The Pawnee National Grassland is a spectacular immense expanse of high prairie. Sculpted cliffs and ledges polka-dot folds of prairie grasses that undulate into apparent infinity. Here and there are green oasis of cottonwoods and willows gently nurtured by springs that bubble clear and cold to the surface. Tiny streams wind serpentine through secret mini canyons formed by the water caress of millions of years. The Great Plains is anything but plain.
This spring morning the land was particularly vibrant. Wildflowers dotted the southern flanks of gentle rolls of prairie. Grasses fluttered lightly in a soft breeze. They shimmered and danced like ripples of sea waves across the landscape. I pulled the bronco over about a half mile from a particularly beckoning series of low sandstone bluffs. Along their base stretched a riparian ribbon of emerald slightly darker than the coming summer greening of the grass around it. Across the top of the miniature butte, a bright almost ethereal mist began to rise and form.
“A dew point moment”, I thought to myself.
I grabbed my binoculars and put on a camouflage sweat shirt. I was anxious to see if there were any big antelope bucks hiding out there somewhere in the terrain. I looked at the camera bag containing the old Leica, film and the assortment of lenses. I shook my head slightly in exasperation as I thought of the cumbersome extra weight.
And then, “OK, OK, I will take it with me”, I told myself with guilty reluctance. The possibility of encountering a photographic subject for my assignment had really been just a rationalization to scout for antelope.
I set off in a stealthy walk toward the sandstone faces and tiny artery of creek. I decided along the way to get up to the top of the little rises. There I planned to sit and glass, letting the powerful eyes of the binoculars close the gap between me and a horizon that had no end. As I ascended a distinct game trail along the side of the tiny cliffs my eyes became level with the top surface of the butte. The density of mist had increased. It chugged and boiled slowly along the top of the stony surface. Each seductive billow and hollow created a visual incident which appeared, then disappeared, and then materialized again, ghostly, with prisms of color that trembled as the sun caught the movement of the vapors. A magical dance of ground rainbows.
Directly in front of me, my eyes still level with the surface of the top of the warming rocks was a cluster of foxtail. They were bathed in sunlight, their pine cone like tips bristled with soft feathery golden spires, a perfect foreground to the rainbows performing on the stage of earth just behind them. The morning fog swirled and clung to the rapidly warming surface of the rise, the backdrop as cerulean a blue sky as one could imagine.
I forgot my quest for antelope. In wonder, I opened the camera bag. I glanced again and again at the scene dreadfully sure it would disappear before I got the camera out and ready. In those days, my set up for a shot was a far more arduous task than my now proficient and instantaneous shoot and click.
I leaned my elbows against the lip of the ridge to steady the frame. I shot more than two rolls of pictures. Close ups, wide angles, varying depths of field and focus, numerous exposure settings. I was enthralled. It was my realization. The land itself was subject matter. In retrospect, it was in those few minutes that day that I became a landscape photographer. The Antelope scouting mission was forgotten, replaced by the wonder of the surreal scene, and the painting of a moment, mystical in its birth, ever changing, finally gone, never to be exactly repeated.
I hurried back to the bronco and screamed down Colorado 14, headed west. I could hardly wait to get to the lab to develop the prints.
To be continued . . .
Read the Complete Photo Series
- A Photo Beginning
- Spring Morning
- One of a Kind
- Sensory Perception