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.
Dawn light comes to the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada and Mono Lake.
Some years back I visited Mono Lake very early one morning with my brother, Richard, who is also a dedicated landscape photographer. My recollection is that we had arrived separately in the eastern Sierra and somehow ended up meeting here near the town of Lee Vining and heading out to this familiar spot before dawn to make photographs.
I never know exactly what will turn up here. Yes, I can always photograph those tufa towers, but I’m usually often interested in special atmospheric effects: haze, clouds, broken dawn light, the glow on the peaks of the eastern Sierra, reflections in the morning-smooth water. We began by photographing fairly conventional photographs of the tufa towers before the light arrived. It was a cloudy morning, though the deck of clouds was broken, allowing some light to make it through the gaps and a momentary band of light to strike the mountains as the sun came up beneath the far edge of the clouds in the east. I must have made this photograph fairly close to that moment. Most of the scene is in shadow, but bands of light appear on the peaks, and a bit of softer light illuminates the foreground tufa.
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.
Early morning frost on dormant winter grasses in a Yosemite Valley meadow
On a late-winter morning like this one there could be snow in Yosemite Valley, and even without new snow there is likely to be a bit of it lying around in shady areas. But not this winter. This has been the fourth of a series of very dry years in California, and this year was especially unkind to the Sierra. By the end of the season the snow pack looks to be barely 10% of what it would be in a typical year, and the situation is even more dire since this is only the latest in a string of such years. So it was not surprise to find this meadow snow free, with only a bit of frost suggesting the season.
We arose early on this morning and headed out close to sunrise looking for a meadow with the common winter low fog. We finally found a bit of it in this meadow, though it was dissipating quickly. Before it went away we headed out into the meadow to see what photographic possibilities we could find. I first focused on the frost itself and on some of the winter-dormant brush and bushes around the meadow’s edge. Then I moved back into the main part of the meadow, where these bent over and dried grasses reminded me of the patterns I might find in flowing water.
A single cottonwood tree lies among dry winter grasses in a Yosemite Valley meadow.
This has been and continues to be a historically dry year in California and especially in the Sierra. More concerning, it is the third such year in a row. In a more typical year — and may those return soon! — the location where I made this photograph would be very wet and perhaps even snow-covered on a day like the one when I visited.
We headed out into the Valley very early on this morning. It was the sort of day when you might hope to find some ground fog in the Valley meadows. We had no luck at the first two meadows we checked, but the third did have a very tenuous and shallow layer of fog, so we stopped. I wandered out into the dry and slightly frosty meadow, and as I did the last of the fog dissipated. As I looked for compositions among the waves of dormant grasses I began to notice that here and there were reddish-brown heart-shaped leaves left over from the autumn cottonwoods.
Upper Yosemite Fall briefly appears through the mist on a winter morning
In Yosemite Valley for a few days at the end of February, I had the opportunity to wake up early and wander off into meadows before most of the Valley had awakened. The overnight forecast had included a small chance of some snow flurries and continuing snow in the morning, so I wanted to be “out in it” when and if it arrived. Around dawn I got up and walked out into the meadow near the swinging bridge. There was the tiniest bit of snow from the night before — so little that its faint trace was only to be seen in hollows and protected areas. As I walked through the meadow the sun began to rise and there was a five-minute snow shower as I set up my tripod and camera.
From where I stood I had an open view upwards toward the Valley cliffs, but I couldn’t see much. Heavy mists were floating along the upper reaches near the Valley rim, and for the most part I only was able to see bits and pieces of the formations through momentary windows in the clouds as they drifted by. One moment a ridge line or a pinnacle would briefly appear, only to be swallowed up again in the clouds. From where I stood I knew that Upper Yosemite Fall should be visible, so I pointed my camera that way, hoping for a muted and obscured view of the thing if the clouds cleared enough. And they momentarily thinned enough that I could see the upper rim of the Valley, the cleft where the fall leaps into space, and a section of its downward path behind the scrim of clouds.
Winter mist and snow swirl above the edge of Yosemite Valley cliffs
We spent three days in Yosemite Valley near the end of February and through the first day of March. The weather forecast had been for snow all the way down to the Valley floor, so we thought our timing appeared to be perfect — there are few things more beautiful than this valley in new snow. Unfortunately, as seems to have been the typical pattern this winter, the snow didn’t amount to much. I had a five-minute flurry while photographing in one of the meadows very early in the morning, and a drive up and out of the Valley to higher points put us in light snowfall for a while.
To make this photograph I stopped at an iconic location, but then I looked up rather than in the direction where the famous view lay. With a long lens on my camera I was able to compose little vignettes highlighting bits of the near vertical world where the highlands area meet the upper rims of the cliffs dropping into the Valley. Here mist and light snowfall blows across the slanting terrain just above the void. Most of the image is relatively obscured — the foreground cliff is dark enough to mute many details, and near the top of the frame the mist is lit intensely by the sun.