Behind the Image: Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite

Behind the Image: Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite

Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite:  Image made April 8th, 2013

I was pleased to award William Toti the first place award for Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite in Feb. 2017. There have been countless photos taken of Tunnel View in Yosemite, but William’s transcends the rest by it’s exceptional quality of light, mood and strong composition.

Carla Steckley

Judge, ArtSpace Fine Art Photography Contest

Yosemite had been on my “places to shoot” list for a while because every photographer covets perfect, elusive Yosemite National Park photos, particularly a Tunnel View shot, made famous by Ansel Adams’ “A Clearing Winter Storm.”

I had scheduled a trip there to do a shoot, then had to reschedule, then reschedule again, until I began to wonder if I would ever get there.  I decided to nail the trip down by hiring a guide.  (I often hire a guide since, logistically, that is the most efficient way to get to as many photo locations as possible in the least amount of time.)

When I did finally go (April, 2013), I brought both my wife and my brand new Nikon D800.  This would be the first trip with that incredible 36 megapixel camera.

Breathtaking Boredom

Initially, Yosemite was, well Yosemite.  Overwhelming beauty, matched by overwhelming crowds.  Part of the appeal of landscape photography is, for me, the opportunity to spend some time with nature, just me, my wife, and maybe one more person.  That is not Yosemite.  Yosemite is busloads of tourists from all over the world who are rushed from site to site without the real opportunity to enjoy any of it, taking snapshots with their iPads that will look nothing like what they remember.  Yosemite is what happens when you allow unregulated and un-metered access to fragile and pristine places.  As long as this continues, Yosemite will continue to be endangered.

Bustling Boredom?

But from the photography point of view, those masses of people meant there were very few locations I could shoot that didn’t include several dozen human beings in the shot.  Add to that the fact that my Hawaii-raised wife frequently expressed her innate fear of bears, which was all the more amusing since no sane bear would come anywhere near this mass of humanity.  Her fear of bears did at one point prompt me to purchase a stuffed black bear and set it on our bed (“Don’t go in there– there’s a bear in our room!”), which I worried would be the most exciting thing to happen to us on the trip.

Beautiful, bustling, capital-beltway-like Yosemite

And Then the Surprise!

Then on the morning that we were scheduled to leave, we woke to an incredible sight: snow!

Calling an audible (as is often necessary), we decided to skip breakfast and head up to the famous spot known as “Tunnel View,” made famous by Ansel Adams’ “Clearing Winter Storm” photograph.

Here we had a spring storm, one that was sure to clear even quicker than Ansel’s.  We had no time to waste; we hurried to the Tunnel View parking lot, found absolutely nobody there (a first for this trip!), save for a lone coyote.  Having never encountered a coyote on one of my shoots before, I took a couple of snaps of that guy (I considered it a good omen), then headed over to the overlook.

This was one of the most amazing scenes I had ever encountered.  My wife heard me scream when I saw this– very out of character for this old Navy man.  But I knew this was a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Serpentine Vapors

As I expected, the spring day warmed and the snow quickly  began sublimating from solid to vapor.  The vapor began creating this serpentine, meandering form in the valley, something like a white smoke monster from the TV show “Lost.”  To the right of the valley, an updraft from Bridalveil Falls was causing the vapor to lift into the sky, then swirl around in an airborne eddy current.  The sun was just coming up behind Half Dome, creating a nearly horizontal “God’s Ray” into the valley, lighting up the vapor in a remarkable fashion.

The only thing left to do was to not screw it up as I captured the image on my new D800.

The shot at the top of this page was the result.  My most popular image, and my most awarded.  This image resulted in the great David Muench giving me the best compliment I have ever received as a photographer (“Better than Ansel’s.) Another great photographer, Carla Steckel said, “There have been countless photos taken of Tunnel View in Yosemite, but William’s transcends the rest by it’s exceptional quality of light, mood and strong composition.”  Perhaps that’s why it’s had over a million views on social media.

And to this day, it’s perhaps the image of which I am most proud.

And of course, it got me this.

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Beauty and the Beast (New Movie)

Beauty and the Beast (New Movie)

Castle on a Cloud: Image made April 5th, 2016

800-year-old Cesis Castle, Latvia

When my daughter was a little girl, her favorite movie was Beauty and the Beast. We watched it together many times when she was growing up, to the point where she essentially had it memorized, something only a child could do. She could recite every line, sing every phase, from the opening credits to nearly the end of the movie. It was a major source of pleasure in her young life.

She’s an adult now, but the movie still brings her fond memories. So the thought of a live action version of Beauty and the Beast new movie was exciting to my family. As a result, we decided we would all get together, my wife, our daughter, her husband, our son, and see the new version this weekend. We had been looking forward to this for months.

Upon seeing it, we were profoundly disappointed. I, for one, could not understand how Disney could cast a lead character whose acting was so wooden (particularly in the opening scenes) and who needed so much auto-tune to correct her weak voice, that the technology itself became a distraction. Most of the characters were mere ghosts of the profoundly great singers and actors who portrayed the original characters. But the worst of them was Belle herself.

You gotta be kidding!

I was dumbfounded by the casting decisions. That is, until my kids explained that the lead actor, Emma Watson, had played in all the Harry Potter movies.

Suddenly it made sense. “Children” of my daughter’s generation were already invested in the story. Those tickets were sold before the movie was even released.

If the studio was going to sell the story to today’s children, they needed a hook. And what better hook than to cast a woman who today’s kids had already grown to know in the Harry Potter movies?

“Children” of my daughter’s generation were already invested in the story. Those tickets were sold before the movie was even released.

Crass Commercialism is one thing, but…

In other words, the studio was betting that the draw from Harry Potter would outweigh the negative aspects of how the actress played the lead character. After all, nobody would know how bad she was in the role until they had purchased their tickets and were sitting in the theater. But I don’t think that this new version will cause the same degree of devotion and, well, love for the characters and the movie that the earlier version did.

What’s all this have to do with photography?

Photographers are also sometimes driven to allow commercial interests override their creative or artistic instincts. “Don’t you think that would sell better if the sky was just a bit more saturated?” “I’m looking for something like Peter Lik meets Galen Rowell.” “Commercial buyers are infatuated by abstracts these days. Can you do some of that?”

Let me be clear: just like there was nothing wrong in casting Emma Watson to draw in a younger audience to an old movie, there is nothing wrong with making photographic adjustments for commercial purposes. Even photographers have to eat.

But if you’re like me, these adjustments leave you cold. The emotion simply isn’t there.

Getting back to Beauty, in the end, I was actually a bit comforted that the new movie didn’t have the same emotional impact as the original. Nothing can or should replace those memories. When we watch the original, my daughter is eight years old again, 9/11 hasn’t happened yet, and both the world and I are substantially younger.

Who would want to replace that?

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