History at night

Wisconsin is rich in Great Lakes history, where Europeans explored, traded, settled and changed what had been a forest civilization for hundreds of years for Native Americans.  Following the traditional highways of the 17th and 18th century, the multiple rivers of the region, these people created a network of communities tied together by commerce and agriculture.

Prairie du Chien was founded where the Wisconsin river meets the upper Mississippi, linking the great river highway south to the Gulf with the northern passages through the Great Lakes back to Europe.  French trappers and traders followed Native American tribes to the flat plain where the rivers joined to built settlements as launching off points to the western fur areas and a point of trading for goods from back east.

Periodically these adventurers attended gatherings called rendezvous, from the French for “present yourself!” as a means of converting their furs into staples and trinkets, as well as to party, relax, trade stories and catch up with civilization.

This weekend was the 41st annual rendezvous at Prairie du Chien, one of the largest re-enactments of this type in the Midwest.  Well over a hundred tents were set up near the Mississippi River, some to trade goods, some simply to enjoy the camaraderie of the gathering.  Chatting with some participants revealed they have been doing this for years, gradually gathering the goods and equipment needed to accurately reflect the era.

I wanted to capture a sense of this gathering but wanted to portray the quieter aspect of it, not the raucous activities.  There was a full moon that night so what better way than to make night images, letting the moonlight wash over the campground and tents, with the occasional campfire or torch giving light to where people were gathered.



Break out your whittling knife

This winter has delivered a significant amount of snow to our part of Wisconsin, enough so the long time residents are starting to comment about it.  Our white Christmas has become a white winter.  Since I always think of the season in terms of snow this is great for me.

But what do you do with these piles of snow?

Obviously, hold a snow sculpting contest.  Turn all that snow into works of art for people to ooh and aah about.  And that’s exactly what happened this weekend on the water’s edge (well, the ice’s edge) at Lake Geneva.  Apparently it’s not the first time a bunch of crazy people have gotten together to celebrate the frozen stuff, either.  Read about it here.

And we’re not talking about really fancy “stack some big snowballs to make a snowman” sculpting.  These teams really get into the design and details of some pretty elaborate creations.  These would do justice to any other, more permanent medium but these people chose the more temporally (and temperature) challenged substance that’s lying around this time of year.

Local people bored with winter?  Oh, no.  Teams this year from Alaska, Colorado, Vermont, Nebraska, Michigan and other states worked their way from regional and state competitions to come to Wisconsin and compete for the national title.  And just to make them feel welcome, there were three hard-working Wisconsin teams right there with them.

You may be thinking how much work can this be, piling up a little snow and carving out some castles and such?  Well, start with a silo of snow nine feet tall.  Now remove all the snow you don’t need to make your creation.  And details count.

Here are some of my favorites.  Enjoy.

Serendipity – make sure it’s in your corner

Late in the afternoon my wife exclaimed suddenly, “Look at the sun – it’s red!”  The weather had been moderately overcast all day so I was surprised the sun was even out but when I went to the window I saw the clouds breaking up in the west, and the sun hovering above the horizon like a bright orange-red helium balloon.  A great scene so I got my camera to see what I could capture.  Initially had too short a lens so I quickly changed to something longer and was able to isolate the sun and glowing clouds.

Yeah, I know, you’re not supposed to point your digital camera at the sun but the clouds were attenuating the light enough you can look with your bare eyes so I figured my sensor was OK, especially at the fast shutter speed I’d be using.

Then, as I was working on an exposure to get the sun and some cloud details, I saw this little streak of clouds growing across the face of the star.  It was a jet airliner, on its way westward, leaving a contrail behind.  There it was, the perfect juxtaposition of time and space, putting the airplane between me and the sun with the clouds at just the right density to show the brilliant globe while not so bright as to overwhelm the tiny stream of jet exhaust.  I quickly made several exposures as the plane made its transit, providing a tiny eclipse for a brief moment.

ISO 100, 400mm, 1/400 sec., f/8

Upon reflection, thinking how much planning would be required to actually set up such a shot (if it is possible), I remembered what a workshop instructor said about knowing it would be a great shot at just that moment and trembling as you hit the shutter.  And then realizing it was over, probably never to happen again.  But preserved to share.

Insert owl cliche here…

ISO200, 170mm, Aperture Mode, f/4.5 (-0.7 EV), 1/500 sec.

During one of the days of the photo summit I recently attended in Jackson, WY we weren’t getting any good elk photos so the leader got in touch with the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, WY.  He arranged for the founder, Roger Smith, to graciously open up his facility to a dozen or so photographers and display a few of the residents they use for education.  Roger is very enthusiastic about the birds and the work being done by the Center, and spent well over an hour with us talking about their habits, pointing out cool things about each one, and generally being a great host.  If you’re ever in the area be sure and stop by.

The Great Horned Owl above was the first raptor he displayed for us and she was just great.  I’ve never been this close to any owl before (probably none of us had) and it was fascinating to see the details of her feathers and look into those big eyes.  She had quite a personality, and because she was with us the longest, I think we all found her the most interesting character of all the raptors we saw.

After holding her for a bit and describing owl physiology to us, Roger put her on a stand in the sun so we could continue photographing her.  This, of course, led to an immediate paparazzi crowd.

ISO200, 50mm, Aperture mode, f/5.6 (-0.7EV), 1/500 sec.

Where the food comes from

So, you go to the grocery store or open your pantry, grab an onion and start chopping and dicing for one of your favorite dishes.  Ever wonder where that onion came from?  Assuming you didn’t grow it in your own garden I’m wagering you don’t give it a second thought.  You need onions – onions are made available.  I mean, who worries about running out of onions.  All the time I spent wandering around the agricultural fields in California, Washington and Idaho I never really noticed onion plots, although these would be the places I’d look if I were buying in truckload quantities.

It was a happy surprise, then, when we drove past an onion harvest – in Utah.  North of the Great Salt Lake.

No, chasing down onion patches wasn’t on our schedule.  We were going to the Golden Spike National Monument, the site where the two halves of the transcontinental railroad were joined way back in the 1860’s.  Take my word for it, take away the modern visitor’s center and the place looks pretty much like it did back then.  There’s even a section of track that was laid down on the original grade.  More on that later after my film is processed.  By the way, if you ever get out to this little part of the National Park Service you’ll also see the Thiokol facility where they build and test the booster rockets for the space shuttle.  But that’s another story, too.

400mm, ISO100, 1/1250 sec., f/10

Onions, big onions, big yellow onions.  That’s what we saw in rows next to the road as we were driving out to the Monument.  Sometime in the days previous they had been unearthed and put into rows.  Straddling those rows and traveling down them was a harvesting machine that was picking them up and transferring them to trucks.  Pretty quickly, too.  In the time it took for me to take a dozen pictures they switched trucks.  I guess these bulk onions are taken to a processor for cleaning and bagging.  Now I know where those flatbed trailers stacked with bags of onions I see on I-80 are coming from.  Who knew.

Thanks for the memories

Olympus E-3, 14-54mm, 1.3 sec, f/9, ISO100

The home of baseball in Omaha and the college world saw its last game Thursday.  Rosenblatt Stadium will go the way of so many iconic ball fields as the desire for more modern facilities by the powers that run baseball as a business overrule the sentiments of the patrons who provide the money.

I only attended a few games here, mostly during the College World Series that is an annual pilgrimage for fans nationwide.  Being there is an intimate event because of the size and friendly nature of people who go.  The same people will see their way to the new ballpark downtown but it’ll be years before there’s a hint of the same atmosphere.

Better fans than me can describe what it’s meant:

WSJ Article

Local TV station news article


Got out last weekend for the national photowalk organized by Scott Kelby.  It’s a way to get photographers together and out into their community to see what they consider worth an image.  We had a good turnout here in Omaha – probably 30 or so photographers meandering in small groups along a course recommended by the leader.  Driving through the city, alert for traffic and pedestrians, it’s easy to miss the interesting architecture and items placed around the city.  A stroll is definitely the way to think about a downtown area photographically.

Contrasts and Reflections

Sit a spell

Speaking of thinking, as a matter of personal discipline I carried only a film camera, forcing myself to actually look, think and then shoot.  Experience has taught me with digital I’ll not only ignore my on admonition for intentional photography, but will end up with several versions of the same composition, as if one more push of the shutter will improve the picture.

Not only film but black and white print film (Kodak Plus-X 125), a new one I’ve wanted to try for a few months.  I’m not as intimidated by exposure as I used to be, so I let the camera determine the shutter speed and kept the aperture around f/8 or f/11 to get some background blur and decent grain texture.

It is an interesting feeling, walking around and actually seeing, not feeling compelled to gaze at the world through a viewfinder.  Not only what caught my sans camera eye but also what the other photographers were grouping around and pointing their lenses at for capturing.  I like looking over others‘ shoulders, seeing what they are seeing and trying to imagine what they are composing.  Sometimes makes mundane scenes you’d walk right past suddenly stop you and make you look more closely.  After all, another person is seeing something there!

We started in a park dedicated to Plains pioneers, well designed and populated with bronze statues of covered wagons filling with families seeking a better life out west.  Those attracted a lot of attention from the group as people vied for composition and lighting.  The park is unusual in that the statues wander along streets, leading to a water feature with geese up on the light poles and splashing around in the water.  Bronze geese, not real ones.  Several people paused here to make images of the water from different angles.  The sun was flashing in and out from behind clouds so the lighting was always opportunistic.

Pointing Skyward

Sandlot Ball

I stayed with a small group of natives, people who’d seen the downtown go from economic center to blighted eyesore to ongoing recovery.  It was fun envisioning the landscape through their eyes, learning which buildings used to house old theatres or department stores, which structures are gone now and which have been reborn as condos or apartments.  Lots of stories, hard to make pictures that do them justice.

Shot through my 24 exposures – not bad for a couple of hours on the street.  Saw several other images but wanted to spend more time with them so perhaps later.  They’ll still be there, waiting for my intentions.