Yosemite was therefore the first park I visited, and I would subsequently return to there time and time again to explore its vertical world, as well as to hike and cross-country ski. In the spring of 1993, I visited my second National Park, Denali, to climb Mt McKinley solo. While my focus during those first parks visits was on mountaineering, after my visit to Death Valley in the fall of 1993, and then a whirlwind trip to southern Utah in the winter of 1993, I began to realize how interesting the National Parks system was, as a whole.
A few years later, as I had to limit my climbing activities after developing a debilitating case of keyboard-related RSI (Repetitive Stress Injury), I was eager to find a different outlet for the wilderness skills I developed during more than a decade of intense mountaineering. I enjoyed the challenges of planning and traveling to a number of remote locations, each with their own logistical problems. There was also the intellectual curiosity of finding out what makes each place special and unique in the larger picture of things. By that time, I had fallen in love with the National Parks so much that after the end of my tenure at Berkeley, I decided to extend my stay in the USA long enough for me to visit all of them.
In the summer of 1993, following an American tradition of landscape photography well exemplified by Ansel Adams, I had learned to use the large format camera. On the trip to Death Valley, I exposed one of my first sheets of 5x7 film at Badwater. A surprisingly successful mid-day image, the detail in the large transparency amazed me, as I felt I was able to see more detail in it than when I was at the actual scene.
Like Galen Rowell before, I initially picked up photography as a means to communicate to people who weren't there the wonders I had seen on the high peaks. Likewise, I also wanted to document the Parks in a way that would do justice to their splendor. I soon found out found out that many of the Parks had not been photographed with both a very high level of vision and technical quality. I decided to try to remedy this situation by photographing all the Parks in large format as my personal contribution to their celebration and preservation.
But yet, I don't drive beyond the continental divide (I am based in the San Francisco Bay Area), and there are the islands and Alaska, so the total I flew dozens of times (enough to get a couple of free bonus flights per year), including more than a dozen of segments in those small aircraft that are used in areas of Alaska where you cannot get there by any road because there are none for hundreds of miles around. I also boarded a great number of ferries and smaller motor boats. The part of air travel that I do not enjoy is to have to lug around up to two monster "body bags" filled up with photo gear, camping backpacking and backpacking necessities, and sometimes specialized outdoor gear, but although my wife is still horrified at them, I have learned over the years how to cope.
But often, that's just the beginning, and then to get to some places, you just have to hike for a day or backpack for a week, sometimes with a 70lbs pounds pack in tailless terrain. More specialized trips involved climbing to such heights as the summit of Mount Mc Kinley, paddling a kayak and inflatable canoe, and getting wet snorkeling and scuba diving. With the exception of a few week-long wilderness trips in Alaska, where it was so remote that I wouldn't have met any other people if I was not with a partner, in general I prefer to travel alone.
Overall, I planned all the expeditions by myself, without ever hiring a guide, and using only in a few cases chartered transportation, when no other options were possible. On the road, I almost never stayed in motels, but rather camped out, often without a tent, even in the middle of winter, not only for savings, but also to be the closest possible to the environment I was seeking.
I financed the project entirely myself, using at first income from a job as a professional computer science researcher. Expenses were not really a problem, since I travel in a very efficient (read cheap :-)) way. Time would have been one, however, this job, semi-academic in nature, afforded me enough flexibility so that I could go on several two-week long trips each year. It is only in the latter years of the project that I began to realize that the images, initially conceived as a labor of love, could be commercialized, and then began to make the transition towards full-time professional photography. Nowadays, I derive most of my income from photography.
To the best of my knowledge (please correct me if I am wrong), 54 of National Parks have been photographed by Stan Jorstad (3 more Parks were designated subsequently), making him the only person other to have completed the project, using medium-format cameras, however. David Muench, the doyen of American color landscape photography, has photographs most of the National Parks, but not all. For that reason, his last 2005 book "Our National Parks" used some of my own images.
All those photographers used cameras which do not capture images with the same resolution as my 5x7. Stephen Johnson's project, although much talked about because of his use of digital tools, resulted in the coverage of barely more than half of the Parks, and although it did produce some distinctively new images, was quite limited in scope by his very choice of digital tools (more on that latter).
When usable, the scanning backs indeed produce very high-quality images, however, when scanned properly, a good old piece of 5x7 film yields digital files even larger, and capable of producing stunningly sharp prints at the size of 50x70 inches. There are only a few printers installed in the world that can produce larger fine art prints than that.
One-shot cameras and backs, that do not require scanning, are currently quite a bit behind in terms of resolution (as of March 2006, the largest one-shot backs captures only 40 megapixels). I do complement my 5x7 camera with a digital 35mm camera, the 16 megapixel Canon EOS 1Ds mark 2, and while the quality certainly surpasses 35mm film, making the images suitable for many applications, it cannot match by far the detail of the 5x7 camera.
The images that you are viewing in the gallery were scanned from 35mm slides. There are two reasons for that. First, it is impossible to appreciate on the web the additional quality that a 5x7 provides (although this would be very clear on a large print). In fact, even 35mm provides way more detail than it is possible to display even on the largest screen. Second, scanning 5x7 transparencies is much more time consuming than scanning 35mm slides.
Many of the images in the gallery exist at the same time as 35mm and 5x7 images. To view only these large format images, click here. Some of my best images exit only as large format images, but unfortunately so far I didn't have the time and resources to scan most of them.
I use a wooden camera hand-assembled by Keith Canham of Mesa, AZ. It is one of the most light (6 lbs) and compact 5x7 camera around that is fully featured, with a complete range of adjustments and the capability to accommodate a wide range of lenses. My assortment of lenses range from 90mm to 720mm, and include optics from each of the 4 major manufacturers (Nikkor 90/8, Schneider 110/5.6, Rodenstock 150/5.6, Schneider 210/5.6, Nikkor 300/9, Fuji 450/12.5, Nikkor 720T/16), however the lens I use for more than half of my images is the Schneider Super-symmar XL 110/5.6, the equivalent of a 24mm lens in 35mm. This lens is demanding, because so much of the scene is included that all the elements have to fit together, but those are the conditions I am striving for.
I work exclusively in color, for I find it a crucial part of the visual experience. Like many landscape photographers, I have used extensively Fuji Velvia, for its vivid colors that seem good at matching the memories of a scene. However, these days, I use exclusively Fuji Astia. This film provides me with a more natural palette. Interestingly, I find that while in smaller formats, this film, because of its less saturated palette, does not match the colors that the mind perceived in a natural landscape, in a 5x7 transparency, the precise rendition of the textures, identical or better than what can be observed at the scene, is just right to recreate the visual experience of being there. Technically, Fuji Astia has three important advantages, first it holds almost more full stop of contrast more than Velvia, making it in particular easier to retain shadow detail in full light or sky detail in overcast conditions, second, the full additional shutter speed is very useful for freezing the motion of vegetation, and third, the reciprocity failure corrections are not necessary until 30s exposures, while Velvia definitively needs them starting from 10s.
The only filters that are use are the polarizer and a variety of Graduated Neutral Density filters. These days, I find that minor color correction are best left for the (digital) darkroom. Digital tools give the color photographer a degree of fine control that is very difficult to achieve in the traditional darkroom, and makes it possible to make prints that best matches my intentions.
I always carry a 35mm system together with the 5x7 system. Although I used Nikon in the past, I switched to Canon EF a few years back, because they offered lenses that were just not available in the Nikon line at that time (and took five years for Nikon to match). I find that a 35mm camera with a zoom lens makes a useful viewfinding tool, as well as a precise meter with an excellent interface. I use an incident meter almost only for close-ups in even light.