This story actually starts in 2012, a long way from Yosemite National Park. Farther even, than the 2261.215 miles that lie between me and it.
In 2012, a producer at a local PBS TV station here in upstate NY approached me about doing an artist spotlight piece on me and my work for a show called “Artist Café”. You can see the original show here: https://goo.gl/M592oo The spot was so well received that National PBS picked it up and ended up distributing it throughout the US. As you can imagine, this did really nice things for my career and really was the “sign” that directed me toward this thing called “photography” full-time. A short time later in July of 2013, an email arrived in my box, this is what it said:
Now I will be honest, I get emails like this all the time and it becomes harder and harder to answer them all. But, this was to be for a text-book and it intrigued me. So, I went ahead and wrote back accepting Dr. Ryan’s challenge. A couple 20 emails later and a little over a year and Dr. Ryan got his images and interview. It was during this ping-pong of emails that I was trying to explain my HDR (High Dynamic Range) process, and likened it to what Ansel Adams did with dodging and burning black and white film. This immediately was picked up by Dr. Ryan and he ran with it. I thought nothing of the reference, as it was just a vehicle for me to explain my process. And to be honest, other than photos of Yosemite, black and white photography and the dodging and burning thing, I really knew nothing of the great Ansel Adams.
Part One ~ Magic is Real
Fast forward a year or so to December of 2014. I had been teaching at the spectacular Arcanum for about 7 months now and was searching the interwebs for some inspiration to share with my students. There were some photographers that I had regularly called on, but this time I wanted to serve up a master. So, off I went to YouTube looking for a biography on Ansel Adams. Upon finding this video:
Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film 2002. Aired by KBPS, San Diego. Oddly enough, one of the PBS stations that aired my segment as well. I watched and was glued to the screen for the entire 53 minutes. Needless to say, his story touched very close to home with me. So much so, that when the opportunity arose in 2015, I took my first airplane flight to San Francisco. Yes, 51 years and I had never been on a plane. I love driving, and I love seeing all the things along the way so I guess it just never happened. From San Francisco, my girlfriend and my student/friend Erin Riedel drove out to a cabin in Yosemite. Afforded to us so awesomely by another student/friend of mine, we got to stay, nicely accommodated, inside the park for a full 6 days! It was a dream come true for me. The small community of Foresta is a gloriously beautiful area perched high over the El Portal Canyon. Scorched by a terrible wildfire in 1990, Foresta looked like something straight out of the video game Fallout 3. There may have even been a couple of Mole rats and a Deathclaw out there….
Burnt yes, but still powerfully beautiful. Nature’s (and man’s) work over 26 years, making a comeback. And so it goes in Yosemite and in life. The endless cycle of birth, growth, death, and so on. And so it was going when we arrived. The air was thick with smoke and ash from several fires burning in the surrounding areas. At night it would trigger the motion lights on the cabin and you could see the particles in the light beams. 2015 was a horrible year for wildfires and we were in the middle of it. While we never feared for our lives, the high Sierra air was thinner and in combination with the smoke and ash particles, it became an eye burning, lung scorching environment. You can see it here in this sunrise shot over Big Meadow in Foresta.
You can see the smoke/fog in the background from the fires making the morning air hazy. It took us a few days and some welcomed clearing to get used to it. In fact, during the first 2 days we would leave the park and make our way east to Tioga pass and Tenaya lake where the air quality was quite a bit better. Tenaya lake is breathtakingly calm and soothing. Even with the crowds, though thinner in late September, I could see how peace and the spirit could be found here. I struggled with all my might to capture something with just a twinkle of that in my photos from this magnificent place. Here is a super wide 36 frame panorama of the valley approaching Tenaya.
I was perched precariously on a bus sized boulder high over a rocky cliff to get that shot. Even though it was only in the low 60’s I was sweating like a hydrant. It’s at this point also, I should mention that just before this trip I purchased a new Sony a7rII camera and had quite the good time breaking it in here. Also, as a complete side story to this, along our way from San Francisco to Foresta, Erin suggested we stop for lunch in the small town of Petaluma, California. She had been once before and was keen to show us some of the cool shops around town. It was while looking for a camera store, I spotted a 3 story old bank that had been converted into an antique store. It was a cool old western bank adorned in brass and marble. When I entered a little old lady greeted me at the front desk and I asked her sheepishly if the had any old camera gear. She pointed toward the back and in a smooth voice she murmured “Oh yes, we keep it all in the vault”. The vault hmmm? As I approached, it surely was a vault! Huge brass and steel doorway that lead to a marble lined bank vault. Inside there were dozens of brightly lit glass cases with all sorts of cool gadgetry. But, in the back I could see a case full of cameras and lenses, so there I headed. Leica, Hasselblad, Nikon, Olympus, Canon, Kodak, just about everything. The minute I saw Leica and Hasselblad though, I knew it was out of my price range. Erin was looking for a nice vintage 50mm for her Sony though so I asked if I could paw around. The gentleman there unlocked the case, I must have looked like a 5-year-old in candy store! After deciding that there was nothing that Erin and I could afford I noticed an old lens in the back. I took a look at it and it was a Zuiko Olympus mount 35-105mm 3.5 lens from circa 1980. It was in immaculate condition but had no price tag, I feared the worst. I flagged down the clerk and asked for a price. After much fumbling, he said how about $85.00? “SOLD” I said before he could get the full price out of his mouth. A rookie mistake I know, but I didn’t want the lens burglar to somehow swipe it from my grasp while I looked for my wallet or something. Turns out this lens would end up on my camera 85% of the trip! I am now completely hooked on Zuiko OM lenses and own 5 of them….so far thank you Vintage Bank Antiques of Petaluma. The Panorama above and the shot below were both shot using the 35-105mm. Okay, sorry about that….where was I?
Oh yeah, it’s hard to get a sense of scale at that distance. Upon approaching the lake the area opens up and you experience the grand calm that is Tenaya.
Something drove me to shoot photo after photo in black and white. I wasn’t sure what it was at the time, maybe later I would figure it out. I was enjoying the beautiful calm and gorgeous skies overhead to give it much thought at the time.
We would continue down and scope out Mono lake for our planned shoot the next day there and at Bodie which you can read more about in this article: Bodie Ghost Town
Feeling that I had sufficiently channeled the master even a little bit, which was great for the first day. We headed back to the cabin for a good nights rest and an early rise for Bodie. Check back for Part II, where I have a near out-of-body experience, and witness Yosemite on fire!
Part II and a full gallery coming soon, as always you can click on the photos to purchase prints and download the images!