There are some spectacular drives in the world- probably too numerous to mention, and varied in their beauty and uniqueness.
I reckon I’ve had a chance to enjoy a few of them- but not nearly as many as I’d like. Among those that spring to mind immediately include the highway between Lausanne and Montreux, along the northern shore of Lac Leman with the Alps rising from the opposite shore (in fact, almost any road through the Swiss and French Alps would have to qualify, including the highway entering Chamonix from direction Annemasse, and the road that snakes into the Val d’Aosta from the Tunnel St. Bernard); PNG’s North Coast Road between Madang and the Ramu River after dawn, with the coastline gleaming in tropical sunlight; the desert track that winds through Niger’s rugged and barren Air Mountains; the road running into Yosemite Valley via Tioga Pass- a truly jaw-dropping scene as you finally round the bend and catch your first glimpses of Half Dome and El Capitan; the Nairobi-Naivasha road as it drops into the East African Rift Valley with sprawling, cloud-speckled views of Lake Naivasha, Longonot Volcano and the plains; and almost any road you care to mention in Ethiopia once you’ve cleared Addis Ababa.
Among my very favourite is the road running between Canmore, Alberta, and Golden, British Colombia. Taking in the length of Banff National Park, it is an unending array of glorious mountain peaks one after the other that tower into the sky in dizzying proximity. The first time I drove it end-to-end was an early March morning after a heavy snowfall, when the sky was almost indigo, utterly cloudless, and the peaks sagging under a fresh carpet of white. It was so crisp, so utterly beautiful that at points I had tears in my eyes just watching it slip by.
(A little aside for any skiers among you: Kicking Horse Resort, above Golden, would have to be the greatest on-station ski terrain I have ever come across. Make it your Mecca.)
I haven’t had much chance to spend time in the Rockies of late, but a brief detour from a business trip let me spend a couple of days with dear friends in Calgary who, knowing my love of all things vertical, took me for an afternoon drive out to Banff. We had a lovely time, and it did my soul good to be back among mountain peaks. I find myself inspired when I’m among them, more in touch with my spirit. Mountains are my church and my cathedral, a place where I feel closer to God and most inspired to worship.
The photographer in me was stoked as well. My last trip to the Rockies, my equipment had been a Canon Powershot G6. It was fun for some skiing snaps and a bit of backcountry footage, but having a serious camera with me this time made me hope for a repeat of the scenery I saw those years back on that brittle spring morning.
Alas, the weather was not on my side. I didn’t end up with that aching blue sky, nor the fierce light that makes the snowcaps shine. We had patchy cloud, a finger-numbing wind, and shifting light.
But I wasn’t disappointed. As a photographer- literally a ‘writer of light’- you adapt. Photography is about making the most of the conditions you have, and while I’m not adept enough to come out with anything truly great if the conditions aren’t precisely in my favour (heck- I’m not going to come out with anything truly great even then), one thing I feel I’ve been blessed with is the ability to see beauty in nature under most circumstances.
While patchy cloud doesn’t necessarily allow the most spectacular nature of the mountains to be showcased, it does lend a drama to the scene that a blue sky doesn’t. Not only that, but the shifting cloud means no two pictures are the same. I mean, a blue sky is a blue sky- a plain backdrop that looks more or less the same. The angle and colour of light and shadows might change with the time of day. But with blowing cloud, the mood shifts from one minute to the next. And while colours may not sing out in the most vibrant fashion, the sense of contrast, depth and darkness- white on black- make for some great black and white shots. You get to celebrate texture, detail and form in a way that hones the eye, and which can be lost by the distraction of colour.
I took a lot of these shots at the time with monochrome in mind. It was clear looking through the viewfinder that they were only going to be a step or two above dull in colour, but the potential to celebrate the contrast was evident even at the time. As a photographer, you compose the image you want in your mind even before you look through the viewfinder. You look for form, for light, for colour. It takes only a subtle shift to turn those colours into a greyscale palette as you look at them, and once you’ve done that, you can appreciate a view in a whole new way. And while the electronic conversion of the files from colour into black-and-white happened after I loaded them into my computer and post-processed them, the conceptual conversion happened before I pressed the shutter release.
The photos are nothing more or less than a record of one of my favourite drives, an afternoon spent with friends (even if those friends don’t appear in the image, they were at the heart of that afternoon), and my own take of what I was seeing. In that sense, they are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’- they just are, and I think anybody who enjoys creating should try and see their work in that light. I’m no Ansell Adams. I flinch at every flaw and shortcoming in my own work, and want to go back to do better. I also want to go back and take more photos under different lighting conditions. Heck, I just want to go back and enjoy the mountains. There are few places that draw me more fiercely than the Alberta Rockies. Cham maybe. Nepal. The Southern Alps. At least on a par.
Regardless, these are a few of the gorgeous peaks, dressed in a particular fashion and captured, like models, in a particular moment of glory. And for me, just another opportunity to work with the light I’m given, and learn.
NB: A couple of these photos I’ve linked to the original large-size image so you can explore the detail- it’s well worth clicking through and taking a look, in my impartial opinion as the photographer…