IMAGE OF THE MONTH
The Milkyway stands guard over 200+ petroglyphs on the high desert landscape of Eastern California. Commonly known as Sky Rock to the locals it evoked a different feeling and impression on me. Consequently, I named this image ........ "ANCIENT MYSTERIES"
It is an image that was 5 years in the making. I photographed this scene at a seldom found site in close proximity to California's Sierra Mtn's.
The story of how I ultimately found and photographed this unique site is almost as interesting as the image itself.
I became aware of Sky Rock about 10 years ago when I saw a small image of it in a photo magazine. I noted that the image was captured by world renowned photographer, the late Galen Rowell. I clipped the image out and put it in my "I've got to shoot that".... bucket list file. It's only in the past 5 years that I began to really take a keen interest in wanting to photograph it.
First, I needed to figure out where it was. Much to my surprise I found very few images of the site and of those that had been published or posted to the internet, the photographers simply weren't telling. As time went on the mystery of its location only became more guarded. It actually got to the point where there was a running (sometimes not very polite) debate over whether one should or should not divulge the secret of the Sky Rock location.
Sky Rock is a very large boulder, about 30'x40' in size with a very flat top surface that points up toward the sky. It is unknown if the rock originally rested up on its side and at some point fell over thereby putting the former vertical side up toward the heavens? The flat top is about 30' off the ground which makes it very difficult to find as there really isn't a vantage point in the area that would allow one to observe the upper face of the rock from a higher locale.
Since no one was willing to pass along the secret of the Sky Rock location I found it necessary to try to find it the old fashioned way. I collected what images I could find of the subject and paid special attention to the surrounding landscapes main features. I acquired a detailed topo map of the area I thought the site was in, and began to identify significant landmarks. After some time I began to zero in on the most likely location and then I utilized Google Earth's Satellite images as a resource. In the end, I actually was able to find what I believed to be the magic spot on one of the satellite images. With that information I was able to determine the GPS coordinates which resulted in some serious excitement on my part.
A couple of months later I left for a month long shoot in the Southwest
and Sky Rock was one of about 20 sites I planned to visit during that trip. When I arrived in the general area, my shooting partner (Master Photographer Morris Grover) and I began the somewhat difficult hike into the area. We purposely planned our shoot for early afternoon with plans to shoot late afternoon, sunset, the dark of the night for the stars and then with a fully lit moonscape. I had used my TPE app (http://photographemeris.com
) to predetermine the times of the sunset, phase of the moon and moon rise since my primary objective was to capture the ancient writings under the the Milkyway with the heavens above. After an hour hike we actually walked right to this well hidden treasure. Now all we had to do was figure out how to access the petroglyphs, almost three stories in the air. After a bit of scrambling we were successful in topping out on the rock and couldn't believe how many carvings there were on this one rock.
After 5 years of my on and off searching for this secret site, writing numerous emails to others that had been there and shot some nice images, reading a ton of blogs and following the debate that raged about do tell no, don't tell, within the photographic community. I decided I have to make up my own mind about that issue once, and if I ever found it for myself.
Well, now I have! and it really was a thumbs up experience (Photo Above
)when Morris and I finally topped out on this remarkable chunk of stone. The remoteness of the place, the sound of the wind, the full circle view of virtually nothing for as far as the eye can see and then there is the petroglyphs. They are some of the finest I have had the opportunity to photograph. And, so many, all in a small confined space.
Morris and I spent most of the afternoon confirming our research specific to where the sun would set, where the moon would rise and quite a while working on our specific points of view that would provide that just right compositional view that we, individually, had in our minds eye. We also spent a little time relaxing and horsing around and I finally got my iPhone 5s out and programed it to shoot some pano's of the site and then we messed around with capturing each other multiple times in the same shot. Morris took this shot with my phone as he panned from his left to his right. I stood on the extreme left of the scene as he started the pano sweep to the right. As soon as he had swept just past me I quickly ran around him and off to his far right just in time for me to show up again toward the end of the 180 degree pano sweep. We each shot ea other and spent more time laughing our selves silly than actually taking pix.
For several years I had envisioned my final image of Sky Rock captured late at night and lit only by moon light. As I put my shoot plan together I knew that I would have to shoot on a night when the moon would rise about 4 to 5 hours after sunset. That would give me enough time to shoot the sky with the milkyway in a pitch black environment then wait for the moon to rise and expose for the petroglyphs, background and mountains. I also knew that once I set my camera (Nikon D-800e) on the tripod and locked in all the settings it was going to be VERY important that I be extremely
careful not to bump or move either over the next several hours. For the Milkyway images I used my tried and true Pin Point Star workflow
of 12mm wide angle lens, ISO 3200, F-8 and 30sec exposure. For the moonlit exposures I waiting until the 3/4 moon was up for a full hour then I shot multiple 3, 5 and 7 shot HDR bracketed exposures to ensure a full range of capture throughout the entire dynamic range of the image.
The shoot started around 9pm and we finished a little after 2:30 in the morning. The captures looked good, we hadn't been adversely affected by the high desert temperatures and last but not least................ I DIDN'T BUMP THE CAMERA EVEN A LITTLE ! Thank goodness for a good remote release for all those captures.
We did experience a bit of a challenge when it came to getting down off the rock in the middle of the night. It took a while and neither of us broke any bones in the process. Then we had the hour hike back to our vehicle and an end to a remarkable 5 year journey. Was it worth it ? Absolutely. I experienced a huge personal satisfaction knowing what I went through to find it, get there, access it, shoot it, got down off it and back to the car with RAW images in the can. Unfortunately it took me several months to finally get to this specific image having come home with almost 7,000 images, also in the can, from that short one month shoot through out the Southwest.
Of all of the places I photographed on that trip I would put it right up there as one of the 5 most satisfying, gratifying and enjoyable shoots I have done in the past 20 years. All this together with the spirit, feelings, emotions and reality off what I was standing on and how long ago it had been that our ancient ancestors had been on this rock, chipping away day after day, leaving their mysterious messages for those that followed. As mysterious, and unique as this place is, one has only to stand on that spot and look to the heavens, on a moonless clear summer night, to realize none of this even amounts to one grain of sand on all the worlds beaches when compared to the heavens above in all their splendor. And, yes.................. it's secret is safe with me
Thank you for taking the time to join me on this return trip to a remarkable place. One I call....Ancient Mysteries
If you have any questions about this months Image of the Month
, the techniques used, etc., etc please contact me via my "Contact" link on my web site. And, please feel free to share this with others
Vern Bartley Image Creator