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Yellowstone in Black and White

Before I switched to a digital camera, I didn’t use black and white film. Aside from preferring bright, saturated color in my pictures, I didn’t have a darkroom. Back in the pre-digital era, a darkroom (along with lots of experience and patience) really was necessary for getting worthwhile results in black and white. But when I was planning my late May through early June trip to Yellowstone, I realized I would inevitably encounter elephant-gray overcast, a leaden sky that drains the color from any scene. A spare camera with black and white film seemed a possible solution to this perennial problem. The resulting pictures, “printed” in my “digital darkroom,” offer a different perspective on Yellowstone.


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Gate to Moose Head Ranch in Grand Teton National Park Soda Butte Creek on an overcast day

Jackson Hole Airport, inside Grand Teton National Park, is the main air gateway for Yellowstone. Driving through Grand Teton on the way to Yellowstone, I saw a gate and fence that nicely framed the Tetons. An old truck on the dirt road heading toward the gate completed a picture that could have been taken 50 years earlier. I decided that black and white would work better for this scene than color, so I grabbed the spare camera. The gate and road lead to Moose Head Ranch, originally a homestead established before Grand Teton became a national park in 1929. It’s now an upscale dude ranch.

Photo of a snow-covered forest of burned trees Picture of burned trees in Yellowstone
Ancient pine tree in Yellowstone PBrush and aspens

In the summer of 1988, Yellowstone suffered a devastating fire that burned over 35% of the park. When I visited three years later the damage was very apparent in large expanses of charred and fallen trees. But those burnt trees offered opportunities for interesting black and white pictures, particularly with snow still on the ground.

Despite the scale of the burned areas, the fire was more of a disaster for the Park Service than for the trees. It ignited controversy over a longstanding fire management policy that attempted to suppress periodic, naturally-occurring fires. Suppressing those fires allowed old trees that natural fires would have cleared away to accumulate and fuel the enormous highly destructive fire.

Fire suppression also interfered with the life cycle of the lodgepole pines that make up most of the forests in Yellowstone. That species has evolved to rely on fire as an essential part of its reproductive process. The trees form pine cones to protect their seeds from hungry animals. But those seeds can’t germinate until a fire’s intense heat releases them the cones. In consuming old trees, fire also releases nutrients for the next generation of seedlings.

Despite the fires there were plenty of trees in Yellowstone, including ancient pines and numerous stands of aspens.

Yellowstone River from Calcite Springs Overlook Picture of Lower Yellowstone Falls

These two pictures of the Yellowstone River and its Grand Canyon (right) are similar to the color pictures I have on the main Yellowstone page. In fact, I took them immediately after the color versions, switching cameras on the tripod. But they have quite a different feeling in black and white. The wide view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Lower Falls becomes almost abstract in black and white. Picture of snowy bank, Yellowstone River

I visited Yellowstone at the end of May. The summer crowds had yet to arrive, but snow was still on the ground. Had I arrived a week earlier, I would have been unable to explore the park at all because most of the roads would not yet have been plowed.

There is always a risk in visiting a mountain park in the off season. Winter conditions can sometimes persist through June. When I visited the the Canadian Rockies in late May of the following year, I was welcomed with more snow than the area received in January or February. But at least the snow in Yellowstone provided interesting contrast with the trees and dark ground, and with the Yellowstone river at the brink of Upper Yellowstone Falls (left).

Soda Butte, the travertine cone of an extinct geyser Photo of a mud pot, Yellowstone
Picture Minerva Terrace travertine formaton

Finally, here are three of Yellowstone’s geothermal features. The first is Soda Butte, the travertine cone of an extinct geyser. Travertine is calcium carbonate that’s dissolved as a boiling seltzer of hot water mixed with volcanic carbon dioxide percolates through limestone, rock made of calcium carbonate. When the water evaporates, it leaves the dissolved limestone behind as travertine. The travertine in active geysers and springs often hosts colorful microbes; but this extinct formation has only textured shades of gray, making it a fine subject for a black and white picture.

The second is a mud pot whose name I didn’t record. It’s a fumarole crater full of mud. A fumarole doesn’t quite have quite enough hot water to make it a boiling pool, but there’s just enough to keep the mud liquid. Volcanic gases and water vapor envelop the fumarole in sulfurous fog.

At right is Minerva Terrace, Yellowstone’s largest travertine formation. As an active hot spring, heat-loving microbes paint the white travertine it in shades of brown and pink. But it makes an interesting abstract textured shape in black and white.


Some notes on black and white photography
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