Image No. 11 – Chasing an Icon
Throughout the country, there are what I would call iconic images, those places that seem to draw many photographers to capture an image of sublime beauty. Several come to mind in our National Parks: Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, The Watchman in Zion, Old Faithful in Yellowstone or Half Dome from Glacier Point in Yosemite to name a few. These are the places where photographers will arrive several hours before sunrise or sunset just to get the best position. They will jockey for position, many times with tripod legs intertwined, try to shoot over your shoulder or simply squeeze in where there is really no room to be had. These are the locations where morals and decorum go out the window just to get the shot.
Even though they are outside our national park system, the Maroon Bells near Aspen, Colorado is one of those locations. My first night camping nearby, I was awoken by the headlights of cars traveling up the road to them and I figured I’d better get a move on in case it was a bit crowded. When I arrived, I got the final parking spot in the lot that was controlled by something of a policeman directing the cars where to park, or that there wasn’t any room left and they had to go to the nearby overflow parking area!! But I was even more astounded to find the lake filled end to end with tripods…and it was almost an hour before first light, not even sunrise!! Some had chairs and some were making coffee, some were playing games on their iPads and some were making a party of it. This small group of up to 200 people was certainly not the quiet, respectful congregation I had anticipated, and I was barely able to find a clear spot lakeside.
When trying to photograph one of these icons, you can only wish all the elements fall into place in hopes of capturing this spot in all the glory possible. Here at the Bells, you would hope for peak autumn color of the aspen groves that lie in the valley below the peaks and at the head of the lake, which itself you hope for calm winds to get the perfect mirrored reflections. You hope that the sky along the eastern horizon is clear while there are clouds behind the peaks to capture the first pink rays of sunshine at dawn and like icing on the cake, a dusting of snow to accentuate the texture of the Maroon Bells and it’s flanks. That’s not too much to ask for is it? Simply perfect conditions? For me, I was happy just to be there and even happier that the sky was clear (and not raining) to see the sunrise accentuate the maroon color of the two peaks. But a perfectly clear sky is a mostly boring sky and that is what I had the first morning and the almost identical conditions the next morning. Then the weather deteriorated and clouds rolled in followed by rain. Denis, who I had met at the lake, and I headed toward Kebler Pass in hopes of finding some better weather but spent the day waiting out the rain. By days end, we changed our plans and headed back to Aspen having high hopes of clearing skies and snow on the mountain tops. We managed to get back to “our” spot with a few rocks for foreground, and as the sky brightened, the peaks indeed did have snow, but also clouds which were everywhere. There would be no light for the snow covered peaks, but we did have calm winds for reflections. We decided to stay on another morning before giving up our quest for the perfect combination of conditions, but the next morning we were shut out of our spot, but we did find another spot that was free and squeezed our gear in. It looked promising all along with a few clouds rolling past the peaks and the eastern sky clear while the winds were mostly calm for good reflections. But as the magic hour approached, clouds began to appear in the east and it looked like there would be no warm glow on the fresh snow.
This pause made me rethink my composition though. I began to feel that having the rocks in the foreground forced me to use a very wide angle lens sending the mountains very far off in the frame, and thereby losing much of their power in the scene. I began to recompose using a bit longer focal length of 35mm and was able to regain their power into the image just as a faint glow found its way onto the peaks for probably less than a minute. I was able to clip off a few frames and it was gone, never to be seen again that morning. It didn’t seem too special at the time and I left the Maroon Bells a bit sad that I had not captured a strong image of them. When I began to process the images I had of the Bells, I worked on a few that I thought were the strongest first, but it wasn’t until I worked on this one that I felt satisfied with the results. While I liked the wide angle images for the symmetry of the valley along with the peaks, I felt this one was a much more powerful image of the mountains themselves while still being able to incorporate the reflections in the lake.