You Had to Be There

Gary Hart Photography: Sierra Moon, Mt. Williamson, California

Sierra Moon, Mt. Williamson, California
Sony a7R V
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 100
1/125 second

I was never one of those analog purists who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital world. Despite a pretty extensive and carefully curated album collection, I jumped into the CD revolution early (1980) and with both feet, then embraced the transition to MP3 and subsequent digital audio formats with similar fervor. (Part of me still longs for the sound of vinyl, but since my daughter and son-in-law now have custody of my old turntable and albums, I’ve retained unlimited visitation privileges.) And as much as I love the tactile and olfactory experience of an actual book, not to mention the soothing presence of a filled bookshelf, overwhelming convenience made my transition to Kindle-reading fast and painless.

So when nascent digital cameras appeared on the scene around the start of the 21 Century (are we really almost 1/4 of the way through it?), it should be no surprise that I was an early adopter. I acquired my first digital camera in 2000, and haven’t clicked a single frame with my (beloved) Olympus OM-2 since purchasing my first DSLR in 2003.

I love too many things about digital photography to list them all, but coming instantly to mind are digital capture’s immediate feedback that enables me to tweak exposure and composition right now, the ability to change my ISO (known to photographers as ASA) with each frame, and not having to wait for the slides or prints to return from the lab to review my images. And to my eye, the quality of a large digital print surpassed prints from my medium of choice, color transparencies, many (many) years ago.

The advent of digital photography also brought tremendous power over the finished product—suddenly color photographers could enhance images in ways we’d only dreamed of. Dodging, burning, saturation, blending, focus stacking—soon it became clear that the possibilities are limited only by the photographer’s imagination (and Photoshop skills).

But, as Spider Man reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility. The line separating appropriate/inappropriate digital manipulation has always been fuzzy, with each photographer deciding individually where to place it. An unfortunate byproduct of this freedom is that some photographers have pushed the bounds of credibility with their processing so much that the credibility of all photographers has suffered. It saddens me to know that many people (who don’t know me) will look at an image like this Sierra moonset and immediately assume that I added the moon.

As much as I appreciate the ability to process my images, I’ve never been able to comprehend some photographers’ desire to pretend they were there for something they didn’t actually see. For me (and many other nature photographers, I’m sure), photography is first about honoring nature rather than to dazzle an audience. That doesn’t mean I don’t take processing steps to make my scenes look their best, it just means that I want my creativity to happen in my camera, not my computer. Which is why for me the real thrill photography isn’t as much the image itself (and the attention it garners), as it is the being there to witness the moment.

Speaking of being there…

While I didn’t schedule this year’s Death Valley winter workshop specifically because of the opportunity to photograph the moon setting behind the Sierra Crest, this moonset was very much on my radar once the workshop was in my calendar. I do schedule the Death Valley workshop around the full moon setting at sunrise, but that’s because it aligns nicely with Manly Beacon from Zabriskie Point. And because the Alabama Hills are just a 90-minute drive from the workshop’s base in Death Valley, after 3 days photographing Death Valley, we wrap up the workshop in the Alabama Hills. Since the moon always sets a little later than it did the prior day, and the Sierra Crest rises much higher than the mountains beyond Zabriskie Point, in addition to the Zabriskie moonset, I’m also able to time the Alabama Hills visit for the best morning to capture the (nearly) full moon setting behind the Sierra Crest.

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moon, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

Winter Moon, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

From our vantage point this year the moon set behind the south flank of Mt. Williamson, one of 15 14,000’+ peaks in California, and at 14,380′ second only to Mt. Whitney (14,500′) in elevation. I’ve photographed some version of this Sierra moonset many times over the last 20 years, but a couple of things made this year’s experience particularly special for me.

First was the absolutely incredible volume of snow blanketing the Sierra. California’s extremely wet winter translates to lots of snow in the Sierra, all the way from Gardnerville to Lone Pine (about 200 miles) it was more snow than I’ve ever seen on the east side of the Sierra. And as if that weren’t enough, a cold storm a couple of days before our arrival had freshened up the existing snow, and added snow all the way down to the peaks’ intersection with the Alabama Hills.

The morning’s second special factor was the timing of the moon’s disappearance behind the Sierra Crest, which coincided perfectly with the morning alpenglow kissing the peaks. We’ve all seen the pink band above the horizon opposite the sun shortly before sunrise and after sunset. Sometimes called “the belt of Venus,” this glow happens because sunlight skimming Earth’s surface just before sunrise (or shortly after sunset) has to battle its way through the thickest part of the atmosphere. This scatters the shorter wavelengths (those toward the blue end of the visible spectrum), leaving only the longer, red wavelengths low on the horizon. When mountains are high enough to jut into this region of pink light, we get “alpenglow.” (In the Zabriskie Point image, imagine much taller mountains that reach into the pink region.)

BTW, I’ve actually processed three images from this morning’s moonset, the other two bookending this one’s capture. But because my photography is about my relationship with my subjects, I don’t like to share an image until I’ve written something about it. I’ll be sharing them in a blog post soon (-ish?), but you can actually preview the other two in the gallery below (you’ll need to find them yourself, but it won’t be hard to figure out).

Read more about moon photography

More Sierra Crest and Death Valley Moonsets

Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE


6 Comments on “You Had to Be There

  1. Gary! Your philosophical point you make about your photography reminded me immediately of the initial time of researching my Lincoln Christian University, Master’s Thesis, ADAMS’ART (1983, 175 pgs, 456 footnotes from 1,500 note cards). Ansel himself read the draft and critiqued it giving me high marks and particularly noting it was the most on himself gathered in one place he was aware of at the time (1981). My time of research began with the SEP 3, ’79 Time cover issue and ended with the Playboy (May,1983) interview–in the bibliography but too late to integrate into the thesis. Also my correspondence with Ansel responding to the draft is included, but not the correspondence that followed. His bound in AA-RED copy was a gift to Virginia, but Anne couldn’t find it !!?? Hammond couldn’t find it at the CCP UA, but it might be in their Virginia collection. The class was The Theology of Aesthetics and I was doing five subjects under my mentor and major professor the same semester–virtually a thesis due in each class and being a procrastinator, I knew I had to start on something immediately and this one had seemed the best pick to start with: choose an art form, an artist and do a critique. A no brainer for me: photography, Ansel Adams. I had won an International Photo Contest as a teenager and always from nine had a camera about me! It was THE week of the TIME AA cover story (actually I have a Vernal Fall color transparency from the issue). I was a late bloomer and 42 at the time (TEDS, DMISS, at 46–now 84). As much as I was already aware of Ansel and with run ins with him, my first at BEST’s Studio coming out of my first Yo-Backpack, 1957, and on an Emigrant backpack, 1966, I wasn’t prepared for what I would discover over the four years of research that would follow. As it was I was able to in the end write a summary paper for all five classes (35@) which became the draft for the thesis which he read. A theology-philosophy major (at the wonderment of Ansel–we corresponded at length) the validity for the thesis was establishing Ansel as a paradigmatic figure following from Stieglitz as the recognized artist of a genre! You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to actually accumulate the above material for the write–it was like hunting out hen’s teeth! Now you have four major publications and mine is only on my own shelf! As it happened, the first question that arose from my viewing “Frozen Lake and Cliffs” on the far end wall (as it was then) with Ansel taking me in–filthy’Stinking skinny kid just out of the mountains–was “Why BLK’n’WHT and not color!?” OTOH, I could not deny he had captured my experience!! That is easily addressed for the readers, but what threw me for a loop very soon into my research was having become aware of Marin’s and O’Keefe’s influence on him when I read his statement, “My photography is as abstract as O’Keefe’s and Marin’s paintings!” – “Really!!??” – When Marin got excited he painted with a brush in both hands and O’Keefe said she was not phornographic, but !!?? The solution of the enigma was a simple one. After moving from the easily understood abstraction of the two-dimensional results and camera lens abstraction as givens, the significant likeness between the three artists was that they each always had a subject in front of them (and not just a mind creation) from which they were making an effort to create an “equivalent” of the ineffable for them. “CONGRATULATIONS!” Gary “a really SPECIAL “make” !! Yo-Paul

  2. Your writing is do here and now and real. Wry much like your photography. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Perfect Timing | Eloquent Images by Gary Hart

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