Aperture in Action

Elizabeth Carmel: Visibility Excellent

While looking at the wooded snowscapes, rock-piled beaches and splashes of Sierra wildflowers featured in the photographs of fine art photographer Elizabeth Carmel, it’s easy to believe that you’re the first and only person to have seen them — or seen them quite like this.

The illusion is strengthened by the fact that there are no people or even a single footprint in the rolling acres of perfectly composed drifts and shoreline. Missing, too, are any obvious photographic “fingerprints”, any grain or pixelation that might disturb the unnatural clarity of the images, or your conviction that there is anything but focal distance between you and the flowering Dogwood.

Waking up to the realisation that you weren’t there first, or there at all, in no way spoils the initial sensation of transport. It only sharpens your appreciation of the effect to understand that obviously Carmel got there first, sometimes on cross-country skis, carrying heavy gear; that she spent hours looking to catch a perfect image from among a thousand messier choices; or that she digitally adjusted the image in Aperture on a MacBook Pro after the shutter closed on her medium format digital camera.

In fact, there is nothing more critical than the digital in Carmel’s interpretation of the natural. “I’ve always loved landscape work”, she says. “What inspired me initially with photography is the ability to capture beautiful places that I enjoy visiting. But I’m no purist. I have no qualms about getting in there and processing the image. I don’t create places that don’t exist; it’s just that everything I could do in the darkroom, I can do exponentially more with digital developing”.

Digital Determination

Carmel credits fast advances in digital technology with ultimately enabling her career as a successful full time fine arts photographer, print maker, publisher, and gallery owner. (She recently opened the 2600 square foot Carmel Gallery in Truckee, California, which she runs with her husband, photographer Olof Carmel).

Although she’d become interested in photography as a young girl and continued her interest through college, Carmel worked as an urban planner for twenty years after graduating. “I have a background in urban design and land use planning, and I graduated from Cal-Berkeley with a degree in Environmental Science”, she says. “So I sort of dropped photography and pursued other careers”.

Carmel worked in Sonoma County, moved to El Dorado County, and then to Truckee. Her movement eastward and upward intersected serendipitously with a fast rising line in the progression of digital photography: “About ten years ago when digital was really starting to become a usable solution for photography, I took a closer look and got excited about photography again. It was the new ability to control the development and the output of the image that I really responded to”.

She took up a 3-megapixel Nikon COOLPIX camera and began experimenting with historic photo restoration. As her interest shifted to nature photography, she moved up to a 4-megapixel Nikon D1 DSLR with multiple lenses. “That camera, combined with an Epson 9500 44-inch wide printer, gave me the tools to really start making fine art prints”, she says. “And the ability to do large prints opened the door for me to pursue a career, selling my work as fine art prints”.

Medium to Big

As she developed her technique, Carmel also ratcheted up her camera technology: “Right now I’m using the Hasselblad h44D, which has a 39-megapixel medium format sensor, because a lot of my work involves doing very large prints, from 16 X 20 inches on the small side up to 10 X 5 feet. For those kinds of installations, I need the maximum number of pixels, so medium format is critical for maintaining image quality for that kind of output. The larger sensor just seems to produce a really nice clean crisp image, and with 39 megapixels I can get a 30 inch-wide print in native resolution without any up-sampling”.

Style Points

That scalability is a distinguishing characteristic of Carmel’s images. Because she shoots in medium format, her photographs look as vertiginously clear blown up on her gallery walls as they do on her website.

But although Carmel’s portfolio covers the big iconic Western subjects you’d expect from a photographer who calls Tahoe, Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada her “backyard”, her photographs are more likely to feature unnaturally well-ordered arrangements of accessible natural vistas whose beauty borders on the abstract.

“I try to create very simple compositions”, she says. “A lot of my work with Lake Tahoe is distinctive, I hope, because I like to isolate the rocks and the calm waters and the reflections beyond what would be considered a postcard shot into something that’s maybe a little more interpretive of the landscape”.

Her images leave many gallery goers as quietly composed as the images they’re looking at. “People tell me that some of my work has sort of a calming Zen feel”, she says. “I believe that’s because I strictly pursue a real simplicity of composition”.

Following the Seasons

Carmel organises her shooting schedule around the seasons, making winter compositions close to home during the long Truckee winter, shooting wild flowers or Europe during spring and summer, capturing autumn colours all over the West in Autumn.

Elizabeth Carmel Gallery


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