Tag Archives: cullasaja gorge

Evolution River

As a landscape photographer, it’s practically inevitable that for a lot of people my work be defined by a single image. That’s just the nature of the beast and frankly, it’s something that I embrace. Knowing that every photograph I take could be the only representation of my craft a person ever sees pushes me to work that much harder to make every image truly special. Or, to put it more bluntly, to never settle for the mundane.

Evolution River is a photograph that has fallen into that role brilliantly. I don’t mind being known for it because it symbolizes everything I’m proud of in my work. The location is remote, the conditions necessary for the image are extremely rare and at the risk of sounding arrogant (which isn’t my intention), it’s one of my best compositions. The photograph has taken on a life of it’s own as a centerpiece in many home art collections, winner of a variety of awards and the most asked about photograph in my collection by a landslide. This “life” of the image is one I’m more than happy to cultivate as it sheds positive light on the rest of what I do as well as the incredible beauty that can be found in the Appalachian mountains.

Evolution River

Canon 5D + Canon 17-40 L @ 17mm, 3.2 seconds @ f/16, ISO 100, 2-stop Soft Grad. ND & Circular Polarizing Filter.

First off, I’ll address an incredibly common question, Evolution River is not a real river. It’s just a name I’ve given this very off-the-beaten path location in the Cullasaja Gorge of western North Carolina. For those unfamiliar with ‘the Gorge’, it’s a wonderfully steep stretch of river located between Franklin and Highlands, North Carolina that parallels Highway 64. Anyways, this spot looks like something out a fairy tale to me. Big waterfalls, cascades, foliage closing in… it’s dramatic in a manner that I’ve very rarely seen in the eastern United States. And, since it’s in a deep canyon, the light falls in incredible ways depending on cloud cover, season, etc. If you can’t already tell, this is an important locale for me and it’s the location that has produced two of my favorite works. This is one of them, the other, Cullasaja Autumn can be seen here.

Photographing mountain waterfalls and streams is already a challenge. But, photographing waterfalls and streams where big waterfalls run like stairs around you is an even more difficult proposition. Every step has to be carefully selected as well as what conditions (weather, water levels, etc) you consider safe to ensure not only perpetuation of the gear in working order but perpetuation of life and limb too. It’s taken me a long time to figure out where to stand, where to cross, where the deep holes are, etc. in this gorge. That knowledge opens up a world of possibilities that weren’t there for me when I first discovered this spot in spring of 2004.

For this particular photograph, a hole in the bedrock swallows a large portion of the river. Seriously. It’s incredible. It’s captivating and I spent a couple of years trying to figure out just how in the world to shoot it and make the visual impact of being there translate to my audience. In order to capture the foreground hole and the distant falls, an incredibly precarious (but safe enough under the right conditions) position must be taken. Whenever I photograph this location, I kneel down or even sit in the water when shooting. Larger contact area on the river bottom and much more comfortable for knees/feet. Just colder, which is fine with me. Early morning light filtering into the canyon gave me the soft distant light I envisioned and a long shutter speed added a dynamic aspect that was very important. I used a 2-stop soft graduated neutral density filter to bring a bit of more balance to the exposure that my eye could see but camera couldn’t. A circular polarizer allowed me to control reflections and increase the wet saturation in the foliage.

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- Scott Hotaling

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