The Return of Ounce Olson

Autumn, as it begins, makes me nostalgic. Memories of long-ago trips clutter my mind, like the old road maps, photos and receipts that accummulate in a file drawer. So it’s appropriate that today, while rummaging through folders and filling the wastecan, I met up again with Ounce Olson.

Ounce was born at the end of the last century and two weeks ahead of a magazine deadline, his first name inspired by a can of chili, his last simply by sound. Like cheese, it went with the main entree. His was to be a short life: 1500 words max. As it turned out, he didn’t even get that: the magazine changed owners and he vanished.

But I hadn’t forgotten Ounce. Sometime in our photographic lives we all meet someone like him. Early on, who hasn’t been a bit Ouncelike themselves?

So, with minor changes, here’s Ounce as he was intended: shooting film, learning, and dreaming.


The steep canyon trail had left Ounce Olson exhausted and gulping the thin mountain air. He collapsed in the shade of a pine to survey the view.

Below him, Jenny Lake glimmered under the October sun, part of a Jackson Hole landscape flecked with autumn yellows. Ounce could hear the water lapping against the shore, the shy rustle of the aspens. This was the type of photo op he’d dreamed about as he drove to Wyoming from Hackensack. Struggling to his feet, he adjusted the exposure dial on his camera to Program, focused on infinity, and fired off a six-shot burst. Then, with success in the can, he continued up the trail.

He hadn’t walked far before it was time to take five. Shrugging off his backpack, he decided to cache the tripod strapped to it behind a large rock; he’d pick it up on his way out of the canyon in two days. No need to carry unnecessary weight. Then he stripped off his t-shirt and stretched marmotlike on the rock, where he dropped immediately into a Deep Sleep.

But as Ounce slept peacefully his subconscious began a hike through some very different terrain, and as the landscape became a Dreamscape…

“What do you make of it?” asked Will. He was holding a pack mule by a lead rope and pointing towards Ounce, who’d slipped from his perch and was snoring loudly.

His companion shook his head. “D’ya suppose it’s a bear?”

William H. Jackson dismounted, leaving the mules with his assistant, and approached the sleeping figure for a closer inspection. “It’s not a bear and it’s got two legs, so it must be one of ours.” He nudged Ounce gently with a stick. “Hey there, wake up.”

“Whaaat?” Ounce rolled onto his side and stared up in bewilderment at one of the most famous pioneer photographers in American history, who was no less amazed by his own half-naked find. Jackson wore a long-sleeved shirt, dark pants tucked into high-topped leather boots, and a battered felt hat. Behind him, fully-loaded pack mules waited with diminishing patience.

A brief conversation established that Jackson, like Ounce, was on his way into the Tetons to photograph for the first time. Would Ounce care to accompany them on their journey? They’d plenty of grub, and all he’d have to do was help with their equipment. (And those mules would do most of the work, thought Ounce). “Deal me in.”

In making our way to the extremity of the plateau for a close-up view of the Grand Teton, we came to a wall of rock over which a goat might have made its way, but which seemed impossible for a pack mule. On one side was a sheer precipice, but on the other a ledge supported a bank of hard snow, which offered a passage around the wall. The snow, however, lay at a dangerously steep angle and overhung a drop of several hundred feet.

Ounce quickly began to doubt his new friends’ sanity. The trail practically disappeared where they’d joined up (he’d mention that to the Park Service), requiring considerable bushwhacking. Traveling became easier as the little caravan passed above timberline, and though Ounce hadn’t seen the man shoot a single frame he sensed they were getting closer to the objective. But this was crazy.

It was with some misgivings that we contemplated this passage. Snow is treacherous. If one of animals should happen to strike a soft spot and fall on that steep incline, there was the possibility of going over into the chasm below. However, as this was the only way to get a close-up view of the magnificent peaks, we decided to take the risk.

“Don’t worry about the footing, Mister Olson.” Jackson was busily tramping out a trail across the ledge. “We always try to take sensible precautions.” As they moved ahead in single file he added over his shoulder “Don’t look down,” as though Ounce would have the nerve.

Finally we followed with Old Molly and her precious pack, relying upon a firm hold on the halter strap to keep her from falling over the cliff if any mishap should occur. Fortunately none did.

Ounce had to admit, after his heart dislodged from his throat, that the view was worth the effort. Maybe now they’d take some pictures. But Ounce wasn’t prepared for the cameras Jackson unstrapped from the mule.

From the point that was gained by this precarious passage we had a glorious near view of the Three Tetons with the Grand Teton, 13,747 feet in height, directly in front of us. We remained here the greater part of the day making negatives: 11×14, 8×10, and stereoscopic, in panoramic as well as single compositions.

Jackson’s emotional fervor for his subjects and his craft was obvious as he set and adjusted first one and then another large glass plate camera. Ounce thought briefly about Program mode.

The art of timing exposures was still so uncertain that you prayed every time the lens was uncapped, and no picture was a safe bet until the plate had been developed. Working in a fully equipped studio was hazardous enough. Going at it in the open meant labor, patience, and the moral stamina…or, perhaps, sheer phlegmatism…to keep on day after day, in spite of the overexposed and underdeveloped negatives, and without regard to the accidents to cameras and chemicals.

Chemicals? Ounce watched in stunned silence as Jackson erected a portable canvas darkroom, or “dark box.” He was going to process the film right here on the mountain!

It was a perfect day, clear and cold, but with enough warmth in the sun’s rays to melt the snow in trickling rivulets on the southerly exposures, thus keeping up the water supply required for plate washing.

Hadn’t this guy heard of Polaroid film?

Tossing fitfully in his dreams, Ounce and his friends suddenly found themselves relocated northward, in the relatively unexplored expanses of Yellowstone, late on another landmark photographic afternoon.

We had our first close view of the enchanted land, when our party cme upon the Mammoth Hot Springs. We were, so far as records show, the first white men ever to see those bubbling caldrons of nature, and I found myself excited by the knowledge that next day I was to photograph them for the first time.

By now Ounce had become familiar with Jackson’s dark box, but he was continually impressed by the photographer’s determination. Didn’t the man ever get tired? At Mammoth Hot Springs Jackson would carefully focus his camera, retreat to the box and sensitize a glass plate, hurry back to the camera and make the exposure while the plate was still moist, and then return to the box and develop it. A round-trip could average fifteen minutes for a single exposure. Mammoth also afforded Jackson a modern convenience not found elsewhere in the wilderness: hot running water. Washing the plates in 160-degree springwater, he was able to cut the drying times by more than half.

“You’re going down there?” As usual, Ounce didn’t see any trail markers. Jackson smiled broadly. “We don’t have any choice here. That’s the only way to get this one.” Tower Falls, unlike Mammoth Hot Springs, was one subject that wasn’t close at hand, so an alternate method of photographing it was devised.

After setting up and focusing my camera at the bottom of the gorge, I would prepare a plate, then slip and slide and tumble down to my camera and make the exposure. After taking my picture, I had to climb to the top carrying the exposed plate wrapped up in a moist towel. With help, I succeeded in repeating the procedure four or five times. The end of the day found us exhausted but very proud; and we had reason to be pleased with ourselves, for not a single one of our plates had dried out before being developed.

Each exposure had required nearly an hour to complete, and no one in camp that night was more fatigued than Ounce, who’d done his share of work (and now knew how the mules felt at day’s end). He also felt a new sensation as he listened to Jackson describe and analyze the day’s work around the evening campfire: inspiration.

“Daddy, come quick!” The cries of eight-year-old twins jerked Ounce rudely back into The Present. Their father came at a dead run up the trail, a camera bouncing wildly against his chest. He was imagining grizzly bears or worse. What he found was Ounce, who simply said “Hello.”

“Are you all right?” The man’s voice was skeptical. His children gawked at Ounce, who was covered from head to foot with ugly red scratches, insect bites, and greasy dirt. Adding to his mountain man appearance, Ounce’s designer hiking shorts were torn and clung to his hips, as though he hadn’t eaten in a while or had been working too hard. Or both. The stubble on his chin was scratchy.

He gathered himself up (wondering how all the callouses got on his hands) and brushed some of the grime off. “I must have slept longer than I thought. But I’m okay. Really.” When he announced his intention to continue up the trail, the family of hikers headed in the opposite direction.

Ounce followed them as far as the overlook where he’d left his tripod, then set it up and shot a full roll on manual, experimenting with different compositions and exposures. He even waited half an hour for the sun to reappear from behind a bank of clouds…patiently. He couldn’t quite explain his new attitude towards picture making, but it sure felt good.

Ounce knew his photos wouldn’t be the first taken in the Teton wilderness, but they would be uniquely his own. That was discovery enough. Satisifed, he turned up the trail and, like a good fictional character, disappeared.


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