A couple of weeks ago during our Spring Break, myself and my two friends (Wilson and Tom, also photo professors at UCM) ventured back to the Flint Hills but this time we also took along with us 9 photography students. The best part for me was the very first day hiking the backcountry trails at the Tall Grass National Prairie Preserve, near Strong City, Kansas. I think this is one of my favorite places in the U.S. to visit. Being out on the prairie where you can see for miles and hear nothing but wind, birds, swaying grass and your own heartbeat is fabulous! I’m looking forward to going back in early summer when the grass is green and a bit taller. Until then, I have my photos to give me solace. The image below is of Spring Hill Ranch, taken on my return from the backcountry.
The old army fort in eastern Kansas was called Fort Scott and was originally constructed in 1842. There were no walls built around this pioneer army post since three sides consisted of natural, steep bluffs, with the southern side opened to the expanse of the tall grass prairie. This old army post was the last destination for Wilson and I on our short road trip last week through SW Missouri and SE Kansas. Eleven years after its founding, the Army abandoned the fort in 1853 and its buildings became the center of a new frontier town, bearing the old fort’s namesake: Fort Scott, Kansas. This would later become the hometown for renowned African American photographer, Gordon Parks.
This is a great small town photo destination. The main street area, which joins the old fort structure, has great 1800s architecture, which has been nicely restored. Lots of interesting antique stores and boutique shops occupy the storefronts. Also, as with any of my road trips, I found a really cool diner from 1946 that is still in operation, complete with its nifty neon signage…Nu Grille Cafe. My photo compadre enjoyed a really big cheeseburger and I sampled the Frito chili pie, for about five bucks. Cheap but good! After chowing down supper at the greasy spoon, we headed back to UCM, which is maybe a couple of hours drive…I really lose track of time on the road, but it was dark! But lack of light never stops Wilson from creating images! As you can see posted below, he pushes the envelop of image making with any amount of electromagnetic radiation he can find. In this case, minimal ambient light from the dusky sunset and the truck dashlights!
My search for incongruities continues. I started photographing odd and large culturally significant objects about five years ago and doubt if I’ll ever grow tired of this quest. Two years ago I went to a technology convention at Pittsburg State University in southeast Kansas. One of my traveling companions, Wilson, had discovered the existence of Big Brutus and had suggested that we photograph it for my series. We weren’t sure where it was located and time at the convention prevented us from tracking it down. However, this past weekend, he and I had the opportunity to travel to Joplin, MO, to drop off our images that had been accepted for inclusion at the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts‘ annual national photo competition.
On our return trip, we decided to drift over the stateline and explore southeast Kansas. As we were heading north, we suddenly spotted a small sign telling passersby that Big Brutus was just 13 miles off the beaten path. Well, with no timeline or agenda, your intrepid wanderers were off on a new adventure! We did indeed find the brute, but only after stumbling onto another magnificant photo op at a local train club having their meeting. They had refurbished train depots, all kinds of trains, including passenger cars and some really cool cabooses. Anyway, on to brutus. Big Brutus is a monster! The world’s second largest electric coal shovel, it towers 16 stories (160 feet) with a boom that is 150 feet long. The bucket on this behemoth has a capacity of 150 tons (enough to fill three railroad cars). Needless to say, Big Brutus is BIG! Additionally, the non-profit organization running the Big Brutus operation had a really BIG fee to go inside the fence for a closer look. Needless to say, we weren’t going to partake in their highway robbery, so we pulled out our BIG lenses and shot from the parking lot!!!
Yesterday was cold, cloudy, and foggy. It’s day’s like that which provide great light and it’s usually incredibily soft. This kind of light is great when it comes through windows of old houses like the one I live in. I love the way it bounces off doors and walls and gently cascades down the stairs. So when I turned around in my office chair and say the light playing in the hallway, I had to stop what I was doing and pull out the camera to start shooting. I never tire of the way light bounces through old hallways and I’ve been chasing this type of light since my undergrad days back in the early 1980s.
Once I felt I had explored enough of what was happening in the hallway, I stepped down on the stair landing and started shooting out the window that overlooks my neighbor’s old house. Again the soft light and hoarfrost clinging to the trees were photographic delights. Who says you have to travel to far-off exotic locales to create images? One needs to be able to create work close to home because it’s all in our personal vision. The most exotic places on earth aren’t going to give you beautiful images if you have no personal vision and being able to see the light. Ultimately, it all comes back to the light and how we interact with this magical substance. I’ve been chasing light now for 35 years and never tire of the pursuit.
Recently I had the privilege of a day trip with three of my friends from the university, to the Konza Prairie Biological Station. This is an incredible venue for all types of photography, but especially panoramas. Although my colleagues are into this type of photography rather seriously (they’ve custom made or bought expensive pano heads for their tripods), I tend to be more low-tech. In other words, I hand-hold my camera and use and framing device similar to my colleague from the Art Institute of Colorado, Angela Faris. She describes a similar technique in her latest book, which I highly recommend, The Elements of Photography: Understanding and Creating Sophisticated Images. I hope you enjoy this latest blog entry and I would enjoy reading any comments you might wish to offer.