Monthly Archives: July 2008

My Spring of 100 Mistakes – Part 4

Downtown Casper, Wyoming

I picked up twenty sheets of developed 4×5″ film from the lab today. Although I made hundreds of photographs with my digital camera, these were certainly the most enjoyable to produce and also the ones that filled me with the most trepidation. I’m pleased to report that the results were rather good. Not 100% what I would like . . . but then again I’m a perfectionist who is getting spoiled by the quick (and virtuous) feedback cycle afforded by digital capture and editing.

I really only used my large format camera about a dozen times on the trip, since I bracket most of my exposures, making an extra photograph with a different amount of light reaching the film. The goal is to have a better chance at getting the “right” exposure. On those dozen occasions, the responses from the people around me ran the gamut from indifference to excited interest. I talked to a few people while composing the scene with my head under the focusing cloth; disembodied voices asking me about how my camera works. There were also several people who thought that because I was incapable of seeing them, I also couldn’t hear their conversations about me.

I think my favorite conversation was with a British fellow about my age in Yellowstone.

“That’s some serious gear.” Most people’s first realization that something is up occurs when I unfold the camera as it sits on the tripod. “Are you a professional?”

“No. I’m just a guy with a very expensive hobby; but I’m having a lot of fun.”

Over the next minutes, I attached my wide-angle lens to the camera, set up a photograph of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, focused the camera, took a few meter readings, set the exposure time and aperture, and switched closed the shutter. At that point almost everything is done. I just had to insert the film holder and trip the shutter.

“WOW! That’s some serious gear!” Something about the Quickload film holder touched a geeky, gadget-loving part in my onlooker. I put a sheet of film in the holder, waited for the wind to subside a bit, and tripped the cable release.

“That’s it?” While I find something immensely charming in the mechanical sound of the shutter winding down the fraction of a second that it’s open, most people think it’s anticlimactic, as though fireworks should shoot out from the camera. But then again, I suppose we’re accustomed to thinking that if someone spends fifteen minutes getting a camera ready, the result should be a poster-sized print that magically appears.

The funny thing is, my mom had the same reaction. She wanted to see how my view camera works, so we collaboratively made the image you see above. And I have to admit, it was a bit disappointing that I had to make her wait three weeks to see the result.

But I talked to several very nice people, and a few even took me up on the offer to pop under the focusing hood and see the image on the ground glass. That reaction is the one that makes me the happiest. It usually goes something like this: “It’s dark under here. . . . WHOA! That’s amazing.”

Anyway, enough accentuating the positive. Let’s talk about mistakes.

Fourteen: My ability to get the “correct” exposure sucks (to put it bluntly). As I mentioned, I have been taking a second exposure, usually 1/2 stop brighter, in an effort to get it right. The darker images — which use the exposure values suggested by my meter — are usually 1/2 to one-and-a-half stops underexposed. So I’m going to change my exposure compensation and start bracketing in whole stops. (And eventually I’m going to get an instant film holder to check the images in the field and finally be able to show onlookers something tangible.)

Fifteen: I forgot the filter compensation factor for my polarizing filter. I guessed two stops at maximum effect and seem to have gotten it about right.

Sixteen: Camera shake is quite visible in a 20 square-inch image. Evidently, I need to wait for the camera to settle after the wind stops blowing and after I pull the dark slide on the film. A couple of the image were a bit blurry and not because of focus.

(And for the curious, I’m working on my “ghetto film scanner,” since I still don’t have a scanner that accepts 4×5. The images lack quite a bit of resolution, dynamic range, and color fidelity. But by adding an opaque mask around my film on the light table, I’ve at least managed to get rid of some of the annoying fringing at the edges of the images. I still must use Photoshop to crop the image, correct the perspective, and “fix” the color; and I don’t feel right using it for anything other than showing off here.

I made a couple photographs of my pathetic setup. Yes, it’s made with two hanging file folders taped together which are held flat by whatever I happen to be reading. (Right now that’s the excellent Devil in the White City.)

Like a copy stand but not as functional

The film holder and light shield

Posted in Fodder for Techno-weenies, Large Format Camera, Life Lessons, Photography, Travel, USA, Western Adventure | 9 Comments


I love farm toys. My grandfather used to build the real tractors in Waterloo for John Deere, and he would give us 1/16 scale toys when we were kids. After he retired, he decided to rebuild an old Oliver, just to keep busy.

While we were in Billings, we stopped into Action Toys, the best little farm toy store in the world. Here are the fruits of my most recent trip. (Yes, I have a spending limit when I go in.)

Farm equipment, 1/64 scale

So what do we have here?

The tractor pulling the planter is a John Deere 9420T with 425HP engine. I didn’t buy it this trip, but there’s no way the Agco’s 200ish horsepower engine is going to get the field planted, especially when it’s been raining.

Posted in This is who we are, Travel, USA, Western Adventure | 1 Comment

Back on the air soon…

Apparently, the West does not have a good system of Internet tubes. And the ones I was able to tap into I mainly used for homework.

We will return you to regularly scheduled programming soon. . . .

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West of the Imagination

Today we went to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. It’s a lot of fun, with a little something for everyone.

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In the shadow of Major Long

Longs Peak – Rocky Mountain NP (Click for larger)

The early part of our travels led us to the northwestern-most point of the first federally funded expedition to the west which included professionally trained scientists and artists. Unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, the infamous Zebulon Pike trip to Colorado and the myriad Army Topographic Corps expeditions of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the western journeys of Major Stephen Harriman Long doesn’t seem to have stuck in the American imagination.

If he’s remembered at all, he’s usually referenced as “that guy who called the Great Plains the ‘Great American Desert’ on his map” or “that guy who climbed Longs Peak.” It’s unfortunate because he blazed a trail for later expeditions that, like his, mixed scientific inquiry and artistic depiction in equal measure. Of course, they also brought their early 19th century prejudices about agriculture, science and scenery with him, thus leading Long not to recognize one of the most biologically diverse and rich ecosystems in the world while he trod over the short-grass prairies.

If you’re interested in learning more about Major Long’s 1819-1820 expedition, you might consider reading “Sandy Wastes:” Exploring and Experiencing the Great Desert, a paper I wrote for an environmental history class about six years ago and then submitted with my graduate school applications. Here’s a short excerpt from the concluding remarks:

[Major Long] inadvertently interfered in the emerging manifest destiny of Americans to overrun the continent. The effective western border he seemed to propose reached barely half-way across the possible extent of the nation. While it is possible that he did slow expansion to the Plains, within three decades a torrent of migrants would make their way through the region and draw their own conclusions. Indeed . . . the idea of the West as a garden held more currency among Long’s contemporaries than the idea of a desert West.

The early appraisals of the West given by Long and other naturalists are complex and require careful consideration, especially when viewed in conjunction with their own scientific evidence which seemed to contradict their conclusions. The volumes of textual, visual, and physical data generated by the explorers ultimately yielded a fairly balanced view of the Plains: a region that is at once hot and dry and yet well-adapted to life, just not necessarily human life. In this respect Long’s conclusions about the habitability of the region prefigured John Wesley Powell’s conclusions about the need for irrigation to aid development in his 1876 Arid Lands report. Moreover, Long blazed the trail for a new type of federally-sponsored western expedition that included scientists, artists, and (later) photographers as an integral part of balanced exploration. Though these explorers were often serving the utilitarian and imperial interests of the state, like Long they strove to help an expanding nation understand and create itself by looking at the land. The conclusions of Long’s party indicate the role of ideological orientation and expectation in the creation of place at the same time that they caution against trusting our initial reactions to alien environments.

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Freeland Cemetery: Natrona County, Wyoming

Yesterday (day #8 of our trip) Lisa, my mom, her husband, and I drove about a half-hour west of town to the Freeland Cemetery. Mom had noticed that I have an interest in old-timey cemeteries, so she thought it would be fun to go see a frontier version.

Right around lunchtime, Barry Horn stopped by to show us some of the photographs he made there earlier in the month. When he was done, I felt like I had already been there but was still really excited to see it.

While the names and headstone imagery may be rather different than what you see out our way, this little cemetery out in the middle of nowhere had all the originality and charm that I’ve come to love about how the living memorialize the dead.

What’s interesting to me is that the bodies aren’t so much buried as covered. (And some people have decided that “being laid to rest under the sod” allows for the use of Astro-Turf if real grass doesn’t grow well.) But the tributes to individuality — which I think is a hallmark of Wyoming — really impressed me.

As usual, here are some photographs of the markers and memorial “plaques.” Some of the more unusual names follow.

Bodies covered with dirt, rocks, and driftwood. These bodies were “buried” more than twenty-five years ago and grass hasn’t really started to regrow.

When you can’t grow grass, use what you’ve got.

This mausoleum was built out of petrified wood, rose quartz, and other local minerals.

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Note the ranch brands on the headstone.

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A little bit of everything.

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Notice the boot boxed in acrylic. We were musing about what we would put in ours.

Doris C. Clark (♀ 1916-2006)
Oh, put my spurs upon my breast,
My rope and saddle tree,
And while the boys lay me to rest,
Go turn my horses free.

Jim L. Nall (♂ 1937-2004)
If tears could build a stairway
And memories a lane,
I’d walk right up to heaven
And bring you home again.

  • Izetta G. Clark (♀ 1908-1973)
  • Homer R. Clark (♂ 1909-1973)
  • Diller W. O’Brien (♂ 1873-1949)
  • Hattie P. Clark (♀ 1875-1948)
  • Rollin A. Clark (♂ 1870-1952)
  • Cordelia M. Cheney (♀ 1834-1906) [1]
  • Baby Towne (no date)
  • Mary Trollope (♀ nd)
  • Lillie Trollope (♀ nd)
  • Emery Crouse (♂ 1902-1970)

[1] — Still-Vice-President Dick Cheney grew up in Natrona County and nominally still resides in Wyoming. We went to the same high school (separated by about 40 years, of course). The football field was renamed in his honor sometime after 2001.

Posted in Burying Grounds, Travel, USA, Western Adventure | 2 Comments

Blown Away

Last night we went to a baseball game. The Casper Ghosts — no jokes please! — and the Ogden Raptors had played two complete innings of Rookie League (Advanced) minor league baseball when the umpires called the game on account of wind.

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A bit more than an hour later, we headed for the gates since it didn’t show any signs of letting up. I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Posted in Baseball, Travel, USA, Western Adventure | 2 Comments

View from Trail Ridge Road

Yesterday (day #6 of our trip) we left Colorado and headed north to Wyoming. On the way we went over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain NP.

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The image above is just a small section of a large panorama that Photoshop stitched together from forty-four different photographs. (I love the “Photomerge” function!) The full size image is 24,000 pixels wide; but the one linked above is just 3,000. Enjoy!

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Day #4

Here’s a peek at what we did today. . . .

Copeland Falls – Rocky Mountain NP

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Top of the World

Greetings from Estes Park, Colorado — the Branson of the West! Okay, that’s not exactly fair, since it’s about a thousand times more upscale than Branson; but there are still lots of T-shirt stores, fudge kitchens, and mini-golf venues.

Nevertheless, we have enjoyed the nearby Rocky Mountain National Park very much. After a lazy morning — less jetlag, more Starbucks — we arrived at Estes Park (7,522 feet) around 11:00 and started driving up Trail Ridge Road inside the park. A couple hours later we turned around near the halfway point (ca. 12,000 feet). My brain was wondering where all the oxygen went.

We’re going hiking tomorrow. On our way out of the park we asked a ranger at the visitors’ center this question: “Do you have any flat, low altitude hikes?” A dozen years ago, when I lived in Wyoming, doing a hike above treeline would have been very easy. But now we’re from the Bay State and feeling the lack of elevation (and physical exertion, too). So we’re starting low.

Here are some photographs that Lisa and I made today. (Click any image for a larger version.) More will follow.

Longs Peak – Rocky Mountain NP

Looking at Longs Peak – Rocky Mountain NP

Posing – Rocky Mountain NP

The Rockies – Rocky Mountain NP

The Rockies – Rocky Mountain NP

The Rockies – Rocky Mountain NP

The Rockies – Rocky Mountain NP

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Denver: Gateway to the West

First off, to all my Canadian brethren and sistren, happy Canada Day. I’m still not 100% sure what you’re celebrating, but I’m glad that our Civil War scared you into confederation. Sorry if you thought we were gunning for you after that whole “54º40′ or fight” business.

Denver Convention Center – Click for larger

Anyway . . . We’re only two days into our trip and already having a great time. We just returned from an evening of baseball at Coors Field.

It’s been a while since I saw a really good game. Lisa and I prefer well-pitched games with good defense and a bit of drama. So we were very happy when the Rockies’ Aaron Cook pitched a beautiful, complete-game shutout with just 79 pitches in a shade less than two hours. It’s not like the Padres played poorly either. They had some great defensive plays. The losing pitcher just had a bad fifth inning: four runs on three hits, a fielder’s choice, an errant throw by the shortstop and three stolen bases.

The Colorado Rockies’ park is very nice, and Lisa found us great seats. The weather this evening accommodated us, too. It’s too bad there wasn’t a bigger crowd in the house.

Tomorrow we’re heading to Rocky Mountain National Park. Despite living in Wyoming for several years, I’ve never been there. It looks very pretty from the pictures I’ve seen. We’ll need a little respite after the eventful day we’ve had.

Colorado Capitol Building, Denver – Click for larger

Yes, it was a very busy, hectic day. Let’s see. On account of a small bit of jet lag we got up a bit earlier than expected and had to stand in line with the young urban hipsters at Starbucks on their way to work. (No one here really understands how to pair shoes with an outfit.) Instead of going to the office we toured the Colorado Capitol. It’s kind of quaint. Government was not in session, so the building had the feel of a ghost town. I think we saw a tumbleweed blow through the rotunda. Everything is gilded, but they don’t have a bronze cod hanging from in the assembly chamber; so chalk another one up for the Mass State House.

Pioneer Mother, Denver – Click for larger

Just outside, we saw the “Closing of an Era” statue. If you believe the symbolism in the statuary, you might think that Native Americans killed the last bison and thus hastened their own doom. Compare and contrast that with the heroic pioneer woman holding a rifle and raising a child. (Your 2000 word essay is due by the end of the week.)

Closing of an Era, Denver – Click for larger

We continued our Western art historical adventure a few blocks away at the Denver Art Museum, which has a nice collection of Western American art. The rest of the collection befits a city of its size, but it feels a bit hodgepodge in places. Of course, we’re spoiled by the Boston arts environment, which is significant but very little compared to New York.

Western Art, Denver – Click for larger

I have mixed feelings about Western American art. Much of it is backward-looking, sentimental and overly romanticized; yet there are strains within “traditional” Western art that provide wonderful insight into how we experience and imagine the West. Plus there’s a lot of technical and artistic virtuosity in the genre as well. And I really love the landscape art of the West, especially the pieces by artists who show the West as it actually was in their time. I like the re-castings, re-imaginings, and re-examinations of the mythic place. After all, I do believe in the West and the Plains as places distinct from the much of the rest of the country. There’s something in the soil, the rocks and the sky and in the way we came about taking possession of it and struggle to hold onto it . . . or even know it.

Black American West Museum, Denver – Click for larger

Those who know us probably won’t be surprised that after some lunch we took a walk north from downtown, past an invisible red line, to take in the Black American West Museum. I had read a little bit about the “Exodusters” in Nell Irvin Painter’s fantastic Standing and Armageddon, but I really didn’t understand just how much the experience of African Americans in the West mirrored the experiences of almost every other non-indigenous group that emigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Doctors, miners, farmers, cowpokes, rodeo cowboys, soldiers, homesteaders, inventors, business owners — not to mention the obvious: fathers, mothers, children, laborers, strugglers — this museum presented a wealth of photographs, documents, and artifacts that showed African Americans chasing and creating the same American Dream that shows up in whitewashed histories and entertainment. It also played down overt racism and suggested that the West was much more egalitarian that those same mainstream sources suggest.

So if you’re in Denver for the Democratic convention or just passing through like us, take a walk up California Street or a short trolly ride to the museum. It’s worth it.

Posted in History, This is who we are, Travel, USA, Western Adventure | 2 Comments