Dawn Kish: Photographing Tad’s Emerging World
Imagine Yosemite without Half Dome, Zermatt without the Matterhorn, or Iceland without scores of photographers fighting for position to shoot the same waterfall posted a hundred times already on Instagram that morning. As photographers, it’s easy to take our grand landscape opportunities for granted. But in some cases, landscapes aren’t a permanent fixture. So it was for Glen Canyon.
In the 1960s one of the desert Southwest’s greatest landscapes disappeared under the newly created Lake Powell. The iconic landscapes of Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend are a mere hint as to what was lost just miles upstream. But today, thanks to human greed, spineless politicians, and fossil fuel addiction, Lake Powell is rapidly drying up and, Glen Canyon is reemerging.
Have the priceless landscapes been lost forever under the chalky bathtub ring of the dying reservoir? That’s what some photographers have gone to explore – most of whom weren’t alive when Glen Canyon was last visible.
Dawn Kish is one of those photographers. She’s a professional photographer (the real kind, not the trust fund kind) based out of Flagstaff, Arizona. She started documenting adventure sports for Transworld Snowboarding magazine in the 90s, then became a stalwart for National Geographic Adventure and Traveler magazines. Ten years ago, she shifted from adventure and lifestyle photography and into conservation work. She’s currently a regular contributor to Arizona Highways and Patagonia. Explains Kish, “I realized all the stuff that I was taking photos of – and all these beautiful, epic landscapes that I was playing in – were under threat.”
Unlike the rest of the intrepid photographers rediscovering Glen Canyon, Dawn Kish has a secret weapon: She’s been loaned Tad Nichols’s original Crown Graphic.
Who’s Tad Nichols, you ask? What’s a Crown Graphic?
Tad Nichols could rightfully be called the “Ansel Adams of Glen Canyon” due to his skills as a landscape photographer and his environmental activism. Before the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, he was a member of the “We Three,” a group comprised of himself, singer/Hollywood star Katie Lee, and Frank Wright. All three fought hard to stop the dam. Alas, the dam was built anyway. Lake Foul, as Katie would call it, flooded their Eden.
Tad’s Crown Graphic is a press camera that uses 4×5” film. The Crown Graphic line dates back to the late 1940s. The body is made of mahogany clad in leather. The front standard allows the lens to tilt, swing, and shift. The shutter is built into the lens. At 2.6 kg / 5.7 pounds, it’s light for a large format camera of its era and folds up to be relatively portable.
Equipped with Tad’s camera, Kish set out to document the reemergence of Glen Canyon. At first she though it would take a few trips (mostly by boat), but a few trips has become a few years, and her love for this canyon just keeps growing.
Please enjoy the trailer, and I hope you like the following interview as I ask her about her project, and the challenges and rewards of stepping back a bit technology-wise.
Was your original idea to produce a video, or was the video more of a behind-the-scenes into a bigger project?
Dawn Kish: I had no idea it would be a film; I just wanted to concentrate on the photography. It’s an expedition where you’ll have to supply yourself with everything – food, gas, boat, camping gear. So there’s a lot on the plate, and for me to think about making a film was not on my mind. My assistant is a videographer, and about halfway through the project we came up with a trailer and figured we could do a film about this.
Was your assistant Cierra doing all of the filming?
A lot of times I was going by myself because I couldn’t get Cierra to come because of timing or money or whatever.
So you’d go in and shoot both stills and video?
Sometimes you’re like “oh, well the water is rippling with beautiful light.” So I’d think “oh, that’s a video and a still photo.”
Then there’s definitely times where I’d say “this is a Tad moment.” When I’d say that, everyone on the trip was like, “ooh, out comes the view camera.” It’s a hard thing to do. You just can’t shoot willy-nilly like you do with digital. You have to really pick and choose your images with film.
How long does it take to pull out the camera set up and capture one of those moments?
The terrain was always moving. Sometimes, you’d have to reset the camera because Glen Canyon is full of mud now, and you’re sinking, and the camera is sinking. So it’s not like I can really say like it’s “this amount of time,” but I was getting really good and fast at it. If it wasn’t sinking, and there weren’t any problems, not even five minutes. If it was sinking – or weird, or hard to get to, or rain came in, or it was windy – 15 minutes.
How much does Tad’s camera weigh?
The camera itself is pretty light without any lenses, but then you add up three lenses, and film holders with film in it, and those are kinda heavy. And a tripod. So, a pretty heavy pack. And I have my Nikon Z6 with me just in case, because I try to back everything up. There’s lots of nuances to the camera because it’s old, but I got some really sharp images. You can tell how really sharp they are compared to the Z6.
Did you ever go without Tad’s camera, for instance if the hike looked to tough to go with all the gear and you decided just to go with the Z6?
Yes. Definitely. Sometimes I’d go scout first and maybe return with Tad’s camera. Other times I’d just go for it with Tad’s camera – it just depended on how badass I felt that day (laughs). Can I lug it all the way up there?
Did you shoot any color with Tad’s camera?
No. I wanted to keep it true to his book. The inspiration for the whole project is from his book, Glen Canyon: Images of a Lost World, and I’ve had this book forever. I’ve always seen Glen Canyon through this book – and through Tad’s eyes, and Katie Lee’s songs. I was inspired by this book and his black and whites. He shot everything; he shot 4×5, two and a quarter, 35mm. He also did 16mm silent films. The guy documented the crap out of this place. (Editor’s note: From 1950 to 1963, Tad Nichols made more than 4,000 photographs in Glen Canyon.)
How long did you plan for this project to take?
I thought I was going to do one five-day trip, be done, and get it in Arizona Highways. Then I realized Glen Canyon is gigantic. It’s like thousands of miles long of shoreline. I wasn’t even scratching the surface. I kept going back because there was more to explore. And that’s how the film started. And that’s important because we’re doing footage of history in the making.
From the film, I noticed you could get to places Tad couldn’t because of the water level now. For instance, that gorgeous slot canyon in the film. You explored it higher up, and Tad explored the lower reaches that are still flooded. But back to the photo challenges. The 4×5 negatives – did you print them in the darkroom, or did you scan them into files you could then process in Photoshop?
Both. I went into the darkroom and printed two of the negatives, then rest were scanned and printed out by Richard Jackson. Master printmaker. We just made these beautiful prints. Oh my god, 24×30” prints, and they’re going to the Glen Canyon Institute for a silent auction (on November 10th).
Every negative is different. The first negative in the darkroom was super easy. Boom. Done within the first couple tries. The second negative was a lot of dodging and burning to get the vision that I saw that day. Scanning something, and dodging and burning in the computer, is so much easier and faster. You can also do these minute corrections.
Do you think printing on an inkjet printer makes as good a print as you could do, say on platinum paper, in the darkroom?
Yes, and I found that out when I did a couple of interesting things. I took a sheet of film, scanned it, and sent it to Hidden Light (a film processing company in Flagstaff). They turn around and printed it onto a much larger negative for me to use in the darkroom.
So, you did your dodging and burning on a computer, and from that, they made a negative you could contact print at the size you want it?
Exactly. That was interesting, but I didn’t really like the results that I got. So, I went back to just the scanned image and output it to the computer printer to see what that looks like, and I liked that better than the contact print as well.
Did you try to match images and camera angles with Tad’s shots?
I never tried to replicate his work. I just went there with his camera and was inspired by his work. I went back to a couple places because they’re just iconic, like the Cathedral in the Desert. That’s on the cover of his book. But I’d go to reproduce what my eyes saw.
What’s the most unexpected thing you saw emerge? Old boats and old cars, you’re going to see plenty of those. But was there anything that just left you going, “what the hell?”
I was pretty shocked that the flora and fauna are coming back. That was pretty amazing. To see groves of cottonwoods coming up… the natural beauty returning. I just thought it was all going to be dead, dead, dead.
The other thing I thought was pretty surprising was how muddy it really was, and how you’re sinking. It’s a sinking landscape, and it’s not stabilized yet. So it’s just this swamp or sticker bushes. You couldn’t pull over sometimes, because you just couldn’t get out of the boat. You’re just gonna sink down into the mud – and we did.
But back to your question. I have to say that this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to in my life. I was not expecting the beauty to be so intense.
And this is coming from someone who’s rowed down the Grand Canyon over forty times. That says a lot.
I love Grand Canyon. And I’m not knocking Grand Canyon, but Glen Canyon? Holey moley – gorgeous. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.
That slot canyon you’re going into in the film looks like Antelope Canyon without all the wedding photographers…
(Dawn Kish laughs)
With 4×5 everything’s upside down and backwards on the ground glass. With your dyslexia, does that just seem normal to you?
I think that’s a good question. I swear sometimes it would be really easy. Maybe it was because I am dyslexic. It was one hurdle that I didn’t have to fight so much.
That said, I had to really slow down. When I was preparing for this, I would do a mock shoot before going out. I did practice a little bit in the backyard. I wanted to make sure the camera would work after seventy years. So, we did these tests with the lenses. Is his old lens still sharp? And no it’s not. The tests were kind of hard, because you have to shoot the film and get it developed – and send it all the way to Phoenix and all the way back – and before you know it, two weeks went by.
As opposed to one second with a digital camera.
Sometimes, just before going out into the field I would just pretend I was taking photos. Getting the light meter out, getting the filters out, putting in the film, and pulling the slide. I start getting pretty quick at it. It was pretty rad because I had done 4×5 when I was a lot younger. It was a cool experience then, and it was a cool experience now.
Did you bracket exposures much?
I wasn’t bracketing that much. I’d maybe use a few pieces of film for each one, but not a lot. Sometimes just one, sometimes two. Three was pushing it, because in the field you don’t have that much film.
What sort of film were you shooting?
Kodak Tri-X. ASA 320.
Were you developing your own negatives?
Oh god no. I didn’t want that pressure. (Laughs.) I just had Hidden Light do it. In fact, sometimes I would have them load the film because I just didn’t want to mess that up. Or I’d have Richard do it. Eventually I was doing it myself.
Was the original idea for this project just to get it in Arizona Highways, or do gallery shows, or record history…?
This is more about art more than anything. Just creating art. And then I’m a documentary photographer, so of course I want to tell the story. I felt like this is a really heartfelt project because it’s about my love of the southwest – it’s my home. Of course I want to see the canyon emerge. It’s always been a sore subject being a river runner down the Grand Canyon. You never want to go to Glen Canyon because it’s covered up. It’s a bad feeling.
The video has been scheduled to show at the Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival. Is this going to be the premiere?
Yeah. At Banff! Isn’t that crazy?
Talk about a prestigious place to premiere. Short of going to Banff (highly recommended) how can people see it?
The festival will be streaming live online and runs October 29 to November 6th. Or, if anybody’s in Salt Lake, they can come see it on the tenth of November at the Glen Canyon Institute. I’ll also have a gallery show with a silent auction, and all the proceeds go to the Glen Canyon Institute.
Can people buy prints directly through you?
They can contact me through dawnkishphotography.com. A percentage goes to the Glen Canyon Institute.
Thank you for your time, Dawn.
Dawn is not done documenting the reemergence of Glen Canyon. To help support her continuing efforts, click here:
To watch Tad’s Emerging World during the Banff film festival (goes live the morning of October 29), click here:
For info on the Salt Lake City event, click here:
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