Photo Story: Exploring the American Backcountry

Adventurer, photographer and author John Annerino guides readers through unforgettable journeys in a jaw-dropping new book of photography, The American Outback: An Odyssey Through the Great Southwest.

my passion for photography has evolved by guiding students and clients on the “challenge discovery-style wilderness travel, hiking, climbing, and camping among the deserts, canyons, mesas, and mountains of the Greater Southwest, Arizona, and Sonora, Mexico.

Our memorable adventures included forays to the peaks of the Chiricahua Mountains homelands of Geronimo, the legendary treasure of the Superstition Mountains, the sacred heights of the Kachina Peaks of the San Francisco Mountains, once-remote Grand Canyon trails turned prospectors, and solo adventures. on the island of Tiburón in the Sea of ​​Cortés, Mexico.

Wherever we ventured I carried my camera hanging from my neck ready for use. At one point while working as a Grand Canyon boatman on the Colorado River – I think it was my 18th trip; they were all fascinating – I decided to leave what is sometimes considered a lifelong career of “never go down the same river twice” to pursue photography full time.

But no one was looking for a shy photographer based in a sleepy mountain retreat outside of Prescott, Arizona. I cowboyed, as the locals called it, and knocked on doors in San Francisco, New York, and Phoenix… [and] scripted photo stories that I shot on self-assignments.

Thematic photo essays included “Roughstock: Behind the Falls, Rodeo’s Toughest Events”; “River Wranglers, Whitewater Rafting the Forks of the Kern River” (with packhorse assistance); “High Risk Photography: The Adventure Behind the Image” (the name of my first photography book); “Charros: America’s First Cowboys,” randomly filmed at the National Charros Congress in Guanajuato, Mexico; “Apache: The Sacred Path to Womanhood” (it became a book of the same name); “White Water Women” and other self-assignments.

The first big victory

One day, I went to the mailbox and the Parisian agency Gamma-Liaison had sent me a check that made me gasp. The tear sheet they included was [my] photo of the Eagletail Mountains in Arizona taped to a roadside billboard in Amsterdam. What?! It has become one of my best-selling photos. I had discovered a source of income from images and apparently a hungry audience for the landscapes, people, ceremonies, traditions and adventures I photographed in the Greater South West.

Those were heady days for an Arizona photographer, moving from presentation projects to haughty New York magazine editors.photograph a THE LIFE assignment of an Outward Bound canoe expedition on the Rio Grande of Big Bend. I had just broken in THE LIFEand I had little savings to fly to a remote airstrip near an outpost called Presidio, Texas, to photograph Fortune 500 executives flipping their canoes, swimming, and carrying rapids that they would never forget.

Looking at the office walls THE LIFE, I had studied the framed photographs of the legendary photographers who made the magazine: W. Eugene Smith, Margaret Bourke White, Gordon Parks, Larry Burrows, Harry Benson, Dorothea Lange and many others to name them here. Missing were the framed pictures I had seen in the offices of Sierra Club Books: Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Phillip Hyde and Galen Rowell. The same was true for the color pictures hanging on the walls of Arizona Highways magazine: Ray Manley, Esther Henderson, Barry Goldwater and David Muench. I had found my calling. However, I wondered how I was going to synthesize the influences of my own vision from three publications that gave me assignments. The works of Peter Beard, Edward S. Curtis, John K. Hillers and Timothy H. O’Sullivan, who also inspired me, were missing from everyone’s walls.

Focus on books

I turned to publishing photography books, on which I had set my sights from the start. I’ve attended book shows in Chicago, New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles to meet and greet editors and publishers face-to-face.

[At an expo in New York] I had made an appointment beforehand with the publisher of Sierra Club Books to pitch my photography book Southwest Canyons. In a voice that sounded like the rasp of a butcher’s broom, he said, “You have five minutes. I handed him a sheet of 20 35mm 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 accompanied me [through the convention center] at the aisle of Random House stalls crowded with authors, book buyers and publishers. He gave the flimsy sheet of images to a Random House editor he knew. The striped editor held it up to the light, and the deal was done with a handshake on the spot.

This book opened the door to my career in photography book publishing. … One book led to the next which covered the Great Southwest and Central America. Then I drove off into the sunset with saddlebags full of royalties – which were more like Sam Peckinpah’s “washers”. The Wild Band – and the girl of my dreams.

So I had thought! It couldn’t have been easier. It was a glorious but meager vocation. And it was rarely a slam dunk to green the next book. Photography books cost a fortune to publish, and it was up to the photographer to convince a publisher that the theme, imagery, content, and market were worth their throw of the dice.

Rio Grande/Rio Bravo

First Light, Monument Valley

El Pico is the highest point in the UNESCO Sierra del Carmen Biosphere Reserve in Coahuila, Mexico. Landmark of Big Bend, I bivouacked atop El Pico to photograph the highest point in the UNESCO Sierra del Carmen Biosphere Reserve in Coahuila, Mexico, called one of the “most remote places of the planet”.

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

haunted waters

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


The latest photography book

After years of exploring the Great Southwest, it was clear to me that the extraordinary geography was sculpted by forces of nature that touched my soul. Volcanic mountainous islands erupted above desert seas, sometimes creating elliptical craters that resembled the surface of the moon. Thundering cataracts crashed down flood-swollen rivers that carved deep chasms through cliffs, canyons and sierras. Towering monuments and mysterious hoodoos, sharpened by wind, water and freeze-thaw erosion, resembled ancient deities like the Navajo (Diné) Haashch’eeh diné, “the holy people who turned to stone”. mystifying stone otherworldly murals and figures, carved and painted by native hands, remain hidden among the wind-eroded terra cotta mesas that stretched across the Four Corners and Painted Desert region from one glorious sunrise to the next.

– From The American Outback: An Odyssey in the Great Southwest

The American Outback by John Annerino

The American Outback has been photographed in the American West (Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas, California), Old Mexico (Baja California Norte, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila), and US-Mexico border regions.

Often my attempts to reach daunting camera perches for the book required climbing and bivouacking alone atop distant mountain peaks and ridges, to photograph sunsets and sunrises from a bird of prey’s aerial perspective. . There was no better reward for these efforts.

Many color photographs in the book are paired with literary quotes from early travelers, authors, figures and Indigenous peoples of the Great Southwest to illuminate the landscapes they roamed and illustrate how their wanderings changed, inspired and often repelled them. .

I had made it my mission to get off the grid in [the Southwest’s] unknown lands where my mind has rested, taking rarely seen remote exposures and photographing gracious locals and their enduring traditions. I have explored it on foot, by raft, by rope, by canoe, by sea kayak, by sea panga and, unfortunately, by the back of a mean mule. I wanted to disappear into the landscape to photograph my travels with the colors of the earth, record my perceptions and compose evocative essays.

My hope for readers is that they remember a real world that exists far beyond their mesmerizing cell phone screens. It is just waiting to be discovered by side roads or waterways, hiking trails, cross-country skiing, on horseback or on the back of a mule.

Venture beyond your horizon line. Breathe in the air. Admire the extraordinary views. The American outback is unlike any place on Earth!

Portions of this essay taken fromThe American Outback: An Odyssey in the Great Southwest ($24.99, Schiffer Publishing), available for order at To learn more about the photographer and author, visit

Excerpt from our February/March 2022 issue

Photography: (All images) John Annerino

Jack C. Nugent