Prose by Craig Reinbold + Photographs by Luke Parsons
Stories from the Field
The work of landscape photographer Luke Parsons is featured in the ARTerrain Gallery of Terrain.org’s Issue 33. One stormy day last February, Craig Reinbold joined him in the field for a look at his creative process.
That water is cold. I just dunked my head into a nearby falls and briefly thought I’d been bludgeoned. Luke appears unconcerned. He is standing mid-stream, arms crossed—suggesting a nip in the air—but his rain jacket hangs open. He is wearing shorts. Beige cargo shorts of the ordinary Old Navy variety, which is not to say his dress lacks personality, but only that he seems dressed for function. Notably, his Asics have holes in them, and even this turns out to be functional: back at the car Luke will pause to empty the sloshing water from his shoes, only to discover that the slosh is residual. The water has already drained.
Suddenly Luke lifts his camera—its tripod affixed like frozen legs—and steps into the real flow of the creek. The water laps his knees. He seems not to notice. Such is his focus. I want to offer him a cup of tea from my thermos, but I don’t quite dare. Don’t want to disturb his reverie.
Luke is out to capture a panorama of this canyon, its steep, seeping walls, the creek’s usual dribble inflamed by this morning’s rain—a 180º sweep book-ended by mountain peaks still beset by the day’s clouds. This panorama involves seven shots of varied exposures. He points out the bubbles caught in a nearby eddy. They seem to hover in the water, going nowhere. With a four-second exposure, a photo reveals the bubbles coalescing into an obvious, milky spiral. “The camera sees in a way we don’t,” I suggest. He nods.
In the foreground of this panorama will be a slab of worn granite the size of a Subaru, its bulk directing the flow of rainwater and snowmelt into a bottleneck, creating the first in a series of waterfalls, the rock pool below overflowing into the next, into the next, into the next, and so on, on down the mountain, towards Sutherland Wash, this water destined to eventually drain its way into the Tucson aquifer.
Luke’s panoramas are expansive, some of them comprised of twenty or thirty shots stitched together. The effect is awesome, like installing a window in your living room, and suddenly your home overlooks the Grand Canyon, or the Swiss Alps, or sand dunes rolling towards the horizon.
“I like texture,” he responds, when I ask why he’s drawn to these vistas—to these geological formations, wind-whipped dunes, glacier-groomed landscapes. “They make beautiful images,” he says, “but also reveal larger processes.”
With that big slab of impervious granite in the frame, and those peaks too, eroding, but ever so slowly, the water and the clouds breezing through the scene will add a sense of the passage of human time, mere minutes contrasting the millennia that have left this canyon with its present architecture. Luke is out to capture this duality, the speed of weather, the slowness of geology, and the way we often move through landscapes like this so quickly we fail to appreciate the bigger picture. Or we’ve appreciated, and moved on, as we tend to. He wants to stun us into stopping once more.
Some of Luke’s urban photographs are more pointed. “We’re so small,” he says, “and we’ve been around a relatively short time, yet we’ve had such an impact on the landscape.” These photos highlight colonial stonework, roads cut through forests, adobe homes, and telephone poles slung with wires strung across open country. They also reveal nature as a patient, if indifferent, force to be reckoned with. Masonry erodes, green shoots sprout from cracks, adobe stains and crumbles, and lightning strikes at will, its electric whiteness suddenly muting the tamed incandescence we depend on. These photographs note our inroads upon the land, but also suggest an indelible frailty. They suggest transience.
Luke tells me that once, in Switzerland, he made a panorama of the famous Mittlere Brücke, the so-called “middle bridge” originally built in the 13th century to connect Basel to its sprawl on the far side of the Rhine. Situating himself at the foot of the bridge during morning rush hour, he took a series of minute-long exposures. With such a long exposure, passing commuters would have had to really pause to appear in the shot. No one stopped long enough and so the panorama is empty of people, the Mittlere Brücke somehow a ghost bridge at 9 a.m. on a weekday.
Later, I will see this photo, huge, and pinned to a wall. Knowing how it was made, the photograph is a testament to the speed with which we move through our landscapes, and through life. Or it is an indictment, seeming to say Slow down. You move too fast! If you don’t know the backstory, the photo is, simply, haunting—an augural vision of either the distant past, or a mysteriously deserted future. I stare at it, leave the room, then go back and stare some more.
Our trek to the canyon took longer than expected, as we stopped to photograph a saguaro, and rock formations, and the churning sky over the valley. Our plan had been to dawdle here at the pools for a while, then head back to catch the sunset from the wash at the trailhead. Looking at his watch, Luke admits he lost track of time. We start back, but are in no hurry now.
Up the trail a ways Luke scales an outcropping and fixes his camera to its tripod, wanting to catch the last of the light as it moves across the mountains behind us. I stand below. Clouds are shadowing one peak, but another has gone maraschino. The canyon is gold, speckled with a thousand shades of brown and gray. Looking up, I watch him work. I set down my backpack. Snack on a handful of pecans. Minutes pass. Eventually, I turn back to the canyon, its slopes, its crest, the rugged peaks fixed above the scene. It is all still there of course, just as it was before, except the lighting has shifted. The magic is gone. Luke is packing his camera. The sun has set.
Luke Parsons was born in northern Arizona and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico at the age of 9. He began taking film-based photography classes in seventh grade and started shooting landscape photographs while on trips through his high school’s outdoor program. As he attended more geology and photography classes in college, he continued to develop an interest in photographing geology-related subject matter. Luke taught earth and environmental science in the Boston area for five years and recently started graduate school at the University of Arizona. During summers he works as a NOLS outdoor instructor, and spends whatever free time he’s left with traveling and backpacking in the western United States and Latin America.
He currently works with a full-frame 21.1 megapixel Canon 5d MarkII with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4.0L IS USM lens. For more information and photos visit www.lukeparsonsphoto.com.
Craig Reinbold is an assistant editor at Terrain.org.