Getting Personal

Gary Hart Photography: Sunrise Reflection, Mono Lake, California

Sunrise Reflection, Mono Lake, California
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
5 seconds
ISO 400

In my previous blog post I wrote about creating visual relationships between landscape subjects—juxtaposing disparate elements in a scene in ways that move or stop viewers’ eyes. But I’m also a strong believer in the power of personal relationships with landscape subjects. Whether it’s the celestial choreography that decorates our night skies, the atmospheric machinations that spawn thunderstorms and paint rainbows, or the geological processes that build mountains, I’m most attracted to subjects that move me to understand them better.

I can’t remember the first time I laid eyes on Mono Lake, but I’ve always been drawn to its stark beauty, and fascinated by the processes behind the sci-fi exoplanet quality that makes Mono Lake feel like a place from the mind of Asimov or Herbert. Locked in an arid basin with no outlet, Mono Lake is fed by snowmelt from the Sierra that stays put until evaporation carries it away in the atmosphere. But with the runoff infusion comes minerals that don’t evaporate with the lake water. Because there’s no river or stream to carry these minerals away, they accumulate in the water, making Mono Lake more than two times more salty than the ocean.

Mono Lake is probably most know for its tufa towers. These calcium carbonate (limestone) formations are the residue of submerged springs submerged that are only exposed when the lake level drops due to drought, or redirection of mountain runoff (to green Southern California lawns). Not only does the tufa add to Mono Lake’s otherworldly ambiance, it makes a great photographic subject.

One of the coolest things about Mono Lake is its quite recent history of volcanism. Cool (to me) because when people think about volcanoes in the US, they might think about Hawaii, where Kilauea is currently erupting, or maybe the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest, with its array of striking cone-shaped peaks that seemed poised to erupt at any minute—as Mt. St. Helens did quite dramatically in 1980. But they probably don’t think about Mono Lake, which made the Top-25 in the latest USGS National Volcanic Threat Assessment report. In fact, Mono Lake is home to some of the United States’ most recent volcanic eruptions, with some of its visible volcanic features formed by eruptions that happened less than 200 years ago.

Even to the untrained (non-geologist’s) eye, evidence of the Mono Basin’s recent volcanism is easy to find if you look for it. Cinder cones dot the landscape, and near Black Point you’ll find volcanic fissures and thick black sand left over from recent eruptions. The lake’s two islands, Negit and Pahoa, both have volcanic pasts. Pahoa Island is the site of Mono Lake’s most recent volcanic activity, and Negit Island is home to the a cinder cone formed in an eruption less than 2,000 years ago.

All this cool natural history has a lot to do with why I spend so much time photographing Mono Lake, and why my Eastern Sierra workshop groups do three different shoots there. Everyone enjoys the sunrise and sunset shoots at Mono Lake’s always popular South Tufa, but a particular highlight of these workshops is our final sunrise on the lake’s remote north shore, where the signs of recent volcanism are more apparent. Navigating the unmarked (and unpaved) roads in the pre-sunrise darkness, and with no trail to the lake, each group ends up at a slightly different spot, but it never seems to matter. (I could save the GPS coordinates, but since the lakeshore varies so much with water level anyway, it wouldn’t really matter. Plus, I kind of enjoy the randomness.)

After the north shore sunrise, we usually wrap up the workshop with fall color in Lundy Canyon, but for this year’s second workshop I moved that shoot to the afternoon prior because the forecast for our final morning was rain—lots of rain. The evening before, I warned the group of the chance the morning shoot would be washed out, but gave them a departure time just in case. If we woke to a light rain, I promised we’d give sunrise a shot, but if it was dumping, the roads, which are already marginal, might very well be unnavigable. Privately pessimistic, I was surprised to wake the next morning and see dry pavement out my window—and even more surprised to walk outside to find the sky overhead filled with stars. Hmmm, maybe we can pull this off…

That optimism was short-lived. By the time we parked and started the walk through the darkness to the lake, incoming clouds had erased the stars, filling the sky, except for a narrow opening on the eastern horizon. Once everyone was settled in at the lake, I went to work trying to find a composition of my own. After determining that the sun would appear somewhere near the left side of the Negit Island cinder cone, I moved around to spots that allowed me to organize the randomly scattered tufa platforms into something coherent and connected to the background.

As the light came up, it was pretty obvious that the rain had arrived across the lake and was heading in our direction. On the other hand, the opening on the horizon was hanging in there, creating the potential for a pretty special sunrise—and maybe, fingers crossed, a rainbow.

As I composed for the sun’s arrival, I dialed the aperture of my Sony 24-105 f/4 lens (on my Sony a7RIV) to f/18 in anticipation of a sunstar, and added a Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer to smooth the ripples in the water with a long exposure. While the rainbow never manifested, the sunrise was indeed special. The curtain of rain and moisture on the horizon subdued the sunstar a bit, but that was more than made up by the orange fringe the rising sun painted on the clouds, and the vivid sunbeam reflection on the lake surface. The first sprinkles of rain started landing just as the sun disappeared for good, and by the time we’d trudged through the volcanic sand back to the cars, it was really starting to come down. But no one seemed to care, and I couldn’t help privately celebrating another memorable chapter in my long relationship with Mono Lake.

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A Mono Lake Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.


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