Chasing Ansel : Tetons and Yellowstone
You can’t talk about landscape photography or national parks without invoking the striking black and white photographs taken by Ansel Adams. Even for a lot of us, at least for me, Adams’ work are the unreachable bar that we’ve set for ourselves. Anybody can take a shot of the scenery, but making your soul stir with those images is a skill that’s very hard to grasp even for seasoned photographers with modern gears.
Long before I even started my trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks with a few friends, I was already thinking about it in black and white. Mainly because one of Adams work have long since stood in my memory: The Tetons and Snake River. This image have long since embodied to me what perfection is in a landscape photo. The perfect composition, the dynamic ranges, the dramatic details, and the emotions it elicits.
Therefore, going in to the National Parks, I tried to challenge myself to take my photos the way Adams would. How would he frame it, what exposure level, which subject, what’s the story that he’d want to show from the photo. Though tempted to do it all in B&W, I think some of his principles in landscape photography works in color as well. (And contrary to popular belief, Adams did produced quite a bit of photos in color)
We flew in to Salt Lake City and drove up to Jackson, WY before entering the Grand Teton National Park. The weather looked bleak, stormy, with thick coverings of fog and clouds over the mountains. There were only spurts when the Grand Tetons were actually distinctly visible.
The weather did break for a little bit when we got to Jenny Lake, but we decided to cancel our ferry ride to Hidden Falls since more rain was coming our way.
But I was too stoked to be able to finally go to the same exact spot where Adams had taken one of his most famous picture to be let down by the weather. The sun was just ahead of us, right above the mountains when we got to Snake River Overlook. Along with the overcast clouds,it was extremely difficult to even see the mountains. But after several attempts, I had a few that I thought might turn out well. It pales in comparison with the original, but here’s my rendition. The trees have definitely grown much taller in the decades after Ansel Adams visited here.
Afterwards, we went straight down to Mormon Row, hoping to see the sunset from there. Also another famous location for photographs of the Tetons, where old abandoned barns from the early homesteaders still sits. There were several wedding photo shoots happening here when we arrived, it’s that popular. The sky was still very grey with thick clouds, but the scenery was still stunning.
As the sun sets, we even heard coyotes howling in the distance… or at least I hoped they were in the distance and not close to us.
The rest of the trip were divided by the different regions of Yellowstone, first day we’d spend in the W/ SW grid visiting the geysers and Old Faithful, the next we’d visit NW / N grid passed Mammoth Springs and Lamar Valley.
Grand Prismatic Spring was the first geothermal site we visited, you could barely see the edges of the pool from the walkways because of the thick steam. So we went up to Fairy Falls Trail and took an unpaved hike up a ridge to get a more sweeping view of the basin.
Only then you get to appreciate how big the Spring is, especially when contrasted to the small ant-like lines of visitors.But up close, you do get a better view of the colorful micro bacterial colonies surrounding the pool. From the geysers, we headed towards the East side of the park, passing beautiful sweeping views of Hayden Valley.
If you look real close, the little dot in the middle of the photo below is a lone Bison. But one of my favorite views in the whole park is Lower Yellowstone Falls and Grand Canyon.
The waterfall feeds into Yellowstone River which eventually goes into Yellowstone Lake. Two different really good places to view the waterfall and canyons: Artist Point and Red Rock Point. From Red Rock, you have an option to hike down towards the lower lookout point. Which is probably where Ansel Adams had taken his shot from. I didn’t come down that path, but got a pretty good vantage point.
The next day we’d spend exploring the Northwest to Northeast sides of the park. Mammoth Springs is another big visitor area just like Old Faithful. Plenty of food, shops, and lodging here. This looks nothing like the pictures. But that’s because the springs and geyser discharge changes over time and thus the landscape changes along with it. But really every mile in the park is a beautiful scenery. With different geological features and shapes. And sometimes Yellowstone throws in a little pleasant surprise.
Heading further Northeast, we pass through parts of Lamar Valley. Where it’s teeming with bisons feeding on the open ranges, elks, deers, and supposedly wolves too.
We were here for three days and we barely scratched the surface. The park is so big, it’s impossible cover it all within a few days.
Ansel Adams spent many of his years here and other National Parks. It’s not hard to see why. It’s been over 140 years since Yellowstone was established as the first National Park. Though it’s very well protected, it’s still under constant threat of danger. Glaciers retreating, bigger wildfires.
Through his photography Ansel Adams helped raised awareness of these parks, made people appreciate their beauty, and help protect them.
Hopefully we can too.