Here, Kerrick James, a frequent contributor to Arizona Highways, shares a personal story of discovery and photographic evolution:
On many levels, photography is all about discovery — physical discovery, obviously, as in finding an appealing and fresh location, but perhaps also a new technique that helps you better capture or render the spirit of a place or a moment in time. Sometimes both occur in one place in one memorable day. Photography is a process that drives many of us to travel and explore in search of beauty. That quest has driven me to explore many a canyon and blank spot on a map.
Many times, fine photographs have equally fine stories to accompany their creation, and here is a story worth sharing. In the mid-1990s, the Bureau of Reclamation began to allow public access to Black Canyon for day recreation on the Colorado River, starting at the bottom of the Hoover Dam access road. I learned of this from a kayak and canoe rental company in Bullhead City, and was asked if I’d like to join them for a day of paddling from the base of Hoover Dam to Willow Beach, 11 miles downstream. Of course I said yes, and our group explored this fascinating canyon a few weeks later. That experience led to a story that ran in the September 1996 Arizona Highways.
After the thrills of experiencing paddling through a warm waterfall, dunking in a hot-springs pool in a slot canyon, gasping for air in a stifling, 140-degree, pitch-black tunnel called the Sauna Cave and photographing desert bighorn sheep scrambling effortlessly on sheer cliffs high over the river, our group found a small cave on the Arizona side at water level. Hoping to find more unique features, we paddled into the grotto, which reminded me of sea caves I had explored on the Na Pali coast of Kauai, Hawaii. Luck favored us as the late low sun shone over the 300-foot cliff to the west, illuminating the cave ceiling with shimmering light that bounced off the volcanic rock lining the floor of the flooded grotto. The reflected light suffused the green water, making us feel suspended over a gigantic crystal of emerald .
The effect was breathtaking and the mood infectious, even euphoric. I used a superwide full-frame fisheye lens to expand the space within the cave, and silhouette the kayakers. On another return to Emerald Cave, as I captioned it for the story, I glimpsed a sunstar highlight glinting off a kayaker’s wet paddle. Because I shot that image on film, I had to wait for processing to know if the sunstar was recorded. I was thrilled when I saw that it really was there in the 6×7-cm film.
In 2008 I again shot a kayaker in the cave, hoping to catch the sunstar and make a greater variety of graphic images. With the advantage of digital capture, I could very in real time the sunstar effect and even learn to anticipate it during the approach of the kayak. This time, I shot from a narrow, crumbly ledge above the water, but again used a full-frame fisheye lens at 10 mm.
As the sun dipped behind the rosy cliff to the west, the green water ebbed, and the cave faded again to dim flat light. The sense of magic had disappeared, but the sense of wonder — of a visual gift received — still lit me up inside. This tiny grotto, so beautifully for just minutes a day, is now known as Emerald Cave, and I still get queries from people around the world asking how to find it. Discovery is its own reward, but I do tell people where to start this particular journey.
— Kerrick James