What The Road Passes By

There's more to a landscape than an iconic vantage point

What The Road Passes By“How long the road is. But for all the time the journey has already taken, how you have needed every second of it in order to learn what the road passes by.”

—Dag Hammarskjold, Markings

When I first started making photographs, I was an avid backpacker. I was energized by my explorations and the beauty I saw and wanted to share my treks with friends and family. As with anyone starting out, my photographs were beginning efforts. My subjects were the mountains of Glacier National Park, which are full of photographic potential, but my enthusiasm for my subject matter far outweighed my ability to convey the emotions of my experiences in the images.

The main excitement of making my photographs was in showing where I had been. I was 19, I had fallen in love with being in the mountain wilderness and I felt like everyone should see its magnificence! So initially, it was the ability of photographs to illustrate my adventures that got me hooked on photography. Any deeper motivations for making my photographs were unknown to me at that early stage. I was content to make descriptive snapshots as excuses to tell my friends stories about my backpacking trips.

Not long after my first efforts in Glacier, I moved to Yosemite and began photographing in earnest. As I became more serious about my photography, I photographed Yosemite intensely and photographed all around the country, mostly in other national parks and well-known landscape-photography destinations, such as New England. I also traveled to photograph in India, Tibet and China. Slowly, as my skills developed as an artist, I found that I was always finding exciting images, no matter how far from home or the road I was. I began to put less emphasis on how exotic or remote the location was and more emphasis on cultivating the perception to find beauty near at hand, where others would pass it, and then to photograph it uniquely.

I’ve been told that many of my favorite Yosemite images look like they could have been taken anywhere, that they don’t immediately say “Yosemite.” It’s true that the icons of the park aren’t a focus of mine. Instead, for nearly 30 years, I’ve happily photographed the park’s more intimate details. Hopefully, I’ve captured images that others might otherwise have missed.

As for many others, Yosemite is a magical place to me. I see Yosemite as my most important teacher, as a place where I’ve felt so at home, at peace and energized by the special landscape. With a strong desire to create my own unique view of Yosemite, I’ve always found wondrous compositions everywhere I went, be it far from the road or while standing before the famous landmarks. This comfort level allowed me to take risks. My goal has been to make photographs that are beyond the ordinary and still create images with a sense of place, of Yosemite.

For most photographers who don’t have a landscape like Yosemite as their backyard, any landscape that one really gets to know can serve as the photographer’s strongest mentor. Knowing the weather, feeling the light, sensing that landscape’s most expressive moments, learning the moods of each season are all vital factors to creating meaningful images.

The photograph shown here was made on my way to somewhere else, unplanned and unscheduled. It was made standing on the side of the road, with the road in between the ice-covered rock wall and me. Many years before, I had photographed icicles along this same area, so I was aware enough to glance in that direction as I was driving along this stretch of road.

I photographed using both my 4×5 and Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and used my tripod most of the time. The image was made with the Canon camera. A friend who was with me also had his camera and 4×5 set up to photograph the ice. When we stopped on the side of the road, no one else was there. During those 30 minutes, I estimate that 20 to 30 vehicles either stopped to take a quick snapshot or slowed down to enjoy the icicles. A few more photographers with tripods also set up to photograph. Even before seeing the results of my efforts (let alone printing or publishing any images), I had succeeded in helping others see what the road passes by!

While a single image like this one is not obviously a Yosemite image, a collective group of intimate, creative photographs of Yosemite or any landscape, whether by myself or anyone else, can tell the viewers volumes about a place if we’re truly seeing it through our own eyes. The lessons that a landscape can teach us are: to slow down, to look inward as well as outward, to look for light or image design in composing images that elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary and to trust our own vision of our world over someone else’s. Enjoy the journey!

“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found was really going in.”
—John Muir, Naturalist

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.