A Dolomite Photo Journey
This last August, I took a rental car north on the A27 to route 51 to one of the year round hotels in the resort town of Cortina d'Ampezzo. One of the main destination towns in the Dolomites, Cortina achieved fame by hosted the '56 Winter Olympics, a first for Italy. It's also the choice of many of the summer hikers, climbers, bicyclists, me. Cortina would be my home base in the eastern Dolomites for a week, the next week being at Ortisei in South Tyrol, the other world-famous ski location of the Dolomites.
Morning in Cortina, where to start? After 14 hours travel the previous day, I slept in, then wandered down to a generous hotel breakfast and worked through my shooting options for the next few days. The Dolomites are packed full of mountains and many offer gondolas up to alpine meadows and the high country overlooks.
Faloria, the closest ski lift in town, was an easy walk and I took the gondola up. Like most of the Dolomites, the mountains and high altitude meadows are easily accessed in summer with these ski lifts. At the plateau, I wandered the cliff edge overlook with the cable car and the Cortina Valley below. I found a little path through the woods heading south past what's called Cliffhanger Lodge, an old building named after the Sly Stallone movie, Cliffhanger that was partly filmed up here.
Cortina Valley from the Faloria Lift
That afternoon, I started scouting beyond Cortina, getting the lay of the land. And within a short drive I found Lago di Landro, Cinque Torri, Passo Giau, Tre Cimi. In fact the whole Dolomite region is compact -- at least compared to the the mountains of Colorado or Wyoming. For the photographer, this abundance of shot locations is a huge plus.
But the Italian Alps are challenging in their own way. In summer these scenic spots are crowded with tourists. And once you're out of the resort towns, driving the mountain roads is the only way of getting around quickly. So imagine driving tight 2 lane roads with 30 or 40 switchback turns up to each new pass. Imagine you're sharing the roads with locals, confused tourists, slow moving bike groups, motorcycles ... and the many local buses that traverse these turns. Oh yeah, and at the edge of the road, the drop off is immense.
I decided on spending the next morning driving north to a couple of well known mountain lakes, Lago di Landro and then on to Lago di Braies.
Morning, Lago di Landro, Mountain Places Portfolio
With this image, the trees are a leading line that takes the viewer into the scene and up those distinctive peaks. Leading lines is Composition 101 but it works. Like great Italian cooking, composition is all about choosing the best ingredients and keeping the approach simple. Here blue-green water and glowing peaks did all the work.
Another Photo 101 rule, get up early when the light is good. And on this day, I didn't get there all that early -- and didn't need to. True dawn at a mountain and valley location means most of the image is in shade. But 10 AM, the light on the mountain was great. Landro is fun spot to explore, but my morning light wouldn't last forever so I continued north to Lago di Braies.
Morning, Lago di Braies, Iconic Italy Portfolio
This image works because of the choices made -- the rustic boathouse on the lake and behind, a big, old mountain bathed in warm morning light.
Lago di Braies is a popular photo spot for newlyweds. They rent a boat, head out onto the lake and pretend to row for the camera. In fact just up the path from this spot, a wedding photog was coaching poses from a couple out on the lake. It was cute. The young guy was treating the oars like a strange new technology. The bride-to-be clutched her oar like Ophelia gripping her flowers. Young Love. Lago di Braises is clearly a metaphor for the surprises of new marriage.
That afternoon, a drive to Cinque Torri.
Afternoon, Cinque Torri, Mountain Places Portfolio
With this image, I created a painterly effect used by landscape painters ...adding texture and layering in post to show the depth within the photograph and accentuate how the valley and mountains capture the eye.
With so many of the alpine valleys are accessible by gondolas or ski lifts, much of the vertical aspect of hiking is eliminated. The five peaks of Cinque Torri are only about 10 miles from Cortina (a 35 minute drive).
My next day's stop was Passo Giau. It's just a few miles south of Cinque Torri as the crow flies but on a different road with even more hairpin turns. There's no ski lift here, this is just a mountain pass. But there are lots of hikers and the parking is a challenge if you arrive after 10 AM.
Early Morning, Passo Giau, Iconic Italy Portfolio
A photographer's first step when visiting a new location is to take in the light and landscape of the place. From this height, the mountains seem to go on forever and that walkway up to the refugio was a perfect lead into that alpine world. And the alpine meadow here catches the morning light just so. The mountain, refugio and meadows seem always to have been here -- to inspire, to help the traveler in their way. And it's easy to feel grounded in this place. You can almost imagine this spot as a Renaissance illustration of a pilgrim's journey.
Further on, a bit east of Falzarego Pass, I noticed a pull-over that looked interesting. It was a lush alpine valley with a trail leading down. I hadn't seen this spot on any of the photographer sites -- which made the find doubly appealing.
High Meadows, Early Morning
This image is all about texture and depth. The texture of yellow grass, of pine trees and morning clouds. The foreground boulder is repeated in thethe white peak on the right and again in the far mountains. These choices helped create an inner depth to the scene -- which allows imagination, immersion to take over. So instead of seeing a flat 2D photograph, you feel like you can enter this sacred place subjectively.
Further west from Cortina is Passo Pordoi. The pass is popular for hikers and also has a gondola that takes you up into the mountains. But that day the mountain plateau was scree-filled and the view below was cloud covered. Instead I explored the area below. The valley and pass were the perfect photo subject -- especially once I noticed that little chapel.
Chapel at Passo Pordoi, Mountain Places Portfolio
This image is one of my faves. In fact, it's hanging just behind me in my workroom. Part of the attraction is the chapel itself, a humble spiritual place high in the mountains. I use the chapel path as an archetypal element, suggesting the idea that we're each on a spiritual journey. The journey won't always be easy, mountains aren't easy to climb. But the higher we go on our path, the greater the beauty we encounter.
The Western Dolomites
For my second week I headed west to the South Tyrol area around Ortisei. This part of Italy had been part of the Hapsburg Empire for over 500 years. But it became Italian in 1919 when Austria found itself on the losing side. Austria's loss was a huge gain for Italy and the area became one of my favorites in the entire country. The region is a lovely fusion of cultures and you notice it particularly in the Tyrolian architecture and the use of Austrian place names.
For me, having a base in the resort town of Ortisei was perfect. The valley has three towns, the other two being St Christina and Selva. Each has gondolas or ski lifts that take you up to the high country. I ended up going on each just so I could fully cover the Val Gardena in photographs. Plus the helpful folks at Hotel am Stetteneck suggested I buy the week long lift ticket. The cost was about 100 Euros, cheaper than prices in the Eastern Dolomites, and I made use of the pass often. It didn't hurt that Ortisei has 3 lifts, each a short walk from the hotel.
The Alpe di Suisi is the largest valley in the Dolomites and that expansive mix of meadow and mountains. And the peaks of Sassolungo were like a visual pole star. I spent longer in this valley than any other location on my trip -- and I feel I've barely scratched the surface creatively.
Mountains in the Clouds, Alpe di Suisi, Mountain Places Portfolio
When I'm photographing, a key part of the process is to breathe the place in. But that's more than just enjoying the feel of the wind. I like to wander of the path, sit in the grass, maybe take my shoes off. I'll pull of a bit of cedar for a smell or touch a boulder. Each of these sensory elements is a texture in the image. And in post production, I use these textures to help the viewer grasp the essential nature of the place.
If a poet, a Wordsworth were here, they could use words to evoke the reader's imagination. For the photo artist, tools like Photoshop can get the viewer to feel the soft warmth of the grass, the rough edges of the Sassolungo peaks, the feathery clouds. These little stylistic touches allow the mood, experience of a place to be evoked in the viewer's mind ... a visual poetry.
Looking west, the alpine scene of Alpe di Suisi gets wrapped up in a different set of mountains.
Late Afternoon, Alpi di Suisi, Mountain Places Portfolio
Photography is all about painting in light. The light filtering through the trees and grass in the foreground has its own warm signature. The distant hills have a softer faraway glow. And those clouds -- well. Together this elements work within the composition to create a depth that you don't see in most photographs. Your eyes notice that difference, the painterly layers. And you can almost imagine yourself walking into that space ... like Alice entering Wonderland, sitting in that soft grass over by the trees.
The other end of Alpi di Suite can be a long hike or a quick drive to St Christina and a ride on the Mont de Sëura ski lift. The lift leaves you with the Sassolungo peaks towering above.
Path to Sassolungo, St Christina
A path in the mountains, which path to take? ... The road less traveled.
At this point you head straight and climb, go right and head west along the base of Sassolungo to Alpi di Suisi. Or head east towards the end of the plateau and a view of the eastern side of St Christina and beyond that Seceda. I headed east.
An Old Barn, St Christina, Iconic Italy Portfolio
A traditional barn and pasture juxtaposed against layer on layer of mountains. Cattle grazing here and there provide an earthy smell. In the main farm house, food is being readied for travelers that may visit.
In summer hikers and climbers come to the plateau. Winter brings the skiers. But the mountains are close to eternal. It's been millions of years since the African continental shelf pushed its way against the European. For thousands of years, humans subsisted raising cattle and horses. And with the global travel culture, the area attracts visitors from China or India as well as Europeans. But somehow the Dolomite region manages to balance it all in the shadow of mountains.
Alpi di Suisi is an amazing area for exploration but the other side of the valley has it's own beauty. A short climb above Ortisei's city center, you're in forest with a far different view of Sassalungo.
Late Afternoon, Ortisei Overlook, Iconic Italy Portfolio
I spent a while driving uptake hill from Ortisei, looking for an old chapel in the woods. But Chiesa di San Giacomo has been in those hills since before parking spaces was a thing. So I pulled over on a side road and started wandering the meadow. And there behind me was Sassolungo. Cool.
And in front of me was the church in the forest. The church is dedicated to St Jacob, patron saint of travelers and pilgrims and was built some time around 1300 (no one seems to know exactly). One of the oldest churches in the Dolomites, hidden in the forest.
Heading up on gondolas into the mountains on the other side of the valley gets you to the wide slopes of Seceda. On this side of the valley your view of the Sassalungo changes again.
Val Gardena Mountains from Seceda, Mountain Places Portfolio
I used that wide expanse of tilting meadow as my foreground -- juxtaposed against the massive rock pinnacles of Sassalungo.
Seceda was created when a massive sedimentary rock face tilted to its side. Viewing it from the side shows the geological history clearly.
Path to Seceda
Every landscape photograph is based in part of geology. And this spot challenges the eye to realize that the wide meadow is at a 30 degree angle -- and that the farther you go, the more vertical the earth becomes.
There was still one key area in the Val Gardena I hadn't seen, the mountains on the eastern side, at Selva. And I used my last day's pass for the trip up the Dantercepies line. Breathing the place in that morning was quite cool. You're perched up in the northeast side of the valley. There's a nice refugio that was just opening its doors. Behind it, 8 or 10 climbers were starting an ascent. But when I looked at how the light was falling on the hills, one image idea captured my imagination.
A Morning Hike, Above Selva
A warm glow in the clouds, a mountain trail, and distant wonders ahead. ... I have this photograph in my bedroom now and with landscape art like this, that choice has a loaded meaning. Because each of these painterly photographs captures a moment of life. The location itself is mythic, a path in the mountains.
This mixed-genre image could almost be a painting of travelers in the 1860s or 70s in the Val Gardina. This area was a popular spot for European plein air painting. And remember, travelers back then often purchased paintings as keepsakes from the Dolomites -- or more often, bought a landscape painting to evoke a yearning for a far-away place like the Dolomites they wished to visit.
For me, these "photographic paintings" are there on a wall to fulfill both those needs -- and more. Because I hope these images will evoke a deep archetypal engagement with nature, that feeling of being in the mountains on a glorious summer morning. And when this image hangs on the wall in someone's home, I want it to center the viewer within nature whenever it catches the light.
The Western Dolomites go way beyond the Val Gardena. And there are spots north and south that are equally iconic. One of the oldest is Chiesetta di San Giovanni in Ranui.
Early Morning, Chiesetta di San Giovanni, Iconic Italy Portfolio
This jewel of a chapel, built in 1744 is located just a few miles north of Ortisei.
An hour's drive southeast of Val Gardena is another major recreational area, Arabba. When you leave the gondola, you're already up past the tree line. There's plenty of hiking here and just opposite the Luigi Gorza Refugio, you find yourself looking up at Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites at 3300+ meters.
On my final day in the Dolomites, before heading to the airport, I made one final stop, at Lago di Carezza. The ideal composition was easy, capture a mountain and its reflection in a sappire-blue lake. But there's always more to a photograph than pushing the button.
When I got to the lake, the mountains were wrapped tight in clouds. Like all the tourists here, my first thought were to get what I could and head on to my hotel by Marco Polo Airport. But I could see that this place was unique -- and who know when you'll come this way again. So I waited, and waited. And that's what good photography is, to wait for the moment, work the location, find the perfect balance of visual element.
Then, in post production, you to take what the camera gives you and push the boundaries further. Because cameras can't understand the stillness of the lake or the caress of a warm sun on those peaks. So the ultimate skill I learned was to go beyond the text, to treat a script (a camera file) like a blueprint. With each new location, I have to find how that moment touched me – and use those high tech tools to create a visual tone poem.
Note: The handful of images here represent two full weeks of work and even more in post production. Most are either in the Iconic Italy or Mountain Places portfolios. Each of these images captures a moment in nature in my own highly subjective style. Each is meant to be a doorway into that place and time, a portal into texture, light, imagination.
Enjoy the journey.