You Can’t Take This Photo: Shooting Western Landscapes Like They’ve Never Been Seen—at Night
In 2010, photographer Adam Katseff, a lifelong East Coaster, moved to California to begin an MFA at Stanford. Inspired by the great 19th-century landscape photographer Carleton Watkins, he began exploring the American West with his boxy 8 x 10 camera, trying to capture large-format images of iconic locations like Yosemite National Park. After a while, though, Katseff grew bored of simply following in Watkins’ shoes.
“It felt a little like trophy hunting,” he says. “I was going out, making a really sharp, well-composed, well-executed photograph, but ultimately it felt decorative. It didn’t capture the emotions I was experiencing being in those places.”
How do you make some of the most-photographed landscapes in the world look new again? The answer hit Katseff during a visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where he encountered one of painter Ad Reinhardt’s signature all-black canvases. “I was staring at this square, matte-black painting for a long time, and I started to notice subtle variations in paint color,” Katseff remembers. “I realized that I could use darkness as a veil to obscure what photography does so beautifully, which is record details.”
The photographer thought back his first visit to Yosemite. He had arrived at night, and could barely discern the surrounding landscape. “My mind started playing tricks on me,” he says. “I started imagining this place that I had never really seen myself, but knew from photographs. So my mind was sort of creating this visual experience, triggered by darkness.”
Katseff decided to attempt to capture that sensation in photographic form. Through trial and error, he discovered that the best nighttime images could only be taken in a narrow window of time after the sun sets but before the last rays of dark-blue light fade from the horizon. The window is so small that Katseff can usually take just two shots a day, with exposure times ranging from two minutes to a half-hour.
When he began developing these twilight images, he discovered a strange phenomenon: rivers would come out looking stark white, while the valleys themselves would be in almost total darkness. At first he thought there was a problem with his developing process, but he soon realized that light reflecting off the river’s wavelets was creating the effect. When the wind was in a different direction, the waves reflected less light and the river would appear pitch black.
The above photograph, of the Snake River winding through Hell’s Canyon on the Oregon-Idaho border, is the result of years of experimentation with weather and light conditions, exposure lengths, and developing techniques. For gallery shows, Katseff prints the images large—44 by 55 inches or 60 by 75 inches—so viewers can see all the detail. “The photographs make the viewer’s mind do some work,” he explains, “and I want to reward that.”
When he teaches photography courses, Katseff sometimes shows students his large-format camera, which weighs about eight pounds. “My students are like, ‘That’s huge!’” he says. “I always tell them, it’s better than having to rely on mule teams, a portable darkroom, and 20- by 24-inch glass plates like Carleton Watkins. In comparison to that, this is point-and-shoot.”