Photographer / Author

One of the places I’m not likely to photograph again…

Morning below S.O.B. Draw, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado, 7:30 A.M. Saturday September 18, 1993
David Halpern

David Halpern

In the fall of 1993, I was working as artist-in-residence for the second time at Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I had been there in 1989 and made several very acceptable images, but I had been overwhelmed by the incredible range of light values that I had to work with. It far exceeded anything I had expected and I had to make compromises when exposing my film, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. The film was incapable of recording all the values, even if I diluted my film developer, extended the development times and processed each exposure individually. So between 1989 and 1993, I developed a proficiency with the process of pre-exposure, which allowed me to record detail in the darkest shadow areas of scenes without over exposing the highlights.

The example above demonstrates the effect of pre-exposure. (For you “techies,” readings with my Pentax spot meter told me that the difference between the light level on the foreground rocks and water and the light on the top of the rock wall 1800 feet above was equivalent to between fourteen and fifteen f/stops. The sky was even brighter, yet with pre-exposure and carefully controlled development, I was able to hold detail everywhere in the scene so that with a bit of dodging and burning I could make a very acceptable print. The image shown here was reproduced from a digital scan of the 4″ x 5″ negative and represents a more significant improvement of the original film exposure). Making a picture like this requires a good deal of planning and set-up time, beginning with first light and ending with the final exposure when the light reached an acceptable level. In this instance, I set up the camera around 6:00 A.M. and made the final exposure an hour-and-a-half later.

Please note the title of the image. S.O.B. is an appropriate name for the draw I climbed from the rim to make the picture. For that reason, I did not climb it alone. My partner, Don Carrington, a friend from Tulsa, accompanied me on this overnighter that began on Friday September 17. The hike descended 1800 feet in one and three quarter miles. Although there were occasional sections of the route that appeared to be developed trail, these vanished as we moved deeper into the canyon. Our way became very rocky, extremely steep and difficult to navigate by someone loaded down with a pack full of heavy large format photographic gear as well as camping necessities.

I had already made my way to the river by three other routes that tested my strength and judgment, I found parts of S.O.B. Draw downright frightening. Including a rock ledge that was infested with large poison ivy plants that couldn’t be avoided. Not having followed this route before, I also found myself backtracking on occasion and spending much more time than the two hours that park information suggested the hike required. But, the views downriver were spectacular and we had all afternoon to get to the river. There was no need to hurry. Still, by the time we reached our destination—a grassy flat beside a gravel beach—and set up our camp, daylight was waning. I collapsed on the grass and rested my head on my pack which was supported by a log and waited for Don, who had been a short distance behind, to join me.

The following excerpt from my journal describes my feelings as I laid there by the river:

“…the last light of day reflected off the canyon walls upriver. The downstream walls were already becoming dark. I watched the water and thought how much wider the river was and how much larger the rocks were than I had anticipated when I saw them from the rim. The distances seemed greater, too. I said out loud, ‘God, you made a beautiful place.’ I prayed for the stamina to get out of the canyon the following day, and I made a promise to the Eternal that if He would deliver me from this place, I would behave myself and never return. I meant it! I was truly frightened, for myself and for my companion who appeared to be suffering from a mild attack of altitude sickness.”

It’s interesting to note that I made only two photographs during our two-day hiking experience; the one above and one more looking upstream, both on Saturday morning. However, one measures the success of such an experience by the quality and not the quantity of the photographs made. The truth is, I was prepared to make several more, but the physical effort required and the attention I had to give to my safety required most of my energy. The hike back up to the rim took just four hours and fifteen minutes, only slightly longer than the “advertised” time and the climb was much less difficult that we had anticipated. Don had recovered from his altitude sickness and both of were energized by the experience. Still, it is not something I will do again. The photographs have been made, and besides, I promised…

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