This shot was taken one early morning on the summit of Big Mountain, home of Whitefish Mountain Resort in northwestern Montana. You’ll notice the freshly groomed corduroy on the ski run and the top of a lift (Chair 5) in the distance. The trees, known as “Snow Ghosts” reveal the harsh conditions endured by life in alpine environments and are a common winter sight found at higher elevations throughout the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest. As the season grows long, entire stands of forest assume this appearance, and the trees will actually bow into arches under the strain of accumulated snow. The “mist” you see rising to the left is from a phenomenon known as a valley inversion. This occurs when a variance in temperature allows a warm layer of air to trap colder underneath. Essentially, a dense blanket of cloud cover is trapped within the valley. Dropping just fifty feet in elevation would find you enveloped in a thick fog, but here the summit of Big Mountain stretches just beyond the cloud tops to offer glimpses of a blue sky above.
This is one of the images I use to make greeting cards, affixing a 4×6 print to embossed stock, and sell at the Iowa City farmers market. Of all my photographs, this one might capture the most attention. People passing by will stop and stare; first attracted by the aesthetic quality, but then trying to make heads or tails of the scene. The usual commentary follows.
“Pretty, but I wouldn’t want to drive down that road…”
“Who lives in that house?”
“This can’t be real…”
Yes, I promise them, it really is real. (I’m not a fan of “photoshopping” in nature photography. If I do any editing at all, it’s minor cropping or adjustments. I will never rely on computer generation to create a scene that isn’t authentic; out of respect for my subject matter and the belief that nature’s majesty stands just fine on its own.)
From there I go ahead and delve into explanation, reciting a synopsis of the details listed above. Though I feel like a broken record relaying this clarification time and again, it really is fascinating to see how people try to manipulate an unfamiliar image to fit their own known reality. And while it took some practice looking (and some bite marks on my tongue,) I can see where they’re coming from. Not knowing anything about the location, the covered lift terminal could be perceived a house at first glance. Being unfamiliar with snow grooming, one could assume this an icy mountain road. The towers and cables from the adjacent lift could even be mistaken for power lines if you knew no better. For a person who’s never been to a ski resort, this all makes sense.
Perspective is a term often used in photography referring to the composition of the frame or the angle by which the photographer approaches their shot. However, the more I share my work, specifically at times when it introduces a person to a sight they have never seen; I realize the other important aspect of perspective: the experience of having been there. In that regard, I take a lot of pride in this photograph. It’s not because people tell me it’s beautiful or appears to be some sort of “fairytale realm;” it’s because I remember how it felt to stand there on this particular morning, watching this amazing scene unfold. It triggers memories of many similar days, and reminds me of how lucky I was to have had the unique experiences offered by my years of employment at the resort. First runs on powder days, the camaraderie with co-workers, and of course, those quiet moments before the hill was open to the public, standing atop Big Mountain and watching the sunrise.
Perspective isn’t something that is exclusive to photography. We all have it, rather in our working or personal lives. It’s that empathetic appreciation we have of our own individual experiences; an intimate knowledge of the emotion and storylines played out behind the scenes. We can all be proud of the vantages that allow an understanding of a world all our own.
Photography is an attempt to pass this view on to others. As with all art, it is open to interpretation and takes on new definition when imagination allows. It is through this process; the translation of worlds and the ability of a captured moment to open hearts and minds; that gives a photograph power, and a photographer joy.