Every photographer looks for that epic shot, they have it in their mind and they hope that they catch it every once in a while. I am no different, in 2014 I drove hundreds of miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway, took back roads through the Southern Highlands of Western NC, hiked countless miles to waterfalls and on other trails all in effort to make great photos. It was Ansel Adams that said, "You don't take a photo, you make it."
The idea that I can go out and capture amazing images and create art for people to enjoy, is so rewarding to me. My goal is to show you what I saw, the color, the depth of field, the mood, the emotion that I felt when I was standing there capturing that moment. When people connect with an image it elicits an emotion, a memory, a sensation, and that is what I want to convey to everyone who sees my work.
This past June, I was on a quest for beautiful Rhododendron photos with the mountains as a backdrop. I had been driving up to the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge Parkway every few days to check the progress of the blooms of our native tree blossoms. I always look for days that the air is very clear, the ability to see far into the valleys draws people into the image. Therefore, lower humidity days are the best, especially after an overnight rain or a drop in temperature. The first Monday in June met all of my criteria, I was on my way to find an epic shot.
I started out traveling South on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and quickly saw the purplish magenta blooms of the Catawba Rhododendron all around me. The Catawba Rhododendron primarily grows in the Southern Ranges of the Appalachian Mountains and is plentiful along the Blue Ridge Parkway. You can find them from Virginia down through Northern Alabama. I love the color they add to a mountain landscape. Our other native Rhododendron is the Rosebay, they grow along the waterways and in shaded areas in the Southern Appalachians and bloom around a month later than the Catawba variety. The second photo below is of Eastatoe Falls with Rosebay blooms on the upper banks, but of course shot on a different day from this adventure.
Back to my Parkway adventure, I was certainly thankful that there were nice, big, puffy clouds out as well to give drama to the sky. I always determine if I want to go shoot by the drama in the sky. A cloud free day just is not as exciting and bores me photographically so having nice big fluffy clouds makes me happy.
I went as far south as Haywood Gap before deciding to head back North, but I stopped at Devil's Courthouse and took a few shots. There was a group of four hikers that had just came down off of the peak of the Courthouse as I was setting up shooting, when one of the guys realized that he left his sunglasses on top. He proceeded to run back up the trail to retrieve them. It was quite funny to me, and I was amazed at how quickly he ascended the trail, which is decently steep, and returned back to the car. He probably did the two mile round trip in about 15 minutes, not bad on that terrain. The first of the next two shots made my top 25 in sales, it was taken near Haywood Gap looking North into Maggie Valley as far as I can figure. The second is Devil's Courthouse.
After that, I stopped near Graveyard Fields and captured a few shots. I always enjoy shooting around Graveyard Fields, and for those of you that do not know the story behind the name, during the late 1800's or early 1900's logging of the area left stumps throughout the valley. Before long, moss and lichens covered the stumps and they seemed to resemble graves. Then, a fire in the early 1900's burned all of those stumps away and sterilized the soil. Only now, are many of the plants and trees beginning to return and thrive. You can no longer see the moss covered stumps but the valley is still relatively barren compared to all of the surrounding forest.
This shot was in the curve right before the parking area of Graveyard Fields. I stopped along the way and took a few shots at Looking Glass Rock, but there wasn't a spot that I found that day that I could frame any Rhody's in with the scene, so I headed on down the mountain back to Asheville for lunch.
After lunch, I debated what I was going to do. I wasn't sure if I was going to keep going and drive North or just pack it in and call it a day. I decided to keep going, certainly somewhere near Craggy Gardens I would find what I was looking for. So North I went, stopping at a few overlooks and finally arriving at Craggy Gardens. There were a few other photographers set up at the Craggy Visitor Center shooting time lapse photos and I set up and took a few shots of the mountains and the sun as it was getting lower in the sky. However the Rhody's were not blooming as well at that spot so I decided I needed to keep going. I drove over to Mt Mitchell State Park and found a few spots but nothing was really moving me. I knew that I wanted a great sunset spot and hoped I could find one with abundant blooms in the foreground. I did get this one shot near Mt Mitchell but it was only mediocre in my mind.
After that I started heading back towards Craggy Gardens, I came around one curve and there was a huge male bear running along in the road. Once he heard me coming he found a spot and climbed up the bank blending in perfectly with the thick brush. I rarely seem to be ready for those moments when I encounter our woodland friends on my adventures. (see my "There are Bears in these hills" post from last year.)
A few miles further back towards Craggy, I spot something. A plethora of beautiful Catawba Rhododendron blooms down off of a western facing slope just below the wooden guard rail of the Parkway. This is it, this is my spot! I literally backed my car up on the Parkway, set my hazard lights on and got out of the car. I put my tripod in front of the car about 30 yards in the middle of the road and started shooting. If any cars came along they would just have to drive around me, I was not going to miss this shot. I knew that I had something special and stood there capturing the sun setting over the Blue Ridge Mountains. To my left, there were also the signature clouds or fog rolling over the gap between Craggy Dome and Craggy Pinnacle. Anyone that frequents Craggy knows that fog can move in or out in seconds up there.
I shot for around 15 minutes, standing in the middle of the road. For those of you that might ask, "why not pull off of the road?" this was in the Asheville Watershed, so pulling off anywhere other than designated overlooks is prohibited, plus there was nowhere to pull off right there. It was almost 9 PM so only 4 cars came by, and they saw what I saw and smiled and waved as they passed.
I knew that I had something special but had no idea that it would turn out so well when I got home and processed my images. I shot the scene as a panorama, taking over 15 shots zoomed in slightly and panning after each one to capture a wider area with greater detail. Then combined all of the images together to create the final photograph. The shot that I had hoped for when I set out for the day was on my screen in front of me. My Summertime Dream.
It had every thing that I wanted, the Rhody's, the mountains and the sunset. This is one of those shots that truly shows the beauty of Western North Carolina, and explains why they are called the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I took the file to my local lab, and printed a few 10x22's and matted them to be ready for my next market. By Saturday, I had sold three. Summertime Dream quickly surpassed all of my other images and I sold a few a week all season long. I also fulfilled an order for my largest print ever back before Christmas, when a nice couple purchased a 24x53 print. Once I matted the print, it was five feet wide.
I am so glad that I went back out after lunch that day, if I had went home I would have missed this. I guess it speaks to the photography rule or quote that I have heard a few times. Someone once asked a photographer how he captured such amazing images and he replied, "f8 and be there." Mine was f20 but the "be there," aspect is what is most significant to me.
I dedicate this post to my Father, Robert who passed away Saturday, January 24th. The reason it took so long to complete this post was due to his being admitted in the hospital and his passing two weeks later. My priorities were to be there for him and my family. My father was a photographer when he was younger. I remember him having a dark room in our basement when I was a child. Unfortunately, he sold all of his gear before my passion developed, but he always appreciated my work. This photo of my daughter at Chimney Rock was his favorite of my work, he had a 12x18 print framed at his house. I just look at it now and think that she is standing there reaching out to hug him. I love you, Pap