Coming back from a couple of weeks photographing in the Sierras it’s startling how much photographers rely on the vertical landscape to create “iconic” images. Mountains, valleys, hills, waterfalls – these all stand up from the ground, catching the morning and evening light on their surface to enable us to build depth and dimension into images. Back in the Great Plains these elements just don’t exist. The grand landscape is one of horizon and a matching endless sky.
So we learn to work with that. Someone mentioned to me that weather is our vertical subject here. In the right circumstances the ground plays a very minor role as a subject, relinquishing that to the sky and clouds towering overhead. Because of that, great landscapes of the Plains with the dimensionality of the western mountains means you have to keep a watch on the sky and weather reports.
And that’s a challenge. Unlike the solid cliff faces of the Sierra a great cumulus cloud above the prairie is dynamic, continually changing form and size to recreate itself in the light around it. Its presence varies throughout the day as well depending on atmospheric conditions. You have to have some knowledge of what might appear and when, and then be there with your equipment at the right perspective. Imagine the Grand Canyon changing its channel throughout the day or even its position throughout the year.
Of course the biggest challenge is simply getting the right weather. Clouds here are usually a solid mass of overcast, the flat bottoms of thunderstorms sailing across the landscape. Being under these gives you an almost uniform grey canvas with only the horizon as a means of identifying the sky. Periodically, though, the right front comes through, slowly enough to roil the atmosphere with many cloud types that are sliced and diced into a constantly changing structure. Get the right kind of light shining on or through all these and there are tones and contrasts enough to create vertical compositions right here on the Plains.
And after the clouds and rain have passed through and the evening sky is clear again, you can always look down from the grand to the intimate.