The majesty of Grand Teton National Park is undeniable. The sheer rock faces seem to burst out from the open plains of Wyoming forming an aggressive and unmistakable sawtoothed silhouette. I’ve been there a handful of times during warmer months and now I’ve been lured back during the “dead” of winter. But if you ask me, the Tetons are anything but “dead” when the cold winds of January blow. The lush June fields of wildflowers are long gone, but they’ve been replaced by a pure white blanket of snow that glistens in the sun like a million diamonds. It’s a marshmallow world in the winter, and all of that white illuminates the landscape in amazing ways, lending strength to starlight for pre-dawn snowshoe sessions.
I drove into Jackson through a formidable storm that would give pause to anyone thinking about braving the 4+ miles of 10% grade in Teton Pass. I’ve got new tires, I’ve got all-wheel drive, and I’ve got a whole bunch of faith in my vehicle, so we took the pass and made it into Jackson slowly and safely.
Dawn would reveal the valley in a fresh coat of the white stuff with wreaths of fog and occasional low-lying clouds. I had pre-visualized a shot from the classic Snake River Overlook with peaks illuminated by the warmth of sunrise set against a pink sky. After an early wakeup, I bundled up in several layers of clothes and drove out to the overlook. The parking area had not been plowed recently, and I soon found myself trying to walk slowly and gingerly across the snow, as if somehow the way in which I walked would make me light as a feather. I wasn’t even close to featherweight, as one leg would suddenly plunge waste deep into several feet of untouched snow. It was foolish to leave the snowshoes in the car, but I sure wasn’t going to take two minutes to go back and get them.
I was pleased when the pre-dawn “Belt of Venus” light formed deep pink and purple hues in the western sky. This coloration is an atmospheric phenomenon due to backscattering of reddened light from the rising or setting sun. Though it wasn’t just the sky that was colored in pastel pinks – the snow, the trees, and especially the river below all took on the soft, cool hues of dawn. The pink Belt of Venus glow was just the beginning of the show that morning, for as the sun crested the hills to the east it threw a warmer golden glow upon the mountains. At first it just lit up the very tips of the peaks, but in a matter of minutes the golden light had worked its way down almost to the valley floor before it changed, its quality hardening and losing that soft golden hue.
I struggled with this image because I wanted the best of both worlds. I wanted the photo to reflect my experience that morning, from the pink and purple hues of the Belt of Venus to the fiery golden light that shone upon the snowcapped peaks. Once I was back in the comfort of my home and had a good look at the images from that morning, I decided to combine the best of both scenes to create the image you see above. Here are the two images I used, which were taken only 14 minutes apart.
This dilemma highlights an important and fiery debate regarding the “purity” and methods for creation of a photograph. Should we as photographers restrict our images to the capture of a single image at a single moment in time? Do I violate some photographic principle by combining these two images, taken only minutes apart? What if the sky was swapped from a completely different image? I posit that in art, the methods for the creation of an image are irrelevant in the face of the final product. However, it’s also important that artists be forthright when discussing their methods, for to do otherwise would be unethical and undermine the value of the entire genre. – Nico DeBarmore
Equipment and settings: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens @70mm – 2 & 1/6 second exposures @ f/11 – ISO 100