CLICK! Jim trips the shutter on another photograph and then quickly glances up at the menacing sky. We have climbed out of the valley and onto the high plateau of Thousand Island Lake just as a thunderstorm prowls over the peaks from the west, clouds as gray as rock, the wind restless and indecisive. The air, even at this elevation, seems thick, heavy as a wet rag. The light has a tinge of green.
“God, this is dramatic lighting,” Jim says,
wavering between setting up another photograph
and launching himself into his raingear. Lightning begins to flicker ahead, cracking the bowl of the sky. A few low growls of thunder roll like rocks down the valley. The first drumbeats of hail hammer against the hood of my rainjacket, a gust of wind heavy with the smell of rain, and then…sunlight.
The storm missed us. The sky clears. The sun breaks out as if in a crescendo. I sit on the bare rocks, dazed at our luck, while Jim frantically photographs the ever-changing light and the clouds disappearing as swiftly as flocks of birds.
“That’s the beauty of the light in the Sierra,” he says as he packs up his camera and we continue on the trail, now in full sunlight. “Sometimes it can be sharp, cutting light, sometimes softer, almost pastel. It gives you the entire tonal range.”
Maybe it is the clarity of the high-elevation air, the contrasts between gray rock and feather-white snowfields, or the thousands of little lakes that reflect the light back up at you. Maybe it has to do with the drama of building clouds in an afternoon thunderstorm, the polished rock that glitters like shards of ice, or the shadows–blue-black at twilight, dark as coal at midday, almost purple at dawn. But there is something in the sweet light of the Sierra that shimmers with beauty. “There is,” as Ansel Adams once said about the Sierra, “light everywhere!”
Yet seeing that light and capturing it on film are two different things. When Ansel Adams began making photographs of the Sierra, the art of photography was in its infancy. The hand-held camera had been introduced only a decade or so before. With no formal training in photography or composition, his first Yosemite photo–taken with the Kodak Number 1 Box Brownie camera his parents had given him–was a disaster. Climbing atop a rotted stump for a better view of Half Dome, he slipped as the stump collapsed beneath him. “On the way down headfirst,” Adams wrote, “I inadvertently pushed the shutter.”
He would get better.
His piano training had taught Adams that improvement required strict practice. He threw himself into photography. Beginning with his trip in 1916, Adams would photograph the Sierra every year for more than half a century, clamoring across hundreds of square miles of mountainous country, often on Sierra Club trips, with up to 65 pounds of camera gear and precious little mountaineering knowledge.
“We used window sash cord, an eighth of an inch thick (as climbing rope),” he recalled in an interview with Backpacker. “Of course, if one of us fell, it would have cut us in two….In a sense, it’s a miracle I’m alive, because we did have some hazardous experiences and didn’t know anything about climbing technique.”
But he did survive, and the photography he brought back from those mountain journeys improved steadily. To deal with the stark contrasts of white snow and dark rock, Adams developed “The Zone System,” which helped him and millions of photographers since calibrate proper exposure. He spent endless hours in the darkroom refining technique and printing his work to his own demanding specifications. “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score and the print is the performance,” Adams once wrote.
The “performances” that came through in his early photography kept moving closer and closer to capturing what he called the “great earth-gesture of the Sierra.” Each one a learning experience, each one a lesson. And then, he hiked to Thousand Island Lake.