There are moments as a landscape photographer that perfectly form a creative ethos, painted not with words or pigment but in peace and light. This image, made more than ten years ago, encompasses the feeling of what I sought and of what I still search for in every image I make. A sense of peace and a quality elicit of time spent in nature meditation. That place you must go alone where the wind, the sea air, the pebbles underfoot, the pine branches at the beach edge all grow their roots through your soul tugging at the primordial soup that we all still have deep inside.
A fading half moon, setting in the west, illuminates a valley carved from a solid block of granite. Rock made of primary minerals reflect the moon's light like millions of tiny mirrors. The stars above, etched in deep indigo and the quiet of a midnight, inform a mountain peace. A lone artist paints what he feels, packs up and moves on.
The week was filled with the harsh light of an approaching summer and yielded little in photographic pursuit. Feeling a lack of inspiration and wanting a little change, I packed away my camera and signed up for a watercolor class. I spent three peaceful mornings wandering the valley painting with pigment rather than light. It was marvelous to sit in one spot and really study a scene. To watch the shadows unfold and the light change throughout the hours. The watercolor paintings I produced were horrid, but every visual artist should spend time away from their chosen medium. After the third day I had had my fill and was eager to get my camera back in my hands. The weather hadn't changed, but I decided to get started after the sun went down.
The half-moon light was of perfect intensity. The granite of Yosemite is quite reflective, so a full moon would have reflected too much light to balance the sky and rock in a single exposure. Not being a fan of star trails (the long arc of starlight produced by very long exposure times), I wanted to get pinpoint starlight. My exposure couldn't be longer than 16 seconds or the stars' movement would become apparent. At 16 seconds, I could get the deep indigo in the sky, pinpoint stars, a perfect exposure of the rocks, and Bridalveil Falls all in a single exposure.
It's quite a thing to feel the pull of an artistic medium, the physical extension of your creative self: to know it, understand it and feel awed by it.
When I'm back home, my Mama often comes photographing with me in the early morning. We have ourselves the most beautiful adventures, scouring the countryside in Northwest Washington, looking for interesting subjects. We always find something: an unexplored back road, a different view, a hidden beach. This morning was no different. We headed south along Chuckanut Drive, a windy, coastal road that hugs the inlets of Bellingham Bay. Continuing south, we found a side road that looped us west onto Samish Island, a small spit of land loosely connected to the mainland by a man-made causeway. Neither of us had been there before, and we were delighted by the quiet feeling the island instantly gave us. We slowly looped around the island on the only road, fantasizing about building a small cabin overlooking the water or opening a boutique B&B. On the northeast side, we found hidden stairway leading to a small rocky beach and meandered our way down.
Looking east, the calm Puget Sound waters made a beautiful foreground to the distant North Cascades, which intermittently peeked through building storm clouds. The drama and mystery were palpable. I knew I wanted to enhance that mystery, so I chose to slightly lengthen the exposure to smooth the water- but not so much as to blur the clouds, for I liked the distant cloud buildup. Photographing on BW film, I used a deep red #25 filter which absorbs blue and green light, darkening those colors to near black, which here was the immediate foreground water and the evergreen trees to the right. I placed the distant cloud highlights in Zone VII (so those highlight areas would be 2 stops brighter than middle gray) and let the shadows fall where they may. In post-production, I added to the drama by burning down the corners and lower foreground, while enhancing the contrast just a bit to further separate the light and dark areas.
This, for me, is a dark and mysterious image with a heavy northwest storm feel, but It was not how I was feeling that morning. We were having a wonderfully joyous morning adventure, but sometimes the scene calls for a departure from the emotion being felt while photographing it.
Photographed from: 48°34'42.7"N 122°32'28.6"W
The Sierra Mountains are my home, in the deepest metaphorical sense. I don't literally live there, but it is my magic place. As Barry Lopez so eloquently addresses in his seminal book Arctic Dreams:
...to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience; to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder upon it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of the moon and the colors of the dawn and dusk.
Small trout-filled ponds dot the high Humphrey Basin plateau. Weaving through them feels like walking through a manicured garden, so perfectly are the rocks and the windblown trees positioned. It's what I imagine the ancient gardeners of Japan or Mesopotamia were seeking to imitate.
Dropping my larger backpack, I grabbed my camera gear and slowly wove my way through and around until I spotted the rocks below. I saw them from a distance and at an angle that merged them together. Not until I got close did I see them separate into two. I was in a quiet mind and thus sat down to watch awhile. The clouds moved in time with my mind, quiet and peaceful. Slowly, and in no hurry, I setup my camera and loaded it with a fresh roll of BW film.
Having watched the clouds for awhile, I saw they were moving toward me, which, when photographed with a long exposure, would help draw the eye into the scene. I positioned myself to get the clouds to flow both toward me and also over the rocks. I metered the light and put a 10-stop neutral density filter over the lens (which uniformly reduces light allowing for long shutter speeds and thus cloud movement), which gave me a ten minute exposure (the shutter would be open and the film exposing for ten minutes). It's in these moments, when my shutter is open that my mind further quiets and is equally exposed to the clouds, to the mountain air, to the art of a place and to the meaning of a life.
I wrote the following poem while photographing the above image:
Some come here, but most turn back
tired and cold
full of complaints about insane winds
it's just as well, for I am left in solitude, but not alone
the trees, wind and mountains know my name
The storm blackened the sky and drove hard rain sideways. Wind ripped down the open plain, funneled between two huge mountain ranges. The storm developed fast. Luckily I was driving south down a highway and keeping dry...until a small window opened to the West, just a pinhole in the dense cloud bank. I kept my eye on the clouds as I traveled further, and the window continued to open up revealing a wonderfully framed mountain peak. It's moments like these, seemingly fleeting, that surge creative adrenaline through my body.
Some landscape images are made with time, by waiting for light or for the exposure to finish. Others are made with spontaneity, by quick execution in a fleeting moment of interest. In this spontaneous moment, with the storm rapidly changing, I had only a few minutes to find a decent foreground which would also place the distant mountain nicely between the v-shaped ridges in the middle-ground. By sheer luck, an exit ramp appeared. Taking it, I found a huge open field; perfect.
The scene was an obvious panoramic. By manipulating an umbrella and my raincoat, sacrificing my own dryness, I was able to get the camera up and relatively dry. Keeping raindrops off the front lens element is an ongoing struggle when photographing in the rain. That seems obvious, but any drop will cause blur spots, so getting the gear up and ready in a downpour is a struggle, especially when the scene is rapidly changing. In the end, I captured my scene: the storm and middle ground mountains frame an elusive subject; they are curtains, revealing just enough to wish them open all the way.
Eighteen miles on foot, backpack laden with gear, surrounded by granite and Jeffery pine, I walked on the rooftop of California.
There are times that define us, that seek us out and ask the deep questions of self that only you can answer. Along a small creek, deep in the heart of the John Muir Wilderness was such a time.
It's easy to capture an exposure; it's far harder to see what is possible in a subject. I failed to see what was possible. I'd been awake since before dawn, easing out of my warm sleeping bag and away from camp, searching for the first subjects of the day. The cloudless sky hinted at a beautiful, yet photographically boring High Sierra Mountain day ahead. I was eager to capture the early light before it turned harsh. I hopped over granite slabs and through the sub-alpine forests hunting for suitable subjects. I'd captured a few forgettable scenes before happening on this intimate little waterfall.
I set up quickly, loaded a fresh roll of BW film, added a few neutral density filters (neutral density uniformly reduces light entering the camera thus allowing water to appear soft and graceful), metered the scene using my spot light meter, set my exposure and...click. Or rather a click to open the shutter, then, fifteen seconds later, another click to close it. But looking down I realized I forgot to add the filter factors into my exposure (all filters placed in front of the lens reduce light, so added exposure time is needed. I forgot to add that time). I quickly 'fixed' my exposure and shot another frame, and another after that for safety. The light was rapidly changing, so I packed up and continued on in search of new subjects.
Weeks later in my darkroom, I had forgotten about my exposure 'mistake.' Upon pulling my film from the wash I saw that it was no mistake at all. I had inadvertently captured the true feeling of that waterfall, that morning and indeed the entire High Sierra experience. The other frames I shot at the 'proper' exposure were predictable and boring. Mystery is a wonderful thing in any image.
Along the eastern plains of Mono Lake lies a sandy plain sparsely dotted with long dead shrubs. Driving east on California Highway 120, past the iconic Mono Lake tufas (towers of precipitated calcium carbonate), a small dirt road leads north. It is one of many such dirt roads that crisscross around the lake. I'm often alone when photographing and it puts me in a unique artistic mindset; a wandering mindset. On this shooting trip, my destination was anything of artistic interest along the 400 miles of the Eastern Sierra escarpment. And so I turned onto a long stretch of sandy road, unsure of what I'd find.
The road meandered north for several miles before turning due east into a series of deep dry riverbeds. I thought for sure the sand would bog down my Jeep with its slightly balding tires, but slowly I came through and rolled up onto the alluvial flats of Granite Mountain. Slipping and sliding through the flats, I was again nervous about getting the Jeep stuck, so I stopped at the first hard patch to turn around. There I saw my scene.
In the distance, the Sierra Crest rose like some impenetrable wall, shielding moisture from reaching the dry, hot expanse of the inland deserts. A dead and burnt shrub-land lay before me, and the stark contrasts between these two distinct elements made me grab my gear. Swiftly moving clouds lent the sky a foundation to support the distant mountains. Had I left the clouds static, it would have created a visual tension between the two that I didn't want.
I wanted this image BW, so I used my Hasselblad camera loaded with medium format Kodak BW film. I wanted the sky and foreground shadows to go black, a perfect use for the deep red #25 filter (which absorbs most blue light thus turning blue sky black). Stacked with a 10-stop neutral density filter (which uniformly reduces the amount of light entering the camera) my exposure was around 8 minutes. I waited with an open shutter.
No sound was heard save the pebbles crunching underfoot, no movement seen except my own. Long exposure times afford something rare: time. Time to lose oneself to stillness and the sensory acuteness that accompanies it. A wind passing overhead, the distant flutter of a raven's wing beat, and the desert quiet all become much more consequential.
The making of art should be like that.