The Virtues of Abstraction and Patience

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to

I began photographing Antelope Canyon on January 2, 1980, having discovered it late the previous afternoon, too late to begin any photography. I was the first person to ever photograph that extraordinary location, and several other slit canyons in the vicinity systematically, pushed by my fascination with them and my astonishment that such places could ever exist.

In 1981, I began a series of workshops in nearby Page, Arizona, bringing many students to some of those canyons, and inadvertently helping to turn the area into the unfortunate tourist attraction it has since become. But the slit canyons have always remained as awesome to me as the day I first entered Antelope Canyon. Discovering it was an incredible way to start out a decade. I have always referred to it, and all the others, as “slit canyons” (my original term for them) even though they are commonly referred to today as “slot canyons,”because the term slot canyon sounds too much like Las Vegas to me (a place worth avoiding, in my opinion).

Having photographed the canyon for a decade by the time 1990 rolled by, it seems that I should have exhausted all possibilities. But despite the fact that Antelope Canyon is barely 120 yards long, I was still discovering new things in the canyon. In 1988, I first noticed that an overhanging rock ledge within the canyon that was too dark to see any detail in it throughout most of the day suddenly became one of the brightest parts of the canyon just past noon, when sunlight hit a sandstone ledge just below this rock, ref lecting light back up to the overhang.

Try and try again

When I first noticed it, I ran to get my camera, but by the time I got it, set it up and focused it, the ephemeral light had nearly disappeared, and the overhang was once again returning to total blackness. The next year I tried to find the location once again, but I was too late. By the time I again found it, the brightest moment of light was gone, and it was fading away.

More determined than ever, I tried again in 1990, this time locating the correct spot (or so I thought) well before the noon hour show. I set up my camera in advance and focused on the suspected correct location when the light was absolutely awful. But it was the right spot, and I was focused properly. At the appropriate time sunlight hit the ledge and reflected back up into the formerly dark netherworld. I started my exposure. Even with this supposedly “bright” light, it was still quite dim, so I kept the shutter opened five minutes, until the window of time passed, and the overhang was nearly lost in the blackness once more.

Shadow and Circles, Antelope Canyon, straight print. The image shows detail virtually everywhere, but the inherent contrast of the scene was reduced greatly in the development of the negative to control the wide range.

The developed negative had all the information there. The contact proof showed the detail I had sought, yet I put it aside, thinking that I still hadn’t gotten the image I was seeking. Yet just a year ago, in early 2008, I looked at the contact proof once again and decided that I had indeed gotten what I wanted. And that I needed to print it, pronto!

I have no idea why I dismissed the photograph for so many years. It was something that I really wanted, but thought I had missed. In fact, I had it.

The exposure was made with my 90mm lens on my 4×5 Linhof Technika camera, with the aperture between ƒ/32 and ƒ/45. The film was Tri-X, still my standard film with that camera.

Composition and abstraction

Though I initially envisioned the photograph as a horizontal, with the dark shadow on the right lying along the base, the moment I started working on the negative it struck me that a vertical was the stronger way to go. Since the camera was aimed almost vertically upward I can turn the image in any direction to satisfy my vision, so there are no constraints to up, down, left, or right. Furthermore, virtually all of my photographs within that canyon (any many other slit canyons) are not really of the canyon, but photographs using the canyon as metaphors for forces in nature, from gravity and electromagnetism to the sub-atomic forces, so orientation is meaningless. Those forces have been a fascination to me all my life (and the reason I received a master’s degree in mathematical physics), and the canyons make me feel like I’ve been swept up in a force field. So that’s my real intent in my photography there: to photograph the forces of nature seen through the forms within the slit canyons.

The final print crops the bottom edge and increases the contrast from that of the straight print. During the basic exposure I dodge within the dark right-side shadow, then burn the left half for a short period of time, with additional burning along the bright upper left sections. A touch of bleaching is used to further tweak the image to the one you see here, particularly to enhance the circular effects in the upper left side. With that, significant eye movement is created in virtually all portions of the image. The bright edge separating the lyrical dark shadow on the right side from the lighter areas to the left is not enhanced by bleach; it is a natural occurrence of sunlight edging the rock. But the orientation is still enigmatic. Several people have told me they were certain the camera was pointed downward at the scene, an incorrect conclusion that I like to hear. Furthermore, they have no concept of the size of the portion of canyon that appears in the image, which I also f ind stimulating. It tells me that the photograph is as abstract as it can be… and as I wanted it to be.

Final print. Contrast is increased in the printing to obtain richer blacks and more luminous whites, with enough dodging and burning—plus some selective bleaching—to bring out detail and eye movement throughout the print.

Abstraction is a fascinating thing. Some people love it; some hate it. Some want to immediately see and understand everything in an image. Others like to wrestle with an image before discovering all the particulars about it. A few simply enjoy the image for what it is, whether or not they can determine what it actually is. Your reaction to abstraction is a good guide to whether you want to produce abstract images yourself. If you’re uncomfortable with abstraction by others, you’ll probably avoid creating abstractions yourself. If you enjoy them, you’ll likely want to create some through your own photography. It’s worth giving this some of your best thought.

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.