I spent four days driving around California last May. Hired a car from LAX and tripped off four thousand k’s of highway, byway and desert track, taking photos of some of CAs most outrageous landscapes. Mojave Desert, Death Valley, Mono Lake and Yosemite Valley were the main stops on the tour.
Day four I started my journey at 4.30am, leaving a sweet little motel in Lee Vining, out on the eastern rim of the Sierra Nevada. I backtracked ten minutes down the highway and dropped into Mono Lake for some sunrise action, by parts intriguing and irritating the few other photogs on South Tufa Beach by wading out into the frigid waters to get some low-angle shots of the sun coming up over the otherworldly limestone formations.
Just off the highway I’d earlier spotted a bunch of derelict little shacks gradually deteriorating in the High Sierra environment. By now it was six am. My toes were numb and my trousers were wet, but the sky was void of any clouds, and the sun was directly behind me and bathing warm yellow light over the fields and foothills. I wanted to get into Yosemite Valley as early as possible to beat the traffic and make the most of the light- a worthwhile undertaking, it turned out. But I let myself get distracted for a few minutes by the little ghost-town on the road’s edge.
Looking at this webpage you’d think I had a penchant for portrait (vertical-format) photographs. The reverse is actually true, although the vertical format lends itself nicely to this page. However this morning, the landscape let me down a little. I was shooting with a polarizer, and you can see on the first shot of the hut the unsightly dark blob on the upper-right corner, an unescapable effect of the filter at certain angles to the sun. Even photoshop was only able to soften, not remove, the blight. But I like the context, with the old hut and the mountains behind. It makes me wonder who once lived here, and what that life must have been like. It’s a beautiful landscape, but a hard one. There would have been no easy living here. Later that morning as I headed over the Tioga Pass road into Yosemite, there was still snow at the roadside, even in late May.
The next shot reminds me a little of a paint-by-numbers painting. Something about the variety of distinct hues and colours all gabbled together in discrete little groups gives it an appealing artificial feel. This one was shot with a telephoto, compressing the hut into the mountains behind. There was actually a barbed-wire fence between the highway and the shacks, ensuring I couldn’t get too close.
The next shot, by contrast, was shot with the lens as wide as it would go, standing in exactly the same location. It throws the shack right back into the landscape, and gives a better feel for the wide expanse of space and sky.
I like the shadows cast by the scrub in the low morning sunshine. For some reason, although the polarizer gradient is visible, I don’t mind it quite so much in this image.
For me my favourite shot of the lot is the one at the bottom of this post- and ironically, one that I discounted when I did my first run-through of digital negatives for processing. As a rule I prefer when images don’t capture the presence of the photographer, and a careless photog who accidentally leaves his or her unsightly shadow smeared across a landscape is a rudimentary error I do my best to avoid. However when I came back to this image, I found a certain drama in the way the shadows seemed to leap from the bottom of the frame, reaching out nicely centred towards the little hut in the centre and lending not only a quirky angle but a great sense of perspective and scale to the place. Because I wanted to capture the feel of that wide-open landscape, this one worked for me. As an extra bonus, I’m shooting with the sun directly behind me, so the polarizer’s effect is nice and even across the sky, eliminating that ugly blobbing.
Over the next few weeks I hope to share a few more of my photoshoots from California. Time is always too short on any trip to fully enjoy a place, but in this instance, four days was just ridiculous to take in some of the most exciting scenery that North America has to offer. I reckon it’s time to rekindle those CA friendships and get me a plane ticket…