With respect

There are many people who believe that the saddest piece of music ever written is the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. That piece of music is absolutely on of my favorites, but for me the saddest music will always be the sound a solo bugle playing Taps. Nine years ago I listened to that sound at my father’s funeral and I wept. It never fails to pierce my soul when I hear it. It never fails to take me back to that moment of loss. And it never fails to remind me to be grateful to all who have served in the armed forces. That is especially true listening to it on Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is an annual favorite of mine. There are so many opportunities for beautiful images — it is exceptionally easy to photograph and simultaneously poignant. This year I photographed two events: a Sunday service at Grace Baptist Church that focused on remembering those who are lost and classified as POW/MIA and a second at a little cemetery called Fairview with a color guard, honor guard, and the playing of Taps. My favorite photo from the lot is this of Andrew Bergstrom hanging flags outside the church early Sunday morning. There are many versions of this photo, some that are quiter, some that have more flags, or compositions I preferred, but of all of them, this one, where he is just stepping up to hang the flag, this one had the feel of what photographers refer to as a moment. So, we went with this picture as our main art for tomorrows paper and these were some of the secondaries…
Some years after my father’s funeral I was introduced to the so-called lyrics to Taps. From what information I have gathered the lyrics are unofficial. They music was not originally written with lyrics in mind, but somewhere along the line someone wrote some and they became commonly associated with those simple notes.

Day is done
Gone the sun
From the lakes
From the hills
From the skies
All is well
Safely rest
God is nigh.

With deepest respect I send my thanks to all who have served.

Excessive Peacockery

I’m sure that somewhere it is written that it is in poor taste to mock a peacock, but really, when you see them shake their tail feathers, laughter is the only logical response.

On Saturday while visiting friends in Oregon I went to the Maryhill Museum and was treated to quite a show by the local celebs. The museum is home to a flock of ostentatious, loud, and beautiful peacocks and peahens. Before we could enter the museum my friends, Leah and Joanna, and I, were sidetracked by the colorful display and the gorgeous sunlight. When these birds decide to put on a show they are hard to ignore. There is the sound. They announce themselves with fervor. And then there is the famous spreading of their feathers creating their own private cove of eyes and color. But the funniest part of the show is the behind the scenes display.

The three of us managed to get quite close to a beautiful male. I think he was flirting with Leah and Joanna, but perhaps there was a peahen nearby that I failed to notice. On his own he was quite impressive, but in the course of his attention-gathering dance he had a tendency to turn in circles. And the moments when those incredible feathers would catch the sunlight, that’s when you had to catch your breath in admiration. Stunning.
But then, poor soul, he would keep turning, and the rear view is significantly less awe-inspiring. Comical would be a better adjective. Hysterical also comes to mind. It’s almost as if to balance the beautiful display from the front, Mother Nature played a practical joke on him and made him look like a fool whenever he decides to show off. Maybe that is lesson intended for us. A warning as it were. Or simply excessive anthropomorphism on my part. Whatever the case, we had a lot of fun photographing these boys.


Since moving here I have seen members of my wolf pack four times. I have heard them out crying in the night countless times but I have never been able to capture one on film. Until this morning. Behind the house is a hill that leads up into a vast forest. The wolf made his way down the hill today and stood outside my bedroom window listening as Nova, Valerie’s dog, barked her head off here inside the house. He didn’t stay long. Only a moment. But long enough for me to grab my camera bag, change from my wide-angle to the telephoto and snap a few frames.

This one is my favorite. It’s not the closest that he was to the house, but I like the scene.

A wolf. A wild wolf. Not safe within a zoo or a sanctuary. A real wolf. Right outside. And finally, finally, finally, just when I am about to end my time here in rural Olney I have a photograph of him. This is a member of my pack. The pack of wolves that I will think of as “mine” for as long as I live in Montana.

I’m going to miss them. With all the wildlife that I have been able to see since moving here, nothing has filled me with such awe as the wolves. And now, I have a tangible memory to take away with me. Such is the joy of photographs — with captured images moments live longer than their allotted sixty seconds.

Not finished yet…

I had hoped to have a collection of the best of my cherry blossoms to post tonight, but it was a spectacular day here in Northwest Montana and I couldn’t bear to stay locked indoors and working on my computer. So, soon…I promise.

But in the mean time, this is one of the pictures from my evening photo shoot. The light is so much better, but I’ll go more into that when I have all the pictures edited and when I have time to write.

A few weeks ago I purchased my latest poetry book — Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. It’s not a book I can rush through. I pick it up and read a few poems and the stories of the lives that ended just before the poems were written. This is the kind of book I read only bit by bit. That is why it is ironic to me that tonight I found a poem written by the poet Basho. He wrote this after meeting a friend he had not seen in twenty years.

Within your life and mine
there lives
a cherry blossom.

And with that, I shall call it a night and say farewell.

Cherry Blossoms Festival?

Without reservation one of my favorite times of year in Washington D.C. was always the weeks when the cherry blossoms came into bloom and the city became overrun with photographers. After three years with those blossoms the flowers have come to be the heart of Spring to me. Getting out there to photograph them has become a yearly ritual, one I am bereft without.

When I moved away I knew that those blossoms would be the one aspect of the city that I would consistently miss. And I do. I miss getting up at 4 a.m. to catch the metro into the city at just after 5 to view the famed trees contrasted against the memorials and architecture of the nation’s capital. I miss walking around the tidal basin for views of the Jefferson Memorial. I miss the trees that surround the Washington Monument. I miss watching the photographers, pros and amateur alike, all desperately trying to capture that one perfect flower.

Personally I like to shoot with a set of macro lenses when photographing the cherry blossoms. True — the slightest breeze can make your head spin with frustration, but for the way I like to shoot these really are the best way to get close. The way I like to shoot incidentally is without a tripod. I know. I know. This is pure sacrilege to some, but even when doing scenic photography I seldom shoot with a tripod. I prefer the freedom I have become accustomed to by the nature of photojournalism to the formal, restrictive, and slow work that goes along with tripod-use.

While doing an internet search for possible photo ideas for the paper I began seeing flyers and advance notice about cherry blossom festivals here in Montana. As I have been missing the blossoms that caught my attention easily. Out in the middle of nowhere Montana you are not going to see the classic white marble contrasted against the delicate pink blossoms. Here they grow cherry trees for the fruit, not the flowers. But the fact that they grow here was enough to have me excited. So, I contacted one of the local growers and got permission to visit The Orchard of the Flathead Lake in Yellow Bay.

The Orchard sits high on a hill overlooking the huge expanse of water that is the Flathead. The owner agreed to meet me there at 11:30. My heart sank a little at the time she mentioned because all photographers love the low light of dawn and dusk, but I’m desperate so I’ll take what I can get. At 11:30 it is incredibly bright. And the blossoms on this particular farm are white. The bees are buzzing around, the skies are rich and blue and fortunately the trees are mostly protected from the wind. I spent an hour there photographing the blossoms for the paper. And happy as I was with the images I really wanted to be there for the better light.

Once, when I was young, in my first year as a professional photographer, I took a chance on dream assignment. I asked for something I had no right to. I asked and shock and amazement I was told yes. I got so much more than I had hoped for. Having that kind of moment changed the way I do photography ever after. And to this day, when I want something I simply tell myself, “Ask. The worst they can do is say no.”

With that in mind I asked for permission to return that evening and photograph the blossoms at sunset. And she said yes. Those photos are coming later today, but for now, these are the pix I shot in the brightest light that ran in the Daily Inter Lake. One of the things I have enjoyed the most about my job at the DIL is that we do more scenic stuff here. I get more opportunities to combine my work photography with the kind of things I would photograph strictly for my own soul. I really am loving life out here in Montana. And I’m already plotting for how I shall cover the blossoms next year.

What I shall miss…

I have decided to move south. I had planned on enjoying the summer out here in rural Olney, but I have been offered a room I cannot turn down. The rent is cheaper and it is within walking distance of work. As much as I enjoy the scenery around me out here, this choice is beyond obvious. My last day this far north? June 13th. I am moving into my new place starting on June the first so that gives me a little time to sort and organize and plan. I don’t enjoy moving, so with any luck the place I am moving to now will be more of a permanent move.

I am relocating to the great metropolis of Kalispell, Montana — population: 21,182. Twenty-one thousand people really isn’t my idea of a city but when you compare that to where I live now… population of Whitefish: 5,844. That’s quite jump. Especially when taken into account that although my address is Whitefish, I live closer to Olney — population: 159.

The big benefit of this move is going to be proximity. I will be closer to work and closer to many of my friends. Work is pleased. Now I will be available for breaking news events. Before this calling me to breaking news was about useless as I was a minimum of 40 minutes away (and that is  when I’m speeding). But there are things that I shall miss. There are deer that congregate around my home on a daily basis and I am going to miss watching them cross through the yard. There is the sound of my wolf pack, and the rare and precious glimpses I catch of them. And last night as I lay down to sleep and stared up at my windows filled with the brightest stars I knew I would miss those most of all.

The twins

So, I have begun taking more time to photograph some of my favorite things out here. On Monday I was thrilled to see my deer again at sunset. They came through browsing for their evening meal and I caught them out in that perfect sunset light. Now all I need is a really great shot of my wolves and I will be able to leave without any regrets.

Another thing I shall miss, my evening walks here. It is finally warm enough that I can come in from work, have dinner and go out for a walk without freezing. My road is three miles long, but I have a telephone pole at 2 miles from my house – that’s my turn around point. Tonight I went out for my sunset walk and on the whole trek I saw only one car. I am really going to miss the isolation of this place.

Snow. Seriously?

It snowed again yesterday. Snow. In May. Am I kidding? Nope. Welcome to Montana.

For the past two days it’s been bitingly cold and we’ve had snow flurries. On Wednesday I actually woke up to heavy cloud cover and blanket of that fluffy, sticky, damp snow that makes the whole world white, but doesn’t stick to the roads. Actually, I can’t complain too much about the snow because in it I found my first red fox.

I was driving on Holt Stage Road near Creston. Creston is one of those blink-and-miss-it towns, it’s situated between Kalispell and Bigfork. I was out there trying to photograph the snow and the mountains as a possible weather feature for the paper. As I was leaving I saw a mangy looking dog out in the snowy field. I thought it was a dog, but since I had time on my hands I decided to get a closer look. Turns out what I was seeing was a red fox carrying its kill back to the den.

I have begun carrying my 300mm lens around with me everywhere. Here in Montana, more than anywhere else I’ve lived, this lens has been my favorite time and again. Deer. Elk. Cranes. And now a fox. The wildlife here never ceases to impress me. It’s beautiful. In places like DC nature is distinctively removed. Wildlife either refers to club hotspots, or that which one might encounter in the wilderness. Montana on the other hand, is a wilderness. And daily life bumps into the wilds of nature minute by minute. This morning the deer were out walking across the driveway again. I can say again now because this has become a near daily thing. I still get a thrill out of seeing them so close, but I don’t run for my camera every time now. They just are. They are a part of this place and truly, this is more their home than mine. The snow and cold I could easily live without. The wildlife? No. I’m enjoying that way too much to part with it.

A New Obsession

Ben and my new friend Caitlyin

I’m completely obsessed. That’s usually the way it goes with me. I find something I enjoy and then it becomes more than a passing interest, it becomes a consuming point of fascination. The latest obsession in my life…Swing dancing.

It started simply enough with a photo assignment. Earlier this month I man came into the office to pitch a story idea. His name is Pete and he was there to say that he and his friend Joe were hosting a Lindy Hop dance at the Sassafras Ballroom in Kalispell and would the paper be interested in covering it. It’s Friday afternoon when he’s telling me this and the dance is that night. Internally I groaned. I don’t want to work late. It’s my weekend. Dang it. So, I took his name and information and said I would check the schedule. Really there is nothing to check, the only person available is me and I don’t want to go. But I also don’t want to be rude, so this creates a nice “get out of jail free card” for me.

After he left and I began walking back to my desk I immediately started thinking about how cool an event like this might be in terms of photos. As a photographer, once that happens, I’m hooked. It doesn’t matter that it’s been a long day. It doesn’t matter that I want to go home. It doesn’t matter that this is going to postpone my wonderfully beloved three-day weekend. All that matters is the possibility of intriguing imagery. How dressed up will everyone get? We have a ballroom in Kalispell? Dancing always makes for nice photos. What if this could be a Montana Life feature? It took me the length of the newsroom to know absolutely that there was no way I could miss this dance. And by the time I reached my desk I wanted to go. So, I called Pete, thanked him for the story idea and let him know that I would in fact be in attendance.

The Sassafras Ballroom is not a ballroom per se. It is a historic space located behind one of the businesses that lines Main Street. From what I have gathered it was originally a health club of sorts built in the early 1900’s. While it may not have been intended as a dance scene, it easily serves the purpose. Hardwood floors, nice windows, good light and even a chandelier-type lighting fixture. It also has a narrow walkway around the top of the room great for speakers and perfect for a photographer interested in the view from above. I loved it on sight.

When I arrived Pete and Joe, the guys responsible for the dance, were teaching some of the  basics of Lindy Hop. I hadn’t seen Joe before but Pete was a complete surprise. He came into the office after his shift at Colter Coffee, dressed in grey and faded jeans looking positively “scruffy.” He and Joe were easy to pick out because they were the only two guys in formal shirts and ties. Within minutes I knew I had made the right decision to come to the dance. A great space. Cool people. Fantastic music. And best of all, smile after smile. These people were having fun. Lots of it. And that only adds to the photographs. When someone is genuinely into what they are doing and enjoying themselves, they tend to be less self-conscious about having their picture taken.

Photos from my first excursion to the Sassafras

I think I was there for about an hour. And for most of that time I had a smile of my own on my face. I easily got enough photos to do the Montana Life feature. Montana Life is a photographer’s showcase of sorts — it’s a section of the paper that usually runs a photo package of between 5 and 8 images. If you are interested in hearing from Joe and Pete and seeing the slideshow it is posted on the Daily Inter Lake site. As it turns out for this Montana Life I did the photos as well as the story. Although I have a degree in journalism I seldom write anything other than cutlines. But a reporter didn’t get to go to the event. No one from the paper saw it but me and I wanted to write it. I didn’t want the experience to end. Days later I was sitting down to interview Pete and Joe. Pete said, “We had to tell our buddies from Seattle that you left with what us swing dancers know as ‘that smile’ that we all had.” In the course of writing the article I learned that the buddies from Seattle, the ones who taught Pete and Joe were coming to Montana for a workshop. I think I knew right then that I would have to go.

Eastside Stomp instructors Peter Flahiff, Ben White and Mark Smith

The workshop was this weekend. The teachers from Eastside Stomp (located in Seattle) came out to Lakeside, Mont. and put on a two-day workshop. Did I mention that dancing is far, far, far outside my habits and routines? Even the idea of dancing is  a fear-inducing phenomenon. And yet, somehow that didn’t matter. I went. Our teacher, Ben, noted that it’s difficult to cram a month’s worth of classes into two days, but for me it was absolutely worth my time. I had so much fun. Tripped over my own feet far too often of course, but outside of that, I loved it. I probably would have headed north for home once the classes ended, but my friends made me promise that I would come at least for while to the social dance.

The Sassafras is perfect for this kind of event, and even better, it was built in the period when this kind of dancing was going on. The guys in their suits, the girls in their vintage outfits. It was stunning. So, of course, at this point I reverted back to my comfort zone and became a photographer again. And what do you know, I got some photos I loved. My memories from this weekend are now linked up to lively jazz music, wild dancing, and the chance to be both in and out of my own comfort zone.

Sunday night social dance

As it turns out, I got much more than I expected from this experience. I really enjoy the music. Before he left Ben gave me a list of musicians to check out. Benny Goodman. Count Basie. Duke Ellington. Glen Miller. These are names I’ve heard before. But there are others that don’t sound even vaguely familiar. Boilermaker Jazz Band. Django Rginhardt. Cats and the Fiddle. Mora’s Modern Rythmists. Next stop: the iTunes store. 🙂