Thursday, July 29, 2010

Idiot for the day

Several years ago, after gentle but insistent prodding from friends, I entered a photograph into the county fair. Its subject was of our fair town viewed from the low ridge to the south with the grain elevator anchoring the right horizon and in the foreground a small sapling curving in an arc toward the heavens. It was, I humbly submit, a perfectly-composed, stunningly beautiful photograph whose every element was necessary and excruciatingly sharp. People oohed and ahhed over it. “You’re guaranteed to win,” they said.

The judge awarded best in show to a blurry, monochromatic image of a kitten.

“He’s an idiot,” I said.

In succeeding years I would haunt the photography exhibit not just to view the works of local artists but to judge the judge. This was admittedly a point of professional pride as much as personal vendetta. Invariably, without fail, I found deep faults in his methodology. Or theirs, I should say, for several different characters of dubious merit were awarded the position. Each judge, I discovered, had his own specialty or favorite subject and seemed to award images adhering to that personal bias. One preferred portraits, another landscapes, and one professed to never having made the transition from film to digital. Indeed, the latter all but sneered at digital capture, leading me to suspect either laziness, snobbishness or stupidity. Learn their preferences, one wag said, and you have a fighting chance.

But I didn’t want to photograph kittens. For kittens, or cats in general, were the ultimate winning favorite. This puzzled me, but I knew from experience that it was merely symptomatic of a larger contagion infecting photography contests. A friend once told of a Flint Hills landscape contest where the judges awarded the grand prize to an image of a kitten on a couch! “What were they thinking?” she asked. As if I had a clue.

Each year I would study the images, gnash my teeth and wonder why the fair board would select such incompetent boobs. Friends, perhaps weary of my elitist ranting, suggested I should volunteer my own talents. I found the idea ludicrous and let them know in no uncertain terms that it would be a cold day in hell before I’d subject myself to poring over bad kitten photos. Which makes it all the more odd that when the fair asked me to judge this year, I said yes when I meant to say no.

“Do they know how you feel about cat pictures?” my wife asked.

Judging got off to a rocky start. My assistant, an acquaintance, spread entries from the youngest contestants across a long table. Some were mediocre, some superb, almost unbelievably so considering the age of the photographers. Half were cat photos.

“What’s the difference between a cat and a rat?” I asked her.

She looked at me with a blank expression.

“One letter,” I said.

Her look turned to one of horror. “I love my cat!” she shrieked.

So much for humor.

As we worked our way through the dozens of entries, I confessed to a deep emotional scarring at being snubbed and explained how I had no biases to claim other than proper exposure and composition. However, I stressed, images of cats were automatically disqualified unless technically perfect.

She handed me a technically perfect image of a cat. I didn’t mind—I gave it a ribbon and explained why it worked so well—but she didn’t have to look so smug.

Selecting a winner was often difficult. The wealth of talent was impressive, and sometimes a winning image hinged on minute details of craft. In several instances creative vision trumped technique. One photo of a young boy and girl walking hand in hand over a bridge was as good as anything a pro could do with high-end gear, and taken by a nine-year-old. It was both humbling and encouraging.

After awarding ribbons in each category, we narrowed down finalists. This was the easy part for me because the top photograph was so sublimely composed and skillfully transitioned into a duotone of selenium highlights and olive shadows that I almost wept with envy.

I felt good about it and told her I hoped to have the privilege of being asked to judge again next year.

Later that afternoon I watched her hang the photographs for display. A few of the photographers and their families wandered in to watch. On their faces I saw all the disparate expressions artists are privy to when their talent is measured and weighed by strangers, quicksilver flashes of emotional responses running the gamut from trepidation to joy, acceptance to surprise. And, too, there were the inevitable disappointments, the narrowed eyes, the tightened lips. I knew that look. I knew what they were thinking. “The judge,” they thought, “is an idiot.”

Sunday, July 25, 2010

This photo cost me $5,124.00

This is a good image. Not bad. Not great, mind you, but I was shooting in a dark barn lit only by a few open windows. I was also clear across the room, separated from William Least Heat-Moon and Q by an admiring throng of moviegoers. I used the Nikon 70-200 f2.8 on my Nikon D700, kicking the ISO to 6400 with an aperture of f4 to f5.6.
I wanted more depth of field but couldn't at ISO 6400. I also knew that at 6400 the amount of noise would be problematic though admittedly not ruinous.
The new Nikon D3s can shoot in the dark. Dark as inside the closet with the door closed. Dark as on the far side of the moon.
ISO 12,800—insane by any standard—is as clean as 3200 on my camera. Virtually noiseless.
This image, captured as they watched the premier of a documentary of his return to PrairyErth, very nicely portrays their emotions. Their expressions are timeless and pitch perfect. It's a photo any photojournalist would envy. I took it, and I'm not happy.
Almost. Ninety percent happy. Ten percent royally pissed.
I keep shooting in the dark and struggling with my equipment. If I stuck to landscapes I would not need anything else. I currently own the perfect setup. Except for one slight problem: I'm also a photojournalist, and photojournalists are rarely in good light. We shoot in auditoriums and barns and theaters and opera houses and smoky VFW halls, even occasionally outdoors. And always, without exception, what we shoot can never be replicated. It's a once-in-a-lifetime event. You don't get second chances. It's like life.
I've put off buying a D3s for a long time, mostly because I can't afford it, my teeth are falling out, the truck burns oil and needs fixed, etc. But having that once-in-a-lifetime chance at nailing my second-favorite author at the exact perfect moment in a dark barn with limited ambient light—and almost but not quite succeeding—pushed me over the edge.
I missed another chance at ordering the camera. It's the most coveted camera in the world today and nobody has one in stock. I snoozed, I let my financial fears have the last word, and now this.
I will not let the opportunity pass again.
So, that's why that single image cost me almost $5,200. Not yet. But soon.

The benediction of Cheryl Unruh

You must know this about Cheryl Unruh: She's a crazy-gifted writer and a damn good photographer in her own right who is never without her small P&S (point and shoot, not what you think) camera. And at every meal-away-from-home, before nary a bite is nibbled or even contemplated, Cheryl first hauls out her camera, composes an image, and fires the shutter.
Always. Without fail. Or else...
At a delightful luncheon at Emma Chase Cafe in Cottonwood Falls, Dave Leiker, her husband, Jack Casner, a friend, character and photographer from KC, and Lori and I waited for Cheryl to perform her obligations. Dave cautioned us that this was mandatory. That no matter how starved a person might be, sampling before Cheryl's shooting was not only irresponsible behavior but could be considered unethical and perhaps even dangerous.
I had just picked up my burger when I realized my mistake. I quickly set it down, scoonched a few french fries over and in general tidied up the plate to restore it to its virginal state.
Cheryl didn't even blink.
"It doesn't work if someone takes a bite first?" I asked.
"Of course not," she said.
I felt like an idiot.
(For more Cheryl, click the link on the right for Flyover People.)

The Q of Quoz

The PrairyErth reunion at Chase County this weekend was all about stories, and here's one you'll only read about here:
"Roads to Quoz" isn't a book so much as an epiphany, with equal parts adventure and literary exploration into language both real and imagined. As customary with these American forays (or moseys, as he calls them), readers are treated to William Least Heat-Moon's boundless wit and biting humor as he explores the backroads of the nation. In "Roads to Quoz," his latest, readers are also introduced to his lovely wife, Jo Ann, known in the book simply as Q. Her presence enriches and enlivens the book.
I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both Heat-Moon and Q during the reunion. I was there as a reporter but mostly as a fan of his iconic work on Kansas, but conscious, too, of my duties as a photojournalist. So when the line formed for autographs of his works, I devoted my time to capturing good shots, knowing that my copy of Quoz was back at the car. When the line was through I spoke with Heat-Moon and told him that sometime during the evening I wanted him to sign the book. I also mentioned how much I enjoyed having Q along for the journey, at which time his eyes lit up and he said, "Q has to sign your book, too!"
He told me that anytime during the presentation if I hoisted the book aloft, he would snag his wife and they would together autograph it. Later, as the director was hastening him from last minute autograph-seekers, I ran up with my copy in hand and, quickly apprising the situation, simply held up the book and caught his eye. "Q!" I shouted.
His laugh was infectious. "I'll be along in a minute," he told the director, and summoning his wife had her sign below his name. She didn't sign "Jo" or "Jo Ann," but "Q."
I will cherish that moment for the rest of my life.
(Incidentally, he took my arm and we walked across the grounds to the barn, a goodly mosey, wherein we discussed language, dictionaries, big words, perfect words, journeys and books. My feet never touched the ground.)



Serious bling

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Chase County redux

Friday evening picking at Emma Chase, Cottonwood Falls

Old school auditorium, Elmdale

Friday, July 23, 2010

Southward with William Least Heat-Moon: Chase County

Last ride of the codgernauts (Part 8): Beneath Comb Ridge

There was no trail only bare ocherous rock and soft pools of sand deposited where the ceaseless wind eddied. A few stunted wildflowers and flowering cactuses drew the eye with their intensity, bright splashes of yellows and scarlets interspersed with the purplish-ivory seedpods of yucca, their roots scrabbling for whatever foothold they could find. Without the sand there would be nothing but stone. Sand was the nursery. Sand was the giver of life.

I turned and saw the Trailblazer reflecting the sun and the blue ribbon of highway curving away toward the gigantic sunbleached vertebrae of Comb Ridge, and thinking of extra water bottles knew there was time to change the course I seemed resolutely determined to follow despite my lies and half-hearted deception. We are given choices, I thought, and followed my companions into a shallow arroyo where all signs of civilization fell away. We walked a land freshly created from the raw elements and raw still. In all that tortured expanse there was no even terrain but a thousand angles of verticality amplifying the sibilant wind and the slight toc-toc of hiking sticks. The arroyo twisted and writhed to the memory of waters, narrow in places and broader in others, until it opened onto the lip of Butler Wash and a three hundred foot vertical drop.

This was the unnamed box canyon we’d noted on the Internet image. To our left along a narrow shelf lay the “shortcut”—what looked to be a sheer cliff—while to our right the rock wall supposedly sloped more gradually to the canyon floor. As it was impossible to ascertain from our location, we set off along the shelf only to find our initial suspicions verified: the rock face plunged dizzyingly down to a small stagnant stream and silvery stands of Russian olives.

“I’m not going down that,” Chod said.

“Hell, I’m not even getting near it,” Jim cursed. “I’ll stay up here and watch the fort.”

We backtracked to the arroyo and began our descent on the opposite flank. At first it was gradual, as I’d expected, but as we neared the precipice the gradient became evermore perpendicular. Rather than leisurely walking we were forced to chart a route, connecting ledges that led to more ledges or snaked around to form narrow shelves slanting downward. And so we zigged and we zagged, keeping our body mass tilted inward toward the escarpment and our eyes peeled for loose rocks or rattlesnakes. The dizziness I’d felt earlier seemed to recede though I bitterly regretted not bringing my hiking sticks for their added stability. Where Chod appeared to float down the cliff my own passage was more ponderous, slower and less confident. The belt provided equilibrium for my gear but the camera dangling on its shoulder strap constantly threw me off balance. Plus I was altogether too hesitant and mistrustful of my abilities and felt a loss that nothing could fill. A part of me deeper than my youth was missing.

The final ledge deposited us next to the stream. Its shoreline was clumped with spindly olives and carpeted with waist-deep marsh grasses the color and hue of the scummy water. Following the stream proved impossible, however. It was deep, for one—we estimated its depth at six feet or more—with undercut banks that could easily collapse under our weight. Whenever possible we scrambled onto rock ledges and crabwalked toward the head of the wash, otherwise we forced our way through the brush, wary of the olive thorns that promised to rake and tear our flesh.

We hadn’t gone a hundred feet when we spotted the ruin. It was a small structure tucked under a massive overhang whose roof was black with desert patina. Seeing it there made me feel like an explorer from another century discovering some lost civilization. That there were hundreds of other such ruins studded throughout Comb Ridge made me want to explore the length and breadth of it. None are elaborate as Cliff Palace or Balcony House in Mesa Verde, nor even Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, but then again no visitor to Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon could ever hope to replicate that thrill of discovery.

Seeing it gave us the impetus to hurry. We forced our way through dense shrubbery and clambered up a steep incline to the mouth of the recess. It was humbling, almost sacrilegious, as if we were trespassers of the first order. Others had been here before, their bootprints crisscrossing the sandy floor, even as hundreds of years before families had lived here. As Chod shucked his backpack to get to his camera I began composing the shot I wanted. It would encompass the entirety of the recess and highlight the fractured surface of the rock as well as the adobe bricks of the ruin. Clouds blocking the sun provided an even light that was more gift than I’d expected or deserved. After nailing the shot I withdrew to give Chod unfettered access.

Taking a short pull of water but not nearly as much as I desired was almost painful. Surely there are more ruins, I thought. And then I saw a faint trail crossing the entrance to the box canyon. If we could follow it all the way to the road we could spare ourselves the vertical ascent and possibly find even better sites. I hadn’t brought binoculars but from what I could see it looked feasible. When I pointed it out to Chod, he agreed it was worth a chance.

I popped a piece of gum into my mouth to offset the dryness. The trail, more an impression than a path, skirted the cliff before dropping into a deep gulch. Had anyone watched us from the canyon rim they would have seen two small figures struggle up a sharp incline and disappear into a wall of vegetation. The real adventure had begun.

(To be continued)

Friday, July 16, 2010

My good friend, Duane Durst, director of Hollenberg Pony Express Station State Historical Site

South of Bremen, Kansas

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Last ride of the codgernauts (Part 7) Comb Ridge the easy way

Throughout our meanderings in the Four Corners region, we filled the long empty miles with bird identification exclamations (Lewis’ woodpecker! Burrowing owl!), observations about photography, artistic vision and gear, critical analyses of the pathetic treatment afforded Native Americans on their various reservations, and, perhaps most telling, personal ratings of the cities and small towns we observed. Livability obviously was a major criterion though the nebulousness of the idea provoked three distinctly differing reactions.

The low end of the scale was relegated to the forlorn, terminal towns such as Chivington, Colo., whose very name was a curse. Most habitable enclaves existed in the middle ground, generating neither interest nor disinterest but something in between. It’s not that they were dull, only that we found them too mundane, too unimaginative. A step up were those that sparked lively debate, such as Cortez, Colo., with its near-perfect location and climate. A tad too populous for my tastes, plus lacking quality Mexican eateries, though Jim promised a return engagement with his wife in tow. For several days he brooded, wondering aloud if he could shake her loose from Kansas, usually followed by deep sighs of doubt. And then there were rare cases that made us want to speed-dial our real estate agents.

Bluff, Utah, didn’t just interest us, it enchanted us. We drove each street slackjawed, picking out the houses we wanted to buy and then finding another, and another, until we made our way to the museum where we talked property prices, history and Anasazi ruins. By the time we departed Chod had made plans to overwinter with his fifth-wheel, Jim was drafting a relocation proposal to his wife, and I was constructing elaborate fantasies of opening an art gallery and living in a small turquoise-trimmed adobe in the shade of the towering sandstone bluffs for which the town was named. We also had a detailed BLM map of Butler Wash and handwritten directions to several lower ruins.

What struck me then—and more so now—was the frequent use of the word “easy” when describing trails and routes. The trail to Hobbs Wash Ruins was easy, several websites claimed. One image showed two young children with their parents standing in the ruin, their clothes ironed and clean, not a whisper of exertion marring their cherubic smiles. The road hooking into the wash off the main highway was easy, the museum’s proprietor said. And it was, until we got stuck.

It was less a road than a series of hardpacked tracks braiding the width of the canyon floor. The narrow path we’d taken snaked for about a half mile before it intersected the main channel with a two-foot drop carved out by erosion. Besides the obvious impassability it heightened concern over flash flooding as it appeared to be raining higher up the ridge. As we reversed course from the ledge Jim’s Trailblazer rolled into a patch of sand that looked like any other patch of sand, only this one had no bottom. In the space of a heartbeat the tires sank to the axles.

After an initial explosion of blue language we got out to assess the situation. It didn’t look good.

“Got a shovel?”


Using feet and fingers we carved out a trench and began alternately shoving and rocking the vehicle. The slightest touch of gas seemed to plunge the Trailblazer deeper. I thought of old Tarzan movies where the bad guys fall into quicksand and thrash about in terror as they slowly disappear from view, and wondered if I should retrieve the camera before a similar fate befell the vehicle. I could vividly envision three dispirited men staggering back to Bluff, one of them on a cell phone trying to explain to his wife how he lost the SUV. And then the wheels hit traction and the vehicle lurched onto the roadway.

As we caught our breath a Toyota 4Runner with an enviable amount of clearance pulled up.

“You guys okay?” the driver asked.

We explained what happened and pointed to the drop. He grinned wolfishly.

“No problem,” he said.

His passenger looked dubious. “My partner scares me sometimes,” he confided. He might have said more but the driver gunned the engine, sailed over the edge and jounced alarmingly around a stand of salt cedars.

Other tracks showed the same insurmountable impediment. Clearly the road, or roads, were easy if one were driving a Humvee or an Abrams tank, but we had neither.

Our final option was one we’d started with: finding a way into the canyon with only the memory of that one image we’d seen on the Internet. A few miles backtracking brought us to a small marker designating a parking area for the trailhead. Not that there was an actual trail—we had left behind dirt or soil of any kind and now traversed a hard and stony land dotted with stunted wildflowers and desert shrubs. After some scouting we navigated the Trailblazer over a deep rut and onto a level shelf nearer to the canyon rim. A rising wind buffeted the vehicle, seething out of a dark cloud bearing down from the north.

Everything depended on finding a safe route down, and from here we knew that easy wasn’t in the lexicon. Chod ditched “Bigma,” his massive telephoto lens, from his backpack to save weight. I switched to my belt system, carrying only a spare lens, a small pouch with extra cards and batteries and a pouch for a water bottle. After another look at the menacing sky I decided to include my camera holster in case of rain.

In the consummate wisdom conveyed to hindsight, it was the one intelligent move I made. The second was to quaff an entire bottle of water. The rest of it—downing cold medication, packing the spare lens instead of a second water bottle, the absence of snacks or hiking sticks—briefly crossed my mind in a nagging voice-over that I refused to indulge. According to the image it was only a mile or less, and the weather might force us back anyway. Within 15 minutes we would have our answer. We wouldn’t be long.

So I lied to himself.

(To be continued)

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Last ride of the codgernauts (Part 6): Into the Colorado Plateau

Up early to write, dopey from lack of sleep, I stagger from bed and careen headfirst into the wall. A little commotion but not enough to wake the codgernauts. Later, as we head down to breakfast, I seem unable to traverse a straight line. I feel unbalanced, as if my head was an unhinged gyroscope spinning madly out of control. “Whatever you do today,” I tell my companions, “keep me away from cliffs.”

In retrospect, it seemed the obvious thing to ask considering my odd discombobulation, and all the more laughable in light of our destination.


Our foibles are rarely a match for our infantile fantasies. Our vision of ourselves has little bearing on reality except for when we’re waylaid by full-length mirrors and the truth bares itself in merciless Technicolor. Of course Technicolor is as dead as Kodachrome but the abstraction persists at least for another generation, after which our glorious language will devolve into chaos without punctuation, capitalization, hyphenation or even rudimentary spelling. Mirrors are another matter. Within our humble home I no longer harbor mirrors of any kind except for the small medicine chest in the bathroom. There might be another under the sink but it’s a no-man’s-land I eschew at all costs, left to my significant other. Admittedly the lack of reflective surfaces is more denial than panacea but at my age I take whatever measures I can to forestall the inevitable, sensing an ever-tightening noose of strangled options. I’ve tried adopting a gruff what-you-see-is-what-you-get but there’s that unrelenting matter of how I envision myself, thirty pounds lighter around the waist, fit and trim and smarter than I think I am. Recently I came across an old photo of me taken by a hiking friend in the Never Summer Range, my flat stomach and muscled legs reminders of a former self. I almost wept with self-pity.

When we’re faced with so many conflicting images it’s damnably difficult figuring out who we really are. Nor does it help that in our minds we’ve barely aged past our twenties, with a voice and an outlook to match. There’s also that on-again, off-again forgetfulness that stymies me at every turn. I long for unforgetfulness even as I long for its opposite and the disremembrance of dreams.

What bothers me the most about the next leg of our journey was that forgetfulness had nothing to do with what happened beneath Comb Ridge. We set out from the vehicle with only a rough idea of where we were going, with almost no idea how to get there, and with barely enough supplies for a very brief sojourn under optimal conditions. But this wasn’t a stroll in the manicured park—it was a trek across ankle-deep sand with the consistency of flour and the remainder stark stone, most of it vertical, with a storm brewing to the north where the jagged spine of the ridge sawed at the clouds. We downplayed the danger as if we were oblivious to the potential cost associated from one slip, one turned ankle, one drop. There were secondary costs debited to our unwitting enterprise, pocket change perhaps but expensive nonetheless. Branded into my soul is the memory of clinging to a cliff while bitterly castigating myself for breaking every rule in the book, and knowing with implacable certainty that I would die because of it.

Every trip has a defining moment. Comb Ridge set the stage for all that would follow, perhaps in ways we’ll never decipher but forever guess at. We went in as a group and exited as something else, disjointed and in some ways broken. That inner reflection of a fit, trim man who knew the desert and its ways was painstakingly deconstructed on the sandy floor of Butler Wash, reduced to splintered shards trailing behind like breadcrumbs or the crimson splashes of blood dripping from my hand.


It wasn’t planned. Nor was it part of the itinerary, but merely something casually tossed out beforehand to fill our overactive minds with visions of possibilities.

Jim was the instigator, forwarding a website about Anasazi ruins tucked away in the crevices below a 50-mile-long ridge just west of Bluff, Utah. The images were stunning, not merely for the ruins themselves but for the sweeping soot-streaked overhangs. A photograph taken from the opposite side of the canyon showed a “shortcut” to the ruins, dubious at best in that it required an almost perpendicular descent. For days I pored over the picture looking for other routes. If we hugged the rim of a branching canyon it looked like a more gradual decline, and there was another to the west that might be even more feasible.

Let’s go, I wrote to Jim.

No, he replied.

He was adamant: Butler Wash was out of the question. Mesa Verde was where we needed to focus our attention. And when that fell through, and morning came and we were adrift with only a vague idea of what could fill the vacuum, Butler Wash again reared its head. It was a familiar area to Chod for he’d backpacked near there years before, and only an hour’s drive away. We could pack up and leave Cortez, spend the day around Bluff and be in Farmington by nightfall. There was the added bonus of it being new territory for Jim and I, and we were almost guaranteed to have the place to ourselves.

We ate huddled over the map. Within minutes we had a route selected. Thirty minutes later we were on the road heading into the Colorado Plateau.

(To be continued)

Saturday, July 03, 2010