The Subway Revisited
In Capturing Context, we share the story behind the image, providing insight into the photographer's approach and experience, and allowing the reader to connect more deeply with the work.
I recently spent some time exploring and photographing Zion National Park in southern Utah. A visit to Utah in November is always a special time. It’s the time of year when the maples, oaks, and cottonwoods change into their autumn colors and the red rock of the canyons is complimented by leaves in shades of reds, oranges, and yellows. It’s also a quieter time in the parks, and on most hikes it’s the song of the canyon wrens and the wind that accompany me on the trails. There are many hikes that I enjoy in Zion, but the trek to the Subway is one of my favorites. It’s a challenging hike that takes you deep into canyon country and to an old lava tube that catches great glow, with amazing little pools carved into the sandstone. In addition to the main attraction of the Subway, there are also many smaller scenes to find and explore along the hike that are perfect to photograph.
This is a very popular place for photographers and hikers, as the lure of glow at the end of the Subway tunnel seems to beckon for exploration. This was my second time visiting. The first time that I visited, a few years back, I didn’t come away with meaningful pictures; I was exhausted from the hike, didn’t quite know how to capture everything, and was more worried about making it back to the car before dark than getting good photographs. My goal on this second trip was to create more meaningful photos and to take the time to soak in the whole experience. If you search for images of “The Subway,” you’ll find a plethora of pictures from other photographers who have also endeavored to capture the beauty of this area. Even though this place has been shot many times over, I wanted to make photos that conveyed my personal experience. I tried to capture the smaller details on the way to the Subway, along with the iconic scenes. It’s always fun to put your own unique spin on a heavily photographed site. As photographers, our goal is to communicate our individual emotions and feelings with a viewer through the photographs we take. With all of the competition in photography, it's important to realize that we all take different pictures, even if it is of the same thing. My goal was not necessarily to try to take better photos than anyone else, it was to slow down, be creative, and have my own experience.
I started the hike down the canyon at seven in the morning. It was an early start, but I wanted to be sure to give myself enough time to photograph and explore anything that caught my attention along the way. It was cold and my breath hung in the chilly air. The sun illuminated the sides of the canyon as I descended towards the river. The occasional song of wrens broke through the silence and echoed throughout the landscape. The path zigzagged across the creek as I boulder hopped, not wanting to get my feet wet quite yet in the chilly morning air. The sunlight bouncing off of the sandstone walls around me reflected a warm orange light into the pools around the river, creating an abstract scene of bright colors and decaying leaves. After capturing a few images, I continued down the trail.
A few turns down the creek, I came across a small pool next to the stream, with a floating mass of tiny bubbles created from the turbulence of water being diverted into the pool. A little cottonwood leaf that was floating among them caught my eye. It was trapped, caught in a circular motion as it took the same current around and around. Each pass, it drifted through the foam patterns that made up the pool. I took out my camera and photographed for a few moments. The leaf looked lost in the sea of bubbles. At one point, it aligned with a more massive bubble, where I was surprised to see the reflection of the canyon walls. It was such a small reflection, but I could make out the sunlit canyon rim set against the morning blue of the sky. I could have sat there for many more minutes watching this dance of the bubble and the leaf, but pressed on down the trail wondering what else lay ahead.
About another mile down, I paused for a water break and studied the creek as it rushed around the rocks. The light from the reflecting canyon walls created golden tones against the blue hues from the sky. All these elements combined with a slower shutter speed created painterly images. They reminded me of brush strokes on a canvas, formed from the patterns and texture in the water.
There was a sound in the distance of even more rushing water, and I knew that I was hearing Arch Angel Falls. I approached the waterfall and took off my pack for a photography break. The trees around the waterfall had already dropped many of their fall leaves, but that was okay with me – I did not want to take the same shots that are usually photographed here. I wanted my own unique perspective and experience. I took my time studying the flow of water and looking for lines and textures. There were still a few trees hanging on to their golden leaves, and there was a beautiful glow about the canyon. I photographed the falls for about thirty minutes before climbing up the natural sandstone staircase towards the Subway.
I walked up the sandstone through the flowing water, careful not to disrupt the moss growing against the rock. I came upon what's known as The Crack. It's a large crack in the sandstone floor filled with rushing water. There were leaves scattered all about around it on both sides. I couldn't help but wonder where these leaves had started from. I wondered if they had fallen down to this spot or if they were carried downstream. No matter, they were now lying here adding color to the split rock and rushing water. This crack is another popular photography subject, but I still wanted to create an image. The beautiful thing about nature is that there are always details that change over time. Here, it was the leaves. I photographed it while it was still shielded from the harsh light, creating my own interpretation of this spot.
I then moved on upstream and into the Subway. The pools were clear, and some scattered leaves were floating in them. It was about noon, and the glow was getting good looking back towards the entrance. I explored different compositions and sat and listened to the trickling water, playing with different shutter speeds and different heights of my tripod. I captured my images, knowing that they didn't look much different from what others have captured before me, but I was okay with that. I was here to capture what Mother Nature had decided to give me that day. I spent a long time being present and employing all of my senses to enjoy the surroundings.
Even though it's a popular spot for photography, I walked away with images that were unique to me, and that's all that matters. They were made from my interactions with nature that day. I don't approach photography as a contest to get better images than others; we do ourselves a disservice with such competitive thinking. Most of us go out into nature to experience and capture unique moments. Our thoughts, feelings, and unique perspectives can shine through even in well-photographed locations. We are all individuals, and through our images we paint a picture of our adventures. This visit to the Subway reminded me to slow to down and be inspired by nature. That's a significant component of the Slow Photography Movement. When we connect with nature, set aside the competition, and enjoy an experience – whether we've done it once or a hundred times – we walk away with more meaningful images and a richer story to tell.