Stone: The Slit Canyons

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to


On Jan 1, 1980 I walked into a whole new world, one that I could never have imagined. Entering Antelope Canyon was so alien and unearthly I was dumbfounded …literally from the moment I took my first step into it. In fact, I was rendered speechless. Antelope Canyon, to my eye and mind, was totally unbelievable, unquestionably cosmic and absolutely perfect.

Although it’s a tiny place by any realistic gauge, it is a whole universe unto itself. Holding degrees in mathematics, I have always been fascinated by both the cosmological forces that shape the universe and the subatomic forces that hold atoms and nuclei together. I saw them all as one and the same years ago when they were generally viewed as completely different. I’ve watched over 40 years as physicists inevitably linked the two into common theories of the origins of the universe.

The forms I saw in Antelope Canyon were the exact forms of both the cosmological forces and the subatomic forces. I thought, “I could have been researching this theoretically, but now I’m in it!” I couldn’t have been more excited. Another realization was that this was a subject that had never been photographed before. I’ve always heard that everything has been photographed, but this was new subject matter…never previously photographed. If anyone had ever photographed it, I was certainly unaware of such imagery.

Circular Chimney, silver gelatin print

In a location that exceeded the contrast range of anything I had ever encountered, I realized I had just acquired the technical tools to control the extraordinary range that film encompasses, which gave me the confidence to photograph this stupendous subject. The method I had just learned was “compensating development,” using an extremely dilute concentration of developer with periodic agitation over an extended development time to prevent bright highlights from becoming too dense to print.

I improved that procedure years later with a further invention of my own, the two-solution compensating developer, which begins negative development in a normal dilution developer for a very short time, then switches to the dilute solution for the remainder of the development period, yielding more detail in the shadows, while controlling the highlights to an even greater extent.

I use HC110 developer with Tri-X film as my basic film/ developer combination. The two solution compensating process is actually quite simple: starting in the standard dilution of developer that I use for “normal” processing (i.e., first a 3:1 water/developer dilution from the syrup out of the bottle for the “stock solution” and then a 12.5/1 water/ stock solution as the working dilution) with 45 seconds of initial agitation followed by 45 seconds of non-agitation. (This develops Zones 1 and 2 almost completely, but is well short of full development of higher zones.) Then I promptly move the negative into the extremely dilute (i.e., 45/1 of the stock solution) compensating solution with initial agitation of 30 seconds. (At that point it’s 2 minutes of development.) The next full minute has no agitation (bringing total development time to 3 minutes). Then from that point onward, I agitate for the first 15 seconds of each subsequent minute until I reach 10 minutes of development time. Then it’s into the stop bath and fix.

I first entered Antelope Canyon late in the afternoon without my camera. It would have been too late and too dark to photograph then, anyway. Yet as I walked along, I quickly saw my first photograph without even breaking stride. All I had to do was refine my camera position the next morning. I made “Circular Chimney, Antelope Canyon,” which I had seen the previous afternoon. To me that image represents the black hole at the center of every spiral galaxy including our own Milky Way with the galaxy swirling around it. It was an amazing way to start out a new decade, and a whole new chapter in photography.

Wall With Two Ridges, silver gelatin print

Over the years, I have photographed Antelope Canyon extensively, along with its two major companions, Lower Antelope Canyon, just two miles down the same desert wash, and Upper Antelope Canyon, more than six miles up the wash. Today, flooded with tourists, Upper Antelope Canyon remains unknown, with Antelope Canyon renamed “Upper Antelope Canyon” to distinguish it from Lower Antelope.

My first entry into Lower Antelope Canyon was by rope, rappelling into it in 1983. Tourists were not part of the scene then, so entry was a real challenge. Though more open and somewhat lower in contrast, I again resorted to compensating development procedure to rein in the contrast. I exposed seven negatives that day, with four of those images appearing in my first book, Visual Symphony, including the cover image, “Wall with Two Ridges, Lower Antelope Canyon.”

As the years passed, I photographed a wide range of slit canyons in many areas, all in Northern Arizona or Southern Utah, on the Colorado Plateau. The exceptional sandstone and limestone layered land created over the millennia by incoming and outgoing oceans, and layer upon layer of sand dunes, was later carved by wind and water into a myriad of extraordinary shapes. In virtually all cases, I’ve used the narrow sandstone canyons to express my thoughts about forces in nature. For example, neither gravity nor electromagnetic force is bounded by size (they are universal), nor directionality (there is no up nor down). The canyon images, too, are devoid of size and direction (i.e., it’s hard to tell how large the subject matter is or if the camera is aimed up or down or straight ahead). An extremely narrow slit, one that I discovered with several friends in 1984, yielded “Hollows and Points, Peach Canyon.” While my friends lounged around after lunch above the deep crevice in the ground, I wandered a mile to its shallow start then back down it to the image site, realizing that the others were directly above me. Responding to my calls, they lowered my camera backpack and tripod to me by rope, allowing me to make the photograph. Too heavy to haul back up, the pack had to be carried out via the full length of the canyon. The narrow twisting trip back, much of it accomplished by walking sideways, left the pack shredded. But, who cares? I made the image, again showing the lines of force, and also the refinement of natural sculpting, so delicate and perfect that it would make a Michelangelo or Henry Moore jealous.

Hollows, Points Peach Canyon, silver gelatin print

In 1998, back in Antelope Canyon, I made my longest exposure ever to get “Layers, Antelope Canyon.” I opened the shutter at 12:30 p.m. and closed it at 4 p.m. By 1998 I had created the two-solution compensating development, yielding more detail down into the deepest shadows and into the brightest highlights.

The Escalante River harbors an astounding complex of tributary side canyons, each with its own character, and many harboring extremely narrow sections, slit canyons, to be sure within its length. Peekaboo Canyon and Spooky Gulch are shallow, parallel slit canyons at the upper end of Coyote Gulch, a major Escalante tributary. “The Pinwheel, Spooky Gulch” represents a time lapse image of millions or billions of years of an accretion disk the dust, rocks and rubble swirling around in outer space in a progressively narrower disk pulled together by gravity as it compacts around into a giant spiral, eventually coalescing under gravitational forces into stars, planets, moons, asteroids and comets to form a galaxy or a solar system. (Spooky Gulch, by the way, is so narrow, that it, too, must be traversed sideways, with the walls coming together below your feet so that one side of your boot touches one wall, while the other side of the same boot rests on the other wall. If you’re claustrophobic, or if heavy rain is falling, this is not the place to be.)

Neither Peekaboo nor Spooky is very deep, so no exceptional development procedures are necessary in either—perhaps a slight reduction in contrast, but nothing more heroic.

Nowhere else have I encountered either the forms or the light that I’ve encountered in the slit canyons. Most images have required long exposures, and nearly all require a contrast reduction. These, and so many other slit canyon photographs, have now been embedded in a much more extensive portfolio of related images named Stone. Within the broad umbrella of that title I have put a wide variety of imagery together with a sense of related cohesiveness. These are images from the natural and man-made worlds, from the worlds of realism and abstraction. The Stone portfolio also includes cathedrals, monasteries, ancient towns and cities of Europe, mountain and canyon images, and Mayan and Inca ruins of Central and South America.

The slit canyons were chosen for my first portfolio in the new photo technique magazine because these images are dearest to my heart. They have brought my life full circle from my academic days studying mathematics and physics to my life in photography. I have drawn from a background in the world of science to express myself in the realm of art.

Product Resources: Camera: 4 x 5 Linhof Master Technika; Film: Kodak Tri-X; Film Developer: Kodak HC110; Developer: Kodak Dektol; Paper: Forte neutral tone variable contrast

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.