|Kids in a Candy Store
by Jim McGee
Contrary to what you might expect, the job of Managing Editor for an online photo magazine doesn't leave much time for photography. Now you'd think such a job title would mean you'd spend a lot of time behind a camera.
But as November gave way to December, I realized that I'd hardly had my eye to a viewfinder since taking the D1 to New England nearly a month before. An upcoming trip promised to break me out of this rut. Gary Stanley and I were heading for Zion National Park in Utah.
Zion has been on my short list of shooting destinations for some time now. A place of incredible soaring landscapes. I'd seen images of Zion by a number of great photographers and the place had captured my imagination. So when airfares dropped in October I took the advice of one of my own columns and booked a flight. When I mentioned it to Gary he thought it was such a good idea, he invited himself along!
Now I've shot quite a bit with our technical editor, Chuck McKern, but I haven't had the chance to shoot with Gary and was looking forward to getting out in the field with him. I always learn something when I shoot with another photographer and after watching Gary in action giving a half-day seminar it was obvious he's a natural teacher.
Since this was one of my dream locations I planned to get some books and maps on Zion so I would hit the ground with a good mental picture of what I wanted to shoot and where I wanted to go. Instead, I spent the week before the trip bogged down in other things. My total trip preparation consisted of visiting Barnes and Noble the night before leaving, leafing through David Meunch's book on the American Southwest, and buying a small guide book to Zion that I paged through on the plane. Thankfully, Gary had time to do a bit more research. His flight arrived in Vegas a couple of hours after mine and we pointed the rental car towards Utah.
We arrived in Springdale, Utah in total darkness. The moon hidden behind clouds. Fresh snow was on the ground. Snow is a rarity in Zion and we hoped it would lend something special to our pictures - but frankly we were too tired to get all that excited. We found our room keys taped to the door of the hotel and crashed. Best of all, I discovered my cell phone didn't work in the valley! There would be a couple of days where the world couldn't reach me.
It was still dark the next morning as we packed our equipment into the rental and drove into the park. The first hints of light were starting in the sky as we turned up the scenic drive. Even in the darkness we kept stopping to marvel at the sheer cliffs of Zion. We drove up ice covered roads past the still quiet lodge in awe. For the first couple of hours we just drove around and stared. We wasted a beautiful sunrise but we were just blown away by brain overload. There was so much to shoot we didn't know where to start!
Finally we oriented ourselves and began shooting. Sometimes together and sometimes following different paths. At one point I followed fresh mule deer tracks in the snow to find a path through the rocks and underbrush and down a drop-off to the Virgin river. From there I could shoot up towards the cliffs and the rising sun. I knelt behind my tripod alone on the river bank in awe of the beauty of the place - not noticing the 18 degree cold that was freezing the moisture of my breath in my mustache or the cold water that was seeping up through the ice and freezing my jeans solid.
We burned through film. We shot landscapes, we shot wildlife, and we shot each other shooting things. We traversed the lower part of Zion a half-dozen times a day as we followed the light from canyon to canyon - regardless of the fact that the roads and trails were covered with snow and ice.
On one of our maps we spotted a town called Grafton marked out in the desert with the cryptic description - ghost town. So we went exploring down old washboard roads looking for the place. A four wheel drive would have worked a lot better in these conditions than a Dodge Intrepid - but we found Grafton. Shooting a ghost town in the cold early morning with coyotes howling on the butte above us was an amazing experience that I wouldn't trade for anything.
Most of all it felt great not to be shooting for a deadline for a change. For the first time in a while I was able to just relax and shoot for the pure pleasure of shooting. The landscape at Zion is a challenge. The first day or so you're trying to recalibrate your eye for how to compose and shoot something so big that is often so close. You can't just push things further back toward the horizon, and you don't have a wide angle wide enough to take it all in so you have to learn to see a little differently.
Unfortunately as is so often the case it was time to go just as I felt like I was hitting my stride. Standing on top of a snow covered butte on the final morning in Zion it was obvious that I'd be back.
Driving back towards Las Vegas and our flights home we stumbled across a fanciful tourist trap in the town of Virgin and spent a few minutes (and a few off color jokes) shooting Virgin. You'd be amazed how amusing this was for a couple of tired, punchy photographers...
When I picked up my chromes from the lab my initial reaction was disappointment. There's just no way that a 35mm chrome on a light table could stand up to the memories of the place. But a few days later I was looking at the images with a fresh eye. There were shots that were amazing, things we might have shot differently, and things you just couldn't capture on film.
It was an great trip and for a while we got to be a couple of big kids in a candy store; and that's a pretty cool place to be.
Now let's see, where did I put that flight schedule?