Anasazi backpack workshop with Don Kirby and Joan Gentry

A workshop review and trip report

By Ron Reeder for the Large Format Page

My wife and I just returned from a five day, llama-assisted backpacking workshop, photographing canyon scenery and Anasazi ruins in the Grand Gulch area of South-Eastern Utah. We had an excellent time and highly recommend this workshop for those with the physical ability and compatible photographic interests. The group consisted of eight participants, the two instructors, ten llamas, and three experienced llama wranglers from the Buckhorn Llama Company (size of the group is limited by BLM regulations).

Don Kirby, the lead instructor, does stunning black and white landscape photography with a 4x5 camera. Examples of his work can be seen on his web site (http://www.donkirbyphotography.com/home.html) as well as in recent articles in both Lenswork and View Camera Magazine. He also has a new book out on his work in the wheat country of Eastern Washington. Don has a talent for perceptive, unflinching criticism of student portfolios a major reason we have taken several of his workshops. Don's partner, Joan Gentry, prefers to work in medium format black and white, photographing architecture and an array of quieter, often whimsical subjects. Joan is a quieter presence during critique sessions but strongly contributes to the overall mood and quality of the workshop.

Each participant brought a portfolio and all day Saturday plus Sunday morning was spent at home base in Bluff, Utah critiquing photos of both participants and instructors. Perhaps one reason for the success of the workshop was that all participants were at least moderately experienced in black and white landscape photography (medium or large format) which coincided with the interests and expertise of the instructors.

Sunday afternoon we assembled our gear. Each participant was responsible for carrying his/her camera gear plus lunch and water for the day (2-4 liters recommended). Day packs plus tripods tended to weigh between 35-40 pounds for each participant. The llamas carried the rest: extra film, a small film changing tent, all the food for the trip (including material to make lunches each day), tents, sleeping bags, foam pads, and one stuff sack that was allotted to each person for personal items (extra clothes, toilet articles, etc.). Monday morning we car-pooled to the trailhead and began the hike.

Our trip was in the latter part of May and we were told that almost any type of weather was possible, from snow to rain to hot sun. As it turned out, we had no rain or snow but recent rainfalls had caused an exceptional bloom of plant life. Cacti, yucca and other flowers were all in bloom and butterflies and hawkmoths were in abundance feeding on them. Biting insects were nearly absent. The sun got quite hot during the day (a hat was a necessity) but each evening cooled down to pleasant sleeping temperature. We all carried rain gear each day for emergencies but never had to use it.

The pace of the hike was moderate to allow for ample photo time. The first two days we hiked about 5 miles each day, the third day was spent day hiking around the base camp, and the last two days were spent retracing our steps back out of the Gulch. Five miles per day, with frequent stops for photo ops, was about all my 61-year old joints and muscles wanted to do. Younger, more athletic participants were free to range on ahead or to take side trips up intersecting canyons that we encountered.

The main point of the trip, of course, was opportunities for photography. In this the trip really excelled. The canyon itself was beautiful with huge old cottonwoods against complex sandstone cliffs, reflections in pools of water, convoluted rock forms, and all sorts of flowering plant life. Each day we also visited 2-3 major Anasazi ruins, many of them with attendant painted or incised rock art panels. A major effort was made to instruct all participants in how to approach these sites (last inhabited in about 1300 AD) with respect and how to cause as little damage as possible while tromping around to find camera angles. These sites tend to be in shade under dramatic sandstone overhangs where the contrast range of the scene is quite low. The instructors were helpful with advice on how to filter, expose, and develop to produce a strong image under such circumstances. Although the instructors were available for any photo advice we wanted, it was a reasonably experienced group and we tended to spread out during the day, working in relative isolation. My wife and I often had a ruin or other photo op completely to ourselves with no schedule except to show up in camp in time for dinner. Basically it was large format photo paradise and I exposed nearly 100 sheets of 4x5 film during the trip.

By normal backpacking standards (ie, without llamas) this was a luxurious trip. Each morning the llama wranglers cooked a substantial breakfast (cowboy coffee, pancakes and sausage one morning, breakfast burritos the next, etc), provided filtered water to refill our water bottles, and set out sandwich makings for lunches. As mentioned, they then carried everything except our photo gear to the next camp site. We were responsible for setting up and taking down our tents. In the evening there was a happy hour (boxed wine never tasted so good we neglected to pace our consumption and ran out on the last night) followed by an excellent dinner (lasagna and salad one night, vegetarian chili and corn bread another, etc.). Quality of the food was really good for a trail trip.

We liked this workshop because we got serious criticism and advice on our portfolios and we were taken into a photo-rich country that we would have had difficulty accessing by ourselves (and in comparable luxury). We consider everyone on the trip to be our friend at this point. The instructors are very knowledgeable and are willing to accomodate almost any type of photographer at any level of expertise. But I think it is most suited to moderately experienced practitioners of black and white large format photography. If only we had not run out of wine on the last night it would have been perfect.

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rreeder@fred.fhcrc.org