of hiking inside a canyon, surrounded by steep walls that don't let you see further than a few tens of meters on either side. For me, hiking meant a trail  going up to some peak with panoramic views. If most, or all, of the trail followed open slopes with expansive views, so much the better. What was the point of hiking along a canyon, enclosed by walls? I am not claustrophobic, but I consider myself to have a condition that I call "anti-agoraphobia" - I don't mind being indoors, but, if given the choice, I would much rather be outdoors. So this peak vs. canyon hiking was (is) quite possibly a reflection of this way of thinking: why would I be constrained by walls while hiking, if there are other places where the entire universe is the ceiling? During that time, too, photography for me meant shooting wide ranging panoramas and little else. In other words, a very immature view of photography.

Those times are, I want to believe, behind me. I am still strongly attracted to shooting wide-angle panoramic landscapes, but I have discovered, very belatedly, the photographic possibilities of many other natural environments. Among these are deep canyons with sheer rock walls and austere dryland vegetation. The American West is richly endowed in these environments, perhaps as no other place in the world. The Colorado Plateau is in a very real sense defined by them, but there are also some magnificent examples in the Great Basin, in the Mojave Desert, in the Chihuahuan desert, in the Rockies and even in the drier regions of the Pacific Northwest. 

Once you begin hiking canyons the photographic possibilities dawn on you. The play of light and shadows on canyon walls changes constantly as the day goes by. In contrast to photographing "in the open", when one is essentially constrained to short periods of good light in the early morning and late afternoon or evening, the light at the bottom of a canyon can be good at any time of the day. And if it is not, just keep walking, it may be good around the next bend. In some narrow canyons there may not be direct sunlight at the bottom even at noon, but the colors and textures of the walls are always there. Of course, I am not saying anything that has not been said many times before. I have not discovered anything new. It simply took me a very long time to find out by myself.

And the possibilities really multiply, the more you hike in canyons and come to enjoy them. You can concentrate only on the repertoire of shadows of varying intensities, perhaps with blotches of sunlight. Or you can work with the vegetation. Or with rocks strewn on the floor. Or focus on the maze-like geometry of many canyons. Or simply enjoy feeling small next to a massive wall carved by a stream that may only carry water once or twice a year.

So I have now been hiking canyons for some time. Given the choice, I still prefer my highland walks. But there is a very important place in my photography for the play of light on canyon walls. I know that there will be more to come.


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Photos, commentary and opinions by  Alberto Patiño Douce

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