I first visited the northern region of the Escalante Staircase area years ago after reading an article on the Burr Trail -but that’s another story. More recently (back in 2007) I hit it from the south, having come up one night from Flagstaff and checked into a hotel in Page, Arizona just off Hwy 89. There was a large canvas hanging on the wall of the lobby and I asked the woman behind the desk where it was from. “Just up the road,” she said, “about 20 miles. It’s not marked or anything, you just pull over the start walking.” So that next day we did just that and what do you know – we found it.
This past trip to Page we thought we’d try to find it again. One late afternoon we set out armed with just a memory and full tank of gas. Soon the land began to change into what I vaguely remembered from 10 years prior and I was hopeful. Then, there on the right hand side of the road was the parking area and it all came back to me. It’s more developed now; a half dozen cars at the trail head and a sign informing would-be hikers what they’re about to see. It’s the Grand Staircase, part of the enormous Escalante National Monument.
Different than a National Park, National Monuments have different structures, different protocols. The Escalante National Monument is a truly vast, wild expanse of land sweeping through central Utah. There’s no single entry point per say, but numerous portals from which to enter. Camping is allowed and exploration is encouraged. It is a able-bodied photographer’s dream come true.
So what does this have to do with the F6? Nothing, really – other than it’s just another place it was with me to record. Ten years ago before purchasing the F6 I was shooting a D2oo. The difference between the two cameras is startling. My friend Dan looked through the F6’s super bright, clear viewfinder and – in comparison to the D750 he was shooting – commented how he wished the D750 had that viewfinder. Funny how we grow accustomed to things and can take them for granted. The viewfinder is one of the features of the F6 I’ve come to rely on most. I’m actually able to see well enough for tasks such as manually focusing and low-light shooting. And compared to the F5, because the focus points light up in red instead of remaining a monotone gray when activated makes everything easier and less distracting when shooting. Yet another reason to love the F6.
To read more about Utah’s Escalante National Monument and Grand Staircase, visit the VisitUtah web site.
One of the things I’ve looked forward to each year since – forever – is my fall trip. This year it was down to the Four Corners area of the US and covered territory in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah then back in Colorado. We visited a handful of awe-inspiring destinations – some for the first time, others back for another go.
You can do your best to plan a trip well but at the end of the day the ability to roll with whatever is presented yields a better overall experience. Weather, light, crowds and other unforeseen circumstances like car trouble can either crater your objective – or – present opportunities to rise and meet challenges.
When it comes to putting time, money and energy into visiting a specific place with specific goals, there’s one clear choice for me and that’s the F6. In the past I’ve shot a good bit of color at some of these destinations. This year I felt like switching it up a bit and decided to shoot black and white film between rolls of Velvia. Velvia is great stuff – but bright, sun-lit days are not what I’d consider ideal conditions to get the most from it, even with a warming filter.
The first destination on our stop was the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in north western New Mexico. There are two primary washes, or drainages in the Bisti; a north and a south. The northern wash is referred to as Hunter Wash, the southern as the Gateway or Alamo Wash. The main, visible (but primitive) parking area is adjacent to the southern wash. The northern wash takes a little route finding to access but nothing too arduous. Both are fascinating and provide explorers plenty to see with minimal elevation gain. The area is pretty flat – which is a new (and welcome) difference compared to so many other areas requiring a lot of strenuous climbing. It’s almost as if you’re simply going for a walk once you cross the Wilderness Area boundary. To scamper up the hills and ravines is a relatively easy task.
One of the things I realized in my research of the area was how difficult it was to attain a sense of scale while viewing images. I’d see a geological feature and wonder if it were 10 feet tall or a hundred. I’ll leave the mystery to you as well as you view the images. I will say that despite ominous warnings and perceptions that accompany such a remote, designated wilderness such as the Bisti I was pleasantly surprised how accessible and friendly it felt.
The general layout of the area is these large primary washes run southwest, with many of the interesting features residing in the off-shoot canyons and drainages feeding the main washes. We were a little nervous about getting lost, having read several accounts of people doing so resulting in cold nights spent in the badlands. I found, however, that with basic navigation and orienteering skills getting lost wouldn’t be a problem. We did use the GPS feature of our iPhones as a back up. There’s no cell signal but the GPS functionality of the device works perfectly without it. Yet another reason to love smart phones.
It was cold that first night and the next morning before dawn we woke at 5am, donned head lamps and headed into the unknown Alamo Wash in the dark looking for a good place to catch first light. The light is the most difficult part of visiting the Bisti, or other badlands areas blessed (?) with so much sun. Harsh bright light and harsh shadows have the photographer praying for cloud cover. Alas – sometimes there’s simply none to be found.
There were nearly a dozen cars at the trail head by the time we returned from the morning hike. After grabbing a quick bite and watering up we headed into the northern wash searching for the Wings. More to come…
Post Scrip: after this first trip I found a great weather resource that will help plan additional trips. The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a unique and special place worthy of more time and attention.
From a recent 4042n jaunt to one of my favorite stomping grounds: North Park, Colorado. North Park is still old Colorado and I like that very much. Recent rains and early spring conditions (March 26) made for muddy travel but no catastrophies were had.
You’ll notice most of these images weren’t made with the F6. This may seem conspicuous to some, given the title of this web site. Last year I was fortunate enough to reacquire a beautiful F4s, my previous one sold shortly after buying the F6 in 2008. Though it was a fine camera, mine had become pretty beat up and I knew I’d add a nicer copy back to the line up some day. That day came last September and I’ve enjoyed working with it right beside the F6 ever since.
There are a few small usability issues to acclimate yourself to when switching back and forth between the cameras. The main one is the lack of Main/Sub Command Dial on the F4s requires the lens to have an aperture ring (non-G lenses) for full compatibility. You can still shoot G lenses on the F4s in Program and Shutter Priority mode, but I prefer Manual or Aperture Priority so I have to think twice about what lens I’ll put on the F4s and what will go on the F6. There are others, but I happily adjust as I bounce back and forth between these excellent tools.
I think most would agree that at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter what camera you’re using. Whatever brings you joy and peace to work with and has the technical competence to execute your creative vision.
Chapter 2: San Luis, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico
One of my great joys in life is driving; to simply wander and explore with a camera; and once in a while to answer that perennial question – what’s down this road, or around the next bend? The drive from San Luis, Colorado to Taos, New Mexico has to be one of the most beautiful drives. Ever. When we lived in Santa Fe returning to Colorado was always a highly anticipated event – largely for the road trip. Sure, you can hop on I-25 and be door-to-door a few minutes faster, but that’s rarely the point.
159 south out of San Luis turns into 522 as you cross the New Mexico state line. The route is dotted with piñon pines – like beard stubble on a giant face – framing broad, sweeping vistas. Active skies hover weightlessly above distant mountain ranges toned by years of erosion and gnarled, stunted flora on this flat stretch of road passing through the southern region of the San Luis Valley. To the East the Spanish Peaks rise abruptly from the valley floor. To the west lies distant Kit Carson National Forest, home of Abiquiu and Georgia Okeeffe’s Ghost Ranch. The beauty of the area is understated during afternoon’s high angle light hours. Not quite desert – not quite mountains – the land can come across as harsh, unforgiving terrain void of life.
Towards the edges of the day, however, a softness emerges completely altering the same landscape in etherial beauty; the tones of distant ranges shifting from undifferentiated grays to subtle ochres, siennas, cadmiums, cobalts and indigos – and skies with supernatural color beyond comprehension. Dirt roads vanish into oblivion, pointing at no obvious destination save a clump of trees on the distant valley floor. A service road to a watering station for cattle? A driveway small children need to walk a half-hour to catch a bus on? One day – with a full tank of gas and plenty of film – I’ll discover where these roads lead. But today’s not that day. As is often the case when we hit this part of the drive it’s mid/late in the afternoon and the light isn’t so great – but only a photographer would complain about it. To pass through this land in the mornings and evenings is well worth the effort.
In your rear view mirror you’ll see the impressive Sangre de Cristo range towering on the northern horizon, anchored by the ominous and deadly Blanca Peak, one of the most notorious “Fourteeners” in Colorado. For those who don’t know, Colorado is home to all 53 peaks in the Rocky Mountain chain – from Canada to Mexico – that rise above fourteen thousand feet in elevation. Near Fort Garland, Colorado the Sangre de Cristos hook to the east slightly then continue south into northern New Mexico where they melt back into the surrounding hillsides and rolling arroyos above the town of Santa Fe.
From a photographer’s point of view the land presents virtually endless compositions – but can be tricky for the landscape photographer to actually frame something up. Often times there’s little more than a horizon and sky to work with. Occasionally you’ll have something of foreground interest; an unusual roadside shelter, an old tractor abandoned along the road, a derelict mobile home trailer parked in a field, or towers of neatly stacked, freshly baled hay. For shots like this – where there’s less of an immediate object to focus on and the image relies more on faithful representation of subtle detail – I’ll switch to a fine-grain, high resolution film like Ektar, (or Velvia/Provia when I was shooting more chrome films).
The town of Questa, New Mexico is the next “major” town along the route. One of Questa’s claims to fame is its honey production. Long about the time we hit Questa, we’re hungry. Last summer we decided to uphold our tradition of avoiding chain restaurants and dining instead at locally owned establishments. This led us to WildCat’s Den in Questa. I’ll be honest… at first I was a little skeptical about bringing my family into this sketchy looking establishment, with bars on the windows. The WildCat Den sounded like something other than what it turned out to be – pure and simply, home of one of the best burgers in northern New Mexico.
We burgered up, chatted with the cooks and headed out. If you ever find yourself wandering through Questa hungry, make sure you hit the WildCat’s Den. Don’t be fooled by the bars on the windows – they’re to keep the burgers in – not the people out.
South of Questa, the only signs of life are the small, mountain enclaves of Arroyo Hondo, San Cristobal and El Prado. At night this drive can be harrowing, evidenced by the abundance of one of my ongoing fascinations – roadside memorials – dotting the route. Unfortunately in New Mexico you see a lot of them. On the way out of Questa we passed this especially poignant one I couldn’t help but stop at.
A big draw in Taos is the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. At 650 feet above the river below it’s spectacular – and easily accessible – spanning the Rio Grande Gorge just a few miles west Taos on Highway 64. Unfortunately its accessibility has become an issue for those wishing to use the bridge to end their lives. Jumpers off the Rio Grande Gorge bridge number 115 in the last 20 years. When we were there last August another person had recently jumped to their death. Emergency vehicles blocked access to the side of the bridge thus thankfully preventing the view to the body below. The knowledge it had just been discovered moments before we arrived temporarily erased the light-hearted spirit being on vacation inspires.
That’s quite enough talk about roadside memorials and people jumping to their death. Fortunately on this trip no such events preceded our arrival. Instead we were met by these guys (below image). I’ll take them over the other any day of the week. There were several different groupings of big horns along the east side of the canyon. The rams huddled together along the rim while the mommas with their kids dotted the cliffs below.
The F6 was the obvious choice for these images of Big Horns because of its VR capability. Afternoon light was beginning to dwindle and though they were relatively close on the canyon rim – 200mm closed the gap. Pushing Ektar one stop to ISO200 set the 70-200VR up for success with a comfortable working combo of ƒ5 at 1/400. The 70-200mm VR is a great lens but experience has taught me to not expect greatness for shots like this at ƒ2.8. No time for a tripod – everything was hand held. The F4s stayed in the car for this outing, not wanting to fumble with additional gear while changing film. He would have his chance to shine later.
By the time we arrived in Taos we were ready for a longer break. Less populated and more mountainous than Santa Fe, Taos is a town of notoriety and size, standing unique in the regions’s art community. The hearty traveler could spend a lifetime exploring Taos and surrounding area. You never know what you’ll find winding through town on back alleys rather than being stuck in traffic on the main road. This old, turquoise Jeep pick up truck appears to be blessed living out its remaining days as a planter in someone’s front yard.
The Taos art community is world renown, spanning generations with heavy hitters like Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington, John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, E. Martin Hennings and Walter Ufer. Today, famous artists such as Charles Collins and so many others line the plaza with unique, inspiring art. Something about being around art makes you want to create art with the camera. For me that’s what our trips to New Mexico are all about – and the fun was only just beginning.
“Lincolns Union” is a “Master Mind” sculpture created by Charles Collins – a bonafied “Master” from Taos, New Mexico (2014). The sculpture is composed of three, individual pieces that stand on their own, representing the Union solider, the Confederate solider and “the woman who held the flame of hope for both.” When reconfigured they form a unique, new shape resembling Lincoln’s face.
I could go on and on about Taos – but we’d never get to the next destination: Santa Fe. Coming up next, the Art Epicenter of the United States, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thanks for sticking with me this far. The real fun is about to begin.
In each blog post I attempt to roll in an application to the F6. The F6 is, after all, the reason for this site – and why so many people come here: to read about it. For this series of posts in the spirit of “try something new… you might like it,” I’m going to try something a little different: I’m going to add the Nikon F4s into the mix.
SANTA FE – If heading to the art epicenter of the country with two, vintage Nikon film camers isn’t on every photographer’s bucket list – you need to re-write your bucket list. I’m fortunate to live within an easy day’s drive – and have the benefit of history and knowledge of such a place. This provides new depth and opportunity with each visit. On our latest sojourn to “The City Different” of course I shot the F6, but this was the first outing with my newly acquired F4s – a birthday gift from my lovely bride. When we lived in Santa Fe in the late 90’s the F4s was my primary camera. I sold it shortly after buying my D3s in 2010 but knew I’d reacquire one some day. This new F4s shipped straight from Japan (no US preceding the serial number) and is in absolutely gorgeous condition – like it had never been used. So to return to my old stomping ground with two vintage, Nikon film bodies was a wonderful opportunity to make some unique images on film (I realize I’m stretching a bit, describing the F6 as a “vintage camera” when in reality it’s only 10 years old).
I’ll get this out of the way right now: comparing the Nikon F6 to the Nikon F4s would be a little like (and I say this will all due respect to both era’s engineering/design) comparing – say – a 1956 Chevy Nomad Wagon with a 2014 Chevy Tahoe. There really is no comparison between the two flagship cameras from two different eras of engineering and design. Both are spectacular for their time. Let’s leave it at that. But… I suppose if you want to think of this next series of posts as a real-world usability exercise; what it’s like to actually shoot the two cameras side by side – you’ll get an idea if whether adding the F4s to your bag is a good move. I’m sure tickled to have one again and absolutely love working with it. Its role isn’t to replace the F6, but instead provide an additional, excellent way of recording images on film – using the same system (*see below).
The overall approach was to shoot the F4s for general purpose, hand-held work with higher speed films (ISO400 and up) because I didn’t envision shooting it with a tripod for a few reasons: one is the camera doesn’t have an L-bracket as the F6 does. My primary tripod uses a Kirk ball head, which requires a Kirk-mount for each camera. The F4s is old enough that I don’t expect to easily find an L-bracket. Besides, the ergonomics of the camera are so elegant; smooth, sculpted and contoured in all the right places (an absolute joy to hold) – that to slap an awkward piece of aluminum onto such a beautiful form for the occasional appointment with the tripod was just something I couldn’t muster the gumption to do. I do have a generic Kirk mounting plate that screws into the tripod socket if need be. *Also – regrettably – the F4 system doesn’t use the same MC-30, 10-pin cable release as the F6, so it means either adding a MC-12/12A to the bag – or – just using an old-fashioned, screw-in style cable release in the threaded port near the bottom, left rear of the camera. So if I had to use the F4s on a tripod I could – but elected to keep it hand held for this trip. The F6 was also for general shooting, and anything requiring a tripod – for the above reasons – in reverse.
Film for the trip was varied – relying mostly on a C-41 solution. Following up on a recent post about pushing Ektar 2 Stops, I added ample Ektar, intending to push to ISO200 (instead of its native ISO100) for the additional speed as well as saturation and contrast bump (see chapter 2 post to follow). Following up on another post – about over exposing Portra, as per usual I had an adequate stash of both Portra 160 and Portra 400 – two emulsions that have become my “go-to’s.” I am primarily a color photographer – but having two bodies – also threw in enough Delta 400 and a few rolls of Rollei ATP to satisfy the occasional black n’ white craving (one destination was Georgia O’Keefe’s old stomping grounds, Ghost Ranch and the Abiquiu area). I had my D3s in the bag too, just in case I ran out of film – so was pretty much ready for anything.
Our first stop was the small town of San Luis, located virtually on the Colorado-New Mexico border in the picturesque but lonely San Luis valley. San Luis is the oldest town in Colorado and with a population of 629 people (2010 Census) it’s also the most populated town of Costilla County. We travel through San Luis because it gets us off I-25 at Walsenburg (Colorado) and after summiting LaVeta Pass and entering the San Luis Valley – begins the most scenic and beautiful part of the drive South.
The Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church sits atop a butte above town and is one of the main attractions of the area. The church was established in 1992 and about then I remember returning from my first trip to Taos – and climbing amongst the sanctuary’s construction. At the time I thought it was an ancient church in ruin. Turns out it was a new church being built. Who knew. I wish now I had images from that trip 22 years ago. In 22 years I wonder what I’ll wish I had images of from now?
During my earlier stint shooting the F4s I primarily shot the 35-70/2,8 (non-D) pump zoom. It’s a fine lens and I still have and shoot with it. Today, however, I also have the opportunity to mount a wider variety of lenses on the body and enjoy previously unexperienced creativity with the camera. But as anyone with multiple lenses and bodies can attest, if you try to carry around too much gear things get heavy and cumbersome. Disciplining one’s self to one body and one lens for an outing is a great exercise. For San Luis the F4s was paired with the Nikkor 17-35/2,8D and performed beautifully. Especially with the 17-35 mounted – and no strap – the F4s isn’t a light camera. But the smooth, rubberized grip covering contours placed in just the right spots made it quite comfortable in hand while walking around for an hour plus.
Exposure note: most of these images of the church are effectively 2 stops over exposed by the F4’s (Matrix) meter. The roll of Portra 400 was (intentionally) over exposed by one stop at ISO200, and I added another stop of exposure compensation using the F4’s exposure compensation dial while exposing the frames containing sky. I was a little worried they’d blow – but not even close when looking at the negative; it’s healthy and strong all around. I was especially pleased with the level of detail in the sculpture shots. The cast bronze was dark to begin with and it would have been easy to bury the nuance in shadow. Portra did a beautiful job of holding tone in the sky while recording detail in the dark bronze. A chrome film would have effectively produced a silhouette of the sculpture. Portra continues to impress me – especially when provided ample light to work with. Alas, you can’t control the light – and don’t always have the availability to wait around for things to get good. We had an active sky with high clouds knocking down bright, high-altitude sun enough to diffuse harsh shadows. But – it was mid-day, so we made the best of what was given and moved on. When light isn’t ideal I tend to focus more on composition, subject matter – objects – and story telling – rather than broad-sweeping, scenic beauty. Oh how I’d love to be on this hillside at sun-up. I can only imagine the color in skies passing over the San Luis Valley during these times. For now at least, this will have to do.
Note: I’ve heard others discuss dislike of short, “just passing through” trips while out shooting. I couldn’t disagree more. Photography – especially film photography – is about the long game. Treating these short trips as scouting opportunities – sometimes making copious notes on subjects, ideas, and times of day and position of the sun relative to the season – pays dividends in the long run. In the future, when you have opportunity to revisit the same destination for longer, you now have a starting point.
Besides, for me photography is about exploration. When I have a camera in hand I move slower, look more intently, interact more directly with people and places, and overall the experience is richer and deeper because of that. Even if it’s for just an hour – make the best of that time. Take notes. Keep a log book in the car and note time of year and day. Pay attention to vegetation. You’ll learn something about the land, and be better informed the next time you pass through.
Next stop will be Taos, but we’ll save that for the next post. Thanks for reading this far and check back in a week or so
I’m excited to announce a new project – well, less “new” in terms of topic – but more “new” in terms of focused effort. The project is called Terra Firma, and I suppose like so many of my other “projects,” I’ve really been working on this one for a long time.
Terra Firma is a landscape collection on johnbcrane.com (please click here to sit back and enjoy the slide show). I suppose I’ve been working on this project for 20 years or so – but only now feel like I have something tangible to say. Terra firma is a Latin phrase meaning “solid earth” (from terra, meaning “earth”, and firma, meaning “solid”). The phrase refers to the dry land mass on the earth’s surface and is used to differentiate from the sea or air. Considering a reference many of us may already be familiar with, here’s how Terra Firma was first born: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.God called the dry land Earth,[d] and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:9-10 ESV). The distinction here is that the land was created to separate the heavens from the depths.
Like many landscape photographers I’ve had a passion for the outdoors for many years. Since the first time setting foot in Colorado in 1977 as a high school student I’ve never left the wilderness. Physically perhaps – but mentally, emotionally and spiritually – no. When I returned home to Illinois after our first backpacking trip to Highlands Camp in the Indian Peaks Wilderness I moped around the house for weeks. All I could think about was how to get back, as fast as possible. I’d tasted wilderness – true, honest to goodness wilderness – and was spoiled for anything else from that point forward.
Years later, in May of 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted in the Cascade Mountains I had joined REI, received my first Jansport backpack and ice ax and was turning sofa cushions over in the house looking for enough money for plane fare to Seattle. As fate would have it I never made it out to photograph the mountain exploding – which is why I’m still alive today.
I devoured books by Robert Service, Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams, Of Wolves and Men), Peter Matthiesson (The Snow Leopard, Men’s Lives), Farley Mowatt (Never Cry Wolf), Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang) John Muir and John McPhee (Coming into the Country, The Control of Nature, Basin and Range), and developed a particular fascination with the Rocky Mountains, the Cascade Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest. I followed the classic, black and white photographers and while I appreciated the art form, decided I was more interested in color photography.
A particular fascination with Alaska developed and upon graduation from Colorado State with Bachelor of Fine Art, my dog Max and I caught a ride to Seattle, then caught the Alaska Marine Highway to Alaska’s Southeast for my first true foray into the wild where I lived and worked the salmon for the summer, wandering the Alaska’s inside passage between shifts.
That summer was filled with far too much to attempt to summarize here. Suffice it to say, that trip to Alaska took the beginnings of a fascination with wild places and emblazoned into my very being a thirst for which there is no quenching. Here so many years later I can see and hear and feel almost everything from that trip; the pull to return to Alaska is incessant – like gravity.
Today, a body of work has formed. While I enjoy flipping through images and the memories they trigger – I’ve come to believe it’s somewhat of a responsibility to share these images. The world has changed dramatically over those same years since 1977. Wild places continue to be eaten away by industry and development, and people today simply don’t understand – can’t comprehend – what has been lost. I’ve done my best to not be the pessimist; attempt to find the remaining open lands, wild places – and prove to myself that there’s still a lot of land out there, nothing to worry about. Lately, though – it’s getting more difficult to do this. Again – wanting to be a positive voice in the conversation – the approach I can take is to show the beauty of the land. My hope is these images will inspire a whole new generation of explorers, wanderers, travelers, seekers and dreamers to get out there and see this land we’re so blessed to live in.
Comprised of color images from around the United States – many of which were made within our spectacular National Parks System – Terra Firma attempts to focus on the land. A seemingly endless variety of landscapes lie within Terra Firma. Topographic features from slot canyons to grand canyons. From ant hills to foothills. Front mountain ranges to still, quiet valleys and everything in between. Not all images have been made in our beautiful National Parks; many have been created in no-name stretches of empty land – between notable destinations – because the light was right or the feature simply would not let me pass without demanding an image be made.
CONTENT, NOT PROCESS
I suppose like many photographers I use a variety of different cameras and tools to create different images. This project is a earnest attempt to – once again – step away from the process and instead focus on the contents of those four, intimidating boundaries constructing the edges of the frame. I want everything the viewer sees to communicate something about the land. To that end, you’ll see no mention what so ever of whether an image is recorded digitally or etched on film, and you’ll see nothing about what type of camera (though there are a bunch made with the Nikon F6) – or the technique with which the image is created.
I hope you enjoy Terra Firma, and more so – hope it inspires everyone inclined to get “out there” into the wild – while the wild still remains.
In years past my eyes have been focused upward, searching the skies above for the real Fourth of July photograph. This year I chose instead to focus on what’s right in front of me. Attending the Allenspark Fourth of July parade has become an annual event. Nestled high in the Rocky Mountains, tucked safely in the shadow of Indian Peaks Wilderness, Allenspark is where we began our married life 20 years ago today – and holds a special place for both my wife and I. As the small parade of locals passed in front of us, people, animals and vehicles adorned in American regalia, I was filled with a new appreciation for the strong character and relationships of this town – and our country. What we stand for, what’s important to us. Some days – especially in the mountains of Colorado – it’s great to be an American.
I’ve been wanting to explore the Little Snake River Valley for years. The Little Snake River Valley sits along the Colorado/Wyoming state line and follows the Little Snake River as it tumbles out of the western flank of Colorado’s Park Range. The Little Snake is a tributary of the larger Yampa River, meandering westward in and out of Colorado and Wyoming along the state line then gradually makes its way south west to hook up with the Yampa west of Maybell and very close to Dinosaur National Park.
Evening light along Wyoming-Colorado state boundary (2014)
I was so pleased to have my wife join me on this trip. I’ve spent many hours and miles wandering alone out there and was glad for the company. All I had to do was mention fly fishing along the LSR and she was in. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how the weekend panned out. What we discovered when we hit the drainage was a whole lot of private land. At first glance, access to the river is all but eliminated by ranch after ranch, private home after private home, and miles and miles of fence line with large signs reading, “POSTED: NO TRESPASSING.” While the fishing thing didn’t materialize quite the way we’d envisioned, as in every first time into an area you learn a lot. Getting a feel for the area and traveling the roads is the first step in getting to know it. Turns out there is BLM land up there and river access – we just couldn’t find it. Some follow up calls to the BLM office and GPS will fix that though. We’ll return next time armed with more, better information.
Evening light on Moffat County Rd.7, Moffat County, Colorado (2014)
With our fishing plans shot, my objective was to return to the “town” of Great Divide, a lonesome outpost along Moffat County Rd.7 in the remote regions of the county. Several years ago I’d stumbled across it returning from the Red Desert. At the time it had been a long few days in the car so I took the opportunity to stop and rest for a bit in Great Divide. From a landscape photography point of view light was poor; a typical, blue bird, cloudless, Colorado high-altitude, sunny day (whom but a photographer would deem those conditions poor?). Regardless, I made a few frames, then began the drive south east towards Craig. It’s difficult to explain why but somehow that stop is one of the things I remember most about that particular trip. For some reason the outpost of Great Divide stayed with me for years. Occasionally I’d google it to see what turned up – virtually nothing. It was almost like it didn’t really exist. For years I’ve wanted to get back to Great Divide, hopefully in better light – and see what happened. Great Divide became our new objective.
Wyoming-Colorado state boundary, Highway 13 looking north towards Baggs, Wyoming (2014)
We hit Highway 13 south out of Baggs, Wyoming, and followed it for a mile or so before hooking up with County Road 4, then headed west. The plan was to hook up with Rd.9 and angle down to hit Great Divide for sunset. Even with a sunset calculator you can’t be absolutely certain when sunset will happen. The light was cooperating beautifully. An active sky was producing doppled clouds that drifted between the sun and earth, slightly diffusing the increasingly gorgeous light as it began to sink towards the horizon. Often times what’ll happen with an active sky is a low band of clouds will prematurely obscure the best light at the critical moment and end things early in a veil of gray. This has happened to me a lot over the years. This day, though – it looked like we had a shot at it.
My wife and I talked in the beautiful, evening light, heading down Moffat County Rd. 4 in search of the turn off. I told her as we drove, “when we get there, you’re going to think…” and she finished my sentence: “…I know…that it was all worthwhile and I’ll see how beautiful it is, right?”
“No,” I said. “You’re gonna think I’m nuts – that there’s something wrong with me. There’s really nothing there. It’s just this old building, sitting out in the middle of nowhere. I can’t even explain why I’ve had it in my head for so many years – why I need to get back. It doesn’t make any sense.”
After a few miles on 4 we checked the map again and realized we may have missed our turn off. Briefly thinking about doubling back to look again the decision was made instead to press on in case it was still before us. But it was a gamble. Rd.4 continued to Powder Wash, then angled back south east on Rd.7 to Great Divide. If you picture a triangle balanced on its point, with Great Divide the bottom, 9 would have traveled one length direct of the triangle and put us right there. Instead, we missed that turn and had to travel the other two lengths of the triangle to reach the same point. It was a sure thing; getting us there eventually, but the route was twice as far. And it was getting late. Making the decision, I hit the gas instead of the brakes – ready for whatever awaited. It seemed like an eternity but we eventually hit Powder Wash, picked up Rd.7 then angled back down, towards what I hoped was that lonely remnant of a town in the middle of nowhere, waiting for me in beautiful, evening light.
My memory of the road was a little fuzzy and looking again at the Delorem atlas it seemed like we were doing everything right. A few dusty miles clicked off the odometer as stones flew from new tire treads and hit the underside of the wheel well. I glanced at the sky, then the clock. Crap. We’re gonna be cutting it close, I thought. All of a sudden I remembered the date. It was June 20 – the day before the longest day of the year. A smile cracked my lips. “What’s the smile for,” my wife asked. I told her. We laughed, and my foot eased up on the accelerator as the pond came into view.
Great Divide, Colorado (2014)
The cows welcomed us as the car came to a halt at the bottom of the hill. Directly across the road I glanced up to see the sign: Moffat County 9. We’d missed it, but would take it home when we left. Most importantly – though – after all the stressing about light – we’d managed to hit it perfectly. After a few shots of the pond we climbed in the car and headed up the road to the only junction of Great Divide, where the Mercantile waited.
Old Mercantile Store, Great Divide, Colorado (2014)
It was still there and didn’t look a bit different – which was no surprise. After surviving for so many years alone on the high plains, a few more shouldn’t have made any difference. We pulled over across from the Old Mercantile and climbed out of the car into the gorgeous, still evening. Birds fluttered about. Back down by the pond, cows moo’d. It was serene. Still. There was no wind. The sun had continued its path towards the horizon, seeming to pull up at the last minute and wait – leaving just enough for us. I set up the tripod, picked the shots and went to work as my wife wandered Great Divide’s single intersection for the first time.
Why do places remain with us? Why some places and not others? I don’t know. What I did know that evening was, the second time to Great Divide was better than the first. It was made better by the company, the knowledge gained from the first visit, and the light. I’ll look forward with eager anticipation to our next visit to the Little Snake River Valley. And I’ll have my camera and a roll of Portra loaded and ready.
Pine (Bluffs), Wyoming lay at the extreme south-eastern corner of the state, a stone’s throw from Nebraska along the Old Lincoln Highway and I-80. My visit to Pine was late in the year with my dog Henry. Over the course of several months we’d seen Henry begin to slow and knew he’d begun his journey home. Not wanting to miss any opportunities with him I took the Jeep this trip, knowing he’s more comfortable than in the front seat of the Subaru.
We parked at an I-80 rest area and took an hour-long hike on packed snow and frozen mud to the bluffs overlooking Pine. He labored only slightly, happy and excited to sniff new ground with tail wagging. We climbed back in and continued east along the Lincoln Highway. It was on this trip I was to meet the opposite of the wonderful folks of Nebraska, and catch my first whiff of danger in the region.
Bushnell lay a short drive east of Pine. It was a sunny, pleasant afternoon. The wind had lain down just enough to actually allow Autumn air room to breath. We did a few laps through the small, mostly abandon town and stopped to make some photographs. Henry was content in the back seat as I popped in and out of the car, occasionally opening the back door where he’d slide out into a field, wandering and sniffing as I worked. Getting him back into the Jeep was a little humiliating for him. At close to 100 pounds and not much help to himself he’d look at me, ears lowered, knowing what came next. I encouraged him as I lifted and we managed alright.
Near the end of the day in a remote corner of town I’d stopped along a public, dirt road and climbed out to consider making an image. The light was getting nice and the sky was active. Henry remained in the car, the back window fully down, his head hanging out, watching. About then is when I saw a large, Carhartt-clad figure approaching from the distance. With his head lowered, hands in pockets and a distinct and deliberate gate – I could tell he wasn’t relaxed. My first thought was to get back in the car and carry on, but not wanting to flee, I resisted.
When two strangers approach on a lonesome stretch of road with no others around and darkness coming, the meeting could go any number of ways. We were both heading for life lesson.
When he got within comfortable speaking distance, the wind still quiet, I offered a casual “how are you today?” It was met with a nod, then a glare.
“What do you think you’re doing,” he asked as he approached to within 3 feet and stopped.
“I’m thinking about making a photograph,” I said. “Hi, my name is John Crane,” and offered my hand. Carhartt spit on the ground, turned his head sideways, raised his chin slightly and closed one eye and said, “Is that supposed mean something to me?”
Right about then several scenarios ran through my head. Part of my greeting was designed to expose his hands, revealing what they held. This failed – with hands remaining buried in his coat pockets. I withdrew my hand and smiled. “Nope,” I said. “Just being polite.”
“Oh, I am not a cordial man,” he replied. Then began a dissertation informing me of his version of Nebraska law; ‘the world according to Bushnell Carhartt.’ I listened without emotion. When he finished he nodded to my Colorado license plate and looked at me with the same, one-eyed squint. Taking half a step towards me said, “we don’t like your kind around here… you’d best just go on home.”
Now, we all have different personality traits – things that trigger different responses. Some people are affable, fun-loving, happy-go-lucky types. Others are nervous, high-strung and jittery. I’m pretty easy going and do my best to live in accordance with Biblical principles – but God’s not finished with me yet and the numbers one and two hot button issues with me are bullies and intimidation. Especially when they’re not in possession of the facts – or the truth – and are skewing events to support their mission: to bully and intimidate. I hate bullies, of any size and shape, and won’t stand for it.
Henry knew something was up and I glanced his way. The ears on his large, black head were alert and he was sitting up taller in the front seat. Carhartt’s hands were still in his pockets and I took a step forward and said, “I’m pretty sure I can do what ever I want.”
Carhartt looked up, clearly not expecting that response, and casually took half a step back. “This is a public road,” I continued, and I’m not infringing on anyone’s privacy being here. Is this your land?” I asked, going on the offensive, nodding to the grain bin along the road.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be here and no one has given you permission to take a picture.”
“I don’t need your permission to make a photograph on public land,” I said, not backing down.
“You’re stealing,” he said, “you’re ‘taking’ something when you ‘take a picture.’ You’d better be careful,” he threatened – now beginning to walk backwards, away from me, hands till in his jacket pocket.
At this a low growl emerged from the Jeep.
The sudden emergence of unmistakable ignorance changes everything. It’s at that point you realize further discussion is pointless and – one way or another – it’s best if the conversation simply ends.
“I’m pretty sure I can do whatever I want,” I repeated, my intonation unequivocally final. By now Henry was half out the Jeep’s window as Carhartt slowly began his retreat.
“Have a wonderful day,” I said, sensing victory.
What happened next has been a source of regret since. Carhartt’s back shown to me, Henry behind me, I added, “Can I make a photograph of you?”
“No you may not,” he said without turning around. I watched him as he strolled back to the mailboxes at the foot of his driveway a few hundred yards away then disappeared towards the shed.
I was shaking and wanted nothing more than to get out of there. He’d ruined the day. Up until that exchange I’d had a wonderful time, interacting with another couple in town, even making their portrait in the Antique Shop they’d recently purchased and had begun to remodel. It was all gone now because of this guy. I walked back towards the car, replaying the encounter in my head and realized Carhartt never removed his hands from his pockets. He’d probably been holding a gun the whole time. Shaking now, I climbed back into the drivers seat and sat for a moment – but couldn’t leave. Not just yet. He’d have accomplished what he’d set out to do if I didn’t stay long enough to finish my work.
The railroad ran through town, which always makes for interesting subject matter. I spent another half-hour shooting around there, making very certain to remain on public land. When I was finished I packed up and headed out.
I’m not proud of how I responded to this encounter. The drive home offered a lot of time to rehearse more kind, patient replies – that I’ve since forgotten. Later that evening upon arriving home I told my wife and son about the day – all of it – and realized I wasn’t setting the example for my son I’d have liked. This was humbling. I thought briefly about returning the following weekend to his home, knocking on the door and apologizing. I then remembered his hands buried in his pockets and realized I’d actually have to be on his land to do so – and reconsidered.
This 111,000 square miles of “The 4042n West” is big land. If and when things go sideways you’d better have a plan. This event began the process of considering a hand gun and concealed weapons permit – only not concealing it. In the future, allowing a weapon to be visible to all who wish to approach and say hello seems a good way of attracting the right kind of folks.
I’ve always been what I’d consider a socially responsible photographer. The last thing I want to do is stick a camera in the face of the unwilling to provoke such a response as was that of Carhartt. That said, no matter how hard you try it simply isn’t possible to anticipate every unpleasant encounter. One could elect to not risk visiting other small towns, but these people don’t just live in small towns. They’re everywhere. The truth is for every unpleasant encounter there are many others of the opposite nature. Allowing one bad apple to unduly influence decisions wouldn’t be right. Images from the day were mediocre, but the lesson grand: pay attention, keep your wits about you and know the law. Having a big, black dog doesn’t hurt, either.
Post Script: Early April the following year Henry went home. He can’t be replaced. But when the time comes to fall in love with a new pooch it’ll most certainly be a large, black, labrador retriever. Maybe then together we’ll revisit Bushnell, Nebraska. And try again.
I went on one of my 4042n jaunts last Saturday, this time to SoapStone Prairie Open Space, a relatively new area at the extreme edge of Colorado. You can cross into Wyoming on one of the short backcountry trails. Having decided the goal for the day was to record honest images, I headed out with a pack full of Portra 160, some Ektar, some Delta and of course Tri-X.
What do I mean by honest images. I mean images of an area that don’t happen for a split second once a month, then are gone. An honest image is an unpretentious image. An honest image represents what an area looks like 99.9% of the time, not .1% of the time, deceiving viewers into believing every minute of every day looks like magic hour. An honest image means heading out when nothing’s flowering, nothing’s blooming and nothing’s having babies. An honest image is two does and a buck watching you work your way up the trail in grey-blue hour, wondering if you’re there to kill them, and deciding your not.
North of Wellington, Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)
The honest image means a natural color film. Not a digital camera. Not Velvia (though I do think honest images can be made on Velvia). The temptation with Velvia is to force it into the dishonest realm – to compromise it. Juice it. An honest image means no Photoshop monkey business. It means no pano’s, no stitching, and for the love of all things good and right in the world, no HDR. An honest image means being intentional about the media you choose to record a scene that’s chosen you. An honest image means no black and white conversions. It means no cropping your way to a good image. It means thinking in series, or working for the stand-alone, solitary shot that needs no caption, no tag line.
Evolution of a front range sunset, no.3, Fort Collins, Colorado (Kodak Ektar)
An honest image means medium format, 120 fine-grained, color negative film to capture every bit of nuance, every slight tonal variation, every bit of every square inch of everything in front of your fixed, focal-length (non-zooming) lens as you stand behind the tripod with the cable release in hand and trip the shutter. An honest image means waiting. It means looking intently for composition and it means missing. It means seeing a shot and not being able to frame it properly and passing it by, but allowing it to burn into your brain for next time.
Rawhide Power Plant, Northern Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)
An honest image means it fits the subject matter. Northern Colorado and southern Wyoming aren’t Disneyland. The land is muted, earthen hues. Greens, mauves, ochres, tans, cobalt blues, cadmium reds, burnt sienna’s; big skies, small plants, ugly rocks and lots of wind. It’s bright, sunny, high-altitude light out of dynamic range praying for a cloud to drift between the sun and the earth to make a shot. An honest image means driving for hours and stopping in the middle of an unmarked county dirt road to turn around to make a shot that you pray you can make before a car comes over the hill and… because with the wind blowing and the hood on your Carhartt up you can’t hear anything more than 3 feet away. An honest image means getting dusty and dirty kneeling down in the the ditch. It means chasing your hat across the prairie when the wind takes it.
Near Red Mountain Open Space, Northern Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)
An honest image means no trespassing. It means closing gates behind you and honoring the mandate to stay on the trail – and missing the shot you want because you did. An honest image begins an hour before sun up and ends an hour after sun down. It means a last tilt of the thermos of tepid, too-strong coffee for something to drink at the end of the day. An honest image means washboard roads, AM talk radio, bugs in the radiator and chipped windscreens. It means nearly running out of fuel and paying too much a gallon at the nearly closed, sporting good-convenient store-fast-food chain-delicatessen-truck stop-fuel mart that smells like burnt coffee and is out of TP.
An honest image means – above all else – joy. Peace. Solitude. Creative immersion. It means Discovery. An honest image is a very, very good thing.
Post-Lude: In the spirit of “honesty,” this post was first published in my previous blog, written when I was shooting a lot of medium format film. Images in this post were not made with the Nikon F6 on 35mm film, but the Mamiya RZ67 on 120 (medium format) film. Not that anyone cares – or would ever know.