Terra Firma

Terra Firma

I’m excited to announce a new project – well, less “new” in terms of topic – but more “new” in terms of focused effort. The project is called Terra Firma, and I suppose like so many of my other “projects,” I’ve really been working on this one for a long time.

Rock Cut, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

First Light at Rock Cut, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Terra Firma is a landscape collection on johnbcrane.com (please click here to sit back and enjoy the slide show). I suppose I’ve been working on this project for 20 years or so – but only now feel like I have something tangible to say. Terra firma is a Latin phrase meaning “solid earth” (from terra, meaning “earth”, and firma, meaning “solid”). The phrase refers to the dry land mass on the earth’s surface and is used to differentiate from the sea or air. Considering a reference many of us may already be familiar with, here’s how Terra Firma was first born: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth,d] and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:9-10 ESV). The distinction here is that the land was created to separate the heavens from the depths.

Cape Flattery, Olympic National Park, Washington

Cape Flattery, Olympic National Park, Washington

Like many landscape photographers I’ve had a passion for the outdoors for many years. Since the first time setting foot in Colorado in 1977 as a high school student I’ve never left the wilderness. Physically perhaps – but mentally, emotionally and spiritually – no. When I returned home to Illinois after our first backpacking trip to Highlands Camp in the Indian Peaks Wilderness I moped around the house for weeks. All I could think about was how to get back, as fast as possible. I’d tasted wilderness – true, honest to goodness wilderness – and was spoiled for anything else from that point forward.

John B. Crane in the Weminuche Wilderness, southern Colorado's San Juan range, 1985

John B. Crane in the Weminuche Wilderness, southern Colorado’s San Juan range, 1985

Years later, in May of 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted in the Cascade Mountains I had joined REI, received my first Jansport backpack and ice ax and was turning sofa cushions over in the house looking for enough money for plane fare to Seattle. As fate would have it I never made it out to photograph the mountain exploding – which is why I’m still alive today.

I devoured books by Robert Service, Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams, Of Wolves and Men), Peter Matthiesson (The Snow Leopard, Men’s Lives), Farley Mowatt (Never Cry Wolf), Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang) John Muir and John McPhee (Coming into the Country, The Control of Nature, Basin and Range), and developed a particular fascination with the Rocky Mountains, the Cascade Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest. I followed the classic, black and white photographers and while I appreciated the art form, decided I was more interested in color photography.

A particular fascination with Alaska developed and upon graduation from Colorado State with Bachelor of Fine Art, my dog Max and I caught a ride to Seattle, then caught the Alaska Marine Highway to Alaska’s Southeast for my first true foray into the wild where I lived and worked the salmon for the summer, wandering the Alaska’s inside passage between shifts.

Scow Bay, Petersburg, Alaska

Scow Bay, Petersburg, Alaska (1984)

That summer was filled with far too much to attempt to summarize here. Suffice it to say, that trip to Alaska took the beginnings of a fascination with wild places and emblazoned into my very being a thirst for which there is no quenching. Here so many years later I can see and hear and feel almost everything from that trip; the pull to return to Alaska is incessant – like gravity.

Today, a body of work has formed. While I enjoy flipping through images and the memories they trigger – I’ve come to believe it’s somewhat of a responsibility to share these images. The world has changed dramatically over those same years since 1977. Wild places continue to be eaten away by industry and development, and people today simply don’t understand – can’t comprehend – what has been lost. I’ve done my best to not be the pessimist; attempt to find the remaining open lands, wild places – and prove to myself that there’s still a lot of land out there, nothing to worry about. Lately, though – it’s getting more difficult to do this. Again – wanting to be a positive voice in the conversation – the approach I can take is to show the beauty of the land. My hope is these images will inspire a whole new generation of explorers, wanderers, travelers, seekers and dreamers to get out there and see this land we’re so blessed to live in.

Fall River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Fall River, along the Old Fall River Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Comprised of color images from around the United States – many of which were made within our spectacular National Parks System – Terra Firma attempts to focus on the land.  A seemingly endless variety of landscapes lie within Terra Firma. Topographic features from slot canyons to grand canyons. From ant hills to foothills. Front mountain ranges to still, quiet valleys and everything in between. Not all images have been made in our beautiful National Parks; many have been created in no-name stretches of empty land – between notable destinations –  because the light was right or the feature simply would not let me pass without demanding an image be made.

Delaney Buttes State Wildlife Area, North Park, Colorado

Delaney Buttes State Wildlife Area, North Park, Colorado

CONTENT, NOT PROCESS
I suppose like many photographers I use a variety of different cameras and tools to create different images. This project is a earnest attempt to – once again – step away from the process and instead focus on the contents of those four, intimidating boundaries constructing the edges of the frame. I want everything the viewer sees to communicate something about the land. To that end, you’ll see no mention what so ever of whether an image is recorded digitally or etched on film, and you’ll see nothing about what type of camera (though there are a bunch made with the Nikon F6) – or the technique with which the image is created.

I hope you enjoy Terra Firma, and more so – hope it inspires everyone inclined to get “out there” into the wild – while the wild still remains.

Peace to you, John B. Crane

Happy Fourth of July

Happy Fourth of July

Allenspark, Colorado Fourth of July Parade

Allenspark, Colorado is nestled snugly just below Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness. Each year Allenspark celebrates July 4th with a short but festive parade down the main street.

In years past my eyes have been focused upward, searching the skies above for the real Fourth of July photograph. This year I chose instead to focus on what’s right in front of me. Attending the Allenspark Fourth of July parade has become an annual event. Nestled high in the Rocky Mountains, tucked safely in the shadow of Indian Peaks Wilderness, Allenspark is where we began our married life 20 years ago today – and holds a special place for both my wife and I. As the small parade of locals passed in front of us, people, animals and vehicles adorned in American regalia, I was filled with a new appreciation for the strong character and relationships of this town – and our country. What we stand for, what’s important to us. Some days – especially in the mountains of Colorado – it’s great to be an American.

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Little Snake River Valley

Little Snake River Valley

I’ve been wanting to explore the Little Snake River Valley for years. The Little Snake River Valley sits along the Colorado/Wyoming state line and follows the Little Snake River as it tumbles out of the western flank of Colorado’s Park Range. The Little Snake is a tributary of the larger Yampa River, meandering westward in and out of Colorado and Wyoming along the state line then gradually makes its way south west to hook up with the Yampa west of Maybell and very close to Dinosaur National Park.


Evening light along Wyoming-Colorado state boundary (2014)

I was so pleased to have my wife join me on this trip. I’ve spent many hours and miles wandering alone out there and was glad for the company. All I had to do was mention fly fishing along the LSR and she was in. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how the weekend panned out. What we discovered when we hit the drainage was a whole lot of private land. At first glance, access to the river is all but eliminated by ranch after ranch, private home after private home, and miles and miles of fence line with large signs reading, “POSTED: NO TRESPASSING.” While the fishing thing didn’t materialize quite the way we’d envisioned, as in every first time into an area you learn a lot. Getting a feel for the area and traveling the roads is the first step in getting to know it. Turns out there is BLM land up there and river access – we just couldn’t find it. Some follow up calls to the BLM office and GPS will fix that though. We’ll return next time armed with more, better information.


Evening light on Moffat County Rd.7, Moffat County, Colorado (2014)

With our fishing plans shot, my objective was to return to the “town” of Great Divide, a lonesome outpost along Moffat County Rd.7 in the remote regions of the county. Several years ago I’d stumbled across it returning from the Red Desert. At the time it had been a long few days in the car so I took the opportunity to stop and rest for a bit in Great Divide. From a landscape photography point of view light was poor; a typical, blue bird, cloudless, Colorado high-altitude, sunny day (whom but a photographer would deem those conditions poor?). Regardless, I made a few frames, then began the drive south east towards Craig. It’s difficult to explain why but somehow that stop is one of the things I remember most about that particular trip. For some reason the outpost of Great Divide stayed with me for years. Occasionally I’d google it to see what turned up – virtually nothing. It was almost like it didn’t really exist. For years I’ve wanted to get back to Great Divide, hopefully in better light – and see what happened. Great Divide became our new objective.


Wyoming-Colorado state boundary, Highway 13 looking north towards Baggs, Wyoming (2014)

We hit Highway 13 south out of Baggs, Wyoming, and followed it for a mile or so before hooking up with County Road 4, then headed west. The plan was to hook up with Rd.9 and angle down to hit Great Divide for sunset. Even with a sunset calculator you can’t be absolutely certain when sunset will happen. The light was cooperating beautifully. An active sky was producing doppled clouds that drifted between the sun and earth, slightly diffusing the increasingly gorgeous light as it began to sink towards the horizon. Often times what’ll happen with an active sky is a low band of clouds will prematurely obscure the best light at the critical moment and end things early in a veil of gray. This has happened to me a lot over the years. This day, though – it looked like we had a shot at it.

My wife and I talked in the beautiful, evening light, heading down Moffat County Rd. 4 in search of the turn off. I told her as we drove, “when we get there, you’re going to think…” and she finished my sentence: “…I know…that it was all worthwhile and I’ll see how beautiful it is, right?”
“No,” I said. “You’re gonna think I’m nuts – that there’s something wrong with me. There’s really nothing there. It’s just this old building, sitting out in the middle of nowhere. I can’t even explain why I’ve had it in my head for so many years – why I need to get back. It doesn’t make any sense.”

After a few miles on 4 we checked the map again and realized we may have missed our turn off. Briefly thinking about doubling back to look again the decision was made instead to press on in case it was still before us. But it was a gamble. Rd.4 continued to Powder Wash, then angled back south east on Rd.7 to Great Divide. If you picture a triangle balanced on its point, with Great Divide the bottom, 9 would have traveled one length direct of the triangle and put us right there. Instead, we missed that turn and had to travel the other two lengths of the triangle to reach the same point. It was a sure thing; getting us there eventually, but the route was twice as far. And it was getting late. Making the decision, I hit the gas instead of the brakes – ready for whatever awaited. It seemed like an eternity but we eventually hit Powder Wash, picked up Rd.7 then angled back down, towards what I hoped was that lonely remnant of a town in the middle of nowhere, waiting for me in beautiful, evening light.

My memory of the road was a little fuzzy and looking again at the Delorem atlas it seemed like we were doing everything right. A few dusty miles clicked off the odometer as stones flew from new tire treads and hit the underside of the wheel well. I glanced at the sky, then the clock. Crap. We’re gonna be cutting it close, I thought. All of a sudden I remembered the date. It was June 20 – the day before the longest day of the year. A smile cracked my lips. “What’s the smile for,” my wife asked. I told her. We laughed, and my foot eased up on the accelerator as the pond came into view.


Great Divide, Colorado (2014)

The cows welcomed us as the car came to a halt at the bottom of the hill. Directly across the road I glanced up to see the sign: Moffat County 9. We’d missed it, but would take it home when we left. Most importantly – though – after all the stressing about light – we’d managed to hit it perfectly. After a few shots of the pond we climbed in the car and headed up the road to the only junction of Great Divide, where the Mercantile waited.


Old Mercantile Store, Great Divide, Colorado (2014)

It was still there and didn’t look a bit different – which was no surprise. After surviving for so many years alone on the high plains, a few more shouldn’t have made any difference. We pulled over across from the Old Mercantile and climbed out of the car into the gorgeous, still evening. Birds fluttered about. Back down by the pond, cows moo’d. It was serene. Still. There was no wind. The sun had continued its path towards the horizon, seeming to pull up at the last minute and wait – leaving just enough for us. I set up the tripod, picked the shots and went to work as my wife wandered Great Divide’s single intersection for the first time.

Why do places remain with us? Why some places and not others? I don’t know. What I did know that evening was, the second time to Great Divide was better than the first. It was made better by the company, the knowledge gained from the first visit, and the light. I’ll look forward with eager anticipation to our next visit to the Little Snake River Valley. And I’ll have my camera and a roll of Portra loaded and ready.

Fear and Loathing in Bushnell, Nebraska

Fear and Loathing in Bushnell, Nebraska

Pine (Bluffs), Wyoming lay at the extreme south-eastern corner of the state, a stone’s throw from Nebraska along the Old Lincoln Highway and I-80. My visit to Pine was late in the year with my dog Henry. Over the course of several months we’d seen Henry begin to slow and knew he’d begun his journey home. Not wanting to miss any opportunities with him I took the Jeep this trip, knowing he’s more comfortable than in the front seat of the Subaru.

Nearly a ghost town, Bushnell, Nebraska sits quietly on the extreme wester edge of Nebraska's panhandle. Though it may appear devoid of life at first glance - it is not.

Though it may appear largely devoid of life at first glance – the sleepy town of Bushnell, on the western edge of Nebraska’s panhandle – is not.

We parked at an I-80 rest area and took an hour-long hike on packed snow and frozen mud to the bluffs overlooking Pine. He labored only slightly, happy and excited to sniff new ground with tail wagging. We climbed back in and continued east along the Lincoln Highway. It was on this trip I was to meet the opposite of the wonderful folks of Nebraska, and catch my first whiff of danger in the region.

Bushnell lay a short drive east of Pine. It was a sunny, pleasant afternoon. The wind had lain down just enough to actually allow Autumn air room to breath. We did a few laps through the small, mostly abandon town and stopped to make some photographs. Henry was content in the back seat as I popped in and out of the car, occasionally opening the back door where he’d slide out into a field, wandering and sniffing as I worked. Getting him back into the Jeep was a little humiliating for him. At close to 100 pounds and not much help to himself he’d look at me, ears lowered, knowing what came next. I encouraged him as I lifted and we managed alright.

Near the end of the day in a remote corner of town I’d stopped along a public, dirt road and climbed out to consider making an image. The light was getting nice and the sky was active. Henry remained in the car, the back window fully down, his head hanging out, watching. About then is when I saw a large, Carhartt-clad figure approaching from the distance. With his head lowered, hands in pockets and a distinct and deliberate gate – I could tell he wasn’t relaxed.  My first thought was to get back in the car and carry on, but not wanting to flee, I resisted.

When two strangers approach on a lonesome stretch of road with no others around and darkness coming, the meeting could go any number of ways. We were both heading for life lesson.

When he got within comfortable speaking distance, the wind still quiet, I offered a casual “how are you today?” It was met with a nod, then a glare.

“What do you think you’re doing,” he asked as he approached to within 3 feet and stopped.

“I’m thinking about making a photograph,” I said. “Hi, my name is John Crane,” and offered my hand. Carhartt spit on the ground, turned his head sideways, raised his chin slightly and closed one eye and said, “Is that supposed mean something to me?”

Right about then several scenarios ran through my head. Part of my greeting was designed to expose his hands, revealing what they held. This failed – with hands remaining buried in his coat pockets. I withdrew my hand and smiled. “Nope,” I said. “Just being polite.”

“Oh, I am not a cordial man,” he replied. Then began a dissertation informing me of his version of Nebraska law; ‘the world according to Bushnell Carhartt.’ I listened without emotion. When he finished he nodded to my Colorado license plate and looked at me with the same, one-eyed squint. Taking half a step towards me said, “we don’t like your kind around here… you’d best just go on home.”

antique gas pumps

Antique gas pumps along the old Lincoln Highway, Pine Bluffs, Wyoming.

Now, we all have different personality traits – things that trigger different responses. Some people are affable, fun-loving, happy-go-lucky types. Others are nervous, high-strung and jittery. I’m pretty easy going and do my best to live in accordance with Biblical principles – but God’s not finished with me yet and the numbers one and two hot button issues with me are bullies and intimidation. Especially when they’re not in possession of the facts – or the truth – and are skewing events to support their mission: to bully and intimidate. I hate bullies, of any size and shape, and won’t stand for it.

Henry knew something was up and I glanced his way. The ears on his large, black head were alert and he was sitting up taller in the front seat. Carhartt’s hands were still in his pockets and I took a step forward and said, “I’m pretty sure I can do what ever I want.”

Carhartt looked up, clearly not expecting that response, and casually took half a step back. “This is a public road,” I continued, and I’m not infringing on anyone’s privacy being here. Is this  your land?” I asked, going on the offensive, nodding to the grain bin along the road.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be here and no one has given you permission to take a picture.”

“I don’t need your permission to make a photograph on public land,” I said, not backing down.

“You’re stealing,” he said, “you’re ‘taking’ something when you ‘take a picture.’ You’d better be careful,” he threatened – now beginning to walk backwards, away from me, hands till in his jacket pocket.

At this a low growl emerged from the Jeep.

The sudden emergence of unmistakable ignorance changes everything. It’s at that point you realize further discussion is pointless and – one way or another – it’s best if the conversation simply ends.

“I’m pretty sure I can do whatever I want,” I repeated, my intonation unequivocally final. By now Henry was half out the Jeep’s window as Carhartt slowly began his retreat.

“Have a wonderful day,” I said, sensing victory.

What happened next has been a source of regret since. Carhartt’s back shown to me, Henry behind me, I added, “Can I make a photograph of you?”

“No you may not,” he said without turning around. I watched him as he strolled back to the mailboxes at the foot of his driveway a few hundred yards away then disappeared towards the shed.

Antique Dealers, Bushnell, Nebraska

Having recently purchased one of the historic, decayed buildings in Bushnell, this husband and wife were beginning the process of renovation.

I was shaking and wanted nothing more than to get out of there. He’d ruined the day. Up until that exchange I’d had a wonderful time, interacting with another couple in town, even making their portrait in the Antique Shop they’d recently purchased and had begun to remodel. It was all gone now because of this guy. I walked back towards the car, replaying the encounter in my head and realized Carhartt never removed his hands from his pockets. He’d probably been holding a gun the whole time. Shaking now, I climbed back into the drivers seat and sat for a moment – but couldn’t leave. Not just yet. He’d have accomplished what he’d set out to do if I didn’t stay long enough to finish my work.

The railroad ran through town, which always makes for interesting subject matter. I spent another half-hour shooting around there, making very certain to remain on public land. When I was finished I packed up and headed out.

I’m not proud of how I responded to this encounter. The drive home offered a lot of time to rehearse more kind, patient replies – that I’ve since forgotten. Later that evening upon arriving home I told my wife and son about the day – all of it – and realized I wasn’t setting the example for my son I’d have liked. This was humbling. I thought briefly about returning the following weekend to his home, knocking on the door and apologizing. I then remembered his hands buried in his pockets and realized I’d actually have to be on his land to do so – and reconsidered.

Interstate 80, Nebraska

Last light on Interstate 80 through Nebraska.

This 111,000 square miles of “The 4042n West” is big land. If and when things go sideways you’d better have a plan. This event began the process of considering a hand gun and concealed weapons permit – only not concealing it. In the future, allowing a weapon to be visible to all who wish to approach and say hello seems a good way of attracting the right kind of folks.

I’ve always been what I’d consider a socially responsible photographer. The last thing I want to do is stick a camera in the face of the unwilling to provoke such a response as was that of Carhartt. That said, no matter how hard you try it simply isn’t possible to anticipate every unpleasant encounter. One could elect to not risk visiting other small towns, but these people don’t just live in small towns. They’re everywhere. The truth is for every unpleasant encounter there are many others of the opposite nature. Allowing one bad apple to unduly influence decisions wouldn’t be right. Images from the day were mediocre, but the lesson grand: pay attention, keep your wits about you and know the law. Having a big, black dog doesn’t hurt, either.

Post Script: Early April the following year Henry went home. He can’t be replaced. But when the time comes to fall in love with a new pooch it’ll most certainly be a large, black, labrador retriever. Maybe then together we’ll revisit Bushnell, Nebraska. And try again.

Honesty

Honesty

I went on one of my 4042n jaunts last Saturday, this time to SoapStone Prairie Open Space, a relatively new area at the extreme edge of Colorado. You can cross into Wyoming on one of the short backcountry trails. Having decided the goal for the day was to record honest images, I headed out with a pack full of Portra 160, some Ektar, some Delta and of course Tri-X.

soapstone prairie natural area, fort collins, colorado
Soapstone Prairie Morning, Extreme Northern Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

What do I mean by honest images. I mean images of an area that don’t happen for a split second once a month, then are gone. An honest image is an unpretentious image. An honest image represents what an area looks like 99.9% of the time, not .1% of the time, deceiving viewers into believing every minute of every day looks like magic hour. An honest image means heading out when nothing’s flowering, nothing’s blooming and nothing’s having babies. An honest image is two does and a buck watching you work your way up the trail in grey-blue hour, wondering if you’re there to kill them, and deciding your not.


North of Wellington, Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

The honest image means a natural color film. Not a digital camera. Not Velvia (though I do think honest images can be made on Velvia). The temptation with Velvia is to force it into the dishonest realm – to compromise it. Juice it. An honest image means no Photoshop monkey business. It means no pano’s, no stitching, and for the love of all things good and right in the world, no HDR. An honest image means being intentional about the media you choose to record a scene that’s chosen you. An honest image means no black and white conversions. It means no cropping your way to a good image. It means thinking in series, or working for the stand-alone, solitary shot that needs no caption, no tag line.


Evolution of a front range sunset, no.3, Fort Collins, Colorado (Kodak Ektar)

An honest image means medium format, 120 fine-grained, color negative film to capture every bit of nuance, every slight tonal variation, every bit of every square inch of everything in front of your fixed, focal-length (non-zooming) lens as you stand behind the tripod with the cable release in hand and trip the shutter. An honest image means waiting. It means looking intently for composition and it means missing. It means seeing a shot and not being able to frame it properly and passing it by, but allowing it to burn into your brain for next time.


Rawhide Power Plant, Northern Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

An honest image means it fits the subject matter. Northern Colorado and southern Wyoming aren’t Disneyland. The land is muted, earthen hues. Greens, mauves, ochres, tans, cobalt blues, cadmium reds, burnt sienna’s; big skies, small plants, ugly rocks and lots of wind. It’s bright, sunny, high-altitude light out of dynamic range praying for a cloud to drift between the sun and the earth to make a shot. An honest image means driving for hours and stopping in the middle of an unmarked county dirt road to turn around to make a shot that you pray you can make before a car comes over the hill and… because with the wind blowing and the hood on your Carhartt up you can’t hear anything more than 3 feet away. An honest image means getting dusty and dirty kneeling down in the the ditch. It means chasing your hat across the prairie when the wind takes it.

red mountain open space, fort collins, colorado
Near Red Mountain Open Space, Northern Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

An honest image means no trespassing. It means closing gates behind you and honoring the mandate to stay on the trail – and missing the shot you want because you did. An honest image begins an hour before sun up and ends an hour after sun down. It means a last tilt of the thermos of tepid, too-strong coffee for something to drink at the end of the day. An honest image means washboard roads, AM talk radio, bugs in the radiator and chipped windscreens. It means nearly running out of fuel and paying too much a gallon at the nearly closed, sporting good-convenient store-fast-food chain-delicatessen-truck stop-fuel mart that smells like burnt coffee and is out of TP.

An honest image means – above all else – joy. Peace. Solitude. Creative immersion. It means Discovery. An honest image is a very, very good thing.

Post-Lude: In the spirit of “honesty,” this post was first published in my previous blog, written when I was shooting a lot of medium format film. Images in this post were not made with the Nikon F6 on 35mm film, but the Mamiya RZ67 on 120 (medium format) film. Not that anyone cares – or would ever know.