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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Challenges Of Yellowstone

Salvatore Vasapolli gets off the beaten path, works around the crowds and shoots in fast-changing light. He shares some secrets from his 20 years of photographing this jewel of the American park system.

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challenges of yellowstone
Hot spring along Ferris Fork Creek in the Bechler River Canyon region
For any visitor to Yellowstone, Old Faithful is a must-see. But after that first visit—or, at least, after making the penultimate photograph that you could ever hope to make—it’s not the most scenic region of the park for a landscape photographer to spend his or her time. Vasapolli prefers other areas of the park, where he continually gets great shots, as well as those areas where the great photographs always remain just out of reach.

“The favorite places are the Upper and Lower Geyser basins,” he says. “I won’t tell you about my really favorite place—people will try to seek it out! What’s nice about those areas is that some of them are really close to the most heavily visited areas, but people never see them. You have to look off the beaten path. Yellowstone is a big area. In the Hoodoo area, you have to go when the water levels are down in the streams because you have to ford a river or two. It’s far in the backcountry, high up at the top of a ridgeline, so it can snow there any time of the year. A lot of times, when I tried planning a trip when everything seemed right, a snowstorm would come in. Every time I try to go, it’s, ‘I’m gonna do it next year, I’m gonna do it next year….’”

Much of Vasapolli’s enjoyment of Yellowstone is simply being in the park. When he does take his cameras, he carries a 35mm system as well as large-format. He’s especially deliberate when using the big 4x5 for a landscape.

challenges of yellowstone
Sunset in Yellowstone
“I never have the feeling that I have to go and shoot something,” he says of his chosen profession. “In my photography, most of my artwork is speculative. I go out there to find what I can find, and if I can find something unique to photograph, yeah, I’ll do it. I’ll hang out there. I’ll even come back if I don’t have the opportunity to photograph it the way I wanted to the first time. If nothing works out, I won’t pull out the 4x5; I might continue to use the 35 to get some okay photographs for the files. The 35, to me, is my point-and-shoot. I don’t even have a digital camera for that.”

Adds Vasapolli, “I’m looking for something that’s unique. I study other people’s photography—one reason is for research, the other is so that I don’t copy them. It’s going to be different. People have said, I look at your photographs and I see something different.”

Part of that difference comes from the way Vasapolli works. Like so many dedicated landscape photographers, he has continued shooting large-format film—both for the camera controls and for the unique color and contrast characteristics of the traditional media.

“Film has the widest color spectrum,” says Vasapolli. “You can’t replace some of those colors. I can take several sheets of it and I don’t have to worry about erasing it. The 4x5 is an artist’s camera. I try to use the 4x5 to get that long-range shot of something unique in the foreground that works well with its background. For me, you see that there’s something very interesting in the foreground—that’s the subject. But with the use of the 4x5, I can have the background in sharp focus as well. It may take 45 minutes to an hour to set it up right, but in the end you come up with something that’s a work of art.”

Salvatore Vasapolli exhibits his photographs at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., October 11, 2008, through January 4, 2009 (www.museumoftherockies.org). Epson and Outdoor Photographer are sponsors. Vasapolli is currently working on a photo essay documenting California’s wine country. Visit www.vasapolliphotography.com.

Vasapolli’s Gear

Calumet XM Rosewood Field 4x5 camera
Caltar 210mm, 90mm, 75mm lenses
Various 35mm Canon EOS bodies
Canon 24mm, 28-135mm, 80-200mm, 300mm L, 50mm, 50mm macro lenses
Bogen tripods & heads
Gitzo Mountaineer tripod


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