In June of 1973 – exactly fifty years ago – I was extremely fortunate to attend the two-week long annual Ansel Adams photography workshop in Yosemite. This image, “Merced River, Happy Isles,” was made during that workshop. I was inspired to apply for the workshop after seeing the exhibition “Master Photographers: Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock and Edward Weston” at the Pasadena Museum of Art (now the Norton Simon Museum) as part of a photography class I was enrolled in at Cypress College.
Seeing original prints by these three great photographers was a life changing experience for me at the ripe old age of nineteen. I had seen reproductions of some of the well known images by Adams and Weston, but I am embarrassed to admit I was not familiar with Wynn Bullock’s imagery. His images of long exposures of moving water had an impact on me. In the notes I made that day at the Museum I wrote this about Wynn’s photographs, “… strange effect of extremely slow shutter speeds on ocean gives striking mist effect.”
My classmate John Charles Woods and I decided to apply for Ansel’s Yosemite workshop scheduled a few months later, and we were both accepted. I arrived in Yosemite with a 4×5″ Calumet monorail view camera, along with two lenses– borrowed from school, and a tripod on loan from a close friend. I did have my own light meter… it was built into my 35mm Minolta SRT-101 camera. Far from perfect, but it was what I had.
On the afternoon June 15, 1973, our workshop group had a directed field session at one of my favorite locations in Yosemite Valley–Happy Isles. After the conclusion of the organized instructional session, my friend John Woods and I chose to skip dinner to continue making photographs—as we often did during the workshop. As the intensity of light dimmed, and inspired by Wynn Bullock’s photographs, I decided to experiment with a long exposure of the rushing Merced River. I did not own a neutral density filter. In fact, the only filters I had were for my 35mm camera. I deduced that I could ‘simulate’ a neutral density filter by combining filters of the additive primary colors – red, green, and blue. I had a red filter and a green filter, but the only blue filter I owned was a Wratten 80A filter designed for color photography. I screwed the filters together, and carefully held this less than optically perfect assembly over the 90mm wide-angle lens during the 15-second exposure I had calculated. Amazingly, when I processed the negative the exposure was adequate, and the image was sharp. One effect that I have never been able to duplicate was how this combination of filters lightened the trees in the background.
I still enjoy this image a half-century later. I must admit more luck than skill was involved in making this photograph. Enjoy!
– John Sexton