Landscape photography is pretty much a lonely affair. You travel and hike alone, you find and setup your shots alone. And that is good. I consider it as something very close to spiritual meditation. It is a road to your higher yourself. And if you are lucky enough you may get a companion on this road – a guru, a person who can show you the way, point the right turn on the road, keep you away from the waste of dead ends.
Rodney Lough. The first time I came across this name was last fall in San Francisco. I had been photographing Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise and decided to stop at Sausalito for a breakfast. Right on a corner of Bridgeway and Princess I stumbled across a gallery with magnificent photographic prints in the windows. It was early morning and the gallery was not yet opened. As I stood at awe admiring every detail of the photographs exhibited in the windows a lady came in, opened the door and greeted me in. We got into a two-hour long conversation and Vivian (that was her name) told me the whole story of Rodney Lough. He was the same age as mine, left his daytime job, was doing art shows for awhile and now has 4 (four) his own galleries. Wow, – I thought to myself, – he did it. And I can do it. It was like a light bulb switching on above my head.
Later in November I was in Minneapolis for a couple days. And I spent the whole evening at Rodney’s newly opened gallery in The Mall of America looking at every detail: not only at the prints, but how they are matted and framed, how the light is set, how the gallery is organized. It was perfect. It was something to aspire to.
By that time the figure of Rodney Lough grew in my mind to mythical proportions and he took his rightful place in my little pantheon of fine art landscape photography gods.
Here goes the story…
Last week I was at Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands and it was the third time I came to photograph The Great Gallery – an ancient Anasazi pictograph panel. The first time several years ago I had a 35 mm film camera, the other time I came with my first digital camera and this time I had intention to make some multi-row panoramas.
I camped at the rim of the canyon and woke up before sunrise. I rushed onto the trail with the first rays of light in a hope to catch nice morning reflected light on the panel. Three miles hike down the canyon and I was late. The shadow line moved through the panel in a matter of a couple minutes in front of my eyes and the panel was washed out in full sunlight. It happened so fast that I didn’t even have time to setup my tripod. It is what it is, – I thought to myself and proceeded anyway trying to salvage contrast with polarizing filter. Three hours and several multi-row panoramas later I felt exhausted and headed back on the trail.
As soon as I left the panel I saw a funny looking figure walking towards me. White long sleeve shirt, shorts and some kind of high boots. Oh, and a tripod! A fellow photographer! Coming closer. Gitzo carbon fiber. Interesting… Sharp blue eyes, golden hair, short trimmed beard. We got into talking:
- I like your boots.
- Oh, that’s not boots, that’s gators.
- Shooting medium? – I nodded at the tripod.
- Eight by ten, – was the answer.
Suddenly I felt a little cold in my stomach. You can count landscape photographers shooting 8 by 10 with fingers on both of your hands. I leaned forward and asked without any ceremonies:
- What’s your name?
- Rodney Lough.
I almost jumped.
- Sir, I’m honored to meet ya! – I said shaking his hand and immediately poured on him the whole story of my admiration.
- Wow, I’m surprised that you know who I am, – he muffled in response.
To make the long story short I shamelessly stuck with Rodney in the canyon for the rest of the day. I asked questions. He talked, I listened. It was great. It was a lucky chance that made my whole trip.
- Where is the panel? – Rodney asked me.
- Oh, it is right here. Unfortunately it is in full sunlight.
- I can wait. All I want now is to stay in the shade. I saw a beautiful tree against the canyon wall on my way here… Oh, here it is.
Frankly, to my eye the tree was nothing to look at. I just walked by this tree without even noticing it. But Rodney was excited. He started to setup his tripod and unpacked his 8 by 10 from the backpack.
- You see, it is perfect. The color of the leaves. That tree behind the green is too dark. And it is too close to the wall. That tree on the right is still too dark. And the branches are all over the place. This one is perfect. No wind. Even on one second there won’t be any movement. Every twig, every leaf will be tack sharp. It will look awesome on 8 by 10. It will be on a gallery wall for sure. You’ll see, and he disappeared under the dark cloth busy setting up his camera.
The light was pretty even in the shadow of the canyon wall. Rodney used his Sekonic to spot meter exposure in control points. He kept mumbling shutter speed numbers to himself, completely immersed in the process and oblivious to my paparazzi clicking.
Pulling out the dark slide. Notice vertical shift to elevate the lens tilting the monorail up and using front and back tilts.
And the final CLICK. The shot is done.
When he was done with his shot we sat in the shadow of the canyon wall for several hours. Rodney was patiently waiting for the shadow to come to the panel which eventually happened in the late afternoon. So I had plenty of time to torture him with my questions. I wish I had prepared the list beforehand because I still have many more.
He candidly told me what my biggest problem as a photographer is. Lack of patience. And it is true. On my photo expeditions I often feel restless chasing the light. I feel like a hunter pursing his prey. It is an exciting feeling but quantity of shots rarely produces quality.
He told me a story which happened to him in the beginning of his career as a photographer. It is a legend. He was at Grand Teton on one of the photographers’ hot spots with majestic overlook of the Tetons waiting for the sunrise with a crowded group of other photographers. To kill time everyone started to introduce himself to the others. The introduction made a full circle and came to the photographer next to Rodney.
- I’m Willard Clay, – he introduced himself.
- Wow! – said Rodney, – Willard Clay! It is honor to meet you. Do you have a business card or something?
While Willard went to his truck to get the card everybody else gathered around and asked:
- Who is this guy? Why are so excited?
- Don’t you know? – Rodney replied – His photographs are in every book and calendar about Grand Teton.
The sunrise was over as well as photographers’ shootout. Everybody left except Rodney and Willard. They had a conversation and Willard said at the end:
- There is one thing I have to tell you, young man. One thing only: wind is your friend.
- What does it mean? – Rodney asked. – Wind is photographer’s enemy. It moves grass and tress, it makes photographs blurry. How can it be your friend?
- By the time the wind calms down every other photographer will leave and now you free to make your shot nobody except you will be able to make. Wind is your friend.
That is what Rodney has in abundance. Patience. We sat in the canyon waiting for the shadow to come to the pictograph panel for hours. But when the time came he acted charmingly and quickly.
Those who have been to The Great Galley know that access to the ledge where you can view and photograph the panel up-close is protected by chain rails. All you can do is photograph the panel from far below, from the canyon floor. Rodney was able to charm Bonnie, the park ranger, a graceful lady in her seventies. She unlocked the chain and let us on the ledge. Rodney quickly setup his camera.
There was no time to spare.
- Isn’t it a treat! – he kept repeating.
Notice raised monorail and back tilt used to align ground glass with the pictographs panel. Front tilt is used to increase depth of the field (Scheimpflug rule) for the stones which are almost in front of the camera.
I like the look of a heavy machine gunner looking through the turret of his firearm. The concentration and intensity is the same. The result is quite different though. I wish all machine guns in the world could be replaced with photographic cameras with a simple swing of a magic wand.
It looks like the front frame is too high.
Let’s move it down.
And back to mystery under the dark cloth.
The shot was done and we pushed back on the trail to climb up to the canyon rim to our cars. Rodney invited me to his camper. I showed him some of the ancient Anasazi ruins locations within Cedar Mesa. In exchange I was treated with a real sandwich made by Rodney himself. It tasted like nothing else. Especially after living a week on crackers and cold canned tuna. We shook hands and he took off. I left after him on my way to Factory Butte slowly digesting a great chunk of information I was given.
Life road has turning points. Change. New course towards bright light leaving the dark tunnel behind. Thank you, Rodney, for guiding the way!
Rodney Lough – www.theloughroad.com
Willard Clay – www.willardclay.com