Three Faces of White Mesa
It’s a real privilege to have the opportunity to photograph a good location in a variety of lighting conditions. At many of the remote areas I photograph, I’m generally stuck with whatever conditions my luck provides on a given morning or evening. So it’s a nice change to have somewhere relatively accessible for a quick visit when the weather looks promising.
This is White Mesa in Sandoval County, New Mexico. It’s a wonderful and spectacular place, at the south end of a geologic uplift that very visibly runs north to form the much higher Sierra Nacimiento, where the sedimentary layers of the Colorado Plateau fold up at the edge of the giant old volcano that is the Jemez Range. A short walk brings you to the edge of an enormous bowl, scooped by erosion out of the anticline, like a slice removed from a geologic watermelon. The west arm of the anticline forms a swooping, narrow ridge two miles long, known to local mountain bikers as the Dragon’s Back. Its crest is covered in crumbly spikes of gypsum, brilliant white in the midday sun, but apt to take on the color of the light at other times of day.
I knew well in advance that this was a morning location, as the steeper, more dramatic edge of the Dragon’s Back faces east, so I spent the night here after shooting the Rio Puerco volcanics the previous evening. I wanted to capture the graceful line of the formation as it runs north and merges into the Nacimiento escarpment. But this attempt was somewhat thwarted by low clouds to the east as a winter stormed moved into central New Mexico. I love photographing storm light. Colors can sometimes be surprisingly vivid under gloomy skies, and threatening clouds always make for an exciting image. But the lack of direct sunrise light on the Dragon’s Back didn’t work for the three-dimensional look I had in mind, though the colorful and convoluted geology comes across nicely.
So back I went last Friday morning, driving down in the dark to catch another dawn. I also love pre-dawn light; indeed, twilight may well be my favorite time to shoot, as the sky begins to glow and the landscape is flush with soft light, with no direct sunbeams to deal with. The pre-dawn gave me the top image of this post. Unfortunately, the light in the clouds faded by the time the sun hit, and I think a still better composition remains to be found, but it was a glorious sight to see the gypsum spine of the Dragon’s Back catch the first rays. A very satisfactory morning, but I might have to keep coming back till I strike the jackpot of first rays underneath properly dramatic clouds.