A Series of Photographs – Exploring the Creative Process

Palo Verde

Palo Verde © 2014 Bo Mackison

Lens: Jimmy
Film: Claunch 72 Monochrome

Often I am a slow photographer.

I check the times of sunrise and sunset, and plan shooting times to take advantage of the golden light. Sometimes I pack my camera bag with multiple lenses and diffusers and hoods, with dust protectors and extra batteries and memory cards, and I attach a heavy tripod to the bag, too.

This is slow photography. I sit and absorb the feel of a place. I connect with the space. I may wait for a certain cloud formation to float into a certain location, or a shadow to darken a rock.

And though it can be hard work, I find most of  the process passionately engaging. (I could do without the extra gear weight, especially when hiking in the desert, but…that’s part of the experience.)

Palo Verde

Palo Verde © 2014 Bo Mackison

Lens: Jane
Film: Blanko

But sometimes I am a spur of the moment photographer.

I grab my iPhone. I hang out of the window and I start shooting.

One of my favorite techniques for letting go and giving myself full permission to enjoy the process is what I now refer to as my “shake and take” technique.

Palo Verde

Palo Verde © 2014 Bo Mackison

Lens: Kaimal Mark II
Film: Blanko

Yep. I open the Hipstamatic app on my iPhone and I take a photo.

Then I simply shake my cell phone. The app randomly changes lenses and film and I retake the photograph. I often shake and take a dozen photos of the same subject. And then I look at the photographs.

I often get a few duplicates – same lens and film combination – and then I’ll choose which one I prefer. Otherwise, I simply take what pops up randomly.

I find it fascinating how the different combinations change a simple subject.

Palo Verde

Palo Verde © 2014 Bo Mackison

Lens: Jane
Film: Claunch 72 Monochrome

In this series, I took photos of a palo verde tree while in my car.

I was waiting for a friend and noticed the overhanging branches dangling over the car. I opened the window, aimed towards the sky, took a photo, shook the cell phone, and then repeated. A lot!

Happily, the app records the lens, film, and other data, so when I find a combination I am fond of, I can replicate it with different subjects.

Palo Verde

Palo Verde © 2014 Bo Mackison

Lens: Lucifer VI
Film: Blanko

There’s a lot to be said for a creative process that can change with my mood.

Slow and pensive, quick and experimental, metaphorical or playful. The many moods of the photographer and the resulting photos.

Essence of Place – Grand Canyon National Park

Watchtower Point, Grand Canyon NP

Watchtower Point, Grand Canyon NP © 2014 Bo Mackison

Imagine standing at the edge of this rock point.

Look down into canyon, over a mile deep, and watch the Colorado River as it winds its way through geological time markers.

The canyon was created by the Colorado River over a period of six million years and nearly two billion years of the history of the earth have been exposed at the river cut a deep channel and many layers of the Colorado Plateau were uplifted. As a result of these forces, three of the four eras of time are recorded in the rocks of this canyon.

Colorado River, Grand Canyon NP
Colorado River Flowing through Grand Canyon NP © 2014 Bo Mackison

Grand Canyon, located in northern Arizona, is 277 miles long. Over a mile deep and up to eighteen miles from rim to rim, it is the largest canyon in the world.

Much of the canyon is in Grand Canyon National Park, one of the first national parks in the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt was a strong proponent of protecting the natural beauty of the area. In 1908 he  signed legislation making the area a National Monument, saying:

“Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Congress upgraded the Grand Canyon to a national park in 1919, the fifth National Park, and doubled the protected area in 1975.

Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park

Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park © 2014 Bo Mackison

The area was inhabited by Native Americans approximately 3000-4000 yeas ago.

They lived in small settlements in the canyon and its caves. The Pueblo people consider the Grand Canyon a holy place, and one of their legends tells of their ancestors opening a hole from their heavens and ascending into the deepest regions of the canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © 2014 Bo Mackison

Grand Canyon National Park is also a World Heritage Site.

The land is semi-arid and consists of raised plateaus and basins typical of the southwestern United States. Water drainage systems have cut into the rock, forming a maze of steep-walled canyons.

Canyon Color

Canyon Color – “Leaves of a Great Story Book” © 2014 Bo Mackison

John Wesley Powell made the first recorded journey through the canyon in 1869.

He followed the course of the Colorado River. He called the many layers of exposed rock “leaves in a great story book”.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © 2014 Bo Mackison

Grand Canyon National Park is also a World Heritage Site.

The land is semi-arid and consists of raised plateaus and basins typical of the southwestern United States. Water drainage systems have cut into the rock, forming a maze of steep-walled canyons.

Raven at Grand Canyon

Raven at Grand Canyon National Park © 2014 Bo Mackison

Ravens linger around the canyon rims.

Intelligent animals, they know that a few visitors will offer them bits of food, even though it is strictly against the national park regulations. This raven was over two feet in length, a large and rather intimidating bird, intent on a midday snack.

Grand Canyon - Ten Miles from Rim to Rim

Grand Canyon – Ten Miles from Rim to Rim © 2014 Bo Mackison

It is common to see hawks fly across the canyon at this point, only ten miles across.

Even in less than ideal light – cloud cover – the canyon still displays an endless array of color. Solitary trees appear to grow from bare rock, their roots finding just enough soil to live in harsh conditions.

Grand Canyon – a place that truly lives up to its name.

Essence of Place – Little Horse Trail in Sedona


Sedona © 2014 Bo Mackison

For the second year in a row, I embarked on a thousand-mile circle trip of Arizona — it helps fine tune my driving stamina in anticipation of the cross-country drive to the Midwest in another month.

This year I had the good fortune to have a companion on the excursion. My younger daughter, visiting from Wisconsin, is an avid fan of National Parks and enthusiastically agreed to accompany me on a trip through the heart of Arizona while stopping at one National Park plus four National Monuments.

Our first stop was Sedona, not a National Park, but the surrounding red rock area certainly has the flavor of one and qualifies as a National Landscape Treasure if not an official park. These rock formations, the Madonna and Two Nuns, overlook the Chapel of the Holy Cross, pictured below.

Biking on Little Horse Trail

Biking on Little Horse Trail © 2014 Bo Mackison

Exploring the trails was our chief source of pleasure. We hiked the Little Horse, a wide trail once an old jeep trail. We crossed dry creek beds, though there was evidence of the recent rainfall – thick red mud and a variety of prints, some human, some not. The trail is a favorite not only of hikers, but cyclists also take to these hills.

Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Sedona

Chapel of the Holy Cross © 2014 Amanda Fahrenbach

Once we had walked a half mile, the Chapel of the Holy Cross comes into view, a modern structure that appears to be clinging to the red rock through spiritual intervention.


Yucca © 2014 Bo Mackison

Yucca are a common plant along the trail, reminding us that we are not far from the desert.

Indian Paintbrush on Little Horse Trail

Indian Paintbrush on Little Horse Trail © 2014 Bo Mackison

Scarlet Indian Paintbrush is a favorite flower, adding bright color, though we only spotted it in a few places. Usually we saw just one or two stalks of the bright orange stalks, so we stopped to take photos when we found a large stand of the wildflower in the brush of a downed tree.

The flowers of Indian paintbrush are edible, and were often mixed with fresh greens by southwestern Native American tribes. It was also used as a hair conditioner, a treatment for rheumatism, and an overall health tonic – an all-purpose plant!


Crossroads – Little Horse Trail and Llama Trail © 2014 Bo Mackison

A criss-cross of trails makes it doubly important to note the trail signs. Though Little Horse Trail is an easy hike, it leads into the wilderness area beyond Chicken Point. It’s always a good idea to have a map and plenty of water when hiking any of the red rock trails.

Little Horse Trail Sedona

Little Horse Trail, Sedona © 2014 Bo Mackison

Lots of red rock. Lots of blue skies with fast-moving clouds. Lots of Arizona cypress. And views of many of the more recognizable rock monuments. A great place to get in touch with the natural beauty of Sedona.

Courthouse Butte in Sedona – Landscape Tour Of Arizona


Courthouse Butte from Little Horse Trail @2014 Bo Mackison

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home;
that wilderness is a necessity… ~ John Muir

Enjoying a visit with my younger daughter, who visits Arizona every winter not to escape from the clouds and the cold, but to explore new places with me. We started our 2014 Landscape Tour with a visit to Sedona, land of red rock and mystical energy.

A hike to Chicken Point was first on the list by way of Little Horse Trail. Courthouse Butte is one of the more recognizable formations in the Sedona area, and it was a favorite to admire.

The views were spectacular, and I think I exclaimed, “Isn’t this beautiful?” at least once every twenty steps.

Well, it was beautiful. In a way words simply cannot describe.

Camping with Cacti by the Light of the Full Moon – A Challenge in the Desert

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © 2013 Bo Mackison

“Every challenge you encounter in life is a fork in the road. You have the choice to choose which way to go – backward, forward, breakdown or breakthrough.”  ~ Ifeanyi Enoch Onuoha

I love the desert.

This was a surprise to me when I first visited the Southwest.

I had driven through a part of the Mojave Desert on a family vacation many years ago, and I do not remember my reaction, negative or positive. So it came as a surprise to me when I visited Arizona and the Sonoran Desert in 2008 and had an immediate, visceral connection with this arid landscape.

I felt as if I had finally found my home.

The first time I lived in the desert for any length of time, it was a challenge on all counts. It was the first time I lived away from my husband and family for an extended time. I had lived a protected life for many years, and challenging myself to come to Arizona, alone, was a big deal. I was responsible for taking care of everything.

I succeeded, but it was difficult. There were times I found myself crying in frustration, angry that doing the grocery shopping or filling the car with gas were such obstacles. I was anxious when I had to drive after dark or when I got lost in a strange part of the city. I struggled to accomplish the daily routines I believed everyone else did with ease.

My second winter in Arizona, I learned to not only live by myself, but thrive while doing so. I explored southern Arizona, traveling the back roads and byways. I found my footing.

The third year was more difficult. I stayed longer and I had fewer visits from family and friends. But again I did quite well, and when it was time to return to the Midwest, I drove cross-country, solo. Another milestone, hard-earned, but I was proud that I was gradually accomplishing more and more.

This year, my fourth year, I was pleased that I was once again thriving in Arizona.  (I had the added advantage of extended visits from Sherpa every month, which was a great bonus.)

And then . . . I decided to go primitive camping in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a three-hour drive from my Arizona home.

Camping with Cacti

Camping with Cacti © 2014 Bo Mackison

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
~ Helen Keller

The day I drove to Organ Pipe was a perfect desert day – moderate temperatures, deep blue skies, calm weather.

I dictated brief scraps of travel tidbits into my phone recorder as I drove, and then stopped at a roadside cafe for lunch before entering the park. I was in no hurry – I had the whole afternoon and evening for setting up camp and exploring, and tomorrow too.

I spent an hour enjoying a home cooked meal and writing in my journal.

By the time I left, the temperature had soared into the 90s and the wind had picked up. Neither heat nor high winds had been forecast, so this was unexpected, but not particularly unusual. I signed in at the campground, found an isolated site, and pitched my tent amidst saguaro and organ pipe cacti.

The winds made setting up the tent a challenge, and it didn’t help that I had forgotten my mallet back in Tucson. I still set up the tent, using a rock to pound in the stakes, but I ended up with cut hands from the sharp edges of the rock.

I did remember the first aid kit, and bandages, and that was a good thing.

Then off I went to explore with camera in hand. By the time I returned to camp to prepare my dinner, the winds had quieted, and the evening was immeasurably pleasant.

After the sun set, the skies were dark and it was a treat to take in the night skies.

Every star shimmered and danced in its glory. And then the moon rose – a full moon. Large as a saucer, brilliant with a few wispy clouds drifting across her face. The desert was awash with moonlight, nearly as light as on a stormy day. It was a moment to treasure.

But then, as if an early morning alarm clock had shrieked and blinked wildly, the desert awoke. The desert life joined in the noise making. Coyotes howled, birds squawked, dark furry things ambled along the dirt road, slithery sounds emerged from the tall grasses.

None of these sounds are new to me. I walk the desert several times a week. But it seemed totally different in the eerily moonlit desert. It wasn’t quite light enough to see well, but my hearing took on a well-tuned acuity. Suddenly I heard anything, and everything.

There was only one reasonable alternative I could think of  — zip myself into my tent and call it a night. I briefly considered pulling up camp and driving home. Too far. I also considered screaming that the desert was coming to life and I was afraid, but that seemed quite unreasonable. Plus I figured it would attract the wrong kind of attention. Nor did I want to succumb to a panic attack in the light of the silvery moon? No way.

So I zipped myself into my tiny tent and willed myself to get drowsy and fall into a blissful sleep.

That did not happen. I did not fall asleep until it was nearly time to get up. That is the unfortunate news.

But there were a lot of positives, too. I stayed (mostly) calm throughout the long night, drowsing a bit, then waking up to the moonlit desert and momentarily thinking the sun was rising. Disappointed? Yes. But still calm and in control.

I now have first hand proof that meditation and deep breathing are indeed helpful, even when a desert creature is rubbing against the ropes that stake the tent into the earth. Even when the tent is wobbling a bit.  And I can also practice meditation and calming while armed with a hiking stick – just in case the tent wobbling gets out of control.

Early Morning Coffee in the Desert

Early Morning Coffee in the Desert © 2013 Bo Mackison

There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really.
The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it.
Change the story, change the world. ~ Terry Pratchett

Did I mention that the sun did rise through a haze of low clouds, and burst onto the desert scene, a white blaze?

Or that I crawled out of the tent, all in one piece, and immediately set up my backpacker stove to heat water for coffee?

Or that a cup of French press coffee after a long, wakeful night is one of the best morning gifts I can imagine?

Or that I was pretty darned pleased with myself for surviving an uneventful night in the desert, even if I did let myself get freaked out by the full-moon-night-concert-in-the-desert?

Or that I still love the desert?

Yes, indeed!

Black and White Photography at Tucson Botanical Gardens

Black and Whites at Tucson Botanical Gardens

Black and White at Tucson Botanical Gardens © 2014 Bo Mackison

A planter.

Black and Whites at Tucson Botanical Gardens

Black and White at Tucson Botanical Gardens II © 2014 Bo Mackison

Lots of places to sit and admire the flowering plants.

Black and Whites at Tucson Botanical Gardens

Black and White at Tucson Botanical Gardens III © 2014 Bo Mackison

Lots of light and shadow play.

Black and Whites at Tucson Botanical Gardens

Black and White at Tucson Botanical Gardens IV © 2014 Bo Mackison

White Chairs.

Black and Whites at Tucson Botanical Gardens

Black and White at Tucson Botanical Gardens V © 2014 Bo Mackison


Black and Whites at Tucson Botanical Gardens

Black and White at Tucson Botanical Gardens VI © 2014 Bo Mackison


A trip to the Tucson Botanical Gardens on a sunny day.

Agave – A Desert Lesson in Awareness

Agave, Opening

Agave, Opening © 2014 Bo Mackison

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. ~ Aldo Leopold

Before the agave blooms, it is a rosette of green spiny leaves. And then, in the middle of the green spines, a thick stem grows. It thickens and stretches, and often reaches twenty or more feet into the air, sending forth a burst of scented yellow flowers high enough to attract the pollinating bats flying in the dark desert night.

In the excited anticipation of the bloom, an occurrence that happens only once in the life of the plant, the beauty of the stalk is usually overlooked. But a close examination of the protruding stalk offers an unexpected desert gift – a multitude of colors. Yellows and oranges, peachy pinks and soft greens, and a spike of purple.

Another desert lesson in awareness and paying attention, in noticing the small things amidst the grand. The gift of the unexpected, the overlooked.

Desert Dreams – A Desert Song Poem


Saguaro © 2014 Bo Mackison

Wisdom begins with wonder. ~ Socrates

Desert dreams are not tidy,
though perhaps they are tidier than one imagines.

The desert practices tidy habits, the opposite of
the tropical jungle overgrown and tangled,
creeping and dripping with life-giving nutrients in excess.

The desert lives with the precious gift of space,
space enough to stretch and thrive; with patience
it holds space enough to collect the desert rains.

It is enough.

The desert breeze blows strong, dust swirling.
The desert plays the bass line, like a bassoon and
bass clarinet intermingling, deep and sensuous.

Heat rises from the baked red earth, heat waves tremble
with pulsating desert breath. The rhythm steady.
I stand upon the land, alone, supported by desert song
and my ocotillo walking stick,

and I hold onto the world.

Seeking Wisdom in the Desert


Center © 2014 Bo Mackison

I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over any encounter, and to extract its juices, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it. ~ May Sarton

When I hear the words “in the desert”:..

… I think it is time to make choices and live with the consequences; to accept who I am, and feel grateful for the opportunity to live in solitude; to follow a contemplative path; to focus on the positives while being aware of the negatives; to look up at the desert sky and connect with the stars.

What I most yearn for “in the desert”…

… a warmth that spreads from outside to inside; to develop tolerance and strength when dealing with stressors; to feel totally alive, embracing each moment.

What I fear while I’m “in the desert”…

…while I know I will make mistakes, may they be mistakes I can learn from; may they cause no harm to others; may the challenges prove fruitful.

Intention is the power of the experience. ~ Cynthia Gale

What I hope for “in the desert”…

…that I will develop courage to see me through my days, and through the long nights, too; that I will make choices that are true to myself; that I will choose life-enhancing while avoiding life-depleting practices.


A journaling technique I sometimes use, asking and answering repetitive questions with just a change of one word. I considered my relationship with the desert and then incorporated the words hear, yearn, fear, and hope into questions. It provided just enough of a container to direct my thoughts and writing.

A Photo Stroll in Tubac Arizona

Hanging Fish

Hanging Fish © 2014 Bo Mackison

Sundays are a great day to wander, snap a few shots to capture a place.

Art hangs on so many of the walls in Tubac. The art against the adobe background is striking.

Dry Wash

Dry Wash © 2014 Bo Mackison

A dry wash separates the main part of town. Signs warn to cross only in fair weather. A flash flood following monsoonal rains will fill this wash to overflowing.

Wall Decor

Wall Decor © 2014 Bo Mackison

Moons, cacti, lizards – colorful and happy – decorate the outside walls of many of the shops. One would never run out of display space.


Gyros © 2014 Bo Mackison

Happy trucks – the food trucks offer a variety of foods during crowd-pleasing events. Would you enjoy a gyro or a Greek salad from the “Sleek Greek”?

Golden Sculpture, Golden Acacia

Golden Sculpture, Golden Palo Verde © 2014 Bo Mackison

A part of a golden kinetic sculpture gleams against the background of a golden-flowering palo verde.

Shadow Play

Shadow Play © 2014 Bo Mackison

Lines and light and shadow.


WindowLess © 2014 Bo Mackison

What can you see from this window, even though it is blocked with bricks?

Keep Off

Keep Off © 2014 Bo Mackison

In the Midwest, the signs read “Keep Off the Grass.” Not so in Arizona.

Roof Lines

Roof Lines © 2014 Bo Mackison

Blue sky. Yellow roof. Metal awning. Orange rafters. White lights. Open windows.

Sidewalk Shadow

Sidewalk Shadow © 2014 Bo Mackison

Always there are shadows on the pavement, courtesy of the Arizona’s nearly ever-present sun. Tree shadows. My favorites.

Brick Wall and Pavement

Aggregate © 2014 Bo Mackison

Things can sometimes be very simple. A wall. A sidewalk. Lean against the adobe brick, and breathe a while. Rest.

Bench Warmer

Bench Warmer © 2014 Bo Mackison

The bench warmer in bronze. I’d expect to see this esteemed man in a different setting – not in a desert gallery. There is swirling dust about his feet.

These photos were taken with my iPhone using the Hipstamatic app.

One of my favorite parts of this app is its shakability. Shake the cell phone camera and the filter changes, so I’m never sure which filter will appear next. Serendipity photography.