The 440

A few weeks ago I needed to get out – as in far away from the computer – in a big way. The weather wasn’t good along the Front Range and checking the iPhone confirmed pretty much any place within easy driving distance was experiencing the same. It looked like the only thing to do was out drive the front. I fueled up, stopped for the requisite Americano and headed into the rain not knowing what the day held. Not knowing what lie ahead isn’t just part of the fun – it’s the reason I go.

There are a number of different ways to connect with my favorite haunts – North Park/Southern Wyoming. Memorial Day this year marked the opening of Trail Ridge Road, which connects the front range with the deeper mountains through Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a bit circuitous route, but any day beginning on Trail Ridge Road is a good day no matter what happens next. I headed up to the Park, bought the annual pass and wasted no time getting high. That’s a eyebrow-raising phrase here in Colorado these days… what I mean  is quickly gaining elevation. On a week day there was little traffic – one of the wonderful benefits of being able to take off in the middle of the week instead of waiting for the weekend.

Highway 14, North Park, Colorado
North Park along Highway 14 south of Walden, Colorado (2015). Nikon F100 + Ektar

At the bottom of Trail Ridge you wind up in Grandby T-boning at the intersection of Highway 40. A right takes you towards Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling. I stopped at the market in Kremmling for a break, the weather already improving, and considered my route. I only had the day, needing to be back that night – so was somewhat limited by daylight. The western edge of North Park is unofficially bound by 40 as it winds up over Muddy Pass. From there I picked up 14 and headed east towards Walden.

White gate near Rand, Colorado, North Park, Colorado (2015)
White Gate, North Park, Colorado (2015). Nikon F4s + Velvia

A great thing about being open to the day is a willingness to detour onto new roads. There are roads I’ve driven by many times making a mental note to return someday to explore as time allows. Nearing Walden I came upon one of those roads; a dirt road peeling off across the pasture lands to the east. With plenty of fuel and a cooler full of fruit and water this was the perfect opportunity and I didn’t hesitate.

I have and shoot a lot of cameras – many of which I was carrying on this day – all loaded with different films. I think back to a story once read about Robert Frank (The Americans) who was one day detained in a small town by a police officer who noticed he had an unusually large number of cameras visibly scattered about in the car. I smile as I think about the packed Pelican crate tucked safely in the back of the Subaru, beneath a foil space blanket to keep it cooler in the high-altitude sun shining through the rear window. I also make a note to check the cooler containing extra film brought along at the next stop.

I know some people think you should only only shoot one film, getting used to its characteristics in certain light, the look it produces etc. I understand the reasoning behind this – but toss it out the window. Different films are for different light, different applications, different scenes, different subjects. A film camera loaded with roll film can only practically shoot one roll at a time. Having different cameras loaded with different films allows greater flexibility for an image that may be better suited for a chrome (slide) film, or C41 (color negative) or black and white.

There has been a great deal of rain in Colorado this year; a wonderful break from the high and dry monotony pestering ranchers, farmers and other ag-centric folks over recent past. All this rain has turned browns into greens; refilled drainage ditches, draws and ponds, and contributed to an overall pleasant aroma to the high prairie. Standing water also means lots of bugs.

Roadside drainage ditches and draws are full these days in North Park with all the standing water that's fallen.
Roadside drainage ditches and draws are full these days in North Park with all the standing water that’s fallen. Nikon F4s + Velvia
Clouds hover over Wyoming to the North of North Park, Colorado.
Clouds hover over Wyoming to the North of North Park, Colorado. Nikon F4s + Velvia

After Rand I picked up 125 North towards Cowdrey, veered left at the Dean Peak Junction and was on my way North into Wyoming.

I was eager to shoot my new F5 for the first time and had both it and the F6 on the seat next to me just in case. Sometimes things catch your eye and digging a camera out of the crate takes time. Only a few frames had been made thus far in the trip. Light during mid-day isn’t ideal, which is why that time is spent moving between places – to be in position for the edges of the day. Often times I’ll think I see a shot and head down a dirt road looking for the right vantage point. More often then not things don’t line up, or the light’s wrong, or there’s too much mud (which has happened a lot this year), or I’m met with a “No Trespassing” sign (I always respect No Trespassing signs) and the detour is chalked up to a learning experience as I head back to the main road. As I’m driving down a double track or dirt road I’m always considering my exit plan. Once while trying to turn around on a double track in Sweetwater County the car became stuck – high-centered in the middle of no where. I try to avoid this.

About the time I rolled into southern Wyoming it was later in the day and the light had improved considerably. I’d left rainy skies far behind and was enjoying fresh air, brilliant bluebird skies punctuated by dramatic, enormous cloud masses as the edge of the front just passed through quietly lumbered its way east.

Riverside, Wyoming (2015)
Riverside, Wyoming (2015) Nikon F5 + Ektar

Riverside, Wyoming is a quiet town just north of the Colorado/Wyoming state line. I pass through Riverside often, en route to other destinations. This day it marked the point I was to turn east and head home. The Trading Post sits on the corner of Wyoming 230 and 70. The tired me planned on rolling right on by – until I saw the clouds, and what the light was doing. Thanks to the high pressure system chasing the front east, the air was freshly scrubbed and crystal clear. Brilliant light screamed across a fresh atmosphere and slammed into the wood siding, red roof and white accent signage. I suppose I’ve spent enough time cruising around to notice a gas station or two – and this was spectacular.

No tripod, no filters, no nothing other than f8 and be there. 2 frames clicked off the F5 loaded with Ektar and on I went. My real goal was trying to hit peak light on Snowy Range Road and I knew I’d be cutting it close.

Libby Flats Observation Point, Snowy Range Road, Wyoming
Libby Flats Observation Point, Snowy Range Road, Wyoming. Nikon F6 + Portra 160

Snowy Range Road – like Trail Ridge Road – is closed during winters. Signs along the approach alert the traveler well in advance whether it’s open or closed. Even with all the snow the mountains received this year I knew I was safe and car churned its way up the steep grade. I spent an hour milling about looking for a good composition vantage point based on what the light was doing – but wasn’t able to line up what I’d hoped. I used to become anxious during these moments, but now I’m relaxed. If the world aligns and an image is presented – wonderful. If not – you’re up in the mountains watching this etherial scene unfold. Where else would you rather be? A scene doesn’t need to result in an image. Just relax and enjoy not being parked in front of the computer.

Undiscouraged, I packed up and headed further up the road towards Libby Flats to catch last light on the Overlook. Almost immediately after making the one frame, shadows swept up and over, engulfing the stone structure until morning. It was time to head home. I put in 440 miles that day (and I wonder why I’m chewing through tires so fast). Driving home in the dark I was satisfied; happy to have been out wandering in the west with no agenda and plenty of cameras loaded with film. The net result was, I felt rested and ready to face another day tomorrow – at my best thanks to the break.

 

 

Terra Firma

Arthurs Rock, Lory State Park.

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.

Rock Cut, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
First Light at Rock Cut, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

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.

Cape Flattery, Olympic National Park, Washington
Cape Flattery, Olympic National Park, Washington

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.

John B. Crane in the Weminuche Wilderness, southern Colorado's San Juan range, 1985
John B. Crane in the Weminuche Wilderness, southern Colorado’s San Juan range, 1985

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.

Scow Bay, Petersburg, Alaska
Scow Bay, Petersburg, Alaska (1984)

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.

Fall River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Fall River, along the Old Fall River Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

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.

Delaney Buttes State Wildlife Area, North Park, Colorado
Delaney Buttes State Wildlife Area, North Park, Colorado

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.

Peace to you, John B. Crane

Little Snake River Valley

Descending Snowy Range Road towards the Little Snake River Valley near Saratoga, Wyoming (2014)

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.

Honesty

Soapstone Prairie Natural Area in extreme northern Colorado, just south of the Wyoming border (Kodak Portra 160)

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.

soapstone prairie natural area, fort collins, colorado
Soapstone Prairie Morning, Extreme Northern Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

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.

red mountain open space, fort collins, colorado
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.