Months after a trip to Death Valley, flipping through the book “Ansel Adams in the National Parks,” I came across his photo of Zabriskie Point. It’s the view 170 degrees to the left of the lens trajectory of those photographing Zabriskie Point. Seeing it requires breaking focus from Manly Peak’s photogenic spire. It requires doing an about-face in front of professionals who sigh and question your skill. “She’s an artist, not a photographer,” those who met me said as I swiveled. Ansel Adams took that shot - the shot at the backs of the Zabriskie Point sunrise photographers.
I shot the photo in landscape orientation rather than portrait, like he did, with the same sliver of perspective over the maroon tip of a wavy yellow rock formation, defying a compositional preference for thirds. I thought it was a nicely lit photo, despite the haze that trampled our sunrise, and that I might make a sculpture out of it using chicken wire and discarded fabrics.
A few dozen pages later, I saw the shot that I took of Devil’s Golf Course. Adams, again, shot it in portrait, while I shot it in landscape. We both crouched down to keep the salt flats in nearly the entire frame, leaving just a ray of perspective at the top to account for the vast mountains framing the valley, miles and miles and miles further on.
I can’t claim credit for this shot. When I pulled up with my dogs at the Devil’s Golf Course parking lot, another photographer was just making his way back to his Sprinter van. He suggested capturing he salt crystals from a low crouch. He also seemed to be traveling alone, and also had a dog. The inside of his van was immaculately instagramable, with a spacious, stylish futon that complemented Penny’s perfectly tied dog bandana. Glancing back at my jeep, I wondered how the dog hair in his van had vanished, and I wondered if my dogs and I could live that lifestyle.
I took a deep breath, I took my time, and I got the shot. It wasn’t quite so simple - I had to walk out a ways on glass-like salt crystals that cut like a knife, crouch low in an awkwardly balanced squat, manually focus, and try to keep the damn thing level. But I got it.
I couldn’t weigh whether reading this coffee table book on Adams in the parks influenced my photographs or not. I’d read it once before, during one of many feverish, food poisoning-induced, episodes in Tajikistan. I remembered very little, and it would be years before I purchased a proper camera, anyway, preferring until then to recreate my visual experience in paint.
But now, in California, Adams’ national parks shots were all of a sudden local, and I had a literal frame of reference. My heart lit up when I saw that Adams, also, used a close crop on random forest items, making leaves and stumps incongruously intimate on the floor of Yosemite Valley’s grandeur. He photographed what I’ve been collecting as reference photos for future artwork, crystallizing the artistic composition of foliage rather than re-doing it himself.
The campgrounds in Death Valley were all full, but nobody was on the winding road up to Ubehebe Crater. It last erupted as recently as 300 years ago, and I was equally impressed by the surrounding ash as by the kaleidoscopic volcanic crater itself. Only creosote grew for miles and miles, that prehistoric commune of bushes connected by roots. Only after a year in the desert can I sleep without sneezing when it opens its pores to sap up morning and evening dew. It grows beyond 11,000 years, and to this day it is the only plant to colonize the soil surrounding Ubehebe Crater.
Again, turning 170 degrees from the overlook onto the crater, I crouched low to capture miles of creosote in the charcoal landscape, as had Adams in 1952.
My tour of the Ansel Adams book ended with one final gasp. I was transported back to Zabriskie Point, where I watched the leader of a photo tour demonstrate how he used a filter to capture the clouds, turning them from debbie downers into polarized sculptures. I played around with it, allotting 1/8th of the frame to the horizon’s mountains. You know, they say your composition should be divided in thirds. But, on page 291, in 1946, in the same spot, Adams gave the frame to the sky.