It was 150 years ago today on June 30, 1864 that President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional act that established the “Yosemite Grant” in the Sierra Nevada — the first instance of the US government setting aside land specifically for preservation and public use. (Technically, Yellowstone became the first “national park,” when it was established in 1872.) Between that first act of preservation and protection, the park passed through several intermediate stages including management by the state and by the military before it became a national park on October 1, 1890. (Little known fact: Beautiful Mount Conness, on the northeastern park boundary and visible from many areas between Olmsted Point that peaks near Tioga Pass, was named after senator John Conness, who was instrumental in getting the 1864 act through congress. Some have suggested that Lincoln was distracted by “other events” at about this time, and may have let this slip by without much attention. I’m fine with that.)
My family moved from Minnesota to California when I was four years old — and trust me, that was not recently! I’m sure that to Midwesterners the wonders of California must have seemed quite unbelievable, and my family travelled to many interesting places around the state. I don’t now recall for certain when I first visited Yosemite, though I think it was perhaps before this photograph was made. That’s me on the right and my brother Richard on the left. (Richard is also a photographer who does beautiful work in the Pacific Northwest.) My first clear recollection of the park is actually from just outside the park where, before the current mega hotels were constructed, there used to be a bunch of much smaller places to stay right along the Merced River. My memory is of sitting on metal chairs and watching the wild Merced River pass by. Continue reading Happy 150th Birthday Yosemite→
Star trails above the Manifold, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California.
Because I was there with Patty Emerson Mitchell, who had not been to the park before, it was important to make it to some of the iconic locations during our early April visit to Death Valley National Park. On our final morning we went to Zabriskie Point and stood in line with the other photographers in the early morning to wait for dawn. To be honest, dawn at this place IS special, though I mostly shot small vignettes of nearby formations, since I already have almost all of the Zabriskie photos I’ll likely need!
We arrived a bit after some of the other photographers had arrived and we went to the “usual spot” below the main overlook and found an opening in the line-up of photographers where we would have a clear view of the surroundings and not interfere with others who were already there. At one point I was working out some compositions with a very long lens pointed down at some little gullies below our position when a fellow (who shall remain nameless, though I later found out that he is someone who should know better) must have become interested in what I was doing. Either very interested in “my” shots or else completely oblivious to anyone else, he wandered over right in front of my camera and stood there looking and taking handheld photographs!
There are several ways to respond to this. Shouting “What the hell!” might have been one of them, but instead I just thought it was funny. I suppose if the light had been truly astonishing I might have yelled (or mused about simply pushing him over the edge! ), but with fairly static light at that moment I simply chuckled a bit and pointed him out to my wife.
I recall first becoming aware of Galen Rowell’s famous photograph of Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall (the “natural fire fall”) some years ago, quite possibly as it appears on page 25 of my 1979 edition of his book “High and Wild” ( Sierra Club Books) which I probably picked up when I worked in a bookstore for several years. (Each bookstore employee had a shelf in a back room where we put aside books until we could afford them. My shelf often held books of photography including large format books of landscape photography. I still have original copies of several of the well-known Ansel Adams books in new condition, but that is a story for another post perhaps.) I am sure that I saw the photograph again from time to time, and the story of its creation is now well known. Of course, I did not really know then where the fall was, other than “somewhere in Yosemite Valley,” nor did I know when the purportedly brief appearance of the fall occurred each year. It was a mystery, almost a myth, and it seemed like something that only a few privileged people had been able to see.
Although I’ve visited the Valley for decades — long enough that I remember watching the unnatural fire fall being pushed over the edge of Glacier Point when I was a child – I had never really tried to find Horsetail Fall, much less photograph it. Truth be told, some decades ago I actually avoided the Valley for a number of years, with the exception of a time when I did a bit of climbing, since I preferred the high country of the park and elsewhere in the Sierra to the crowds and traffic in the Valley.
A few years ago – and a bit before the current craze for photographing the thing – I read more about Horsetail and finally got the urge to photograph it. I think back to a February day when Northside Drive was closed for a period of major road work. It had snowed in the Valley and the only way to get over to the El Capitan picnic area was to park on Southside drive, load up a pack with camera gear, and walk the cross-valley road in the snow. Since it was my first attempt to photograph the fall, I walked across early. Having plenty of time, I turned west on Northside and wandered in a snow-covered El Capitan Meadow completely alone — no cars and, to the best of my memory, not another person. After spending perhaps an hour alone photographing the oak-filled meadow in the late afternoon, I walked back to the east and wandered up to the picnic area where a handful of other photographers were getting set up. I looked up and thought, “Oh, that’s Horsetail,” and then made some credible but fairly conventional photographs of the sight as the sunset light came on.
At some point, perhaps on this visit or perhaps later, I remember thinking how utterly astonishing the whole thing was. Not just the fact that the geography should miraculously align in such a way that for a few weeks each year, at the time when the water fall is most likely to be flowing, a gap in the terrain to the west would allow a single beam of light from the setting sun to strike an ephemeral waterfall and set it aglow for those who happened to be a bit to the east and looking in the right direction. That would be enough of a marvel, but this particular waterfall also flows from the summit of El Capitan, a solid and imposing granite edifice, and drops across its face. And El Capitan sits in a Valley that also holds such amazing and unlikely features as a dome that appears to have been sliced in half, a waterfall that launches into space a few thousand feet above the floor of the Valley below, granite cliffs and domes everywhere, and much more.
I returned to photograph Horsetail a few more times, on occasion making this the main goal of winter visits to the Valley. I explored the surroundings near the picnic area more thoroughly, and found more nearby areas to shoot from that created some variations in perspective. I joined the throng at the more accessible spot on Northside Drive along the Merced River and there figured out that the fall could be photographed from more than precisely one location. Before I was done I had created a few photographs of the subject that I like. (I don’t mean to imply that I was always successful. On one “memorable” evening I set up and watched as the sunset light began to glow and focus itself on the fall. It was just about to reach its peak… when someone hit the “off switch” and everything went gray as the setting sun dropped behind clouds far to the west.)
Over the past couple of years more and more people have shown up for Horsetail. It might seem odd that few others photographed it for so many decades after Rowell made his iconic image, and that then many suddenly began to try to do so. But a couple of things changed. First, the advent of digital photography and DSLRs has radically increased the number of photographers out and about and searching for things to photograph. There have long been many people with cameras in the Valley, but it sometimes has seemed to become just a bit crazy in recent years. Secondly, and not entirely unrelated, the Internet has made it much easier to share information about such things as Horsetail and, even more so, to quickly update people on what is happening right now with certain photographic subjects. I think this has encouraged photographers whose time is limited and who want to “get that shot” as quickly as possible to be ready to drop everything and head out now if they hear that conditions will be promising.
And the crowds certainly do show up! A year of two ago I drove to that same El Capitan picnic area one February day — the road was open once again — to find the parking lot completely full and then some. Photographers were set up tripod-to-tripod in the immediate area and scattered further afield in nearby forest and meadows. One evening I decided to try the Merced River location again, and having caught on to what was happening I arrived quite early… to find that photographers were already staking out their spots hours ahead of time. I found a spot up a hill a ways and in some trees, and waited… as scores of photographers began to show up and point their lenses in the same direction.
Part of me finds the crowds distressing, and part of me is a bit troubled by the idea that photographing a thing that has been photographed, in almost exactly the way it was already photographed is seen as an interesting endeavor. But another part of me recognizes that this event brings many people out to view something very special, and that many of them form a bond with others who share the experience, and that it may not necessarily be a bad thing that the camera is what brings them out in the winter cold to marvel at a waterfall illuminated briefly by sunset light… whether or not they create brilliant and original photographs.
Photographically, the subject has become less and less appealing to me. I’ll photograph an “icon” in more or less a couple circumstances. First, I’ll do it if I don’t already have a decent image of the icon in question. However, once I do have an effective image I’ll often stay away unless there is something very special about the conditions or unless I can find a new or different perspective on the subject or unless I’m working to refine a way of photographing it that I have worked on previously. It is hard, I think, to attempt this with Horsetail. With the exception of shooting from difficult and inaccessible places such as Sentinel Dome, the number of locations from which to photograph it seems rather limited. Most photographs are made more or less from two basic locations, with slight variations. And while weather conditions can vary a lot in the Valley, the range of conditions that will still permit the sunset light to hit the fall and be photographed is very limited. (I have a mental image of a particular set of conditions that will get me out there to photograph it, but they are tremendously unlikely to occur.) In the end, even very good photographs of the fall tend to look quite a bit like other very good photographs of the fall, mostly varying a bit in the color of the light, amount of water, inclusion of wind-blown spray, subtleties of where the shadows fall, perhaps the inclusion of a few clouds in the sky (when photographing from the picnic area), tightness of cropping, and so forth. Although I’ve recently seen many competent and well-made photographs of the fall… I’ve only seen one that was truly original. (I’m not going to identify it here since if I don’t want to encourage the next crowd to start coming out to try to recreate that image! :-)
So, I didn’t go this year. I was in Death Valley at about the time that the light started, and I spent time doing night photography on a later weekend when I might have gone.
I think I prefer to remember that evening a few years ago when I walked across the Valley in snow, spent an hour alone in El Capitan Meadow before walking to the picnic area, photographed Horsetail in the quiet with a small number of other photographers, and then walked back across the Valley in the peaceful darkness of the early evening.
The Online Photographer (a.k.a. “TOP”) is one of the blogs I follow regularly – lots of great thought-provoking posts show up there on a regular basis, frequently written by folks who know what they are talking about. Take a look if you don’t already follow TOP.
I enjoyed a recent article (“From Film Holder to Memory Card”) by photographer Charles Cramer in which he describes his transition from large format film gear to using medium format digital systems. My favorite example of Charlie’s ironic humor in the post is his “apology” to those who haven’t made the switch: “Note to my large format friends: O.K., I sold out—but I get to use zoom lenses!!!”
In any case, this post is another data point to consider if you happen to be one of those folks who is certain that great photography must be created using traditional film gear and processes. While there is absolutely no question that great work can still be done that way, it is equally possible to do wonderful photography with newer technologies… and, as Charlie illustrates, there are some things that can simply be done more effectively, less expensively, and with better results.