I’ve just returned from a few amazing days out in the red rock country surrounding Moab,Utah. Specifically, I spent time photographing Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. It was certainly a nice change of pace and it’s always fun to get out of your comfort zone and work in different surroundings. In the past I’ve spent a fair bit of time photographing the area around Moab, mostly with my 4×5 large format film camera. Even so, it felt like it had been eons since I last photographed the area.
With my photography focusing mostly on Rocky Mountain National Park and a four year old daughter at home, I’ve spent much less time photographing the red sandstone of Utah then I care to admit. Finally however, I had the opportunity to return to the desert for a few days of photography and fun. I must admit I felt both a bit out my element while also torn deciding which locations I should attempt to photographs. Moab and the National and State parks surrounding the town are filed to the brim with iconic locations to photograph. At times it seems as if you only have to go a few hundred yards to find yet another iconic western vista. In the past I’ve photographed many of these locations and over the course of the last few years I’ve seen thousands of jaw dropping compositions on both magazine covers and on the internet.
This of course led me to question both what I was seeking to accomplish photographically speaking and furthermore how did I feel about standing next to a dozen or more other photographers while trying to make a meaningful connection to the landscape as well as meaningful images. Guy Tal, a Utah based photographer and writer whom I greatly admire once commented, and I’m paraphrasing here that photographing Mesa Arch was like going to a five star restaurant and then requesting the chef make you a Big Mac. Guy’s sentiment certainly resonated with me.
So after spending a few days photographing some of the lesser visited locations in and around Moab, I wrestled with the thought of heading over to Mesa Arch in Canyonlands as I peered out my hotel window at the cloudless nighttime skies. Without clouds in the sky, Mesa Arch seemed like the most logical location to head out too. Dramatic skies are always a great asset for landscape photographers but Mesa Arch is one of those locations that can be dramatic both with or without a cloud in the sky. Could I do it?. Did I really want to head out to Mesa Arch, claim a spot early and then line up with throngs of other photographers to shoot sunrise from one of the most photographed locations on earth?.
With some reservation and a lot trepidation I decided I would indeed head out early and at least experience photographing at Mesa Arch once again. It had been nearly 12 years since I had last photographed Mesa Arch, so I figured at the very least I could not be accused of personally photographing a location to death.
I arrived at the Mesa Arch parking lot over two hours before sunrise. Even though I believed I had arrived early, I found the parking area bustling with activity and headlamps. Most of the parking spots had been filled and I could see other photographers preparing their equipment and gear for the short hike to Mesa Arch. I’m grumbled a bit to myself as I grabbed my bag and headed out on the trail toward the arch. Perhaps I thought by some fluke only one or two other photographers would decide to show up this day. In reality I may was in a bit of denial myself over where my decision to photograph had led me.
When I arrived at Mesa Arch I found three or four other photographers already setup. We joked about all descending on this ‘hidden gem’ at the same time, exchanged pleasantries and attempted to work as courteously with one another as possible. Within 20 minutes or so of arriving and setting up, a workshop had joined the photo line along with more photographers. Just before sunrise someone took a head count and it was just under sixty people waiting for the sun to rise under Mesa Arch.
It was a different and unique experience that morning at Mesa Arch. The only similar scenario I can think of would be standing along Maroon Lake photographing the Maroon Bells at the peak of fall color season. Maroon Lake however, has a lot more space and shoreline than does the area surrounding Mesa Arch so one does not quite have the same sense of crowding like you do in the tight confines around Mesa Arch.
After what seemed like an eternity, the sun rose, I made some pleasing images of this iconic location. I had some nice conversations with other photographers but felt a total sense of relief as I hiked back out to my car after sunrise. Hiking out the stress of shooting this busy of a location quickly receded and faded. I could hear the birds in the tree’s and smell the sweet spring air again. I thought about Guy Tal’s comment. I chuckled to myself and thought, ‘I’m good for another twelve years’.