Editor's note: Portions of this have been previously published on the author's website.
Meet Tyson Chappell, professor by day, dark-sky poet with a camera by night. His views of Utah's desert landscapes after sunset, with their starry backdrops, are works of art, while his affection for these magnificent lands and his appreciation of the views are those of a modern Thoreau.
Chappell is a professor of anatomy and physiology at Utah State University Eastern, in Price, where he is starting his 10th year of teaching; the institution is the former College of Eastern Utah. He has "dabbled" in dark-sky photography about 14 years. The last four or five years have found him "constantly immersed in the wondrous cosmic river that flows above our heads every night," he said. An advantage to his pursuit is that a drive of only 10 minutes from Price puts him in a region of "beautifully dark skies."
He is enthralled with the San Rafael Swell, a fascination that he shares with me. (I wrote "Stone House Lands: The San Rafael Reef," and it was published by the University of Utah Press in 1987.)
"I love shooting in an area that is unique and contains imagery that is not the exact same as a million other images from the more visited parks like Zions," he said in an interview facilitated by Facebook messaging. "While great beauty can be found there, I love the unique and seldom-seen beauty of central-east Utah. Variety is so important in helping to capture a more creative and charming image. Diversity is essential to keep driving me towards new ideas and new methods of photography."
Another image from the San Rafael Swell is called "My special magical rock." It is one of a pair of towering outcrops, shown with the majestic Milky Way galaxy rearing up behind it, the sky bespangled with myriad stars.
In a note about this picture that he placed on his Instagram account he wrote in part, "It is dark in this location of the San Rafael Swell. The air is still. My mind is still. My heart is still. And I just breathe it all in and know that I am one of the lucky ones. Like I am a chosen one to experience these skies and smell this earth and experience the silence all around. There is something special, even 'spiritual' to stand below dark skies and hear nothing at all. I tell my students of sensory deprivation tanks and the powerful hallucinations that people can experience by shutting off all the sensory noise. Perhaps that is why I love these skies so deeply. It is when I commune with my own deep mind. A 'supernatural' that I can get behind. A 'spiritual' that I can trust. Transcend. Feel the night. Feel the dark. I am consumed in Dark skies. The Darkest skies."
He had seen numberless sunset scenes showing Mesa Arch in the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park, and wasn't planning to go there to get that "exact same photo. … But then my father suggested that I should try my hand at shooting it at night."
He waited for a moonless night without clouds. He went alone at night. "I’d NEVER been there at all. … So it is always an adventure." It was a somewhat daring adventure, considering the 500-foot cliffs nearby.
He uses two Canon cameras with a series of fast lenses, the better to gather the stars' faint photons. Upon arrival at a location like Mesa Arch, he may spend half to three-quarters of an hour making test shots, to find the right composition. An exposure with curving trails left by stars as they seem to rotate above may last for 30 minutes to a maximum of two hours. "When the star trail image is being taken, I take my other camera body and start shooting the shorter exposures to capture just the Milky Way or whatever cosmic wonders I can, with the corresponding foreground of earth and trees and rocks and water."
A spot where I often camped in the 1980s, Buckhorn Wash in the San Rafael Swell, was the subject of one of his images showing off individual stars in a shorter exposure.
He wrote of that scene, "A campfire burns and illuminates a small area in Buckhorn Wash of the San Rafael Swell, Emery County, Utah. A rare passing car illuminates the hills to the right. The thin winter Milky Way rises in the middle of the image. Crisp air adds to the silence at night, here in the desert. A fast meteor runs along with the Milky Way. Several smaller meteors, unseen here, also fell during this 30 second exposure."2 comments on this story
Asked what he would like viewers to take away when they examine his photographs, Chappell said what he hopes that they will feel "is an increased appreciation of this incredible, gorgeous, glorious, and phenomenal Earth that we are privileged to exist upon. I would hope that my images would show people how very important it is to treat this Earth with care and respect. It is the only home any of us will ever know. It is the only planet we have.
"It is so intensely peaceful to stand alone and experience such silence. To feel the crisp air. Smell the Earth. And finally to be covered in that vast cosmic canopy. To be enwrapped in an eternal blanket of space.
"I want others to appreciate this planet, care for it, and save these few remaining precious lands with dark skies for future generations."
Those who would like to see more of his photographs should view them at tysonchappell.com.