I recently asked what kinds of things you'd like me to use audio for, and many of you requested that I share the stories behind some of my photos. For this first installment, I'm bringing it to you in both text and audio. It's a particularly meaningful photo to me, and a story I hope you will enjoy.
With nearly four million annual visitors, Yosemite National Park is easily one of the most heavily trafficked natural areas in the United States. Considered by many to be the Mecca of landscape photography, it's statistically possible that over one billion photos have been created here. Much of the park's notoriety is due to the iconic black and white images created by Ansel Adams. More recently, Galen Rowell climbed these peaks, creating beautiful color photos which were widely published. Although the grounds of Yosemite stretch over 1200 square miles, the vast majority of pictures are made in a small seven mile area known as Yosemite Valley. There are countless books, maps, and websites which detail exactly where to stand in order to get the best perspective. Signs appear on the side of the road which read "Preserve your Kodak moment here." Tour buses packed with shutterbugs spill into parking lots while paid guides point out each landmark through a bull horn. In 2005, I hiked in these same woods and wondered how I could possibly create something unique when so many photographers had gone before me.
On a pleasant evening in July, I found myself standing directly in front of Half Dome, one of the park's most well known features. As the sun went down, I made several pictures of the majestic 8,836 foot dome reflected in the Merced River. It was a beautiful scene, but nothing that was really different from the postcards being sold on the souvenir racks. In fact, my image looked quite similar to the back of the 2005 California state quarter. I waited restlessly as the last light of the day vanished. What happened next was nothing short of remarkable. A group of teenagers rolled in on bicycles and carelessly tossed them to the ground. Just as quickly as they arrived did they begin to leap from the top of the bridge and free fall into the river more than 50 feet below. With each jump, a few seconds of tense silence was followed by a jubilant splash and shouts of joy which echoed through the darkening sky.
My opportunity to create a unique photo of Half Dome had arrived, and I ran through a quick mental checklist of what was needed to capture the moment. At the time, I did not own an external flash and was forced to use the pop up on my then new Canon 10D. While not ideal, it would provide enough light to illuminate a person in the foreground. In order to properly expose the landscape, I raised the ISO to 800 and used a wide aperture of f5.6. The shutter was set to maximum flash sync speed of 1/250th. Next, I arranged my composition with a wide angle zoom lens and set the camera on a tripod. Just then, this young man soared from the bridge and I snapped one photo. A feeling of euphoria came over me as I reviewed the LCD screen. Having captured the shot I wanted, I began to pack my bags by the light of the moon. Before heading back to my campsite, I gave the group a few business cards and offered to email the image once I got back to New York. I never heard anything from them, that is until now.
I received an email from a gentlemen named Scott. He wrote, "Probably 6 years ago my family and friends went to Yosemite. I remember meeting you there. I was with a couple of my friends jumping off the bridges. One of the pics was on your website for a while." He went on to say, "I've recently been thinking about starting a photography business in Springfield Missouri and thought I would check out your site once again for some inspiration. I love your work, and am very jealous of the beautiful places you get to shoot." The irony of his message made me pause. It was his leap which helped me believe I could create unique images, and succeed in the photography industry no matter what the odds were. Now, six years later he was looking to me for inspiration. The truth is, he doesn't need my advice. He only needs to continue leaping fearlessly while forging ahead to follow his dreams.
When we set aside ego and put ourselves in a position where we stand to fail, the possibility for success is much greater than if we had played it safe. The risk is often equal to the reward. For me, success is not merely defined by print sales. In fact, this particular photo was not one of my best selling images from the trip, nor was it without technical flaws. Yet, when I think of Yosemite, I'll always remember this moment as a turning point in my career.
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