A cold and blustery day with a beautiful surprise in the Catskill Mountains.
This scene was photographed directly below a sheer cliff high on the northeastern wall of the Kaaterskill Clove. A major canyon (or clove in Dutch parlance), the clove has been a source of dramatic inspiration for artists since Thomas Cole. On this chilly winter day in 1999, my plan was to hike to the cliff-top crowning the high clove wall, for a pre-winter panoramic view of the clove and Hudson River Valley below. I especially enjoy the dry, bare-tree days between autumn leaves and early snow. It is a somber and elemental time when the earth is laid bare before us. Skeletal tree structures, exposed cliffs and dark silver skies, the earth laying down to rest.
I chose to get to the top by the most difficult but most scenic route. Years before, climbing these same cliffs, I had discovered a faint path leading to this spot from the main trail below, a challenging short cut. The climb to this point is extremely steep and difficult, made worse by scrambling over the broken rock scree ejected from the cliffs above. I was quite warm due to the exertion necessary to ferry my 8x10 camera to this spot. I stopped to rest and drink water at the base of the cliff before attempting to climb further. Sitting on a small boulder, I looked out at the valley and beheld a wonderful, unexpected scene. The southern wall of the clove, the valley below and the distant silvery Hudson River, all framed through a magnificent weather-tortured grove of wild birch trees! A scene worthy of Cole or Durand or any of the 19th century Hudson River School artists. I quickly abandoned my plans for the cliff above and went to work on this image: a perfect window on the Catskills. Once my camera was in place, as usual, the wind spirit noticed me. Nature is always motionless until the moment of exposure. Then everything changes. Gusts of freezing wind now shook me and bent the trees at regular intervals.
Using big cameras generally requires long exposures, even in bright daylight. This cool, diffused silver light was no exception. I spent the afternoon never leaving this spot; exposing only two sheets of film over 3 hours. Finally, hoping for the best, but willing to accept defeat, I packed and left for home, driven down into the valley by cold and hunger. But the resulting image worked for me; the cold dark recesses of the clove, the birch trees like lightning bolts emanating from the ground, and that somber winter sky all expressed perfectly what I felt on that beautiful cold day.