Above: Noah Daly, of Aspen Colorado, looks for a shot.
CAR TRUNKS CRAMMED with camera bags, tripods, and lenses, we flee Farmington before dawn, engines aimed south. Despite our haste, a half hour later, a milky gray light filters the blackness out of an eerie expanse. The Bisti Badlands stand before us, weave around us, call to us, a promise of beauty, mystery—and intimidation. Cars swing off the highway and zoom down a dirt road, the imperative clear. The golden hour is here. Best light of the day. Move!
At the parking lot, I watch everyone else hang an array of Nikon’s best cameras from their necks. We barely know one another’s names, but these people can rate everyone else’s skills by the caliber of their kits. Me? I’m a writer. I have a notebook, two pens, an iPhone 6, and a seven-year-old Canon point-and-shoot. I’m automatically downgraded, out of my league, and hell-bent on proving everyone wrong.
The gathering light in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness stirs the coals of competition. We hit a sandy trail and tuck into a slot canyon of eroded cliffsides topped far above our heads by balanced rocks that could be … whales? Angels? Camels? Barely awake and meagerly caffeinated, we scatter, each intent on capturing the iconic image, the one snap that will earn Santa Fe Photographic Workshops bragging rights.
Hours later, slumped in our hotel’s darkened conference room with laptops and a projector screen, we puzzle at the mostly lackluster images beaming back at us. One by one, we had committed the cardinal sin of landscape photography. Incapable of comprehending the mind-blowing earth forms, we had instead gone macro on the minor: a plant, a pebble.
“You missed the landscape,” Douglas Merriam, our guide and mentor, says. “It is called landscape photography.”
I stare at my shot of that sandstone whale atop a tall pillar, only now seeing how poorly framed it is, how the light feels flat, how the wowness of the moment drains into a shrug. My bravado cracks. I hate that point-and-shoot and my inability to remember the difference between an f-stop and an ISO. The only saving grace? Those shooters with their fancy-pants equipment have some ground to cover, too. Thankfully, we have three days to reinterpret an eternity of hoodoos, dinosaur eggs, sandstone arches, lava flows, and petrified logs. We will absorb every pro tip. We will take better pictures. Little do we know, we will also plant a flag for the future of the photographic vision.
WE DRIFT IN as strangers from Texas, Maryland, Colorado, California, and New Mexico. Our crew includes two former military guys, one soldier, one Marine, both employed as government photogs most commonly called on to document their bosses’ grip-and-grin events. Three retirees show up in serious pursuit of their photographic addictions, along with an earnest Colorado kid on the first stage of his gap year. I’m the tagalong, invited in by Doug, a frequent shooter for New Mexico Magazine, and Luke Montavon, who usually works in the Photographic Workshops’ digital lab. (Besides ensuring we stay hydrated, he’ll spend the workshop’s fourth and fifth days helping the group turn their shots into gallery-quality prints.)
The tenth character in our cast, though, has to be those 45,000 acres of badlands. The Bisti (pronounced biss-tie) has long held a strange pull over those who love the outdoors. The fossilized and eroded remnants of a 70-million-year-old dinosaur swamp consistently astound visitors. But the Bisti’s reputation bristles with apocryphal tales of lost hikers in a place with no marked trails, few maps, crummy cell service, and enough bedazzlement to disorient an Eagle Scout. A chance to learn how to navigate the place lured us here as much as the technical training.
“People love it,” says Reid Callanan, who founded the workshops in 1990 and today counts 20,000 alumni. “We take you to some really cool place that you get to photograph—White Sands, the Bisti, Mexico, Cuba. You get three days in the field, some instruction, some editing, and walk away with a dozen prints.”
Other offerings include single-night lectures, two-day intensives on specific skills, deep dives into topics like street photography, portraiture, and multimedia storytelling—all delivered by photographers whose very names make some shooters’ knees weak: Kurt Markus, Tony O’Brien, Sam Abell, Susan Burnstine, Nevada Wier. They’ve even added a Santa Fe Writers Lab, taught by the likes of Pam Houston, Hampton Sides, and Natalie Goldberg.
Set near Museum Hill in the Immaculate Heart of Mary compound, which also houses Carmelite nuns, the Photographic Workshops are, Callanan says, “a magical, spirited oasis in the mountains.” All skill levels are welcome, with only one caveat: Know how to use your gear, whether it’s a $9,000 Hasselblad or a $99 point-and-shoot. User manuals exist for one reason; the Photographic Workshops for quite another.
“Photography is not just photographing things or facades, but something deeper, richer, and important,” Callanan says. “One of our founding philosophies is to take people out of their home environment and put them into a photographic environment. If they can check out and truly be present to the experience, it will be much more powerful.”
Deflated by our first critique, we need a dose of that transcendence. Before sunset, we drive back to the Bisti—the second of five trips over the three days. At a different trailhead, Merriam drills us into memorizing two distinctive hills, one red, one black—guideposts, should we get separated from the group. But, he warns, if we stick to the BLM-recommended wash on the way in, we’ll miss the coolest formations. You must head for those hills. Dutifully, we veer off-trail toward the nearest bulwark of slopes and put the first batch of tips to work. Point that wide-angle lens down at a feature, then sweep it up to add the context of the larger landscape. Shoot with the sun at your side to catch the best shadows. Think about the rule of thirds—are you pulling the viewer from a corner to the center and up? Most important, be fearless.
“We’re always afraid that it isn’t going to turn out and we’ll be a failure,” Merriam says. “That isn’t the case. You won’t know until you take the photo. We have to make bad images to know what the good stuff looks like. Get out of your comfort zone.” Carole Scurlock, a retired graphics-and-web pro from Pasadena, frets that the sky, while a brilliant blue, bears not even one interesting cloud. Merriam advises her to devote more of each frame to the landscape. Scurlock soon proves to possess an artist’s touch, imparting a sense of emotional connection to sinuous hillsides and moonscape rocks. “I love to compose,” she says. “And the Bisti is like love at first sight. I’m learning from sharing and seeing other people’s work. There’s so many different points of view here.”
Unburdened by a bounty of equipment, I scamper up and down hills, giddy at how the landscape reinvents itself in cathedral-like canyons and a horizon so distant it shows the curve of the earth. Bands of red, olive, vanilla, and black appear. Textures range from speckled to lumpy, rounded, and sheer. It’s as if someone told Dr. Seuss to craft a topography, no buildings allowed. All of which is terrific until I realize I’m stranded atop a cliff with no route down. Just moments before, I could at least spy another photographer a hill or two away. Poof! Everyone’s gone. Am I to become the next lost hiker? Biting back panic, I retreat, inspect a few other cringe-worthy jump-off points, and finally locate a slide I can negotiate—gracelessly—using two hands, two feet, and one butt. Thankfully, no one is there to take a picture.
We drive to the Bisti twice a day: before sunrise, before sunset. There and back, there and back, while everyone else yammers about drones, gimbals, chesties, XQDs, XMPs, and DNGs. We download photos, crop them, nudge their contrast, overly criticize ourselves, and, just when one of us is ready to delete a batch, Merriam walks past and sees something he likes. “Wai-wai-wait,” he says to Clay Beach, the former Marine, who lives in Kempner, Texas, and works for Fort Hood. Merriam kneels beside him and recommends a range of simple alterations, including turning the color image into a black-and-white marvel that stuns the rest of us into decolorizing most of our shots, too. Even Merriam is impressed. He’s been shooting the area for years, always in color. “That’s totally changed how I see the Bisti,” he says.
DURING ONE DAY’S CRITIQUE, Beach admits he shot 178 images and will likely delete most of them. Everyone but Merriam laughs. “Oh, me, too,” he says. “A lot are redundant or they just didn’t turn out.” His dictum is to shoot as many as you can. “It’s all digital now; you’re not wasting film.” So we’ll erase most of our shots, or at least not post them to whatever insta-snap site we prefer. The problem, as Callanan sees it, lies with the billions of people around the globe who took an estimated 1.2 trillion photos last year. Plenty of them are poorly shot and over- or underprocessed but, thanks to the web, relentlessly deliver a kaleidoscope of two-second visual storytelling.
“It definitely is messing with our sense of what makes a good photograph,” he says. “The technology’s gotten so good that you just have to push a button and it’s technically a good photo. It’s in focus, it’s in color, there’s good resolution. But is it expressive, well composed, and thoughtful? In order to make pictures that are compelling and memorable, there’s more than point and shoot.”
The Photographic Workshops agitates against mundane imagery through its various trainings, then aims to secure a visual legacy in its digital print lab. Photos that stay in a camera suffocate. Photos that live on walls or in books can last 100 years or longer.
The Bisti landscape accommodates that goal on our final shooting day. A storm threatens from the southwest. Towering clouds, a palette of sky colors, and even some lightning jazz everyone’s morning. We go to a familiar spot, but soon dive deeper than we’ve been before. Here we find the magical dinosaur eggs (giant-tortoise-size rocks that, alas, never held prehistoric life forms), intact logs of petrified wood, and a maze of canyons that keep drawing me farther from the group. At one point, I halt, startled at the absolute silence. No planes, no birds, no voices, not even a shutter’s click. I feel eons passing in a realm of spiritual wonder.
The rain finally catches up, making for a muddy slog back to the cars. But that afternoon’s critique reveals a growth curve like no other. Image after image glows on the screen—tangible elements, sprawling earth and sky, a painter’s delicate touch. Merriam tags ones he thinks will make the best prints back in Santa Fe. David Schroeder, a retired clinical psychologist from Modesto, California, who’s attended a handful of the workshops over the years, shows one image first in color, then black-and-white. It’s a softly lit butte against a foreboding sky. Both are beautiful, but the black-and-white version carries me to a contemplative place, one that’s not entirely comfortable, yet irresistibly inspiring. “You have a great eye for looking at light, the way it hits things,” says Mitch Miller, an army veteran who works for the federal Housing and Urban Development Department.
The few photos I’m willing to show are just okay to me, but good enough to Merriam that he posts one next to a similar shot of his and asks the group to tell the difference. It delivers a moment’s pleasure, but overall, I’m floored by everyone else’s work. So I ask: Did they see those gems as they were shooting or only when they got to editing? The answers differ, but the passion for the work—and this landscape—soars.
“I see the potential,” Scurlock says of the view through her camera. “It’s like getting a flash of insight,” Miller says. “It’s something you feel.” “For me,” Merriam says, “it’s usually getting a nice surprise later.”
“That’s something Doug taught me,” Beach says. “Before, when I would look at something, I’d think: That doesn’t really look like a picture. Doug taught me to just take it and see later. I’ve learned some great techniques about editing and prepping my photos. I’m coming back to the Bisti—and I’m bringing a tent and an air mattress.” “I’ll meet you here,” Merriam says. “And I’ll bring my drone.”
NOT SO BEASTLY
The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness welcomes hikers of all abilities. Prep before you go, starting at nmmag.us/BLM-bisti. Take the usual precautions—layered clothing, sunscreen, head protection, plenty of water, and food. There are no restrooms or potable water. Primitive camping is allowed. From Farmington, follow NM 391 south for about 36 miles to Road 7297. Head east for about 2 miles to the first parking area; another lies just beyond it. Wander at will, but pay close attention to your surroundings.
TAKE A SHOT
The winter/spring schedule at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops bursts with opportunities to sharpen your skills. Courses include flower photography, encaustic and book arts, lighting, editing, printmaking, and “iPhone Artistry.” Learn more at santafeworkshops.com. The Santa Fe Photographic Workshops help sponsor New Mexico Magazine’s annual photo contest.