The Photograph Explained: Faces in the Canyon, The Greater Blue Mountain World Heritage Area by Leonard Metcalf

Canyon, Blue Mountains.

The decision to go and photograph this canyon was made very late at night whilst playing that final round of pool over beers. An accomplished volunteer to accompany me sealed the deal. It would become the next days mission. A late start was inevitable. Canyoning in the Blue Mountains is a very cold, wet experience. Physically demanding, involving wetsuits, dry bags, waterproof boxes and some considerably long walks. Choosing the camera was easy, take the smallest lightest one you have, and pack just one lens. Better make it a light weight one too in one of your favored focal lengths. So in this instance it was a 1950’s 4 x 5 metal field camera and a small crisp 135mm f5.6 lens.

I had been using colour transparency exclusively for the past couple of years and had only worked in the canyons with these films previously. At least it had been on a number of different occasions. The first visits were in 1988 when I tackled a Canyon over three days with a large format camera, wetsuit, abseil ropes and overnight camping gear (that trip finished with a 75 pound pack and an art school portfolio worthy of high distinctions). I had been encouraged to expand my horizons and shoot some black and white images. For ease of use, in particular getting it developed I choose a black and white chromogenic film. I didn’t have access to a darkroom and I hadn’t discovered any commercial labs that developed traditional black and white films at the time. I also threw in two double dark slides, one with colour transparency and one with black and white film. That gave me a total of four shots for an afternoon, an ample supply considering my usual consumption of film. I never bracket and rarely took more than three photographs on a good day.

We walked down the exit of the canyon mid afternoon and we were putting on our wetsuits as the canyoners were taking theirs off. Bemused we headed upstream, as we left them scratching their heads as to where we were going. We had to wade and swim upstream to visit our proposed location. In these situations I head to one location, then work with it, rather than wandering and shooting along the way. Actually this is the way I prefer to work most of the time. Getting the large format camera out of all its waterproofing after drying myself takes time and time wasn’t on our side.

On arriving at my intended location, my friend disappeared exploring further upstream to leave me in peace to photograph without distractions, he was in search of the duck under where you have to hold your breath and swim underwater in the dark into the next section. I wandered around, sat, looked, observed and pondered taking in the majesty of the location.

This shot came easily to me, and the decision to shoot in black and white. The dark walls lacked the stunning vibrant greens that dominated the usual images I was taking in similar locations. The depth down through the encroaching walls dominated my composition. I knew that the viewers eye would love to wander into the depths of the canyon walls, down to the highlights. I spot metered ensured that I would capture the details in the green ferns, letting the highlights and shadows fall where they may.

I took two of colour images in the same area of the green moss that dominated the large open space behind me and then it was time to head out of there.

The trip home was memorable as we hadn’t planned on being out so late and had neglected to bring a torch. Luckily with a near full moon there was plenty of light to wander back to our vehicle. Important lesson here: never leave home without some form of torch.

The film was developed in C41 at my lab, and was returned to me with a proof. It was on the judgement of this proof that I decided to get it drum scanned to be used as my main marketing image for the Leonard Metcalf Gallery in Katoomba. The first print was the 3 x 3.75 meter banner that hung on the side of the gallery. On laying out this huge print I was shocked to see more details in the highlights than in the original proof. The drum scan had bought out more details and had had further enhanced the photograph.

The image went on to postcards and posters to market the gallery. I included the location, the canyon name on these materials. To my horror visitation requests to go to this canyon skyrocketed at the local guiding companies. This was the most important lesson for me. I now carefully consider which shots I tell people the locations off and which ones I avoid telling people. I believe that it is my responsibility to make decisions like that in the best interest of the area and its ability to handle increased traffic. So this photograph received a name change with me taking the location out of the title.

This image has turned out to be very significant in my journey as a photographer. It is the first black and white image that I published and has received plenty of wider recognition. It is the start of what would latter become an obsession. An obsession with black and white photography. Contemplating this image has taught me loads about composition.

People still point out new faces in this image. It still sells consistently. It is probably my most iconic photograph. To think it all started over a beer.

Details: Linhof Technica III circa 1950, Nikkor W 135mm f 5.6 Kodak T400CN 4 x 5 sheet film – Exposure details unrecorded (probably f22 @ 1 or 2 minutes)

Leonard Metcalf with 4x5 camera

Leonard Metcalf has been infatuated with large format photography since George Schwartz showed him one at City Art Institute in 1986. Fifteen years of wandering the Blue Mountains with various 4×5 cameras not only gave him a solid portfolio of wilderness images it lead him to his current passion of teaching & mentoring photographers in workshops and tours.

More of his work can be seen at his website. Leonard is the founder of Len’s School and more of his writing can be read at a blog Visions for the Real World.