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Lou DeSerio: Canyon de Chelly

After Lou DeSerio studied with Ansel Adams in the late 1970s, Adams said Lou’s photos “exceed the event.” Lou graduated from the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif. He first traveled to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, 250 miles northeast of Sedona, in 1980 to photograph the ruins inside Canyon del Muerto. He returns every few years, and says he’s waited for days or taken trips over a period of years to capture the right moment. “People will ask, ‘What are you waiting for?’ My answer can usually be seen in my print,” he says. See his work at and The Lou DeSerio Gallery (211 N. Hwy 89A; 928-282-1980).

Sedona Monthly: When are the best times of year and day to photograph in the canyon?
Lou: I really enjoy the end of October/beginning of November. The fall foliage adds dimension. I try to go midweek and avoid holidays and weekends. You can have the entire canyon to yourself. Late spring and early summer is the worst time – the heat can be brutal and you won’t have any clouds. You’ll avoid crowds if you shoot in bad weather, which often gives the best shots. The best time will be midday. But you still want to select times when you have clouds for drama and dimension and to filter the sun. Storm clouds are great and add nice shadows.

What if you have limited time and no clouds?
Take close-ups and vignettes rather than panoramas with the sky. Shoot the ruins with the least amount of contrast between light and dark. The light in the canyon changes fast – be patient and observe. I think it’s more rewarding to come home with a few pleasing images than a bagful of mediocre ones.

What equipment do you use when you shoot in Canyon de Chelly?
I shoot with a Linhof 4×5 view camera and transparency film. You also need a tripod, especially in stormy conditions, and, if you’re in the canyon, you should have a wide angle lens at least half the focal length of your normal lens. Don’t go to the canyon with a brand-new camera – test your equipment and be familiar with the film you’re using. If you plan on enlarging your photos, use the slowest film you can. The only filter I use is a polarizer.

Do you manipulate your photos in the darkroom or with the computer?
Both. The print I have in my brain is rarely found without manipulation. I am not documenting for accuracy, I am printing for expression. I think people like to see the creativity of the artist and not necessarily what the subject looked like; that’s more photojournalism.

How many shots do you take until you get one for your gallery?
I don’t shoot a lot to get one. I know what I want before I go out. It’s a matter of observing and frequenting a spot. I recently spent 11 days in the Tetons [Wyoming] and only took two shots. I will wait for days and days and then it’s all over in an eighth of a second.

Do you have a favorite spot in Canyon de Chelly?
I like the trail from the lookout to White House Ruins. It’s about 1-1/2 miles and it’s a spectacular experience.

Any final words of wisdom about photographing there?
Be patient. Take time to explore. You’ll get the best pictures when you are familiar with the environment. And keep in mind Canyon de Chelly doesn’t have a visitor’s center or lodges. It’s desolate. It’s a place to spend quiet time by yourself without a lot of distractions.

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