Images of 2014

I thought I’d repeat last year and show my favorite image from each month in 2014.  Unfortunately, this year I wasn’t as diligent in my shooting so for a few months there just wasn’t an image I liked.  Instead for this passing year I offer my favorite images regardless of when they were made.  There are different reasons for each one – some experimentation, some joy for the image, some just for the composition – but they all represent more learning for my photography in the past twelve months.  And they challenge me to get out more and stretch myself in 2015.  I hope they provide similar encouragement to look at the world in new ways and capture that vision.

Wishes for a happy new year full of wonderful visual creations.

Macro view, pocketwatch. Working on sharpness and composition

Internal illumination as winter recedes

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A serene view and color contrasts

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Spring emerges in steps and textures

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The look of great taste

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First experiments with infrared film – downtown Baraboo, WI

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A sleepy frog working on a few minutes more of napping

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Fall and harvest in farm country

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First attempt at false color infrared digitally

The light and color of autumn in Wisconsin

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Winter structures – study in vertical dimensions

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Backyard party with the neighbors

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First work with digital infrared

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My work offered the opportunity for some food photography, showing textures and colors

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The country ridges of central Wisconsin – colored quilt over the hills

 

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My picks for 2012

Saw an interesting blog challenge this week – post your view of 2012 in pictures.  I’m not organized enough to do one of those “a picture for every day of the year” challenges but I do have enough in my Lightroom catalog to cover a year pretty well.  With almost 13,000 images in 2012 surely there are 12 I feel portray what I was seeing.  It’s also a good opportunity to perform an exercise one of my instructors mentioned he does each year; that is, look over your images and see if there are any trends you want to go deeper with or any directions not traveled it would be fun to explore in the next year.  I haven’t yet created long personal projects for my work so this is a good way to look beyond the day’s shoot and get a sense of where my craft is going.  And head off any bad habits before they fester into skills!

With that, here is my year in pictures:

January

January

February

February

March

March

April

April

May

May

June

June

July

July

August

August

September

September

October

October

November

November

December

December

Trends?  More black and white than I ever thought I’d be interested in making.  Between film and digital I’ve just begun to appreciate the value of black and white for certain images and this is a trend I expect to continue building on.  Another is an improved use of design elements in the composition – lines, angles, curves, negative space, etc.  Everything isn’t right in the middle of the image (unless it’s important that it be there) and there is more energy in some images than in others.  Surprisingly, not as much wildlife as I would have expected for the year.  I get the sense 2012 was a year to learn deliberate composing, taking time to evaluate a scene and craft a view of it that is more than a snapshot.  Wildlife usually doesn’t stand still for that kind of artistic contemplation but I’m expecting the time spent this year will benefit animal portraits next year.

To satisfy the goal-setting brain cells that have been hammered in me by management consultants over the years, I do see improvement over 2012, a movement closer to my expectations for photographic quality.  My criteria continues to be “would I print this?” as a starting point to work on an image and it feels like there are more of those this past year than previous.  I do know my post-processing skills have improved (you don’t get to see the before versions so you’ll just have to take my word for it) but more and more I seek to get it right in the camera, at least for the composition and exposure.  Post-processing is where I try to improve on the drama of an image or the way it tells a story, but the best skills can’t turn a sow’s ear photograph into a silk purse quality print.

As a mostly visual person I like this way to review how the year went.  It’s a way to remember places visited, experiences had, efforts relived and contact with friends.  And what more could we ask of our photographs?

Shortening the nation

One hundred fifty years ago this month the Pacific Railroad Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln.  Its passage was the capstone event of years spent trying to reach consensus.  Not on whether to build a transcontinental railroad – the country was ready and willing for that – but rather on where to build it.  Southern state representatives refused to support a northern route that would enable new states to form without slavery and northern representatives stymied the southern route in order to halt the spread of slavery into new territory.  Even a compromise route through the center of the country was rejected by both groups as being too unsettling to the fragile balance the country held itself in with regard to the south’s “peculiar institution.”  The Act’s passage and signing came about not due to a vast amount of statesmanship on both sides – it happened because southern state representatives walked out of Congress upon the secession of their states, leaving the northern states in a majority in both houses.  It’s from simple political events like this that great outcomes sometime emerge.

This wasn’t Congress’ last action impacting the railroad.  Throughout construction both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies employed lobbyists to influence, cajole and bribe representatives to amend the act in their favor and generally tinker with the law’s intent such that they would profit.  In the history of man it seems the greatness of the endeavor society puts its support behind is matched almost equally by the magnitude of scoundrels and con artists who attach themselves to it.  Even in the end, at the urging of parties wholly separate from the will of the people, Congress reserved to itself the decision of where the two lines would join; the Union Pacific building to the west and the Central Pacific building to the east.  Everyone had an opinion on where the historic joining should take place and many had real money and power riding on their opinion.

Aircraft manufacturers say the plane won’t fly until the weight of the paperwork equals the weight of the plane.  A cursory reading of the transcontinental railroad’s latter history would support the notion that the site of final joining wouldn’t be announced until everyone in Congress had received their fair share of kickbacks, profit opportunities and land speculation funds.  Eventually, this bulk was reached and Congress indicated their decision.  The rails would join at Promontory Point in Utah, north of the Great Salt Lake.

It’s a pretty desolate place even now.  As Steven Ambrose notes in his book on the building of the railroad, a visitor there today would see the area much as the final construction teams saw it.  A high plateau, mostly empty of vegetation, surrounded by distant mountains in the east and west with the shimmer of the lake in the south.  The rail ran here because the grade was as level as needed for 19th century steam power, an important factor in this mountainous terrain.  There was nothing particularly there in the 1860’s when the rails were joined and there’s nothing particularly there now.  Except the monument to the railroad.

The Union Pacific moved the track south in the early 1900’s, to a causeway across the lake, in order to cut several miles off the track distance and bring the rail line closer to Salt Lake City.  The dry desert environment doesn’t change man’s impact much over the past 150 years.  You can still see the grades and cuts made for the original rail line.  You can walk in the footsteps of the mostly Irish and Chinese workers who, by hand, created this marvel one mile at a time.

There is a National Historic Site there, a part of the National Park Service, erected and maintained to honor this culmination of American spirit and muscle.  Replicas of the two engines seen in famous photographs of the time have been built and lovingly maintained, each day showing the usually sparse tourist crowd a modern interpretation of that famous day when the United States became somewhat smaller.

Beat swords into plowshares

Look at a map of military bases in the US and realize how pervasive this part of society has become over the years.  And that’s just current locations.  Find a map that shows ALL installations over the history of the country and it starts looking like an atlas of towns and cities.  As a people we have sunk almost countless value into the soil of our country in support of military operations.

Many of the 20th century facilities were created in response to actual declarations of war, installations designed and built to support a rapid change in society from peace to warfare.   And many of these were used briefly to serve a specific purpose and then vacated, turned over to others for different purposes, or simply abandoned.

As with most real estate deals, location played a very important role in where these installations were grounded.  During the last declared war, with expected enemies off both coasts capable of launching attacks on US soil, decisions were made to build important support facilities in the middle of the country.  Based on one part logistics, one part fear, and probably one part economic stimulus for a few people with connections, results of decisions on placement mean the remains of facilities still dot the countryside in various parts of the Great Plains.

Driving east from Hastings, NE along US 6, the Grand Army of the Republic highway, you suddenly notice a regular series of low humps running in regular order in the pastures parallel to the road.  The more adventurous who wander off the highway onto county roads discover these continue southward for several miles, clusters of mounds marching across the fields.  These, and several long, brick buildings connected by abandoned railroad rights of way are all that remain of the Naval Ammunition Depot, the largest World War II naval munitions manufacturing and distributing facility in the US.

Explosives Storage Bunkers

Non-explosive Materials Storage

Non-explosive Materials Transfer Station

The mysterious mounds are simply bunkers built to store explosives, primers and assembled shells, torpedos and mines, concrete structures built so well they will probably be standing in a hundred years.  Their format is simple – a half-cylinder lying on the ground covered in soil, with a double door and blast wall.  Grouped in clusters depending on the material being stored and spaced to prevent sympathetic detonations in case of accidents. the bunkers poise in ranks as if waiting for another round of active duty.

Munitions Storage Bunkers

Assembled Munitions Storage Bunkers

With the factory gradually phased out in the 1950’s much of the land was turned over to the US Department of Agriculture for the location of their Meat Animal Research Center.  Now in an ironic re-tasking, the bunkers provide high ground for herds of cattle who graze across the prairie, unaware of the nature of the hillocks they climb to get a broader view of their surroundings.

Old timey photography

If you’re interested in seeing/learning how the old-timers made their images, here’s your chance – sign up and join an artist in residence for some hands-on history.

National Park Service News Release
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE –October 14, 2011
Merrith Baughman 402-223-3514

Register to Make a Tintype Photograph with Artist-in-Residence Jason Jilg
at Homestead National Monument of America

Homestead National Monument of America is excited to announce the monument’s last 2011 Artist-in-Residence, Jason Jilg from Harvard, NE. Jilg’s passion and talent for photography will be showcased during his residency, from Sunday, October 16 through Sunday, October 30, 2011.  Jason Jilg is a professional photographer who has won over 16 international, national and regional awards, including a Silver Award from Black and White Magazine.  During his residency, he aims to “explore the human aspect of the Homestead Act as it relates to the cultural and environmental changes this Act brought to the Great Plains.”  Interested visitors can visit his website at http://jasonjilg.com/.

Jilg will host a two-part photography workshop at the Education Center on Saturday, October 29 and Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 2 p.m.   Participants will produce historic tintype photos, much like what was used during early homesteading. Workshop space is limited to 12 participants.  Pre-registration is required by Friday, October 28, 2011. To register, call Park Guide Allison Alley at 402-223-1719.

For questions about Homestead’s Artist-in-Residence program, visit the program’s website at http://www.nps.gov/home/supportyourpark/artist-in-residence-program.htm or contact the program’s coordinator Allison Alley at Allison_Alley@nps.gov or 402-223-1719.

Remember, Homestead National Monument of America has an exciting schedule of events planned for 2011.  Keep up with the latest information by following us on Twitter (HomesteadNM) and Facebook (Homestead National Monument of America).

Homestead National Monument of America is a unit of the National Park Service located four miles west of Beatrice, Nebraska. Hours of operation are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free of charge. For additional information, please call 402-223-3514 or visit http://www.nps.gov/home/index.htm .

Places that were

Medano Ranch

Ghost towns.  We hear about them, visualizing grey clapboard buildings grouped around deserted streets populated by the occasional tumbleweed.  But are we aware of why that’s our mental picture?

Ecology and economy, of course.

Americans have founded and deserted farms, ranches and towns since the early settlers landed on the Atlantic coasts, but our primary icon of the ghost town is a western one.  The dry climate of the west reduces decay and encroaching vegetation while the forests on the mountain slopes provided an almost infinite supply of lumber to build with.  Structures built on the slopes of the Rockies 150 years ago are probably still there in some form or another, just waiting to be found and investigated.

It’s interesting.  In the southeast, where I grew up, abandoning a wooden structure usually meant the surrounding woods would reclaim it in several years and rot it into oblivion.  You look for old settlements there by the outlines of the planted trees or flowers.  Wandering through the woods you suddenly walk through vegetation that isn’t like the rest of the forest and you know you’ve stumbled on someone’s “house place.”

In the Great Plains, where I live now, lumber was such a premium that when settlers did decide to move on they would usually disassemble their wooden homes and take them along.  Finding old settlements here that haven’t been preserved is tough – they usually have been plowed under and are covered by corn or soybean crops.

Sure, there are old abandoned towns and farms in New England but most of those were built of stone, which the forest has a hard time destroying in just a couple hundred years.

So we look to the west for our tales of deserted towns and abandoned ranches.  Mining towns dot the Front Range from Montana to southern Colorado but of interest to me are the ranches.  Cattlemen needed huge swaths of land to graze their animals and since the distance to town was great, small settlements arose on the ranches to provide for the people living and working there.

Medano Ranch with Blanca Peak

The Medano Ranch near Alamosa, Colorado is now part of the Nature Conservancy and is an good example of such a place.  Though hardly a ghost town, the ranch is deserted except for the barns used to store saddles and other tack, and the corrals used to manage the herd of bison that roam the pastures.  In the 1870’s two Ohio brothers brought Texas cattle north to the San Luis Valley, starting the cattle industry along the perimeter of what is now the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.  By the early 1900’s the ranch had gone through several owners but was consolidated into a single operation that lasted until nearly 1950, when it peaked.

Medano Ranch

About half the structures at the ranch date back to its founding, and make a nice little settlement there on the prairie below the mountains.  Now part of the Conservancy’s Zapata Ranch the area is open to exploration through programs offered for photographers, dude ranchers, or the interested conservationist.  Walking around the ranch you almost expect to see a ranch hand come out of a barn or hear the dinner bell being rung.

Medano Ranch and Sangre de Cristol mountains

Medano Ranch and Sangre de Cristol mountains

Historical research

This week I finally completed work on my scanned film images – archiving them, that is.  It’s really easy to get used to the metadata saved with each digital image and forget that film shots, even scanned ones, don’t bring along information on when they were made, what equipment was used, the exposure settings, or anything helpful in finding them later.  Fortunately several years ago I’d started coding my sheets of negatives and slides as I scanned them, at least capturing the date and where we were living at the time (oddly, with a date and city of residence we’re better at  remembering a photograph than when we know where we made the picture and the subject).  What I have completed is putting that information into Adobe Lightroom, where I catalog all my images along with keywords, equipment used, etc.  With this I can search for a particular image in my computer, and if I need a higher resolution, dig through all my 3-ring binders to recover the specific source and rescan it.

If you have a lot of images in digital form I highly recommend some sort of digital management system like Lightroom.  Having everything in one place on your computer with powerful search capabilities certainly takes the headache out of “where is that picture of the seals we took on our California vacation?”  Getting started using one can be a significant investment in cost and time, but the payback is great in the future.

For example, once I’d finished all this I was wondering what sort of photographs I was making a few years ago when I first started using digital instead of film.  Very easy in Lightroom – I just sorted on the type of camera I first bought and then sorted for capture date.  The images show up and all I have to do is look at the initial ones.

ISO 100, 140mm, 1/500 sec., f/7.1

This photo was made in February, 2008, one of a series I made in downtown Omaha.  The original is in color, as all digital images are, but I realized today that it has such an industrial feel it would look better as B&W.  I ran it through the NIK Silver Efex Pro 2 plug-in and got this result.  Unless you are familiar with this part of Omaha it could be a picture from the 1950’s – B&W does have a sort of ageless quality about it, doesn’t it.  I like the way the foreground is sharp and the background fades away into the mist.  The train crossing is a nice touch – didn’t realize I was that aware of composition even then.  Naturally there are no people in the image so I’m consistent with that, anyway.  A hobo or two would certainly give the image more of a historical quality.

I haven’t looked at my “old” images in quite a while – now I’m interested in what else I was out photographing.  It’s fun looking at old pictures to think of how things were, even if it was only a few years ago.  Just like our digital age, though, where history is anytime earlier than today…