Yosemite: On Not Being Ansel Adams

hetchhetchyI’m no Ansel Adams, and yet, for some reason, I went to Yosemite to take photographs.

I mean, I didn’t really go to Yosemite just to take photos; I was there, too, to spend the week vacationing with my husband’s side of the family. We had rented a house in Groveland, the nearest residential area, and had flown up from our various homes to hike, boat, play games, stroll around, watch nature, and cook. But I had also brought my camera. I’d been to the Center for Creative Photography so many times in my town of Tucson, Arizona, that I could practically recite a list of Ansel Adams’ stunning black and white portraits of the land in and around Yosemite National Park. (If you don’t know this, The Center for Creative Photography, which Adams co-founded in the 1970s and which is housed on the University of Arizona campus, includes more than 2,500 of Adams’ prints, along with his letters, interviews, unpublished writings, memorabilia, publications, negatives, transparencies, prints, and photographic equipment. And it is remarkable). I’ve taken my writing students there on field trips; I’ve wandered in by myself when I had a few minutes between meetings or classes; I’ve studied his work in the photography class I took through the Art department earlier this year. His devotion to environmentalism, his advocacy for the Western wilderness, and his love for the natural world are intimately rendered in his work, much of which takes place right in Yosemite Valley, where he spent many years documenting for the Sierra Club. I can close my eyes and see the famed crest of Half Dome jutting up over the pine trees. I can see the pristine waters of Vernal Falls. I can even see the picture he took with the sliver of the moon behind Yosemite Falls.

DSC_1336And me? There I was, fumbling around with my camera, my wide-angle lens screwed onto the body, my knees folded into the earth, my eyes to the sky, taking in the masterful and massive presence that are the jutting rocks coming out of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. How was I ever going to photograph this masterpiece? And secondly, why was I even trying? Crouching down, feeling tinier than the smallest ant on the planet, I thought about how I’d fallen into photography: I’m a photographer by long-time interest, yes, but I’m also learning to become one out of professional necessity, because we travel writers need more fuel in our arsenal of tricks than magic words alone. After two editors told me my photos weren’t up to editorial quality, I realized the cold, hard truth: We need images, too.

DSC_1125More than practicing my craft, though, I was also trying to impress my in-laws. Marrying into a family of lawyers isn’t easy when you’re an artist and a graduate student; it’s not exactly the kind of life many people understand (nor do I blame them). But photography–well-composed, beautiful photographs–are kind of universally understood, at least between viewers. I wanted to take pictures they just couldn’t get on their iphones and hear them “ooh” and “ahh” over the awesomeness of my abilities. And thirdly, perhaps most realistically, I wanted to practice photographing my relationship to landscape, a relationship that I suspected was quite different from that of Ansel Adams and his American West.

DSC_0956I still think of myself as a photo-taking newbie. Though I’ve been snapping photos for most of my life (though most of these pictures, mind you, were of my Siamese cat, Bluey, or interesting plants in and around our backyard), I’ve only had my entry-level Nikon DSLR for a little over a year. It still feels new in my hands, strong, thick, and heavy, the way I always wanted a camera to feel when I held it in my hands and put my eye up to the viewfinder. And it still feels clunky sometimes; awkward, a little unsteady. I’ve jumped into the electronic world of post-processing, tinkering with Lightroom and Photoshop, teaching myself to make adjustments through Youtube videos, learning by trial-and-error. But I’m a writer by trade, a girl brought up on novels, collections of short stories, memoirs, and the lusty travel narrative–a girl brought up to let her imagination inspire her to see the world through words (quaint villages, friendly locals, exotic landscapes, and a host of other bad travel cliches aside, of course). So it’s been quite the learning curve, adjusting to thinking about the world through both word and image, the interplay they create, the way they enhance what the other cannot do alone.

DSC_1345The thing is, though, that I don’t have to be Ansel Adams to take my best shots, angle my lens the way I want to, creep up under a tree and take a shot of the sunlight the way I want to. Like John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing, the immense power images have is due, in part, to the very real fact that the artist is the eye behind the lens, deciding what to leave in, choosing what to leave out. For me, landscape photography isn’t meant to show the power, the masculine dynamism of the universe, the foreboding power of nature and the natural world. It’s not black and white. Or long exposures. Or ominous shadows.

For me, it’s about color, intrigue, and the experience that occurs when you happen upon a place you thought you already knew through someone else’s eyes.

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Article and all photographs by Kristin Winet.

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