Dear friends- Once again I find myself trying to put pen and paper together in an effort to record for my memory another journey that I have endeavored to be a part of. On this one I did not travel any great distance, and really did not stay that long. It turned out, however, to be a wonderful experience and a bit of an adventure.
It all began really over a 150 years ago when the first photographers arrived at that wondrous and most majestic of places on this earth…Yosemite. The first was a man named, Charles Leander Weed. He came in 1859, followed by Carelton Watkins in 1861. These men along with Muybridge, Fisk, Reilly, Bierstädt that followed them, worked in the process called wet plate collodion. If you remember, this process requires that you bring your darkroom with you wherever you go. Given the incredible scale of the Yosemite valley this was an Herculean effort by each of them. Most used mules and employed several helpers to do their images over one hundred and forty years ago.
This brings me back to the journey I am about to tell you about. Last month I joined Bob Szabo of Virginia and Wayne Pierce of El Cajon, California. It was Bob’s idea for the three of us to travel to Yosemite and use this early process to make some new views of Yosemite in the foot steps of Carelton Watkins and the others who used this 19th century art. Here is a brief account of our time in the Yosemite Valley, along with a few images of my work there.
It was on a misty Sunday morning last May 19th that we pulled out of the driveway of my now quiet log home, nestled under it’s redwood canopy among the coastal redwoods near the Monterey Bay. A few days earlier it had been the scene of great activity as we three collodion artists made ready all the gear and chemicals necessary to achieve our goal. Bob had rented a van and Wayne and I were using Wayne’s truck. Wayne had built a nice portable darkroom before hand, whereas Bob found a heavy lettuce-packing box on the way up highway 101 near Salinas and made this into a portable darkroom. Was this ever a sight! I have never seen so much black cloth and black ‘duct’ tape used in one place!
After 2 days of mixing chemicals and checking all of our gear, we loaded it with great care, checking and rechecking. Bob was using a rebuilt Scovill Stereo 5×8 Camera from the 19th century, while Wayne and I were using large 8×10 glass wet plate cameras. Mine is an 1871 No.4 Anthony. I used both Dallmeyer and Harrison ‘globe’ lens.
We arrived in the park that afternoon and drove into the valley of Yosemite, it’s towering peaks cast long shadows in the afternoon light. For Wayne and I it was a return trip repeated many times before. But for Bob it was his first! He was struck with awe as he looked up at the majestic granite rocks towering above us. I remember him saying that he wondered if our lenses were wide enough for this task.
We made camp that evening in the Valley at the Upper Pines campground. The next morning we awoke to a light rain and a low cloud cover. We had made a commitment to travel up to the Wawona part of Yosemite that morning to demonstrate the 19th century collodion process to a school group from Turlock. We had been contacted for this work by my friends, Floyd and Dannie Oydegaard. Dannie, a Turlock school teacher, brings a group of students through this Yosemite educational program every spring. As we drove towards Wawona we climbed in elevation into the mountains where the light rain turned to snow showers. By the time we arrived at Wawona it was freezing. We had all dressed in period outfits and had to heat our chemicals with the hot water we had made earlier that morning over our campfire. By the time the kids arrived we had been greeted by the Ranger, Dean Shenk and set up under the shelter of a barn. With a bit of luck we were able to ‘pour’ a few tintypes for the kids, one with Park Ranger and wagon master ‘Burl.’ As we developed the last image and said our last words to these by now freezing children, it began to snow large Sierra flakes. Wayne and I were able to chain-up our vehicle and return to the valley despite the road being now closed. Bob, however, had to wait a few hours before the snow cleared and the road once again opened. Ranger Dean was a great host to our temporarily stranded partner.
As Wayne and I returned and descended into the Yosemite valley the snow had cleared. When we drove past Vernal Falls the clouds had lifted off the mountain and presented us with a beautiful view of the falls. We stopped and rushed to set up our first image in the valley. Still wearing period costumes we created a bit of a stir as I carried my 19th century camera and tripod onto the meadow that was the foreground to this now striking view. The tourists all watched us as if we were part of the show. They must have thought us a bit strange as we struggled with such a large old and strange camera and so much equipment, to make one image on a piece of glass, while in the same moment of time they snapped away with their itty-bitty cameras and made hundreds of images. Of course, they all pointed these little machines at us and made our image, too… so we went “home” with them to live in some album in some far away distant land, or maybe even just to Bakersfield! All jest aside, the national photo magazine, ‘Shutterbug’ had an editor there who by chance discovered us during this time and asked for an interview and we both signed a release for some sort of news brief.
As we finished, the clouds descended once again taking away any chance for another view that day. We returned to camp to find Bob had returned safely. That evening it began to snow, big Sierra flakes again. I must admit I had my doubts about the journey at this point as I huddled over a small wood campfire—still cold even with a jillion layers of clothing on. I decided to move into the modern tent with Wayne and try to combine body heat that night as my canvas ‘A’ tent was wet and the snow threaten its collapse. The maneuver worked and I spent the rest of the night warm. As the first rays of dawn appeared, the snow was still falling, but had decreased into fairy like flakes—you see them… then they’re gone! We heated our water and ate some breakfast before heading back down into the valley. It was now like a mystical land from some tale spun long ago. The tourists had yet to appear and the place was a photo post card everywhere you looked. We took many color images of these scenes before driving up to the Cathedral Rock. It loomed before us, the clouds having left it’s granite face frosted white with snow from the night before. We went about setting up the portable darkrooms and within 30 minutes we’re ready to pour our first plate of the day. It was 11 am. The negatives were wonderful except for some the road debris stirred up by passing cars and buses. This left a lot of dirt on our wet glass plates as we processed them, making a host of black and white specs in the final exposed and fixed negatives. Bob was having some minor trouble and wanted to stay and work out the problems with his equipment, so we bid him farewell and headed for the view of the Merced River with the stone bridge in the foreground and the magnificent Half Dome looming in the background. After a long wait, the clouds lifted off of the Dome and we made fantastic negatives. It was taking us about an hour and forty minutes in each location to prepare, expose and process a negative. A worth while effort when you view the prints made from these negatives. Our last image of the day was by the Tunnel with the spectacular view of the whole valley. It was late in the afternoon when we made one last great effort for the day, hindered by the hundreds of tourists that we had to work around by this time. But the negatives of the valley below were successful.
As we came down we found Bob parked along the road making some images. We bought him some provisions, and all rejoiced we had what we had come for! The frozen doubts from the night before had melted away as the silver laden exposed plates filled our plate holders. That evening the mood in our camp was markedly improved as we sat around the campfire and shared war stories from the day.
The following morning Wayne and I prepared to make our final negative as we had planned to return home by midday. Bob, however, planned to stay on for the rest of the week making as many images as he could to take back to Virginia.
We met again this last morning there with Ranger Dean Shenk who promised us vehicle access to the beautiful Mirror Lake. Otherwise, it would be a mile and a half walk in. Given our 19th century medium this was impossible. So Ranger Dean got us within two hundred feet of the lake where we once again set up for an exposure on our collodion wet plates. The view was beyond description! The lake was full and calm with a brilliant reflection of Mount Watkins in our foreground. What a grand way to end our stay at Yosemite.
By noon, Wayne and I had bid Bob and Ranger Dean farewell. We left this wondrous place having truly walked in the first photographers’ foot steps, albeit so brief and minus the mules! This early medium of wet plate collodion was once again present in the Yosemite Valley after being absent probably for more than a hundred years…it was indeed in part this photographic medium that saved this valley from early development as these wet plate collodion images of Watkins, Fisk and others were presented to Congress in 1890, securing this place as one of the world’s most beautiful places!
Thanks for listening to another one of my yarns.