Jeff O'Keeffe

Cartoon Landscapes

Reflections on making photographs in and around the National Parks surrounding Moab, Utah.

To preface this post – if you came looking for a day-by-day of the trip, you may be disappointed. I am treating this as more of an open space to riff on what was in my mind as I was on this trip. Often I tend to over-complicate things when thinking about photography and my connection to it, so excuse me if it gets overly abstract or romantic.

Vermillion Crags | Fujica GW690 | Kodak Ektar 100
Resolve | Fujica GW690 | Kodak Ektar 100

While in the landscape of Utah I could not shake this surreal feeling, it felt as if I was in a cartoon. The desert is an environment which I do not have much experience in, coming from the Mid-West, and over the short few days I spent photographing within it I found it absolutely captivating. It is dominated by contrast, in all color, light, and content. The reign of sandstone and open, blue sky is unforgiving and demanding in attention – a visual playground that challenged my will and intention as a photographer. In my practice making landscape photographs over the years I’ve discovered a lot of things about myself, namely that above all other intentions or motivations, I make these images out of a pure sense of visual and pseudo-spiritual fascination. In my practice, I find myself selfish – these are images made to satiate my desire for “beauty”, and the hunt that comes along with it. All with the hope that the sharing of these images may also nourish some small part of you, the viewer, or inspire you to seek and appreciate the same.

In the Fiery Furnace | Intrepid 4x5 Mk. II | Ilford FP4+
Across the Great Divide | Intrepid 4x5 Mk. II | Fuji Velvia 50

“Beauty” is a funny word, and we all have our own definitions of it – I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about where or when it can be found, what possesses it, and how or if it can be fabricated. But, I think that maybe “beauty” is not a property, object, or subject that can be planned to be found, or at least not very well. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, a sentiment which in this context seems a much simpler definition, or a deflection of a proper definition. “Beauty”, in my opinion, is the exaltation of happenstance – an incident which the beholder and the world are equally involved. Nature and its permutations of light, form, and presence is in and of itself ambivalent or ignorant to the beholder. It is the beholder, the artist, who finds their place and organizes the materiality of the world – “creating” or happening upon the incidence of something “beautiful”.

I am reminded of a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature

“The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity. A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world. It is the result or expression of nature, in miniature. For, although the works of nature are innumerable and all different, the result or the expression of them all is similar and single. Nature is a sea of forms radically alike and even unique. A leaf, a sun-beam, a landscape, the ocean, make an analogous impression on the mind. What is common to them all, – that perfectness and harmony, is beauty. The standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms, – the totality of nature; which the Italians expressed by defining beauty ‘il piu nell’ uno.’ Nothing is quite beautiful alone: nothing but is beautiful in the whole. A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace. The poet, the painter, the sculptor, the musician, the architect, seek each to concentrate this radiance of the world on one point, and each in his several works to satisfy the love of beauty which stimulates him to produce. Thus is Art, a nature passed through the alembic of man. Thus in art, does nature work through the will of a man filled with the beauty of her first works.”

Cartoon Landscapes | Intrepid 4x5 Mk. II | Fuji Velvia 50
Entrada Dreams | Intepid 4x5 Mk. II | Fuji Velvia 50

Those of you that I’ve discussed this trip with already know that it did not start or end in the smoothest of ways. It began with my Intrepid taking a tumble and breaking the struts off the front standard, along with losing my only shutter release cable - apparently the only shutter release cable in eastern Utah. While the Intrepid was quickly fixed with some super-glue, for the remainder of my time in Utah I actuated the shutter on both my Intrepid and Fuji GW690 with toothpicks from the Moab Denny’s. This was a re-occurring theme of the trip, this overcoming of adversity or obstacles thrown in my way – and while it took a toll on me mentally for a time, it never discouraged me from the child-like wonder of exploring this place.

A majority of my time in the Moab area was spent in Arches National Park, with a short excursion down to Canyonlands, hiking with a pack that was far too heavy for the heat and sun. The second day there, probably my most productive in terms of quantity of photographs, most of the day was spent hiking in an area called The Fiery Furnace – a permit-required area in Arches that consists of a maze of fractured, monolithic sandstone fins. The route through is marked by small, sandstone colored plaques that have arrows roughly marking it, and for that reason it is incredibly easy to get led astray from the path. From the bottom, ground level, there are slot canyons and passages between fins which were hidden and strayed from the path – and we tried to explore most of the offshoots. As you follow the path, you climb onto what seems to be a mid-level above ground where you are on smaller fins, and finally to almost the very top of them. This was the most captivating area to me, and in the future when I revisit Arches, it will definitely be a focus with multiple days of exploration. Canyonlands National Park, while I did not spend much time there at all, made an impression on me far different than Arches. Even though Arches covers a wide variety of terrain, the short drive south-west reveals a completely new landscape of equal variety. Coming from the mid-west, a stark contrast of environment to this, I am overtaken by a longing to return to its sweeping views and unforgiving terrain.

Near Broken Arch | Intrepid 4x5 Mk. II | Ilford FP4+
Shade in the Garden | Intrepid 4x5 Mk. II | Ilford FP4+

The day before I left Utah, I was set up at an overview of the Fiery Furnace in Arches – waiting as the sun set to make the photograph below. Watching the glow of sandstone subdue and the sky transform into a subtle gradient of colors, my phone rang – which was odd because I spent a majority of the time there either with it off or without any service. It was my Dad, and as I answered I could tell by the somber, almost too casual tone of his voice that there was something wrong. My Grandma has spent a majority the spring of each year at her condo in Egg Harbor, Wisconsin, alone, since my Grandpa passed in 2015 – I visited her there for a week or two, or at least a few days in the spring each year. This year, 2018, I took the opportunity and newfound freedom as a fresh graduate to travel farther to Utah. My Dad told me that she had a stroke while alone, and that a friend who she was set to meet that day had found her and she was now in the hospital in Sturgeon Bay. They did not know how long she had been there, alone, and the effects seemed to be serious – however she was responsive. My Mom and her sisters were already on their way there, an almost five-hour drive north from our home in the Southwest Suburbs of Chicago. After the call, I made my exposure a little late as the light became weak, and packed up to head in for the night.

The remainder of the trip I spent with her in my mind, trapped there in a landscape which seemed to console. Upon returning to Denver, where I was taking an Amtrak train back to Chicago the next day, I was on the phone with my Mom who was with her in that hospital in Sturgeon Bay. My Grandma was responsive and aware, and my Mom put me on the phone with her – her speech was slurred and difficult to decipher, but understandable and lucid. She asked me how my camera was, knowing it had fallen a few days earlier and dropped – and it was incredibly reassuring to know that despite her condition, she was still worrying about others, it was her nature. The next few weeks after I got back home were a struggle, she was moved to a live-in facility on the Door County Peninsula as she was not in the condition to be transported 5 hours south to Chicago. I visited her there, and after what felt like an eternity after – she was finally brought home, to Silver Cross Hospital. A little over a month after her incident, my Grandma passed on June 27th, 2018, surrounded by her daughters. She was an incredible, warm, caring, and supportive woman who I will always remember as a constant in my life.