Black and white photograph of silhouetted trees and boulders and their reflections lining a flooded section of the shoreline of Tenaya Lake.
This photograph is a personal favorite for a bunch of reasons related to how the photograph came about, the experience of making the photograph, associations with the place, and a print that pleases me a great deal.
I maintain the no photographer’s work is wholly original. What comes closest to being truly original is the personal vision of the artist — that particular way of seeing that the photographer develops. That vision is actually unique, but it is built from experiences and exposure to a visual world that includes the ways of seeing of other photographers and painters and more. I acknowledge and am grateful to a wide range of photographers whose work informs my way of seeing the world.
Evening clouds reflected in the surface of an alpine lake with a cluster of rocks
I recently revisited this older photograph, one that I had shared in a color rendition in the past, and this time I felt like I wanted to see it in monochrome. This is a sort of scene probably familiar to anyone who has spent much time in the high country of the Sierra Nevada, that region where lakes, large sub-alpine meadows, sparse trees, and surrounding peaks come together to produce a landscape like no other.
This is a lake I visit frequently, typically several times each season. I visit it for several reasons, ranging from practical to aesthetic. The lake is not too far from roadways, and it is common that I find that I have enough time available on a late afternoon to park my car, load up my pack, and do the short but steep hike up and over a nearby ridge to get to this alpine world. In fact, it is one of the places where I can arrive at that world rather quickly. Once there I tend to explore the familiar landscape, often revisiting lakes, rocks, streams, and trees that I have visited many times before. As the evening wears on, I know that I should head back to my car before dark, but I am never able to leave quite quickly enough, and I end up lingering through sunset and into early dusk, often ending up on the that ridge between me and the road as darkness comes on, and arriving at my car after dark.
The east face of the Panamint Range is reflected in the surface of a desert pool
This is a photograph of one of those surprising features of Death Valley — water in the middle of a place that is astonishingly arid. This location is one of the lowest, hottest, and driest places in the Valley, and beyond this pool is a terrain that is particularly inhospitable, the famous salt flats. It is not pleasant to venture out there on a hot and sunny day, when not only is the heat oppressive but the light is so intense on the white playa surface that it is almost impossible to look.
I went here quite early one morning, in time for the sunrise light across the Valley on the mountains of the Panamint Range. In many ways this was not a hugely promising morning. I would have preferred some interesting clouds, though the thing high clouds are not completely uninteresting. It might have been nice to have white salt flats, but the playa had apparently gone so long without rain and had experience enough wind that the sometimes-white salt was quite gray. This little pool, at the edge of the Valley and the base of the tall and rugged hills, mirrored the early morning sky and a bit of the dawn color on the mountains.
Low sand dunes against a backdrop of the arid mountains of the east side of Death Valley
I made this photograph early during my evening visit to the lower portions of these sand dunes, before the sun had dropped low enough to really warm the color of the light but when the shadows were beginning to lengthen. Looking at this expanse of dunes, with shapes reminiscent of ocean waves, I considered whether to include or avoid the bits of life scattered though the dunes — and decided to mostly leave them out, except that I did build the composition around a small clump of branches poking out of the dunes in the center foreground, lining myself up to put an interesting and rugged set of mountains in the right spot beyond the sand.
The distant mountains are the Grapevine Mountains, which are actually a section of the larger Amargosa Range that runs along the east side of Death Valley. These are rugged, arid, rocky, and sun blasted mountains, with little evidence that much grows there. Late in the day the light on the mountains, and especially in shadows, shifts toward blue tones and the textures of the three layers of the scene seem connected and related — the foreground dunes, the middle distance low hills at the base of the higher mountains, and then the lower slopes of the Amargosa Range.
The last rays of evening sun on the lower slopes of the Amargosa Range above Death Valley sand dunes
I walked out into these low dunes, as I often do, an hour or so before sunset. It had been a hazy day, with the remnants of two days of dust storms muting the light and colors a bit, and the haze continued on into the early evening. At this time of day it often first seems like there is plenty of time to photograph — the light is changing, but the changes are still so slow that it takes many minutes to notice them. I looked up and judged the angle of the sun above the mountain tops to the west, and five minutes later when I looked again the change was hardly perceptible. I continued to follow a path through the dunes that was almost entirely the result of seeing things to photograph, photographing them, seeing other things, and moving on.
Shortly before the sun drops behind the ridge, the light begins to change quickly. As the last warm-colored light slants across dunes, their textures are highlighted and subtle colors begin to appear. I’m often struck by how silent the change is — it almost seems that the sound should change, too, but the transition happens quietly and with incredible speed. When I sense it is about to start I pick a spot and a subject and simply try to watch closely enough to time things right. I picked this composition for several reasons. It entirely excluded any living things, leaving only sand and mountains. The patterns caught the light in interesting ways, and created a sea of subtle color and tonal variations as the last direct light gradually worked its way up the face of the more distant mountains.
Haze from airborne dust above the crest of the Panamint Mountains at dawn
I suppose that I was the “victim” of a sort of natural April Fool’s joke on this April 1 morning. I woke up very early, thinking I might photograph from high along the spine of the Panamint Mountains east of Death Valley. I was on the road in the dark, and as I got closer to my goal and the light began to increase enough to see a bit I noticed that it was hazy — the sort of haze that I associate with dust storms in this part of the world. But there was no dust storm, at least not where I was — just a lot of stuff in the air. Since there were no clouds, I figured that I would get above it by the time I reached my goal at over 6000′ of elevation. I topped the final climb onto the ridge where I could look into Death Valley… and was greeted with haze so thick that it almost looked more like fog (almost an impossibility here), and the floor of the Valley was completely invisible.
Such conditions could be disappointing for someone looking for a “sunrise shot,” but I actually love unusual conditions, especially when they involve mist and haze and fog and clouds. I covered the short distance remaining to reach the end of the road, parked and unloaded camera gear, and looked around to try to figure out how to photograph in these unexpected circumstances. A few minutes later the sun rose thought the haze, and I made a few photographs. I decided that I would likely have to remain here a while and observe the landscape gradually become visible as light penetrated down to lower elevations and as the dust-filled atmosphere thinned a bit. I turned my attention away from the deep valley and towards the ridge leading away to the north, where the thin light illuminated a landscape of shadow and light gradually fading into the distance.
Dunes and rugged desert mountains in evening light, Death Valley National Park
I made this photograph near the end of a very long day in Death Valley National Park. Most of the day was not spent photographing, though I did make some photographs. In keeping with a personal resolution to visit areas of the park that I had not previously seen I had gotten up early and gone to a remove valley that is apparently not visited all that much. My initial idea of visiting the specific place came, as it often does, on what was essentially an accident and a whim. While reading about the park I came across the name of the place, realized that I hadn’t heard that name before, looked it up and figured out where it was, and decided to go there. Since I’m not sharing photographs of the location in this post, the specific details aren’t important, though I’ll share that it was a long drive on rather rough roads — and I finally ended up at a place where the road simply ended in a very quiet little valley high in the desert mountains.
After spending a bit of time alone in that spot it was time to retrace my route back to where I was camped, and by the time I finished the return drive it was almost time to think about photography in evening light. After hours of driving earlier in the day I decided to shoot nearby, and I ended up at these familiar dunes, though perhaps not in the area that most folks go. In fact, during the hour or more that I spent wandering around here with my camera I did not encounter a single other person — though I could see people off in the distance at times. Here I found a spot with an almost clear view across the complex shapes of the dunes, looking toward the rugged mountain landscape along the east side of the valley, and I photographed through the last sunlight and into the early evening.