Purple Mountain Majesties

Purple Mountain Majesties

The Story Behind This Photograph:

Taken in the Pioneer Basin, Sierra Nevada mountains, California, on July 11th, 2014

When you think about what drives you you can come to some pretty funny conclusions. Like photography, for example. Did I really just drag my weary ass 10 miles over thousands of feet of elevation change just to press a button and record a few pixels? Why, I surely did! But of course it’s so much more than that, because it’s not really about the pixels, it’s about the experience. It’s about standing in that place and breathing in its timeless nature and rugged beauty. And it’s about finding the right spot to plant your two feet to capture an image that evokes the essence of what you feel in that moment. And that’s the real driver.

Which hopefully helps explain why after hiking deep into the Pioneer Basin in the John Muir Wilderness to seek a good location for sunset I decided to turn around and descend the 1.5 miles and 500 feet I had just ascended, 45-pounds of backpack fighting me the whole way. Weary I was, but the upper basin just wasn’t holding the views I was looking for. So I re-slung my pack about my shoulders and fought off the mosquitoes as I trudged back down to the lower basin, soaking my shoes in the process as I trod through rainstorm-sodden grass.

But those sort of discomforts are minimal, ephemeral, and are always eclipsed by the wonder and joy the backcountry instills in me. I found this stream channel leading into colloquially-known Mud Lake and knew it was the prime spot to watch the sunset unfold. But rather than an intense show of color, the clouds only light up with pockets of light. And in fact, the most interesting, evocative, and moody moment happened after sunset when the deep blue-hour tones helped the distant mountains glow in their purple majesty.

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Cooling Down

Cooling Down

The Story Behind This Photograph:

Taken on a five-day backpacking trip to the Pioneer Basin in the high Sierra Nevada mountains, California, on July 11th, 2014

Did you know that photography is just like exercise? I found that out myself a few weeks back while on a 5-day backpacking trip in the High Sierra. The first two days were like a warm up: I spent some time stretching, walked miles and miles, but never really flexed my photographic muscles. The two days in the middle were the real heavy lifting: grandiose scenery and divine light, requiring a concentration and effort that left me feeling mentally and physically pooped. The last morning of the trip was a chance to wind down: I rolled out of my tent before dawn and strolled down to the shore of this lake in the Pioneer Basin, where the reflection and lovely morning light made my job as a photographer easy. A nice little way to “cool down” mentally and photographically after a great trip.

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In the Moment


Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken in the oak savanna near Table Mountain in Jamestown, California, on April 26th, 2014

Photographers are often preoccupied by moments. We spend our days hunting for compositions and aligning elements so that we know where to go when The Moment hits. Now this is a great way to consistently experience great beauty but I fear it also has an unintended consequence: one of taking us out of the moments we’re in right now.

After all, how can you be present in the here and now if you’re constantly thinking about what the place you’re at will look like at some other time? And even when those wonderful moments arrive it’s not unusual to spend that time thinking about what’s next. The light is great now, but what will it look like in five minutes? It’s a common affliction, though perhaps it affects me more than most.

However, on a recent shoot in the oak savanna near my house, there was no temporal displacement of my mind. I could tell that this was the defining moment of the evening and I was present with all my senses. Even after I had taken enough shots to know I had a “keeper” I just sat and watched the scene. I wasn’t thinking about other compositions, other locations, or other times. I was simply there, enjoying being in the moment.

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The Scent of Spring


Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken on top of Table Mountain near Jamestown, California in the Sierra Nevada foothills on April 9th, 2014

Table Mountain is a long extrusion of ancient basalt lava that flows through the foothills near Jamestown. Every spring water collects on its corrugated top and runs into gullies, channels, and pools that nourish the soil and lead to a profusion of wildflowers. Some of the most abundant flowers are goldfields and lupine. In certain areas the lupine bloom in vast patches, and when the wind kicks up their heady perfume fills the air with the scent of spring.

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Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Table Mountain near Jamestown, California, on April 4th, 2014

I’ve long been attracted to the dramatic scenes in nature: towering peaks and clear lakes, snow-capped mountains, cliffs, endless vistas, and the like. But living in the foothills of the Sierra is giving me a great appreciation for the subtler sweeps of nature’s brush. About 20 minutes from my house is a vast oak savanna wedged in between an ancient lava flow called Table Mountain and the New Melones Reservoir. The rolling grassy hills of this savanna are punctuated with statuesque blue and valley oaks, whose leaves turn a rich green with the coming of spring.

On an evening that held the promise of good light at sunset I visited the savanna and meandered among the trees and flowing grasses. I found a marvelous blue oak overlooking an open field to the west and as the sun dropped through a slot in the clouds I captured this photo.

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The Beaten Path


Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken in the Marie Lakes Basin in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Eastern Sierra Nevada, on July 3rd, 2013

There sure are a lot of beautiful places out there. Why then do we feel compelled to visit the same ones as everybody else? Is it the desire for a shared experience, a chance to create community and fraternity? Or is it the safety of knowing with certainty that our adventures will happen in beautiful locations? And if that’s the case, how is it that we can feel a simultaneous and completely contradictory compulsion for discovery? Or how when we find some quiet, pristine nook of wilderness we exclaim, “And I was the only one there!” Odd how our adventures in the woods contain a seemingly paradoxical desire to stay on and stray from the beaten path.

This shot from the Marie Lakes Basin was created out of that very dichotomy. I started this backpacking trip on the John Muir Trail out of Tuolumne Meadows, arguably one of the most famous trails in hiking. And indeed, for the first day and a half I passed a person every 20 to 30 minutes. “Isn’t this incredible? Isn’t life awesome?” we’d say, relishing in our shared experience. But then, I felt the urge to stray from the path.

Hiking cross country over a few granite ridges and saddles, I found myself in the striking Marie Lakes area, without another soul around. I hiked all around the basin, hopping creeks, scuttling over granite aprons, and climbing talus slopes. That evening, toward the tail end of sunset, I positioned myself above this cascade and captured this view as twilight faded. There wasn’t another person around for miles. So are the best experiences on the beaten path or off? Perhaps a combination of both.

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1000 Points of Light


Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness on October 6th, 2012

Our day started with a fun off-trail scramble up to the top of a saddle between Minaret Lake and Cecile Lake. From there it was talus hopping to the ridge above Iceberg Lake. Then a sketchy downhill talus and boulder-field traverse (made even sketchier by the cumbersome nature of our 45-pound packs) to the outlet of the lake. 1.5 hours to cover a half mile of terrain; oh yeah, that was interesting. But from the outlet of Iceberg onward we had it made: we met up with the trail again and had 12 easy miles of on-trail tramping to make it to our destination that night: Thousand Island Lake. Clouds built up all afternoon during the hike and by the time we had arrived at this scenic gem of a lake the sky was tantalizing, especially above beautiful Banner Peak. I dropped my pack at the first available campsite and went scampering down to the lake shore to shoot. When the sun dropped behind Banner Peak and the clouds lit up in this mackerel sky, it was the perfect end to a great high Sierra day.

Check out some behind the scenes video from just after this photo was taken:

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Aspen Embrace


Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken in an aspen grove in Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra Nevada, on October 16th, 2013

There is nothing quite like standing in an aspen grove being hugged by yellow leaves while golden light pours through the air around you. If you’ve never done this you owe it to yourself to experience it at least once.

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Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Island Pass in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Eastern Sierra, on July 4th, 2013

This photo was taken on my lone backpacking trip in the summer of 2013 before I severely injured my left big toe and was left unable to hike for months. The view from the summit of Island Pass is nothing short of fantasy-esque in its beauty. Even though I got to the pass around noon, I decided to wait and see if the July thunderstorms would build up as they had every other afternoon. Sure enough, at about 2pm huge cumulus clouds began forming over the Sierra crest. By 4pm hail was falling, and I retired to my tent for a nap. The storm broke at 5:30 and I whisked my camera out to this tarn to photography the clearing storm as it billowed and blew over Banner Peak.

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Frame Up at Convict Lake


Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierra on October 16th, 2013

Here’s a shot I took while doing the final scouting for my Eastern Sierra Fall Photography Workshop. It’s a different take on an iconic eastern Sierra location, Convict Lake. Believe it or not, my camera was less than 12″ off the ground for this shot -it was the only way I could get some separation between the golden tree leaves and Laurel Mountain in the distance. Often the most interesting vantage point is anywhere other than eye-level. Don’t be afraid to get low to get a unique view!

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Goodnight, Mono Lake

Mono Lake South Tufa

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken in deep twilight at Mono Lake South Tufa on February 12th, 2014

I hate Manifest Destiny. The idea that American colonists were destined to expand across the west to conquer its lands and its resources makes me want to puke. Yet that idea drove much of our expansion across the continent over the past 150 years. And somehow, bizarrely, this concept that it is our right and provision as humans to exploit the land however we see fit is still shaping policy on a large scale today. Look at Canada, which just tragically opened up huge swaths of pristine Yukon wilderness to enormous mining concerns, dooming the lands there to a slow and hideous death.

The US, unfortunately, doesn’t have any prettier of a track record: what was once Owens Lake, a large lake just east of the Sierra, is now a vast, dusty plain thanks to the early 20th century water demands of Los Angeles. An endlessly thirsty city, LA extended its aqueduct in 1941 and began diverting water from the Mono Basin. Within four decades Mono Lake’s surface area had been reduced by almost 1/3 and a land bridge formed to Negit Island, making the tens of thousands of breeding seabirds and their chicks there easy prey for local carnivores like coyotes. Thankfully, some conservation-minded folks in the 70’s realized what was going on and were successful in the subsequent decades in enacting environmental protections for the Mono Basin. Since then the lake level has been slowly rising, though it’s still nowhere near its pre-1941 level.

This loss of water from Mono Lake is also what exposed the tufa towers that now make the place so famous for photography. Despite the wonderful photographic opportunities there, it’s a strange experience to walk past the historic lake level signs and realize that everything that makes the place so famous for photography should be under water. As I said goodnight to Mono Lake that night I was forced to reflect on the delicate balance between use, need, and exploitation of natural resources. What has me worried at the moment is the political power of water. I fear that as the California and western states drought stretches longer and deeper, thirsty cities like LA and San Francisco will begin to throw their weight around. As the Sierra snowpack dries out and the western reservoir levels drop, where will these cities slake their tremendous need for water? I’m sure the Mono Basin will once again come under scrutiny.

For the moment Mono Lake is protected. But will those protections stand up against the force of ten million people’s cry for water? I see that hypothetical crisis as a clear wake-up call that we need to rethink our resource-usage strategies in the west. I can only hope if push comes to shove in California’s on-going drought, that we can do the courageous thing and stop our short-sighted, unthinking exploitation of our natural resources so that we won’t have to permanently say goodnight to places like Mono Lake.

A Not So Quiet Riot


Taken in Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra Nevada, California on September 25th, 2013

It started with breath, which became a bluster. By nightfall it was a constant howl. At three in the morning it huffed and puffed and blew my tent away. And by sunrise on the 25th of September, the wind had become a banshee, yowling down the steep-walled canyons of the Eastern Sierra. A frigid gale of frozen air shaking the east side aspen trees like so many rag dolls. Nevertheless, fall color was afoot and I was determined to get my shot. I drove high into Bishop Creek Canyon, past a number of other photographers and color spotters, until I came to this hillside above Aspendell, an aptly-name community at about 8,500 feet. Scrambling down from the road I found a perch which held this fantastic view of the Sierra crest jutting up craggily above the treed basin below. With the wind threatening to topple my camera whenever I took my hands off my tripod I managed to rattle off a handful of shots as the sunrise painted the clouds above with vivid orange light.