Don McGowan

Don McGowan

Friday, 24 January 2020 11:42

The Intricacy of Mud Dabbers

Even in the low-contrast light of  an overcast sunset late-afternoon, Fisher Towers is a remarkable piece of Earth. As they emerge from the larger mesa on the left, these spires of Cutler Sandstone, capped with Moenkopi Sandstone and stuccoed over with iron-rich red mud, stand out in wonderment. The geologic forces that began the erosional cycle of the towers originated with the igneous intrusion of a great laccolith that is seen now as the La Sal Mountain peaks, reaching 12,000+', dark in the background. Unseen at my feet, the Colorado River churns its way to destiny.

This land is "owned" by the Bureau of Land Management, BLM, which means it is owned by all of us; and as "Public Land" it is our job to see that it is preserved for everyone to enjoy. The "Colorado River Road," Utah Highway 128 is fairly short, but it is filled with the beauty of landscapes such as this. My dear friend, Kevin Desrosiers, and I came upon this scene a couple of years ago as we headed for Moab down the River Road.

A focal length of 210mm, the extreme long-end of medium-telephotoland, gave me the relatively narrow slice of the scene that I wanted and some magnification, as well. An aperture of f/20 with the camera-to-subject distance, provided depth-of-field; and a shutter speed of 2.0 seconds in the waning light at ISO 100 gave me an overall medium exposure.

This land is our land. I think it's time we began to treat it, as every other aspect of our Democracy, as what it is, which is to say "Sacred."

Friday, 17 January 2020 18:21

An Icon in Green

Along the eastern base of Dorr Mountain, a mere 357' lower in elevation than Cadillac Mountain, the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet left a deep cleft in the granitic rocks, which eventually filled in to become a small glacial pond called the "Tarn." (Of course, the ice sheet itself was several miles thick.) A short walk through the woods at the northern end of the Tarn brings you to a very special area in the floodplain of Cromwell Creek, Sieur de Monts Spring, an ancient water source used by the native Penobscot (Wabanaki), as well as early White Settlers. Ultimately the spring came to be the property of George Dorr, the "Father of Acadia National Park," and thus, eventually, a part of Acadia. The land around the spring is low and moist, a perfect ecosystem for a variety of ferns that seem to grow abundantly and thickly.

A focal length of 32mm, in the long end of wide-angleland, gave me the angle of view I wanted: a broad, but intimate, swath of the woodland scene. An aperture of f/16 provided depth-of-field; and a shutter speed of 1/5th second was obtained with an ISO of 400.That ISO/aperture combination was three-stops faster than what I would have achieved at ISO 100; f/22; and it allowed me to freeze the motion of a slight morning breeze wafting through the forest.

The beauty of Acadia, so iconically apparent driving along the Park Loop Road, is no less so in the many out of the way places that stitch the rocks together into the fabric of Pemetic, the Sloping Land.

Friday, 10 January 2020 17:13

The Hangout of Saint Rafael

 When the great, roughly ovular uplift that became the San Rafael Swell was formed, the lands to the south and east came ultimately to lie within the rain shadow of the imposing uplifts, and the lands it circumscribed became known as the San Rafael Desert. How apt it is that San Rafael, the beloved angelic being, is charged with healing both the Earth and humankind. This landscape is beautiful and barren, if you are not familiar with the life of the desert; but if you are reasonably attentive, you quickly recognize that the San Rafael is a sea of living things, including the rocks and the soils they become. The San Rafael is life itself: often hard, harsh, and prickly. This land belongs to all of us, and to become familiar with it is to open a doorway into how we manage the Commons for the benefit of the many rather than the few.

With the early morning sun at an angle left-to-right behind me, a focal length of 108mm, surprising in that it actually represents short-telephotoland rather than wide-angleland, gave me the somewhat-narrower-than-you-might-imagine-angle-of-view. An aperture of f/20, focused about a third of the distance between the closest foreground and camera infinity, which in this instance was about the tilted rock slab in from the bottom of the frame, gave me depth-of-field; and with a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second at ISO 100, created a medium exposure.

Perhaps the give-away that this is not wide-angle work is the relative size of the background uplifts which would "appear" smaller if seen through wide-angle focal lengths. The San Rafael Desert is a spectacular example of how easily great beauty can become lost in the Southwest's greater icons; Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef, and the others. Please join me in advocating for the San Rafael Deserts of our world. They are too precious to lose.  

Friday, 27 December 2019 07:53

O Yei, O Yei and Totem

The Gypsum Creek Watershed of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park carves its path among ancient dunes that rise up and away toward the south where they meet the lithic fastness of iconic rock: The Totem, standing tall and singular, and the Yei Bi Chei, the Holy People of Navajo cosmology. The northwesterly winds ripple the dunes into amazing shallow patterns that cast the rising sun into shadows in the narrow defiles between the tiny ridges. Enough moisture comes so that rabbitbrush and a host of sand-loving species can gain a foothold. Mule deer come and go leaving hoofprints as they pass. The Desert Southwest is beautifully spiritual and spiritual beauty, no matter how it is seen.

A focal length of 25mm, somewhere in mid-wideangleland, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted from about 1' above the sand. An aperture of f/22 provided depth-of-field, and a shutter speed of 1/4th second in the motionless air at ISO 100 made for a medium exposure. To be in this location at this hour requires working with a Navajo guide who understands the gravity of being in the Park enough before sunrise to be at Gypsum Creek and the dunes at the first blush of dawn. This land is sacred and must be approached in such a way.

Monument Valley is a photographer's Eden. It is not a theme park. Approach it as if you are entering a holy shrine, and it will reveal itself slowly to your delight.

Saturday, 21 December 2019 00:16

Looking In, Looking Out

The original portion of the structure of the Henry Peek home in the Ebbs Chapel Township of Madison County, North Carolina was built sometime around the turn of the Twentieth Century up on the side of a hill across the then dirt road that traced the run of Big Laurel Creek on its way to becoming Laurel River. When the last of the Peek family who lived in the home moved out fifteen or twenty years ago, it is almost as if they walked out, leaving the old home just as it was when occupied, ceding structure and contents to the eventually encompassing arms of the natural world. Just below the house, along the edge of the now-paved road, the once-lovely old stock barn-converted-to- accommodate-Burley-tobacco anticipates a similar fate. The Henry Peek barn is the final barn we documented for our upcoming book on the Appalachian barn tradition of Madison County.

A focal length of 78mm, very short telephotoland, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted, which revealed the entire width of all of the panes of glass in the window, but cropped off the tops and bottoms of those same panes, thus showing most, but not all, of the window casing. An aperture of f/20 provided depth-of-field from the near window to the far window, and a shutter speed of 1.3 seconds at ISO 100 gave me a slightly darker-than-medium exposure. Rather than opting for full polarization to eliminate all glare from the near glass, I allowed for a very small amount of glare so that the texture of the old glass could be slightly seen. This was done to enhance the "old house" look.

When I am in the presence of these wonderful old structures, I hear the voices of ghosts who remind me of the lives lived in times beyond my reckoning and the obligations I owe them for the paths they revealed that I now walk.




Friday, 13 December 2019 18:29

Just Low to the Ground

On a northeastern edge of Hiawatha National Forest in the amazing Upper Peninsula of Michigan there is a small experimental forest which I have observed for many years as I have gone to and fro in my wanderings through The Hiawatha. The soils of this part of the peninsula are mostly the mixed sands of ancient dunes which have blended over the millenia with the organic leavings of the great forests. They grow conifer and maple forests very well, but they also support a variety of low-growing groundcovers, reindeer lichens (Cladonia) low-bush cranberries and blueberries (Vaccinia). By the 1930's essentially all of the great forests of the Upper Peninsula had been cut, and the succession that occured in the wake of this left open meadows that are studied today for their growth patterns.

A focal length of 35mm, the high end of wideangle-land, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted from about 12" above the ground. An aperture of f/18 provided depth-of-field and, combined with ISO 400, allowed me to achieve a shutter speed of 1/10th second: a slightly lighter-than-medium exposure and a way to stop the slow motion in the slender blades of grass from the wafting morning air.

Kitchi Gami is a land of beautiful places and The Hiawatha is a fertile ground from which this beauty springs. As long as we preserve the forest, the beauty remains ours.

Saturday, 07 December 2019 18:29

Eastward from Burr Trail

It must have been with no small satisfaction that John Burr could look back, having gained the top of the tortuous incline that he had created and which now bears his name, the Burr Trail (Road), and appreciate the distant Henry Mountains now behind him, the Waterpocket Fold below him, and the San Rafael Swell at his feet. Burr's cattle trail gave his family access for their herds between their summer grazing homestead in Burrville, 154 miles to the northwest, and the winter grazing grounds near the base of the Henrys. The route of Burr's trail remains today a visual delight, a geologic wonder of ancient rocks carved by water and wind; buttes and mesas that soar above deepening canyons; tilting strata of stone shaded in every warm tone of the eye's imagination.

A focal length of 180mm, moderate telephoto-land, gave me the narrow field-of-view I wanted with the many-folded side of Swap Mesa and the erosion-exposed, laccolith-spawned Henrys in the distance, with magnification and compression for emphasis. An aperture of f/18 provided depth-of-field, and a shutter speed of 1/15th second at ISO 100 gave me an overall slightly-lighter-than-medium exposure, which still served to darken the shaded foreground ridge that was somewhat backlit at the time.

Although this land is under the protection of the National Park Service, it sits next door to the troubled Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, equally beautiful and equally in need of our attention and effort to protect.

Saturday, 30 November 2019 20:58

Who Do?

One hundred and sixty million years ago a deposit of creamy, erosive entrada sandstone was laid down in the shallows of an inland sea in what is now southern Utah. Sixty million years later, along the margins of a younger shore, a harder, more resistent layer of sandstone, called Dakota, came to be deposited over the Entrada. Over time, both layers were covered over with additional strata, which eventually eroded away exposing the Dakota-overlaid Entrada. As this eroded, it produced amazing white columns topped with dark-capped, small-grained, igneous-pebbled conglomerate. Thus were created the amazing Wahweap Hoodoos of the southern edge of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where Wahweap Creek empties into the Colorado River now flowing beneath the mudhole of Lake Powell.

A focal length of 292mm from about 30 yards away allowed me to magnify the relatively small hoodoo and compress it with its background, the wall of the Entrada deposit. It also allowed me to control the background and elininate the sky from the composition. An aperture of f/20 provided depth-of-field and a shutter speed of 1/13th second at ISO 100 gave me an overall slightly lighter-than-medium exposure.

Even though the hoodoos of the Wahweap remain within the reduced margins of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and are thus still afforded some protection, the monument itself has been reduced in size by 47%, from nearly 2 million acres to just over 1 million; and places just as wondrous as the Wahweap have been stripped of protection and laid bare to loosely regulated mining development, expanded grazing, and other forms of exploitation. In the mountains of the Southern Appalachians, the GSENM may seem far away and beyond the need to consider, but our public lands are under attack, and if we wish to continue to have them, we must be willing to fight for their continued existence. Like the Wahweap, they are all special. 

Saturday, 23 November 2019 08:37


I was always taught that when the weather is changing, it's time to go outside. So about a month ago I took a student to Pounding Mill Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway for sunrise. We knew from the forecast the day prior that there was a good possibility that the valleys on the south side of the great run of the Pisgah Ridge above the Cradle of Forestry in America would be filled with fog. When we arrived we were not disappointed; and to our delight, the clouds below us were a vast sea of tumultuousness, weather in motion as it were, and the sun rising above the fray gave birth to meterologic energy in motion.

A focal length of 200mm gave me the moderate telephoto angle-of-view I wanted, creating compression and magnification, and allowing for the isolation of a specific portion of the valley below me. An aperture of f/16 provided depth-of-field from the camera-to-subject distance. It also allowed me to hold the ISO at 100 and still have a shutter speed of 1/30th second, fast enough to essentially stop the motion in the moving clouds.

It's raining in Western North Carolina today. When it begins to slow to stopping, get your gear and go play. You will likely be rewarded for the effort.


Saturday, 16 November 2019 22:09

Pointillist Redux

When autumn leaves start to fall, it might be a good time to consider intentional camera movement as a creative technique. What I realize more and more is that there are a number of unique approaches to the ICM idea and that it is well to try all of them as an opportunity presents itself. This Image was created along the Foothills Parkway East in Cocke County, Tennessee during the same adventure that gave being to the previous This Week's Image. I think that "pointillist" is an apt way of describing the outcome here, which can be pre-conceived and executed with just a bit of practice.

A focal length of 98mm, definitely short-telephotoland, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted, allowing for sufficient camera movement without introducing "sky" into the frame. An aperture of f/18 meant that there would be some sense of detail at depth in the image, and a shutter speed of 3.0 seconds at ISO 100 meant that there would be sufficient time in the exposure to carry out the complete technique, since the small aperture and small ISO number provided a longer shutter time than larger openings and greater sensitivity would have allowed.

Pointillism suggests a technique of painting in which small dots of color are applied to a surface in patterns that form images. In this particular movement approach, the allowance for detail in the elements of the composition created by specific steps in the process give a "pointillist" outcome to the result.



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