Back from Alabama Hills Field Trip

San Diego — The Landscape Class at City College’s Photo Program took its first major field trip to Owens Valley and the famed Alabama Hills this past Friday through Sunday.  This wild and bizarre terrain has been featured in a gazilion western movies and also stood in for countless alien planets.  This is the 10th field trip to this location we’ve done there at City and for me, at least, it never gets old because it is always different.  A month’s change in sun trajectory, and hour’s change in light angle, it is constantly changing.

And this time it was REALLY different.  On the gallery page of my main web site ( you can see quite a few of the more typical images from this location.   But this time, a major storm was coming down the coast and it spilled over into this valley on the eastern slopes of the Sierras.  I confess I was worried about it since rain and even snow were forecast for the time we were there and I was not sure how the students would react to such unpleasant weather.  I had tried to encourage them both to prepare for it and to understand that sometimes the most interesting images can come from the most wretched weather conditions.

I am beyond pleased to report that they really rallied to the situation and though it was very cold, rainy, and even snowed a little, and even though the sky ranged from broken clouds on Friday to dead grey to stormy drama on Saturday, to, on the last day, even puffy clouds and sunshine, they got into it and as we had discussed in class, looked for alternatives to the standard rock forms which were less than exciting in the flat lighting.  I was really proud of them and think they got some good images to work with.

For myself, it was equally an opportunity to see things I normally bypass, to get a feeling for some of the quieter places around the valley as well as to play with the visual impact of the storm itself.  And it let me see some old things in new ways too.

The first afternoon when we did the orientation tour, a couple of shots stood out for me.  I had just gotten a new lens which I actually thought of as likely more useful for our next field trip to Yosemite.  It is an 8-15mm “fisheye” zoom.  But an opportunity arose right away on the part of the tour through Tuttle Creek.  I have photographed the old abandoned corral many, many times but this gave me a chance to see it in a whole new perspective, so to speak. (You can click on it for an enlarged view.)

This lens really lets me put the viewer into the scene in a way that even my normal wide angle, a 17-40mm lens, does not do.   Normal I respond to this scene as an old corral surrounded by encroaching brush.  But the new lens showed me a word of brush trying to hide an old corral.

I ended up getting quite a bit of use out of that lens over the trip as it let me “see” in a way I am not used to doing.  And that also led me to try some newer approaches to editing and presenting the images themselves.  I hope the students felt it was successful but for me it was truly a great trip.

Then after the tour was over there was still about an hour before the sun dropped behind the Sierras so the students were all free to go find a shot or two of their own.  I had a spot in mind and when the sun was almost down, a view right out of another planet appeared and seemed perfect for the distortion of the full frame fish-eye.

(Again, click on the image for an enlarged view.)  The next day, Saturday, was cold, grey and raining.  A number of the students followed me to the site of Manzanar, the WWII Japanese internment camp.  If ever there was a black mark on our history this and the other camps for Japanese and German citizens is one of the darkest.

It was quiet and as grim as its history.  The curators have rebuild some of the “barracks” but they seemed somewhow too new and did not resonate with me to make me want to do a photograph of them.  However, wandering around the property I found a few shots that seemed appropriate.  The first, here on the left, is an tableau of a tumbleweed trapped by a pile of brush and debris.  Blowing freely over the land it now finds itself trapped in the clutches of a pile of unruly brush.  Somehow that seemed like a workable visual analog for the place and what happened there.

We drove on to the western edge of the camp where the Japanese cemetary is located.  It was sad in a way; the storm winds had played havoc with the origami offerings and rememberances that are normally tied to the fences around the monument.  The heavy rain clouds completely obscured the majestic Sierras and fell like an opaque curtain right down to the valley floor.  if ever there was a grayscale scene this was it.

But a few yards away was an interesting object.  I stopped for another potential shot that did not survive the “30-second stare” but right next to it was something with more promise.  What would at first appear to be a very dead tree trunk, fallen over with exposed roots, was in fact the source of life for a new family of young trees all growing out of it.  Given the location this seemed like a perfect metaphor and demanded a shot.  i was also struck with how the new growth was dark and more grey than green, but soaked with the rain, the old root system was vibrant.

After Manzanar we headed back south on 395 to enter the “hills” from the north end of Movie Road where it winds through ranches and meadow land before entering the piles of rock.  Though cold, the moisture from rain and snow was getting the spring growth underway to overtake last year’s now dead crop of grasses and wild flowers.

The meadow was alive with subtle but rich color.  It had the  softness of a pastel drawing on velour paper.  I took several shots along that stretch and then after winding south through the valley we had a late lunch and then headed back westerly on the Whitney Portal road to where it was closed due to snow.  From there, looking back east across the snow you can see the Owens Valley, some of the rock piles and the Inyo Mountains on the eastern side of the valley with the storm passing through.

This was an interesting site so I headed a bit lower and closer to where a long lens could isolate a portion of the storm then passing right over Lone Pine into nearly an abstract composition.  Without the recognizable trees forming a foundation for the shot it takes a moment to realize what it is.  I have a version which trims the trees off and honestly am not sure which I prefer.

We drove to one last spot and I thought  could get a better view of the last shot.  But I turned around and there, across the rock-strewn flats was Mt, Lone Pine, with part of the storm dusting its flanks with fresh snow.  It begged for a cold-toned print so the least I could do was oblige it.

I also have it in color and like it but this one is how I “saw” it when there. By now, my hands were so cold I could hardly hold on to the camera so it was time to head back to town for something warm.

Sunday broke to a beautiful blue sky and great clouds; perfect for a dawn shot.  Did I get it?  No.  My requested wake-up call never happened and when I finally woke up about 7 it was too late.  So after breakfast and a chat with some of the students it was time to head back home and see what I had to show for my time.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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4 Responses to Back from Alabama Hills Field Trip

  1. Luke Parsons says:

    Beautiful images in this post- thank you for sharing.

  2. Adam Johnson says:

    Amazing photos David. Sunset on Planet Earth is really unique.

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