Mee Canyon Alcove

Jan 10, 2023

© Robert Kurtzman BA, DO

Robert Kurtzman’s image "Mee Canyon Alcove” won a Judges Choice award and an Image of Merit award in the Natural Science category of the BioImages 2022 Salon.

What was your concept when creating this image? Was it for a job or for personal creativity?

The image was made for personal use and to benefit the Colorado Canyons Association (CCA). A good description of the CCA can be found on their website I was a CCA board member and initially recruited to that position to help with some documentation of the three National Conservation Areas (McInnis Canyons, Dominguez-Escalante, and Gunnison Gorge) in Western Colorado. I had heard of the Mee Canyon Alcove but never visited the location and did not know what to expect. Learning that it would be a strenuous hike to the alcove with some narrow cliff edge exposure, deciding against bringing 4x5 or 6x17 gear was a good choice. It rained much of the day making the hike more difficult but upon arrival at the alcove the gapping opening was startling, the textures in the mud were wonderful and the expansive alcove was extraordinary! In concept, I generally enjoy making images that re-create, by illusion, the experience of the actual scene. So in this image, the challenge was to convey the enormity and textures of the alcove and also handle the dynamic range of the dark alcove interior and the illuminated canyon wall in the distance. This was a single RAW image and I elected to make the exposure for the illuminated canyon wall outside of the alcove. Having limited experience with digital imaging at that time, I was astounded by the dynamic range a single RAW image could capture!

Tell us something about the creative process you use when coming up with a solution to a problem/assignment.

That’s the million dollar question right?! I’m generally pretty linear in my thought process when it comes to problem solving, regardless if it's for creative or technical purposes.

As a pathologist I was introduced to many abstract biologic patterns through the microscope which initially elicited a purely subjective response, the patterns and colors were, and are still beautiful to me; however, it was necessary to identify the subtle objective characteristics to provide an objective interpretation in the form of a diagnosis. When enjoying the landscape there are plenty of purely objective elements such as trees, sky, mountains, clouds, water, etc. and the challenge with any creative imaging endeavor is to arrange those objective elements in a way that the photographer considers subjectively expressive and the viewer considers pleasing.

Next for me comes an understanding of the anatomy and physiology of how our eyes and brains image subjects versus how camera systems image subjects and understanding the differences between the two systems.

Then breaking down components of a scene or subject in terms of light quality, shape, form, grouping, proximity, size, focus, etc..

Lastly I need to know what the goal or purpose of an intended image is. Pure objective documentation is different than creative imaging intended to elicit a subjective response in the viewer.

What technical issues did you have, or have to work out, to create this image?

Evaluating the cavenous scene and my desire to recapitulate what I experienced led to a short focal length selection. My goal was to include the mud ripples at my feet with as much detail as possible and maintain details throughout the rest of the alcove and the distant canyon wall. This meant selecting a small aperture and focusing on a plane to preserve near and distant sharpness throughout the image or more simply the hyperlocal distance. I typically use a tripod as it improves my ability to carefully evaluate the full scene in the viewfinder. Exposure selection was intended to preserve the highlight details. Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop was used for the initial global exposure, chromatic aberration and lens geometry adjustments followed by adjustment layers applied more locally with curves.

Tell us something about the subject of this image.

The Mee Canyon Alcove is one of the largest alcoves in the Colorado plateau. It’s located in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area not far from Grand Junction Colorado. Despite its proximity to the public, it's a very difficult destination to reach and as a result there are very few visitors so it can be enjoyed in solitude. The most common trail used to reach the alcove starts at the top of Mee Canyon and descends nearly 1,500 feet in less than two miles and involves a bit of scrambling over, under and along slick-rock. Round trip is about 6 miles and the climb out of the canyon is all up! Despite the hike, the alcove is a special treat. The alcove is larger than a football field and a horseshoe shape dry wash loops through along the floor. The dry wash fills with water after substantial rainfall.

What elements are important to you when you judge or critique your work or the work of other professionals?

Technical elements like exposure, sharpness, tonality, framing, and dynamic range are all important. Does an image convey an idea, concept or physical characteristics effectively? For evaluating my own images I try to be my own worst critic:-)

Tell us something about yourself. What is your imaging background?

By career I’m a forensic pathologist; graduated from medical school in 1980, just retired from full-time work and continue to work part-time. My interest in photography began in 1964 as an eight-year-old fascinated by a black and white image that came to life from a blank piece of white paper in a developer tray. While attending college I decided to pursue a career in biomedical photography if I was not accepted into medical school. The acceptance letter came and I was off to medical school. After medical school, during my first year of post graduate training, I became fascinated with pathology and have never looked back. I use photography every day as a forensic pathologist for documentation and I use photography as a balance to the many dark aspects of humanity that forensic pathologists.

Who are some of your favorite image makers?

Charlie Cramer, John Sexton, Christopher Burkett, Anne Larson, Ansel Adams and many others!

What images or image makers inspire or influence you?

Guess I have to say Ansel Adams for this question. Ansel’s dedication to conservation, humanity, education, music and more is inspirational.

Do you have any advice for people interested in an imaging career in biomedical/life sciences.

Follow your curiosity and passion!

Are you a member of BCA and if so how has your membership in the BCA helped you?

Yes, Ive been a member for about two years and just starting to become more active. The BCA members seem like an extraordinary collegial group and I hope to learn more through participation with the group and contribute in ways that I’m able.