A Touch of the Human

FEW people can leave the Grand Canyon without trying to take a bit of it home. For some, it's a piece of rock. Others write impressions in a notebook (mine washed down the Colorado River on the eighth day of a raft trip). But for most, it's through a camera lens, and the results are almost always disappointing.

Somehow, the soaring rocks and sky that seem so compelling on the trip turn squat, flat, and dull on a 5-by-7-inch print. What happened to those inspiring views on the way to the photo lab?

For many failed snapshooters, the problem is the absence of a human scale or frame of reference. To stand in the Grand Canyon in the dark, staring up at an explosion of stars, or to watch first light touch the tops of canyon walls, is to feel the human in communion with something much larger than itself.

To catch that moment, the impulse is to photograph those far-off points. There may be people sleeping nearby, but you wouldn't take a picture of them. You'd aim at the rocks and the light. But without people, one measure of the scene is lost.

Four bright rafts, huddled together on the shore, provide that reference in Melanie Stetson Freeman's photo. They anchor the photo in humanity.

The rafts had to be yellow, she says. Otherwise they would have blended into the shadows of rock and river and shore.

Her comment recalls a newsroom joke that some photographers carry red sweaters and jackets around with them for shooting crowd scenes. If these rafts hadn't been the right color, one might be tempted to drape them in yellow. But Ms. Freeman didn't need to change this scene; she saw it and was ready for it.

The yellow in the rafts is echoed - no, blazed! - in a plane of bright morning light that cuts across the canyon walls. The light forces attention upward, to ancient layers of rock and dramatic skies.

The photo ends in wonder.

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