Spotlight: How Colin McCrae Rediscovered the Snowfields of the High Sierra

By David Schonauer   Tuesday July 10, 2018

The snowfields of the High Sierra can be disorienting.

“On a clear day, if there is no movement, there is no sound,” notes California Bay Area-based photographer Colin McCrae. “On other days the fog rolls in, and you can’t see your hand in front of your face, and you have to keep telling yourself your are right side up, because you can’t feel the ground beneath your feet. Then there are days with sleet, hail and snow. Sunny clear days are better.”

Today, McRae is best known for his architectural, lifestyle, and aerial photography, including a remarkable series  featuring multi-hued salt ponds near San Francisco International Airport. But back in the late 1970s he was striving to create a career as a fine-art photographer, shooting landscapes with medium- and large-format cameras. And he ended up in the mountains.

“Friends of mine and I would take road trips looking for things to photograph. On one of these trips we visited Bear Valley, California, at the invitation of a fellow photographer who had a vacation home there. On the last day of that trip I wandered off into a large snow-covered field with my equally large view camera and found fascinating images formed by light and shadows on the snow. These images lead me to make more excursions into the snow over the next few years looking for more.” he says.

Over the course of several winters, McCrae trekked into snow-filled canyons and valleys, camping and photographing for a week at a time. “My camera gear consisted of a Sinar 4x5 with 65mm, 90mm, 121mm, 150mm, and 210mm lenses, two hundred sheets of film, and four Graphmatic film backs that held six sheets each,” he notes.

He also had an aluminum tripod that had had modified by substituting the friction-based locks with a pin system and adding adjustable ski pole baskets to the legs. “I had learned the hard way that friction-based locks didn’t work well in sub-zero temperatures and tripod legs didn’t sit well in powdered snow. I also found that catching a snowshoe in deep powder with an eighty-pound pack on your back can plant you face down three feet below the snow’s surface,” he says.

Given the nature of his subject, McRae found it difficult to produce prints with the right balance to pull out as much detail as possible. A number of his prints were exhibited in Berkeley, but he eventually set them aside and forgot about them.

A few years ago, McRae decided to revisit the work. “It occurred to me that if I were to scan the negatives I might be able to pull out more detail,” he says. “What I found floored me. It was as if I had missed half of each image.”

Looking back on the work, McCrae found connections with his more recent color aerial landscapes. "It seems that much of my work relies on finding the abstract quality in nature,” he says.

This past winter McRae began revisiting some of the sites in the Sierras that he photographed long ago. “I am finding some new images in new areas as well,” he says.



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