I have experienced Polar Katabatic Winds on a number of occasions, they are hard to explain to those who have not witnessed them.
They start visually with high cloud forming distinctive shapes over mountain tops. The peaks make the air spin forming spinning clouds high into the sky. The wind has to be over 100 mph to form these clouds. The wind howls like a banshee, then hits you! the temperature plummets, your skin dries of all its essential oils. The wind cuts through your clothing, you would not last long in such a wind.
I decided to try to portray the power of this wind in a series of photos. I watched how the wind shapes the clouds and waited until it had carved a delicate shape in the sky and took photos of it. Working first in Colour I found that the photos didn’t have the tone in the cloud that I was seeing. So I changed to Monochrome which emphasized the tonal range reflecting the drama of the event.
Next I thought about how the Katabatic wind works – it falls off the Polar Ice Caps to the sea. This explains their frigidity. The wind races down to the sea whipping up snow and ice this can be capture and would show the invisible.
I wanted to capture the savage beauty within the area affected by the wind. However whilst beautiful it is deadly dangerous look close at the pictures below and ask yourself would you like to be in such weather at such a place?
As I looked at this scene with the bright white clouds and the dark sky I thought of Ansel Adams. His photos of the Great Dome (1) capture a geological presence. More than this they make me feel what it would be like to stand in this landscape. I reflected on how he would have set up his camera to capture what was before him. My setup was Canon 5ds with a 70mm – 200mm set at 70mm opened at F6 with an ISO of 100 and a shutter speed of 1/600th of a second. One thing that surprised technically, was the change in battery performance. When the cold (-18c) air hit the camera, the battery dropped 30% of its battery charge within seconds. I found my fingers stiffened and dexterity was lost within seconds. Making shutter compression difficult. I was glad for the spare battery I kept close to my bodies warmth in my inner layers of clothing.
In photography the word “sublime” is used a lot. These few moments were sublime, it’s power made me feel insignificant. I tried the exposures both in colour and monochrome. I felt monochrome worked better with the tones without the distraction of colour. It also mimics the work of early practitioners such as Adams, Hurley and Strand. Steiglitz took a series of photos of clouds affected by wind high in the sky. My shots differ as the show a third element, the Mountains.
(1) Adams, A. (1937). Monolith the face of half dome Yosemite Valley California 1927. [Photograph on Silver Gellatin.] New York: Ansel Adams Gallery