A Californian road trip took me on an unexpected detour that, as luck would have it, was timed perfectly to allow me to capture some unreal sunset photography on Mono Lake, and get an insight into this fragile, otherworldly environment…
Light as soft as a touch, water as still as the edge of sleep. There are quiet places on earth that a single glance reveals as alien, utterly strange. At the same time, they also call out to a part of you, long submerged in a sea of everyday distractions.
All of life’s white noise, fury and clashing moments cannot compete with that small, sunken quiet, that somehow wields the radiance of a sun, lighting the far side of the darkness.
Mono Lake is a place like that.
A stop on the road allowed me to photograph one of our plant’s most otherworldly sunsets, on Mono Lake. Viewed from the heights of the valley walls, the soda saline Lake looks like a trick of the eye. It’s as if the low desert, carpeted in scrub, and nestled at the foot of ice giants, has suddenly sunk through a fey mirror, casting its silver enchantment at the roof of the sky, drawing down its depthless blue.
The stillness of the waters seems to reflect the weight of geological time. You start to be able to grasp what it means to be standing in the Great Dry Basin of California’s Eastern Sierra mountains, in this fleeting moment, looking down at a lake that is, at the very least, 760,000 years old.
The sun has already dipped behind the wall of mountains by the time we drive down the valley road, and hike to the lakeshore. It’s encrusted by salt and time, buttressed by limestone formations that have been beached by the falling waters.
Gazing into the waters of the lake, I’m struck by the notion that they posses their own unique density; a stillness that has nothing to do with the air above them. Indeed, this is an alkaline lake, with a Ph of 10 that’s besieged by the desert sun, which evaporates around 45 inches of water from its surface, every year.
Rocks in the shallows seem to glow with ethereal green light as the fading sun illuminates underwater algae, which somehow thrives in water three times as salty as the sea. As a result of evaporation, an impossibly white crust of salt has been left behind. It creates a perfectly defined line across stands of spiky plants and intractably gnarled limestone.
The limestone towers, or tufas, are themselves a product of the Mono Lake’s waters, which are rich in carbonates. This feature, when combined with calcium-rich underwater springs, has brought about the slow march of the tufa towers.
Incredibly, this otherworldly environment isn’t hostile to life; far from it. It’s actually a highly productive ecosystem of algae, brine shrimp and alkali flies, supporting a massive population of bird life, including 85% of the state’s breeding population of California Gulls.
Apparently, a pair of ospreys even built a nest up on one of the tufas close to shore recently, despite the daily influx of visitors. When the apex predators get that bold, you know an ecosystem is doing well.
Of course, the tufas wouldn’t be so visible if it hadn’t been for LA’s water grab on the lake, which has resulted in restrictions to stream diversion and a Water Board-mandated recovery level. It’s undeniable that this is an ancient, unique, and yet fragile ecosystem, and one that requires our protection.
The challenge of sunset photography on Mono Lake is one of timing. As I set my tripod up to shoot the scene, I initially I think I may be too late to capture the emotional heft of this place, but the lack of direct light from the setting sun, which has dropped under the mountains behind me, has a magical effect. It’s as if, with the retreat of its daily adversary, the lake is letting out a deep breath, long held.
The far mountains glow with an intensity of orange and purple, like some outrageous 1970’s vision of an alien planet, while the sky and the surface waters echo each others’ vibrancy. At the same time, the lake itself seems to shine, casting its own light back up into the vault of space.
As soon as I begin to work I can feel that I’m going to be able to do the spectacle some justice. Because more than anything, as a photographer, I’m hoping to put some human part of myself into my images. This gives them an emotion, and therefore a life…