Part paradox, part nirvana: Yosemite National Park encompasses a smorgasbord of contrasting terrain. Angling her GFX100S, Rebeca Gaal finds its distinct slant
As the earth spins and twists in orbit, the world’s poles move here and there – rolling and sloping from the furthest reaches of the sun. Periods of warmth and cold define the transitions, casting the planet in varying climates, clear-cut and familiar. For the most part, these spells follow a semblance of routine, even in the face of fluctuating atmospheric challenges. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter are as expected as they are cyclic, but in certain parts of the world, this order has become suspended – even upended – in favor of something much more unusual.
Navigating the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, conservationist Rebecca ‘Becky’ Gaal soon started to notice a wealth of biodiversity. As America’s third-largest national park, Yosemite embodies a colorful array of conditions – incongruously mixed to create a strange mish-mash of geography, rife for photographic discovery. “I’ve been coming here since I was little,” she remarks. “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 different – lots of grassy woodlands. I really like seeing the full spectrum.”
Exploring the outer limits of the park, Rebecca discovered Yosemite in its seeming contradictions – its conflicts. In the low country, muted greens give way to sudden flourishes of autumnal beauty, traversed by skulking deer and wandering cows. Windswept and patchy, grassy knolls are subdued by a gently emerging frost, the vitality muffled by the early onset of winter cold. Venture further into these foothills, and snow becomes persistent, entrenching the land in thick carpets of pale white. Though the space embraces two distinctly separate zones, aspects of each bleed into each other, often creating weirdly crafted consolidations. Without question, the allure is evident, but upon further inspection, a more troubling implication also takes ahold. Negotiating this intrusion in Yosemite’s affairs would become Rebecca’s prime motivation.
A solitary plant begins to sprout amidst vast blankets of rime, defiant and unyielding. Iced branches of a nearby tree cradle crumpled leaves of beige, clinging to reedy sticks and twigs, wavering in the breeze. Nearby, springtime forms appear to blossom and bloom – splashes of richness casting fairy-tale impressions of rosy pink and olive green. But then we step back. Then the encircling chill becomes overwhelmingly visible.
“Looking at the new growth… the subtleties of climate change become more specific,” she outlines. “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 oddities are striking, and they’re also the images that intrigue Rebecca most. The irregularity speaks to grave concerns; the clashes a mere symptom of a much larger problem. Even still, her pictures don’t denote brittleness and frailty. They underscore the park’s endurance: robust in its opposition to the elements, dogged in its resistance. Yosemite was earning the authority of its name – the word itself originating with native tribes that hunted the formidable grizzlies with agility and ire. Indeed, it was as if that soul was present in the land itself – manifesting in the way these seasons collided – each plant and shrub stubborn in its refusal to make way for this man-made matter. Here, the axial tilt had been adjourned, 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 notes. “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. It imbues it with beauty, and 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 renowned 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 budding 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 explains. “The photos he’s taken… it’s not like you’re trying to one-up them, but I do think everyone’s trying to find 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’ infamous Group f/64 and their propensity for crisp, incisive depictions. Operating in opposition to the soft-focus of preceding pictorialist styles, the collective would disrupt and pioneer, positioning themselves around the centralized premise of large-format, small aperture. Resultant images were well-defined with an abundant 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. I think that changes the mood. We focus on sharpness, but at times that can end up ruining imagery. Being blurry is fine, as is the opposite. It all depends on what your subject is.”
Over the years, Gaal’s work has come to typify a relationship between conservation and healthcare, documenting the evolution of an everchanging situation. To date, her output is a deft evaluation of the acute links between environment, wildlife, and medicine, and how these issues ultimately intersect. Dubbing her approach ‘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 illustrate this focus, and they’re stark 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, solemnly. “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 too much 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.”
Recently, Yosemite’s nature conservancy has started planting milkweed to attract birds, butterflies, and bees. In turn, this acts as a magnet for predators and other interrelated animals, reviving the ecosystem so that it doesn’t wane. Even in spaces as diverse as Yosemite, man has had to interfere to entice and restore order. The realization becomes sadly ironic when considering its causal factors – human intervention causing more human intervention, albeit from a different angle.
Much like her images of hoary, blazed branches, a second set of photos would also come to epitomize the disturbance 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. But this time around, it was completely different. I was about five feet away. That was absolutely stunning.”
Rebecca stops, a sudden melancholy noticeable in her tone. “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.”