Jeff Mitchum (85) had three hours to get down to Yosemite Valley. At age 14 he didn’t have a car, so he’d stick out his thumb and hitchhike all the way. Where was his mom and dad, you may ask? They were back in L.A. while he worked at a resort for the summer. When he finally made it to Cook’s meadow, he set up his wooden tripod and perched his Kodak Brownie camera. The jagged cliffs peered down on him, the tops of trees pierced the sky, stillness roared in his ears, until he heard a noise nearby.
“There’s this little shuffle along the pathway, and I hear this voice that asks me, ‘Would you mind if I look at what you’re shooting?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I looked over and it was lord Ansel. He looked through the top of the viewfinder and he said, ‘Wow, you’ve got some talent.’ Of course, I was speechless,” Mitchum said.
In that moment with the renowned landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, Mitchum’s passion for photography met its match, a mentor to show him the ways of Yosemite Valley. But, imitating the great Ansel Adams’ work was not the lesson Mitchum learned. The takeaway he gained from Adams was finding the unknown. One night in the Half Dome parking lot. Mitchum wandered over to Adams amid the crowd of tripods hoping to replicate Ansel’s image, Moon and Half Dome.
“I mentioned to him, ‘Does it ever bother you that people copy your work?’” Mitchum said. “Very humbly he responded, not sarcastically or critically, ‘Jeff, I don’t get it. It’s been done.’ That stuck in my mind.”
“Jeff, I don’t get it. It’s been done.”
“He nailed it. I thought, ‘Why would anybody want to go out and replicate and be somebody else? I need to be who I am.’ And then he said, ‘You have so much talent, you need to find your own Yosemite Valley.’”
“But where in the world would become my own Yosemite Valley, somewhere that I could paint a portrait on my film that would open up people’s eyes to a hidden beauty, to the wonders of that particular land? And with that, he armed me with how I’d be influenced for the rest of my life.”
Mitchum is brimming with stories like this, vivid with adventure, color, light, nature and life, and that’s what you see in his images.
From the Denali national park to Antarctica, Mitchum is driven to find the spaces of life that few have seen and paint them on film.
“Emotional space is when you’re capturing the soul of your subject, that’s when something becomes 3-D.” Mitchum explained. “It’s something that invokes words within you. It’s balanced, the light’s pouring out, there’s contrast and detail.”
“You see an original Rembrandt and you compare him to his contemporaries, how it absorbs you. That is what I’m talking about: You are absorbed in the scene. You are there. That’s what you create for your peers.”
That creative spirit, while encouraged by Adams, wasn’t actually born in the encounter had as a 14-year-old. His first contact with photography was on a hunting trip with his father when he was 12.
“My dad raised me as an ethical hunter,” Mitchum said. “Anything that you are shooting, you’re required to eat — but I didn’t have a big palette for gamey meals.”
“On one particular hunt, I told my dad, ‘Dad, I don’t like the taste of these animals, I prefer McDonalds.’”
Mitchum felt conflicted while hunting and was having a difficult time processing the experience of carrying the bodies of deceased animals.
He said his dad responded, “Well, congratulations. You can hunt 365 days a year with this [a Kodak Brownie camera]. It doesn’t require hunting permits, duck stamps, pheasant stamps, or deer tags. You’re getting off cheap.”
“Little did he realize I wasn’t getting off cheap,” Mitchum said.
That Kodak Brownie camera followed him to his summer job near the eastern entrance of Yosemite Valley as a teen, working for one of his father’s friends at a resort as a busboy. When he got off work, he’d head into the park to take snapshots of the surrounding scenery.
After sharing his work with Adams in Cooks Meadow, Mitchum visited Adams at Ahwahnee hotel where Adams would have what was called cocktail hour.
“He’d be religiously out there at 5 o’clock on his balcony overlooking the park-like meadow. I’d stop by and show him some things I’d shot. [There were] little things that we’d talk about — pay attention to detail, patience, be picky.”
Through the summer, he’d develop his work, but, still, Mitchum was looking for his Yosemite.
His love for nature took him to the mountains in eastern sierras and later to Sunset Cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He completed his undergraduate degree at PLNU. He struggled in school initially, but things began to click as he grew in faith and maturity.
“The Bible says, ‘Whatsoever you do in word or in deed do wholeheartedly as unto the Lord,’” Mitchum said. It really spoke to me that I really need to pour myself out into education.”
“I’ve had to find my own Yosemite Valley in education, in life, and in everything.”
“I was a late bloomer in many ways. I didn’t come from a very strong, educational influential family. I didn’t have that kind of nurturing. I’ve had to find my own Yosemite Valley in education, in life, and in everything.”
While he was able to finish his education, he still hadn’t found his “Yosemite Valley” in photography. However, in 1983, he made a trip to Israel for the first time.
“The thing that hasn’t been lost with a lot of the turmoil over these centuries is what a wonderland of natural beauty and hidden, stunning terrain, natural landscapes that Israel possesses,” Mitchum said.
“You have the ranges up around the Golan heights/urman, the mediterranean ocean. You’ve got the deserts. It’s such a fascinating place. I went in and after three days I literally fell in love with the culture, the beauty of the land, the history, the thousands of years. I mean there’s nothing like it in the world.”
This was it. This was his Yosemite. Mitchum had not only found his own Yosemite Valley, but he felt he’d stumbled upon a side of Israel that people don’t often see.
Now, Mitchum is finalizing funding and in the preliminary process of filming “Planet Israel.” It will be an exploration of the natural landscapes and stories from the land that Mitchum encountered in that first trip from 1983.
In addition to Planet Israel, Mitchum was part of the process of filming Planet California, a documentary celebrating the diverse wildlife and nature found in the state. His work has been sought by National Geographic and displayed on the walls of several fine art museums including the Getty Museum, Smithsonian Institute and Museum of Natural History San Diego.
While the nature around him has remained beautiful and opportunities for photography remain vast, life hasn’t always been easy. After losing his wife in 2016 to cancer, Mitchum’s world toppled. While deep in his grieving process, he struggled to find normalcy in his life and creativity. Finally, a friend reached out and asked whether he wanted to take a spring trip to Yosemite and take photos from Half Dome. Mitchum realized it was time to get out and dust off his cameras.
Up on Half Dome, looking down instead of looking up like he did with Ansel Adams, the perspective was different.
“I’m up there, sitting on this boulder, looking straight down 3,000 feet, right on the edge,” Mitchum said. “It was a beautiful evening — no sounds from people, there is no television, no phones, there’s nothing.”
“It’s just my senses. I remember smelling distinctly nature; the pine trees. I remember the touch of the wind moving through my hair. All five senses, and throw in the 6th spiritual sense, were fully emboldened and alive. That is when I say, ‘this is what normal is.’ It is when we come to our base of humanity. When there is nothing exposed to our soul except God, nature, there’s no outside influence to tell us to go this direction. I said, this is the definition of normal. I think that’s what my images portray: the way it’s supposed to be. It’s a very definitive, sharp image.”
“This is what normal is. It is when we come to our base of humanity. When there is nothing exposed to our soul except God, nature, there’s no outside influence to tell us to go this direction.”
While “normal” is hard to find after immense loss and grief, God and nature seem to be part of the answer. And these things continue to be seen in Mitchum’s work. From his nature documentaries to a new installation at the Griffith Observatory in L.A., Mitchum’s creativity transcends Yosemite and is pioneering what it means to capture moments of beauty in nature.
His advice for others hoping to break into the field of landscape photography:
“It’s such a hard field,” Mitchum said. “It is so difficult to sell your work.”
“In real estate they say location, location, location. In my field, I tell people, portfolio, portfolio, portfolio. Have a wide, diverse body of work, all four seasons, have your city scapes, mountain scapes, seascapes.That’s what people are looking for. They’re looking for something that resonates with an emotional connection.”
And, most importantly, his advice for finding Yosemite:
“The definition of success is being the person that God wants you to be. Don’t drift and let external influences become your rudder,” Mitchum said. “I look at you and I wonder, admire, respect how God made you. Don’t be somebody else.”
To see more of Mitchum’s work and follow his adventures, visit his Facebook.