Making a Mountain "Look How it Feels"

November 06, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

In April 1927, Ansel Adams spent a day hiking up toward Half Dome in Yosemite. The trip was long and hard, and by the time he arrived at his final destination, he had only two unexposed glass plates left. Once at the Diving Board, a small rock protrusion below the face of Half Dome, he was overwhelmed by the beauty and immensity of the sheer granite wall towering over him.  As he set up his view camera and readied it for the exposure, he realized that the photograph he was about to make would not communicate the experience of that moment. The photograph might faithfully duplicate the shapes, textures, and  landscape, but it would not capture the experience of being overwhelmed by this massive monolith that in some ancient past had lost half its face in an apocalyptic crash of rock.

Adams later said that what he wanted was to "make it look how it felt." A straight exposure could not do that. So, Adams reached for his heavy red Wratten A filter, which dramatically darkened the surrounding sky and much of the face of the granite.  This creative choice imparted drama and awakens in viewers a sense of the monolith's foreboding presence.  The resulting photograph, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, has a gothic and ominous quality that unsettles us even as it lures us.  It retains this power despite the damage to the negative from the 1937 fire in Adam's darkroom that requires the prints to be cropped tightly at the top.

In early 2009, I was photographing in Yosemite during an early spring storm. I approached Half Dome and stood alone in the meadow beneath it, watching as the clouds drifted across it, sometimes revealing and other times concealing its surfaces and details. As I watched, gusts of wind lifted flurries of snow off its face and swirled them beautifully around the granite. Watching this primordial dance of granite, ice, clouds, and wind, I felt the mountain.

When we feel the mountain, we feel our own smallness. We are reminded that we are neither the measure nor the measurer of all things. We realize that we are measured by forces beyond ourselves, forces that both bear us up and bear down upon us. Such experiences deliver us from our exaggerated sense of our indispensability to the cosmos. 

This sobering sense of our smallness opens the possibility of living more joyfully. It permits us to be creatures again unburdened by graceless perfectionism. It beckons us to embrace our fragility and limitations, and to love and be loved through them. It calls forth compassion for ourselves and all other creatures in the face of our and their partialities.

Storm over Half Dome asks you to feel the mountain.


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