A deep understanding of the natural world underpins glorious landscapes of central Arizona.
by Erica Ryberg
On a stormy evening in the August before Covid, Matt Turner packed up 40 pounds of photography gear and headed out into rough country west of Prescott to take some pictures.
In planning this outing he had watched weather patterns in the days leading up to it, then on the day of the shoot confirmed that yes, it would be cloudy, but not to the west. He could plan on the sun peeking out at dusk, briefly setting Granite Mountain aflame.
On the day he hiked up out of the Granite Mountain basin, heading off trail to find a suitable vantage to capture it and the surrounding peaks. Once there, he began his setup: one camera on a tripod capturing time-lapse video and a still camera around his neck, in case. Then Turner set his camera drone aloft and waited for the sun to come out.
If he were lucky, he'd get some digital images he could work with.
“My guess would be about 50 percent of the time I go out, only one of those three activities is going to give me a good result,” he said. “The other half of the time it’s a bust on all three.”
On this particular day, of his many photos, it was the images he captured with the drone that worked out best[DJI_0450-Pano.jpg]. Even then, it took a lot of work in his home studio to come up with the right composition.
“You’re trying to capture a huge area and trying to create an image that represents a geography,” he said. “With Granite Mountain, I could have gotten just the left side of it and been fine, but Little Granite Mountain is such a big part of the watershed. That’s a big catchment area, and it’s all draining down into Granite Basin Lake.”
"His images . . . demonstrate the interaction of weather with the landforms and light situations with the clouds, snow and ice."
Turner was also hoping to display the Mint Wash Pluton — the eroded top of a massive 1.6-billion-year-old intrusion of igneous rock — that makes up both Little Granite and Granite Mountains.
Such is his approach: at once technical, artistic, and scientific.
When Turner takes a photograph, he isn't just composing for beauty. Many of his photos are landscapes, big, broad studies that capture a given landform, outcrop or plant community in a complete sense. He's composing to capture the true nature of a place and to capture it dynamically as an interaction of air and mountain, water and rock, pressure and time.
“It's not an easy thing to do to capture a place and to represent what it is made up of,” says Turner. “As a whole, it could be a skyline and a sunset, clouds. And its parts, its cool geology, its interesting vegetation, its river system working its way down through a valley floor, and the vegetation that’s bordering it. There’s always just so many different ways of interpreting the landscape and presenting it to the viewer.”
Underpinning Turner’s abilities is a solid background in the natural sciences, which he developed starting as a teen in an experiential high school, then through studies culminating in a natural-history degree at Prescott College, and later through decades of biology fieldwork and nature guiding.
“Matt is a naturalist. I mean a real naturalist. I think he’s a great photographer because he understands the geophysiography,” said Jeanne Trupiano. She works with Turner at the Central Arizona Land Trust (CALT), an organization that works with private landowners, principally ranchers, to create conservation easements.
“When he looks at a landscape, he’s looking at all those different layers. That’s why he’s so good at capturing our work in the central Arizona highlands.”
Indeed, while Matt's work captures scenes from Yellowstone to eastern California, much of his work centers on documenting areas of Yavapai County that are not as well known.
These include small, watery grottoes high in the Bradshaw Mountains, wide expanses of grassland more hospitable to antelope than humans, and dry canyons home to subtle riparian ribbons and not much else.
Sometimes, though, his photographs can seem more familiar. On his website there are plenty of photos of Prescott, and even some money shots of snow in the Granite Dells or Thumb Butte swaddled in low clouds. More often, though, are pictures capturing views of Prescott different from those we’re accustomed to seeing.
“He often takes pictures of icons such as Granite Mountain and Thumb Butte, but he captures them from different angles,” said Cat Moody, who works as the GIS coordinator for the City of Prescott. She has also been the city’s web designer, and it is because of her that Turner’s photos grace the City website. With a background in natural history, Moody instantly picked up on what Turner was going for with his photography.
“His images really capture larger landscape patterns in the area, because he often takes images that demonstrate the interaction of weather with the landforms and light situations with the clouds, snow and ice: more than just a static picture of the landform. He’s got a really sensitive eye for the larger pattern of geography in the area, both rock types as well as demonstrations of uplift and folding that represent larger land patterns in the area,” she said.
When Turner isn’t out hunting the perfect shot or on the road as a nature guide, he’s part of the team that works to conserve valuable tracts of the central Arizona highlands.
One of his jobs at CALT is to create baseline reports that document the land’s current state. That, of course, means photographs. As it turns out, Matt’s approach is a perfect fit for the work.
“I think if I were to take these photos they would all look the same,” said Trupiano. “He does it in such a way that they're not redundant, a way that really captures the intrinsic value of the area he’s looking at.”
For Trupiano the value of Turner’s work goes beyond his ability to capture a density of information in a single photograph for CALT’s purposes. Many times the will to conserve a resource comes from its appreciation, something Turner’s photography facilitates.
“The Arizona Highways attention is often in southern Arizona and the Grand Canyon country, but really the central part of the state is left out,” she said.
“I think in a lot of ways, that’s what Matt is doing for the central highlands. He’s showing this massive landscape that is Yavapai County and places that people will never go and never see. And he does that through his photography.”
Erica Ryberg is a freelance writer and financial planner in Prescott. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org