Thursday, April 2, 2015

Half Dome

Approaching Yosemite from the west via Highway 120, the first glimpse of the valley comes from several miles off. There's a small cliff turnout with a plaque describing the view. That's a good thing because even at that distance the scene is strong enough to distract drivers. It's best to pull over, and the parking lot is usually full of shutterbugs obliging their base urge. Yosemite's landmarks are laid out against the eastern skyline, Cathedral Rock, The Three Brothers, Bridalveil, etc. Bringing up the rear is Half Dome

Photo by Tony L. Lee, 2004

The valley contains many spectacles. Maybe for others the highlight is El Cap or Yosemite Falls or the Merced River. For me it's Half Dome. It's had a spell over me since I first saw it on a school trip at age 17. What...The F...Is...That!? 

DNC Logo
Of course I knew what I was looking at. I'd internalized countless photographs of Half Dome by then, as do most people growing up in America. I'd come across various books, calendars, and posters. It was the very symbol of Yosemite, not to mention California, the NPS, and everything outdoorsy. Eventually it would appear on California quarters, driver's licenses, and as the default image on Apple desktops. Back in 1986 its caricature appeared merely on every mileage sign in the valley and as the logo for DNC, the park's resort concessionaire. So yeah, Half Dome was in my head at that point even before it was in my field of vision. How could it not be?

Still, seeing it in the flesh seemed unreal to me then. It had a magnetic celebrity presence, like being in the same room with Jack Nicholson or Oprah Winfrey or the Mona Lisa. Wow. So...that's really it. How about that. Is that being actually in front of me right now? Yes it is. 

It had the same star power 150 years ago. Here's how Josiah Whitney described it in 1868:
"[half dome] strikes even the most casual observer as a new revelation in mountain forms; its existence would be considered an impossibility if it were not there before us in all its reality..." 
George Anderson on Half Dome 
by S.C. Walker, 1877
He went on to predict that no one would ever climb Half Dome (it was climbed just a few years later by George Anderson). To the casual observer today his judgement is understandable. The beast looks insurmountable from every vantage, and indeed it would be very difficult to climb if not for cables up the back side which are installed every summer by the Park Service. 

Ah yes, the cables. They're freaky. They were built in 1919 before society became hyper-litigious, and by this point they've been grandfathered into perpetuity. But I'm still surprised they're allowed, or that more tourists don't slip off them and kill themselves. One misstep and you're toast. But somehow almost everyone makes it up and down safely.

Knowing the cables were in place during my initial visit, I made immediate plans to climb it with some buddies. Good thing I was young and dumb. The reality of hiking 19 miles and 4800 vertical feet in a day didn't really sink in until after I'd done it, and by then it was behind me. Ignorance is bliss. So was being on top.

I got a pretty good look at all sides of Half Dome on that hike, and also on several subsequent trips to the valley. But no matter how many times I've seen Half Dome, it still looks unreal.

Sample 2010 CDL featuring Half Dome (upper right)

Half Dome's been on my mind lately because I spent most of last week camping in Yosemite with my family. My kids are probably too young to make the trip to the top, and I might be too old. The cables were down so we couldn't test those theories. But I felt Half Dome above us the whole time, looming over Curry Village from its perch in the back of the valley. 

One morning Zane (age 14) and I hiked the cruelly misnamed Four Mile Trail from the valley floor to Glacier Point. From the small concrete landing at the summit we looked across the upper Merced valley, and there just a few miles across the chasm was Half Dome Glacier Point has been called one of the world's great viewpoints, and the scene before us had been shot billions of times from exactly where we stood. It was commemorated on the back of a quarter. Still, it was irresistible. We took a few photos, then had a snack and hiked back. 

It wasn't until later that night that I had some time in the lodge to look up other Yosemite photographs online. Some of the earliest photographs from near Glacier Point were by Eadweard Muybridge (sometimes known as Helios). But strangely, they weren't exactly from Glacier Point. Odder yet, they didn't bother to show Half Dome, or tis-sa-ack as it was known then in the language of the Ahwahnee natives. They've since been exterminated and the name tis-sa-ack bestowed on a rock climb. But that's another story.

One of Muybridge's best known photos is from Panorama Rock, a point on the Panorama trail several hundred yards south of Glacier Point. It's curious that Muybridge would choose that location to set up the camera. Even if Glacier Point hadn't yet been annointed as a world class photo op, it was easily identifiable as a natural terminus. It's where the plateau drops away 3,000 feet. A good place to dump burning coals. Not hard to find.

But for whatever reason, Muybridge ignored that point and kept walking. He set up further along, aimed directly across the valley...and then cropped tis-sa-ack from the scene. The big dome in the center of this photo is Liberty Cap not Half Dome. WTF?  

Muybridge, circa 1872

From a modern sensibility, the omission seems willfully neglectful. And half of me thinks it might've been on purpose, in the same way that Atget deliberately excluded the Eiffel Tower from his photographs. Powerful subject matter can dominate a photo, sometimes to deleterious effect. At least that was the old fashioned thinking of the pre-celebrity era. 

That ideology has been mostly rectified. When Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe's rephotographic project tackled Yosemite in 2002, they incorporated the Muybridge photo into a montage. And make no mistake, this time they were sure to include Half Dome. It's the prominent mountain given center stage at the peak of the montage. If it looks sleepy, that's just the back side. Trust me, the north face is wide awake.

Four Views From Panorama Rock, 2002, Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe

The other important Yosemite photographer during Muybridge's time was Carleton Watkins, and he knew an icon when he saw one. He stood on Glacier Point and shot the view of Half Dome that's since been replicated a billion times over, the same one Zane and I shot. It's possible he had the help of Muybridge and/or C.L. Weed, but it's hard to confirm since photo records from the time are sketchy. In any case Half Dome looks as unreal as ever. Is it my imagination or does it appear semi-phallic, erupting into the sky under granite foreskin hood? If the idea of a giant penis bothers you, think instead of Darth Vader's helmet. 

Carleton Watkins, possibly with Muybridge and/or C.L. Weed, from Glacier Point, 1872

OK, so Watkins stood over 3,000 feet of air and checked phallic peak from his bucket list. But even then I'm not sure he considered the mountain iconic. In his "Best General View Of The Valley" Half Dome is a mere blip on the horizon, a third tier sideshow to the main event, which oddly seems to be a tree with its lower branches removed. 

Watkins, Yosemite Valley from "Best General View", 1866

Or consider the later Watkins grouping "Views Of Yosemite", presumably a representative sampling of valley highlights. Where is Half Dome? It's faintly visible beyond the forest in the center left image. Is that any way to treat an icon? 

Watkins, "Views of Yosemite", 1878

The thing is, during Watkins era, I'm not sure it was yet an icon. When Muybridge, Watkins, and Weed were fishing around for photos, everything in the valley was impressive. Half Dome was there among the other sites, but hadn't claimed a hold yet on the popular imagination, or on theirs. It hadn't yet been posterized or made into a logo. 

Beirstadt's depiction in oils reflects a similar outlook. Grand vistas. Huge cliffscapes. No Half Dome. 

Alfred Beirstadt, Looking Up The Yosemite Valley, Circa 1865

What these images suggest to me is that Half Dome's icon status was conferred later. In fact I'm going to take that hypothesis one step further and argue that iconic status in general is a relatively contemporary phenomenon spurred along by celebrity culture. Icons march to prominence hand in hand with the increased mediation, commodification, and distribution of all visual images. The irony is that this has occurred in conjunction with the mass popularization of photography and a flood of visual images from all sources. A rising tide lifts all boats, but I think some are lifted higher than others. Like Oprah Winfrey. And like Half Dome.

We have a young kitten in the house and she likes to explore. Sometimes I'll come downstairs in the morning to find Zooey sprawled on the kitchen counter or between stereo speakers or on a shelf in the pantry. There's no predicting where she will be. Not even the cat knows. She hasn't yet learned it's impolite to step on my french toast. Zooey behaves like William Henry Jackson sent out to survey the West. The great space is a level playing field. No location is yet iconic. Maybe he'll find Yellowstone Falls. Maybe he'll find the lame end of the river. So you get photos like this mixed in his archive with world class landmarks. 

W.H. Jackson, Southeast arm of Lake Yellowstone& Yellowstone  River, 1871

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few. In the cat's mind? Mostly nap time for them.

I love photographs like the one above that focus on the "wrong" subjects. In fact they're just about the only ones which interest me any more. I used to think Stephen Shore's Uncommon Places focused on the wrong scenes, and that's why the book appealed to me. Now I think maybe they were the right ones, and maybe that's their problem. It's the same wonderful dilemma stirred up by Masao Yamamoto, Adam Bartos, Joachim Brohm, and various other masters. While other photographers concentrate on the Half Domes of the world, they walk through the world as if it's still 1860. That's not easy. It takes years of unlearning. 

Half Japanese's David Fair applies the same ideas to guitar. He's been a musician for decades. He's long ago internalized the "right" notes and chords and can probably play them without thinking. But for him it's more interesting to approach the instrument like a kitten in a big house. "Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion," he writes. "If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. That that's absurd. How could it be wrong? It's your guitar and you're the one playing it.

The Yosemite encountered by Muybridge was basically an instrument not yet tuned. He could play it any old way he wanted. Not that Muybridge completely ignored Half Dome. It appears in a few of his photos, but always from a distance or the "wrong" perspective. Take the photo below for example, shot from oblique angle. Can you imagine this converted into a corporate logo? I think not.  

Muybridge, Circa 1872 

Muybridge did manage to depict the north face's sheer drop in other photos. But alas, from too far away and buried in the forest. I'm guessing the photo below was made from somewhere between Union Point and Glacier Point. Zane and I must've hiked right by this.

 Muybridge Circa 1872

Eadweard, Eadweard, Eadweard... That's not how you shoot an icon. This is how you shoot an icon, dammit. Make it dramatic.

Moon and Half Dome, 1960, Ansel Adams

Moon and Half Dome has come to be one of Adams' best known photos, and his account of its making is worth reading (in Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs). It reveals almost nothing about his feelings for Yosemite or Half Dome or photographic theory, but instead goes into extensive technical detail discussing lenses, filters, and luminance, etc. It has all the charm of a chemistry manual. Finally, with a few sentences near the conclusion he casually dismisses Watkins' effort as "horrible, both in the photograph and in the landscape." OK then. Drama queen.

NF Logo by David Alcorn, 1971
Whatever you think of Adams, it's his Half Dome photograph which has become the most iconic. It appears on a million posters and thousands of licensed prints. It was probably the inspiration for the North Face logo. It's the mental image of Half Dome many people carry in their mind now, and I think it colors the experience of park visitors before and after they see the real thing. 

Moon and Half Dome's power lies in its dark mystery. Adams used a red filter to great effect, converting a peaceful alpine scene into a horror set. The photo feeds into the popular notion of nature as an impassive, scary force. Armchair adventurers in a dorm room or suburban den love that shit. Eat it up. Same way they dig Darth Vader. 

Or maybe it's the lunar thing. Don't put a bird on it, put a moon on it. The moon framed in the sky over any ol' thang adds instant drama. Adams knew that better than anyone. 

Last fall was a bad wildfire season in the Sierra and flames scarred big chunks of the park. Michael Fry was one of many photojournalists to shoot the fires from Washburn Point (a pullout just south of Glacier Point). He knew full well a billion photos had been made from the same spot, but he did it anyway. And unlike silly Muybridge, he knew the money shot had to include Half Dome.  

Michael Fry/AP, Sept 7, 2014

It's a great photo now, but if the California drought persists, such a scene will become commonplace. It might become so right it's wrong.

We've been back a few days now, and still living out of a cooler since our fridge conked while we were away. It's sort of like camping but with no Half Doom looming over us. The cooler has been great entertainment for Zooey, a new space to explore. It's not yet iconic. Nothing is, at least for her.


Cameron Getty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Great post. Thanks for reminding me of the great joy of Half Japanese. I live in the mid-west and one thing I like is the un-iconic look of things. Flat and dusty is unoppressive and freeing.

mikepeters said...

Thanks Blake.

I needed reminding that the wrong subjects are what inspire me the most. For a while I've been feeling a bit adrift, attempting to conjure up something "inspiring" when all of a sudden, your comment hit me square across the forehead.

As always, your observations are right on the money.


Anonymous said...

My favorite photo of Half Dome is Ted Orland's.

Blake Andrews said...

Mike, imagine you're a kitten and the world is a big ball of yarn. Ignore the ball. Aim your camera instead at the dirty towel on the floor.