Desert Eye: Capturing the Essence of a Mystical Landscape

Jun 30, 2023

Elliot McGucken

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

Desert Eye: Capturing the Essence of a Mystical Landscape

Jun 30, 2023

Elliot McGucken

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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I created the Desert Eye image at the North Window Arch in Arches National Park. The park is a magical, mystical desert wonderland with over 2,000 red sandstone arches.

The area around Arches National Park played home to the famous author and ranger Edward Abbey, the “Henry David Thoreau” of the American Southwest, and his book Desert Solitaire is a must-read for anyone seeking to fathom the deeper soul of the desert Southwest.

Large format camera

I created my latest composite “Desert Eye” image in early November 2022 last year. I took a photograph of the North Window Arch in Arches National Park at the perfect angle to emphasize the arch’s “eye shape” at dusk using my Fuji GFX100s medium format camera.

Then, using Photoshop, I added a photograph of a full moon which I had also taken. One can move around and stand at different places to see the moonrise through the arch at various times throughout the year, but the angles are generally not optimal in emphasizing the arch’s “eye shape.”

Here is the full uncropped image:

©E. McGucken

Taking a fine art approach

I approach my landscape photography composites from a fine art perspective rather than a photojournalistic one. I  take inspiration from literature, philosophy and other visual arts.

In his seminal Poetics, Aristotle noted that there is the way things are and the way things ought to be, and in this fine art photograph, I added and centred a large full moon as I sensed, “It is the way things ought to be.”

Similarly, the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams stated:

“Some photographers take reality…and impose the domination of their own thought and spirit. Others come before reality more tenderly, and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation.” In the majority of my work, the photographs are instruments of love and revelation and are an almost idealized version of reality.

The Desert Eye image is a little different, however. For the Desert Eye photograph, I “imposed the domination of my own thought and spirit” so as to render reality “the way it ought to be.” Such is the nature of fine art photography, which allows us to create as reality what we see in our mind’s eye.

Via fine art photography, we are called to use our own creative powers to envision the “Desert Eye” in its higher, abstract, idealized form and then render it real for others to experience.

The digital darkroom

Regarding editing and post-processing, the great Ansel Adams also stated, “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships”. With this in mind, I approach digital manipulation and compositing techniques in a similar manner.

To me, the arch looked like a perfect eye from a certain angle, and all it needed was the perfect round eyeball—a full moon. The moon rises through the arch, and others have captured it differently. This was my interpretation of the scene I had in my mind’s eye.

The reaction to the photograph has been wonderful and quite overwhelming, and I am thankful for the millions of folks who have liked, commented on, and simply enjoyed “Desert Eye.”

About the Author

Dr. Elliot McGucken is a fine art landscape photographer and physicist from Los Angeles. You can see more of his work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

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One response to “Desert Eye: Capturing the Essence of a Mystical Landscape”

  1. In All Seriousness Avatar
    In All Seriousness

    /me: “Dear ChatGPT! Would Ansel Adams have tolerated a composite image?”

    ChatGPT: “Ansel Adams was known for his commitment to capturing the natural beauty of landscapes through traditional black and white photography techniques, emphasizing the importance of precise exposure and careful darkroom processing to achieve his desired artistic vision. He was a purist in his approach and dedicated to representing the scene as faithfully as possible.

    Considering this, it is unlikely that Ansel Adams would have personally tolerated composite photographs in the strictest sense. A composite photograph involves combining elements from multiple images to create a single image that may not exist in reality.

    Adams’ philosophy revolved around capturing the essence of a scene in a single exposure, utilizing his technical expertise to bring out the desired tonal range and detail. He believed in the power of photography to reveal the inherent beauty of nature and was known for his meticulousness in both capturing and printing his images. The concept of creating a composite photograph, which deviates from the single-moment capture, could conflict with his artistic and philosophical approach.”