Once Wandered

I just don’t know what to make of this. There’s too much wrapped up in it for me to be unbiased. Buckle in, this is a long one.

I first saw this shot on the cover of a Terry Tempest Williams’ book called The Hour of Land. The photo, taken by Mark Klett in 1982, was inspirational. The photos I was typically seeing of Wilson Arch were straight on. It looked like a big chunky mess. I had to see how such a large slab of rock could look this delicate.

So, maybe twenty-five miles south of Moab, we pulled over to make the half-mile hike. Half-mile hikes aren’t actually hikes. They’re just walks. But this was several hundred feet up. This was more of a scramble than anything.

Even that would be fine, except I’ve got my Tiltall tripod in one hand, and the Crown Graphic 4×5 slung over my shoulder. My camera bag (actually a large Timbuk2 bag), holding several other cameras as well as three film holders, was slung over my other shoulder.

I wanted two things out of this photo:
First, no people in it. Klett’s original photograph includes a person, which really gives the arch scale (this thing is huge), but I wanted to not do that.
Second, I wanted to nail the exposure.

Waiting for people to leave the arch gave me the time to set up the shot. This place wasn’t busy, but there were a couple of families doing their thing, and I really didn’t want to interrupt them.

I knew that I needed a wide angle lens, so that meant using the Graphex Optar 90mm. 90mm isn’t incredibly wide, which is fine, because I’ve seen some super wide shots of Wilson Arch and they look bonkers. I wanted something a bit more realistic.

When the original photo was taken, it was likely evening. When I took mine, it was late morning. The sun was illuminating the “wrong” side of the arch. This mean that I really needed to nail the exposure. I stood a good change of blowing out the back or blacking out the entire face of the arch.

Since I have no real idea what I’m doing, I selected Kodak Ektapan. The stuff I have expired in 1981 (which means that Klett and I could very well have shared film!), and I was shooting it at 40iso (it was originally meant to be shot at 100. I probably should have been shooting it at 32iso or even 20, but I wasn’t, so whatever.

Ektapan is a weird film. I’ve not figured it out. Though it’s technically a “conventional” film like Tri-X and Ilford Pan F+/FP4+, it’s got more going on than you’d think. According to Anchell & Troop’s Film Developing Cookbook, Ektapan was “designed by Kodak as a large format black and white studio film. It has a complex double coating of two emulsions with different speeds and different contrasts. The goal is to provide ideal tone reproduction in low flare settings.” Okay? Okay!

In theory, that’s perfect. In practice, my batch of Ektapan is probably a bit old.

Now is a good time to mention that I’m afraid of heights. As soon as I got to the top, I went to the far reach of the arch to meter the shadows and immediately had a panic attack. Sarah, moving along behind me, asks, “are you okay?” I promptly replied, “No.” Fortunately, she understood that I wasn’t in any real danger or in need of any help.

It’s not even a fear so much as it’s ‘L’appel du vide’ – roughly translated as ‘the call of the void.’ I don’t like the word “call” here, as I feel “the appeal” is more accurate, especially if you use it as a verb. It’s not just a call, but an “urgent” call. And yet, an appeal is more friendly. This l’appel du vide is casual, it’s sneaky. I hate it.

So I gathered myself, took a few other shots with those random other cameras, and settled in to let the families do their family thing.

When the crowds finally cleared, I took my shot. According to my notes, I took only one photo, and I didn’t record what I did. I literally had Sarah jot down “Wilson Arch – Ektapan – Crown, Wide. 14B [denoting the film holder].” There’s not much to go on.

I then packed it up, scrambled back down the cliff, and we drove away. When we got home, I wanted to make sure that if I messed up the exposure (which I was certain that I did), I could develop it in such a way that it wouldn’t matter as much.

That’s when I came across the Crawley/Adams “minimal agitation” method using HC-110 with a 1+90 dilution for 18 mins.

The problem is that I’m not really sure what I think of it. Part of me is happy that it’s not just a mirror of Klett’s “Beneath the Great Arch.” And yet, I wish the sun had been where it was in Klett’s photo.

There are, as you can see, some issues with it. Part of the arch is indeed blown out, as is the sky. And on the other side of things, the left corners are fully black. Still, given my limitations, I don’t think I could have done better. And yes, there are some developing errors/dirt/whatever at the top. I’m fine with that.

It’s not the perfect photo. It’s not even the photo I wanted. But it’s the photo I came away with, so I’m more or less happy with it.

‘Once Wandered’

Camera: Crown Graphic (1962); Graphex Optar 90mm f/6.8
Film: Kodak Ektapan @40iso; x-01/1981
Process: Rodinal; 1+50; 9mins

Wilson Arch, Utah


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