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The Grand Canyon

October 20, 2009

A few months ago, perhaps a year by now, I was able to visit Arizona’s Grand Canyon for the first time. I’d lived in Arizona before but never made the short trip north to see this massive hole.

But alas, I finally had specific reasons for going, and going we did. I had plans for my images, or at least what I thought were plans. It always seems like the best intentions end up being remodeled shortly after getting to “the field,” and my Grand Canyon snaps were no exception.

I had my trusty Hasselblad, and Tri-x, and really wanted to concentrate on making those images. For me, there was no real reason to go to the Grand Canyon and shoot beautiful scenic images. Why? Well, that is not what I do, and frankly, I’ve just seen far too many of these photographs.

I think places like the Grand Canyon are impossible to capture on a still image, or motion video. NOTHING compares to being there, standing with your toes over the edge, wondering just how awful your afternoon would feel if you happened to slip.

So for me, all I do is do my style images, regardless of where I am, or what the subject matter is, and this is what I attempted at the big hole.


Luckily for me, the Grand Canyon sees a lot of visitors, and many of these visitors explode on the canyon in a sea of color and synthetic fabrics. There are staggering statistics about how many people drive into the park, never leave their car, then drive away. And, there are other statistics about how many people spend less than two hours in the park. I get it, and I don’t get it. I know for a lot of people, people who grow up in the city, that being off the pavement is an alarming feeling. They are never without television, fast food and their trusty cell phone, and you can see a lot of these folks in the park. I applaud them for venturing out. But, there are also a lot of people who do get out of the car and out into the park. They hike, trek, wander, amble and mass in the “view spots” waiting for just the right moment.

What was very interesting to me was the number of folks from other countries. Being me, I took to interviewing these people in regards to their experiences in America and about what the Grand Canyon really meant to them. I was surprised to find how important this place was to these folks, and in many cases, visiting the Grand Canyon was the number one reason for coming to the States. It was the United Nations of visitors. I told most of these people there were plans to fill in the great canyon and pave over the river. Just kidding.


This place has to be photographed as much as any location in the world. If you are looking for the hordes of amateur snappers, look no further. They are en mass and the only thing you really hear at sunrise is “whirl, click, whirl, click, whirl, click,” and then if you listen very carefully you can hear all the snappers pressing the buttons on the back of their cameras, chimping the Grand Canyon as if for some strange reason something would change in between the eight hundred images they made. But their gear makes great foregrounds. Thanks amigos.


Yes I’m interested in the hole, but I’m far more interested in the humanity that visits the hole, and the “culture” that our great park people have created for all those visiting. I mean look at the gift shop/supply center. When I see a place like this I just cringe and try to speak Polish or Spanish or Berber to make it appear as if I’m not from the culture that would actually design, build and release a look like this on unsuspecting tourists. World, I apologize. I did unload my eight-gauge pump shotgun into that elk.


You spend enough time on the park tours, with family, and at some point your world comes crashing down. It’s never pretty. People just stop, drop and flop. Dads. Moms. Uncles. There is no immunity, especially when you are trying to “do the park,” in four hours. But thanks for trying, makes good snaps. Park service humanitarians circle the park with smelling salts, buckets of frigid water and electrical clamps.


I always wonder what happens with all these tiny digital photographs. The statistics tell me that NOTHING happens with them. They are never archived, never printed and are never around after about eight months after being taken. It’s too bad. For me, photography has always been about recording and archiving history, so this new technique puzzles me. But at sunrise and sunsets the foreground is FILLED with tiny, glowing screens.


I never thought of wearing a suit to the canyon rim, but I think I like it. Keep it casual and you blend in, but wear a fur collar or speedo and your instantly as interesting as the view itself. Kudos my traveling brother.


As you can imagine, I’ve got a lot of images of people from behind, staring into the abyss, or at the sky, or at each other, or at nothing, or at the back of their camera. Well, after all, it is fairly difficult to get in front of people when they are standing at the edge of a thousand foot cliff. Deal with it people.
But, some of these images I really like. I can stare at this image forever, wondering what the back story is. Is this their first trip? How did they get here? How long are they here? Do people stare at them? Do they care?


Oh ya, shadow play. I’m not immune to it. I embrace it. Like a reflection in a car window. Yep, I’ll take that too. “Ah sir, I’ll have an order of cliche with a side of trendy.” If you look closely you can just see the fast food billboards on the horizon. Just to the left of the waterpark.


I end with this picture because I know this guy. I don’t actually know this guy, but I think we all “know this guy.” Yep, he was doing the same thing in the lunch line in elementary school. He was doing the same thing on field trips in high school, and as an “adult” he continues this trend.
I love it. We all WANT to do it, but yet he is the only one to actually do it. Listen up kids, this is the guy to follow. He will take you to the edge, maybe over a tiny bit. Someone did slip, fall and die when were there there. Really sad right? Well, not as sad as the fact we heard it was a small child who fell, and then the father tried to save them and he ended up falling too. I can’t imagine.

On a side note. All these images were made with a 25-year-old Olympus OM4-Ti, which is an old school, 35mm camera, which hasn’t been produced for years. The lens was a 35mm, f/2 I believe. I bought this camera on a whim, don’t have it anymore, but loved it while I had it. The lens, which was also very old, came apart, so I ended up selling the body. It was so small, and quiet, and nobody paid any attention to me. They probably thought, “Hey, who is the loser with the old film camera?” as they ran back to their RV’s to plug in, download, edit, edit, edit, archive, upload and podcast, blog, email, Twitter and Facebook every single image (5000 +) they shot during the sunrise, instantly sapping all power from their pictures.
Me, I went to the cafeteria and watched Europeans try to figure out the food the park service has crafted from the devil’s shopping list. I’ve never seen anything like it. “Do you have any vegetables?” they would ask, as the cafeteria worker would say, “No, but we do have macaroni and cheese,” as if this was in the same ball park. Pizza, hotdogs, soda, chips, candy, overcooked pasta with ketchup as sauce and a plethora of other evil concoctions greeted the ravenous crowds!! How about some empty calories for your hike???? I actually really enjoyed this part of the park, I really did. Next time, I’m bringing my camp stove. I’ll have to leave my backup to the backup to the backup hard drive, but I think I can risk it.

The Grand Canyon is a grand place, it really is, and the culture that surrounds it, or lack there of, is equally interesting. I took this place for granted, but not anymore. I’ve got a new found appreciation.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul permalink
    October 23, 2009 11:04 pm

    that amish/mennonite photo is Awe.some.

    • October 26, 2009 5:16 pm

      Thanks P,
      I really like that one too. Actually, I like almost all of those I posted. I’d really forgotten about them because I spent my time with the black and whites.

  2. October 26, 2009 6:48 pm

    I love this blog entry Dan. I read every word. I don’t usually do that. I like the way you think. I really enjoy your uncensored thoughts. I don’t think you are the only one who has felt this way about the Grand Canyon. I’ve only been there once and it took me a while to ‘get it’ and I still don’t think I did. You are a wonderful storyteller and I hope you make this in to a book. Thank you so much for sharing. (ps, met you at MVS workshop last march).

    • October 26, 2009 6:51 pm

      Hey Janet,

      Thank you very much for reading, and thank you for saying that. I had really forgotten about these images. The GC is such a magnetic place, but for me was a real learning experience about what a place like this means to other people. I guess I had my blinders on before.

  3. October 29, 2009 2:17 am

    Hi Dan,
    Like Janet, read every word, enjoyed all the images, loved the article. Your writing always brings me down to earth (it grounds me). Or… lifts me up, whatever the case may be, it’s always good! Thx for sharing.
    Charlene aka Irenee Dove

    • October 29, 2009 5:12 pm

      Thank you for reading. I think this post has been a good learning experience for me. A lot of people seem to like the story behind the images. I’ve got another on the way.

  4. October 29, 2009 5:39 am

    This is one of my favorite posts from you and it’s really great to read about the process that goes behind the creative image making. I particularly liked the description of the Europeans trying to find something to eat. The more I travel in Europe the more it seems their food is becoming too much like ours. Painful and nothing like that place in Hollywood.

    • October 29, 2009 5:14 pm

      Glad you like it. Interesting to hear the feedback about this post. I’ll do more in the same vein. The food thing was really interesting, because in my opinion, the food there, besides one restaurant I thought was good, was truly awful. I really felt bad for the travelers standing in the cafeteria line with looks of distress.

    • October 29, 2009 5:15 pm

      Zankou Chicken!!!!

  5. October 29, 2009 7:19 pm

    I didn’t make it back to Freestyle the following week and was jonesing for one of those sandwiches! I was going to try the steak this time. Still sounds good!

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