Don’t Be Afraid to Change Your Mind

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to


The canyons of the Escalante River in Southeastern Utah are the most remote portion of the United States, and arguably the most magnificent. They are also highly inaccessible, for hikers trekking into the canyons must bring their own food and water, unless they know where the seeps of fresh water are located.

Along with Don Rommes, who has a home within the Escalante River drainage, I have run a series of backpacking workshops into these canyons over the past six years. While we did not present the workshop in 2006, we will again in 2007. We use a team of llamas to carry all of our food, bedding, and some of the other essentials needed for several days in these magic canyons. Once there, we can enjoy these remote and remarkable canyons in relative comfort, concentrating on their extraordinary forms and our photography of them.

One of the canyons we visited in 2001 was Chop Rock Canyon, a tributary of the Escalante River (itself a tributary of the Colorado River). Chop Rock breaks into three branches, and each has its own unique scenery and characteristics.

The aspect of the canyon that most excited me is the long portion of “narrows,” perhaps two miles in length, that starts just about a mile east of its confluence with the Escalante. The canyon snakes wildly to the left and right, as its spectacular walls change in character continuously.

Part way through the narrows I rounded one of its corners, and looked backwards to the strip of sunlight that somehow made its way between the enclosing walls to the canyon floor.

The walls in this area are deeply streaked with black and deep red streaks, known as “tapestry.” It was cathedral-like in its awesome size and magnificence (except that, in fact, cathedrals can only strive to be what these canyons—or the great forests—already are), made even more extraordinary by the glow of light on the walls reflected from the intense sunlit strip on the ground. The lower walls were brighter than the upper walls due to the unusual lighting.

Taking the exposure

I set up my 4×5 Linhof Master Technika camera, using a 75mm lens to include the upward-converging walls, a bit of the fore- ground, and the sunlit bush and floor at the turn of the canyon. However the sunlit floor turned out to be visually uninteresting in the final image, and the sloping shelf of rock above the canyon bottom also proved to be of marginal interest. Eventually I decided to crop both the sunlit floor and the foreground rock shelf out of the image, turning it into an abstract set of pat- terns made by the wall tapestry encompassing the sunlit bush hugging the lower edge of the image.

Tapestry and Glowing Bush, Chop Rock Canyon, original print.

I print the cropped image via two separate exposures at two different contrast levels, subtly merging them. Initially I expose the upper portion of the image with the contrast level dialed up to 150 units of magenta filtration on my LPL dichroic head enlarger. The top 1⁄4 of the image gets the full 15 second exposure, and I taper the exposure down to include the top 3⁄4 of the image throughout the exposure. Then I dial the contrast level down to no filtration…or white light , and I expose the lower portion of the image for 12 seconds, tapering the exposure up to the lower 3⁄4 of the image during that exposure.

Thus, to make the final image, the lower 1⁄4 of the image is exposed at a contrast level roughly equivalent to the old grade 2 of graded enlarging papers; the upper 1⁄4 is exposed at a contrast level of roughly grade 4, while the image transitions between the two levels of contrast in the middle half of the image.

After that I do a minor bit of bleaching on the more distant wall (the one on the right) just to help separate it tonally—and therefore dimensionally—from the foreground wall on the left.

The final print is not exactly what I had in mind when I made the exposure. It’s now more abstract, less representational. In other words, for me, it’s better.

About the Author

Bruce Barnbaum
Bruce Barnbaum teaches photography workshops throughout the year, focusing on the art of seeing and the art of conveying impressions of your photographed world (real or imagined). He has two monographs in print: Tone Poems - Book 1, 2002; and Tone Poems - Book 2, 2005. Both are collaborative efforts, featuring a CD of classical piano music performed by Judith Cohen.