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  Sierra Magazine
  May/June 2007
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Sierra Magazine
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Brilliant Waters
The digital dreamscapes of Elizabeth Carmel
by Jennifer Hattam
May/June 2007

Photography is a way to paint with light, but to do so Elizabeth Carmel often starts her work in the dark. Venturing out before dawn with a headlamp to capture the landscape at sunrise, she hikes, skis, and mountain bikes with her Hasselblad camera and tripod to be in just the right place in the right light. The hours she spends exploring the outdoors allow her to create the intimate, unexpected images of well-traveled places that fill her first book, Brilliant Waters: Portraits of Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, and the High Sierra (Hawks Peak Publishing, $50).

But for Carmel, clicking the shutter is only the beginning. The Truckee, California-based photographer spends as much time in front of a computer screen as out on the trails. Of the hundreds of photos she'll take on a multiday shoot, Carmel will pick only a handful to develop further in her digital darkroom, enhancing colors and combining exposures to make images that match her memories.

"A lot of times, especially shooting at the edges of the day--at sunrise and sunset--you'll get a big difference between highlights and shadows; for example, a bright sunset and dark ground," Carmel explains. By merging an image exposed to best capture, say, the glorious colors of the sky with one that fully reveals their watery reflections among partially submerged rocks, she creates richly detailed and often dreamlike scenes.

In Carmel's photo Frozen River Reflecting El Capitan, for instance, Yosemite National Park's famous formation is obscured by the warm sunlight gleaming off the rock, the rich blue of the river, and the abstract texture on the water's surface. "I was along the Merced River, and I noticed how pine needles had frozen in the river and created a wonderful pattern," the photographer recalls. "I always find that Yosemite offers surprises like that. There are so many great images there that have yet to be taken. It's just a matter of spending the time, walking along the trails, and looking a little more closely."

Though it may seem ironic, Carmel finds that technology--whether it's the insulated parka and boots that let her work in frigid conditions or the digital manipulation that allows her to share what she sees in her mind's eye--helps her connect people with the natural world.

As a land-use planner, Carmel once carefully orchestrated people's impact on the land; in her images, she nearly erases their presence. Her serene compositions convey a feeling of solitude regular visitors to these popular spots don't often find.

"I want to create an experience for people that they may not have access to in their daily lives," Carmel explains. "I think the natural world has a healing and nourishing power. We're so engaged in the modern world; we forget that we are people who have evolved over thousands of years to be a part of nature."

ON THE WEB For more on Carmel and her work, visit

Photos by Elizabeth Carmel; used with permission.

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