10 minute read

Yosemite, Interrupted

Yosemite National Park exists somewhere between scenic bliss and unsettled terrain. Angling her GFX100S, Rebecca Gaal discovers its discrepancies

As the earth spins and twists in orbit, the world’s poles move here and there – rolling and sloping from the farthest reaches of the sun. Phases of warmth and cold characterize the shifts, casting the planet in changing climates, clear-cut and familiar. For the most part, these stints follow a predictable sequence, notwithstanding certain atmospheric challenges. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter are as expected as they are cyclic, but in some parts of the world, this succession has become suspended – even upended – in favor of something much more curious.

Circumnavigating the peaks of Sierra Nevada, conservationist Rebecca ‘Becky’ Gaal soon started to notice an abundance of biodiversity. As America’s third-largest national park, Yosemite encompasses a vibrant range of conditions – incongruously mixed to create a strange mish-mash of geography, rife for photographic invention. “I’ve been coming here since I was little,” she notes. “It’s so magical and, even better, within driving distance. It’s unlike anything in California… or the US, for that matter. There’s a high country and a low country. The former closes in the autumn, because they get so much snow. The latter is entirely dissimilar – lots of grassy woodlands. I really like seeing the full spectrum.”

Exploring the outer limits of the park, Rebecca found the heart of Yosemite in its outward paradoxes. In the low country, subdued greens give way to unexpected flourishes of autumnal beauty, navigated by skulking deer and roaming cows. Windswept and sparse, grassy knolls are muted by a gently emerging frost, the vitality stifled by the early onset of winter cold. Venture further into these foothills and snow becomes unrelenting, embedding the land in heavy blankets of pale white. “I love the patterns when it falls on the water – when it freezes,” Rebecca describes. “I probably look like a nutjob, trekking along the river, trying desperately not to slip! It may only be there for an hour or two before it melts, depending on the amount. It’s something that’s so simple, but there’s so many ways it can land.” Though the space embraces two plainly separate zones, characteristics of each bleed into each other, often producing weirdly crafted consolidations. Without question, the allure is clear, but upon further assessment, a more troubling implication also takes hold. Negotiating this incursion would form the basis of Rebecca’s impetus – what was happening here?

A secluded plant begins to germinate amongst vast layers of rime, defiant and unyielding. Iced branches of a nearby tree cradle crumpled leaves of beige, clutching to feeble sticks and twigs, quivering in the breeze. Nearby, springtime forms appear to blossom and bloom – dashes of lushness casting fairy-tale impressions of rosy pink and olive green. But then we step back. Then the encircling chill becomes crushingly visible.

“Looking at the new growth… the subtleties of climate change become more specific,” she summarizes. “In spite of all this snow, there’s still a lot of resilience in nature. That’s certainly worth looking at, and documenting. It’s lovely to see that greenery emerging again, against the odds. There’s strength in this land when you leave it alone. It might be out of sync, but it still puts itself in balance. The photos are about hope, ultimately.”

These quirks are remarkable, and they’re also the images that captivate Rebecca most. The unevenness speaks to serious concerns – the clashes a mere symptom of a much larger problem. Even still, her pictures don’t denote weakness and frailty. If anything, they accentuate the park’s fortitude: robust in opposition to the elements, steadfast in its resistance. Yosemite was earning the authority of its name – the word itself deriving from native tribes that hunted the formidable grizzlies with agility and ire. Indeed, it was as if that spirit was present in the land itself – manifesting in the way these seasons collided – each plant and shrub willful in its refusal to make way for this man-made matter. Here, the axial tilt had been shelved, and in its place was a new order, a periodic shift. But what was the best way to encapsulate it?

“I combined GFX100S with GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR. This camera is such a game changer in terms of the files and resolution. It reminded me of film,” she explains. “It’s so invigorating to be surprised by a file. Photographers of my generation will remember the excitement of the darkroom, and this feels akin to that. The RAW files seem pretty much identical to the JPEGs. When you’re looking at ice, dirt, and seemingly dull elements, it brings out hidden details. Dying flowers aren’t normally appealing, but this equipment gives them life. Imbued with beauty, this isn’t even with macro, it’s with zooms! It takes the ordinary and gives you a new-found appreciation of just how wondrous it can be.”

Perhaps the most celebrated photographer to create at Yosemite, Ansel Adams’ iconic black & white prints are indelibly linked to these landscapes. In 1919, he became keeper of the Sierra Club’s LeConte Memorial Lodge, immersing himself in the scenery for a total of four summers, while concurrently developing ties with many of the group’s burgeoning conservationists. Today, a park gallery sits in his honor, exhibiting a wide selection of pointed, monochrome scenes, seven days a week. “As a photographer, you can’t help but feel his presence when you’re here,” Rebecca outlines. “The photos he’s taken… it’s not like you’re trying to one-up them, but I do think everyone’s finding their own way of looking at things. That’s challenging when you’re in a place that has very distinct valleys.

“As for his aesthetical style, it all depends on the image,” she continues, referring to Adams’ legendary Group f/64 and their penchant for crisp, incisive interpretations. Operating in opposition to the soft-focus of preceding pictorialism, the collective would disrupt and innovate, positioning themselves around the centralized premise of large format, small aperture. Consequent images were well-defined with a rich depth-of-field. “I’m not always thinking about the consistency of the form. Having things that aren’t sharp or technically correct – sometimes I prefer that, it changes the mood. We focus on sharpness, but at times that can end up ruining imagery. Blurry is fine, as is the opposite. It all depends on what your subject is. I tend to underexpose most things and go darker, then adjust if I need to. You can’t regain information that’s been lost by overexposing. There’s so much color and detail here, I like to pull out the pieces of information that are interesting. Typically, I prefer more saturation, often opting for a dimmer image.”

For Rebecca, Yosemite is more than just a scenic getaway. It’s the place where she began taking pictures – a nostalgic reprieve from the hustle and bustle of her current working life. “It’s funny, because I had celluloid cameras when I started going there,” she explains. “It’s interesting to see that passing of time. I feel like I know a little more now!” Over the years, her work has come to typify a relationship between conservation and healthcare, documenting the development of an ever-changing situation. To date, her output is a precise assessment of the links between environment, wildlife, and medicine, and how these factors ultimately overlap. Dubbing her method ‘planetary health,’ the message is one of equilibrium – the interconnectivity of such elements proving vital in ensuring the wellbeing of the planet, and consequently, the welfare of the species that inhabit it. At the heart of her collection, two sets of photographs illuminate this focus. They’re blunt reminders of the challenges we all face when dealing with environmental change.

“The burnt trees with the snow – that was a staggering distinction,” she remarks, soberly. “You aren’t used to images like those. It’s very different to sights I saw years ago in the valley. I wanted to note the changes. Going to the high country… there’d been a lot of fire in the area. The skies were really orange and dusky, but once again, you had this difference with the snow. It’s a recurrent thing. Even where I am in Ventura – you’ll hear about these wildfires, and then weeks later, animals will start piling down on the community, looking for food, water, shelter. Being in a place where you have added seasons makes it even more difficult. What if one of these creatures had its food stored for the winter, and now it’s not there anymore? These are the affects you might not necessarily see or feel directly. It changes the landscape. If you get an excess of rain after the fire, and it’s too much to keep the land in place, you end up with mudslides. Not enough water and the land is starved, barren. It’s this cause-and-effect thing. You don’t know what the ramifications are going to be.”

Yosemite’s nature conservancy has recently started planting milkweed to attract birds, butterflies, and bees. In turn, this acts as a lure for predators and other interrelated animals, renewing the ecosystem so that it doesn’t diminish. Even in spaces as diverse as Yosemite, man has had to interfere to entice and restore order. The insight becomes sadly ironic when considering its underlying cause – human intervention causing more human intervention, albeit from a different angle.

Much like her images of hoary, burned branches, a second set of photos would also come to epitomize the disorder of Yosemite’s environs. Disrupting the campgrounds, a fuzzy bobcat prowled and scavenged through the snowfall, searching for scraps. “That was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime moment. This majestic animal up-close, you could really see the lineage. I’m used to operating in controlled facilities, so photographing them in the wild is a very different thing. So much comes down to luck and timing. I usually prefer a much longer lens – in those spaces, you really don’t want to be that close. I was about five feet away. That was absolutely stunning.”

Rebecca pauses, a sudden melancholy obvious in her manner. “It was also incredibly sad. A part of me doesn’t want to see this gorgeous creature in the campgrounds. It’s like the whole world’s gone topsy-turvy. It just doesn’t belong here.”

A bobcat stares into the camera, surrounded by snow in Yosemite national park

Photo 2022 © Rebecca Gaal | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR, 1/320 sec at F8, ISO 2500


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