Sunday, June 15, 2008


For the past two days, we’ve been photographing. To many people, this sounds like driving around and taking pictures of the mountains, but it’s really a lot of work, so I’ll take you through a day in the life of a photographer in the Tetons.

The day starts in the afternoon. You must first decide where to spend tomorrow morning. This decision is extremely important because you have to scout your location for sunrise. If you fail for whatever reason to scout, you’ll end up spending precious minutes searching for the perfect place to put the tripod or you’ll miss your turn or estimate the drive time wrong and end up being late. All of these are debilitating misfortunes, so you make your choice and scout the location right down to the perfect place to stand preferably to the nearest foot. In the case of one famous spot in the Tetons, you must set up within three feet of a certain spot or the shot simply doesn’t work. That said, you find out exactly where you’re going to place the tripod and shoot and maybe even mark it so that you can find it again. After this, you can look for wildlife. Maybe you find some agreeable animals. Maybe you don’t. If you do find animals willing not to run away or simply lose interest and walk away, you have about a 5% chance of getting a decent shot. You continue with wildlife until the light fades and go to a late dinner. All the while you are mentally preparing for getting up at 4:30 the next morning. You catch all the precious minutes of sleep you can. You jump out of bed at 4:30, throw your clothes on, and pray that you don’t fall asleep while driving. You drive to the predetermined location and set up the gear and wait. In a few minutes, the sun starts to rise and light your subject, so you’re busy for the next hour or half hour. When the light is gone, you drive back, eat breakfast (it’s only 7 am), and take a shower. After the shower you probably sleep until lunch and spend the early afternoon thinking about tomorrow until the next day begins. Well, that’s a day in the life of a photographer.

The past two days we’ve spent in this fashion, but I’ve quite intentionally left out the best part – the sunrise! Those 30 to 45 minutes make up for the rest of the day, the horrible hours, and all the times wind or cloud kills your shot. First the sky becomes bright. All but the brightest stars go to sleep. The eastern sky glows a bright yellow fading through orange into a pale blue up to the deep, dark sky. In the west a pink glow fades down into blue again. Everything is visible as it is in daylight, but there are no shadows. It’s as if everything glows with a light of its own. Everything is quiet, and even the wind hesitates to blow. The whole world seems to hold its breath. The mountains have the faintest extra glow to their edges. This glow isn’t really a color. It simply seems luminescent. There is no light striking them, yet they begin to have silvery-golden edges. Then the very first rays of light caress the summit of only the tallest mountain. The light is pink and soft. It’s almost as if the dawn wants to wake the sleeping giant as gently as possible. Then, the light paints further and further down. Gradually becoming brighter, sharper, and the slightest bit more orange. This is magic time. All the rocks and every snow field jumps out and salutes in flaming color the rising sun. This only lasts five to ten minutes at most. The light turns golden and becomes harsher. After gold, it turns white and harsh and seems to burn the eyes compared to the soft and glowing colors. Sunrise is over and it’s now day.

Yesterday morning we shot at the most famous spot in America, Shwabacher’s Landing. If you’re a photographer, you’ve heard of it and probably have shot there. It’s simply a beaver pond situated at the perfect angle to reflect Grand Teton and the surrounding peaks at sunrise. Every morning photographers line the shore to see the show. Our morning had not a cloud in the sky, and the wind quit for a moment at just the right time. It was wonderful.

This morning we went to Oxbow Bend. This is a place in the Snake River where it becomes very wide and still amid willows and aspens. Moose love the area, and the river sometimes reflects Mount Moran. Moran is a less-famous neighbor of the Grand, but it is an absolute monolith. It stands alone, huge and towering above the valley with a glacier flowing down in a fall down the center and its flat summit looking like broad shoulders, strong and immovable. This morning the aspens were yellow-green with their new spring leaves and the wind waited until after sunrise to blow. Fish jumped and fed throughout the river and birds sang. It was special thing for two such sunrises to happen in a row.

Today we’re leaving Jackson. We’re sad to go but excited about what’s ahead. As we often do, we’re leaving without knowing how far we’ll go or where we’ll spend the night. Something will come to us and we’ll figure it out though.


Nate said...

Again, good writing. I felt like I was standing with you at the beaver pond watching it all happen. Sorry you had to leave Jackson - we'll have to go back together sometime, the three of us.

I'm curious. If you hadn't gotten a good sunrise that morning, would you have gone back the next day?

Jason Lewis said...

I probably would have gone back. I tried twice at that spot in August and didn't really get a great shot either time. I've shot at Shcwabacher's about 5 times now, and I think that this one finally worked.