For whatever reason I’m drawn to the the less popular; the rag-tag, rumpled, untucked misfits of the world. Not as some sort of contrarian act – but more in a search for intrinsic worth. In all things. Acknowledgement of life’s many, many dimensions.
One of my favorite things to do is head East, towards the less notable portions of this glorious state of Colorado. I don’t know if it’s out of some sort of escape mentality; wanting to get away from the usual surroundings into a different environment.
I suppose it’s one reason I love to drive places rather than fly. I’m OK with flying when necessary. I just prefer passing through places – touching them – rather than over them.
Time… who cares. Really. Save time here, spend time there. It’s all the same. Where do we choose to spend time? What’s valuable?
Stories unfold when you take time to stop, listen, look.
Imagining what others do, see, think, feel… nicely grouped pens in a mug on a clean desk late Friday before knocking off for the weekend.
There’s no conclusion; repeating itself again and again, feeding the soul, constituting life’s experience. So blessed to live in such a rich, beautiful state as Colorado.
I realized something of great importance this past Saturday while traveling Iron Mountain Road in Wyoming: I love Wyoming. I love it the way you love something you didn’t realize you loved at first. The way some things kinda sneak up on you when you’re not looking then bam – there they are and you wonder how long this has been going on.
I love Colorado too, but Colorado’s easy to love. Everyone loves Colorado. Wyoming’s different; it’s the less-polished version of Colorado – where wild still lives.
I love the people of Wyoming too.
I’d pulled over on the side of the dirt road, loading film and making some notes, when next to me appeared a Laramie County Sheriff. “You OK?” he asked, rolling down his window, towering above me in his heavy-duty truck. “I never see anyone on this road,” he said. We chatted a bit, I thanked him for stopping and assured him I was fine.
There is literally no end to the maze of wild dirt roads running through Wyoming. My Delorme Atlases travel with me everywhere I go. Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. I have one plastic sleeve that I slip which ever one I’m using most heavily at the time into; hoping to postpone the inevitable. Scouring these maps with a headlamp in a dark car in the middle of nowhere trying to figure out just where on earth you are… one runs into another and another and another – then you look at the time, and you look at the fuel gauge and you make hard decisions to turn around and save that next turn for the next time. The inside of my car smells like a dirt road. The cabin filter has been changed so many times the service center knows me by name.
I climb out of the car and scamper up an embankment looking for a view. Prickly pear tries to stick in my boot soul and I’m glad I’m not wearing sandals. The smell of sage is heavy in the air. In the distance the railroad cuts south through the broad, flat center of the valley. Miles and miles of barbed wire note ranch boundaries punctuated with “No Trespassing” signs. I never, ever trespass. Not only because it says ‘No Trespassing,’ but because a lot of these guys are pretty good shots, practiced at picking off coyotes or prairie dogs.
Just before the sheriff stopped I’d been tracking antelope. Not on foot, but following small herds in the car. They’re wary of vehicles; rifles emerging from rolled down windows. If their sharp eyes or ears pick up any sudden motion from the road they’re gone. And they’re fast. I slow, they lift their heads. I stop, they stop. I open the door and have three, maybe four steps – and they’re off. Getting one to sit still long enough for a portrait is never going to happen.
Late in the day the light came out for just a bit. There was a rolling, gorgeous anticline bisected by the road, running to the south. Greens were sage and junipers; muted and soft, mixed with ochers and other no-name earthen colors difficult to describe. There was no wind. I pulled over for the twentieth or thirtieth or fortieth time and approached the fence line to watch. As the light hit, the internal debate whether it would last long enough to set up the tripod ensued. Deciding to try, a few frames of color slide film clicked off before clouds once more swallowed up the sun. One of the sweetest parts of the day followed. Sometimes there’s no clear indication when it’s over. There’s this transition as the sun takes a final bow. Sometimes dramatic and flamboyant; sometimes simply drifting behind distant clouds unobtrusively disappearing. You stand and wait, wondering if it’ll come back. Hoping it will, but OK if it doesn’t.
I found some water and an unopened bag of Beer Nuts Bar Mix buried in the car’s long term storage and stood on the road side in the peaceful dim, happy. A quarter mile away a small herd of mule deer stood silhouetted against a gray sky, in the middle of the dirt road, unafraid.
After a bit I packed up and headed south, tired of being in the car but deeply in love with the country I was in.
Often times when you head out for the day along Colorado’s Front Range you simply don’t know what the day holds. That’s one of the reasons it’s such fun: that unexpected surprise emerging when you think you’re looking for one thing – and another takes you completely off guard. Such was the case on this day.
Fort Collins was shrouded in cold, gray fog. There was really no hint of redemption – just unrelenting grayness. Sometimes the cloud base is low along the front range that you can literally climb above it by heading to the hills. This wasn’t the intention, but is exactly what happened as I made my way out of Lyons towards Estes Park.
With the newly repaired 645 in hand and I was eager to try it out – not feeling much like hiking, but just wanting to cover some ground and see if anything interesting popped up along the way. Estes Park was gorgeous – sunny blue skies, fresh snow, and warm. Unfortunately no photographs emerged, so on I pressed.
The Peak to Peak Highway took me back to Ward and from there, down Left Hand Canyon. I’d re-entered the fog descending the canyon making my way slowly through the same cold gray I’d left in Fort Collins earlier. Towards the bottom of Left Hand is Lee Hill Road, which takes you south along the ridge line, depositing you in North Boulder. I’ve noticed a reoccurring theme I’m beginning to pay more attention to; along the edges of any transition is where the most interesting activity tends to be. The edges of the day, the edges of a storm, the edges of dark and light… you get the idea.
The scene atop the page was a brief moment seen coming around a bend as North Boulder came into view. Late afternoon light was partially obstructed by ice fog – just before disappearing behind higher mountains to the west. What struck me was the pronounced difference between the cold, blue, snowy trees blocked from the warmth of light – and the glowing, warm winter pinks produced by the last light of the day from the west.
I pulled over in a wide shouldered turn out on the tight road hoping I could quickly squeeze off a frame before other cars came. No such luck. As the fog wafted in and out producing holes in the distance – more light was allowed through and warm pinks intensified and I stood mesmerized. The quiet was broken by the sound of a down-shifting engine and I looked up the road to see a school bus making its way down the hill towards me. The car was safely off the road and though it was tight, I knew he could get by. I hopped the guard rail and scrambled down the embankment for a cleaner view – just enough for snow to make its way up over my socks and onto bare ankles.
The beauty of the scene was most uncommon. Snow adds a unique dimension to any landscape. No matter how many times I’d seen this same ridge line before, this day the snow made it uniquely beautiful. Especially the snow tucked in the crags and cracks of rock.
As I finished up and hopped the guard rail back onto pavement a young man in a knit cap heading up the hill slowed, rolled down his window and wagged his finger at me. I could only smile, knowing I’d not put anyone else at risk by taking the time to see something truly beautiful that day.
Looks like I’m going to have another go at the Bisti this weekend. It’ll be the first real road trip of 2017 and I’m excited. After recently getting the 645 dialed in I’m feeling ready for whatever happens.
I’ve been watching the weather and depending on how you see things, it looks great. When we were down in October we had – by most accounts – fabulous weather. Clear, sunny days, no clouds, warm temps. Who but a photographer would complain about such weather?
Researching the Bisti before our October 2016 trip I came across a variety of images, many of which seemed to be made under the same conditions. It’s easy to see why. Most people target nice weather (who can blame them?) and therefore come away with the same pictures. This trip I’m hoping for something a little different: rolling, dramatic, billowing skies, maybe even some frost, a little snow, and that gorgeous earthen color only emerging in the soft, diffused light of blue hour beneath overcast skies.
To hit such weather patterns means skirting the edges of the habitable. In my research I found a great web site, weatherspark.com plotting annual average temperature, cloud cover, precipitation, snow, humidity, dew points, wind… you get the idea. It’s a gold mine for determining the most statistically probable time of year to experience one weather pattern instead of another. Not surprisingly, October is one of the highest probable times of year to experience perfect, blue bird weather. Not such great news if you’re looking for the drama fringe weather provides.
I began looking for those times of year in the transitions where things happen. Early in the year (January/February) is one of those times. The down side is, it’s cold and possibly rainy – which unfortunately means mud. Mud is no friend of a car, or hiking boots. Getting stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere isn’t a best case scenario. Hopefully it’ll get cold enough the mud will freeze, allowing firm footing – which will present its own challenges. My sleeping bag is rated to 0 degrees and if worse comes to worse the heater in the car has brought cold appendages back to life more than once already. As I write this the wind howls outside my window in northern Colorado. Weather-wise I can take just about anything – except the wind.
At the moment it appears Friday night and Saturday morning are my highest probability of success. Looks by noon Saturday things begin to get wet and stay wet through Sunday night. I can work with that, as long as I’m on gravel roads. I have 15+ rolls of Chrome film and more C-41, as well as plenty of Pan F and Delta 100. I’m ready to go. Oh and I almost forgot: this Friday night is a full moon. So ideally what I’m hoping for is brightly moon-lit badlands beneath dramatic skies before the rain makes everything too muddy to get out. When all is said and done you just have to roll the dice and hope for the best. It’s impossile to know what the weather will do. Be there and f8, right? But if you’re not there – you’ll certainly get nothing.
Picked up a new headlamp earlier this week in preparation, a Black Diamond Storm. A good headlamp is worth its weight in gold. Late last year Tecla dismembered the old Petzl I’ve had for years, along with my favorite, tattered Lowe Pro gloves. I guess she was after the salt soaked into each of those items. These gloves are thin and therefore not that warm – but highly usable with the fine controls of something like a camera. After checking around, they’re no longer made. Fortunately my wife had a spare pair I’d given her years ago but she never used. The Storm headlamp is a significant step up in terms of Lumens and will more than light my way on long returns from shooting sunset deep in the badlands.
Admiring the F again tonight; its simplicity, elegance, small footprint, lack of any type of power what so ever required to operate. All mechanical, no electronics. What a thing of beauty. Who would have thought in 1959 something was being released into the world that would have such a long lasting impact – not just on the art form of photography, but the world. Because the F ushered in the modern era of reportage photography, so many images of so many events in modern history were made with this tool and its offspring. What people can build when we put our minds to is simply astounding.
Today – 58 years later – the same device sits ready, with minimal (if any) attention required to do exactly what it was designed and built to do so many years ago.
The readers of Blue Hour Journal may not be familiar with this tool. I won’t bore you by over explaining it (but it’s difficult to come up with a fitting summary statement): The F is the first single lens reflex camera built by Nikon, paving the way for the concept of the modern SLR for years to come; giving birth to a fabled line of cameras and photographer’s works that will stretch into time for many generations.
This year marks Nikon’s 100 year anniversary. Many other companies relating to photography have gone by the way side in that 100 years. There can be no doubt photography as also changed dramatically in the span of time – especially in the last 20 or so since the advent of digital photography, and even more so in the last 10 since the advent of the smart phone. The state of Nikon as a company is unknown to me at this time. My assumption is they’ll continue to adapt, innovate and play an important role in what ever is to come. But what Nikon has accomplished can never, will never be erased.
“A camera is just a light-tight box,” some will say. Rubbish, I say. I wish everything I owned was built as well as Nikon built their old film cameras. Their endurance and legacy is not lost on this photographer. The F stands alone, having endured the rigors and scrutiny of time. It’s legacy carved in stone. And modern photography is the better for it. Bravo.
Winter is one of Colorado’s unique charms. One day we’ll be -15°, a few days later we’ll be in the mid-to-low 60’s. January can be a pretty dreary time, especially just after the holidays. Back to work we go, after what was hopefully a restful – but more likely a stressful – holiday season. Summoning the energy to get out into the cold isn’t easy some days. We photographers nobly begin our annual projects hoping to jumpstart determination; drive – then ride the wave into Spring. Only rarely do I succeed.
Inspiration is found employing a different focus; a different cadence because winter possess a different kind of beauty. The color of winter skies is gentle; grayish blues with hints of lavenders, purples and pinks. Overcast skies diffuse the light and bring out amazing textures in just about everything. Walking slowly through The Park on a weekend late afternoon with the cold, metal body in gloved hands I’m not searching for vistas. I’m searching the ground before me. I’m looking again at the things I step on or over come summer.
Despite the fact I can see my breath it’s not that cold at 8,500′ above sea level in January. In the distance a pair of bull elk casually glance up from the business of eating, making sure I haven’t drifted too close while their heads were lowered. Thick, mottled hair dresses long necks with massive racks towering above noble heads. How do they raise and lower all of that so effortlessly to nibble tiny amounts of grass. They slowly make their way in the opposite direction, feigning disinterest but keenly aware of my presence. I purposely ignore them. They’re a safe distance off – no threat to me or them – and truth is, I’d just as soon be left alone too.
We’ve just returned from the annual fall walkabout, this time to the American Southwest in search of perfect light. We found it in Monument Valley, Utah one morning. This first of a series of entries won’t be a linear description of the trip, but instead snippets surrounding given images, memories or thoughts.
After spending a windy night at The View Campground we rose at 5am and slowly bumped our way over rough, dirt roads for a half hour in the dark to Artist’s Point. After shooting a few star shots to dial in the cameras it was a matter of waiting.You’re never sure what’ll happen when the light arrives, especially when setting up and trying to compose in the dark. In the shot above you can see a hand rail to the lower left that wasn’t visible in the viewfinder when I made the frame. We’d been holding out for first light but the best shots came just before sun-up, producing no direct light source, instead a high level of warm, ambient light. But this was day 4. Or maybe 5… I don’t remember. These are just a few digital shots before I begin processing film.
Back to the Bisti
Night one was spent in the Bisti Badlands, south of Farmington, New Mexico – and man let me tell you – it was cold. The car said 33° when I turned it on at 5am the next morning to get the heater going – but I’m sure it was colder durning the night. My Marmot Never Summer down bag is rated 0° and I was cold. We set up a quick lean-to using a tarp and the car’s cargo roof rack.
I’ve been reading up on the Bisti and been intrigued. Lots more to come regarding it – a unique, beautiful place for sure. I mostly shot film there and will begin processing shortly. Meanwhile I did make a few night shots with the digital camera. This is the Milky Way looking south west, taking advantage of the no moon cycle. As we arrived that a evening the cloud ceiling was low. But the sky parted revealing this slice of outer space later that night.
At the end of the day when the light is done it’s time to sleep. Setting up impromptu camps along the way or scoring a cheap hotel once in a while to freshen up is a great recipe. This happens to be one of the most popular times of year in the area and hotels are a premium. Finding a decent, reasonably priced place to stay for the night is difficult in the larger, hub towns like Durango, Moab, etc. In the smaller outlying towns it’s a different story. The world needs more places like the Mesa Verde Motel in Mancos, Colorado. Clean, simple, safe, well-provisioned and affordable are welcome features to weary travelers.
We didn’t take much in the way of perishable groceries, just a few staples so we could eat in the middle of nowhere if necessary. Bananas, sandwich fixings and Fritos, with lots of water and a couple beers in the cooler got us through. When we hit town we found food.
For the most part a very successful trip, covering 2,000 miles and crossing too many mountain ranges/passes to name, traveling through too many towns to remember, popping a few Aleve and drinking too much french roast between sun up and sun down to keep us going. I’m thankful for my good friend Dan. No one but another photographer, or my wife, would put up with all the stops along the way.
After a rather lengthy silence, finally… lots more to come.
One of the commonly cited demerits of 35mm film is its lack of resolution when you want to print really big. It’s true. This is a physical limitation; a wall unclimbable by any camera or any lens combination. Leica, Nikon, Canon, Zeiss… it matters not. A frame of 35mm film is a fixed size: 24mm x 36mm, and only contains so much data when exposed. Being a strong advocate of film photography – especially 35mm and medium format film photography – has pushed me outside of conventional use of these cameras looking for something a little different. This 5-foot wide panoramic image was stitched together from 5 vertically exposed frames shot with the Nikon F2AS – a camera made approximately 40 years ago – on Ilford Delta 100 35mm film. A ‘normal’ 50mm lens was used to minimize geometric distortion. Exposure is the same on all frames. The film was developed in Ilford’s Ilfosol 3 developer, then the frames were scanned using the dedicated Nikon film scanner. During scanning the exposure was locked to maintain consistency across all frames – something that aids in the software stitching process.
To blend the images together into a panoramic shot, Photoshop was used. Photoshop has an excellent tool under the File\Automate\Photomerge\ menu allowing you to load a sequence of images and allow the computer to determine the best configuration. Options include the Layout of the finished piece, Blend Images Together, Vignette Removal, Geometric Distortion Correction and Content aware Fill Transparent Areas. I select Auto for Layout, Blend Images Together, Vignette Removal and Geometric Distortion Correction.
From there Photoshop will run a series of procedures producing a blended version of the frames you’ve selected. It does an outstanding job. It uses Layer Masks(see image below – layer masks are the black and white shapes to the right of each layer in the palette at left of the image) to obscure the irrelevant portions of each frame, and heals the edges allowing them to blend more seamlessly together. So the process is non-destructive to the pixel data in each frame. You may go back and re-work by hand what the computer suggests – which I’ve found seldom necessary as long as each frame is exposed properly and overlapped enough during shooting.
A valuable feature is the Geometric Distortion Correction. Each lens has a varying inherent amount of geometric distortion to it. Depending on the lens and its design, this will either be a large amount or small amount – but some distortion is unavoidable. What’s nice creating such wide images this way is the ability of the computer to go through each frame and minimize such distortion so the resulting image is as “true” as possible. I wonder if a lens were available to make such a wide exposure in one frame to avoid the panoramic stitching – if it would suffer due to the extreme distortion such a wide field of view would introduce. In some respects then, I wonder if one obtains a truer image using this 5-frame method with a normal focal range lens (50mm) – than attempting to do one shot with a super wide-angle lens? Just a thought.
Once the image is assembled, typical scan-retouches are all that’s usually required. Removing dust and scratches, making sure the black and white points are set properly, then cropping/framing the final image. Below you can see the original results of the merge. The final image is cropped to straighten out the top and bottom of the frame – indicated by the light blue guide lines. This is where using a tripod comes in handy. The straighter the images are while panning during the actual exposures, the less waste there is at top and bottom. In the image below you can see to the left of frame there’s more white space on frame top. I was hand-holding the camera which prevented a more precise alignment.
I get such a kick out of this process is it demonstrates – once again – what a unique period we’re enjoying in the history of photography. Years ago when 35mm film was available but software was no where near its present level of sophistication – this would have been impossible to accomplish. Today, using old school tools and new digital methods of processing, creative floodgates have burst open allowing so many different ways to blend these two schools of thought together. What a wonderful time to be a film photographer.
I have had the privilege of living in Colorado since 1981 when I moved to Fort Collins to attend Colorado State University. Having moved from Illinois, I’d literally do anything to get into the mountains. At first a poor college student with no car, I once borrowed a friend’s bike – two sizes too large – to pedal up Thompson Canyon from Fort Collins, backpack with ice axe and all. I remember a sleek, streamlined peloton of cyclists in fancy gear and even fancier bikes whizzing by up the canyon, looking at me and smiling. Like they knew… ‘yeh, I’m new here and I’m not going to let anything stop me from getting up into those hills.’
All these years later that same drive hasn’t diminished one bit. Living along Colorado’s Front Range, any opportunity to get deeper into the mountains usually involves at least one trip over Trail Ridge Road. For those unfamiliar with it, Trail Ridge Road (also known as U.S. 34) is a 48 mile stretch of road connecting Estes Park, Colorado with Grand Lake, Colorado by traversing Rocky Mountain National Park at a elevation high point of 12,183. If I can’t get up there for sunrise (leaving Fort Collins by 4am usually) – then I try to time the return trip with late afternoon/evening light. Many times I’ve gone up and just spent the night on the road, sleeping in the back of the truck. Coffee on the tail gate in the morning at 12,000 watching the sun rise over the Mummy Range, Gore Range, and the Medicine Bow’s is pretty tough to beat with a hot cup of french roast.
The above view is accessible to anyone who has made the journey up Trail Ridge to the Alpine Visitor Center. This view looks down what I call the Fall River Valley – the prior route up to the Visitor Center years ago. There is a one way, dirt road buried in the trees at left that winds up from the valley floor – an alternative to the paved Trail Ridge. A common route is to go up Old Fall River Road, then down Trail Ridge Road. Often time elk may be seen grazing in this valley, high above treeline. If I were an elk I’d sure elect to eat dinner here.
And finally, the Monarch of Colorado’s northern Front Range, Longs Peak and Keyboard of the Winds on the upper left horizon recedes into the east flank of Glacier Gorge, surrounded by high, wild country in beautiful light. The views on Trail Ridge Road are constantly changing, largely driven by weather and of course time of day. Storms move in fast – and often are gone just as fast. If you’re not prepared you’ll be soaked and freezing – for a time. Then the sun will come out and the high altitude mountain air will whisk away the water and leave you dry and chilly.
We recently had family from North Carolina visit who had not yet been up Trail Ridge. I was excited for them with anticipation knowing what a thrill that first trip over can be. Several times since moving to Colorado, when I’ve found myself temporarily living in other places, the realization that I can’t hop in the car and – in an hour be up in Rocky Mountain National Park – is a cold smack in the face. I’m humbled to realize that others save their vacation time all year just to spend a week’s vacation in Colorado. And I wake up here every morning. Even after all these years I will never take living in Colorado for granted.