Welcome friends - I'm posting published articles and sundry items as time allows. Most subjects pertain to conservation, photo trekking and tourism in borderlands Arizona, USA. More of my articles can be seen on my publisher's website

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Roads Caller

Article: "Photographing Back Yard Nature"

(Published October 2007 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

A mule deer fawn on my front "lawn."

By way of introduction, this column is a proud new addition to a fine publication. The Villager was founded at about the same time as I began my photography in borderlands Arizona. Perhaps a gap was filled in both arenas. In any case, they tell me that in the laws of physics, a vacuum automatically will be filled.

The Villager trumpets the village of Tubac and its environs in much the same way that I celebrate borderlands Arizona and its natural, rural, and cultural heritage. The virtues of the village, its talented residents and merchants, and this area, are many and worth shouting about to the world. But, as one concerned with the preservation of those qualities, I walk the fine line, perhaps as this newspaper does, between exploitation and conservation.

Publicizing and romanticizing a particular area and thus, attracting attention to it, has always been a double-edged effort, with the risk of stimulating economic activity which degrades the original charm and gentle qualities. Hard-working realtors know this: the more you build, the less you have of what you built on and for, except money. Using up land makes the remaining land more valuable. They tell me that’s economics.

House cat versus wild Bobcat.
As a nature photographer writing this column I’m guilty as charged, referring to places that may or may not be “secret”, and which eventually could bear the brunt of increased visitation over time, perhaps a little influenced by my words and pictures. These places, including your backyard, do not stand to benefit from the economic impact of this visitation. If they had their way, they'd be left alone. That’s what I believe open spaces want, if they could voice an opinion, and that’s why I chose to celebrate them as a core element of my borderlands Arizona photography.

I try, in my way, to preserve what’s left of open spaces. This is the 21st century, after all, and not the era prior to the Civil War when ranching had not yet gone a bit overboard in its belief that borderland Arizona’s grasslands would last forever. It’s not, either, the era around 1940 when this area witnessed a surge of Hollywood film-making as when Gary Cooper filmed “The Westerner” near modern-day Green Valley, with a wild and unimpeded Santa Cruz Valley and Madera Canyon clearly visible in the background.

A javelina. Isn't he cute?
This is a late era in borderland Arizona’s history, witnessing a distressing amount of economic activity based primarily, as always, on the exploitation of local natural resources. But luckily, for the outdoor enthusiast, many of these attributes begin a few feet from your front door and still extend way out over the horizon. Arizona, even these days, is a place where wildness meets your backyard.  

Sun-drenched borderlands Arizona is a place that scientists call a bio-geographical transitional area, the site of a confluence of many climate regions. Further, this area showcases the “biotic communities” defined by extremes of elevation, from the low desert scrub to the high mixed conifer forest. This brilliant mixture forms an unexpected diversity for the borderlands photographer, and the signs of this mixture show up in your backyard.

A backyard here, I think, should remain natural, without grassy lawn or plants that are not native to this area. In any case, many residents live in neighborhoods that generally contain more water and plant habitat than the surrounding natural wild areas. Even if your plants are native, they probably receive more tender loving care than they get in the wild. Therefore, you have visitors who want them.

A tiny pincushion cactus
near my front window.
The critters that come to enjoy your neighborhood often don’t know what they’re in for.  A land of plenty seems at hand for them, and they go for it.  But they might get a bit too close for comfort, and encounter a moving vehicle, a fire department officer summoned to extract them, or some other official whose job is to serve and protect the human species.

More often than not, though, if you let the wild critter sniff around and eventually continue on his way, things will be fine.

So far, this has been my experience. My backyard has been a delight for a photographer.  Further, I’ve benefited from a special early warning system telling me that something’s out there: my cat. When my nose is buried in a book and I’m ignorant of outside activities, my cat often makes some strange noises and I then know that I should grab a camera.

A horned lizard.
Backyard borderlands Arizona photography has one great advantage. It’s convenient and nearby.  No strenuous and sweaty treks into the outback are necessary. Photography is a fine excuse to get outside, even if it’s just to your yard.

You are the borderlands photographer, and you should remember one important rule. You must always have a camera ready and convenient. That is, it must have a charged battery and, if digital, have some space left on the card, and if film, have a roll inside. With critters especially, the first chance you have to take a picture is almost always the last or best chance. Your camera is a six-gun. 

All images in this month’s column were photographed by me in my back (or front) yard in the "hip and happening” community of Green Valley. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Roads Caller

Article: "The Art in Wilderness Experience"

(Published January 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer in Tubac Villager.)

Nature photographers can take heart: the eminent organization Sky Island Alliance is progressing with a bill in Congress to protect the Tumacacori Highlands area by converting the formal status of that land to wilderness.

A “sky island” is defined as a mountain range isolated by valleys in which other ecosystems are located. Opportunities for the borderlands photographer are high and mighty in such a place.

Wilderness designation for this landscape will be an important achievement that is not accomplished every day, in Arizona or elsewhere.

As part of this effort, several artists, including me, were asked to be part of an art-in-wilderness campaign, with one of the outcomes being a 100-page book, “Art in Wilderness”, including two CDs with music and poetry.

Personally, I call myself a photographer, shying away from using the “A” word. Among nature photographers, this is a topic of some controversy, to put it politely, and not necessarily regarding me personally, of course, but regarding the profession. For a nature photographer, art comes from nature. Nature is art.

Art in wilderness, then, is wilderness as art. My borderland photos reflect, as in a mirror, what nature generously provides. They frame, as in a window, bits and pieces that happen to stand out at a particular moment.

The new book is now available by mail order from the Alliance’s website "" Please support this group with your purchase and donations.

Nature is the mother of us all, and I think we treat her very poorly. The Sky Island Alliance folks are examples of humanity trying to slow down, just a little, the damage happening all around us, attempting to preserve bits and pieces - remnants - of our heritage.

Last year those talented artistic folks were brought together in the Tumacacori outback to commune with nature (a wholesome process) and discuss the fragility and momentousness of this borderlands region. In addition, communal inspiration was sought for the tasks ahead, both preservation and publication.

Tumacacori Highlands, for those of you with a map, comprises the Tumacacori Mountains, the Atascosa Mountains, the current Pajarita Wilderness, and the new Pajarita Wilderness Addition. (The Pajarita section will retain its name.)  Peck Canyon separates the Tumacacori Mountains to the north and the Atascosa Mountains to the south. Pajarita exists south of Ruby Road (route 289) to the border and protects the area’s crown jewel, Sycamore Canyon.

Sound complicated? Just look westward, you Tubac residents, and that’s the place. Yes, with all of those homes sprouting up on that side with the Santa Rita and San Cayetano views to the east, there is actually going to be a boundary to that development. It’s called the Tumacacori Highlands Wilderness.

How can wilderness coexist so closely with all those homes? Ask the folks in the Tucson foothills living near designated wilderness right above them in the Catalinas. There are a lot more homes there, too.

In any case, borderlands Arizona will be graced with another such place. And yes, there’s concern from folks who’re accustomed to grazing, hunting, and off-road motoring action on that acreage. 

Notwithstanding those activities, all I’m qualified to talk about is photographing the raw untrammeled beauty of the land and natural life that sits on it. For me, the significance of this area surfaced a while back when the Pueblo Colorado Zoo asked me for an image of mine for their exhibit of the “sky islands” featuring an extinct bird in these parts.

Go photo-trek the Highlands! It’s a challenging jaunt: one of the area’s few ‘formal’ trails is the one from Ruby Road up to Atascosa Peak, a good vertical workout for those so inclined. For all you bushwhackers, southern access is available along most of the length of Ruby Road, and Camino Ramanote in Rio Rico. To the north, the Puerto Canyon hunters’ access road near Tubac is a good place to start.

The Tumacacoris often appear harsh, stark and bleak, and do not display the lushness of mountains in climates farther north. But deep within them, for the hardy photo trekker, are watery secret places like Aliso Springs, Puerto Springs, Bartolo Canyon, and Pine Canyon, that support a multitude of colorful wilderness life. And somewhere, perhaps, roams a big wild jaguar cat, an iconic symbol of what can be lost here.

Rock-hopping to Mexico via Sycamore Canyon recently, I saw no big cats but was rewarded around every bend with a rugged and inspiring natural charm not yet lost in borderlands Arizona.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Roads Caller

Article: "Summer Canyons and Secret Waters"

(Published June 2009 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

Shade and water. Where in the borderland wilderness can you find both at the same time?

My friends Sam and Cass have just moved to this area, intent on becoming true desert rats and nature photographers. Further, they stubbornly insist on achieving success with minimalist frugality: "I wonder how far we can go in photography with cell phone cameras? Let's stretch the technical limits."

Yes, that may be a stretch for Sam and Cass, but with some input from me, they eagerly seek momentum. “Murray, where should we go first?” The borderland’s secret canyons can provide plenty of shade and water for the adventurous nature photographer. Both can mitigate the ferocity of a first trek in summer.

Vertical walls shelter a hiker from the intense sun, but provide a challenge to the photographer. That challenge, high contrast between shade and sunny areas, is almost insurmountable, even with cell phone technology, I tell Sam and Cass. “Try photographing in either shade or sun first, but not both.”
Further, not all canyons have the soothing effects of water, and not all canyons with water have flowing water. Any water, however, is capable of multiplying the opportunities for good pictures, I explain. “Th e fl ora, fauna, and reflections are where the action is.”
Some popular canyons in this area are Sabino and Madera. “Why not there?” I ask Sam and Cass.
“We don’t want crowds” they answer.
“Show us some special, secret spots.”
Well, you won’t necessarily find traffic jams in Sabino and Madera Canyons in summer, I tell them, but if you seek a wilderness canyon experience that’s nearby, I know a few spots.
“Like where?”
I think for a moment. “You want special, secret spots. If I told you where they were, they wouldn’t be secret any more. I may have to blindfold you.”
Secret watery canyons are nearly a dime a dozen in the borderlands. The Tumacacori Mountains; the Pajarita Wilderness on the border, the east side of the Santa Rita Mountains; farther east by the San Pedro River and the Galiuros; back west at the Baboquivari Mountains.
These canyons are where the intrepid summer photographer will find water and life and drama. But few trails will greet him or her. Sam and Cass have it both tough, and easy. Th e tough part is learning how to hop rocks for hours on end. Th is requires supple ankles and knees, and stout boots with rigid soles. Th e easy part, for them, is the light load of carrying cell phone cameras, as contrasted with the two clunky bricks strapped around my neck.
Water is perpetual in some of these places. Summertime, starting late June, is when the monsoon begins in the borderlands, so that’s when water may be plentiful in all of them, flowing rapidly or trapped in pools.
June is really hot – the hottest month of the year. Sam can’t believe this, and asserts that July and August must be hotter. He hasn’t seen the cooling effect of monsoon clouds and rains, which are brutally absent in June.
Sam and Cass are fearless, and that troubles me. Apart from falling and spraining a vital body part, a canyon trekker can have close encounters with rattlesnakes in the summer. I warn them that the only treatment for snake bite is back in the emergency room, quite a distance.
Showing my friends the lower-leg chaps, or gaiters, that I wear, Cass thinks these are overkill. I respond that “kill” is the operative word. Did Sam and Cass charge up their cell phone cameras? Off we go to begin the journey of two new desert rats.

Roads Caller

Monday, June 13, 2011

Article: "No Faux-tography!"

(Published January 2010 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)
Here’s a New Year’s resolution for you, the borderlands photographer: Don’t succumb to temptation.
With the proliferation of digital image technology, it’s easier than ever to abandon purity for manipulation. It’s so easy, and so cheap, in fact, that there is little effort required to transform a perfectly good photograph into an awful one.
“Convento y Calabazas” – my original 
photo of the grounds of Mission San José 
de Tumacácori.
My friends Sam and Cass moved to southern Arizona earlier this year, determined to become accomplished art photographers using only their cellphones. This is a medium, they say, that is already sweeping the art world in major cities like New York, with gallery shows devoted to I-phone use of the many software “apps” for image creation.
Sam and Cass are enthralled by the burgeoning world of digital enhancements, and argue that digital technology does nothing to harm art; it’s quite the contrary.
This type of discussion pays many salaries of art educators and critics across the globe. Manipulation? What manipulation? A tool is a tool. Art is what sells. Anything goes.
Photography has two phases: pre-hit-the-shutter and post-hit-the-shutter. In the past, it was more critical than it is today to get things right during the pre-shutter phase; this fabrication mostly involved using filters, and still does. Among nature photographers using filters, the great Ansel Adams was a masterly craftsman of filtered images. His pictures of blackened skies shot at mid-afternoon attest to that.
Exhibit B: The result of Mom’s first 
outing with the Fujica in 1952, sort of 
ruining the pictures due to having no 
training with “all the knobs and stuff.” 
Also the negative got washed 
through the laundry.
In photography’s post-shutter phase, the old-fashioned photographer’s darkroom, now replaced by the digital darkroom complete with a hunched geek (like me) staring at a flat-screen, was routinely the scene of all sorts of interesting developments.
Foremost among these common techniques were dodging and burning, both also employed by Ansel Adams. These procedures involved manipulating the light of the photo enlarger. With the film negative suspended over photo paper lying on a flat surface, and the light of the enlarger turned on, dodging blocked that light from selected portions of the paper. Burning applied more light to selected areas of it. To obstruct light from the enlarger, anything could be used, including a piece of cardboard or your sweaty paw.

Many other technical variables entered into the equation to produce the desired result. Choice of camera and lens and film, use of a hand-held light meter, choice of exposure duration, choice of aperture setting, choice of photo paper, and choice of chemicals and duration of their use were all part of the artful calculus of photography.
Exhibit C: The very famous Civil War
photographer Matthew Brady visited
Tubac, Arizona, with Abraham Lincoln
and took this picture right after the war
on vacation.

No more! It is now effortless to produce art.

But doesn’t effort and skill correlate with value? “Lighten up,” Cass smiles. “There’s a world of opportunity with software.”
Yes, I think, the opportunity to overdo it by anyone with a wrist quivering over a mouse. The most common example: the oversaturation of contrasts and colors. It’s the photographic equivalent of the obesity epidemic.

The dreaded mouse eliminates
creative techniques. Through-the-viewfinder photography, or TTV, briefly was a mechanical process. A digital image was created using a contraption linking a new camera to the viewfinder of a very old camera. Why would anyone argue with such things? I don’t – they require inventive effort and neat materials like duct tape.
Exhibit D: Grandpa accidently ran over this 
picture with the Rambler and spilled 
battery acid on it too.

The problem is that now you can digitally simulate these effects in a blink of a gnat’s eye while bent over the keyboard, with no effort at all.
The new-generation TTV is my favorite. With it you can apply a lot of nice dust and scratches to your clean, unblemished image. First you start with a good picture, and then you go ahead and ruin it. Or, you can start with an unremarkable image and cover up the mediocrity with dust and scratches.
Ultimately, when the dust settles, will classical photography outlast digital mania? I think not. A thundering herd of fads threatens to overrun the poor old purist, lumbering along in a rut.
Exhibit E: This negative disappeared for 
many years after the summer car trip to 
Arizona and was discovered by Uncle Bart 
in the trunk wedged under the spare tire.
Trying to convince Sam and Cass that, in my quest for purity, I’m not being arrogantly self-serving, I entered a figurative courtroom of artistic reason. I showed them six images, vile exhibits of excessive cruelty to a good picture, my painstakingly composed photo of Mission San José de Tumacácori.
Sam studies the photographic atrocities, raises an eyebrow and declares earnestly, “Hey, these are great – you should sell 'em!”

Exhibit F: The outcome of Sister Clara’s
 first attempt at age nine with film 
in a shoe box taped shut and using mom’s 
sewing pin to make a hole.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Article: "Abstracts of Nature"

(Published May 2009 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

The beauty and drama of the borderlands region can move a photographer to distraction. He or she can venture beyond the literal scenes and open a new world of abstraction.
An aerial view of the Santa Cruz River in
 Mexico illustrates the potential of sharp angles.
For you, the creative and imaginative borderlands photographer, while trekking through southern Arizona in search of meaning and solace, a fresh vision can leap from an otherwise conventional viewpoint.
There’s nothing prosaic about a photo of an historic mission or a monsoon sunset or a pair of deer on grassland or a cactus flower with a bee on it. These are wonderful images which simply are a bit more common.
Viewing the scene in front of you with an unorthodox, abstract vision can require you to isolate a small section of it, by zooming or leaning or, later, cropping the frame. It can mean eliminating the surroundings or context of the subject, removing the milieu.
Disconnecting a subject from its context is one of the hallmarks of the abstract image. The things that surround a subject often define it, so these things should be removed, to some degree. Deciding what to keep defines composition and can result in a striking abstract photograph. A saguaro cactus standing on a slope with other cacti is just that, and really no more. But choosing a particular specimen and emphasizing one view of it can turn the plant into much more.
A thunderhead over the Santa Ritas appears
 impossibly fluffy.
You may evoke an image of something that the subject of the photo is not. In doing so, you create a more intriguing image and you keep the audience guessing. The abstract style involves treating the components of scenery as individual elements. Natural elements can be rendered nearly unrecognizable. Shape and form take priority. Elements can be juxtaposed for comparison or contrast, isolated by extreme close-up, reduced to silhouettes by underexposure, and so on. Normal rules, such as focus and shutter speed, may not apply.
A furled agave of Cochise Stronghold beckons
the imagination.
Two of the easiest techniques of abstract photography are close-ups and water shots. In close-up photography, the minute detail that appears is normally invisible to the human eye, and thus can be a delightful discovery. With water, the reflections and distortions created by it can provide an illusive effect of fantasy. Abstract photography is about presenting an image with no clear subject; it leaves more to the imagination. I’ll add a note about “pure” nature photography which is what I do. It’s without software manipulation. That “photo manip” is rife with opportunity for abstractness, and as a technique it employs lots of people, but is outside the scope of my comments. Instead, I try to exploit the abstractness that comes naturally.
A few months ago I wrote about photography of urban abstracts; personally I find the opportunities for abstract photography in urban settings to be more numerous and thus less challenging. Angles, straight lines, and man-made lights tend to multiply the options in the urban setting.
To create an abstract image in nature you will experiment with color, contrast, and form. Lose the constraints of a conventional view when creating such images. Try black-and- experiment with camera movement and slow shutter speeds and shadows and extremes of contrast.
And go ahead and make mistakes – it’s a snap for most of us to do this with a camera. Learn from the errors; skill is required when trying to replicate your mistakes.
The borderlands photographer can be set free by embracing the artfulness of abstract images and escaping the limitations of literal and reference photography.

Article: "February's Frost"

(Published February 2010 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

My name’s Murray. How do you dew?

Clinically, the dictionary tells us that frost is formed when surfaces are cooled underneath the dew point of the adjacent air, and that a dew point varies by temperature and barometric pressure. 

Artistically, frost provides a splendidly novel subject for you, the borderlands photographer, in a geographic place where those variables of meteorology don’t often occur.

Anyone who has migrated to southern Arizona from the northlands knows what frost is. Those folks may give this topic a cool reception and so, turn a cold shoulder to it. Frost reminds them of the clenched fist of winter, the icy grip of a season best forgotten. In the borderlands, winter is more of an abstraction; perhaps that’s why people retire to here, do you think?

When frost does occur, it’s only for a moment. A nature photographer knows that most opportunities are fleeting: “found” circumstances form the basis of his or her work. So, one must go out and find frost. I find it often in February, and I find it in Arivaca.

A charming, historic borderlands hamlet where the coffee and the folks are warm, Arivaca is the site of a section of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, the Arivaca Cienega. Cienega, as you may know, means wetlands. A wetland, as you may know, is where the action is at for many desert photographers. Because a wetland is wet.

Arivaca remains a bit isolated due to a long winding road west from Interstate 19 in the Santa Cruz River Valley. About 35 years ago the road was paved at roughly the same time as the valley’s interstate construction. The protection of the land of Arivaca Cienega is a story unto itself, as is the town.

For now, be satisfied with a short discourse on the glories of photographing the frost of the boardwalk of Arivaca Cienega. This boardwalk, unsurprisingly, is made of boards. These boards attract frost, as do the grasses of this place. 

You may want to chill out if you worry about the frigidity required for good frost pictures. A nature photographer is a hardy beast who nevertheless takes consolation in the late hour the sun rises in the winter. If you hoist yourself from the downy comfort of your bed and arrive in Arivaca just before sunrise, you’ll meet the challenge of the moment.

As the borderlands sun rises, so melts the frost, quickly. So get out there and be completely prepared as any photographer must be. Capturing frost in a camera, as in all photography, is an exercise in capturing light. However, our frost is more subtle than northern frost, and so, is more of a challenge. Anything involving water in the borderlands is more fleeting and preciously tiny. 

Find an angle and a subject which emphasizes the high contrast of the frost crystals and the reflection and refraction of the rising sun. Avoid your footsteps, handprints, or other marks on the virgin frosted surfaces. In other locales, glass surfaces such as a window pane, provide transparent opportunities for capturing intricate, delicate patterns of frost, but now, we are out in the wilds of Arivaca Cienega, with no windows.

So the focus is on the planks of the boardwalk and the grass that surrounds it. The reflected pinpoints of light on frost and melted frost can test your camera lens’s “bokeh.” Bokeh comes from a Japanese term and is the rendition of out-of-focus points of light, or the character of the blur. The size of these blurred points of light is a result of distance and your lens’s focal length setting. The optical quality of lenses impacts bokeh; a perfect soft-edged circle is considered ideal bokeh.

A charming bonus can be earned by finding critters on frost, or their tracks. These critters don’t mind so much being up early and out of their warm beds. The intrepid nature photographer uses them as role models in the pursuit of morning quarry.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Article: "Urban Abstracts"

(Published March 2009 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

“Truth and beauty leap from both the abstract and the concrete.”

This tidbit of wisdom has emerged from countless philosophical photographers, clad in multi-pocketed gadget vests, stalking nature and city streets for prey both wild and tame.

As far as concrete is concerned, my camera has bagged many a beast leaping from cement, mainly kids on their skateboards or bikes. Concrete can be a thing of beauty to more than just a construction guy.

City streets yield a lot of opportunities for capturing abstract images, and even you, the intrepid and resourceful borderlands photographer, who devotes most of his or her time trekking our abundant natural areas, can discover enough urban landscapes nearby to supplement your wilderness portfolio.

The main differences are straight lines (seldom found in nature), people and, yes, concrete. Any village, town, or city has these and one of the best is The Old Pueblo.

Downtown Tucson has wonderful shapes and colors and action which cry out “abstract.” Geographically, I’m referring broadly to the area around Congress Street, the historic districts just north and south of it, (especially Barrio Viejo) and the famously funky 4th Avenue farther to the north.

Any borderlands photographer who’s worth his salt-cedar will spend plenty of time at these spots, as they are the low-hanging fruit of local urban image-making. Especially in the afternoon.

But first, a few words about abstract images. As you may know, most of the photography I sell is pure borderlands nature photography; that is, depictions of recognizable area features unaltered by trickery. This is rather conservative. With abstract photography, the world is your plaything. All constraints are stripped away.

The recognizabilty of local landmarks or organic subjects is often the first thing to be removed from an abstract image. To me, an abstract photo is almost always a close-up or medium-range picture. Close-ups, as I’ve discussed in earlier articles, offer an infinite opportunity for image-making that many photographers ignore. New worlds suddenly appear before your nose.

Removing a subject from its context is one of the hallmarks of the abstract image. The things that surround a subject often define it, so these things must be removed, to some degree. Deciding what to keep and what to remove defines the art of composition and can result in a striking abstract photograph. Keep the audience guessing.

To create an abstract image you will experiment with colors, contrasts, and shapes. Lose the constraint of “naturalness” when creating such images. Try black-and-white; try odd camera angles; experiment with camera movement and slow shutter speeds and shadows and extremes of contrast. 

Use these techniques to accentuate into hyper-reality the patterns and textures you discover in the urban setting. Focus on a subject indirectly by taking a picture of it via a second source, such as a reflection in a window, mirror or shiny metal object.

Do some night-tripping of the fantastic lights of neon; turn off the flash and maybe use a tripod or monopod or a high ISO setting. As in all photography, light is your entire universe and using it an urban setting has, in my opinion, many more opportunities for creative artwork. Artificial lights, heavy shadows, and bright reflections can form the basis of a striking image.

Abstracts in nature are boundless as well, but patterns, angles, and those man-made lights of the city do multiply the options. 

And then there are people. While most shots in nature often try to avoid the human image or the very hint of humanity’s influence, abstract photography of people, whether on the streets of Tucson or elsewhere, is a subject that could fill volumes. With people, ask permission and try to be candid (not an easy combination).

For now, suffice it to say that you, the borderlands photographer, while spending much time recording your vision of our natural heritage, should consider hitting the city streets.

Equipment for abstract image-making matters less than for other photography. Knowing how to use what you have is what matters, and of course, developing “the eye”. Technology has (unfortunately for some) become the great democratic equalizer in photography, as in many other pursuits. The point about making abstract images is that sometimes cheap cameras produce a more appealing result than expensive ones.

And go ahead and make mistakes – it’s a snap for most photographers to make a mistake. Learn from them. A shutter speed or a camera position that you would normally consider to be wrong, can produce a great abstract result. In this situation, skill is needed when trying to replicate your mistake.

When in Tucson exploring Barrio Viejo, your photos might exploit color and a late afternoon sun, as many older structures are painted with splendid hues which can be combined with deep shadows to make a striking image.

While stalking the streets of Tucson’s 4th Avenue, great colors often are seen in wall murals, but black-and-white photography is often best in this place. Try to be cool when taking pictures in the city: keep in mind that not all images need to be taken with arms up and squinting through the viewfinder.

Step away from reality a bit and you can have an abstract photo; or, you can abstractly interpret a subject as hyper-reality. In any case, those subjects often can be discovered by the adventurous borderlands photographer while trekking the urban outback.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Article: "Love in the Desert"

(Published February 2009 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)
Valentine’s Day can inspire even the most grizzled borderlands photographer to reflect on the gentle topic of love, becoming mawkish with sentimentality.
I won’t claim a romantic mastery of this topic, and there isn’t exactly a shortage of discussion of love, even by photographers who are customarily mute and surly. But we’re in the season, and in the mood, so why not go for it. The task of capturing love in the desert with a lens can take the borderlands photographer into fanciful flights of lyrical abstraction and visual symbolism.
Literally finding love, as in two potential soul-mates (both with Nikons) stumbling across each other in some remote canyon, is not necessarily what I mean in this article. (However, serendipity of this sort is not outside the realm of possibility, so don’t give up hope. My luck, though, would be to encounter a well-armed border agent on patrol.)
Instead, the nature photographer’s task is to capture the pastoral equivalent of an urban romance, to record a backcountry symbol or token of the act or existence of love. Mother Nature gives us so many examples.
It’s motherly love in the extreme.

The borderlands photographer’s Valentine mixture of outdoor photos should include images reminiscent of love, tugging on the heartstrings of the viewer and creating a vivid and compelling picture.
These include symbols reminiscent of a heart. There are lots of these to be found in nature, from cacti to leaves to shadows. Symbolic also, are intertwined vines and closely-matched pairs of just about anything.
For the photographer, pairs of critters are a bit fewer and farther-between than a single one. A compelling photo of a solo animal, whether a bird or a mammal, is often hard enough to achieve. But from time to time a photographer will catch a pair close enough together to suggest affection in their behavior. Togetherness between any critters, displayed peacefully, is almost always a Valentine winner in photography.
The true emotion of love between critters is a notion I’ll leave to be pondered by others, but an instinctive appearance of such behavior, or an imitation of love, especially in the wild, is a goal of many nature photographers. The “awww” factor rises exponentially for any wildlife photo depicting tenderness or intimacy.
Taking the study a bit further afield, and still in our glorious borderlands outdoors, one can explore abstracted tangents of love, such as the pastoral nurturing of the land by a gardener tilling a row of heritage crops at Tumacacori Mission, or the compassion symbolized by a barrel of water left in the Ironwood Forest by humanitarians to aid desperate migrants.
Further, the painstaking stabilization of a crumbling adobe structure is a depiction of love for our borderland cultural heritage. Mother Nature’s monsoon rainfall to replenish a parched desert landscape is also a powerful nurturing symbol. For you, the lonely photographer wandering from mountain to valley, discovering these actions and symbols and recording them via the camera, can help replenish your own spirit and all those who share your love of borderland imagery.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Article: "Shades of Gray"

(Published January 2009 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)
Yes, Virginia, photography is art. Art, in any medium, is to a large extent personal and subjective, as is the choice of whether a photographic image is to be presented in color or black-and-white.
This topic is broadly discussed within the academic standards of artistic merit, but the question of monochrome versus polychrome resides ultimately in what suits your overall style, objectives, and particularly, in what suits a specific image.
In the winter season of this month’s article, many outdoor subjects lend themselves to black-and-white photography due to the comparatively subdued quality of nature’s pigmentation during this time of year, even in southern Arizona. In fact, a color image of Madera Canyon’s snow and trees, for example, may appear not to possess much color at all.
Before digital technology, photographers made up their minds about color or black-and-white before they started shooting. Now this choice can be done afterwards, with the click of a computer mouse.
Digital technology makes the process easy (far too easy) but in the film world there have been many great photographic papers and films manufactured specifically for black-and-white images. As in color photography, this “older” technology still produces superior black-and-white results, in the opinion of many professionals.
Likewise, color, or colored, images have undergone experimentation since the early days of photography. Sepia tones (originally done by adding a pigment to the positive print of an image as a preservative) and other artificial, after-the-fact coloring techniques have been used to varying degrees of success both in photography and cinema.
With digital trickery you can have both color and black-and-white in the same image. Does anyone remember the lackluster “colorization” phase of black-and-white movies played on television? Conversely, using mono and polychrome together can be used for artful emphasis. Just remember the transitions in “The Wizard of Oz.” The basic principle, of course, is that tones of color influence an image’s emotional tone.
Using monochrome may compliment your image and enforce your message. The common perception is that a black-and-white photo is “moody” and its focus is on shape, shadow, texture and composition. Color photos impress the viewer when the ranges and nuances of color are a main point of the image.
Ultimately the question one asks is: Does color truly contribute to the image? Black-and-white strips distractions from an image and can portray a subject in its more pertinent bare essentials.The borderlands photographer can experiment with subjects which lend themselves to black-and-white. He or she should look at them side by side to determine which is best. Often something striking and profound about the photo’s subject appears more clearly and simply in black and white.
As a nature photographer, I try to keep my processing simple: I do very little to alter the original image, using only a fraction of what digital technology offers today (I should be given a discount or refund).
Brightness and contrast are among the few things I adjust in the digital darkroom, especially in black-and-white.
Texture and contrast are ultimately the keys to success in much black-and- white photography.
From the lines in a person’s face to stylish architectural abstractions of shadow and light, monochromatic imagery is often essential for an artful, meaningful result. Moreover, increasing the contrast in a black-and-white photo is often a technique with sure-fire success.
As a nature photographer, I can say that in most nature photography, color is the point of the picture. In photographic portraiture, which is the livelihood of many other photographers, a monochromatic image is often best for depicting the texture of a person’s character.
Deep shadows in nature photography are often to be avoided because they add nothing to the result but a great swath of blankness. However, in black-and-white images, shadows are essential: shapes and angles that shadows define can produce a winning result.
One argument for monochromatic images used to be that color images fade more quickly on paper. However, the technology these days with archival paper is such that this borderlands photographer himself will fade much sooner than the color on the paper! There are so many other reasons to expand your black-and-white photography – you’ll be impressed by the artist within you.