You Can’t Take This Photo: Shooting Western Landscapes Like They’ve Never Been Seenâ??at Night

In 2010, photographer Adam Katseff, a lifelong East Coaster, moved to California to begin an MFA at Stanford. Inspired by the great 19th-century landscape photographer Carleton Watkins, he began exploring the American West with his boxy 8 x 10 camera, trying to capture large-format images of iconic locations like Yosemite National Park. After a while, though, Katseff grew bored of simply following in Watkins’ shoes.

“It felt a little like trophy hunting,” he says. “I was going out, making a really sharp, well-composed, well-executed photograph, but ultimately it felt decorative. It didn’t capture the emotions I was experiencing being in those places.”

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How do you make some of the most-photographed landscapes in the world look new again? The answer hit Katseff during a visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where he encountered one of painter Ad Reinhardt’s signature all-black canvases. “I was staring at this square, matte-black painting for a long time, and I started to notice subtle variations in paint color,” Katseff remembers. “I realized that I could use darkness as a veil to obscure what photography does so beautifully, which is record details.”

The photographer thought back his first visit to Yosemite. He had arrived at night, and could barely discern the surrounding landscape. “My mind started playing tricks on me,” he says. “I started imagining this place that I had never really seen myself, but knew from photographs. So my mind was sort of creating this visual experience, triggered by darkness.”

Katseff decided to attempt to capture that sensation in photographic form. Through trial and error, he discovered that the best nighttime images could only be taken in a narrow window of time after the sun sets but before the last rays of dark-blue light fade from the horizon. The window is so small that Katseff can usually take just two shots a day, with exposure times ranging from two minutes to a half-hour.

When he began developing these twilight images, he discovered a strange phenomenon: rivers would come out looking stark white, while the valleys themselves would be in almost total darkness. At first he thought there was a problem with his developing process, but he soon realized that light reflecting off the river’s wavelets was creating the effect. When the wind was in a different direction, the waves reflected less light and the river would appear pitch black.

The above photograph, of the Snake River winding through Hell’s Canyon on the Oregon-Idaho border, is the result of years of experimentation with weather and light conditions, exposure lengths, and developing techniques. For gallery shows, Katseff prints the images large—44 by 55 inches or 60 by 75 inches—so viewers can see all the detail. “The photographs make the viewer’s mind do some work,” he explains, “and I want to reward that.”

When he teaches photography courses, Katseff sometimes shows students his large-format camera, which weighs about eight pounds. “My students are like, ‘That’s huge!’” he says. “I always tell them, it’s better than having to rely on mule teams, a portable darkroom, and 20- by 24-inch glass plates like Carleton Watkins. In comparison to that, this is point-and-shoot.”

Space Photos of the Week: Jupiter’s Lightning Is Striking

Meet Saturn’s moon Tethys. It’s just one of Saturn’s 53 moons! The large mark on its surface is called the Odysseus crater, which was formed when some rocky object collided with the moon, which is made mostly of water ice and only a little bit of rock. Take a look around the crater, and you’ll see marks everywhere! Most of the pockmarks are thought to be as old as the solar system, some 4.5 billion years old. Whatever happened to Tethys over the course of its history, it wasn’t pretty.

Star Wars might have given you some idea of what main belt asteroids look like, but how about a real one up close? This is Lutetia, an asteroid that resides in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It’s only 62 miles in diameter—but that’s large by asteroid standards. If you were driving on the freeway, you could get from one side to the next in under an hour.

Is this close enough for you? This stunning close-up of Jupiter was taken by the Juno spacecraft on May 23. The planet’s powerful jet stream is seen here in white. It snakes across the belly of Jupiter in the opposite direction of the other wind streams above and below it. Juno was only 3,500 miles above the cloud tops when it took this photo, before speeding back out on its elliptical orbit.

This photo might look like the surface of the moon, but it’s actually the surface of the largest body in the asteroid belt: a dwarf planet named Ceres. The Dawn spacecraft captured this image of the planet’s Urvara crater in all its gray, dusty glory. Scientists are studying the crater because it has so many different features and textures. That bright spot toward the middle? That is likely ice that has been revealed through geological activity.

How many galaxies would you guess were in this image? If you guessed hundreds, congratulations! This galactic block party is 7.5 billion light years from earth, so it’s a bit far for our travels. The brightest galaxy in the image is SDSS J1156+1911, seen toward the lower middle frame. It’s only 600 million times more massive than our Sun, which for a galaxy is pretty small. But it’s still large enough to warp the space in front of it, bending the light of the green smear of a galaxy that appears right below.

Inside the Arctic Circle, Golden Hour Has Nothing on Golden Day

The light in Reuben Wu’s Love is Metaphysical Gravity, shot at the Svalbard Satellite Station in Norway, is breathtaking. Everything—the data center, its geodesic domes and the snowy landscape surrounding them—drips with exquisite shades of pink, purple and gold.

You might assume it’s because Wu shot the images at golden hour, that magical time just after sunrise and before sunset when the sun is low on the horizon, turning the light soft and warm. And you’d almost be right. “It wasn’t ‘golden hour,’” Wu says. “It was golden day.”

The Svalbard Satellite Station sits inside the Arctic Circle at 78 degrees north—just 745 miles from the North Pole. That makes for some unusual light phenomena; the sun doesn’t set in summer or rise in winter. When Wu visited with his Sony AR7II in October, it mostly kissed the horizon in a shallow arc. “It was like a perpetual sunset all day, from about 9am to about 6pm,” Wu says.

Wu pays special attention to light in his work, though he’s typically too impatient to sit around waiting for Mother Nature to make things look nice. For his previous series, Lux Noctis, he strapped LEDs to a drone to illuminate desert landscapes in the US at night. “Light is a way I’m able to produce a mood or atmosphere that presents the landscape in a new way,” he says.

This quest for unconventional landscapes sent him to the Svalbard Satellite Station, jointly owned by the Norwegian government and the company Kongsberg Defense and Aerospace. The ground station is the largest of its kind in the world, with 40 antennas tracking more than 80 satellites as they orbit the poles 14 times a day. The antennas sit inside plastic, geodesic radomes of varying sizes. “The whole place is like an ode to Buckminster Fuller,” Wu says.

Wu has been wanting to shoot the ground station since he missed it on his first trip to the Norwegian archipelago in 2011. He decided to go for it last year, after reading that NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would soon launch a new weather satellite to be tracked by radomes at the station (more on that here). He got in touch with Raytheon, the space and defense company running the monitoring, as well as Kongsberg Satellite Services, which runs the facility. They gave him special permission to document the closed-off site.

He spent three days in Svalbard wandering the dreamy expanse of radomes, their shapes mirrored by the ghost of the rising moon. Inside the domes—cold, echoey chambers that were empty save for the antennas and puddles of snow—he set up LED lights to add an element of drama and mystery. But outside, he didn’t have to. The sun threw the domes into relief, sometimes casting their shadows onto the fog beyond. At night, the golden day gave way to spectacular northern lights.

As surreal as the dome-dotted landscape looks, it’s the light—so beautifully captured by Wu—that makes it all truly stunning.


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Can You Spot the Hidden Images in These Psychedelic Landscapes?

Terri Loewenthal uses special reflective optic lenses to project multiple landscapes in one frame, like this image taken in Lone Rock, Arizona.

A California transplant, Loewenthal intended her photo series to celebrate the spirit of the American West. Above, a sloping blue mountain in Lundy Canyon, California.

Loewenthal takes her Psychscapes images on camping trips—like this one is taken to Granite Mountain, California—meaning she hikes carrying all her photo equipment. Shooting outdoors can get “pretty precarious” at times, she says.

What began as a California-focused project has expanded to include more states in the American Southwest. Above, a mountainous terrain captured in Peach Springs Canyon, Arizona.

Loewenthal has been taking pictures for the Pyschapes series for the past nine months but she’s been planning the project for years. “Sometimes it fails,” she says. Above, a successful photograph taken in Tonopah, Nevada.

Loewenthal uses a Mamiya 645, a medium format camera that allows her to swap out the film back for digital depending on the type of image she wants to make. The result is images like this one taken in Whale Peak, California.

Landscape photography, like this image from Lassen, California, has been a change for Loewenthal, who usually takes portraits. “Working with people has been an exploratory process,” Loewenthal says. “You’re always aiming for the moment when you forget the camera isn’t around. It’s the same when taking Psychscapes.”

Loewenthal says Psychscapes was inspired by the autonomy in painting, especially the ability to separate the color from the subject. Above, a dramatic shot from Yosemite, California.

A colorful sky in San Gabriel Peak, California. Loewenthal says this kind of photography is a “playful process.”

Loewenthal says the best Psychscapes images, like this one from Thunder Mountain, California, aren’t taken from a peak. “It’s nice when there’s a mix of far away landscape and nearby,” she says. “Just far away places are less interesting.”

Loewenthal plans to spend more time in Arizona this summer producing Psychscapes. Here’s a picture she made earlier this year in Diamond Peak, Arizona.

A mystical pool of water in Buck Creek, California.

Loewenthal uses filters as a paint to color her photographs, like this rosy image from Buck Creek, California.

“To have a psychedelic experience is to free your mind from its normal constraints,” Loewenthal explains. “When I had the idea for these images, I was able to shift the colors of the natural world in my mind.” She took this photograph in Diamond Peak, California.

The Trailblazing Women Who Fight Californiaâ??s Fires

Christie Hemm Klok’s 3-year-old son couldn’t get enough of firefighters. He had a toy engine truck, a plastic helmet he wore all the time, and a collection of books showing firefighters dousing fires and saving lives. But most of them were men, and the lack of women bugged Hemm Klok. “There was maybe one female in any of the books,” she says, “and she had short hair and maybe a pink shirt on.”

Hemm Klok wanted to show her son a more inclusive vision of the world. She began visiting firehouses in San Francisco, where she lives, to photograph female firefighters. Her new book The Women of the SFFD features 45 portraits of women who spend their days running into burning buildings. “I want to raise a son who thinks he can be whatever he wants—and so can everybody else,” she says.

More than 270 women serve in the San Francisco Fire Department, which services 1.5 million people across the city’s 49 square miles. They make up roughly 16 percent of the force, compared to just half of one percent of the New York City Fire Department. The numbers don’t necessarily speak to the city’s open-mindedness, though. Oh sure, the fire department made a couple women honorary members in the 19th century (including a pretty opera singer who never picked up a hose). But it didn’t allow women to apply for a job before 1976—and it didn’t hire any until 1987, when a federal judge forced it to. Current chief Joanne Hayes-White became the first female to fill the role in 2004. “Now it’s not crazy for a woman to be a firefighter in San Francisco,” Hemm Klok says. “They’re on, like, every truck.”

Hemm Klok started noticing the women on fire trucks after moving to San Francisco in 2015 to work at WIRED. She left the company in 2016, and began the series later that year, showing up at firehouses with her Canon 5D Mark IV and a portable light kit and inviting the women to pose for a portrait. More often than not, they’d get called away to fight a fire before she could snap their photo. “I can’t tell you how many times I was just sitting alone in the garage of a firehouse,” she says. Eventually, she began showing up early in the morning, after the women had finished their 24-hour shifts. And when she didn’t have childcare, she brought her son. “The firefighters spoiled him like crazy,” she says. “They even sent a firetruck to our house during his fourth birthday.”

Photographing them challenged some of Hemm Klok’s own misconceptions about the type of person who becomes a firefighter. Many of the women had worked in food service or education and only wandered into firefighting after hearing about it from a friend or attending a job fair. “When I thought about people becoming firefighters, I assumed it was something they always wanted to do, to save lives, be brave,” Hemm Klok says. “But a lot of times people come into it later in life.”

Her portraits depict the women posing in the firehouses’ offices, garages and locker rooms, still wearing their black turnout coats and helmets after a hard day on the job. They’re refreshing.“We hear that representation matters all the time, and it really does,” Hemm Klok says. “It’s so reassuring to see yourself not left out of things.”

Space Photos of the Week: A Cruise Around Mars’ Hale Crater

Mars isn’t short of interesting craters, but Hale Crater has a lot going on. It’s a fairly large impact crater running almost 62 miles across, featuring recurring slope lineae (elements that are seasonal and some think are linked to liquid water) and active gullies. The greenish blue is colored bedrock, exposed by whatever giant rock or comet impacted the surface, and the other geologic activities, like wind erosion and possible melting ice, make Hale Crater a never-ending exciting place to explore.

While it doesn’t look like a giant arachnid, this sparkling region—captured by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, in unprecedented detail—is called the Tarantula Nebula. It’s only 160,000 light years away, which by astronomical standards is not rather far. The Tarantula Nebula contains regions where stars are forming, while others contain remnants of supernova explosions and large clouds of dust.

It’s easy to forget that our Sun is one star among many, and is actively aging and doing other starlike things. Last week NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the Sun in extreme ultraviolet light, shown here in bluish green. The bright white glow toward the left is a burst of highly charged particles that then speed around the magnetic field lines, shown in streaks around the white glow. You can think of these sort of like stellar burps, only with radiation that would kill any living thing.

That barred spiral galaxy is a glowing gorgeous blue, but it’s not what we are here to see. Take a look above the galaxy—all those smudges of glowing orange light are galaxies as well. This cluster is a feature called SDSS J0333+0651. Scientists study galaxy clusters like these to understand the early universe and star-forming regions. See, looking this far out can be hard, and even Hubble can’t resolve star-forming regions at such distances. That’s where galaxy clusters come in: Their mass is so large that they distort the very fabric of space-time, bending the light of objects behind them. That arc of bluish light highlights the brighter star-forming region of that galaxy, otherwise invisible to us without SDSS J0333+0651 doing all the heavy lifting of, you know, bending space.

At 55 million light years from Earth, there lives an unusual galaxy known as NGC 5643. This remarkable image combines data from the Alma observatory in Chile with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. NGC 5643 is a Seyfert galaxy; these types have very luminous centers, and scientists think what causes this brightness is a supermassive black hole at the center that sucks up material. These interactions cause dust and gas to move around creating a nebulous looking galaxy, unique among most others in the universe.

This is a close-up of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, also called the geyser moon. The Cassini spacecraft took this photo in 2009 and actually flew through one of those plumes! Enceladus is an icy moon with water below its crust, regularly spewing out ice, water vapor, and organic compounds. Here, sunlight illuminates these eruptions as they break through the frozen surface. Someday scientists hope to launch a mission to study Enceladus and find out if life might lurk below its icy crust.