RockQuest, August 2019.1: PLOUMENAC’H

My partner, Pam, and I had visited Sardinia last year, finding it full of fascinating rocks and archeological sites. So I figured this year we should look for the same in Corsica, situated just north of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea. This island, about a third the size of Sardinia, turned out to be even more provocatively geological, along with its share of Bronze Age archeology, despite also being a major tourist destination for Europeans. It apparently hasn’t been discovered yet by American travel agencies, although many in the hospitality industry there speak good English. But I decided that before landing on the island, we should investigate at least two geological locations that were significant inspirations for Surrealist painters: Ploumenac’h which is supposed to have influenced French Surrealist artist Yves Tanguy (1900–1955; see examples of his paintings on the web) and Cap de Creus, continental Spain’s most easterly point, located on the Costa Brava, which Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) enthusiastically speaks of as influencing him.

So we flew into Paris, arriving August 1, and gave ourselves two days there seeing old and new friends in Paris and little else, other than an evening walk along the Seine and a visit to the construction site of Notre Dame cathedral.


I had come across a photographer’s website featuring images of the rocks on the Isle of Ouessant, (Ushant in English), France’s westernmost point. I had hitchhiked around Brittany with my French girlfriend in 1969, including an overnight visit to Ouessant, so this was my 50-year anniversary return. I wrote to the photographer, Elisabeth LaPlante, and she and her husband Thierry agreed to meet us in Paris for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant, Böl, which turned out to be excellent.


My lunch at Böl. Notice the böls (boules, balls). Very tasty.


Elisabeth LaPlante and her husband, Thierry

We spent about 3 hours together; I gave her my book, and she gave me hers, a small paperback of images of the face-like rocks on Ouessant. She also told me where to find them on the island.

On August 3, we took a train to the medieval city of Dinan, in central Brittany where we would rent our car. We couldn’t just see one place in Brittany; there’s too much to see. So besides Ploumenac’h, we decided to visit Dinan, where we’d rent our car, the Island of Ouessant, and then on the way back, another medieval city, Locronan, and the give ourselves time to see Dinan by spending the night there before returning to Paris to fly to Barcelona for the next phase of the trip.

We arrived in Dinan at 11:17, took 30 min to walk around the city to find the small car rental agency, then waited in line for a modern Fiat 500 that had AC, but we couldn’t figure out that we had to press the button in the middle of the fan dial, so we drove a lot with the windows open. While waiting for the rental guy, a woman in a party of 3 recommended that we visit Cap Fréhel which was not far off our route to Ploumenac’h. I figured we had time, so we left Dinan at 12:30 pm for there, arriving around 1. We went up the lighthouse for 6€.They had an old elevator that wasn’t working. We got an overview of the bay and the rocks, which seemed quite interesting, especially a large cliff wall. We walked all over the paths through the gorgeous heath, fill with tiny flowers.

Cap Fréhel. Click on an image to see its caption.

We managed to leave Cap Fréhel by 3:40 and found our way using the large Brittany map, to Perros-Guirec, where we had lodging. It is a touristy town with a marina full of sail boats and a chichi downtown, crammed with cars and people. I took us the better part of an hour to locate our hotel, Au Bon Accueil (two stars), where we checked in at 7 pm and collapsed onto the bed after eating two salads we had bought in a supermarket on the way. After an hour’s sleep we headed to Ploumenac’h on the other end of the cape, arriving at 8:30. It was amazing, more and better than I had expected. I was looking for small, discreet standing rocks of rose granite, instead we found high “piles” of rocks, which Tanguy seems to have painted literally. He didn’t invent them. The light was soft and beautiful. We stayed until 9:40, about 10 minutes before sunset, and got back by 10. We were asleep by 11.

The Rocks of Ploumenac’h by Evening Light

The following day, August 4, we ate breakfast at the hotel, checked out and arrived at Ploumenac’h by 11 am, entering the Sentier des Doanniers at a different point, farther west, than we had the previous day. The rocks were even more impressive here. Large, complex formations occupied whole points extending out from the shore. Whereas the previous evening we had seen one impressive “pile” formation, now we saw several. We took the paths out to these points and climbed the rocks, or descended towards the sea. There were configured walls as well as discreet rocks in piles. It was very easy to see how these formations could have inspired a whole roomful of Surrealists, not just Tanguy, though who knows if any other painters saw them. Elaborately sculpted and only occasionally suggesting recognizable objects (faces, sharks, body parts), they seemed poignantly expressive of something, but who knew what? Thus they were perfect visual foils for Surrealist notions of unconscious or automatic creation.

The Rocks of Ploumenac’h by Mid-Day Light

The Golden Eagle and Me


Here I am with a golden eagle on my arm in Mongolia. In the northwest of the country men hunt with trained golden eagles, and one fellow had one that he allowed to pose with tourists on the way to the Genghis Khan memorial outside of Ulaan Baator, May, 2014.

The Mingan Archipelago and the Northern Coast of the St. Lawrence

Earthforms features four photographs from the Mingan Archipelago (Province of Québec, Canada), including the cover and the title page. These islands offered such an exceptional geological panorama, in such an unlikely place for most Americans, that they deserved the status of framing the whole book this way. When I reviewed the images from this particular destination, it brought back the other places my companion and I had visited that trip, and the feeling I got there that I was in some kind of alternate world. The people we met were North Americans, just like us, but they lived surrounded by an overarching natural setting, quite harsh in wintertime and explosively green in summer. Life there was simpler, less crowded certainly, with fewer signs of heavy industry, close to the water, with a good dose of old time north country nostalgia—general stores that looked like trading posts strewn with animal jawbones, small stuffed animals, and rusted soft drink and cigaret signs.



We met wonderful people, including the eccentric artist Richard Ferron, and the staff at the Tangon (“buoy”) hostel in Sept-Iles. It was not an unfamiliar place (despite the fact that Canadian French was the main language), but it seemed as though time had mostly stopped, or at least slowed down, beginning about 70 years ago.

The landscape was not grandiose, no towering mountains or dramatic gorges (with one notable exception), but it was exquisite in its detail: the rocks, the moss, the lichens, the skies. Reviewing my photographs from this 2010 end-of-summer trip I rediscovered some jewels that might have gone into the book—if I’d had space enough. Here are some of them and their stories.

The Hautes-Gorges-de-la-rivière-Malbaie Provincial Park

After a night in Montreal and one in Québec city, both marvelous tourist destinations, Julie and I proceeded up the coast. Our first nature stop was for a hike in the Hautes-Gorges-de-la-rivière-Malbaie provincial park. We climbed one of the mountains for a gorgeous view, encountering a profusion of wild mushrooms, lichen-covered rocks that looked like maps of some lost continent, and an unlikely moss-covered laid stone wall. We capped it off with a canoe trip on the tranquil Malbaie river. The rocky riverbanks were mirrored in the water producing fascinating symmetries.




Hautes-Gorges-de-la-rivière-Malbaie: Top: View from the summit; Center: Caribou moss; Bottom: Riverbank from the canoe on the Malbaie

The Saguenay Fjord and Tadoussac

Driving up Québec Route 138, which hugs the coastline, one crosses the Saguenay fjord (or river) about 161 miles (259 km) northeast of Québec City. I was watching the GPS, and it seemed the road simply ended at the fjord. I kept wondering where the bridge was. When we arrived, we saw that a (free) ferry crossed the fjord, a matter of about 15 minutes. It was foggy and already night, so the photos I took looked like stills from a noir detective film.



On the ferry in the fog crossing the Fjord of Saguenay

The fjord is also the centerpiece of a national park on both sides of the water, that extends almost to the city of Saguenay in the west. Beluga (white) whales are said to frequent the fjord, but when we stopped to explore it on our way home, we didn’t see any.


Cliff in Saguenay National Park


“Smiling” lichen, Saguenay National Park


The famous covered bridge which is the subject of the illustration on a historic $1000 Canadian banknote. Located on the north side of the fjord.

On the other side of the fjord is the village of Tadoussac, first visited by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535, and today most famous as a whale-watching post. It sports a Marine Mammal Interpretation Center close to water.

Sept-Iles: the Tangon Hostel and the Zodiac to Ile-Grand-Basque

A further 265 miles (426 km) up Route 138, we arrived at Sept-Iles, where we stayed at the Tangon Hostel, a friendly accommodating place, where I played the piano, and we met the somewhat zany artist Richard Ferron. His current project was to sit someone down across from him at a desk and have them draw him under the desk, while he drew them. He then exchanged drawings, adding to his surreal collection of his face rendered by amateurs.


Tangon Hostel, Sept-Iles


Artist Richard Ferron and my traveling companion, Julie.


Richard adorns himself in an apron, while the hostel director joins the fun.

We took an inflated Zodiac to one of the Seven Isles, spending the day hiking around it, and seeing its mushrooms, caribou moss, and views from its eminently climbable pinnacle. The Zodiac returned to pick us up at 5 pm.


Images from our day on the Ile Grande Basque, the best-known of the Sept Iles (Seven Isles).

The Mingan Archipelago

Another 136 miles (218 km) is Havre-St.-Pierre, the center of the Mingan Archipelago, our ultimate destination. I had been handed a descriptive brochure about the place by some friendly French Canadian women five years earlier on a trip to Newfoundland and had resolved to go there. It’s a group of 22 islands that spread out 75 miles (121 km) along the coast, notable for their monoliths of different shapes and sizes, with each island having a distinctive style. Overall, they consist of Ordovician sedimentary bedrock (485–444 million years old) that was covered by a shallow sea that eventually receded. As the sea bed eroded down, harder, more compact sections were left standing that appear today as the monoliths on the islands. The underlying bedrock or basement is Precambrian. Here is a selection of photos not included in Earthforms from the islands of the archipelago.



Ile du Havre, which we accessed by kayak. That’s our guide on the left.



Ile Fantôme





Ile Niapiskau

EARTHFORMS to Be the Featured Cover Story to the June issue of NATURAL HISTORY MAGAZINE

I’m very proud that the venerable magazine Natural History (established in 1900), long associated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has chosen to feature Earthforms: Intimate Portraits of Our Planet as its June cover story. Editor Charles Harris chose Ordovician Strata, Detail, taken at Green Point, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, Canada for the cover, thus opting right away for rock formation closeup, or miniscape, rather than a more traditional landscape.


The book has plenty of both, but geological miniscapes are much rarer in the practice of nature photography. The 8-page spread inside opens with a 2-page spread of the color-drenched Mono Dusk, a landscape that won a statewide award from Professional Photographers of New Jersey a few years ago.


It continues with nine more images, of which six are miniscapes. The text is excerpted from my introduction, so I’m the author of the article. At the end are some biographical notes and how to purchase the book.

Some of the images in the article. The extensive captions (with field notes) were included. Center left and the bottom two are miniscapes.

I visited the Museum this past Sunday and took a stroll through the main gift shop, a huge affair on two levels, with a department store atmosphere. The colorful merchandise was overwhelmingly clothing, souvenirs and toys, with a very small collection of books for sale, that you had to look hard to find. It is managed and supplied by Event Network, a company based in San Diego that serves around 50 science museums across the country. I had applied to them to have my book recommended to their clients, but they politely declined, though they loved the book. On Sunday I managed to speak to a store manager, who told me that they don’t feature self-published books, which mine is.

One can only speculate on the reasons for this bureaucratic decision. Incidentally, a subscription to Natural History Magazine is automatically included with Museum membership.

I’m very grateful that Editor Harris saw fit to feature my book on their cover, happy to know that the 50,000 monthly readers of Natural History will learn about Earthforms, and be exposed to its mission: to fuel our commitment to the preservation of our planet by strengthening our aesthetic and spiritual connection to it. My artistic aim was to feature images of formations and places most people had never seen before and didn’t know existed (with some notable exceptions), so readers would come away with a richer sense of huge diversity of landforms in the world.

And the book is only a sample. People look through it and often remark to me, “You’ve been everywhere!”

I correct them immediately. I’ve only been to 31 countries, out of the 195 in the world today.

News flash: I will soon be uploading an eBook version of Earthforms to I’ll announce when it’s up on this blog and on the Earthforms Facebook page.

Bisti Badlands—and Photographic Growth

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.


The Ice Canyon on the Edge of the Gobi

On pages 42 and 43 of Earthforms there are two photographs of the Ice Canyon at Yolyn Am, Mongolia. Here is the story of the day I photographed them, May 13, 2014, during my trip around the world

Our driver Ohchkee (who spoke no English) picked us up in his roomy SUV at Dalanzadgad airport, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, 300 miles south of Ulaan Baator, Mongolia’s capital, and spirited us off to his yurt complex in a nearby town, first passing by Flaming Cliffs, where in 1922 Roy Chapman Andrews had first discovered dinosaur eggs (now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York).


Above: Flaming Cliffs, site of Roy Chapman Andrews’ 1922 discovery of dinosaur eggs

Below: Inside our driver’s yurt: quite homey, with a complete entertainment complex. Hot water was heated on a stove and served in a thermos, which are ubiquitous in that part of the world. The blond woman on the right was my traveling companion, Barbara.

After meeting his wife and small daughter, we slept on rather hard surfaces then spent a full day traveling across the desert, following a maze of track strands that Ohchkee navigated with neither road signs nor GPS. Finally we arrived at a series of yurts within view of the famous Khongryn Els, “singing” sand dunes that cut through the Gobi, covering 363 square miles (965 sq. km). Unlike the Arabian deserts, the Gobi is not mostly dunes, which are in a very specific location.  One sees mostly scrub, sparse grass, lots of pebbles—a grazing land suitable for vast herds of goats and smaller ones of Bactrian (2-humped) camels. There are some grassy hills and occasional wild horses. A desert, after all, is defined as an area where the rainfall is less than 10 inches per year.


Top: Barbara wanders on the dunes

Middle: The remains of a rainwater pool among the dunes.

Bottom: Bactrian (two-humped) camels, typical of the Gobi.

The second day out we explored the dunes, then back from the dunes we ate the pickled vegetables we had bought in Dalanzadgad for dinner rather than take “lunch” again from our host, consisting of hard chunks of goat meat and cubes of fat, along with fried bread in various states of desiccation. We went to bed early. The beds were lumpy and rather hard, but marginally more comfortable than the board I had slept on chez Ohchkee the previous night. The outhouse, however, was 77 paces away (I counted), and it rained all night. So every time I had to go (and at my age that’s 2 to 5 times a night) I put on my shoes and coat and out I went. Eventually, I skipped the full trek and just added to the precipitation from the clouds onto the sand in the back of the yurt.

The outhouse, I must say, was fancier than those in the others yurt compounds where we had stayed. Our host had standards! It was made of sheet metal rather than wood, and his sense of style dictated that he cover his planks with colorful contact paper. I imagined it was something like one of Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Boxes (for which Reich went to jail in 1959 and died there).


The outhouse, which I got to know very well during the night we spent on the edge of the dunes. I always carried a head-light.

We slept an extra hour, lulled by the rain, and after breakfasting on our own supplies plus more fried bread and very (goat) milky tea, we were out of there by 8 am. Our host’s son and wife had showed up, both of whom towered over him, and I was glad to know he wasn’t there alone, as he had indicated, but his English was extremely limited (mainly to “camel” and “lunch”).


Left to right: the author, Ohchkee our driver, our host’s son, our host, and his wife.


The family of our host: son, wife, paterfamilias, whose only English were the words “camel” and “lunch” (=every meal), but we understood each other very well.

We had a long distance to go and kept hoping the rain would let up, and the sky did seem to brighten a bit in the distance. We saw two hawks and some presumably wild horses, and I managed to capture this image from the moving SUV.


After about 3 hours we arrived at a small town and pulled into a gas station on the edge of town. No one was there, but a phone number was posted that Ohchkee called. In about five minutes a husky woman pulled up in a 4WD and unlocked the 80-octane pump. There was also a small stupa across from the station.

On the agenda for the day was Yolyn Am, a high-walled canyon and its river, which remained frozen into the summer. In another hour we arrived at a canyon with an iced-over stream, which I took to be our major destination. It reminded me of canyons of the US Southwest, except for the ice, which was quite exceptional. On the way there we passed a small stupa, evidence of piety in this remote area.


Dungeneegyn Am (“Big Canyon”) ice canyon itself was fascinating, but it wasn’t the main attraction.

I thought the day’s sightseeing was over—Ochkee’s English was not good enough to correct this impression, but this was Dungeneegyn Am (“Big Canyon”) I later found out, and only a foretaste of the main event.

So I was surprised and delighted when we pulled up to a “protected area” where there was a small natural history museum and gift shop. We had to wait for the attendant to raise the barrier, then we pulled in and visited the museum. It was rather rudimentary, mostly featuring stuffed mammals and birds of the Gobi, many of them in rather fanciful poses, including some big spotted cats. There was also a room of dinosaur fossils, no complete skeletons, but some interesting eggs and bone fragments, and one complete fossil torso in the original position it was found.


Some of the displays in the natural history museum in the protected area. Paleontology is very big in Mongolia.

We paid the 2000 MNT (76¢) museum entrance fee and then a 3000 MNT ($1.15) “Protected Area Service Fee,” which I didn’t understand at first. Then we drove to the end of the parking area, had some lunch, which Ochkee embellished with some sweet hot coffee boiled on a tiny burner fueled with an aerosol can of methane, and then he invited us on a three-kilometer hike. The weather was nasty, very foggy, and Barbara was in no mood for such an extensive hike, but I figured it was part of the tour, and I’d best see what it was.


THIS turned out to be Yolyn Am, the main attraction of the day, and it was spectacular. Ochkee couldn’t tell us any of this (we had opted, after all, only for a driver who spoke no English rather than an English-speaking guide as well, thus saving $600+), but my faith proved correct. It was a sublime experience.

But not necessary a beautiful one. If we follow Edmund Burke’s 1757 distinction between the sublime and the beautiful from his famous essay on the subject, the beautiful is that which is well-formed, pleasing to the senses and calming to the nerves; while the sublime is that which has the power to compel and destroy us, often inspiring fear. Moreover, its qualities include vastness, a sense of infinity, and magnificence, creating nervous tension rather than tranquility. The distinction is often cited as the critical one between the classical sensibility and the romantic. Burke’s qualities of the sublime were exactly what I found at Yolyn Am in the fog.

We clambered down an embankment and found ourselves on a wide expanse with a river flowing through it. A little farther down the ice began, then it got thicker, up to about 6 or even 8 inches thick, with many surface patterns resulting from differential freezing and the blowing of sand. Water flowed around it. A little farther down the walls of the canyon closed in: jagged black rocks up to about 80 feet high in peaks and pinnacles, with slopes of varying steepness. We followed the river, which was soon completely covered with ice. Underneath, the water still flowed and was quite audible.


Approaching the area of the frozen river at Yolyn Am

The fog was so thick that the canyon walls receded into a vague gray blur at 60 feet away then disappeared. The highest summits were never more than a looming, ominous shape. The wonderful thing about photographing in fog this thick is that you can vary the definition of your foreground by changing your distance from it. So I could make the ice, its lines and textures quite sharp and assertive, the rock surfaces and aromatic brush nearby quite textured, while the receding canyon walls that I framed all this with became increasingly indistinct and mysterious.


Note the ovoo, right, a Mongolian cairn, or sacred stone heap.


The ice textures, thickness, sand patterns, edge lines and even color varied considerably. There were patches of light blue; concavities of shattered crystal (which turned out to be footprints); a shelf about a foot off the water surface that dripped down. You could walk on the ice, but yes, it was slippery. You had to be VERY careful, extremely sure of your footing.


This is the image, above, in Earthforms.


Ohchkee kept disappearing ahead of me in the fog, since I took more time for my photography. At one point a group of about 12 young people came hiking through. I got six of them to pose holding hands across the ice. More people arrived. It was officially before the start of the season, so I’m grateful there weren’t great crowds


I set up this posed photo without any language in common with my subjects, young people out on a hike.


The shelf.

Finally, I arrived at an area where the canyon opened onto a lake, some of which was open water. Ohchkee was ahead of me, but I didn’t know where the solid spots were, so he suggested we turn around.


We had walked about two kilometers in a little over an hour. On our way back I spotted those small burrowing animals that had been so elusive during our drive. Their holes were everywhere. This time, however, they let me approach, and I got some very clear images with my 300 mm telephoto. I believe they were picas or coneys, a short-eared non-rodent relative of rabbits.


A  pica or coney, a short-eared (non-rodent) relative of rabbits.


The author at the edge of the ice. Photograph by Ohchkee.

As we approached the parking area I paid a visit to the outhouse, which was the most refined one I had seen in the Gobi—this was a protected area after all. It was a large pit toilet with a women and men’s side, and a wooden toilet SEAT covered with contact paper. It was almost too much luxury.


We were back in Dalanzadgad within the hour and found a comfortable hotel with bathtub, the luxurious Khan Uul, which catered to mining industry executives, as this international industry has come to develop a strong interest in the Gobi. I could only hope they wouldn’t ruin too much of this sublime wasteland.


Dalanzadgad, municipality of mostly of yurts, some industry, a lovely park, and a historical, natural and human, museum.

Hot Air Balloon Over Cappadocia

Every photograph in Earthforms has a story behind it and dozens more photographs that I took that day in that place. I could only offer a short summary in the captions in the back of the book, which also had to supply geological information.

During my round-the-world trip in 2014, during which I visited 12 countries in 10 weeks, we landed in Istanbul from New York, spent a day there sightseeing, and then took an overnight bus to Kayseri, where we rented a car and drove the 40 km to Urgüp in Cappadocia, staying in the nearby town of Mustafapasha. The morning after our arrival, I got up at 5 am to be picked up at 5:30 for my hot air balloon ride. It was the first great adventure of the trip, April 4, 2014. My companion stayed in bed. It was still dark outside.

After a very symbolic breakfast at the balloon company’s headquarters, we headed out to the site, where our balloon was inflating with hot air.


Filling the balloon with hot air before dawn.


The ascent was thrilling. The sun wasn’t up yet, but close by another balloon was lit up with its burners.


After a few minutes we were between 800 and 1000 feet in the air, and off over the horizon—dawn!



The rugged terrain of Cappadocia started to come into view. There’s a website that lists the 10 best balloon rides in the world, and this one is at the top of the list. Easy to see why.

Our pilot ascended and descended according to how much heat he put into the balloon. We drifted with the winds. A company truck was following us on the ground, which I didn’t realize until the end. When we were closer to the ground, we could examine the fabulous formations of the eroded volcanic and sedimentary terrain.


The other balloons in the sky played hide-and-seek with us, competing with the geology for our attention, but the contest wasn’t even close. Still, there were some dramatic moments:


I knew the landforms were volcanic, but I was fascinated to see the oblique sediments as well:


In this next image, looking down on another balloon’s gondola, you can get an idea of the situation I was in: 12 passengers and one pilot in a small rectangular space, most of us jockeying for a spot on the outside:


An outstanding feature of Cappadocia’s soft volcanic terrain is how much various dwellings, churches, and monasteries have been carved into the rock. It’s all over the place, and many of the sacred cave churches have elaborate polychrome frescos.


Whole villages nearby were carved into the rock. In the following few days we explored churches dug into cliffs and monasteries in hillsides. Notice that the balloon in the photo has its burners on.


I counted 36 balloons in this photo. Each one belonged to a different company.


As the day got brighter, the ever-changing terrain revealed more of itself as a serious, mute record of geologic and human history, forming the background for the boffo circus designs of the balloons.


Here you can see the conical formations that are so typical of Cappadocia, usually referred to as chimneys. Volcanic ash and mud covered the area from eruptions 30 million years ago. This was compressed and eroded into a soft rock called “tuff,” out of which the structures we see today were formed. Pompeii is also formed of tuff.


A balloon punctuates a curved gesture in the rock…


The sun illuminates the tops of the chimneys, as a balloon flies overhead.


Which is more bizarre, the rock formations or the balloons?


More light; no balloons.


Here the vertical structures are less conical, but they have cap rocks on top, sometimes called “fairy chimneys.” They were clearly deposited from a different source than the underlying supportive rock. Imagine living like the people in those buildings, amidst these giants.


Looking up at our balloon, so that it frames the sky.


A convocation of balloon, modern buildings, and fairy chimneys.


Starting to come down now, we planed over ploughed fields before the sprouts had materialized.


We landed in the back of a pickup truck, and the balloon began to deflate on the ground.


But before it was completely flat, I ran inside to fill my frame with its colors.


My co-passengers. Note one of them is holding the mimosa that everyone got.


We were also issued certificates. Here I am holding mine. I wasn’t paying much attention to fashion—only utility, with my photo vest under my blue coat. My extra lenses were in cases attached to my belt.


Back at the hotel, we were served a REAL breakfast—breads, cheeses, olives, sliced vegetables, several types of jam, and Turkish coffee. Here’s Barbara, already at the table. It was about 8:30 am.



Beyond Landscapes: Natural Forms and Abstract Expressionist Painting

Abstract art in the 20th Century, especially Abstract Expressionism as it emerged from Surrealism in the 1940s in New York, has enabled us to appreciate much more than landscapes—scenic views from a distance—in the biophysical world. Much of my work in geological photography derives from these insights, so that I actively look for formal compositions in the mineral and botanical world, not worrying about conveying a sense of place or even a sense of what an object happens to be. It turns out these were the same considerations that abstract expressionist painters were making in the early 1940s, as they separated themselves from figurative representation.

Knowing this, I attended a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art February 2, Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera, featuring over 50 works, mostly large scale, from the 1940s to the present. After reading about many of these paintings, I had forgotten how big so many of them were. Standing before them they envelope your field of vision. Since I’ve known and loved them for a long time, they’ve certainly affected what I look for in both geological and botanical photography (as well as my photography of scrap metal, see

Have a look at the drip painting by Jackson Pollock that was part of this exhibition, the famous Autumn Rhythm from 1950:


And here’s a closeup of part of it:


Notice the sense of layering of turbulent lines and colors from the very controlled pallet he uses. Notice the depth, with the various sizes of drip-dots that seem to go far into the background; and notice how the overall chaos of swirls and splotches coalesces into an exciting whole that expresses a vibratory power, hardly captured by the simple word “rhythm,” yet unmistakably a very complex rhythm. Pollock maintained that he felt the force of Nature coming through him as he painted, which he did from his gut, completely intuitively.

Some years ago, I came across a patch of fungal growth near the seaside on Martha’s Vineyard. I immediately recognized it as the most interesting thing I had seen on the Island and created a number of photographs of it. In post-production, I replaced the black background with an undulating copper gradient, so that the bone-white fungus stood out, along with some spider-like green plants. I recognized that there was a strong analogy between its chaotic profusion of form and that of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. My informal title for it, therefore, was “Jackson Pollock Was a Realist.”

Branching Fungus


But if Pollock was the most radically original of the Abstract Expressionists, he had colleagues that went in different directions, some of them using irregular and raggedy geometric forms. Here is an example by Joan Snyder, Smashed Strokes Hope (1971).  The Met’s commentary speaks of Snyder’s rebellion against the regularity of a grid, leading to a feminist paean to promiscuity and the exuberance of pleasure. 


But when similar dynamic tensions are found between order and irregularity in nature, we realize that we can project any human aspiration onto these abstract forms. Even though my example below is quite different in shape, density, and of course, color from Snyder’s painting, the same principle of tension between regularity and irregularity applies. This is a 100-million-year-old mud mosaic pattern from Clayton Lake State Park in Eastern New Mexico:


Perhaps an excerpt from the Snyder painting will make the analogy clearer:


Now according to Martica Sawin in her book Surrealists in Exile (1995), both the Surrealists who came to this country to escape World War II, and our home-grown Abstract Expressionists, were inspired by rock formations. Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning were famously impressed by the red rocks around Sedona, Arizona, and Ernst found inspiration for his painting in them.

In the Metropolitan’s show, one Abstract Expressionist painting comes quite close to a literal convoluted rock surface, except that this isn’t exactly a painting. Hungarian artist Judit Reidl (b. 1923) salvaged and cleaned up the layers of rejected canvases that she had used to cover the floor of her studio, then presented them as  “found” painting, dated 1959–1964, and which she named Guano (Menhir). The process brought her ironically close to a geological composition:  its “orogeny” was not via artistic intention, but rather through the accumulation of discarded material. The artistic act was her declaration that her familiar functional object was a “found” painting. This is very close to what we do in geological photography. She humorously called it Guano, since it amounts to her artist “droppings” while working, but then put (Menhir) in parentheses because, once erected as an art work, it resembled a vertically standing rough rock from (prehistoric) megalithic times.


Here’s a detail that reveals its geomorphic patterning:


Any number of my “miniscapes” offer close analogies to this found sculptural “painting.” Here’s one example, though in a sparser rhythm, from the rock beach at Roche’s Point, County Cork, Ireland:15.MetropolisAfterHours.Roche'sPoint.Ire.MR.

And here’s another, an example of the “boxwork” in Wind Cave, South Dakota:


Cloughmore, Achill Island, County Mayo Coastline

I returned to Ireland last summer (2018) to see some of the things I missed in my grand tour of the the island the previous summer. The place is virtually inexhaustible, however. I was planning to see Connemara National Park, after spending the night in a small town in County Mayo, but flipping through my Rough Guide to Ireland, I discovered Achill Island, a fabulous collection of unspoiled beaches, with some spectacular rocks, a mountain you can drive up to catch the view, and a Deserted Village from the days of the famine. This drone video is from our first stop, at Cloughmore, due south from the short bridge that links the island to the mainland. I was struck by a grassy meadow I saw on a small island in the bay called Achillbeg, that had four sheep on it. I had no idea how they got there. The drone went over for a closer look. The large Clew bay is in the background. Afterwards, the drone examined a small rocky cove.

Of Processing and Overprocessing

As I demonstrated in my last post, we photographers are always processing our images to narrow the gap between what our sensors record and how we envision the subjects of our photographs. This may or may not be what we actually saw—if we remember it!

There are many third party applications that help this along—third party because the photographer is the first party and Photoshop is the second (with Lightroom in between for the first edit). One of the most powerful ones to enter the market recently is Aurora, which enhances the color range and detail of images. It offers itself as a High Dynamic Range (HDR) processor, so it does in one step what had taken 3 or more exposures sandwiched together in Photoshop, to do beforehand—obviously a time-consuming process. It adds some pazzazz to most images.

However, one must also be careful not to overuse it, since it can also make a photograph look unnatural. Here is an example where this type of processing was absolutely necessary, but where the very processing that saved this image also made it look artificial in one particular area. So it was necessary to walk the image back to the original in that area by combining the processed image with the original image in separate layers, then painting in the layer of the original image to make a final image, more powerful than the original, but equally believable. Here are the stages:

  1. The original image, taken from a helicopter above the island of Molokai in Hawaii. Conditions are less than idea: (a) one is constantly moving, (b) shooting through a clear but curved plastic bubble window, and (c) contending with a rotor that rotates too fast to see, but which the necessarily fast shutter stops, so that it blocks parts of the scene. Here is the original photo, as problems are obvious. There’s a reflection in the upper right and a smaller one just right and above the center; there’s an overall dullness, much of it due to the mist.
  2. I cropped the image to remove the upper right reflection and cloned the smaller one out. Then I boosted the color dynamic range, adding some brightness and saturation, and I also enhanced the structure a bit, to give a better sense of detail to the trees, sand, surf and water. Here was the better, but there’s a problem: the clouds in the upper left show sharp divisions between tonal areas. The border areas between darker gray and light gray tend to be jagged, betraying some overprocessing. To remedy this, I had to layer this image over the original one and enlarge the original so that the processed image superimposed exactly over the original one one (by reducing the opacity of the layer on top and changing it size until it overlay perfectly). Then, using a layer mask, I painted out the jagged clouds and the background rock wall on the left, to let those of the original image show through. Then I flattened the whole thing to make a realistic composite that was far more powerful than the original: fact, by doing this, the misty area on the left helps set off the clear, saturated jungle treetops, thus making the composition stronger—a double win for this image. The irony is that I only noticed the problem on the third round of the final revisions. On the first round I concentrated on textual errors; on the second I corrected the brightness of several images that were two dark (I had to calibrate my monitors!); and then on the third, when I thought everything would be fine, I noticed the jagged clouds and made this (hopefully) final correction.

I keep thinking of novelist Henry James’ observation that “genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains.” So it’s not a matter of being brilliant—so many people are smarter than I am. It’s just a matter of going to all that trouble to make something perfect. It’s that (!) easy!