on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Endframe: Basin Mountain, Approaching Storm, by Bruce Barnbaum

Karen Thurman talks about one of her favourite images

Karen Thurman

Born in London, England, I am an emerging photographer whose work captures the magic to be found in the natural world around us. Although I spent my formative years in the concrete jungles of the Far East, I have always been fascinated by landscapes, especially forests, woodlands and the streams that run through them. I use my art to encourage environmental protection. I work in large format black & white, developing and printing my work in my darkroom.


I first came across the name Bruce Barnbaum when I bought his book “The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression”. I remember sitting on the platform at London Bridge Station, waiting for the train home and reading the first pages. I was approached by a stranger who said, “This is the best photography book you’ll ever own.” He was right. I’ve bought dozens of books on photography since then, but this one is still the best.

Born in Chicago in 1943, Bruce now lives amidst the majesty of the forests of the North Cascade Mountains in Washington State. A mathematician who worked as an analyst and computer programmer for missile guidance systems, he gave it up to become a full-time photographer in 1970. Known for being an environmentalist as much as a photographer and master printer, he studied under Ansel Adams and won the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography (which honours photographers who have used their talents in conservation efforts) in 1974. Bruce is known for especially for landscapes, but also for architectural and abstract photographs.

Bruce documents the beauty around him on 4x5 TriX film using his trusted Linhof Technika, sharing his feelings through his black & white and colour photos. In his own words, “my entry into photography came via hiking and backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The monstrous river canyons with crashing waterfalls and cascades below 14,000′ granite summits and forests of enormous sugar pines, themselves dwarfed by giant sequoia trees, were so exciting to me that I was inspired to ‘capture them’ on film. That was in the mid-1960s. Today my attitude has completely changed”.

“First, I don’t think you can ‘capture’ anything. I think you can document where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. If you’re really serious about things, you can go beyond mere documentation and try to convey your feelings about what you’ve seen. But how can you possibly ‘capture’ a 3,000′ granite cliff on the 16″ side of a “large” 16 x20″photograph? You simply can’t. Even Ansel Adams didn’t ‘capture’ Half Dome or Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite. What he did, however, was convey the essence of those monumental forms so well that some people who have seen his photographs first, and then go to Yosemite to see the real thing, sometimes walk away disappointed. That’s a monumental achievement on Adams’ part and an exceptional demonstration of the power of photography when it’s done really, really well.”

I had the great privilege of attending one of Bruce’s black & white darkroom workshops and seeing the master at work. Watching him transform a flatter-than-flat 4x5 contact print into a rich, powerful 16x20 image was like watching a master sculptor and painter as he shaped the light with his hands and fined tuned the highlights with potassium ferricyanide. That day he printed Boulder & Metamorphosis Wave and I’m still inspired by what I saw. Every time I step into my darkroom I try to remember what he taught me during that magical week. Bruce’s encouragement is also the reason I moved from 35mm to the 4x5 format.


When faced with writing an endframe, I knew I was going to choose one of Bruce’s images, but I found choosing just one a difficult task. In the end I settled on Basin Mountain, Approaching Storm. Made in 1973, it has all the geographical elements that most speak to me: mountains and flora. The photograph is titled Basin Mountain, Approaching Storm because Bruce first saw the mountain and the approaching clouds, with the meadow in the foreground almost a backdrop to the real essence of the image, which is the approaching storm that is about to engulf the mountain.

Although there is a stillness to the image, I can feel the movement of the wind picking up and the heaviness of moisture in the air as the storm gathers and prepares to unleash itself.
For me, the image is a study of contrasts. When I first saw it in the flesh (so to speak) I was struck by the drama of its tones: the ominous clouds, the luminous snow-capped mountaintop, the mystery of the dark valley and the light brush against the fence in the foreground. My eye is drawn up the image from the scrubby bottom to the peaks about to disappear into the dark clouds. There is so much depth I can see myself climbing over the fence and tromping across to the foot of the mountain. The mountain itself looks a little remote and forbidding, as though it’s telling me I’ll never be able to climb it (and I won’t!). Contrasting textures are abundant too. The dark clouds, with their feathery edges almost brush against the sharp lines of the mountain and its striations. The crinkled texture of the plants lies against the smooth edges of the hills in front of the mountain.

The repeating curves bring a sense of calm to an image that is otherwise overflowing with energy. Although there is a stillness to the image, I can feel the movement of the wind picking up and the heaviness of moisture in the air as the storm gathers and prepares to unleash itself. Hidden in the drama of the overall image, there are subtleties – the gentle tonal range on the half-mountain on the right and on the left. Like every great image, every time I look at it, I see something new, so I haven’t tired of it even after three years.

You can see more of Bruce Barnbaum’s work at www.barnbaum.com

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