Intimate Landscapes in Apache Kid

I naturally gravitate towards grand landscape images: sweeping views, expanses, towering cliffs, verticality, apocalyptic lighting, warfare in the clouds. I love it. I generally prefer the sublime to the bucolic, the epic to the lyric, adventure to repose. It’s no surprise that my photographic ambitions reflect these inclinations. When I go out shooting, what I usually have in mind is evening or morning light on craggy pinnacles, viewed from the edge of a precipice.

For such an agenda, New Mexico’s Apache Kid Wilderness should fit the bill. Rugged and remote (two of my favorite adjectives), the wilderness area encompasses a massif of volcanic crags jutting steeply up out of vast acres of empty New Mexico grasslands. When I first visited last May, my grand landscape predilection was well rewarded. But not every hike gives such photographic opportunities, however promising the terrain.

When I visited Apache Kid for the second time a week ago, instead of heading for the range crest (snowbound from a terrific El Nino winter), I decided to explore the Indian Creek drainage. I had no idea precisely what I’d find, but the map showed some really tight clusters of contour lines bunching together into a knot of twisted canyons below broken peaks: grand landscape country if ever there was.

But the spectacular sweep of broken country that appears to our eyes often translates into chaos in the camera frame, and such was the case here. Grand landscapes need harmonious compositions and flowing lines to work, and jumbled terrain and vegetation tend to cause serious compositional problems. This is why a very high percentage of eye-popping landscape photos focus on either mountains above treeline or slickrock. But jumbled terrain and scraggly vegetation are among Apache Kid’s defining features. Despite an abundance of splendid dramatic scenery, as I hiked Indian Creek, I was really not seeing much compositional potential on a large scale, not even if I hung around till evening. Scrambling about looking for high perspectives offered a little more hope, but it’s very rough country off the trail: rock fins topped with stony sawteeth, unstable talus and thoroughly inimical plant life. Bushwhacking down after shooting the sunset would have been unwise at best.

But it’s always good to be forced to break with one’s photographic habits. A lot of the appeal of grand landscapes is the idea of reproducing the sweeping immensity of a view. This is always an illusion; no camera or technique, however wide the panorama, really reproduces a mountain vista whole and unchanged, though a skillful composition can make the illusion very convincing. But instead of depicting a place’s essence by capturing its entirety, one can work towards collecting that essence a piece at a time. That’s what intimate landscape photos are all about.

Intimate landscapes occupy a middle zone: they have a smaller scale than spreading clouds and sweeping ridges, but they take in more than a fine detail or a still life. They’re scenes big enough to walk into, but too small to get lost in. A common rubric has it that they’re landscapes which leave out the sky, and this is largely true, though I wouldn’t consider it anything like a hard and fast rule. Westerners like me tend to pass them up for larger things, and my portfolio is rather weak on them; but photographers in the east and other regions where it’s hard to get above the treetops sometimes shoot little else.

In any case, they’re the ideal solution to grand landscape frustration such as I experienced in Apache Kid. Once I gave up on finding the perfect overlook and began hiking out, my mind shifted down a gear. As I walked through a beautiful, shaded dogleg of sheer-walled I canyon, I thought about how one would describe the place by telegraph. Trees and stone; dry pebbles in the creek bed; reflected light; oaks and ponderosas and lichen; pools by rocky walls. These I could try and capture.

Like most photography, intimate landscapes generally rely on simplification and elimination. Less is more. This is largely the case for grand landscapes too, but I personally find grand landscapes a bit more amenable to counterpoint and harmony between multiple elements. My intimates work best when I narrow the scope to include only a couple features. But I should note that this principle does not equate to a narrow field of view lens-wise. My preference for wide-angle lenses pertains to intimates as well. This makes sense once you realize that wide-angles are meant for getting close at least as much as for getting it all in.

Of course, as I hiked out in the fading light I couldn’t resist a last grab shot of the canyon. Indian Creek definitely has plenty of untapped grand landscape potential. I just need more time to find it!

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