Stepping Back

July 20, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

columbine_070420_2000columbine_070420_2000White and lavender Columbine (Aquilegia caerulea), Blue Lake Trail

Art students, when I was at school, sometimes joked that a sculpture was something you bumped into when you stepped back to look at a painting. They were usually painters themselves, of course, teasing classmates who sculpted, or, more rarely, trying to make a serious argument for one medium over the other. Art historians repeat the joke, but to do the opposite: to point out how unfairly Monet is favored over Henry Moore, or Pollock over Paolozzi, or for that matter Picasso the painter over Picasso the sculptor.

We have biases — as individuals, and as much as we contribute to popular taste: flowers over fungi, raptors over robins. Photographers, too, play favorites. For every artful paw-paw flower there are a thousand photos of great grey owls or Alaskan grizzlies. And without deprecating either, if you're shooting a spectacular carnivore at twelve frames a second, sooner or later you're going to capture it doing something spectacular.

Flower photographers work harder, if only because mediocrity is easily at hand. The "oh, that's nice" down-shot of a sunny daffodil trumpet, the corolla of the black-eyed Susan, a purple hyacinth that catches the eye as you're about to get in the car, on the way to something more important. Many of us bump into floral portraiture while we're trying to look at something else.

So it was on July the 4th this year. I had set out early up the canyon in the hope of beating holiday traffic, thinking it might be a good idea to hike the five miles or so to Blue Lake, a small subalpine gem at the base of Cameron Peak in the Rawah Wilderness of Colorado. Reports had said the snow was off the trail above 10,500ft and the weather was promising: hot later, but mild enough at seven or eight a.m. I started out at about that time, the parking lot near the Laramie Road already filling up. It wasn't ideal. By eleven, when I reached the top, the sun would be high and fierce, broadly illuminating the north slope of the bowl, its rock cairn, and the bleached krumholtz, but washing out the lake itself and its southern prospect. I would be back at the car before evening lent a moody magic to the tree-line shore. Staying overnight where Fall Creek crossed the trail wasn't an option this weekend.

But there are always opportunities. Some of the best professional photographers favor conditions others consider counter-intuitive. Annie Leibovitz welcomes overcast skies. She knows how to handle flat light, even with minimal fills, reflectors and strobes, and still get the dramatic tarnished effects of her Vanity Fair shoots. David was telling me earlier in the week about a flower photographer he admired who preferred to shoot either side of noon, between ten and two, and more often than not, directly into the sun. Conventional wisdom — the sun at your back, a strong light source — benefits conventional photographers. Artists and innovators tend to make their own wisdom. And some know when to change tack, and take a different direction.

mertensia-lanceolata_070420_1800mertensia-lanceolata_070420_1800Prairie bluebells (Mertensia lanceolata), Blue Lake Trail

Prairie bluebells (Mertensia lanceolata), Blue Lake trail

As it happened, my original plans were moot by the time I'd reached the lake. Along the way, in the meadows either side, among nurse logs and wetland seep, what seemed like the full gamut of Colorado wildflowers was out: Mertensia, Arnica, columbine, wild strawberries, osha, glacier lily, mountain parsley, marsh marigold. A quick online search will list some of these flowers as appearing until June, and I hadn't expected nearly so many, but I had forgotten the elevation. Time slows in the mountains. Five thousand feet below, that may have been true, but it was still snowmelt here, despite the Independence Day festivities in town, the illicit flash-bang neighborhood fireworks, the smell of grilling from down in the cove. 

And so the landscape session, the lake session, became in impromptu flower shoot. As I'd thought, the subalpine bowl at the top of the trail was warming fast, and I stayed only a short time, taking photographs of the creek that fed the north end of the lake, the steep switchback up to the pass, stubborn ribbons of snow on the west shore. Even then, yellow avalanche lilies occupy the foreground. The area up to 11,000 feet in this spot has a curious transient quality. After five miles of hiking and five hours travel time, I rarely stay more than a few minutes (camping is also prohibited in a quarter-mile zone around Blue Lake and Hang Lake to ease pressure on the habitat), and I'm not alone in that. Most of the hikers I passed, or those slipping past me as I stopped to shoot, paused as briefly, turned, and began the trek back to the trailhead. 

The cliche is true on the trail, as it is in life. The journey matters here, and not just the destination. For visitors feeling the heat or the altitude, the cool of the creekside is more comforting than exposed tree-line, and in the Rawahs, a raven or water ouzel might make an appearance. For the photographer, the cover of lodgepole pine, spruce or fir and the filtered light through the tree canopy produce startling effects. I've been tempted, as I was with the picture of Mertensia lanceolata here, to desaturate the image a little, thinking no one would believe the intense royal blues and magenta were natural. A lavender and white columbine (Aquilegia caerules), the state flower, had a similar glow in the undergrowth. Pausing, stepping back, benefits the photographer as much as the footsore hiker. And when we bump into wildflowers while we're on our way to look at something else, it's usually best to turn and take the hint.


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