As the late, great Bill Veeck once said, sometimes the best trades are the ones that are never made. So, still in possession of my soul, I headed for Yosemite Valley last week to see if I could catch the fall colors at their peak. Coming from the Midwest, it does seem a little strange to journey 300 miles just to see deciduous trees turning various shades of gold and red. As I recall, we used to have that at the end of our driveway, or at least we did until my Dad got tired of teenagers banging into our pair of sentinel tree trunks and made some environmental adjustments. Of course, we didn’t have the Merced River flowing through our backyard or El Capitan towering above us, so I like to think it’s worth the trip.
As beautiful as it is, Yosemite Valley is far from the exotic outpost it seemed when I first showed up there in the summer of 1980. I had attended an Ansel Adams lecture heralding the publication of Yosemite And The Range of Light and soon thereafter signed up for a workshop led by a wonderful wildlife photographer, Tupper Ansel Blake. We spent a week quartered at the Yosemite Institute, a few miles above the valley in the Crane Flat area, and were treated to a weeklong expert’s perspective of the park, from the Valley to Tuolumne Meadows. Nowadays, the digital revolution has lessened the feeling of remoteness. Yosemite Lodge boasts WiFi; you can see folks hunched over their iPads or laptops in the lobby or the cafeteria. If you have an iPhone you can call your friends from Vernal Fall or Mirror Lake, or brag that you are climbing Halfdome. If you have T-Mobile, you can walk around pretending to talk on your toy phone. Still, there are areas, even in the Valley, where you can disappear off a trail in the early morning and, were it not for the occasional drone of traffic, imagine yourself back in the 1800s with the native Ahwahneechees.
I hadn’t caught the colors quite perfectly. The Valley was about half turned, with patches of oaks on the west side providing golden canopies along the road in, and some dogwoods turning pinkish red by the Pohono Bridge on the Merced River. But the higher elevations, I had heard, were presenting some nice foliage, particularly the dogwoods, so I headed for the Tuolumne Grove of sequoias, about thirty minutes up Highway 120, adjacent to Crane Flat. I always get a little nostalgic when I go up there; the workshop that I took in 1980 stopped operating long ago, and the Yosemite Institute is mainly for teenagers. As I approached the Tuolumne Grove I saw splashes of color on the ascending hillsides, and noticed one serendipitous turnout just below a gorgeous patch of dogwoods. Getting up there turned out to be a minor bushwhack. The trees, backlit in various shades of red and orange, seemed close enough, but there was always a gully or a ridge or fallen pine in between. It was an overcast day, which provided the diffused light we don’t always get up there, so I took my time and stumbled around until I was able to compose a few shots.
About an hour later, I made it to the Tuolumne Grove, where some road workers were implementing improvements to the parking lot. I took the last parking space, not bothering to notice the backhoe working between the end of the lot and the beginning of the trail downslope. There were plenty of blooming dogwoods interspersed among the Big Trees, and by late afternoon the crowd had petered out to a few stragglers. It almost seemed like their was a surplus of eye candy, and the challenge became one of picking perspectives, slivers of scenes that reflect a mood or convey the fleeting moments of light and color.
When I got back, the backhoes were gone, but my car was entrenched in dirt; it looked like it had gone through a camouflage paint job. I stopped off at the Crane Flat gas station and cleaned the windows enough to see around me, and headed back toward the Valley.
I visited my usual haunts: early mornings at Cook’s Meadow and mid-afternoon at El Capitan Meadow. The milkweed at Cook’s was lit dramatically, and I squirmed around in the autumn grasses trying to find something interesting. It is times like these when I realize the tripod, besides supporting the camera, needs to occasionally support the photographer, too. The sun had returned, which meant that by ten o’clock I could hear some pancakes calling my name and the prospect of a nap in the mountain air didn’t seem like a bad idea.
Not surprisingly there were some terrific photographers around, including Michael Frye, who had tipped me off on the Tuolumne Grove, and whose blog In The Moment is linked on this site, was leading a weeklong workshop. Keith Walklet, whose Fall Colors class I had once taken through what is now the Yosemite Conservancywas leading another workshop, and it was great catching up with Keith.
Saturday morning I gave myself one more session with the morning light before hitting the road back to LA. I stumbled down a trail that I’ll leave nameless for now, following glimpses of turning foliage, catching the light bleeding over the ridges and bathing El Cap and the rest of the canyon. An image of the Three Brothers framed by some empty snags leapt out at me, and I’ll leave you with a version of it:
Remember The Fall Subscription Drive!
When I first starting photographing landscapes, although my inspiration may have been Ansel Adams, the artists who really caught my attention were Eliot Porter and Joel Meyerowitz. They were among the first to give color photography its deserved cachet as a legitimate art form, Porter with his large format images made popular by David Brower’s Sierra Club series, and Meyerowitz through an accumulation of work that varied from street photography to the impressionistic photographs from Cape Cod.
Joel Meyerowitz was in town last week and gave a presentation at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, in support of a new two volume compilation of his work, “Taking My Time,” published by Phaedon at $750 (Hanukkah is right around the corner!) The first thing you notice about Meyerowitz is his vitality. At 74 he has lost none of the excitement for the medium – if anything, the digital scene has energized him, and his work now ranges from 35mm digital to large format film cameras. He took the gallery audience through an overview of his career, aided by a digital slide presentation of images from “Taking My Time.” Influenced originally by Robert Frank, he took to the streets in the early sixties with a borrowed camera. Listening to him talk about those days, working in the company of Garry Winograd and others, and mentored by John Szarkowski, who was building the fine art photography collection at the New York Museum of Modern Art, I couldn’t help but feel a little envious. I’m a native Chicagoan and we are not exactly filled with a longing for New York, but you can’t help but appreciate the creative camaraderie that existed in the arts scene there. I’d had a similar feeling reading Bruce Jay Friedman’s wonderful biography, Lucky Bruce, filled with vignettes featuring Joseph Heller and Mario Puzo in their starving artists days. Here in LA, where the prevailing ethos is star power, from the biggest studios to the smallest galleries, my Sunday morning softball game pretty much has to suffice.
Meyerowitz’s early work had been in black and white because of the economics, but he soon turned to color, because as he put it, “The world is in color.” You would think, photographing mainly landscapes, that rationale would have been enough for me, but I was equally motivated by a fear of chemistry. Black and white photography was a collection of dangerous chemicals in brown bottles to be kept out of the reach of children and klutzes. The workflow required the chemicals to be poured into trays where you would have to slosh around photo paper in the dark. I had barely eked out a D in senior chemistry. I can be a tad clumsy at times. The terms “dodging” and “burning” evoked images of plastic surgery. It seemed like a recipe for disaster.
Whereas, shooting in color seemed so much of a cleaner operation. You would bring a roll of Kodachrome into the camera store, it would come back mounted in neat little cardboard brackets and that was that. Find a good printmaker and tell him, “I want it to look just like the slide.” That, of course, was no easy task, given the contrast of the film, the necessity for an internegative and the stops of light lost between projection and photo paper. Still, it was essentially someone else’s problem. The Cibachrome process, which became popular in the eighties, provided a bridge for color photographers with what I’d call chemo-phobia. After exposure, the photo paper was placed in a drum and the rest was done in daylight. If you had an endless amount of hours to devote to processing a single print, it was a pretty good system. After a few long afternoons in the darkroom, I decided to find a good Cibachrome guy.
The onset of digital photography put an end to all that, and there is, as we all know by now, no end to the maneuverings, artistic and otherwise, that we color photographers can employ, including working in black and white.
But I digress.
Joel Meyerowitz, in discussing his street photography days, provided the simple command, “Always bring your camera!” That is not as obvious as you’d think for us landscape folk, who are always waiting for the perfect light (mainly dusk and dawn), the perfect composition and edge-to-edge sharpness. The “F-64 guys,” as Meyerowitz alluded to. You might not get any of that as a street photographer, but you can catch a moment, as he did often and to great effect. Freeing ourselves from the tyranny of the “perfect image” can be liberating, not to mention considerably more sociable.
Similarly, being able to step back from the street gave Meyerowitz his own unique perspective, whether in Cape Cod or Tuscany. There is an appreciation of light, a commentary on solitude and its relation to community that I think springs from the street experience. Perhaps his remarkable archival experience at Ground Zero, in the ashes of the World Trade Center, was a perfect summation of a lifetime in photography.
Except, of course, he goes on, with an almost gleeful anticipation of whatever is ahead.
Remember the Fall Subscription Drive.
One of the things people want to know when they purchase my fine art landscape photographs is, “Will these stunningly beautiful prints increase in value over time?” I’d like to think so. Why else would I own so many of them?
Who doesn’t dream, after all, of finding that dusty old picture in the attic that turns out to be an original Ansel Adams print, or plucking the work of an unknown artist from a street fair who becomes the darling of international critics and buyers? On a practical level, there are a number of ways in which a photographer’s work could escalate dramatically in value, so let’s explore a few of them.
- The artist has a sudden burst of fecundity. He takes advantage of the new digital technology and creates a startling new portfolio. He becomes a cause célèbre in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. His photographs become sought out by museums, galleries, chi chi restaurants and international conference centers. Okay, next…
- The artist re-introduces a much-praised trilogy of mystery novels. The books become an e-book phenomenon, bringing long overdue attention to the artist. The artist/author then releases heretofore unpublished work, much of which is set in the same beautiful settings as his landscape photography. The photographs begin to garner international attention as the author’s fame spreads like wildfire. HELPFUL HINT: You, as an art collector, could accelerate this process by acquiring the trilogy and spreading the word to friends both actual and cyber, thus helping to build the clamor for the artist’s upcoming fiction.
- The artist’s independent film, Remembering Phil, becomes an international underground cult classic. The sudden surge in publicity brings attention to the film’s writer/producer. The world soon discovers his stunningly original work in fine art landscape photography. HELPFUL HINT: You, as an art collector, could help stoke this worldwide phenomenon by acquiring the DVD and soundtrack to Remembering Phil and extolling it to friends. That is the great thing about the artist’s Omni-cultural Experience. There are so many ways to win!
- The artist could suddenly and unexpectedly die. This is, of course, a mixed blessing, depending on whether you are the artist or the collector. But it would create what we MBA’s call a market scarcity. HELPFUL HINT: As a general rule, in order to take advantage of this value technique it is a good idea to invest in the work of artists who are older than you. Other than that, I would suggest maintaining a hands-off policy in this regard.
Mark Twain famously wrote a short story, later turned into a play, called Is He Living or Is He Dead? It was about a trio of starving artists who decided that one of them should tragically die. They feverishly spent months turning out canvases, then drew straws to see who would expire. The unlucky one signed all the paintings and then retired to the French countryside, while the other two spread word of his heroic battle with illness and subsequent death. In the story, all three became spectacularly wealthy.
I’m not sure if this would work in real life. Though I am willing to spend a couple of months in the French countryside trying.
In about ten days or so, the photography gods will gather in Yosemite Valley to present an annual phenomenon of light and water known as Horsetail Fall. Hundreds of photographers from the world over will converge on a few carefully chosen viewing spots to witness the spectacle. Or not. The photography gods are fickle.
So what exactly is the Horsetail Firefall, and how did it become such a destination point in the middle of winter? The short explanation is that Horsetail is a wispy cascade that tumbles off the top of El Capitan, the granite monolith standing guard over Yosemite Valley. During the last two weeks of February the sun is positioned in a way that, if water and atmospheric conditions are favorable, bathes the waterfall in a brilliant orange light at sunset. It presumably has done this for thousands of years. Why then, did it become a staple on every photographer’s bucket list over the last two decades? The answer lies principally in two photographers, Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell. Everybody knows about Ansel, of course. His photography not only shaped the public’s vision of Yosemite, it helped define landscape photography as an art form. That art form was in black and white. Halfdome, El Cap, Cathedral Lake, Tenaya Creek, and dozens of other images conveyed the drama that Adams famously saw in his mind’s eye.
But Horsetail Fall is a color phenomenon, and color photographers had not gained much traction artistically, even well into the eighties. Galen Rowell may not have been singularly responsible for changing all that, but he was certainly in the forefront. A mountaineer and renowned adventure photographer, Rowell’s photographs brought a different type of awareness to the community, both through magazines such as National Geographic and in his own books. Mountain Light, published in 1986, included his spectacular image of Horsetail Falls.
If you knew about Rowell’s breathtaking exploits, you might have assumed that his shot of Horsetail was taken at some remote Himalayan outpost, or at least dangling from a precipice somewhere that could only be reached with the help of carabiners or ice picks. But it wasn’t. Horsetail Fall can be viewed via an easy walk or drive from Yosemite Lodge. Prime viewing locations were pinpointed by several well known photographers, including Michael Frye, whose Photographer’s Guide To Yosemite is a bible for many of us. (Michael also gives a nice explanation of the whole phenomenon in his blog).
Adding to the spectacle was the resemblance of the Horsetail display to a Yosemite tradition known as the Firefall that lasted nearly a hundred years. Burning embers from a controlled bonfire were shoveled off the top of Glacier Point each night, resulting in a stream of ashes that could be seen clearly from Curry Village. The ritual ended in 1968, and the “discovery” of Horsetail Fall kindled nostalgia among veteran park goers.
I first noticed the expanding stream of visitors about five years ago. I’d planned a mid-winter trip and, upon check-in, noticed dozens of photographers hauling their equipment to their rooms. In previous years, I’d seen a smattering of folks encamped at the picnic area that was my favored viewing point. Now the small parking lot was filled with cars an hour before sunset. Tripods of various heights had sprouted up; the area looked like an outtake from War of the Worlds.
For the visitor who is only there for a few days, even a week, photographing Horsetail is a complete crap shoot. It can rain all week. Or, better, snow. At least you’ll have plenty of other sites to photograph. If the winter has been a dry one (like this year) Horsetail may be reduced to a trickle. But let’s say you wake up to brilliant sunshine. You figure, this is perfect! The forecast is for clear skies all day. You head for the picnic area near El Cap at 4 PM, just to make sure you can park. The throng gathers, chattering about past misses. As sunset approaches, the afternoon light starts washing over the granite cliff…surely this is it! And then…a few wisps of clouds from the west. A gathering front? Haze? Blast! More shadows…But wait. It’ll clear up. There’ll be an afterglow…You wait til the bitter end. This can’t be! It was all so perfect…curses, foiled again! You walk back out to El Cap Meadow and see the last vestiges of lovely pink clouds hovering over Cathedral Rock that you missed while you were staring at a monochromatic Horsetail. Then you trudge back to the Mountain Bar, or check in at the Ansel Adams Gallery the next morning, and hear, “You shoulda been there yesterday.” Or last week. Or last year.
Oh well. I’m an old musky fisherman. I don’t find the odds unappealing.
I did finally get a nice shot of the Horsetail Firefall last year. Not perfect. But a keeper, nonetheless. Next time I’ll do better.