Updated: Apr 8
For many years, I chased ERNIs: exceptional renditions of natural icons. I lined up with a hundred new-found friends on the shores of Maroon Lake and waited for sunrise light to hit the famed Maroon Bells, near Aspen, Colorado. When my first shoot was a disappointment, I went back again and again, day after day and year after year. I made nine pilgrimages to Delicate Arch with a 4x5 field camera on my back, trying to nail that perfect sunset shot, with golden light on the arch, snow on the La Sal Mountains, and beautiful clouds filling the sky. (After my ninth try, after finally making a decent but not exceptional image, the guy standing next to me piped up and said, “That was kind of nice. This is the first time I’ve ever been here.”) I made the long drive from my home in Boulder to the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado year after year during late September and drove up and down County Roads 5, 7, and 9, Last Dollar Road, and Owl Creek Pass, searching for aspen groves at the peak of fall color nestled beneath snow-dusted 14,000-foot peaks.
In some cases, it paid off. My very best images of the Maroon Bells (Midsummer at the Maroon Bells and Maroon Bells at Sunrise) and Longs Peak (Bear Lake Sunrise and Longs Peak from Bear Lake in Autumn) became durable best sellers as prints. Some of these images are still in my line, and still selling, a decade or more after I first shot them. But I shot other best-selling images in far more obscure locations. The only named peak in Columbine along the Trail to Arapaho Pass, my all-time best-selling image, is Mt. Neva, a 12,814-foot knoll that is the 720th highest peak in Colorado. Recently I donated a print of the image to Conservation Colorado’s annual Rebel with a Cause fundraiser. As a parlor game, I asked attendees if they could identify where I shot the photo. These were all Colorado residents with a strong interest in the outdoors. The trailhead for Mt. Neva is only an hour and a half drive from downtown Denver. Only one person could identify the location, and even that person needed several broad hints. The location for Sunrise Aspen, probably my most popular fall-color image, is so obscure it took me four days to find it. My second-best-selling wildflower image, Maroon Peak from West Maroon Basin, shows the back side of the Maroon Bells. Only the most diligent explorers of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness would recognize some of Colorado’s most famous peaks from that angle.
Today I rarely go to the heavily photographed locations that are featured in photo guidebooks, magazine articles, and websites. When I do, it is most often because I am pressed for time or am gearing up for a trip into the backcountry and have to spend one night near the trailhead so I can get an early start the next day. Now that I’ve shot nearly all of the iconic views in Colorado and many of the most famous views in southeast Utah, it’s possible that the best business strategy would be to travel to other states. I could, for example, stand shoulder-to-shoulder, tripod legs interlaced, at Schwabacher Landing or Oxbow Bend in the Tetons. I could drive 24 hours to Yosemite Valley in the spring when the waterfalls are booming and shoot from Tunnel View day after day. I could visit Yosemite in February and, 12 hours in advance, stake out a bit of turf amidst the thicket of tripods and defend it against all comers until I could shoot Horsetail Falls and El Capitan illuminated by the sun’s last rays. But I’ve chosen not to.
Instead, I’ve chosen to go deeper and deeper into places closer to home. True, there’s a danger that I will start to repeat myself. It’s also true that sometimes the best you can do in a location is to shoot the obvious, all-too-familiar scene and hope that exceptional light and atmospherics will make the image special. And it’s also true that not even the most skilled landscape photographer can make interesting photographs of a truly mundane subject. To quote former Life photo editor John Loengard, “Send a great photographer to shoot a boring subject and what do you get? Boring pictures.” But whenever possible these days I try to shoot in places where I am reasonably confident I will be the only person standing there when the light peaks. That doesn’t mean I always go to some place new. Often it means returning to a location I’ve visited in the past, but with a new idea. Perhaps I’ll go back to an area because the last time I visited I was still shooting 4x5 film. Digital tools give me far more options when it comes to shooting in high-contrast light. Or perhaps I’ll go back and shoot star trails or the Milky Way, where on previous visits I only shot sunrise or sunset. Or perhaps I’ll return at a different time of year, which often reveals new possibilities. At the latitude of Boulder, the angle of sunrise and sunset varies by 60 degrees between summer solstice and winter solstice – an enormous difference in the angle with which light reaches my subject.
A final reason to return to promising locations is the strong possibility that I will see images I simply overlooked during earlier visits. With a mixture of chagrin at my initial oversight and delight at my new discovery, I have often said to myself, “Why didn’t I see that shot the first time I came here?” The images I produce during such trips may not be as profitable as some of my best-selling ERNIs, but they will almost certainly mean more to me when I’m too old to roam the deep wilderness than my best-selling shot of the Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake.
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