The New River Gorge: A Photo Essay

It's one of the most photogenic places in the world.

But the New River Gorge was not always as it is today. A scant half a century ago, what you see now as a lush, forest-filled wilderness canyon was largely deforested, her walls barren and exposed under the clank and purpose of man. New River Gorge coal literally powered America through the industrial revolution and two world wars, but now she rests; her deep mines forever closed, her bustling towns reclaimed by an undeniable jungle—the ruins of industry wrapped in color.

When the light is right… when the sun sits low and shadows grace the canyon, the New River Gorge can take your breath away and move you to tears. We who live here know this intrinsically, because we experience it daily. Thanks to a boom of New River Gorge landscape photography, you can experience a small bit of it too, right here on your computer.

We proudly present the work of just three of the many wonderful local photographers, and a bit about the philosophies that govern their art—in their own words. So, catch your breath, grab a hanky and prepare to be overwhelmed.

Lj Lambert

"I was 14 when I realized how much I enjoyed taking photos. I went with a group of friends to jump off a waterfall on Glade Creek. After walking for what felt like hours we came to this huge waterfall with an overhang perfect for jumping. The pool at the bottom was lined with large trees and ancient bricks. The water was clear. I remember writing my name in the mud on the bottom with a stick. We were all drying off and behind us is this waterfall. I started taking photos of everyone in front of it. I still have those somewhere. Here I am 20 years later, and I'm still doing the same thing.

The New River Gorge is just magic. In one small area you can see mountain vistas, an ancient winding river, amazing bridges, water sports, trails, sunsets and sunrises and waterfalls. You could create an entire landscape portfolio within a few miles radius and still have drastically different pictures. On top of that, the New River Gorge is beautiful both in quality of location and of people. I have yet to run into someone unpleasant.

The New River Gorge is just magic. In one small area you can see mountain vistas, an ancient winding river, amazing bridges, water sports, trails, sunsets and sunrises and waterfalls.

LJ Lambert

Southern West Virginia also has so many talented photographers. I love the way Randall Sanger captures the sky, Ed Rehbein shows the delicacy of a flower, The Merry Cats' use of composition and lighting. Rick Burgess chooses great locations, and the way Dan Friend captures nature is just amazing.

A great shot comes from knowing my location—shooting at the right time, with the right exposure, and having the patience to wait on the perfect light. I see so many photos of landscapes and the sun's mid-day light takes over the entire photo. If you get up earlier or wait until the sun is going down, the shadows soften and the landscape glows with light.

Of the shots you see here, the most complicated to create and my favorite is the image with the young girl in white. I call it Princess on the Gorge. I wanted to create an image that was reminiscent of the medieval-styled paintings of Edmund Blair Leighton. It was raining on and off and the sun was setting, so the light was changing drastically by the minute. This girl sat patiently in the midst of a cool breeze and rain coming from the Gorge. I was taking practice shots and waiting for a cloud to cover the sun a little when I saw her playing with her dress. I knew when I took that photo that it would be the one. Sometimes you just feel something; it's the moment you see a combination of magical light and peace in the subject."

Want to see more of Lj Lambert's work? Or, follow her on Facebook.

Molly Wolff

"Whenever we were on a family vacation, I would be the one to document everything. In high school, learning to go manual—shooting with film and processing in a dark room—gave me a solid foundation, and at that point in my life my two greatest passions were outdoor adventures and photography. In college I pursued the former and for awhile I regretted not studying photography. But I spent a lot of years self educating, reading books and taking online classes, and I've created a life where I can play outside and make a living selling my images. It took a few years before I worked up the courage to invest in pro gear, build a website, get a business license and quit my job, but I knew that unless I took a risk and faced the possibility of failure, I would never really have the profession I dreamed of.

Motion invokes more of the senses in an image than just sight. It helps trigger a sound or even a feeling for the viewer.

Molly Wolff

There are so many things that make a great shot, but my favorite element to incorporate is motion. I love to show a train moving, a river flowing, clouds passing, grass swaying. Motion invokes more of the senses in an image than just sight. It helps trigger a sound or even a feeling for the viewer. Shooting in the New River Gorge and Southern West Virginia gets me psyched, because there is always something new and challenging to go after. Of course I still shoot The Bridge and the Gristmill, but I love to scramble, slide, climb, paddle, hike and bushwhack to locations I know most people would never bother trying to reach. That is thrilling to me.

Of the shots you see here, the hardest to capture was the Bridge Fireworks. I took it a couple years ago from Long Point overlooking the New River towards Adventures on the Gorge. I intended to set up for the show, but when I got to the trailhead there was this intense thunder storm. I sat in the car and debated just going home, but the thrill of the challenge won! I ran more than a mile and half through the forest in the rain and ankle deep mud puddles with all my gear in a pack on my back. I arrived at the overlook breathless and sopping wet to a break in the storm and the beginning of the fireworks show. I barely got my camera and tripod propped and settings dialed in before the finale! I love how the fireworks light the fog clinging to the gorge, like fire on the mountain.

But my favorite shot is of the Thurmond train. There are so many elements that are meaningful to me. First of all I live near Thurmond so it's a favorite landmark of mine. I love it, because I am fond of trains and even more fond of the New River running below it. I appreciate the juxtaposition of nature and industry running in layers. I have that one hanging in my own home. It was also a part of the juried Best of West Virginia exhibition at Tamarack in 2014.

I greatly admire West Virginia photographer, Angie Stover Johnson. She incorporates photography, texture and layers into whimsical and moody images. Sometimes her images are even a touch creepy, and I absolutely love that! The late photographer Galen Rowell has probably influenced me the most, though. He was also a climber, and he sought out unseen landscapes and perspectives; his photography was anything but roadside. He made a career of traveling over dangerous and challenging terrain and battling extreme climates to bring home new and extraordinary images."

You can find more by Molly Wolff here. Or, follow her on Facebook.

Randall Sanger

"My parents bought me a camera for my high school graduation, and I started shooting anything and everything. That was before digital, so purchasing all that film, and sending it off to get printed was a costly endeavor—especially when most of the prints I received back from the lab were terrible! I wanted to learn how to capture good images almost from the start, primarily so I wasn't wasting so much money on film and printing. During college and into the mid 90s, I started selling some prints and got hooked on photographing waterfalls, so the seed for a West Virginia Waterfall book was planted. A few years later, a couple other photographers who were planning such a book invited me to join them. Although one of the original two decided not to pursue it, myself and coauthor Ed Rehbein settled on a publisher and released West Virginia Waterfalls: The New River Gorge in 2010.

To me, a great shot has several elements. Compositionally, there should be a strong foreground interest that leads the viewer's eyes through the frame. Of course, the mid and background should be strong as well, and I like to place my main subject right or left of center. I like to photograph from a low or high vantage point. (The legs of our tripods are able to extend and shorten for a reason!) I also like to use natural elements, like trees or archways to "frame" the main subject. Although brilliant blue skies and puffy white clouds make for some great scenes, dramatic light really makes an image pop and allows it to stand apart. That means getting out there before the sun rises and staying out there until after it sets to capture epic light and color.

The NRG is such a beautiful area, and it's always changing. I'm asked if I get tired of going to the same places to photograph, but honestly, although the place is the same, the conditions are always different.

Randall Sanger

With the advent of digital cameras we no longer have to worry about the costs associated with film. I take advantage of this and try several different compositions of a scene from many different vantage points. You never know whether an idea will work until you try it.

The NRG is such a beautiful area, and it's always changing. I'm asked if I get tired of going to the same places to photograph, but honestly, although the place is the same, the conditions are always different. I have hundreds of photos of the Bridge, hundreds from Grandview and Beauty Mountain, hundreds from various waterfalls… and they are all different.

Of the shots you see here, the sunrise from Sunshine Buttress is my favorite. I waited several years for that shot, and I knew that the sun would rise above the bridge during that time of year, so I was eager to finally have the opportunity to photograph what I had visualized. I waited for a morning that had slight cloud coverage in the forecast and arrived there about an hour before sunrise. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and no hint of fog in the gorge—two elements that really make an image pop. I wasn't going to make the trek up there without decent cloud action, so I decided to give it about 5 minutes and see if the forecasted cloud coverage would finally appear. I said a quick prayer asking for a few clouds and some fog. A few minutes later, I started to see some wisps of it in the Gorge, so I decided to get started with the scramble to the top of the cliff.

Twenty minutes later, I'm at the top and totally enveloped in thick clouds and heavy fog. I couldn't even see the bridge or the river below. I just had to laugh and thank the Lord above for granting my request for clouds and fog… but if He didn't mind too much, it'd be great if to ease things off a little bit! Eventually, I was able to capture the scene in a much more dramatic flair than I could ever have imagined.

There are several area photographers that I admire. Fred Wolfe's work inspired me to explore more of the New River Gorge. His inventory of images is phenomenal, and I'm glad we met and spent time together exploring this beautiful region. Brent McGuirt is a great landscape photographer, too. He's killing it in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains, and he has some pretty sweet New River gorge images as well. Todd Williams always inspires me with his creative compositions and pushes me to keep exploring new ways to photograph familiar scenes.

I also grew up reading Wonderful West Virginia magazine in general, and seeing the work of the late Arnout Hyde in particular. Hyde introduced me to the natural beauty we have in West Virginia. He created his images in a way that left me feeling like I was standing beside him. I've always strived to capture that feeling in mine."

Explore more of Randall Sanger's photography here. Or, follow him on Facebook.


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