First Trek of the Year

I’m feeling a little bit guilty. I live in photographer heaven, a place I am constantly in awe of, and yet I’ve let two and a half months go by before I finally got around to going up to Glacier.

Snow capped peaks reflected in Lake McDonald

I have plenty of excuses if I want them. Glacier is mostly snowbound at this time of year — and you know how much disdain the snow. The roads are closed, the temperatures are unwelcoming at best, and the skies are often a dismal shade of overcast. But those are all excuses. And lame ones at that.

Yesterday was one of those perfect days. Warmer than it’s been in months, the sun shining, the skies big and blue. It was gorgeous. Too good to waste. And Glacier has been calling my name. So I made my first trek of the year up to the park.

I actually went with a plan. I knew exactly where I wanted to go. I set off with plenty of time and headed for a park that I had first found when my friends JP and Nicole came out to visit me. We got there via canoe. But after their visit I went exploring and found you could also get there in your vehicle. Well, that park is where I wanted to go. Did I mention the roads being closed by snow? Yeah. Well, the road to my park. Closed. And after last week’s misadventure with the Jeep and the snow and dumb luck of my salvation (Thank you God for sending people to rescue me) I didn’t even contemplate attempting that road. Nope. I decided to walk.

For as much as I dislike snow there is something calming about walking in it. It’s the sound. The sound of boots crunching the snow. On the trail I took I ran into no other soul so it was just me making noise out there. Me and the wind in the trees. And in all that stillness I felt such peace. That’s one of the reasons I love Glacier.

As I walked I could catch the occasional glimpse of the peaks through the trees. Not enough of a view to make a picture but enough to let me know I was missing the the light. I don’t know how far I walked but I came to realize that I was going to have to go too far to get to the park I wanted. And if I stayed for sunset that would mean a long hike back in the dark. I had not come prepared for that kind of hiking. So, rather than push on to the photos I wanted I decided to cut my losses and head back. Even though I had given up on photos for the day, I was not disappointed, just being out in the sunlight and fresh air had done wonders for me.

When I finally made it back to my car one of the other vehicles had pulled out. That’s when I saw a promising little trail through the snow. The day was coming to a close but it wasn’t over yet so I thought, why not? I grabbed my camera and two lens and took off again through the snow.

Lake McDonald

Note to self: next time thoroughly examine the parking area before deciding which trail to take. Less than a minute on that trail and I had a gorgeous view of Lake McDonald. Most of the lake is frozen over but from the run off creek I had a glassy reflecting pool that made for some lovely images. And I even managed to catch the last of the sunlight to hit the peaks. I couldn’t have asked for better.

Well, sunset could have been more colorful. That would have been nice. But sunset was a rather subdued affair last night. The light simply faded away without much drama. Not ideal for a photographer, but you never know what you are going to get, that’s part of the challenge to this game.

I went back to my jeep and decided to head for home. But when I got to the fork where you can either go up toward Lake McDonald Lodge, or exit, I went toward the lodge. And I’m glad I did. Because that is when I caught the only color I would see that night and got my last shots of the day. So here it is, the wrap up shot, all in all, it was the perfect end and the perfect beginning. You see, my plan is to spend a lot more time in Glacier this year. I have a ton more to explore up there. So in spite of the fact that I feel guilty about not going sooner, I am also feeling blessed that I had such a wonderful first trip of the year. I take it as a good omen for days and treks yet to come.

Lake McDonald at sunset

Idiot Photographer Dies

Over my years as a photographer I have developed the habit of writing my own headlines. Invariably my headlines begin with the words “Idiot Photographer Dies…” The idiot photographer that we are contemplating in these headlines is, of course, me.

Stuck in the Snow at the Hungry Horse Dam

“Idiot Photographer Dies by Walking of Rim of Grand Canyon.” I almost did that once while shooting a portrait. Fortunately my assistant saw where I was headed and yelled at me to STOP MOVING.

“Idiot Photographer Dies While Photographing Board Meeting.” You know those tall swivel chairs, the ones that rotate? They are not meant to be stood on. And yet if you can control the amount of spin you can get a somewhat out of the ordinary shot of a boring business meeting. But that’s a pretty big if. It was fascinating to watch their expressions as suddenly I became the focus of the meeting and all were wondering if I was going to fall off that dumb chair. Sigh.

One of my favorites… “Idiot Photographer Dies When Struck by Lightning.” When I lived in Kansas I used to love to go out storm chasing. I never did catch a tornado, but I did get several nice lightning shots. One day I was out waiting for a storm to roll through. I had a rough idea of it’s path and my goal was to get a head of it and photograph it before the rain actually started to hit my location. Smart, eh? I even had a beautiful compositional element to add depth to my photo – a deserted railroad track leading off into the distance. Here’s where the stupidity sets in. For a while I was actually sitting on those tracks. But then it occurred to me that the metal rails were a perfect conductor. That they could be struck by lighting miles away and still end up killing me. I got off the tracks. But, I didn’t go far. I wanted that compositional element. An hour goes by and the storm gets closer. And just as I begin to take pictures the tracks are hit by a lightning bolt. That bolt did in fact travel all the way down from where it hit to my location. Then the electricity did something I’ve never seen before. It arched. It jumped the track. What I remember is a bright, white, powerful pop right near my eyes as the bolt jumped from the track to the metal ring that makes up the filter for my lens. That scared me. I packed up my stuff and sped home as fast as I could go. I didn’t want anything more to do with that particular storm. I just ran.

Since my relocation to Montana I haven’t had a whole lot of these headlines to write. Perhaps this is because I am finally gaining a bit of common sense as I grow up? I might have hoped that were true before today. Sigh. Again. There are two headlines that come to mind prior to today. Ironically, they both involve my Jeep.

“Idiot Photographer Dies While Locked Inside Jeep.” It gets cold here in Montana. Colder than I had ever seen it. One day I had to fight my way into the Jeep in order to get from my home in the boonies to the office. Once I got inside the door wouldn’t quite stay shut so I slammed and locked it from the inside, then drove to Kalispell. The door froze solid as I drove and when I got to the office I was well and truly shut in. I even had a co-worker try to get me out of there. Nothing worked. Keep in mind, this was pretty early on in my career at the Inter Lake. Imagine my chagrin as I had to call my new boss from the parking lot and explain that I was in fact at work, I just couldn’t get into the building because I couldn’t get out of my Jeep. I had to drive the Jeep to a mechanic with a blow torch to heat up the lock and open the door.

The other headline I blogged about last year. I took my Jeep out onto some north facing trails before they were fully thawed. I’m extremely lucky to have survived that one. And the reason I survived is that the Jeep is usually exceptionally good at saving me from my own stupidity. Today I finally managed to put my Jeep into a mess that the Jeep alone could not save me from. I drove up a snow impacted trail not realizing that the five feet of snow I was driving on was not nearly as solid as it looked. I tried digging out. I tried to stand in the door way and push while hitting the gas (that was less than graceful) and when I realized I was not going to be able to get the truck out without help I gave up and called my boss to get the number of the nearest newspaper to ask for help.

I won’t bore you with details of the time I spent waiting. Listening eagerly for the sound of my rescuers. Cold. And exceeding irritated with my own mistakes. Once again, I am blogging — proof positive that the idiot photographer has yet again cheated death. Trapped in the snow has been reduced to mere “technical difficulties” — because one photographer and three snowmobilers later I am free. It took me and four guys pushing to get the Jeep out of the snow. Thank God they were there. Thank God I had just enough cell service to make two phone calls. Thank God it was a beautiful day and there were people out and about. And now that I am safely home I thank God for a lot. Like warmth and daylight and yes, even lessons learned. I’ve finally met circumstances the Jeep cannot defeat. And now that I am aware of these limitations I can behave accordingly. And hey, it wasn’t a total loss. After all, I did get to write another headline for myself. That’s always a positive (it beets the crap out of actually dying and not being able to write my sarcastic little headlines.)

Parting Shot — One of my rescuers out on the frozen reservoir

Exploring a New Arena

I am not great at embracing new technology. I am a professional photographer working in the digital age but I cling to my traditional ways of doing things even as I slowly move further and further into the new possibilities that digital offers. This has been especially true when it comes to the wonderful world of video. Both here at the Daily Inter Lake and at my old newspaper, the Prince George’s Gazette, there has been a clear move toward greater web content – specifically video. And in both cases I have done an impressive job of dragging my feet rather than embracing this new form of storytelling.

“Why should I have to do this?” I ask. If I wanted to be a videographer I would have gone into television. I love being a photographer – a still photographer. And I have stuck to this mentality basically wishing that the video fad would simply dry up and go away. Three years in and I’ve seen video move from fad to new trend to unshakable reality. Welcome to a whole new world. With an incredible amount of new stuff I have to learn.

Over the years I have done a few videos at work. Nothing major and certainly nothing I would want to put into my portfolio. But recently I began working with a local sculptor. His name is Sunti Pichetchaiyakul. His work is stunningly beautiful. He does these incredible bronze sculptures that combine extreme accuracy and detail in the face of his subjects with a much more impressionistic base. His wife Erica took this picture of Sunti work on the sculpture of Crazy Horse. To make this sculpture Sunti worked with the descendants of Crazy Horse to come up with an image of the man that is genuine and historically accurate. Accuracy is one of the things Sunti values most in his art.Currenlty Sunti is working on a commissioned statue of the Buddha for a temple in Michigan. This is where I come into the story because he and his wife are interested in adding some videos their website. My immediate reaction to their request? I said no. I said I can’t do that. I am an amateur videographer at best. They need to find someone more qualified. But that someone was not available. So they decided to have me give it my best. And now I am glad they put their faith in me and gave me this opportunity.

Sometimes it seems that video and still photography are radically different. But really, that’s not true. The rules of composition are the same. What makes a good shot for film works for video as well. The editing program is different, and that has been a stumbling block for me, but once you get past the programing issues videography is still a visual art. And I’ve been doing this stuff for more than a decade now.

Actually, what I have begun to realize is that big difference between photography and videography is the sheer volume of what you must shoot in order to tell the story. In newspapers space is always at a premium. There is never enough room for all your shots. That can get depressing. And it can lead to certain amount of visual laziness. Why should I go on assignment looking for ten great shots when I know there will only be enough room for two, or if I am really lucky three? Can’t do that with videography. The shots have to keep changing. You have to find as many details as you can. And it all has to come together in an interesting way otherwise you’ll lose your audience. As I’ve been working on these projects with Sunti and Erica I’ve realized, I actually like video. It’s a new challenge. And it’s certainly got me up on my toes.

And then, as if video wasn’t enough of a challenge for me, the stakes in the game just shot way up. Sunti is being considered for an honorary doctoral degree of fine arts in sculpture from Rajamangala University of Technology Isan in Nakhon Rachasima, Thailand. And this video, is one of the things Sunti will submit as evidence of what he has achieved as an artist. This video, and the next that I am already working on, will in part determine whether or not he gets this honor. Also, Sunti is being considered for the David Letterman Show. But before they can proceed, they want video. Guess who’s doing the shooting… Actually the shooting is done. I filmed Sunti doing a 19 minute quick sculpt in the snow and freezing cold last weekend. When I finish this blog entry I’ll go back to editing that video and I’ll post it sometime here in the next few days. But for now I want to share what I have already done.

I got the nod of approval from Erica and Sunti tonight. They were both so enthusiastic and encouraging. I am beyond pleased to know that they are happy with the work. And, more than that, I am really happy with it. This is the first video project I’ve done that I am honestly proud of. When you get all the way to the end there is a video by clip. Video by: Brenda Ahearn Photography Copyright 2011.

I have no idea where all of this is going to lead. Who knows what doors are going to be opened by exploring this new arena. What I do know is that I am being challenged to become a better visual story teller. And I am so excited about what I will get to learn next.

Ok… So, to see the video check out:

And now the second video is up and running. Sunti at Brew Fest doing a Quick Sculpt: