MANY GLACIER – Mike Carraher is lying in an alpine meadow above Logan Pass, his camera and tripod set firm and low.
His belly is on the ground. His eyes are on the trembling flowers along a rivulet below Mount Clements, and his finger is on the trigger.
The mountain peaks cut into the wide sky above him, but Carraher is almost as close to the earth as the tiny purple petals awash in the stream. Soon, the wind pauses just long enough to still the daisies and monkeyflowers from their quivering.
He takes the shot, and with it, Carraher gives himself a new look at the landscape of Glacier National Park.
“I’m always looking at the very big, and at some point, I need to look at the small and detailed,” Carraher said.
Around the meadow, other Rocky Mountain School of Photography students stand their tripods along the stream and in the rock cliffs. Under the guidance of instructor Tim Cooper and assistant Doug Ness, the class will work the sunset shoot as long as possible before waking to photograph sunrise the next day at Many Glacier.
The weeklong workshop in the park is just one of the Missoula-based school’s programs, but it represents elements that have been part of the school since its beginning 25 years ago.
By design, founders and owners Neil and Jeanne Chaput de Saintonge brought RMSP to Montana, and Glacier National Park displays the state’s natural beauty like no other place. The instruction is vigorous, and the teachers love the craft.
By chance, these weeks change lives. The teachers say those who want to see the world through a camera must first look inside themselves, and sometimes, the looking transforms.
One time, a football coach broke into tears at the end of a class, Cooper said. The man grew up in a coal mining town with a father who wouldn’t let him cry or express his love for the natural world. As he photographed flowers in his late 60s, he found the beauty he’d always wanted to see.
“You start looking inward, and ... it becomes so much more than just photography. That’s the big surprise,” Cooper said.
On the hike to the sunset shoot at Logan Pass, the photographers banter as they lug backpacks stuffed with gear up the short trail.
“That’s one improvement they could make in the course: Hire sherpas.”
“What is it with Tim and waterfalls?”
“I don’t know. He’s got a fixation.”
The workshop enrolls 16 students, people the instructor calls “avid amateurs” who in their other lives work as doctors, lawyers, musicians, information technology professionals. Soon, the class spreads out, and Cooper and Ness walk from one student to another, talking through shots and techniques.
Carraher dumps his pack and pushes his tripod down over the water. He points his camera at the wildflowers, and Ness comes by and crouches next to him.
The wind makes the flowers shiver and blur, disrupting the shot Carraher wants to capture. Carraher, retired from the U.S. Air Force, urges the gusts to quiet.
“Come on, nature.”
Nature won’t play, but Ness has another idea. He suggests Carraher let the wind blow and flowers wave to create an impressionistic image.
“It’s a whole different way to capture the scene, and maybe the emotion of being up here,” Ness said.
On a rocky outcropping above, Doug Affinito uses a long exposure to turn a slight trickle of water into an icicle. He repeats the lessons of the week as he focuses on one fine stream, then on a stronger one.
“I’ve got to patrol my borders,” he said. “It’s one of the things we learned today.”
So he eyes his frame to make sure distractions aren’t creeping over the edges. Below him, a mountain goat wanders through the meadow, but Affinito stays focused on the water until he’s satisfied with his photographs.
“That pretty much exhausts that spot,” Affinito said.
By the time the session ends, the parking lot is nearly empty, the crush of tourists gone.
Down the mountain, a blue moon rises over Wild Goose Island.
A small coyote runs down the road.
When the sun is high, the class retreats to a meeting room, and these photo students might be the only people in Glacier sitting inside with the shades drawn on a summer afternoon.
Indoors, Cooper and Ness offer critiques, peeling apart images projected on a screen to find strengths and possibilities. To reorient them.
“I just keep seeing this as a vertical,” Cooper says as he edits. There. “That’s the essence of that image, I think. There it is.”
The teachers talk composition, calling for “less rock, more water.” They talk focus, for getting everything “tack sharp,” and they talk color, software tools, shutter speeds.
They also talk about learning to see, about slowing down to distill a vast landscape to its core. It means being nimble enough to pick up the tripod one more time, being patient enough to let a vision mature.
Sometimes, it isn’t possible.
In the dark room, one student talks about the cloudless sky in the corner of his landscape. He knows it’s a weakness, but nature defied him.
“I was waiting, and I was waiting.”
Said Cooper: “And those clouds were never going to come.”
The critique is a first for Karen Giffen, who began taking photography classes when pictures from her travels didn’t tell the story of the places she’d seen.
“The one that was the most startling for me was in Peru,” said Giffen, of Cleveland. “I did the Inca Trail and was in Machu Picchu, and I have some nice images, but they really paled in comparison to the (place’s) beauty and grandeur.”
As the instructors pull up her photographs, Giffen jokingly admonishes them to be gentle in their critiques. In fact, she appreciates the attention they put into student work and the rigor they bring to the curriculum.
“Other schools don’t give you as much time, and there are long spaces when you’re really not doing anything, and that’s a big deal,” Giffen said.
At this workshop, photographers were in the parking lot at 5:15 that morning, and later, they’ll do the sunset shoot on Logan Pass. The following morning, they’ll have cameras in hand before sunrise.
In between field shoots, the students describe their goals to the instructors and process photos, and the teachers lecture and critique.
Giffen’s images appear on the screen, and Ness considers them. He praises her sense of balance and the clarity of the picture.
“It’s sharp all the way back there. It’s really beautifully done.”
On Wednesday morning, the sun is a ribbon of orange on the horizon outside the Many Glacier Hotel. Here above the waterfall, Cooper has set up a difficult shot.
The photographers stand on a bridge, waiting for the sun and the roll of the Earth. When the yellow globe rises over the ridge, it will form a star, but just for a minute.
As the moments tick past, Cooper coaches Susan Bestul to pull into her camera the splendor of the light in that brief moment.
She takes it, her first difficult shot.
She sees the image, and he sees her pride. Her success is the reason Cooper teaches.
“She said, ‘I got it. I’m just going to shoot it again. And I’m going to shoot it again.’ She kept shooting the same thing just because it was working,” Cooper said.
On the other side of the water, Clay Smith points his camera to the moon, and he waits for the sphere and rock to warm to red. He quizzes Cooper, who designed the course and has taught it for a couple of decades.
“Do you ever take the moon with a big long lens, set it tack sharp, and then drop it in? Is that cheating?” Smith said.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Cooper. “It’s unnatural. Anybody who is familiar with the outdoors would see that it’s fake.”
This morning, the lessons at Many Glacier are about the craft, but Cooper has to be more than a photography instructor to lead his students in a national park. He warns them away from the edges of cliffs, and he doctors sprained ankles.
One year, a bear wandered through the outdoor classroom, trapping some photographers at the falls. Cooper was worried even before some of the students who had heard his “bear talk” experienced a sudden bout of amnesia.
“Three or four members of the group just started racing toward the grizzly with their cameras,” Cooper said. “I was literally grabbing them and pulling them back, even after our bear talk, which of course is mandatory.”
When the light grows harsh, the photographers head to breakfast. Then, they’ll make their way toward West Glacier for the rest of the week.
Brian Hartz of St. Paul, Minn., has taken other RMSP workshops, and he learned that it’s time to stop shooting when “pancake light” begins, sometimes around 9 a.m.
“That means it’s very flat ... and it’s time to go get pancakes,” Hartz said.
Hartz is a lung doctor, and in recent months, he’s worked 20 days in a row, night shifts, 24 hours straight. He loves medicine, but he doesn’t let it define him.
He took his first workshop several years ago, and it was grueling and inspiring. “You have no free time, you just work, work, work.” But he shot a single subject three different ways, sometimes 10 different ways, and the focus soothed and altered him.
“After that workshop, you see things differently. You notice things in the world around you that you don’t otherwise notice,” Hartz said. “I’ve been a lot more aware of things that I’d like to shoot, but also, of just the way things are.”
So he’s come back for other classes. On the way up Going-to-the-Sun Road, he stops to photograph at Lunch Creek. He hikes a short ways up the trail, sets the tripod in the creek. He picks it up again, moves it over, changes lenses.
He might be there a while, he says.
It just depends on what he sees.