Photographer Pays Tribute to America’s Monumental Southwest

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The rock towers, canyons, basins, petrified dunes, stone arches, sand pipes, and other geology formations of America’s desert Southwest are a marvel of the planet.

Spread over hundreds of thousands of acres and encompassed for the large part in numerous parks and monuments — including icons such as the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, and Canyonlands — the region is a wonderland of interaction between rocks and water and time.

And it is all presented by Nature in astonishing color. One of the most famous early explorers of the canyonlands, John Wesley Powell, wrote, “Here the colors of the heavens are rivaled by the colors of the rocks. The rainbow is not more replete with hues.”

It is this kaleidoscope of fantastic shapes and colors that photographer Jon Ortner has captured in his newest book, “Canyon Wilderness of the Southwest.”


Shot in over 60 locations across a 130,000-square-mile area of Utah and Arizona, “Canyon Wilderness of the Southwest” (Welcome Books, November 2008, $195) features Ortner’s work in not only famous national and state parks but also relatively unexplored and less easily accessible backcountry, including Native American tribal lands.

With gatefolds that open four feet and a high production quality, the book is a visual feast.

But Ortner, whose previous books included “Where Every Breath is a Prayer,” “Angkor,” and “Buddha,” and who has made award-winning images for magazines such as GEO and Travel & Leisure, has not simply documented grand scenery in beautiful light.

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“I have found what the Hisatsinom, or the ‘ancestors,’ have always known,” he writes in the book. “Here one feels a palpable and mystical connection to the spirits that inhabit this place. It is this resonance with the sacred, expressed through infinite layers of visual beauty and excitement, that I feel in my heart.”

I leafed through the book’s hundreds of pages several times — first to relive and enjoy some of the places I have visited, then again to admire the exquisite photography. Then I looked more carefully at the rich textures and colors of the geology shaped over millions of years.

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Then I looked again, for the spirituality Ortner speaks of. It’s easy to find, because Ortner purposefully pays homage to it in every photograph.

“Through the photographs in this book I not only convey my profound love and veneration for this place,” Ortner writes, “but also hope to capture and preserve those moments of bliss that, however fleetingly, reveal the soul of Nature herself.”

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The photographer has not shortchanged the scientific and scenic significance of geology, however. The back of the book has notes about selected locations and photographs that provide useful insights into how specific formations came about and some of the human history associated with them.

Like the rocks themselves, “Canyon Wilderness of the Southwest” is a layered work of complexity. The more you look at it the more you find.

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Photos reproduced here are from Jon Ortner’s book “Canyon Wilderness of the Southwest,” courtesy Welcome Books.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn