There are two types of memories— the kind that you see with open eyes, and the kind you see with your eyes closed. The first kind appear as the “golden-brown” of the rocks, or the “candy-colored sky;” but the second kind is what you see from the velvet darkness behind your eye-lids, instantly appearing as ghosts of a reality that was once yours. Closing my eyes today instantly takes me back to the the violet shadows of the badlands stretching for miles and miles on end, clamoring with boundless beauty.
I miss being on the road with Maggie. There is something so natural about wandering the earth with the person you love…there is so much to see…you can go from being in the desert one moment to being surrounded by lush green mountains the next…yet we spend our entire loves in a 6×6 cubicle as we speed to another, more eternal one.
So for today’s critique, I want to share three of the pictures I shot during our trip westwards. The first one is an image of the badlands, the second one shows the devil’s tower, while the third is an image of Lake Michigan from an earlier trip. The photographs from the badlands and Devil’s tower were shot on Fuji Velvia 5o, while the one from Lake Michigan was shot on Kodak Portra 160.
The Badlands are located in South Dakota. We stopped at a gas station just before the national park because we weren’t sure when we will find gas again. I turned the car off, and filled up the tank. But when I tried to ignite the car back to life, it wouldn’t start…the battery appeared to have died. With characteristic naïveté, I asked Maggie to hand me the emergency battery pack so I could try to jump the car. “No!” She exclaimed, in exasperated tones, “Let’s get the car away from the tanks!” “how stupid,” I thought, “it’s not like the tanks are going to catch on fire!” But too tired to argue, I grumbled and mumbled, and pushed the car under the awning of the station store. Maggie handed me the backup battery. I powered it on. I looked down at the copper wires coming out of the car battery. “This seems simple enough.” I thought. “The red wire goes to the red terminal and, and the black…the black one goes he…” suddenly sparks were everywhere! I had connected the wires to the wrong terminals. I looked and Maggie, and there she was…“told you so,” here smile seemed to be saying. I am so glad I listened to her. I am quite stupid.
But gratefully alive, I successfully jumped the car. Soon, we continued onwards to the Badlands National Park! The closer we got, the faster my heart paced. Before we knew it, there they were, little peaks that rose up from the earth like waves, as unchanging as time itself. The badlands were formed through two geological processes—deposition and erosion. Erosion began in the Badlands about 500,000 years ago when the Cheyenne River captured streams and rivers flowing from the Black Hills into the Badlands region. According to the National Parks website:
A quick look at the Badlands will reveal that they were deposited in layers. The layers are composed of tiny grains of sediments such as sand, silt, and clay that have been cemented together into sedimentary rocks. The sedimentary rock layers of Badlands National Park were deposited during the late Cretaceous Period (67 to 75 million years ago) throughout the Late Eocene (34 to 37 million years ago) and Oligocene Epochs (26 to 34 million years ago). Different environments—sea, tropical land, and open woodland with meandering rivers—caused different sediments to accumulate here at different times. The layers similar in character are grouped into units called formations. The oldest formations are at the bottom and the youngest are at the top, illustrating the principle of superposition.
Before 500,000 years ago, streams and rivers carried sediments from the Black Hills building the rock layers we see today. Once the Black Hills streams and rivers were captured, erosion dominated over deposition. Modern rivers cut down through the rock layers, carving fantastic shapes into what had once been a flat floodplain. The Badlands erode at the rapid rate of about one inch per year.
Some things in nature inspire a great silence in the core of one’s spirit; the badlands were one of them. It is estimated that in 500 000 years, they will be completely gone.
Now on to the critique. Lets start with the photo titled “Badlands”
The Photograph was taken on a Fuji Velvia 50, then converted into black and white and warmed up a little bit to give it a sepia tone. I cropped the image from 6×6 to 16×9, which I believe was a good decision; it more accurately represents how the badlands run on for what seems like infinity. I also like how the different peaks seem layered, and the horizon is an almost straight line.
Although I wish I had better control over the blurriness, I quite like the beauty that blur can bring. I recently read in a National Geographic article that Leonardo Da Vinci thought that the we rarely see the world as sharp; so in his paintings he practiced a technique known as Sfumato, where he added blur to the edges of his subject because he believed that more accurately represented how human vision works. Perhaps he was onto something…perhaps film, with all its blurriness, really is a more natural medium than digital.
That said, it was really hard to photograph the badlands in mid-afternoon. The bright sky and the harsh shadows made the dynamic range impossible to photograph—exposing for the sky darkened the badlands, and exposing for the badlands overexposed the sky. Which is why I ended up converting the image into black and white using photoshop. I also think that the contrast and jagged lines cutting into the shadows look better in black and white,. In future experiments, I want to try exposure bracketing with film.
After the badlands, our next stop was the Devil’s tower. I wanted to see the laccolith ever since I watched “close encounters of the third kind.” I had thought that the mountain was part of a movie set, but ever since I learnt it was real, I was aching to see the site. And It’s quite a sight to behold. One is driving on a hilly road surrounded by iridescent pastures and majestic longhorns, when suddenly, out of nowhere, you see this ancient rock formation rising towards the heavens. Iron gray, with a hint of green, it stands gloriously against a steely blue sky…looking at the devils tower makes one feel that one is looking at the birth of time, as if the core of the earth had shattered the crust, and spiraled its heart towards the sky, setting in motion the creation of the world…One just stands there looking at the peak, drowned in a profound sense of silence. Like the badlands, there is something eternal about it.
According to the Native American tribes of the Kiowa and Lakota, a group of girls went out to play and were spotted by several giant bears, who began to chase them. In an effort to escape the bears, the girls climbed atop a rock, fell to their knees, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit made the rock rise from the ground towards the heavens so that the bears could not reach the girls. The bears, in an effort to climb the rock, left deep claw marks in the sides, which had become too steep to climb. Those are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower. When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the stars of the Pleiades. There were hundreds of rocks scrambled at the base of the mountain, giving the impression that the mountain is crumbling, when in fact, it is still growing! There was something funny about the tower. I felt like I could be friends with it.
The image that I would like to critique is titled “Devil’s Tower.” It has to be one of my favorite photos from the trip. There is so much detail and texture in the walls of the volcano. You can see every parallel crack, and almost sense it. I like the perspective as well; it makes me feel as if the mountain is just being introduced. The symmetric composition works well with the fact that the mountain itself is not perfectly symmetric. I also like that the sky is not pure white, but a shade of very light gray. It makes the image look a lot calmer. Shooting with a longer lens undoubtedly helped make this a better picture.
I don’t like the blurriness on the left side of the photograph. It looks odd, especially compared to the sharpness of the texture found elsewhere in the photo. I don’t know how this picture turned out as sharp as it did.
While there is obviously nothing exceptional about this photograph, I do like how it makes me feel. It accurately depicts how I saw the mountain— quirky, tall, and timeless. It looms over you, but in a friendly way.
For the third photo, I would like to critique the one I took at Lake Michigan:
I have never seen a lake as boundless as Lake Michigan. I am very disappointed that I could not capture even a grain of its grace and beauty. The picture, though made better through conversion into black in white, is poorly exposed and very uninteresting. It is a generic beach photo; hundreds of images like these have been vomited onto the world.
It says nothing new about the beach, nor does it reveal anything. I also hate the moire taking place in the sky, and the several stripe like lines lining the photo vertically. It rips the photo apart.
Furthermore, the grain is too intense. I have no idea what happened here…I think this might have been one of my first scans…from before I learnt that the scanning software was adding grain to the photo on its own.
I don’t know how to feel about the tiny boat along the horizon. On the one hand, it is the only interesting thing in the photo, and on the other, it quite disturbs the calmness. The photograph represents my perfect nightmare—complete lack of control.
What I like about the photo is the texture in the water, and perhaps the 16 from the film backing that accidentally got exposed on the right side of the photograph. It adds a an unusual, mysterious element to the photo, and I am glad to admit that it was a happy accident. I also like the horizontal attitude of the photo. I shot this image from a 150mm lens, which was very good for flattening any lens distortion that could have happened.
I believe that land has memory. Growing up in a colonized country, long after the colonizers had left, the cries of the crimes of the past can still be heard everywhere in my country, in a million subtle ways. In Ohio, the memory of native Americans seems to be erased. In my seven years there, I knew nothing about Native American culture.
But as one goes west, every rock is laden with the memory of the continued violence against Native Americans. The wounds seem to be a lot fresher, and the air a lot bloodier. Driving through South Dakota was an incredibly emotional period for me. I have never seen so much beauty and violence live within the same space.
In Wyoming, I was surprised to learn that even Abraham Lincoln (who was responsible for abolishing slavery) ordered the largest mass execution in U.S. History, hanging Dakota men after they choose to fight back when the government stole more of their land. Mass execution apart, in her book, “Treaties Made, Treaties Broken,” Helen Oliff writes that the “The U.S. federal government entered into more than 500 treaties with Indian nations from 1778 to 1871; every one of them was “broken, changed or nullified when it served the government’s interests.” In 1868, for example, the U.S. government signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, establishing the Great Sioux Reservation west of the Missouri River, and exempting the Black Hills from all white settlement forever. However, when gold was discovered in the hills in 1874 as a result of general Custer’s black hill expedition, miners flicked to the region in a gold rush. The government seized the land from the Lakota yet again, and against their wishes, moved them to five smaller reservations in western South Dakota, selling off 9 million acres of their former land.
In Sioux culture, the black hills are considered to be “the heart of everything that is.” Today that heart is blatantly being bled dry by mining corporations, and the faces of four American presidents is shamelessly, brazenly, plastered across the dark hills.
It as if the colonial Americans are not only disrespecting the Native Americans, but also nature. The relationship of Native Americans to the American soil was very different to that of colonial Europeans. When the Native Americans first migrated to America, they truly discovered the land and developed a relationship with the ecology and the surroundings. They had knowledge of how things works. When the settlers came, they weren’t interested in developing a relationship with land as much as they were in recreating the ones they left behind. And so there was New England and New York and New Hampshire, and the killing of buffaloes so vital to the ecology of the land.
With the genocide of the Native Americans, so much history and wisdom about the land has been lost. And it shows in the countless Mining mills excreting dark smoke from the breathtaking hills in Montana.
The tragedy of all of this is that the government still hasn’t learnt its lesson. It would have been different if the U.S. government grew a conscience and started respecting Indian rights for a change. But as recently as 2017, the government gave the company, TransCanada, the rights to continue building a pipeline (keystone pipeline project), through native land, despite protests from thousands of people, both native and non-native Americans alike. The Indians feared that the oil would leak underground and have direct negative effects on the water and ecology of their land. The corporation insisted that oil leaks would not happen. The U.S. president trump approved the construction of the pipeline, despite protests of Hundreds and thousands of people, native and Caucasian alike. The pipe recently leaked 210 000 gallons of oil in South Dakota.
Moving through the United States, I have truly fallen in love with the country because of its boundless beauty. Knowing the history makes me look at the American flag in an entirely new way. It makes me question my own legitimacy as an immigrant—should I really be here, on land ruthlessly seized from the natives?
I don’t know. When I close my eyes, all I can see are the majestic badlands, stretching on for miles on end, slowly eroding away.