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The dichotomy of the valley
Image by kern.justin
Another image from a very famous place
Do we need another image from Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park? One could argue that after Adams took his iconic "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park" in 1944 there has been little need to recapture the public’s imagination with the view of this grand valley from a simple roadside pull-out. Yet there is rarely any shortage of photographers and nature lovers peering out over the stone wall making memories and photographs of the valley’s major features laid out in such stunning symmetry. So then, what is the reason for snapping away (see below for proof of just how many people bore witness to the grandeur represented in this photograph)? Do we need more nature images of landscapes thoroughly inhabited and (theoretically) protected? Why is a culture so hell-bent on consuming and utilizing every natural resource possible even interested in nature photographs, especially of landscapes which have been (at least temporarily) spared from mining, drilling, clear-cutting and development? I have two answers to these questions – the general and the personal.
The valley called Yosemite, and a few other spots on Earth, have served as the nursery for ideas. These ideas were the basis for a series of successful and unsuccessful marches in the name of conservationism and environmentalism. The valley was the gray-walled and sand-floored crib of Muir’s preservationism. If Muir loved the wilds before (and he certainly did) he came to Yosemite, he got so near to the heartbeat of the Earth that he wanted for the rest of his life to try and get nearer. The valley was the luminous, storm-ravaged epic landscape of Adams’ classic photograph – laid out like some glamourous nude, covering just enough with a lacy veil of fog and snowcloud to elicit excitement and inspire others to the same end as Ansel. Camp 4 was the cradle of the American love affair with rock climbing and the first rungs of Rowell’s ladder from a poor mechanic to influential photojournalist and world-explorer. Perhaps too The Valley has been the nursemaid to our love of hiking and exploring the wilder places of America as something, if not vocation, then more dear than avocation. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure." Conservationism did not die as some antiquated nineteenth century ideal, but it too must be refreshed from time to time. It’s night-soils were the words of Muir, the photographs of Adams, Rowell, and others. There is much yet in this world, and even in the Yosemite Valley, that needs protecting and conserving. I don’t know that my photographs will change anyone else’s mind about how to behave in the valley or in their own backyards, but I do know the process of taking photographs of this place has fixed in my mind the value of this wonderful place. The argument, therefore, is that ideas need expression and the continual flow of nature imagery is an effort to convince the apathetic and timid of the great value inherent in conservation. Great photography is a call to action, it draws the breath from our lungs and the blood from our hearts for a moment only to rush it back two-fold and inspire us to do more (by doing less) than gnaw with an axe at old, pine-perfumed gardens. Maybe Ansel’s was just an aperitif to some great and yet-unmade masterpiece more completely encapsulating the million-fold images, emotions and experiences that are Yosemite. Not all of us are going to make these still epics, however, and the reason to justify our personal photographic efforts are perhaps subtly different.
Making memories and photographs
The process of taking photographs is more about what is not in the photograph than what makes it into the frame. This is true in the compositional sense – often exclusion of extraneous elements and isolation of subject is the key to a successful photograph (a lesson I must constantly learn and a tree that is continually refreshed by the "manure" of deleting photographs poorly executed). This statement is also true in the figurative sense. These photographs are about more than their subject. They are about an amazing light show as dessert to a full meal of hiking and camping, they are about sitting at what seems like the top of Eden and enjoying a simple cup of hot soup as the blood-crimson of sunset gives way to steel-blue of twilight and finally to soot-black of night. They are about the fan-blade whoosh of ravens’ wings over the Pines campground and the long light of drawing winter skies in the high country of the Tuolumne Meadows – sundogs and all. The act of photographing is an act of personal education and change.
What I’ve learned in my time as photographer hobbyist is that you cannot collect or consume nature images. This is where I think most of us who aspire to wonderful amateur photography fail. There is an oft-considered difference amongst photographers between "taking" a photograph, like a vacation snapshot or a record shot of some event, and "making" a photograph through careful composition, consideration, patience and thought. So too there is a difference between remembering things and making memories. Stopping at a roadside pullout and clicking away at even the most gorgeous and tumultuous light shows of our Earth, only to pop back into the car and head out along a drab ribbon of asphalt is to take a snapshot in your mind’s eye and does disservice to the photograph, no matter how grand. If I could have told something to my younger self when looking to learn about how to make photographs, I would have told myself "Sit the $&#@ down and absorb the world you’re trying to photograph – you can’t photograph something you don’t understand and you won’t understand it until you let it in." I say all this because the photograph above of the valley from the famous Tunnel View pullout was populated with an enormous number of photographers, each very earnest and very serious and very talented. I counted at least two workshops going on and quite a bit of knowledge seemed to be in the offing. By the time I took the second photograph – my wife and I were alone. We had been alone for an hour by the time I took the fourth photograph on this post.
"Letting it in" is something different for everyone and I probably couldn’t teach it to my younger self, let along a stranger. It’s something like how Buddha can’t share enlightenment, but can only share the "way." It is a balancing act between imaging, imagining and observing. Compare the difference in the quality of the light between the photograph that leads this post with the one below (taken just a moment apart). The conservationists problems would quickly end if only he or she could bring all the skeptics, miners and misers to Tunnel View for a late-fall light-show and therein lies the dichotomy.
The Dichotomy of the Valley
Tunnel View is famous because it presents the major aspects of the valley so harmoniously. Yosemite’s scale seems to grow in proportion to its distance from the viewer. Half Dome is distant but towering, El Capitan is accurately represented as an impossibly sheer and impossibly beautiful slab of granite, some titanic slab table laid on its side, and nearest of all is the Bridalveil spilling fresh mountain run-off from the high country into a flower garden of amber- and ocher- and scarlet-leaved trees. The valley has just overcome the crisis of its birth, trees new and the cataclysm so near that water has not yet had time to erode its way, crashing instead from precipitous heights and providing our only clue of the impossible scale involved. I had made the pull-out having just hiked 12 miles of the valley floor trail that day and the complementary 10 miles the day before. In that hike I was struck with the out-of-place luxury of the guest resorts within the valley. To me there is something idealogical irreconcilable between a luxury hotel and a preservation of wilderness like Yosemite. I had many thoughts rattling around in my head while I took this last 16-minute exposure. I was thinking about originality, documentation, and the value of an image. The idea I wanted to convey was the dichotomy inherent to these national parks of ours. Yosemite village has a gift shop that sells purses and t-shirts and other trinkets designed to separate bused-in tourists from their money. The shop has a large plaque decrying how many plastic water bottles were consumed in Yosemite the year previous. The plaque is hung above a display selling plastic water bottles. Forever increasing pressure from the outside world to bring more visitors, to consume more wilderness, is one aim of these parks. In stark opposition is the initial, Muir-esque ideology of the parks – a preservation outside of development and the mar of humanity. So I waited for the last rays of twilight to fade and I left my shutter open for what seemed like an eternity, capturing the light pollution of a parade of cars, thundering past Tunnel View, casting their headlamps on the bows of nearby pines and then, on the valley floor, weaving through the gathering fog along the park road between the Pohono bridge and the northern park destinations; I imaged behind it all and above the valley the collected pollution casting a red pall on the sky like the representation of distant war by some Renaissance master.
To take a step back, and to put an end to my ramblings, it is hard not to take a good photograph from Tunnel View, or for that matter, of the valley. In two trips, I have been able to produce what I think are two rather unique images of the place (at least to the degree that any photographic act is one of creation or uniqueness): "The Dichotomy of the Valley" (above) and "We are Killers" (below). Far more importantly I spent two unforgettable evenings trying to absorb a bit of the grandeur in the thin and chilly mountain air. Had I to boil down the thesis here at play I would simply say that what is lacking in poor photography when compared to great photography are ideas and the successful expression of those ideas. The world is full of information easily found about how to successfully express a photographic idea, but often woefully short of fresh ideas themselves. This is why there was only one Muir, one Adams and one Rowell and why there is only one you. The reason that we need more images of nature, of Tunnel View, of the valley is that no two images are the same, they are all products of their respective creators and our thirst for brilliant creators is never quenched though the wellspring of Yosemite has provided amply. The trick isn’t to represent Tunnel View, but to represent yourself through Tunnel View.
Image by purplemtnbaby
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