Sunrise sets an arch ablaze at this little known site in Southern Utah...
Alright, I'm totally kidding. This is Mesa Arch, an icon of the American Southwest and one of the most photographed locations in the world. Every single morning dozens (possibly hundreds?) of photographers crowd around this small stone arch and wait for this very scene to unfold. So in that, this image is not unique. But I'm still proud of it. It was taken on a trip that proved a turning point for me, one where I pushed beyond my own comfort zone and stepped into experiences that allowed professional and personal growth. I fought off struggles with social anxiety and general lack of confidence to travel to California and take part in my first nature photography workshop with Gary Hart, a professional who I'd admired for years. I learned a lot during that workshop, but perhaps most important was seeing for myself that in the world of high level nature photography, I in fact do belong.
I sat with Gary one evening at dinner and got the chance to ask his opinion on "trophy shots." Trophies in landscape photography are the well-known iconic scenes- incredible, spectacular, beautiful images, but are exceedingly popular and in many cases kind of a low hanging fruit. These locations are usually easily accessible, offer an obvious composition, and provide enough grandeur to overcome any creative shortcomings. Some photographers build their entire careers on them, but wanting to make my own mark I was struggling with the decision even to shoot them at all. Gary reeled me in a bit, reminded that as nature photographers our job is to shoot and share the beauty to be found in this world, and it was okay to allow ourselves the pleasure of these experiences and to even have our go at the classic compositions. He just advised not to fill my portfolio with them, and in addition to the expected angles to always try and find new and creative ways to put my own twist on the scene. (This was reassuring, as it was the approach I'd taken earlier on the same trip at Colorado's famous Maroon Bells.)
I'd been intrigued by Mesa Arch, but honestly before this conversation I'd almost talked myself out of going there. Both in worry that my efforts would seem unoriginal, and also out of intimidation. I'd heard horror stories about this place- that shooting here can turn into an absolute mob scene. (I did in fact have a very minor issue with another photographer who tried to bully me out of position, which I'll write more of in a blog post coming soon.) But ultimately I decided to detour down to Moab on my way home from the workshop, and I'm glad I did. I put all of my skills to use, most importantly my drive and new found confidence, to get out and not only capture this shot, but experience this moment. Sunrise here is an absolutely magical event and one of those that I hope everybody will enjoy at least once in their lifetime. It has a certain primordial dawn of time appeal as breaking light sweeps the scene to reveal stark color and contours across the desert expanse. If you go be courteous, be patient, expect lots of company; but know that the vast majority have come from all over the world to revel in this same moment of beauty, which is pretty special in itself. Show up with the right attitude and it will be an experience you'll never forget.
A final note- while easily recognizable to some I've also had the honor of introducing this scene to many people who had not been aware of it before seeing my photo. I've had it literally stop people in their tracks at Midwestern art shows and elicit endless questions and "Wow's!" Sharing such inspirational examples of natures majesty is very much for me what this is all about- showing people places that exist that they had never dreamed of; opening their minds to wonder and hearts to the natural world. In a lot of ways this photo, this moment, has proven pivotal in my career. Not necessarily for advancement of technical skill or originality, but in the philosophical development and intangible lessons that have come from contemplation and reflections that continue to this day.
Photo © copyright by Josh Meier.