Hit the Road: A story told through every snap of the shutter

Hit the Road: A story told through every snap of the shutter
This iconic view of Yosemite National Park is known as Gates of the Valley. El Capitan is on the left; the Merced River in the foreground. It was captured in 2015 by Michael Ambrose to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the establishment of the park. As the photographer and wife, Kristen, endured an autumn rain storm, a rainbow formed, bridging El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls. Photo by Michael Ambrose

Michael Ambrose has to re-schedule our phone interview because nature is calling.

No, not THAT nature, but the kind you see in Yosemite National Park — grand, gorgeous and greater-than-life.

Ambrose, a professional photographer, moved our interview to mid-morning because he needed the afternoon hours to explore the park’s landscape ahead of an eminent big snow.

“My wife, Kristen and I, are going to head out on snowshoes to check out a potential new picture,” Ambrose explains in a phone interview from his home near the park’s edge. “I’m hoping for a photo of fresh snow, untracked. After a storm, the sky is always very dramatic. It’s an opportunity for the sun to drop below the clouds and light everything up.”

Ambrose always speaks of photos in the singular; each picture of his beloved Sierra Nevada mountains is carefully considered, both aesthetically and economically, before he commits a permanent image on 4-inch-by-5-inch slides. (A box of 20 costs about $100).

Even with a recent switch to digital, Ambrose has a story to accompany each photo.

“I think about them one at a time,” he explains. “I typically pre-visualize something. I come up with an idea on a hike and most often the photo doesn’t materialize until a set of conditions happen. Weather and light all have to come together… More often than not, I come out empty-handed. When it does happen, though, I feel as if I’ve closed a circle.”

It happened with the image he captured of the iconic Gates of the Valley view.

“Kristen and I found ourselves enjoying a fall storm while walking around the western edge of the valley,” Ambrose recalls. “While rain poured on us, an outstanding rainbow formed right over El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls. Kristen did her best to keep the umbrella over me while I worked as quickly as possible.”

Another photo of approximately the same view yields entirely different colors and mood. On this expedition, Ambrose had left the park because conditions didn’t look promising. But then the storm began to break up and he reversed course.

“After a long cold wait something magical began to happen,” 48-year-old Ambrose remembers. “The clouds were settling onto the floor of the valley… I was watching the strongest image I had ever seen unfold before my eyes. The light was failing fast as I counted down a 60-second exposure out loud. By the end of the exposure, it was so much darker (outside) that I decided to add some exposure time…”

The shot became his “signature piece.”

Ambrose, who has been making a living with his photos since 2002, came to photography through a near-fatal accident.

About 20 years ago, while living on Catalina Island, he took a cross-country hike alone. While scrambling down a canyon, he fell “a long ways,” and remained unconscious for three days. Among his injuries were “a lot of broken bones and torn lungs.” On the fourth day, having had no food or water, Ambrose managed to crawl down to the ocean and was rescued by paramedics.

While in intensive care, his parents gave him a 35-millimeter Nikon camera.

“It was like they were telling me I would get better,” he says.

While in a wheelchair for six months, Ambrose read about the art of photography and famous photographers like Ansel Adams.

“It fired my imagination. (Learning about photography) really helped me when I couldn’t move.”

With the abundance of rain and snow that California is receiving, Ambrose predicts many opportunities to create memorable images of the Sierra Nevada in the coming year months.

Ambrose’s photos can be seen and purchased on his website michaelambrose.com.

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com.

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