The Battle of Mesa Arch: Landscape Photography Gone Wrong

The Battle of Mesa Arch: Landscape Photography Gone Wrong

Twenty feet away from arguably the most spectacular high desert scene lay a pile of photographic detritus. Busted tripod legs, smashed lenses, and camera bodies pulverized beyond recognition, the scene looked more like a badly bungled camera store robbery than a National Park vista.

You could say the incident began 20 million years ago with the uplift of the Colorado Plateau that ultimately exposed the vulnerabilities of the 180 million-year-old Navajo Sandstone, from which Mesa Arch was carved. Maybe it was the onset of human history, the Paleoindians, 10,000 years ago, eking out a living on that high desert plateau that first drew eyes to that picture window we now call Mesa Arch. Perhaps it was the designation of Canyonlands as a National Park in 1964 that contributed to increased demand for bearing witness to that perfect aperture in the rock. Maybe it was the advent of the internet, digital photography, Facebook, Instagram, that led to Mesa Arch transmogrifying into The Arch.

In fact, it all began with the arrival of Eric Cooper.

Eric arrived at the Mesa Arch trailhead at 2:15 AM the morning of May 11th. His excitement masked his weariness, which was earned after a nine-hour drive from his home in Boise, Idaho. He’d never visited Canyon Country before. Since getting into astrophotography three years earlier, he had dreamed of visiting Utah’s second most famous arch under the cover of stars. On this, a clear moonless night, his dream was being realized.

First car in the lotEric shared this photo on Instagram of his van pulling up to the Mesa Arch Trailhead on May 11.

Eric was surprised to find the parking lot empty. He knew it was a popular location and had expected to bump into a few other astrojunkies. Buoyed by his good fortune, he hoisted his camera bag, grabbed his coffee, and began the half-mile walk to that famous, soon to be infamous, arch.

At 3:40 AM, Alicia and Samantha arrived at the trailhead. The two women had slept, albeit fitfully, in their car just outside the National Park boundary. Having made the mistake of arriving 15 minutes before sunrise the previous day and finding the parking lot full, they had resolved to try again. Seeing only one other car in the lot, Eric’s rig, they were encouraged. They quickly shouldered their camera bags and disembarked.

Within the next five minutes, a caravan of four Range Rovers arrived. A photography workshop. The group was led by a pair of first-class landscape photographers turned YouTube stars turned first-class landscape photographers. Aside from being first-class landscape photographer YouTube stars, Ramone and Charles offered the swankiest high desert photography workshops around. High-end accommodations, luxury SUV rentals, five-star dining, full-body massages, and the occasional photo lesson, their clients wanted for nothing. This was Arch day. The Arch. Every Ramone and Charles workshop culminated in a sunrise shoot at The Arch. Their clients, eight in all, were promised the shot and they were here to get it. The party of 10, in unison, lifted their triple-shot caramel macchiatos to the sky, clanked rims, and set out.

As the workshop stepped onto the trail, three more cars pulled in. Five minutes later, another two. By 4:30 AM, a total of 14 cars and 23 people had arrived to photograph the 6:13 AM sunrise. This was the early crew. This was the crew that had done due diligence. The Arch is not a casual sunrise location. No, it is a photographic pilgrimage. Most notably, it is a photographic pilgrimage with limited space for adherents. As Alicia and Samantha, pilgrims themselves had discovered the day before: you snooze, you lose.

The Arch was smaller than Eric had imagined. He had poured over images of The Arch in advance of his trip but never had gotten a true sense of the scale of the thing. He had assumed it was at least 100 feet wide. Now, standing before it, he thought it at least half that. Nevertheless, he was thrilled to have the first hour and a half to himself. The solitude was sublime. He had never seen such a vivid night sky. Eric could, in that single tableau — The Arch, the maze of canyons below, the snowcapped La Sal mountains beyond, and a billion stars above — sense a powerful force that evaded understanding. These were the moments Thoreau and Muir had celebrated in their wilderness wanderings. Transcendence. He forgot about his camera, the device responsible for his being there, and just looked. This was it. This was everything.

The silence was broken, but only slightly so, with the arrival of Alicia and Samantha. Their arrival was more surprising to Eric than it was upsetting. He counted himself lucky to have had a few moments alone with The Arch, with transcendence. The women introduced themselves to Eric and him to them. They were kind and interested. They inquired about how long he had been there, what he had been shooting, and if he “got” anything. Eric had his tripod set up a dead center to The Arch, no more than a couple of dozen feet from its edge. The distance was a logical choice. It allowed for the entirety of The Arch plus a few feet on either side, of course, to fill the frame of his full frame DSLR at 16mm. The women joined him. Without a thought, they retrieved their tripods, expanded them to full height, and locked their cameras in place.

The Arch crew, now three strong, turned their heads in the direction of the trail behind them. A cacophony of voices sounded from just beyond the nearest pinyon trees. The workshop. A moment later, the group was upon them. They exchanged pleasantries: “You shooting with a DSLR?” and “What do you think of that Peak Designs tripod?”  It was unclear to Eric, Alicia, and Samantha who the leader or leaders were. Ramone and Charles, for their part, ran the kind of workshop that was predicated on osmosis. Clients were paying for the privilege to be in the presence of the great Ramone Bachari and Charles Van Houten. After a few days with the masters, the clients hoped, they would, somehow, magically, be great too. Ramone and Charles set up, along with their eight clients, on either side of Eric, Alicia, and Samantha.

There they were: 26 eyes, 13 cameras, one shot.

Moments later, the steady stream of loyal pilgrims began arriving at The Arch. To the untrained eye, that is, a non-photographer, the unfolding ritual would seem fairly bizarre. In an early morning stupor, these folks were arriving in virtual silence, untethering a three-legged stand from their packs, expanding it to head height, and placing a camera on top. They were then lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder, with their three-legged stands, and pointing cameras at a hole in the rock millions of years in the making. Bizarre indeed.

By 5 AM, all 23 arch pilgrims were in position. Eric had top billing for the shot. Everybody else, 11 to his left and 11 to his right, felt increasing degrees of dissatisfaction the further they were from the earliest bird. “At least,” veterans of The Arch thought, “we are in the first row.”

For 45 minutes, no one else arrived. The pilgrims sipped their caffeinated beverages and waited.

Of coffee and tripods | Eric snapped this iPhone shot of his coffee and tripod legs crossed with Alicia's tripod at 5:55 AM. 

Just before 6 AM, the second wave of photographers began to arrive. These photographers, like Alicia and Samantha the day before, were uninitiated in the ways of The Arch. They treated the location like it was a run-of-the-mill landscape, no jockeying for the position required. Although discouraged to find the wall of pilgrims stood before The Arch, the latecomers accepted their fate and began forming the second row of wildlands paparazzi. The second row positioned itself behind the shoulders of the first row: a classic portrait stagger. The Arch, non-sentient as far as we know, must have longed for a camera of its own to capture the perfectly spaced rows of photographers. It would have been a fine portrait save for the fact that no one was smiling.

By 6:05 AM, 57 shutterbugs were packed tightly into two rows. The tension amongst the photographers was intensifying in direct proportion with the increasing light. Shoulder to shoulder, tripod legs overlapping tripod legs, morning breath hanging in the air, the cramped quarters were beginning to wear on the photographers. Eric, Alicia, and Samantha, the original crew, were growing especially weary. They had gotten into landscape photography through their love for nature. They loved visiting wild, people-less places as a restorative exercise. It was calming. In the quiet of the woods, they could think more clearly, dream more wildly, and love more deeply. It was only after years of wandering with their eyes that they thought to bring a camera with them. They found the practice of landscape photography rich: it heightened their visual acuity and provided a process to chronicle their wanderings. They, most assuredly, did not get into landscape photography to play sardines with dozens of strangers. With roughly 640 million acres of public lands in the U.S., it seemed absurd that 57 souls were packed into 1/100th of an acre. And for what? The shot? And then what? An Instagram post? Possible print sales? The hope of increased workshop attendance? But, at what cost? These were the questions being squeezed out of Eric, Alicia, and Samantha by the shoulders of strangers. 

It turns out the first three weren’t the only ones experiencing this existential crisis. Their 54 companions were all experiencing versions of the same frustration. Nobody was pleased with the arrangement. Even Ramone and Charles, intimately familiar with the intimacy of a Mesa Arch shoot, longed for client-less wanderings in the high desert. But the lure of The Arch is strong: a picture-perfect frame. They were all there now. Their fate was sealed. They need only capture the shot and get the hell out of there.

The magic of The Arch is twofold. First and foremost, it is the quintessential high desert frame. Through its window, the rugged canyon country of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below, opens up. Spindly sandstone towers and precipitous canyon walls comprise the lower half of the frame. The upper half of the frame is dominated by the 12,000-foot summits of the snow cone peaks of the La Sal Mountains. The view itself, light aside, is tremendous. Secondly, well, the light. Oh, the light! The Arch is perfectly positioned above the canyon walls to reflect the orange glow of the sun’s first rays. The underside of The Arch angled slightly in favor of the mesa-top photographer glows spectacularly in that rarefied air of the high desert. Taken together, the natural framing of The Arch and its sunrise light-gathering capabilities, it is no wonder that 57 landscape photographers (elite professionals, pro-ams, and hobbyists) were clustered together on that Island in the Sky the morning of May 11th. It was all but inevitable.

And, it was also all but inevitable that the next scene unfolded.

At 6:20 AM, with the famous arch glow beginning and shutters snapping away, a tourist (no tripod and an iPhone, albeit the newest one with the wide-angle lens) stepped confidently in front of the first row. Specifically, he stepped in front of Ramone and one of his clients. Ramone, serious but kind, politely asked the man to move. The man, only a few feet away, ignored him and switched his iPhone to panorama mode. Charles chimed in, politely, but firmly, asking the man to move. No response. The tension in the group was palpable. Aside from completely obscuring Ramone’s shot, the man was in at least 20 other viewfinders. The orange glow of The Arch intensified and so too did Ramone’s frustration. Now, a chorus of voices, led by Ramone, remonstrated the man for such flagrantly antisocial behavior. The man, the tourist, iPhone photographer, completing his third panoramic pass over The Arch, turned to Ramone and exclaimed: “I have just as much right to be here as any of you.” He wasn’t wrong, but somehow, he wasn’t right either.

The tension amongst the photographers at the peak of The Arch Show was no longer tenable. The uncomfortable crowding, the jockeying for position, the developing need for a bathroom break, and now this, an entitled tourist. Weren’t they all tourists, though? Mere visitors of the wilds. Everyone, including Eric, normally a peacekeeper, could feel the rising temperature of the crowd. Ramone had had enough. Out of character, but in harmony with the group’s energy, Ramone retorted, “But we have been here for two hours, you selfish idiot. Move!” The tourist, satisfied with his shots and aware of the escalating mob, smiled at Ramone, then proceeded to calmly hook his foot around the front-facing leg of his tripod and pull.

It was one thing to see a $25,000 camera setup — Hasselblad, only the best for Ramone — fall in slow motion and yet another to see seven other tripods, their fates inextricably linked with Ramone's, succumb to gravity. Eric and Samantha reacted quickly enough to save their cameras. The other six, including Ramone, were not so lucky. The sound of $50,000 worth of camera gear crashing on slick rock is a memorable one, especially for those whose gear was in the mix. The sound, Alicia — one of the unlucky ones — later recalled, was reminiscent of a car accident: shattering glass, ringing metal, crinkling plastic, and screaming. Lots of screaming.

Broken cameras, broken hearts | This photo, also courtesy of Eric's Instagram, was captured a few moments after the park rangers diffused the scene. 

What followed is of little consequence. The damage was done, the illusion of tranquility broken. The scuffle, according to most, lasted no more than a couple of minutes. Fortuitously, a pair of park rangers were already en route — routine Arch Check — to The Arch when the $50,000 smash occurred. They had heard it. The rangers sprung into action and quickly defused the scene. Nobody was seriously injured in the melee: cuts, bruises, a broken wrist. Bystanders were questioned. Participants were interrogated. Charges were pressed. The Arch remained unchanged.

Eric followed the news coverage from the safety of his home in Boise. Arch Madness, Melee at Mesa Arch, Chaos in Canyonlands, the alliterative headlines droned on. The incident had tickled the voyeuristic predilections of a national and international audience. Amidst the noise, one piece, in particular, caught his attention. It was a story out of the Moab Sun News, the newspaper of The Arch itself. The newspaper's front-page headline read: The Battle of Mesa Arch. The piece contained extensive interviews with National Park Service employees, victims, and bystanders. Eric himself was quoted several times. The write-up, he thought, was the most balanced yet. It was the fallout of the so-called Battle of Mesa Arch that most alarmed him.

The paper read, “In the week since The Battle of Mesa Arch, National Park Service employees say that visitation to Mesa Arch has nearly doubled.”

This is a work of fiction. Any perceived likeness of the characters to real people is simply coincidental. No people or arches were harmed in the making of this story.

Brian Christianson's picture

My first love - after my spouse, of course - is the landscape. My second love is photography. I derive great joy from getting to intimately understand a place: its light, seasons, topography, flora and fauna. I am on an indefinite photography road trip around the US at the moment.

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This post absolutely made my day. Five stars.

It also gave me a great business idea: I'll construct a perfect replica of the arch, a few miles away, just for photographers. Like what they did with Tut's Tomb: laser-scanned it and built a copy nearby for the tourist industry.

Even though this article is a work of fiction, on numerous occasions I have arrived at a scene early, staked out a position only to have some smart phone wielding tourist plop themselves right in front of me. So far they have all moved after a pleasant request but I wouldn't know what to do if they refused, especially after paying thousands of dollars in airfare and a hotel room.

Well I guess they paid thousands too. I don't know what I'd do in that situation either. But, I'll never go there so it's moot.

Public humiliation. You have a camera. Start shooting.

I attended an indoor toy building block convention with my wife and young stepson. Wanting to take a picture of the boy in front of a particularly interesting piece, I politely waited for everyone else to be done with their pictures, and then lined up the boy with the sculpture, stepped three feet back, and was preparing to take the picture ( all in less than ten seconds ) when a guy suddenly tried to walk between us to get wherever he was going. Without even thinking about it, I stiff-armed him in the chest so that he stumbled backward, took the picture, and then turned to face the guy who was ranting and raving at me at that point. I just looked at him calmly, said " You're a rude and inconsiderate person " and then turned my back and walked off.

I don't react well when I come across others who can't employ the same common courtesy that (most) people still do exhibit towards one another. Being considerate and thoughtful isn't expensive!

The only real way to fix this is for the park to limit the spots to set up a tripod, and put them in a lottery, providing a permit to shoot there. I hate that, but it seems it would most likely curb any hostilities.

They do that with some of the canyons in Arizona.

Great photos.

Fantastic. Loved it!

You'll make more money selling cappuccino than taking photos at the arch. It's the most photographed location in the state. While it may be a work of fiction, the story is probably not far from reality.

My last visit there were 56 people at the arch for sunrise. I did not take a single photo of the arch, and instead made a nice walk along the canyon rim for a terrific sunrise and absolute quiet and solitude. The photos were good and provided a unique perspective - not the same image captured by millions of photographers. I returned to the arch an hour after sunrise with experience of a nice morning.

If you really want to see the arch, it's remarkably pleasant for sunset, moonrise, or similar more creative options. I always take groups there the day before so they can see the arch in daylight and understand what they are photographing.

I wanted to do a moonrise through an arch a few years ago when the “unclear on the concept” crowd started setting up inside the arch.

This is why I don't even bother going to some of the most popular photography locations. That, or I go during unpopular times, or capture the location from a very different angle.

I did the latter with Delicate Arch when I lived in Utah. All of the groups were capturing it straight on with the mountains in the background. The same perspective you see everywhere (yawn). Meanwhile I was hundreds of yards away from them, capturing Delicate Arch from a "strange" angle instead. I don't want to have the same photos as everyone else, and I definitely don't want to jockey for position.

Fiction, with no clue in the headline ? Leave it to FStoppers to waste my time. This happens when you don't employ editors.

Boy you dumb. Who cares?

This article points out the problem with photography in general, too many people trying to make their images look like some other photographers images a la 500 px instead of spending time trying to find a personal vision.

What an awesome story! I loved it. So well written. I’ve been to the location three times, twice for sunrise. It is indeed a magical experience. Though I encountered similar issues on my second trip. I called it “combat photography”. The photo was so worth it though. Plus I did meet some nice people.

Thanks for the story, but since it was fiction, someone’s body should have followed the tripods. Funny thing, I shot next to a guy from Italy who told me this was his ninth trip. He had a digital Hassiblad.

We all know by now what sites like this are like. If you're uninspired enough to show up to try and take the 10 millionth "iconic" copycat photo, you deserve whatever fate befalls you.

The sad fact that it is only idiots that want to hang out with a circus full of other idiots getting derivative shots of arches that millions already have when there is so much interesting stuff that isn't famous around them.

Even visiting an arch in the daytime such as Delicate just makes me embarrassed for humanity. You will see how selfish and self centered most humans are when these crowds of idiots form.

I live in a tourist town. They're finding those other interesting places and spreading out in greater numbers. Just give it time.

When I first visited the arch approximately 15 years ago, I got there about 45 minutes before sunrise. I saw one other person and wasn’t sure I was at the right place as it was still too dark too see much. Twenty minutes later one other guy showed up. Finally a few minutes before sunrise two high school couples showed up with their little disposable film cameras. They only stayed 5-10 minutes as they had to get back to school in time for home room. AND THAT WAS IT. Oh, for the good old days. Three years ago, I dragged my wife out of a warm bed in Moab two hours before sunrise (she refused anything earlier) and we did fine just a few bodies off dead center. I’m just glad I managed to see and photograph all the great landscapes of the western US before Instagram. And to think it wasn’t that long ago that the Park Service was worrying about dwindling attendance and would a younger generation ever visit the outdoors as their parents had before them😎. Yeah, try shooting Firefalls in Yosemite 🤣

It's more about a growing population and more people with money and time to travel.

This was fiction... our experience two years ago with an instagrammer doing yoga poses in front of the line of cameras was not. And, an NPR reporter was there. We ended up on national news... Our buddy Neil, from Chicago was having none of the jumping in front of people who had waited hours and politely, well sort of politely considering the faux pas the insta-yogi had made... told her to get the hell out of the way. We had stayed over from milky way for sunrise. And, yes, I would for sure do it again.

Great text !

Very close to what happens in the video of Thomas Heaton in Hawaï : tourists trespass over a rope (installed for their own safety), and ruin the view for many.

I get that many of us might be happy to get a shot of famous landmarks, but is it worth it ?
When I visit a well know place, I check the postcards/posters shop first. If I can't get anything better myself, I don't make any photograph, and rather enjoy the view with my naked eyes. I buy a book or some pictures in the store later.

I sometimes go early in good spots for sunrise in my city. There I meet other photographers, tourists, wedding photographers. I try to show some understanding, and I let the tourists get their shot, as they did the effort to get up early for a one-time visit. And I try not to disturb the wedding/couple photographers, as they are working. A nod and a wink to other photographers usually do the trick.

And, if the best spot is taken, I take it as a challenge to find some new angles, new way of shooting.

But, if you don't accept the presence of others, go shoot somewhere else !

This was gold. So well done. I enjoyed that immensely.

Fine piece of writing; sucked me right in, right up to the end. As I read it though, I was wondering if the melee had just happened, and I simply hadn't heard about it yet. You see, for a dozen years I'd been an NPS Ranger at Canyonlands (and before that put in seven years as a Ranger at Arches). Having retired some several years ago though, I'm less in the day-to-day loop of loopiness that happens in and around the Parks --and Moab-- on an almost momentary basis, so....

Back in '93, a photog friend --a Moabite like me-- and I decided we'd wait for a time when there was a fresh snowfall overnight and clear-ish skies projected for first light. We'd shoot on up to Mesa Arch and do our thing. Two winters later, the conditions we wanted finally occurred, and off we went. We had the Arch completely to ourselves (it was the middle of Winter, after all), and it weren't too awful. Was up in the Island (ISKY) a few days ago, just before sun up, and the Mesa Arch parking lot was overflowing, and folks were parking along the Park road. I continued along my way to some nicer spots.

The last time I actually went to Delicate Arch was for the dawn's first light landing (helicopter) and first hand-off of the 2002 Winter Olympic torch. I'd been assigned to shoot the event for the NPS. The Governor of Utah was there, various state and local High Muckety-Mucks were there, and then there were all the photographers from pretty much every venue you could name. Got some fairly good stuff (despite the 'dawn' being murky and heavily overcast), and was home in time for breakfast. Prior to that, I'd been to Delicate I don't know how many times, but only a handful of those visits had ever been for pleasure. Since the Torch thing, I've been past it any number of times, but haven't bothered to go to it, per se. If I wanted to be deluged by people, I'd go to Times Square on New Year's Eve or somewhere tamer than the throngs who go to Delicate.

The only time I've ever gone for sunrise and likely the only time I will ever go. This guy literally crawled up military style to get his camera right on top of mine.

More people, more travelers, more blog-FB posts/IG's/Twitters, more cameras, more vehicles.... What else do you expect? I don't care where you go tourist-wise in the world, growth, having and doing/traveling more is the message that has been spreading since the 70's.

Before about 15 years ago, I used to go to the Louvre courtyard in October weekday evenings and there would almost no one there. Now there can be hundreds if not thousands there. I've seen this all over the States and Europe - but I'm sure it's like this all over the world.

A great read!

More of this please. Well done!

I used to take my workshops there in the early 2000's and rarely found a any one there. I also took my photography class there in 2004 and only saw a few nice people. Too bad there are so many people looking for the shot and anger develops. This is happening all over and will only get worse! Sad.

Why I won't go to popular locations. Everyone is doing them. And honestly, just because your gear costs more doesn't mean others should cede to you.

A good Sunday morning read! Loved the story, which in many ways, despite being fiction, has a ring of truth to it. I've had the same problem when I have gone to take photos of Niagara Falls from the Canadian side, and find there are many inconsiderate and rude tourists these days. I ran into the same problem with a tour group from Italy, that insisted in getting in my face on a small platform on the Brazilian side, fronting Iguazu falls. Just need to count to 10!
Sometimes I wish though I had a cattle prod.
Stay safe everyone :-)

Great post - loved the story too. What a jerk that tourist was - I hope he had to pay for all the damage. I have this shot. I went during off season, it poured down rain all night and into sunrise but I went anyway. Right after sunrise the sun peaked through and I got an amazing photo. The arch was glowing and the sun was on the top of the arch - so not a perfect shot. But I love it anyway it is hanging as a 40x60 inch metal print in someone's house and looks fabulous. No way I am going back and to that spot again at sunrise!

Or just don't go for sunrise. It seems to be a little known secret (oops) that the glow under the arch persists for quite some time ... hours. We arrived 90 minutes after sun up, at a very civilized just coming up to 8am kind of time. For a while we were literally the only people at the arch and in the time we were there I saw no more than 4 or 5 people. Having debated about whether to go at all, given the reports of the sunrise scrum, I was very glad I did and was pleased with the results.

Somehow I missed the original story of "The Battle". Sadly, I'm just not surprised. I last visited the arch decades ago and recall only one other person being there to peacefully share the experience. Apparently that was before the internet ruined the world. It was an interesting spot, no doubt. But certainly not the magical scene people are making it out to be. Hey, if it makes you happy to snap the same picture that a million other people have taken, go for it. I'd rather find something truly unique in my own backyard.

We will all be better off when everyone else realizes that I am the only one entitled to be anywhere. Everyone else please stay home.