Beautiful Bitterroot

“I hold no preference among flowers, so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous.”
    Edward Abbey

Closeup photo of beargrass

Closeup of beargrass.

I don't much photograph flowers anymore. Early in my days in Montana I did, having been fascinated by the variety of them, their abundance, and their sometimes surprising habitats. I crawled around in the dirt with my camera and short zoom lens and extension tubes, fretted over the depth of field challenge (Too much distracting background in focus? Not enough of the subject sharp?), and struggled to manage out of focus highlights. All the usual stuff an outdoor photographer must attempt to control. I did OK; I got lots of keepers, thanks more to the array of subject material and countless attempts to photograph rather than actual skill or talent. An infinite number of monkeys, etc.

When I started making prints in the mid-2000s, many of those were flower photos, often printed many times life size. Some may have been good, but except for some of the local icons, like beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) and arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) (PDF), these photos rarely sold. I quit printing them, and eventually all but stopped photographing flowers.

But there's one I've always wanted to “get”, Montana's state flower, the bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva). These hardy little flowers are beautiful, yet flourish in dry, gravelly, crappy soils where little else will grow. Bitterroot have great cultural significance among native tribes; indeed there have been periods where bitterroot could be thanked for the survival of some tribes. Stories are abundant; if you find such history of interest, turn to your favorite search engine.

Bison Range Bitterroot

I've written about Montana's National Bison Range (links to those articles appear at the end of this one), so I won't repeat myself here except to say the 19,000 acre NBR is an amazing place any time of year, and perhaps especially in Spring. The meadows are lush and green, and wildflowers are abundant, as are baby bison, elk, pronghorn, and deer, among other animals. On a good day there might be a bit of moisture, helping tamp down what can otherwise be choking dust on the nineteen-mile-long (thirty km) Red Sleep Mountain Drive.

Morning lit on bitterroot blossom and rocky habitat

Bitterroot blossom in morning sun.

When a friend told us about the 2017 bitterroot bloom in the NBR, explaining it as the best she'd ever seen, I determined not to miss it. On 10 June we came through the NBR on our way home from appointments in Missoula, MT. Early afternoon isn't a great time for making the kinds of photos I had in mind, but the soft light of a cloudy sky promised to make the detour from our normal route worth the time. Most of the NBR's Red Sleep Mountain Drive is one-way; once you start the drive, you're committed to finishing it. Turning around isn't an option. At about mile seven there's a tiny parking area for the quarter-mile “Bitterroot Trail”, one of the few places in the NBR where exiting your vehicle is permitted. The trail is aptly named. The hillside above and below it are thick with balsam and lupine. About half-way to the trail's end the slope becomes very rocky, just the sort of habit bitterroot seem to prefer. We found them in abundance along both sides of the trail, with many very nice specimens, fully open with perfect petals, and in nice flat lighting thanks to thickening cloud cover. With an eye to the threatening sky I set up quickly, but before I made a single exposure the rain came, along with wind and hail. Not great for the flowers. Equally not great for the photographer. Pat had had the good sense to grab her rain slicker when she exited the car. Naturally, I hadn't, and got thoroughly soaked an pummeled on the dash back. No photos today. We finished the drive and left the NBR. About half-way home the sky cleared, but the wind continued.

Two days later we got an early start on the thirty-five mile (fifty-six km) drive from home to the NBR. We made our way up Red Sleep Mountain, parked, walked the trail to the same area we had previously, and waited. Thanks to the temperature (low forties F), and because the sun had not yet risen over the local hills, leaving the trail in shadow, the flowers had not opened. Forty minutes later the rising sun lit the hills on “our” side, but it would be another half-hour before the flowers began to open, and still another thirty minutes before we had nicely side-lit open blossoms. That's when I got to work.

Knee-shredding Terrain

Morning lit on bitterroot blossom and rocky habitat

Strong morning side-light on bitterroot blossom and rocky habitat.

Bitterroot grow very close to the ground, perhaps an adaptation to the open, windy slopes on which they thrive. I found it impossible to use my tripod, so I sat on my heels, laid on the ground, or crawled on my knees, hand-holding the camera with the lens no more than a couple of inches from the blossoms. Some part of me, or the lens hood, often created shadow, dowsing the bright side-light needed for the look I wanted. I crawled and twisted and tortured myself into positions to get the compositions I wanted without blocking the light. Minimal depth of field at those very short camera-to-subject distances required holding the camera very steady, an unreasonable expectation given my physical contortions. I used the high-speed advance, often rapid-firing a dozen or more exposures hoping one would have the right part of the subject in sharp focus.

I found it impossible to make a series of identical exposures with different focus for later focus-stacking with Photoshop. For next time I may get one of those tiny, flexible support rigs (this sort of thing). In the end, I got several pictures I like, and only slightly bloody knees.

As mentioned, I've written here before about the National Bison Range:

June, 2017

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