His palette was a thousand shades of gray
A parade of thundering clouds, each with a massive, billowy body, pushed through the Canadian Rockies, dragging giant footprints of black shadow. Mountain faces, indifferent to the molten fog or the hazeless sun, stared at each other across a U-shaped valley, over a flow of green conifers. The trees smoothed the valley floor but receded at timberline. Few trees dared to cross this line. Those that braved the shaled, rocky faces were twisted by the effort and left as snarling testimonials of the scarring elements.
It was spring. Winter's tide had ebbed, but rivers of snow still filled crevasse and pass, and the crack of avalanches reminded us that great powers were still at work and that here, man's roads may be fragile, temporary things.
It seemed that even a random picture of this would be a masterpiece. My friend, a professional photographer, was teaching me otherwise, as we watched sightseers lurch to a stop at the overlook, jump from a stuffed station wagon to dance thumbs and forefingers over 35-mm cameras as they swept the panorama. By virtue of sheer volume, wouldn't they have captured one masterpiece?
In contrast, my friend worked slowly. He shrouded his head with a black cloth as he stooped behind an accordion perched on a tripod, the legs of which were unevenly extended to accommodate the mountainside. The accordion was a camera: two wooden frames joined by black canvas that could be compressed like bellows. It was my job to protect this contraption and my friend from sudden rain with a large, multicolored golf umbrella. The sightseers took pictures of us, too.
The photographer wanted me to appreciate light, to give the light on the subject as much importance as the form in it. He explained that by the photographer's design, not by nature's, the final picture should grab the viewer, draw his eye to an outstanding focal point. Light was a tool for accomplishing this. But unlike on a stage or in a studio, where a light could be trained on the central element to exclude others, we had to wait and let the sun randomly spot, the clouds randomly curtain, until the desired effect happened.
Although the picture would be called black and white, I learned it is better to consider the photographer's palette as a thousand shades of gray. A goal was to incorporate as many gray tones as possible, while including the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. My friend used a method of exposure developed by Ansel Adams called the zone system, which -- if all equipment from camera through darkroom is calibrated -- guarantees a negative with the widest tonal range.
To determine the proper camera settings (aperture size and shutter speed), the zone system requires the use of a hand-held, spotting light meter and an exposure calculator, a set of cardboard rings that function like a slide rule. As the lighting fluctuated, the camera was readjusted.
My friend let me look through the camera. He had not squeezed much of the Rockies into the 5x7 inch format; he focused on a single mountain. Like removing useless decor from a fine sports car, or like cutting unnecessary words from a poem, he edited from the frame distracting and complicating elements, avoided turgid beauty.
He carefully picked his cast of clouds, watched them intently as they swirled in before the lens, and hoped the sun would break in concert. If it did, he took a picture and then rapidly reloaded another sheet of film in case the next moment was better.
The sightseers passed by again and were amazed to see us still there. When we finally did break camp, five hours had elapsed and a dozen pictures were taken.
We felt regret as we left. We felt attuned to the mountain's moods. We were leaving a friend. Months later, I saw the finished product. Enlarged to poster size, framed and matted, it was beautiful. The photograph was not literal, not just a pretty representation of a generic mountain; it was the record of some of the most gorgeous moments in a unique mountain's evolution. I wondered how many of these moments had passed since our visit, and if one had been appreciated.
My friend explained, as he showed me his darkroom, the process of extracting the image from the film. The part of the project I had witnessed in the Rockies was only one-quarter of the process!
Each negative had been individually developed to different criteria, then analyzed through working prints: sketches, notes made before a master print. After the best negative had been selected, the image had been enlarged, portions of it dramatically enhanced, others subtly diminished, the gray tones orchestrated to suit the composition, through a cumulative process requiring dozens of prints.
The darkroom, small, saturated with chemical smells, and lit only by a few dark, red bulbs, seemed a proving ground; a place where the artist is best as a servant, where the taskmaster demands that dross be skimmed from the image by techniques that must seem simple, invisible. Here, the photographic artist is separated from the collector of pretty images.
In a context the mountains are always beautiful, but extreme beauty haunts them as a phantom: One second it's there, the next it's gone. My friend could spot it, and more important, he could see it coming. He would then direct and edit, sculpt and paint. I had been there as the phantom passed, but I hadn't fully appreciated it until I had seen its portrait.
It is my friend's hope that this photograph will help others better see beauty, and that any wonder it invokes be applause for the forces that create mountains.