By Jerry Ginsberg
Yosemite, Yellowstone, Arches, Monument Valley. The names alone bring glorious and exciting images to mind. They’ve been published and printed for many decades. The classic shots of Half Dome, Old Faithful, Delicate Arch, and the Mittens; we’ve seen them all. Yet we continue to make pilgrimages to these scenic meccas of America in the hope of capturing the quintessential photograph of some already over exposed mountain or canyon that will distinguish our work from the pack; some fresh perspective that will set our images apart from the cliché.
Is this still possible? With all of the iconic photographs of our premier wilderness areas that have been made and circulated since the days of William Henry Jackson and Ansel Adams pioneered the craft, can we, with our hi-tech zillion megapixel cameras and the compressed schedules of our fast-lane lifestyles, persist in the creation of original interpretations of these well-known places? Clearly, the answer is still “Yes!”
Love, light, learning, and desire
Of course, there are a few qualifications. We can still create new and sensitive renditions of familiar themes if we possess not only the desire, but also the empathy, patience, technical know-how to do so. A good, reliable alarm clock doesn’t hurt, either.
An innate love for the works of nature is needed before the outdoor photographer can gain the vision to see the natural world in that special way. Only then can it be translated into a successful photograph. Patience is needed because that great composition won’t mean much if the light isn’t just right. Since we are actually photographing the light rather than the subject, ordinary light will almost certainly result in merely adding to the world’s current glut of snapshots.
Technical know-how is a prerequisite to articulating our vision from imagination to screen or print. Unless we learn to operate our cameras efficiently without the need to think about every step, it is unlikely that we will be able to express our vision, no matter how poetic, into a great photograph. So even though the camera is merely a tool no more special than a carpenter’s hammer, we must be able to swing that hammer as second nature.
After technical proficiency but before artistic skill, is desire. While this may seem obvious, there’s a bit more to it. How badly we want to create that winning image will dictate just how much we are willing to put up with numbing cold, blistering heat, soaking rain and voracious insects.
Moving from mundane to magical
How to overcome the mundane? One such well-known view in our national parks is the classic scene of Old Faithful erupting. It has appeared on postcards and calendars since well before Ansel Adams made his classic photograph of that venerable geyser; front lit under a cloudless blue sky. The challenge before us is how to come up with a fresh and visually compelling image of this well known scene? I studied many eruptions of Old Faithful over several hours, struggling to visualize a composition that would do it justice. Eventually, I was able to come up with the sunrise shot shown earlier in the article.
The classic view of Delicate Arch is another one of those places that has been a bit overdone. It has even been on Utah’s license plates for several years. What made me think that I could do better? I didn’t. Then one evening, after my third trek up to this special place in the same week, I stood with the crowd, tripod to tripod, just waiting as some teenagers burned up some surplus energy fooling around directly below the span. As the light peaked, not a shutter clicked. There was no shot without those young fellows smack in the middle of the frame. Not to be denied, I pulled my camera off the tripod, slapped on my 15mm lens and positioned myself under the arch. Since it was not my presence that obstructed the view of other photographers, I felt no guilt. Well, almost.
Surveying the scene through my ultra-wide lens, I found the unique composition that appears above titled “Delicate Shadow.” Instead of trying to include the entire arch in my frame, I was delighted to see both one stone leg and the sharp shadow of the rest of the arch below which serves to imply the complete form of this famous rock.
As I strolled back to the tripod forest, everyone applauded. When the very last rays of the fast-dropping sun bathed the arch in warm light, those young fellows finally got out of the way and dozens of shutters went off like machine guns. We all walked down together, but my smile was the widest. It was a fortuitous combination of serendipity and the urge to seize an opportunity.
As a result of the countless images created by Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, Bill Neill and many, many others over the last century, Yosemite National Park is perhaps the most thoroughly photographed park in America. It’s called “the Range of Light” for good reason. The singular form of El Capitan, reportedly the largest granite rock on Earth, is a sight familiar to many. So creating a unique image of such a subject would seem to be a daunting task. Walking along the south bank of the Merced River early one winter morning just as the light began to come up, I noticed a small spot of flat water holding the promise of a good reflection. Hurrying over to it, I maneuvered until able to find a composition with the top line of El Cap and the snow covered bank roughly parallel. This image of just a small piece of an inverted El Capitan, below, is the result.
Cliché or concept
Another great concept to include in your quiver of creative arrows is to think against the grain. For example, if the familiar view of a particular natural feature is lit from the front. Try shooting it backlit. One subject that comes quickly to mind once again is the very singular Delicate Arch in Arches National Park just outside Moab, Utah. We’ve all seen countless front lit photographs of the arch shot under the soft, warm rays of the day’s very last light. I have often thought of shooting Delicate Arch at sunrise with a starburst right along the inside edge of the rock. One morning I am going to finally bite the bullet and hike up there with just a body and two lenses at about 3:00 AM.
Clichés reach that status because they are so true. One of my all-time favorites is “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
The challenge to create fresh images of America’s scenic highlights persists. But take my word for it – if you walk around these very special places long enough to leave civilization behind and open not only your eyes, but your heart to their abundant innate beauty, wonderful images will begin to reveal themselves to your lens.
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 63 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.