Tuesday, September 20, 2011
California's Sierra Nevada has drawn people ever since word first got out about its breathtaking beauty. In the 1860s, Alfred Bierstadt enshrined these mountains as an iconic American place with his monumental paintings. On his first visit a few years later, John Muir fell in love with what he called the "Range of Light." He founded the Sierra Club in 1892 and then successfully lobbied President Theodore Roosevelt to declare Yosemite a national park. Ansel Adams went on to document the backcountry on film like no one before him, and his classic images became important assets in environmental campaigns.
The Sierra Nevada is now within a day's drive for 40 million people, and yet early conservation victories have ensured that it's still a world-class wilderness, where people can escape from their urban lives and nourish their souls.
I became enthralled by the Sierra myself when I first went backpacking there decades ago. Recently, I returned to the high country with friends to spend a week camping by an alpine lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
One morning, several of us went out to photograph at dawn. I was struck by the reflections on the lake's surface and began to look for ways to abstract the scene with just a hint of context. I cropped in close and used a few rocks and a sliver of shoreline to anchor the composition. A telephoto zoom lens stopped all the way down compressed everything into one plane and rendered all elements with equal sharpness, which contributes to the image's illusionary quality. I liked what I was seeing in my viewfinder, but wondered if I could go any further.
When my friend Scott Smith crouched down by the shoreline, everything fell into place. He completed a composition that captures the serenity of a glorious mountain morning, but also humanizes the wilderness experience and reflects on the role that so many artists and activists have played in preserving the Sierra Nevada for all of us.
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