I was deeply saddened to read that the recent rockfalls on Yosemite’s El Capitan killed climber Andrew Foster and injured his wife. There is a kindred spirit that runs through all who love Yosemite, and the loss of anyone there, even someone I didn’t know, is a loss to the greater Yosemite community.
Rockfalls like this are spectacular events, that are hard to understand unless you’ve studied or experienced one. A 65x131x4 foot section of rock falling 1800 feet and hitting the ground has an immense force that literally disintegrates much of the rock into small granules and grit only a bit larger than sand.
I was witness to the 1996 Happy Isles rockfall that had some similar effects. About twelve hours after the rockfall, I went photographing in the area impacted and then led my Ansel Adams Gallery camera walk there. The scene was literally a moonscape. Everything was covered in a fine dust of fresh granite to the point that no color was visible. It was like the change in the Wizard of Oz from color to black and white, only backwards. Rock dust was worked into every nook of bark on the trees, on every leaf, everything. I was so focused on black and white photography at that time that I didn’t even think to take a color photograph, which would have shown it in terms that are easier to understand, but I do have some of the black and white photographs I made that morning.
It’s hard to describe the texture and coarseness of the granite dust. It is like nothing anywhere else and it got into everything. Fine particles were still floating around and I remember feeling them on my teeth. They even got into the works of my lenses, and for years after I could feel them as I changed aperture on those lenses. After reading accounts of the Apollo astronauts, it’s probably the closest I’ll come to walking on the moon.
I thought black and white film would be perfect for capturing the truly monochromatic landscape, but the problem was everything was the same shade of gray, just a little lighter than a 18% gray card. Sunlit areas were brighter, but there was little shadow to create contrast. Truly a challenge situation to photograph.
While Yosemite is very safe compared to a lot of places in the world, it is still wild. We are not in control there. I’ve missed injury or death from rockfalls in Yosemite on several occasions, from having rockfalls on roads that I just passed minutes before, to “finding” a major rockfall in the Merced canyon late one night while returning home, that required screeching to a halt to avoid car sized boulders. During the Flood of 1997 I literally had to run from a rockfall on the backside of Yosemite falls. I’ll never forget the look on my friend Glenn’s face as he shouted “Run!” to me and my wife. We literally ran for our lives, and then later found the spot we were standing in covered in about a foot of small fist sized rocks. But my brush with the 1996 Happy Isles rockfall was most similar to the El Capitan event. My wife and I were planing to go to Happy Isles that evening, and would have been there at the time of the rockfall, but we were tired after a long drive that day and decided to skip it. Had we went, we would have experienced blinding dust, winds exceeding 100 miles per hour that snapped the top halves of 150 foot trees off, and knocked down others. At the time I was disappointed I didn’t get the ultimate front row seat for such an event. In hindsight, I’m glad I missed my front row ticket that night.
Don’t let events like these scare you from Yosemite and other wild places. Your drive to work is probably more dangerous. We go to Yosemite because it is wild, not because we can tame it.
Sitting by a fire on a cool autumn evening holds a beauty and mystery that is universal in the human experience. It’s not just the warmth but the smell of the wood and sap burning like incense, the crackle, hisses, and pops as what was knit together over decades breaks apart into basic elements. It is a soothing, mediative experience.
Yosemite National Park often sets fires on purpose, when conditions are right, to allow slow, controlled burning to help prevent more catastrophic fires. It was during one of these fires that I pulled off the Tioga road to stop and just experience the fire. On an autumn night with virtually no traffic, I was alone, just me and the pop, sizzle, crack, and smoke of the fire. As I was setting up to photograph, the large tree in the center of this photo caught fire of “torched” as the firefighters call it. Even at about 100 yards away, the heat was intense as this 150 foot giant caught fire, every branch and needle engulfed like a touch in the night. For minutes afterward the embers on the branches glowed as captured in this piece of film. The energy released from this on tree was astounding, and left me with in awe.
Wisner 4x5 Nikkor 135mm lens Fuji RDP II 4x5 film
Very few people just pick up a musical instrument and start playing great music. There are exceptions, but most people need to receive formal instruction in both music and the instrument. This instruction gives musicians the foundation to understand how to play and create music, and to keep growing (and hopefully enjoying) the art.
Photography can, and should, be learned in a similar way. With proper instruction, photographers can attain an understanding of the creative controls that allow them to begin expressing themselves more clearly and easily. There are exercises and approaches that can be taught and learned by anyone through study and application.
The more fluent a photographer is in the creative controls of photography, the more the camera and software drop from conscious thought and allow the connection between what the photographer sees in their mind and what is actually in front of the camera to freely flow. This is no different than the musician and the connection they must have to their instrument, or the athlete who practices their swing over and over until it becomes transparent, allowing them to focus on the ball and the wider situation.
My approach to teaching is focused on growing students’ understanding and mastery of photography’s creative controls while guiding and encouraging development of artistic vision.
It is my experience that If I teach a student how to gain creative control over photography, I have given them the best foundation for growing and exploring their artistic expression. Coupled with that, I can expose them to great art and artists to inspire and broaden their palate, and mentor them in finding and expressing their story. My end goal is to give photographers the means to express themselves through photography so they can enjoy a lifelong relationship with the medium.
With Autumn rapidly approaching, I’m looking forward to sharing some more of my fall color work.
This is one of those rare photos where I got a second chance after failing to get a good photo the previous year. This creek is located in the nook between two tall mountains at about 7200’ elevation. The combination of open shade and the increased UV radiation contribute to make a very blue light. Our eyes, and digital cameras, do a very good job of white balancing this blue light to normal, but this photograph was made with film which has a fixed white balance. The first time I tried to make a photograph here, I didn’t use a warming filter to adjust the white balance, so it was horribly blue with no way to correct it out in Photoshop. The next year I was better prepared, and was able to make this exposure with my 4x5 Wisner field camera, 135mm Nikkor lens, Fuji RDP II film, and a warming filter. Because of the high resolution of 4x5 film and a high quality scan, many fine details are visible, including the vein structure in the leaves and even insect holes where they have made a snack of the beautiful fall foliage. It will always be a reflection of the experience I had making it, and so many crisp, clear fall days in the Eastern Sierra.
Rich Seiling is a pioneer in Fine Art Printmaking, having worked on thousands of prints for leading photographers.