100 Days of National Parks: Day 51 – Mesa Arch Sunrise, Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch Sunrise

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One of the great challenges that I find as I travel and advance my photography career, is fighting the ever-present threat of desensitization to the beauty of the places I go and photograph.  It hasn’t happened yet, though I’ve felt it creeping in, in amazingly beautiful places that I’ve been to several times, or seen in countless photos from other artists I admire.  There are certain places that seem almost over-shot, places that you’ve seen countless times online or as prints in galleries, and so seeing them in person loses some of its luster, and photographing them almost becomes a chore.  I’ve seen it in other photographers, arriving at a spot just to shoot it and get it over with, the passion and spark that led them to chasing those shots in the first place replaced with irritation at the process of capturing it.

There are a few places where I find this feeling particularly evident.  Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon, Glacier Point in Yosemite and Multnomah Falls outside of Portland, Or.  These are places that are emblazoned on the shared visual memory of the American traveler, places that have been so heavily photographed in every possible condition, that going and shooting them becomes almost cursory, a detached, dispassionate experience that inevitably fails to capture the spirit of the place you’re trying to photograph.  Mesa Arch in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park is perhaps the best example of this malaise that I can think of, probably because of the experience I had when shooting this photo.

I had long avoided Island in the Sky, located just outside of Moab, CA, because it was the more popular section of the park, and dominated primarily by sweeping overlooks of the scarred floor of the Colorado and Green River canyons.  I’ve always preferred exploring from the base of a canyon rather than looking out over it, to feel dwarfed and engulfed by the canyon walls, rather than have a birds-eye perspective on it.  When I finally opted to go check out the more well-traveled section of Canyonlands, Mesa Arch was a primary target for me, precisely because it was a place that I, as an aspiring professional landscape photographer, had no photos of.  Every photographer I knew had a shot of sunrise or sunset through the arch on the east rim of the mesa, and its ubiquity made its absence all the more glaring from my own portfolio.

I set out for the arch around 4am on a cold morning in mid-April, and reached the site in the darkness of the pre-dawn hours, and set up my tripod to take a shot of the sunrise through the natural frame.  I was soon joined by another photographer, then another, until soon there were almost two dozen of us, all lined up with tripods about a dozen feet from the arch, all waiting for the sun to illuminate the eastern sky, thumbs ready on our cable-releases.  I’d never felt like more of a tourist, more of a hack artistically.  All the other photographers, some of them, through their own thinly veiled bragging, quite accomplished, had been out there before.  All of them were going through the motions.  None of them were appreciating the scene that was unveiling itself in front of them.

The sky lightened, and it became clear that the sky would not be so clear.  Thin clouds stretched like ribbons above us, vestiges of the storm that had passed through two nights prior, and heavier cover lined the eastern horizon obscuring the sky behind the La Sal Mountains, and blocking the light of the sun as it began to illuminate the sleeping desert.  The other photographers whined and complained, bemoaning the fact that they woke up for this.  I shot away, trying hard not to let the sweeping negativity affect my perception of a disappointing, yet still beautiful sunrise.  They packed up and left, their whining driving away the few others who just wanted to see something pretty, and soon I was the only one of the sunrise group remaining.  I finished shooting, and collapsed my tripod, and returned to my car.  I spent the rest of the morning driving to different overlooks, feeling uninspired and entirely dispassionate about my work, and left the Island in the Sky a day earlier than I’d planned, instead opting to race the sunset to Capitol Reef, where I hoped I’d find a more inspiring setting.

I love the photos that I took that day, particularly this one, but will forever remain disappointed that I let the sweeping negativity of other highly jaded photographers affect my perception of that day.  Next time I go to Mesa Arch, I will bring earplugs.


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