Photo Essay: Exploring America’s Outback

Adventurer, lensman, and author John Annerino guides readers through bucket-list travels in a breathtaking new photography book, America’s Outback: An Odyssey Through the Great Southwest.

my passion for photography evolved from guiding students and clients on “challenge discovery”-type wilderness journeys, hiking, climbing, and camping among the deserts, canyons, mesas, and mountains of the Great Southwest, Arizona, and Sonora, Mexico.

Our memorable adventures included forays to the summits of Geronimo’s Chiricahua Mountains homelands, the legendary treasure trove of the Superstition Mountains, the sacred heights of the San Francisco Mountains’ Kachina Peaks, once-remote Grand Canyon Indigenous-turned-prospector trails, and solo adventures on Tiburon Island in the Sea of ​​Cortes, Mexico.

Everywhere we ventured, I carried my camera dangling from my neck at the ready. At one point while working as a Grand Canyon boatman on the Colorado River — I think it was my 18th trip; they were all mesmerizing — I decided to move on from what’s sometimes viewed as a lifelong career of “you never go down the same river twice” to pursue photography full time.

But no one was looking for a shy photographer based out of a sleepy mountain hideaway outside Prescott, Arizona. I “cowboyed up,” as the townsfolk called it, and knocked on doors in San Francisco, New York, and Phoenix… [and] storyboarded photo essays I shot on self-assignments.

The thematic photo essays included “Roughstock: Behind the Chutes, the Toughest Events in Rodeo”; “River Wranglers, Whitewater Rafting the Forks of the Kern River” (with pack horse support); “High Risk Photography: The Adventure Behind the Image” (the name of my first photography book); “Charros: America’s First Cowboys,” shot on spec during the National Charro Congress in Guanajuato, Mexico; “Apache: The Sacred Path to Womanhood” (it became a book by that name); “White Water Women,” and other self-assignments.


The First Big Win

One day I walked out to the mailbox and the Paris agency Gamma-Liaison had mailed me to check that made me gasp. The tear sheet they included was [my] photo of the Eagletail Mountains in Arizona, plastered across a roadside billboard in Amsterdam. Que?! It became one of my stock-photo bestsellers. I had discovered an image revenue stream and apparently an eager audience for the landscapes, people, ceremonies, traditions, and adventures I photographed in the Great Southwest.

They were heady days for an Arizona photographer, going from pitching projects to haughty New York magazine editorsto photograph a LIFE assignment of an Outward Bound canoe expedition down Big Bend’s Rio Grande. I was just breaking into LIFEand I had little savings to fly into a remote airstrip near some outpost called Presidio, Texas, to photograph Fortune 500 executives tipping over their canoes, swimming, and portaging rapids they’d never forget.

Peering at the office walls of LIFE, I’d studied the framed photographs of the legendary photographers that made the magazine: W. Eugene Smith, Margaret Bourke White, Gordon Parks, Larry Burrows, Harry Benson, Dorothea Lange, and too many others to name here. Missing were the framed images I’d viewed in the offices of Sierra Club Books: Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Phillip Hyde, and Galen Rowell. So, too, were the color images that hung on the walls of arizona highways magazine: Ray Manley, Esther Henderson, Barry Goldwater, and David Muench. I’d found my calling. Though, I wondered how I’d synthesize the influences in my own vision from three publications that were giving me assignments. Missing from everyone’s walls were the works of Peter Beard, Edward S. Curtis, John K. Hillers, and Timothy H. O’Sullivan, who also inspired me.


Changing Focus to Books

I pivoted into photography-book publishing, which I had set my sights on from the very beginning. I attended book expos in Chicago, New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles to meet and greet publishers and editors face-to-face.

[At an expo in New York] I’d made an appointment beforehand with Sierra Club Books’ publisher to pitch my photography book Canyons of the Southwest. In a voice that sounded like the rasp of a butcher’s-broom, he said, “You’ve got five minutes.” I handed him a sheet of 20 35-mm color transparencies (today, it’s a tablet or mini-laptop). He held it up to the fluorescent lighting, turned to me, and said, “I can sell this! Follow me.” He walked me [through the convention center] to Random House’s aisle of booths crowded with authors, book buyers, and publishers. He gave the flimsy sheet of images to a Random House senior editor he knew. The pin-striped editor held it up to the light, and the deal was done with a handshake on the spot.

That book opened the door to my career in photography-book publishing. … One book led to the next that spanned the Great Southwest and Central America. Then, I rode off into the sunset with saddlebags stuffed with royalties — that were more like the “washers” from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch —and the gal of my dreams.

So I’d thought! It didn’t get easier. It was a glorious-looking but lean vocation. And it was rarely a slam dunk getting the next book greenlit. Photography books cost a fortune to publish, and the burden was/is on the photographer to convince a publisher that the theme, imagery, content, and market are worth their roll of the dice.


Rio Grande/Rio Bravo

First Light, Monument Valley

El Pico is the high point of the Sierra del Carmen UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Coahuila, Mexico. A landmark for Big Bend, I bivouacked atop El Pico to photograph the high point of the Sierra del Carmen UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Coahuila, Mexico, called one of “the most remote places on earth.”

Hidden Passage, Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Tribal Park-Glen Canyon National Monument tributary, Arizona-Utah. The Navajo (Din) called it Hazdistaz, “spiral rock arches.”

Haunted Waters

Moonrise, North Six-Shooter Peak, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah, birthplace of Navajo headman and warrior Manuelito, Nabááh Jiłt’aa (Warrior Grabbed Enemy) in 1818.

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The Latest Photography Book

After years of exploring the Great Southwest, it was plain to me that the extraordinary geography was sculpted by forces of nature that touched my soul. Volcanic mountain islands erupted high above desert seas, sometimes creating elliptical craters that resembled the surface of the moon. Thundering cataracts tumbled into flood-swollen rivers that carved deep chasms through cliffs, canyons, and sierras. Towering monuments and mysterious hoodoos, honed by wind, water, and stone-splitting freeze-thaw erosion, resembled ancient deities like the Navajo’s (Diné) Haashch’eeh diné, ‘Holy People who turned to stone.’ mystifying stone murals and otherworldly figures, etched and painted by Native hands, remain hidden among wind-scoured terra-cotta mesas that stretched across the Four Corners and Painted Desert region from one glorious sunrise to the next.

– Desde America’s Outback: An Odyssey Through the Great Southwest

America's Outback by John Annerino

America’s Outback was photographed in the American West (Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas, California), Old Mexico (Baja California Norte, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila), and US-Mexico borderlands.

Oftentimes my attempts to reach intimidating camera perches for the book necessitated climbing and bivouacking alone atop remote mountain peaks and crests, to photograph sunsets and sunrises from the aerial perspective of a raptor. There was no better reward for these efforts.

Many of the book’s color photographs are paired with literary quotes from the Great Southwest’s early travelers, authors, characters, and Native peoples to illuminate the landscapes they traveled through and exemplify how their wanderings changed, inspired, and often repelled them.

I’d made it my mission to go off the grid into [the Southwest’s] unknown lands where my spirit touched down, take seldom-seen remote exposures, and photograph affable locals and their enduring traditions. I explored it by foot, raft, rope, canoe, sea kayaking, seagoing panga, and, ill-advisedly, from the back of an ornery mule. I wanted to disappear into the landscape to photograph my journeys with the colors of the earth, note my perceptions, and compose evocative essays.

My hope for readers is that they are reminded of a real world that exists far beyond their hypnotic cellphone screens. It’s waiting to be discovered by back road or waterway, footpath, cross country, horse- or muleback.

Venture beyond your horizon line. Breathe in the air. Take in the extraordinary views. The American outback is like no place on Earth!


Portions of this essay excepted fromAmerica’s Outback: An Odyssey Through the Great Southwest ($24.99, Schiffer Publishing), available for order at schifferbooks.com. Find out more about the photographer and author at www.johnannerinophotography.com

From our February/March 2022 issue

Photography: (All images) John Annerino

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