I have been listening to John Moreland all day every day for weeks now. You should too. John writes plays and sings about love loss and heartache like no one else.
I am a photographer. The photographs I make are my songs. The effort to get out into the world to make the exposures, and then the process of perfecting the print…all of that is me composing a song. What you make of it is entirely up to you. For me, I am transported to where I was. I feel the gravel under my feet, I feel the storm wind at my back, I feel the summer heat on my skin. I can measure my existence in these photographs. They are the goods of my life.
The days had been perfect. The heat was hot, the water was wet and the storm rolled in right 0n time. Winter is somewhere around the corner, so they say, but nowadays winter ain’t like what it used to be.
We use the Southern Syntax from time-to-time to try to throw off the surveillance teams. We’re real Americans here, see all the flags?
This winter, if the snow comes (and it will) I will look back on that July along the James River and then up into Maryland for the thunder.
The days were quick, sunrise to noon gone in a blink and then I was into the afternoon, the downhill slope of the day. I drove a lot, racing through the beauty of The Colorado Plateau. Sometimes I ran, the trails extending mile after mile. I would go until I couldn’t remember. Some days I made photographs. Everybody photographed Arizona. Photography was a way to keep from seeing the whole thing, from knowing that we were inconsequential and that our lives were fleeting. We exerted control by making photographs and capturing the land in our little boxes. We couldn’t fathom the Painted Desert but a photograph made it ours.
My first trip to the Deep South was in 1981. I spent the first half of the year in Basic Training learning how to be a soldier. My memories of Anniston are dim. I do recall fried battered catfish for dinner at a local eatery. Mostly I stayed within the confines of the reservation. Danger was all around me, as I was young and prone to fits of idiocy. My best bet to get through the thing was to keep my head down and do what I was told. And it worked. Over the course of 16 weeks or so I made the steady transition from civilian to…something else. And it happened in Calhoun County, Alabama. I went back through Calhoun County some months ago, and walked the dirt where I had been once, long ago. I guess I was hoping for insight, or some message from the past. The base was no longer operational, having been deactivated many years ago. The barracks were deserted, boarded up. The inspirational slogans were still visible. As I stood I recalled running double time with the battalion in a rain storm, highly motivated and ready to go, Alabama thunder sounding all around us.
Part of my photographic expression over the last several years has been the black and white landscape. I hate to label a body of work in such a limiting fashion, but in this instance the description is accurate. I have been shooting with intent for more than 25 years and of course I have been making landscapes all along, with a vast number of other sorts of images, people mostly, but as of late I have been obsessed more than ever with the earth around me.
I made images with film for years, color and black and white. I have spent time in the darkroom printing color and black and white, and I am well-versed with respect to the characteristics required for a good photograph. I began using digital capture roughly 10 years ago. For a long time I rarely converted my work to black and white. My thinking was that the data (light) landed on the sensor, passed through the array and was saved as a color file, so who was I to alter it. The difference of course, when shooting film I was making a “choice” by loading black and white film. Plus, early digital conversions to black and white were pretty terrible. Then, one fine day, I read about Jon Cone and his ink. I ordered a set for my Epson printer. The set of fancy custom ink arrived and I set it aside, ignoring it for a year or so. Every now and then I’d look at the box of ink in my office, and wonder what a print made from that ink would look like. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me. I opened the box, loaded the ink into the printer, converted some files to black and white, and made some prints. It was when I viewed those prints that I became hooked. I loved them. The process took some getting used to, and just like the dark room there is a bit of trial and error involved, but I was at last able to make extraordinarily high quality black and white photographs. I was using Epson’s least expensive 6 cart printer (I don’t remember the model number) and the prints were really very good. it was at that moment that I became a dedicated landscape photographer. Simply: I needed material to make the photographs.
I now use an Epson SureCol0r P600 and Epson’s excellent ink for printing.
Anyway, how to get from capture to final image:
I was out yesterday afternoon. My go to location for a short photo fix is Southern New Jersey. The sky looked interesting and I had the urge to shoot so off I went. I came back with 3 potential prints. This is the first:
What we have here is the Nikon Electronic File, straight off the sensor, converted to jpg in Lightroom and resized in Photoshop. The untouched file. My concern with the exposure was the sky. I wanted to maintain detail in the clouds, so the foreground is underexposed while the sky is exposed more or less normally. I knew that the information in the foreground would easily render when I processed the file in Lightroom.
Here is the first swing at a black and white conversion:
This is close, sort of, but there is still work to be done. Halo is visible where the edge of the barn roof meets the sky, and there is some foreground that need to be revealed.
And here is what I can refer to as the first final version. I made several prints of this file at various stages of finishing, and this one holds up pretty well. I use Lightroom, and the Photoshop plug in Nik Silver Pro2. I have now, a mere 24 hours after capture, a pretty nice photograph made on 19×13 Epson Legacy Platine Paper (the image size is 18 long). I do love the finished print. It matches the photograph I had envisioned as I stood out on the highway making the exposure.
And one more. The initial capture, untouched:
And a final version. This conversion took some time, as the grain bins required some very detailed work to remove halo.
The Carny is huddled in the big tent as the clouds move in, the lightning flashes. Nothing fancy here, cheap lowdown rides and the thrill is you might fly off the rails into the field. The people come, but not many, as the weather keeps turning dark, the wind kicks in. It’s all the same to the team of handlers and barkers and ride captains, they may get the night off. But it’s still magic for the 6 year olds, so daddy packs them up and heads out, maybe the storm will skirt the town and we can ride baby, so let’s all go, the carnival is in town.
Down the road now as the storm comes in, pelting rain and wind, bolts of fire over the cornfields. Parked in a fruit stand lot waiting for the backside of the storm.
Our history fades, smoke from a hard burning fire. The men of the Union Pacific slammed the spike home at Council Bluffs and we rode into the West on rails atop iron giants. The California Zephyr still roams the countryside, slicing through the western skyline, whistle wailing, bound heavy for the coast. When the moon is full, in the deep dark night on the edge of the desert you can still hear that mystery train carrying the American myth as far as she’ll go.
You get what you need in the swamps of Maryland along the Eastern Shore. Solitude is easy to come by, early in the morning, and when storms threaten. Bad weather tends to keep all but the hard core searchers at home. Of course, the hard core know that bad weather is more interesting.
Bald Eagles perch, scanning the water. Snapping turtles inch over the blacktop. Perhaps they know that hard rain means no cars. The sound of the place is deafening, all manner of creatures sounding. Folks here want to be left alone. There is no other reason to live here, aside from the elegiac beauty, and the chance to see eagles fly everyday. I tend to walk a little more carefully, and to pay closer attention when I am down in the bottom. I am the obvious outsider, and strangers draw attention. The locals don’t really care much to hear about my interest in the desolation represented by the wreckage of old barns and crumbling farm houses. They aren’t looking for metaphor, after all. They live here, out on the swamps, and when the rain comes and the water rises they know better then to be out wandering around.
I was westbound for Chicago. The sun was setting. I got off the interstate-because nothing of interest ever happens on the interstate-and hit the county roads. The car windows were down, some country rock and roll star was singing on the radio. The sky was turning dark. I parked on the shoulder, turned everything off, got out of the car and looked out across the fields. I was 10 miles from any man made noise. I stood on the edge of the farm, the dirt prepped for planting. The wind picked up. Rain later, maybe. Springtime in Indiana.