Dawn sky reflected in the surface of a Yosemite backcountry lake
Another morning from a week of such mornings at this Yosemite backcountry lake. My tent was at the end of a granite slab leading back up from the shore of the lake, so it became typical to arise each morning, crawl out of the tent, grab camera and tripod, and walk the slab and then the meadow beyond to the shoreline for morning photography. In this strange weather year in the Sierra every morning was different. One morning it might be clear, another was filled with thick wildfire smoke, and on yet another it was raining.
This was an in-between morning. There was a bit of wildfire smoke — it never went away completely during our stay — and high clouds muted the morning light on the lake itself. The air was not moving, and was September-cold. First light brought a bit of color to the clouds, reflected in the early morning stillness of the lake.
Photographer Patricia Emerson Mitchell working the dawn light near a small lake in Long Valley
On about my third week of aspen photography this fall I was accompanied back to the Sierra by my wife and fellow photographer, Patricia Emerson Mitchell. There are all sorts of advantages for me when she comes along — motel (instead of tent or back of car), real food (instead of things heated over a camp stove), and more… ;-) By this point in the aspen season I was ready for something that wasn’t aspen, so on this morning we headed east rather than west into the Sierra, traveling out across Long Valley with a plan of going even further east toward the White Mountains near the town of Benton.
We started in near darkness and arrived at a familiar spot out in the Valley before the sun rose. We parked and headed out to our destination, arriving a few minutes before the light, at which point we went to work rapidly — the photographic opportunities evolve rapidly as the first light arrives. Here she sets up close to the shoreline of the lack, photographing across the water toward mountains to our north as the first light rakes across sagebrush and the nearby hills.
First light on rugged, snow-dusted ridges above aspen-covered Parker Bench
This is a special place, high along the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada and open to the first dawn light from the east. It is also just far enough off the beaten track and difficult enough to access that it is usually not very crowded. (Don’t worry if you can’t get to it, there are thousands of other places where you can have a similar experience in the eastern Sierra.) We recently got up early enough to drive here and arrive well before sun rise. To this day, despite seeing many sunrises, I still often am surprised at how quickly the light comes and how silently. Living in a culture in which every spectacular thing, or thing that we are supposed to regard as being spectacular, is pumped up with loud music and lots of action, the sunrise comes often comes in complete silence and with little warning — you look up and notice that the light has already struck some small element of the scene, and soon you discover it moving across the landscape and quietly lighting more and more bits and pieces. I made this photograph when this first light had hit the rugged upper slopes above this aspen-covered bench, but before it had worked its way down to the trees.
This photograph also illustrates something I finally figured out about this strange eastern Sierra fall of 2015. This year the season began oddly, with very early first color in many places. In addition, many groves simply did not have leaves — either they lost them so early that I never saw them or perhaps they did not put out leaves this year. In other groves the leaves went almost straight “from green to gone,” with little or not brilliant color phase. Where this happened, I think it was the result of the four-year drought creating tremendous stress on the trees. At the same time, other climate factors thought by some to be associated with the drought also had the effect of delaying the color change of trees that were not as stressed by the shortage of water. Instead, these trees are changing later, likely due to overall warming temperatures. So far, this has been a season not quite like any other I’ve experienced. In this photograph you can spot examples of almost all of these conditions — completely bare groves, groves that have turned and already dropped leaves, some that are going straight from green to having no leaves, and even some trees that are still very green.
Frankly, aspen trees are fascinating in a huge range of ways, in all seasons, and in many kinds of light. At the current time of year most of us focus, with good reason, on the annual spectacle of their fall colors — blankets of yellow, gold, orange, and red. But aspens are beautiful when they are bare and they are beautiful when new leaves appear in the spring, and they are beautiful in the middle of summer when their leaves shimmer in the breeze.
The trunks in this photograph are those of “fall color” aspens, and you can see a bit of that color in the background. However, there is another aspect of color in this photograph that I like to consider, namely the range of colors and textures in the bark of these trees. Ideally, we often think of aspen bark as being white. With the right trees and the right light it can, in fact, seem quite white. However, in most cases the bark colors are much more varied, ranging from gray to green to brown. The textures are also quite something — the trees can be almost perfectly smooth or they can be very rough and rugged. The pair of foreground trees in this photograph are an interesting case, especially if you think of aspen trunks as being white. A closer look reveals that the tree on the right has strong yellow-brown-golden tones while the one right next to it is covered with interesting red patterns!
The John Muir Trail crosses Cathedral Pass near Cathedral Peak on a late-summer morning
Late in the season in the Sierra backcountry the population begins to change. During the high season of July through Labor Day, when passes are usually clear of snow and when people are in the middle of their summer vacations, the backcountry is filled with backpackers of all sorts, though quite a few are weekend visitors out of a few days. The through-hikers are there, but they are outnumbered by the other folks. After Labor Day things begin to change, and I have a sense that a greater percentage of the backpackers are of the “serious” sort — the people who are out for longer trips, who are covering greater mileage, and who may visit some of the more out-of-the-way locations. Our photography trip into the Yosemite backcountry was during this period, and out camp was on a section of the John Muir Trail, so quite a few of these “hard-core” hikers passed through. (I enjoy talking to them, since I’ve been across almost all of the trails they were traversing.)
One morning I got up, as we always do on these trips, before dawn. I gradually worked my way up through a rocky forest/meadow behind our camp, climbing toward a saddle not far above our location and photographing along the way. Shortly before the saddle I caught sight of an actual trail heading up there, and I quickly figured out that it was the portion of the JMT that ran past our lake. I arrived at the saddle before the sun had risen far enough to light the beautiful meadow that extended beyond it, but knowing that the light would soon slant across the pass I set up and picked some possible compositions. Here I made a conscious choice to “document” this bit of the JMT as it crossed the pass and headed off toward the distant peak, and right as the first light bit the trail I made a series of photographs.
Soft early morning light on dense trees of a Sierra Nevada forest
There are three things — perhaps among quite a few potential other — that come to mind for me when I think of this photograph. First, it could be almost any vignette of a forest scene, at least within the limitations of places where these sorts of trees grow. Second, and in opposition to the first thought, it is a very specific place — not a place that anyone else would likely afford any special attention, but because I have given it that attention for some time it has become a special spot for me. Third, it is the opposite of a sort of photograph that we often try to create — rather than being one that simplifies by minimizing content an leaving things out, it tries to find some order and form in a small scene that is extraordinarily complex, yet which follows familiar patterns.
It is also perhaps “about” (insofar as a photograph can be “about” anything) this light, from the early morning of what will become a sunny day, when the light is still soft and diffused. It is also about the nature of forests I think. I remember one very specific moment on a backpacking trip many years ago when I was heading up Rafferty Creek toward Fletcher Lake, a hike I have done many, many times. For some reason, on that morning, I had one of those occasional and powerful epiphanies that occasionally come when I’m on the trail alone. I saw the forest in ways that are not easy to describe. I felt that I wasn’t just walking past “the forest” — I was among a community of living things, and for a moment I became aware of the deep stillness of trees, the tremendous amount to almost static time through which they live, and that they stood still and rooted through blizzards and wind and rain and sunshine.
Early morning light strikes trees on the ridge of a glaciated dome above Tenaya Canyon, Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is known for many things — the Valley, waterfalls, and other familiar sights — but above all it should probably be known simply for granite. (Apologies to geologists ,who know that “granite” is a simplification, but I’m going with it.) The cliffs and domes of Yosemite Valley are well known, but I’m especially thinking of the higher regions of the park, where one is hardly ever far from granite slabs, granite boulders moved about by ancient glaciers, granite stream beds, granite faces, granite ground into sand…
This is one of those locations where it is possible to look in the right direction and focus your attention on a particular area… and see almost nothing but granite. Here a glaciated granite ridge, topped by sunlit trees, is backed by a glaciated granite wall in shadow, with a glacial granite canyon lying between the two. The surfaces of such places are fascinating. A close look at the sunlit ridge reveals large granite boulders, with trees and small strips of meadow. Below that ridge is a large expanse of exfoliating granite slabs with trees eking out a living on little more than bare rock.