Who I Met Today

Conversations by Pamela Lamp

Adam Schallau – Grand Canyon and Southwest Photographer

Adam Schallau greeted me with more cheeriness than I could muster at 4:45 AM.  “You just get up and get going and a story unfolds,” he smiled.  Leading me down dark trails to a ledge overlooking the Colorado River flowing a mile below, I immediately realized how much I would learn from one of the Southwest’s premier landscape photographers.  As he tracked the moon and the clouds, he saw changes in the morning sky I couldn’t begin to see.  “It took me years to learn to read the sky,” he said.  Waiting for just the right light for our sunrise photo shoot along the Grand Canyon’s South Rim,  Adam talked comfortably about this national park that holds a special spot in his heart. 

A Grand Canyon aficionado and ambassador of sorts,  Adam earned a coveted post as an Artist-in-Residence several years ago.   The month long program allowed him to concentrate intensely on his craft and hone his photography skills while learning about the topography, history, and people of our great national treasure and UNESCO World Heritage site.  As he patiently set up our tripods and cameras,  Adam was encouraging and truly cared about what I was doing and absorbing.  It was important to him that I not only go home with new photography skills, but he genuinely wanted me to develop an appreciation for this awe inspiring environment. 

Adam Schallau on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Adam fell in love with the Southwest when he was young, traveling with his family and painting oil landscapes.   The former search and rescue volunteer got his first taste of photography when he carried equipment for a Colorado photographer pursuing landscape and wilderness shots.  “I was basically the pack mule, but I learned while watching,” he recalled. In later years, he worked in a New Mexico camera shop, experimenting with photography techniques and teaching customers how to use the brand new digital cameras.  He considered himself a student of photography, studying light and its affects on photos.  He “always wanted to learn more and do things better, improve my art.”

Relocating to New Mexico and living on very little at the time, Adam continued to analyze his photography with amazing self discipline and commitment.  Historic St. Francis de Assisi church, often the subject of Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams, was a short distance from his home.   Every evening Adam walked to the church, with notes on light, texture, form and shape in hand, and composed one or two well-planned and thought out shots.  With his meticulous and organized nature, he carefully documented the light, focus, and angles of the photos he took.    At the end of each month he had saved just enough money to develop one roll of 36 exposure film.  After viewing his photos, he compared his images, making more notes on techniques and settings.  “Every single shot was important to me – it was my investment in my art,” he explained. 

Adam’s research and observations are a true example of hard work paying off.  With his fine art prints displayed in museums, galleries, and private and corporate collections, he spends more than 70 days each year photographing the Grand Canyon and leading photography workshops and tours.  “You always hope your work can bring attention to the areas we’ve managed to protect and preserve,” he reflected.   With his devotion to the southwest wilderness and desire to constantly learn and grow, he was invited on a rafting trip designed for fellow artists.  On the 18 day trip dedicated to creating their art,  landscape and lifestyle photographers, painters, and a performance artist floated down 225 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.  As any artist would want, the group of 11 followed a schedule dictated by light.  The various artists collaborated with each other, all inspired by the incredible (Adam’s favorite word) place and their fellow travelers.   “All of us were creating because we were inspired, not just by what we saw, but by who we were surrounded by,” Adam recalled.  The painters took to their canvases, while the landscape photographers composed shots with the beauty of the rocks and water.  A lifestyle photographer, her costly camera wrapped in plastic, captured photos of the group as they moved through the rapids.  Each evening, around the campfire, Adam relaxed while  photographing “an incredibly creative spirit”- a female photographer and performance artist who danced with poi,  spinning balls set afire.  “It truly is a cherished memory and affects your work in a positive way.    I was with a group of incredible people who all love this wonderful place. They have a deep understanding of what the Grand Canyon is beyond the rim and what most folks see up top,” said Adam.

When pushed to describe a favorite photograph, the natural storyteller recalls a memorable photo taken along the San Juan River in southeast Utah.   One evening, while guiding the photography portion of a multi-day rafting trip,  Adam was taking his turn on kitchen duty.  As he assisted with preparing dinner,  a thunderstorm rolled through the camp.  He automatically looked at the sky, always considering light and potential photo possibilities, and realized the sky was going to clear right around sunset.  Forgetting dinner duties for the time, he grabbed his camera, lens, and tripod and began running toward a spot he had noticed earlier in the day. He made it to the Red Rock Cliffs, a beautiful setting with a stream and water pools, just as the light was slicing through the clouds.  Trembling to set up before he missed his shot, Adam was very much aware of the stunning fire red reflection off the rocks – and a double rainbow.  He recalls with emotion that he was fortunate enough to get set up and capture the photograph he wanted.  After seeing the image on his camera display screen, he remembers he “screamed and jumped for joy.”  “It’s what every photographer hopes for,” he explained.  “It illustrates why these areas should be protected and the value of preservation and conservation.” Adam’s cherished photograph, with the rare double rainbow, was one of 50 photos exhibited at the Utah Natural History Museum to celebrate 50 Years of Utah Wilderness.

Our photography group at Lower Antelope Canyon, one of the slot canyons. Adam Schallau, far right

He continues to share his passion and love for the Grand Canyon with others and make it a meaningful place for them.  Adam  strives to learn and try new and different things.  He has created a prized series of Grand Canyon prints, on watercolor paper,  that will be traveling with him on another 2 1/2 week rafting journey this fall.  He wants “the art to float with us, just to say the piece has been down there. It’s a new idea, something that spoke to me.”  He plans to sign the photographs on location, using water from the Colorado River to add his signature.  Adam wants his artwork and guide expeditions to be something people can take home and remember forever.  “Not only do I teach photography, but I always hope I can give people an experience they will never forget.”

The Grand Canyon is “one great sight which every American should see” –  President Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

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