The Chamonix valley runs pretty much north east to south west and the sun gradually works its way down the south-facing mountain Le Brevent. With half the valley in shadow, getting the right aperture as well as careful subject selection is crucial.
“What ISO are you using,” she asks. “Er, um, let me see,” I say, as I desperately scour my viewfinder to find it while pretending to be mid-focus.
“You won’t want any more than 100," she says. Even at this time of day the light’s going to kill your photos and once the sun’s up above the massif, you’re going to have to be on your toes.”
And she’s right. The shadow drops away on the southern slopes by the minute and you feel you are constantly changing settings to keep up. My thumb on the aperture wheel of my camera is a blur as we chase the light.
The temperature is only just hanging above freezing point in the valley, but my concentration is not on the cold, but instead taken up by checking, changing and retaking and rechecking as we move from sunlight to shadows and back again.
A herd of cows, some black and some brown, push their noses through the couple of inches of overnight snow in search of grass. The black cows against the snow with a snowy mountain backdrop below a crystal clear blue sky play havoc with my light readings.
“How’s that one look?” Teresa asks. “She gives me the readings I should be seeing in my viewfinder from her handy Leica digital point-and-shoot she takes with her to snap her clients in action. “That’s perfect,” I reply. I know she’s right, but I’ve changed my ISO to 200 to keep my shutter speed high . . . don’t ask – Fortunately there will be no report after our day out, but if there was, the words ‘must pay attention’ would be there, heavily underscored and in red.
It was mid-November and I was in the French Alps and in the delightful town of Chamonix with professional photographer Teresa Kaufman to experience some of her brainchild Photo Walks beneath the breathtaking Mont Blanc massif.
I’m not exactly a newcomer to photography, or walking for that matter, but as there’s still plenty of room for improvement in both, Teresa’s walks seemed to fit the bill perfectly, so I dressed up warm as suggested, put on my walking boots, grabbed my camera bag and headed for the hills.
After the first day in the valley, I make a point of paying attention and use Teresa’s photographic expertise to my advantage. Although I still go off piste, photographically speaking, and discover errors and sometimes surprise myself with my results – in a good way, of course.
Teresa’s walks were the result of her spending a week in hospital recovering from hip replacement surgery. With time on her hands she contemplated her future and how she could earn enough money to remain in the place she has called home for more than 30 years.
“It came to me in a flash,” she said. “Living in Chamonix surrounded by mountains, I realised the way forward was, in fact, all around me. I decided to combine my love of cross-country trekking and hiking with the photographic skills I learned as an active photo-journalist and start the Photo Walks.
She researched and set up walks in the surrounding countryside and used her local knowledge from trekking across the valley to seek out the best vantage points to photograph the stunning scenery. She insists her walks are not only for keen photographers, though, but for anyone with just a point-and-shoot digital camera or even the camera on their mobile phone.
“Every group is unique and people see different things each time. It’s fascinating when they come up with a totally different perspective,” she said. “And I am always amazed by the quality of the pictures my visitors take - and more so of those taken with those little phone cameras.”
Teresa takes her small groups through the villages and towns and drop-in on hidden gardens, meeting craftspeople, artists and farmers along the way giving her visitors an intimate and exclusive insight into the daily lives of the people who live and work in the villages and who make up the very fibre of the valley itself.
Her collection of walks is on the increase with the demands from returning clientele. She is constantly researching and discovering new areas and people to, as she says, invent new walks.
One includes a fascinating behind-the-scenes peek in the kitchen of Michelin-starred restaurant Le Bistrot near the centre of Chamonix. Here chef Mickey Bourdillat and his talented team go about their work preparing for the lunch service while walkers take snaps and, if you’re lucky, have a little taste of the jus as it gently reduces in the pot. There’s no need for the flash as the light is perfect and, I discovered later, so is the food.
Each walk allows the visitor to understand the environment and discover the very heartbeat of the valley itself. Teresa reveals her vast knowledge of the area with her stories about life in the mountains and her passion for the architectural gems she uncovers around every corner.
“I don’t bombard people with too much information though,” she says. “As photographers we need to wander off and discover our own perspectives of places we drop into.”
And it’s that ‘we’ which makes a real difference. You feel part of her everyday life. She greets people and introduces them as you stroll through their neighbourhood. Her enthusiasm for her surroundings and the history behind them is as unquenchable as her work ethic.
As well as working on her walks Teresa is in constant demand for her photographic skills. She travels mainly throughout France, where she’s happiest.
“It’s not easy to keep up sometimes,” she says, as she prepares for another photo exhibition. “I’m so far behind the eight ball on that one, I don’t know how I’m going to complete it in time,” she says in the still unmistakable New York accent of her youth.
She has written articles for magazines and providing the accompanying photographs. For her exhibitions, she specialises using black and white film and records the lives of people who work and survive in the most diverse of environments.
Teresa says she couldn’t live anywhere else and, since that defining moment in her hospital bed, she believes she has discovered her own way of staying in her beloved valley among the people she admires and respects so much.
“Everything I have done in my life has guided me here and all I want is to be among my friends and, of course, my cats. For me it’s the centre of the world,” she said.
From the short amount of time I spent walking through the towns and villages from Servoz to Vallorcine and beyond, I can begin to understand how she fell in love with this part of the world and why she never wants to leave.
This place is beguiling. The mountains seem to constantly draw you in. The light not only plays havoc with your camera sensors, but your senses too. When the bleaching sun finally softens it does so with a flourish to give a lightshow finale which turns the mountain tops a pinkish pale orange to leave an ethereal glow and an overwhelming feeling of serenity across the landscape - nature’s own lesson in how light affects absolutely everything.
To see Teresa’s work and discover her walks go to www.teresakaufman.com