The forecast calls for snow again next week, back to the cycle of seventy degree weather interrupted by cold and snow. Spring in Colorado. But I can’t complain, the winters down in the city are far more easier than the winters I had spent in my mountain cabin in Eldora. Nevertheless, when the weather breaks, I get the urge to head to the mountains with my camera.
I’ve been leaving my darkbox (the portable darkroom for wet plate collodion photography) in my truck, and have everything else ready to go a moment’s notice. My 8″ x 10″ camera, tripod, cooler filled with my wet plate chemistry and various items, gallon jugs of water, and an empty jug for the waste water. When the timing feels right to go photograph, I just toss that in the truck, and grab a pack with some warm clothes, a bit of food, some drinking water, kiss my lovely wife goodbye, and off I go.
When I got up this morning I had planned on making some salt prints, but the sun wasn’t right so I decided to go do some wet plate photography in the mountains. More and more an overcast sky seems to be my preferred light for much of my landscape photography. The softer quality of light helps me convey a dreamlike feel which I like in my photos.
I decided to head to my usual spot in the early morning shadows of Kataka Mountain. What draws me here, I can’t really say. Perhaps it is a certain solitude and a more intimate view of nature, if you can see it. While most landscape photographers would be higher up at Mount Bierstadt or Mount Evans seeking grander vistas, I usually prefer the quiet intimacy of the modest vistas. Trees, rocks, small streams, all of modest beauty devoid of the “look at me!” presence of the greater mountain peaks nearby. Besides, in the summer months there are a hell of a lot less people where I go!
On the hour or so drive to the spot the weather ranged from grey, to sunny, to snow squalls, to mix of all three. Pulling off the highway onto the road to the pass, the light was feeling just right for my photos. I took my time heading up the dirt road past the few houses at the beginning, up past the few picnic areas, up to quieter areas less travelled. Summer weekends can be fairly busy on the road with the tourists making the mountain loop, but midweek or off-season is generally pretty quiet. Just how I like it.
Every so often I pull over, get out and walk around an area to see what calls out to me. The first spot today was an area that ended up being a shooting range of sorts as well as a camping area. Strange mix if you ask me. The area was littered with blasted clay pigeons, beer can targets in the bushes, and broken bottles mixed in with randomly placed fire pits. I get target practice, I don’t get smashing beer bottles, especially where you set up camp. I can only imagine how these people live at home. And home is where they should stay if they can’t clean up after themselves. Onward to a more pristine spot not yet polluted by some so called nature lovers and outdoorsmen.
I drove to a higher point near an empty campground and got out and walked around. The air was crisp, scented with the smell of spring in the mountains. Pine, moisture, the gentle decay of plant matter in the undergrowth. Ahh, what an amazing smell! I truly feel alive standing in the solitude of the wild breathing in fresh mountain air. One deep breath is all it takes to bring me into the present moment, free of thoughts and worries of past and future, just here, right now.
With a mind free of preconceived notions I walk through the trees, over rock, up hills, just seeing. Just being. My photos usually come from meditative walks like this. Sure, I start off with a goal to make a photograph but the more meaningful part for me is clearing my head in nature. And while I always see beauty in the wild, the right scene for a photo doesn’t always call out to me, and that is okay too.
The wind was picking up, and with it snow, so I headed back down the mountain to find a new spot to walk. After checking out a couple spots, I settled on one and spent some time walking around and stopping to see scenes more deeply. I think I saw the photo I wanted to take, so I went back to the truck to set up my wet plate gear. The interesting thing about photographing with large format cameras is that you can spend a bunch of time setting up a shot, and then not taking a single photo. Today was no exception. The shot I set up just wasn’t calling out to me as I thought it might. Time to look for something else. I turned to grab the camera and tripod and was instantly intrigued with the scene behind me. A lone pine tree with some boulders around it, beyond it an opening in the trees leading to what felt like a place in a dream. I set the camera up and composed the shot it felt right, although I was wishing the opening beyond the tree was a little less bright.
As I started to pour collodion on an 8×10 plate, it began to snow. The whole process of getting a wet plate ready to shoot takes a few minutes and during that time the intensity of the snow increased. While the plate was in the silver tank I headed back to my camera to cover it with the dark cloth. The snow was already piling up on the black fabric. On some days a drastic change in the weather could have annoyed me, but not today. It was what it was, and kind of neat at that. When my plate was ready, I stuck my head in the darkbox, loaded the plate into the holder, then headed back to the camera to make the exposure. The snow was coming down hard, the quality of light completely different from when I set up the shot. “Lets see, f32 at 38 seconds feels right.” I make my exposure, laughing at the snow that was coming down even harder, and then head back to develop the plate. Back into the darkbox to develop, and then outside to where my tray of fixer was. My processing trays outdoors were quickly filling with snow, a funny sight when you think about the temperature control in darkrooms.
I had a big smile on my face as the plate developed out, and a bigger smile when the plate became a positive in the fixer. The heavy snow added so much to the image. The area where the opening was became toned down and gave it an even more dreamlike feel than I first imagined. Yet the main scene didn’t seem affected by the snow and retained the contrast and detail I wanted. I couldn’t ask for anything more! (Well, my silver tank was low and I ended up with a black band on the bottom of the image, but even that didn’t bother me.)
There were a couple other photos I wanted to make but I decided to tear down since the snow seemed to be getting worse. As soon as I had my truck packed up, the sun came back out and the snow stopped! I just laughed and drove off since my silver tank was low anyhow. Besides, I was happy with the one nice plate I had made, and the happy with my time spent in the wild.