Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

The eastern sierra & the changing range of light

So, my dad's a hobby photographer; he introduced me to Ansel Adams and Galen & Barbara Rowell when I was a kid. He took pictures with an old Nikomat and a Leica, and neither had an internal light meter; he used a handheld one. Also, he took slides. It was one of the slowest and most infuriating parts of a vacation. Memorable, at least.

Dad's moved on to a digital camera, and so have many landscape photographers. I hadn't been familiar with Elizabeth Carmel's work before I heard about her book, but its title intrigued me: The Changing Range of Light. Carmel's latest book depicts the Eastern Sierra through the prism of climate change; climate information and poems make up the accompanying text.

Courtesy Elizabeth Carmel

I emailed her - she lives up in the Lake Tahoe area - to interview her.

Please note that you can't possibly experience these pictures well when they're this size. Go to Elizabeth Carmel's site in order to see them more the way they're intended to be seen.

Where did the idea for this project come from?
As a photographer who lives and works in the Sierra, I wanted to dedicate a book of my work to helping educate readers about the threats to the Region. So many people share with me how important the Sierra and its beautiful landscapes are to them, but most people don't know that many of these landscapes will look very different in a few decades because of climate change impacts. While the images I show in the book are not scientific, they do represent a unique moment in time that our generation is fortunate to witness. Landscape photography also has a long history of environmental advocacy, so my awareness of that led me to ask how I could make a contribution through my photography.

You take pictures in the Sierra a lot; you live in Truckee. Did you consciously look at the Sierra differently and take pictures differently for this project?
There were some shots I specifically set out to get for the content of the book. In particular those were the image of the Pika Den (plate 40) and the Palisade Glacier (plate 39).

Courtesy Elizabeth Carmel

Both of the images show wildlife / glaciers that may disappear in a few decades. I also tried to expand my range to get into parts of the Sierra that were not in my previous book "Brilliant Waters."

How did you decide to pair the scientific notes with a particular picture?
I left the content of the scientific narratives up to my co-authors - I provided them the images and they determined what subject should be paired with the images.

Let's take an example: plate 37 - Mount Whitney Sunrise from Alabama Hills. What were you intending to connect by framing the picture that way?
This image shows a range of ecosystems, from the desert brush at the lower elevations, up through the high alpine biome. This shot was taken in Autumn when the desert shrub turns wonderful colors. In many of my images I try to frame the landscape in such a way that gives it three dimensional depth, from a close foreground to a distant vista. I try to find magical places and photograph them in magical light.

Courtesy Elizabeth Carmel

Range of light is John Muir's phrase: After ten years spent in the heart of it, rejoicing and wondering, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the sunbursts of morning among the icy peaks, the noonday radiance on the trees and rocks and snow, the flush of alpenglow, and a thousand dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray, it still seems to me above all others the Range of Light. Those words are 130 years old; the industrial revolution was a toddler! Do you think when you're taking pictures of how Muir must have seen the Sierras, and what was different?
I do try to take images that portray the magical wildness of the landscape. While the land is not really untouched by Man, it has been preserved to maintain its primeval nature. I want to share with people that these areas do still exist thanks to the conservation efforts of previous generations. I think experiencing these places allows us to reconnect with an important part of our humanity, and to feel connected to a nourishing, natural energy that we are so often removed from in our daily lives. As I state in the preface to the book, there were different challenges to the Sierra in Muir's time. It is now our turn to deal with the challenges that the Sierra faces during our lifetime.