Bisti Badlands—and Photographic Growth

April 15, 2019

Badlands hold a strong fascination for me due to the plethora of FORM one finds there. Generally located in dry, desert terrain, the setting itself offers much to delight the eye. The desert surface displays dried and drying mud, petrified wood, scatterings of quartz and other rocks, and contrasting strata across the vertical walls, high and low. Then perched on top of this are the land formations themselves: the gullies and mounds, and above all the hoodoos & caprocks: earth protrusions that are often the products of the erosion of the ground, leaving the more solid mudstone standing, to be sculpted by wind and water over the millennia into fantastic shapes.

The National Park named for badlands is in South Dakota, 63 miles east of Rapid City. North Dakota has its badlands national park, too, except that it’s called Theodore Roosevelt Memorial National Park and consists of three sections. Badlands with significant hoodoos are found throughout the West. Utah has many, though not all are called badlands, for example Bryce Canyon and Goblin Valley.

One of my favorites, though, is Bisti Badlands, aka Bisti Wilderness, aka De-Na-Zin Wilderness, 37 miles south of Farmington, New Mexico, on route 371. I’ve been there twice, once in 2012 and once in 2016. In 2012 I left my images in color. I liked them well enough, but I didn’t consider them among my most powerful. They didn’t capture the drama and wonder of being there. After all, when there, you’re surrounded by all those weird shapes and textures; you almost don’t know which way to turn there’s so much richness. I took a few  photos that I liked, and maybe if I had been doing panoramas I would have captured something closer to my experience. Here are a few from that visit. (Captions are beneath the images.)


Towards the end of a sunny day, here are two buttes, the first ringed with caprocks, the second graced with striking bands. The desert floor is littered with red rock fragments. Not bad, but illustrative, a scene, not really art.


A family of caprocks on faintly banded pedestals. Again, not bad, and you certainly won’t find this in New Jersey. The blue sky and pale yellow mudstone compete for attention with the form of the rocks. Again: illustrative, not rising to the level of transporting you to a fantastic, unreal place. It’s real, it’s factual, it’s interesting, but no more.


The most vividly colorful image I captured that day. It has strong foreground form, a good background sense of multiplicity, a catchy shadow, and rich, distracting color. Still purely illustrative.


The most outstanding caprock, which I call “Big Nose.” A straight portrait with idyllic sky. I’ve since seen better in other photographers’ hands.


A mud mosaic in a wash, where the extremely angular light adds starkness to the pattern—but it is a pattern rather than a composition. Master nature photographer David Muench came up with the term “mud mosaic” in his 1979 book Desert Images (text by Edward Abbey). Muench restricted himself to patterns, such as this one, with some receding ones from foreground to background.


Sand and mud in another wash create a surprising formal pattern. There are many interesting smaller forms in this image that I didn’t see at the time.

After my second visit, in November 2016, I realized that I could make stronger photographs by converting them to black and white. The colors just weren’t all that compelling, and I didn’t want to oversaturate them. So out they went. But I was also seeing more in the overwhelming sea of forms surrounding me. Just looking on the ground,  crossing the wide arroyo between the parking lot and the beginning of the hoodoos, the dried mud was mind-boggling. 


A receding mud mosaic pattern, similar to David Muench’s originals in Desert Images (1979), with an in-focus foreground and background setting. Not in Earthforms.

Two of my favorite images of Bisti that did wind up in EARTHFORMS also come from that nearly mile-wide playa.


The hoodoos pretty much stay the same from visit to visit, but the mud mosaics change radically, with the rhythms of the rare rainstorms and their drying. Plus, this was in November, whereas the first visit was in August. The radical curling of these mud plaques as they lined up inside of rays spreading from the center top is enhanced by the deep shadows of the bright sun. In color it would have been a monotonous drab brown. I saw a strong, even aggressive assertiveness, so I entitled this one Mud Mosaic Arrabiata, after the spicy, literally “angry,” tomato sauce, p. 32.


Here we’ve definitively moved from pattern, (see above re: David Muench) to complex composition. The image rewards extended looking. Not only is it full of formal variety and even a subtle iridescence, but you can actually tease out three separate rainstorms, so there’s a virtual temporal depth. It’s title: Palimpsest, pp. 34-35. It reminds me of the kind of multi-layered complexity you find in some of the paintings of the great Chilean Surrealist, Roberto Matta (1911–2002).


The dried mud is so rich in form, that I just discovered this one recently, after the book was already out. Here I raised the contrast and turned this vertical on its side counter-clockwise, ending up with what could look like a valley with a mountain pass in the upper left. And the small erect mud cracks left of the lower center could be an invading army (of orcs…).



Two images of washes that, strangely, seem to be positives and negatives of each other. Each is perfectly factual, however. The monochrome treatment renders the contrast starkly. Both are in the book, pp. 36–37.


Native Mount Rushmore. This formation of segmented cracked washes underlying a row of caprocks seemed to me to be a metaphor of depth, historical or psychological. The “proud” caprocks on top seemed to represent venerated indigenous ancestors (more numerous than the four Presidents on the South Dakota Mount) and the layers, banded and cracked underneath, felt to me like the receding generations of spirits that underlay them—but you can see anything you like in it.


Here’s the same “big-nose” caprock seen earlier in color, but now he dominates a group of smaller ones, while obscuring the sun, against a wispy cirrus sky—a stroke of meterological luck. This one is in the book, entitled Caprock Eclipses the Sun, p. 39.


Finally, here’s a dramatic overview of banded hoodoos with “fingers” that I didn’t even notice the first time I edited my 2016 Bisti images. It’s in the book as Unreal City (a quote from T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland) on p. 38.

By not distracting the eye with the stimulation of color, the viewer’s mind is left to invest the image with emotion or fantasy, so the visual experience may end up stronger since less is given.

When color is essential to the image, of course, it should remain, as it does in most of the images in the book. But when it isn’t, its inclusion will only weaken the powerful effect of form, which, without color, may be enhanced by dialing up the contrast or the detail structure latent in the digital file.

I end this blogpost with an image of the iconic Shiprock, a volcanic plug 1583 feet (482.5 meters) tall, sacred to the Navajos, about 75 miles from Bisti. I desaturated it, toning down the color but not eliminating it, to emphasize the strong frame that the backlit grass fringe provides in the foreground.


Earthforms, pp. 40-41.


Joel Simpson

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