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The recent PBS show on Garry Winogrand got me thinking about my own very brief attempts at street photography, mostly while living in Philadelphia.

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Walter Mondale Rally, Philadelphia, September 1984

Garry Winogrand spent his entire adult life walking the streets with a couple Leicas around his neck, shooting hundreds of thousands of negatives. I was a poor graduate student, and my camera was a tiny Rollie 35 that I bought for $25 because someone had stripped the stop pin off the lens focus, and then put the lens back on the wrong set of threads. I think I got it back together right, but I had to preselect the focus, and my photos often are out of focus in the foreground. And I didn’t shoot that much film—a few dozen rolls over a few years.

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Walter Mondale Rally, Philadelphia, September 1984

I learned that a great time to photograph was during events—like the victory parade for the 76ers, or the annual Mummers Day parade. I learned that the audience was often at least as interesting as the event. There were also political rallies, but those had a more solemn tone.

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Penn Football Game, 1984

On July 4, 1985, the Beach Boys came to Philadelphia after Nancy Reagan said they weren’t welcomed on the mall in DC. There must have been a million people there, the biggest crowd I’d ever seen. After dark, they put up eight million dollars worth of fireworks.

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Beach Boys Concert, Philadelphia, July 4, 1985

So most of these photographs are 35 years old—most of the people in them are approaching retirement. And what strikes me about them is what isn’t there—no cell phones, no ear buds. Everyone is present and paying attention.

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Outside Live Aid, Philadelphia, 1985

So, I ain’t Garry Winogrand, don’t presume to be—but these photos seem to be aging well…


I sometimes wander into antique stores, hoping to find a treasure—but almost never do. But a few days ago, I hit at least a minor jackpot—three photographs from the great woods of the northwest, during the time they were being cut.

Antique store find–Photographer and date unknown

I’m familiar with the work of Darius Kinsey, but he arranged his photographs more formally, and worked with bigger cameras, and also labeled the negatives more carefully. I’m fairly certain that these pictures are not his.

Antique Store Find–Photographer and Date unknown

These pictures are not in great shape—the mounts are aging from acid, and the photos are water stained—probably from being thumbtacked to the wall of some poorly insulated cabin, the result being water condensing between the print and the wall. But, of course, that’s part of the charm of these photos—someone looked at these pictures every day for years.

Antique Store Find–Photographer and Date unknown

I have no idea exactly where these photos were made—if anyone has any idea, please comment…


North Pacific Grain Growers Terminal, Spokane, April 11, 2019

The North Pacific Grain Growers terminal in Spokane was built sometime during the 1930s, and remained an active grain terminal until the 1980s.  It has apparently been sitting vacant since that time.  It is currently being demolished, a task expected to be completed in a few months.

It appears that the North Pacific Grain Growers (the name painted on the tower of the building) was formed in 1930 in Spokane, but moved its headquarters to Portland Oregon in 1938.  In 1983, it merged with the Farmers Union Grain Terminal Association to become the Harvest States Cooperative.  In 1998, Harvest States joins with CENEX to form CHS, the current owner of the terminal in Spokane.

North Pacific Grain Growers Terminal, April 27, 2019


Two questions come to mind with regards to the demolition.  The first is that at least the concrete structure appears to be relatively well maintained—so why not keep the elevator in service?  And the opposite question—if the elevator has been out of service for more than 30 years, why has it taken so long to demolish it?

The answer to the first question appears to be that the elevator has become “functionally obsolete”, meaning that the structure as it exists does not function up to current standards, and that the cost of upgrading it exceeds the cost of replacing it.  For the Spokane terminal, there appear to be two likely culprits for the “functional obsolescence”—the short rail siding—far too short to accommodate a “unit train” composed of 110 grain cars with locomotives—and the rate of grain transfer—probably far below the 40,000 bushels per hour loading rate of new grain terminals.

North Pacific Grain Growers Terminal, April 27, 2019


So why wasn’t it knocked down before?  The answer is that it costs money to demolish these facilities, in large part due to the extensive steel reinforcement in the concrete structure—as can be readily seen in the demolition.  These silos were made to withstand  the pressure from the weight of the grains stored in them—which means that the demolition is time consuming and therefore expensive.  There are many grain elevators standing empty for similar reasons around the US.  Usually demolition occurs only when the site is sufficiently valuable to justify the cost of demolition.  In Spokane, there is no plan for using the land, but ownership of the land will revert to the railroad.

The start of the demolition of the grain terminal and the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral occurred simultaneously.   I’ve never been to the Notre Dame Cathedral, so never have seen it in its glory (other than in photographs)—but like the cathedral, this grain terminal is massive, and towers over the skyline of Spokane.   The Notre Dame is 420 feet long and 158 feet wide—the North Pacific Coast Grain Growers  terminal dimensions aare 518 feet long by 50 feet wide.  The cathedral is 226 feet high—my guess is the grain terminal is perhaps 100 feet high.   So the elevator is not as tall or deep as the Notre Dame, but it is a bit longer, big enough to possess a sense of gravitas.

Smashed Silo, April 27, 2019


Building European cathedrals required centuries of effort, generations of stone masons working, never seeing the final product of their efforts, but believing that their efforts would last for centuries.   Notre Dame was constructed between 1160 and 1260—a century of construction.  Modern engineers understand that their structures have limited lifetimes, but many structures, if properly maintained, can be useful beyond the initial design lifetime.   The North Pacific Grain Growers terminal is 89 years old—its entire life cycle is shorter than the time required to build the Notre Dame cathedral.  Mercifully, those who built it are gone so they do not have to witness the destruction of their work, though there may be a handful of people in Spokane who remember its construction.

Smashed Silo, April 27, 2019

I once read a quote—it may have been repeated by John Szarkowski—who noted that “Midwestern towns don’t need church steeples because they have grain elevators”.   Of course, churches are built to glorify god, and grain terminals are made to store grain, so they serve different functions.  But the demolition of the North Pacific Coast Grain Growers terminal , in some odd way, strikes a chord of sadness in me.  The Notre Dame Cathedral houses relics including the “Crown of Thorns” which Jesus wore prior to his crucifixion and a piece of the cross on which he was crucified—though these relics were never mentioned in my religious training as a Mennonite boy–we thought they were all fakes.  But taking corn and wheat down to the grain elevator—food grown to feed people—that was something we did proudly—that was real.

The demolition of the grain terminal is not a disaster, and there is no outcry of dismay about its demise.  It’s just another casualty in the relentless supersizing of American agriculture.


Morning Light, April 28, 2019


As a beginning photographer, a long time ago, I struggled to understand why my photographs looked the way they did, and didn’t look quite like the photographers I admired.  And, of course, I tried buying bigger cameras and better lenses when I could afford them, but still it seemed like I was missing something.

Ansel Adams, Mt McKinley Alaska, 1948  (

When I moved to Fairbanks, I noticed that there was a big print, close to 40×50 inches, of the Ansel Adams view of Mt. McKinley hanging in the student union building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  For a while I assumed it was a big poster–but eventually realized it was a silver print, made by god himself, Ansel Adams.  It’s a really famous image–probably the most widely reproduced and best known photograph ever made in Alaska.  It’s the cover image of the book “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams”, with an essay by John Szarkowski.

That print commanded the room–you had to look at it.  It was intimidating.  I recall the first time I made some big prints–about the same size as the Adams–including one of my images of Denali–though from a different camera position than Adams, and in different light.  I loved my image, but of course it wasn’t the same picture as Ansel’s, and I really didn’t want to make a comparison—but I knew others would.  So was my picture “good enough”–was it up to snuff?  How would it hang next to that famous Adams image?

In the introduction to the book, “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams”, Szarkowski writes about Adams’ “legendary technique”, in which he states “In fact, Adams’ photographs are no sharper–no more optically acute–than those of any other competent technician using similar tools.  They are more clear–a matter not of better lenses, but of a better understanding of what one means.”   (That essay, in it’s entirety is, is something I’ve read many times over the years.)

With that understanding, I took a special trip to visit the McKinley photo again, this time to look at it closely, the way I looked at my own image, close up and personal–from six inches away.  And what I discovered rather shocked me–from that distance, there were some black dust spots on the negative (a few, but they were there), some of the grain pattern was slightly out of focus–and the grain pattern clearly showed this was from a 4×5 negative.  And the image was warping and yellowing slightly.  Szarkowski was right–as a physical object, this print had problems–the usual ones that every photographer struggles with.


Dennis Witmer, Denali from Wonder Lake, July 4, 1996

After that close look, I walked past that photograph many times, but I wasn’t intimidated by it anymore.   It was like seeing an old friend.  And then, one day it was gone.  The place where it had been for years—it wasn’t there anymore.  Eventually, I discovered that it had been moved, back into some student offices in the same building—hung out of public view.  I have no idea why the print was moved—perhaps out of concern that someone would steal the image (god knows what that print would sell for)?  Or protect it from damage?  Or maybe it just became too “uncool” for current sensibilities?  After I found it in its new place, I would sometimes go to look at it.  The students in the office always wondered what I was doing there—“just looking at the picture”—they seemed to act like I was doing something weird.

But, in the long run, what impressed me most was how effectively Ansel had intimidated me for so long.  He had created an illusion–and a very effective one–that prevented me, and I suspect almost all viewers of that image, from looking to closely at what he had actually done.  He convinced me, for a long time, that his image was perfect and impossible to equal.  It was an icon.

That experience profoundly changed the way I look at almost all photographs, especially my own.  When in a museum or gallery, I take off my glasses, and look at photographs from six inches away, the way I would look at an image on the ground glass.  And in my own work, I think of my job as trying to create an illusion, not of replicating the world.  It’s magic–like a card trick–and sometimes I think I pull it off.



Calumet C1–First Pictures–New Jersey January 1987

I’m selling two 8×10 cameras on Ebay right now, along with about a dozen lenses. Feels good, at least so far. I promised  my wife I would do this when I bought the Sony A7 RII last fall—it’s time to let the stuff go.  Hopefully some other photographers can make pictures with these great tools.

I think I was drawn to the 8×10 because of the photographers I admired who worked in that format–Eugene Atget (OK, his camera was slightly smaller), Edward Weston, and Walker Evens.  I knew a few photographers who tried to make the step up from 4×5, but found the format just too hard–but George Tice seemed to think that 8×10 was the only “real camera” out there.  But I must admit being a bit timid about making the jump–which is why I first bought the Calumet C1–a very affordable, but dependable, 8×10.

There are some photographers who fetishize their equipment—they keep it stored carefully most of the time, and only take it out to use on special occasions—and you get the feeling that they care more about the amount of money they paid for a camera or a lens than the pictures they make with it. I’ve always been the opposite kind of a photographer—I want the pictures, and am willing to use the equipment hard to get them. In Alaska, I had a term for it: the “bottom of the river” camera. If the camera wound up at the bottom of the river, I didn’t want to care. The other mantra I had was that the best camera for making any picture was the one you had with you. The sharpest lens in the world doesn’t make any pictures sitting on a shelf at home. For years, I carried a Rollei Twin Lens Reflex (the cheaper Tessar lens version) camera in my backpack every time I went to the field—into the rain and the snow and the mud. I wore out that camera in about 5 years, and bought another one just like it. After a few years, the second one started falling apart, thankfully in a different way, so I took both of them to my camera repairman and told him to take the two cameras and make one useable one out of them, and keep the rest for parts.

I bought my first 8×10 in early 1987, after seeing an exhibit by a somewhat famous photographer at a local college, who was selling 8×10 contact prints for $500. I had just started a job at a big corporation, and thought about buying a print, until I went to the lecture by the photographer. His arrogance convinced me I didn’t want to invest in his work—instead I went out looking for an 8×10 camera to buy. I found a camera (a Calumet C1), a lens (a 16 ½ inch Goerz Gotar) and a tripod (a Davis and Stamford) for slightly more than the cost of a single print. Within about 6 months of making that purchase, my wife and I moved to Alaska, for the summer, but we stayed on, for 26 years.

Calumet C1–Front Street, Kotzebue, February 1988

Working with an 8×10 camera is in many ways, a deliberate act of frustration. Since the camera is so big, you need to find a safe place to set it up—no pictures from the middle of the road. There is often only a small number of safe places to set the camera up—so you need to find a picture from that vantage point.

The camera is big and heavy, hard to carry. It takes a big tripod to support the camera. Then the camera needs to be set up—a process that takes a few minutes, to adjust the front and back standards and attach the lens. Then the fun begins—open the lens, go under the dark cloth, and go through the process of focusing the image. In landscape, this usually means finding a plane that goes from the foreground to the horizon, an action that requires a simple tilt of either the lens plane or the film plane. Then the real moment of pleasure—looking at the image on the ground glass—upside down, of course—but somehow that transformation turns the subject in front of the camera into a picture—a two dimensional representation of the subject.

Ice–2005. 8×10 image–can’t remember the camera.

Then comes the actual moment of making the exposure. The light is metered, an exposure calculated. The lens is closed, the f stop adjusted, the shutter cocked. The film holder is inserted into the back of the camera, the dark slide pulled and sometimes used to shield the lens from the sun. Then the shutter is tripped. That’s it. Dark slide back in place. Film holder pulled. Camera disassembled and put away.
But there are a host of issues that can happen to ruin a shot. Light leaks in the bellows, or the film holder. An unnoticed slip of any one of the movements on the camera. Wind vibrating the camera.  And then the process back in the darkroom—developing the film (I used open trays in total darkness), labeling the negatives, doing a contact proof print. And then reloading the film holders for the next shoot.

Before Walmart opens, Fairbanks, 2004. First shot with Deardorff 8×10

And then there is cost. B&H is currently selling 8×10 sheet film for $4 a sheet, and then there is chemistry and negative sleeves. My guess is $5 a shot. When I shot 500 negatives a year, that’s $2000 in just film—about the price I just paid for that Sony 42 MP digital camera body.

Fairbanks, March 2006. Deardorff 8×10

And time. I figure that every 8×10 shot I make is an hour out of my life, between the camera time in the field, the darkroom time, and the scanning time. The agreement I have with myself is that if I make the shot in the field, I will make at least one proof print—even if it’s a bad picture, I want to try to learn something from it.

Gulkana Glacier, Deardorff 8×10, Summer 2008

So what makes working with an 8×10 worth it? The obvious answer is that the big negative gives a richness to the print that is difficult to achieve with other formats—but there are excellent cameras and lenses in smaller formats that also make splendid photographs. My own reason for liking the format have to do with the directness of seeing a picture on the ground glass that translates into the final image. I once said that the reason I use an 8×10 is because it’s the fastest camera I’ve ever used—the fastest way to a finished print. When working with smaller cameras, I had to first do a contact sheet, spend time editing, go back to the darkroom, make work prints, edit again, and then make finished prints—three trips into the darkroom, and lots of wasted time in the process. With the 8×10, one trip to the darkroom and a little luck can get you a print you can look at for decades.
That moment of seeing the image on the ground glass is often burned in my brain, sometimes for decades. When shooting with the 8×10, the last thing I do before falling asleep in the evening is to try to recall every shot I made with the camera that day—I can usually do it. I’ve never been able to do that with a handheld camera—too many pictures to remember. I can still recall some images that do not exist because of technical difficulties–they are still framed and still in my mind.
I don’t know if I’m done with the 8×10 yet—I’m working on a couple projects now (grain elevators, crowds) that are well suited for hand held work–the 8×10 is just too slow—but I haven’t sold all my 8×10 equipment. I am holding on to the Phillips—a balsa wood and carbon fiber camera—light and easy to carry, by 8×10 standards—and three lenses.

Last shot with the Deardorff 8×10, Grand Coulee, December 2016

What I think I have learned from working with the 8×10 all these years is the importance of taking time to find and frame a picture. Working hand held with a tilt shift lens is much faster—but I still find myself thinking about the pictures in the same way—find the light, find a place to stand, look through the camera—how does the image fill the frame—is it level—is it focused—is it worth pressing the shutter? And then, where’s the next picture…

“From the Missouri West” was first published by Aperture in 1980, and has been recently republished in a new edition by Steidl.    This book was one of the first photography  books I purchased.   (I recall sending $20 directly to Aperture to purchase a hardcover copy, and receiving a $15 softcover instead.)  I read and re-read this book many times.

Robert Adams    South from Rocky Flats, Jefferson County, CO


Robert Adams first gained attention with his 1974 book “The New West”, first published by the University of Colorado Associated Press.  It includes an essay by John Szarkowski that begins “As Americans we are scarred by dreams of innocence.”    This volume has been republished three times since then, in 2001, 2008, and 2016, each time retaining the original format, selection and sequencing of the photographs.   Why change perfection?

As published in 1980 “From the Missouri West” reads as an extension of the ideas of “The New West” but with the space of the west as the subject rather than the urban landscape near Denver.   While the public was wildly embracing the monumental wilderness landscapes of Ansel Adams, Robert Adams instead turned his lens towards the spaces found in Timothy O’Sullivan photographs.  With the single exception of a night shot lit by headlights in the parking lot of the Garden of the Gods, Robert Adams ignored the grand landscapes of the west in favor of spaces that could kindly be described as ordinary, though perhaps “depleted” would be a more accurate term.

Robert Adams   Clear Creek and South Table Mountain, Jefferson County, 1976


The 1980 printing of “From the Missouri West” included 47 photographs, mostly presented as facing spreads, filling most of the page.  The printing was done by Meridian Gravure with duotone separations done by Richard Benson—the best in the industry—but, by current standards, the printing feels a bit off—with skies and highlights blown out, and shadows a bit too deep.  (Worth noting—the earliest book I have in my collection done with laser scans is “The portfolios of Ansel Adams”, printed with new scans in 1981—digital printing technology has made printing much more predictable.)

In the Robert Adams retrospective “The Place We Live” (first published by Yale in 2010, but kept in print by Stiedl in 2014), the section titled “From the Missouri West (1975-1983)” has a total of 18 photographs—but of these, only 8 were included in the 1980 book.   The project obviously did not end with the publication of the book in 1980.

Robert Adams   Fontana, California, 1983


The new edition of “From the Missouri West” currently in print, published by Steidl in 2018 retains the title and about half the pictures from the 1980 version, but expands the project in almost every way.  First, the physical book is bigger—it is 13.8 x 15.9 inches, and weighs 5.8 pounds.  Each image is printed at 9.5×12 inches—approximately the size of a silver print produced on 11×14 inch paper.  The printing is quadtone, with at least one ink a warm brown, resulting in a color similar to the “old portriga” look.  (While any honest printer will tell you that it is impossible to completely reproduce the tonal scale of a silver print in ink, it is certainly possible to make beautiful reproductions—and these are.)

As for image selection—the new version contains 62 images, with 27 from the 1980 version, and 35 new images.  The new selection contains some images that would fit into “Prairie” or “Denver” or “What We Bought:  The New World” or “Los Angeles Spring”.   It feels like this book ties together much of Adams work in the Western Landscape, at least the human parts.

Robert Adams San Timoteo Canyon, Redlands, CA 1983


What is most striking about the new version is simply the size of the pictures.  Robert Adams photographs are typically small—my recollection of viewing “The New West” at the Philadelphia museum was that his prints were about 5×5 inches—but gemlike, perfect to hold in your hand. The larger pictures seem to both require and reward more attention.   As I age and my eyesight weakens, I find, when looking at photographs in a museum or gallery, I take my glasses off and look at images from a few inches away—there are often hidden pleasures in photographs when viewed this way.  I find myself looking at the photographs in this edition of “From the Missouri West” in the same way.

In the past, Robert Adams has been savaged by critics—when his “The New West” was first reviewed, a critic called the work “cold and unfeeling.”  He once spoke of going into the gallery the morning that review came out in the paper, and watching a young couple come into the gallery, go from picture to picture, repeating, “cold and unfeeling—yeah”.  When they came to the last picture, the man turned to the woman and said, “Well, I don’t know.  It looks like Colorado to me.”   Which he thought proves that no matter how vicious the critics might be, the pictures can speak for themselves, if they are strong enough.  He then said that what hurts the most about criticism like that is that he can’t understand how people can’t see the love in the pictures.

What “From the Missouri West” has always been is a poem by a disappointed, but still faithful, lover of this landscape.  Like Frost, he had a lover’s quarrel with the world–or at least the western landscape.



For me, almost as important as the pictures in the 1980 version was the short essay by Robert Adams included as an afterword.  This essay has been shortened and modified in the 2018 edition.   All I can say is that I have spent years mulling over some of the lines that have disappeared from the new version.  So, here it is.


Afterward (1980)

About the pictures

Exploration of the West began in the Nineteenth Century at the Missouri River.  On its banks pioneers understood themselves to be at the edge of a sublime landscape, one that they believed would be redemptive.  My own ancestors, as it happens, settled along the river, and my grandfather made enthusiastic trips into the Dakota prairies to make panoramic photographs.  For these reasons, and because I had lost my way in the suburbs, I decided to try to rediscover some of the land forms that had impressed our forebears.  Was there remaining in the geography a strength that might help sustain us as it had them?  I set one ground rule—to include in the photographs evidence of man; it was a precaution in favor of truth that was easy to follow since our violence against the earth has extended to even anonymous arroyos and undifferentiated stands of scrub brush.

As a “survey”, this one is not literally a cross section of the West, nor is it a catalogue of what is unusual there.  The scenes were chosen, first, because they were near where I had lived or often traveled—familiar places.  I cannot justify this beyond saying that I agree with a Seneca Indian chant:  “I know all about these different hills is all I know;  I know all about these different rivers is all I know.”

What, if such is the case, do the pictures mean?  Any answer must be as suspect as it is, unavoidably personal.  The last view in the book, for instance, was made in wonderful circumstances.   Clouds had obscured the mountains east of Arch Cape on the Oregon coast all day, but in late afternoon they opened and I drove far up a logging road to a point where I was able, before night fell, to use the one film holder I had remaining.  I value the picture because it reminds me of a time when I was allowed to be still—as we all are—and to see again, despite our follies, that the landscape retains its own stillness.





I awoke Christmas morning, turned on the lights, took a shower, and made a cup of coffee, and found myself marveling, and not for the first time in my life, at that fact that I live in a warm house.  I grew up in a house without central heat, so it is not something I take for granted–it truly is a gift.  Most of my childhood, we burned kerosene, but there were a few years where we burned coal, anthracite delivered by dump truck into our cellar, carried up to the kitchen in a bucket.  I remember it as black and dirty, and burned hot with an acrid smoke.

My wife and I own a cabin that still does not have central heat–there is a wood stove.  It  was built in 1927, and was upgraded somewhat in the late 1980s, but is not particularly energy efficient. A precious occupant left a stack of firewood a decade ago, which we have just finished burning.  So this fall I found myself cutting firewood for the stove.  The job involves felling trees, limbing them, cutting the wood into lengths to move and fit into the stove, drying the wood (takes about a year), splitting, and then, on a daily basis, moving the wood into the house by the stove. All if it is hard physical labor–but also satisfying–at the end of the day, I can see what I’ve done.  

On a daily basis, I move firewood from the woodshed into the cabin–a distance of perhaps 200 feet.  We only heat part a few rooms, to limit the amount of wood we burn.  I estimate that we use about 100 pounds of wood a day in the winter.  My wife takes out the ashes every few days–at most a pound of residue left from burning the wood.

Bonfire, Spring Camping, March 2003

Which leads, finally, to the point of this story–where did all the rest of that weight go?   It disappeared into the atmosphere mostly as carbon dioxide and water vapor.   Nearly all of that 100 pounds a day goes into the air.  

Wood disappears, Spring Camping, March 2003

As I sit in my city home, heated by natural gas, I think about the energy I use.  A few years ago, I went onto the Energy Information Agency web site and from that calculated the amount of energy each American uses on a daily basis.  At that time, it was about 845,000 BTU/day–a meaningless number to most people.  To convert that into units that people do understand, that is 7.2 gallons of gasoline, or for the purposes of this story, 84.5 pounds of coal.  Per person.  Per day.  Everyday.

I live in a household of three people, and we have two working fireplaces.  Some years we do hang stockings by the chimney with care–which are supposed to be filled with gifts from Santa if we’ve been good, and lumps of coal if we’ve been bad.

So here’s my thought experiment for this Christmas.  Suppose this year, Santa delivered a single day’s energy supply to us in coal dumped down our chimney.  My family would have received a 250 pound ration of coal, which would fill the fireplace, and spill onto our hardwood floors.  Burning that much coal would release about 930 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere–nearly a half ton per day.  For just our household.

Coal grate, Fairbanks Power Plant, 2008

Of course, except for the firewood we use at our cabin, all the rest of our energy arrives at our house unannounced and unnoticed.  Our natural gas comes in pipes, our electricity in wires, and even the gas for our cars is pumped without physical effort on our part. It’s like magic–our lights go on, our house stays warm, and our hot water flows.   

It is easy to see why most people have a hard time visualizing climate change–we never lift a finger to get our energy, and the gases released into the atmosphere are mostly invisible.  But every once in a while we can see the process at work…

3 ton pile of coal outside home, St Paul Island, Alaska, 2008


Ben beside a 150 ton truck, 2008, Usibelli Coal Mine

On an annual basis, my family’s 930 pounds per day of carbon dioxide gas emission results in a total of 165 tons per year.   if that were a solid, it would fill that truck towering over Ben.  More than enough to bury our house.  So, this Christmas, instead of Santa and his reindeer flying through the air, I think about that 165 ton lump of coal that went up the chimney.


When Williams Corporation proposed building the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline through Lancaster County, the promise they made was that the landscape would be unchanged—that the pipeline would be invisible, once it was completed.  Can this be true?


Pequea Creek, just upstream from pipeline crossing point, summer 2004

As a photographer, one can at least try to answer this question, by photographing the route of the pipeline before and after construction.  My friend and fellow photographer Bob Lowing has been doing precisely this ever since the pipeline project was announced in the spring of 2014.  At that time, surveyor stakes appeared along rural roads weeks  before a public announcement was made of the intention to build the pipeline.   The initial route was mapped only to a precision of a 500 foot corridor—a fat red line on a fuzzy google earth map—the precise route was not given—and of course, a large number of people objected to the route.  Over the next year, the pipeline route was adjusted to avoid the loudest protests, and the exact route of the line remained in doubt until tree cutting began in the fall of 2017.


Pequea Creek, Pipeline Crossing, October 2018

Of course, the ideal photographic evidence of the pipeline’s lack of harm on the route would be from pairs of images, one made of the landscape before the pipeline was built, when the land was ordinary and safe, matched with the same view taken after the pipeline is operational .  Even more convincing would be a photograph made before the pipeline was even proposed, when the only reason to make the photograph was for some reason other than the pipeline, such as, perhaps, the completely pastoral nature of the landscape.    I have been making photographs of landscapes through the windshields of cars for decades now, many in Lancaster county, and have a handful of images of the pipeline route from before the pipeline was proposed in 2014. Once the pipeline route was proposed, I also drove the route looking for the stakes that marked the route.


Bob Lowing at Hilltop crossing, November 2, 2017

I also photographed during the construction of the pipeline, when the landscape was dramatically disrupted.  The construction occurred in phases—marking the route with stakes and ribbons, defining the construction corridor width with plastic pipe and streamer ribbons; tree removal; topsoil removal; placement rock and wood entry points at road crossings; placing sections of pipe along the route;  welding and bending the pipe; digging the trench; placing the pipe in the trench; covering the pipe with soil; replacing the topsoil; seeding with a cover crop;  cleanup;  and final restoration.   The construction began simultaneously at several locations in the county, and driving the route on any given day would show the pipeline construction at various phases of completion.  The first section of pipe to be completed was a short section just south of the Columbia pike—right through the land of the strongest protesters.  It was, and was intended to be, a big fat middle finger to the opposition.


Hilltop Crossing with pipe sections, January 23, 2018

I traveled back to Lancaster County five times during the construction of the pipeline:  in late October and early November 2017 (an extended visit for a family funeral),  late January 2018, May 2018, early September 2018 (a very short, hot visit), and late October early November 2018.  Most of these photographs are from that period.

I think it safe to say that, as of this writing, the pipeline has not yet disappeared into the landscape.  With the exception of a few spots near the southern terminus of the route, no crops were planted on the right of way during 2018 (and those that did go in were planted late).


Hilltop Crossing, welded pipe, January 25, 2018

Williams requested permission to begin flowing gas through the line in September, promising to have the restoration work completed on the line by the end of October.  Gas flow was permitted to begin on October 6, a Saturday.  However, when I traveled back to the county at the end of October, it was apparent that clean-up and restoration along the line was far from complete.

As a farm boy, I recall being amazed by the first major construction project I was involved in—a power plant costing about a billion dollars in the late 1970s.  It blew my mind that anyone would take on a project of that size—thousands of construction workers on site for a decade building a power plant big enough to power  the city of Philadelphia for decades.  Who dreams up these projects?


Hilltop Crossing, May 7, 2018

The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline project is a three billion dollar project, which averages out to about $10 million per mile.  All for something that the pipeline company tells us disappears.

But, of course, the pipe is still there.  As is the natural gas that flows through it, and the carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere after it is burned.  And the fugitive methane that escapes before it is burned.   All invisible.  But the damage is done, and continues.


Hilltop Crossing, October 30, 2018

But how much Carbon Dioxide is released from the gas flowing through this pipeline?  The nominal flow rate is 1.7 billion cubic feet per day, which is a big number.  Converting this to a mass flow (1.25 moles per cubic foot, 16 grams per mole, 1,000,000 grams per metric ton) gives a figure of 34,000 tons of methane per day, which wen converted to CO2 results in 93,500 tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere every day.

Now that is a very big number—I have a hard time visualizing that.  What I can visualize is a coal train—they go through Spokane for coal deliveries to Asia.  Each coal train car holds about 100 tons of coal, each train is 100 cars, so a single coal train is hauling 10,000 tons of coal.  So if the CO2 were a solid, it would take 9 coal trains a day to haul that much CO2, or one train every 2 or 3 hours.  I have stood by watching coal trains as they rumble by—the earth shakes from their weight.

Of course, all this plays with our perceptions.  When there is a natural gas leak, we can smell it because of the odorant that is added to the gas—but we never have a perception of weight—the natural gas simply mixes with the atmosphere, which we perceive as weighing nothing (after all, we don’t have to pick it up).   What I do think about is heating our cabin by burning wood—for a cold winter night, I bring about 100 pounds of wood into the house—it’s heavy, it takes me a few trips to move that much fuel.  In the morning, the wood is gone, only a tiny bit of ash remains behind.  Where did the rest of the weight go?  Most of it left the stove in the exhaust stream, as carbon dioxide and water vapor.   Burning natural gas is the same.  At my home in Spokane, gas enters my house in a small steel pipe, and the exhaust leaves by my chimney without me ever touching the gas, let alone carrying it.


Coal Train, near Sprague, Washington, December 2015

The old cliche goes, what you can’t see can’t hurt you.  The new Atlantic Sunrise pipeline is hidden underground.  It makes no sound.  It carries an invisible gas that has no odor, and appears to have no weight.  It enters homes and leaves without any effort on our part.  It all passes unseen and unnoticed.  We stay warm as if by magic.  But it isn’t magic.  And there are consequences.


Ok—the title is perhaps misleading—but not untrue, at least by the standards of the current administration.

The Facts:  The date:  January 18, 2009, Time:  1:56 PM, Place:  The food court at the Crystal City Mall, Arlington, VA.

I was in DC with a group of middle school students, my son included, to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama.  Being a mob, in the middle of a crowd of amazing size, finding a place to eat was a challenge—a problem solved by our tour organizers by giving us food coupons that could be used anywhere in a given food court, up to six bucks.  (Brilliant solution—you give the kids a lot of choices, no money changes hands, and everybody can sit together).

John McCain, January 18, 2009

What I expected was typical mall crap food, and the place met expectations.  What I did not expect was when one of the kids stated that John McCain was eating lunch with his wife a few tables down.   I thought the kid was joking—but no—there he was, only about 30 feet away.  I don’t know what he had for lunch, but he seemed in no mood for additional company, slouched under a Navy ball cap.    And why should he?  The entire city was preparing to celebrate the inauguration of the man who had defeated him in November—I’m pretty sure that Barack Obama was somewhere  planning his new cabinet and the inauguration balls—and probably eating the best catering in town. Much to my embarrassment, one of the middle school  teachers with us insisted on going up to talk to him—I tried to tell her not to—McCain had a reputation for being gruff –and I thought it best to leave the man alone on a day when the world seemed to be celebrating his defeat.  She did it anyway—and he got up and left.  I don’t know if he had finished his lunch or not.

I have to confess that I was glad McCain had been defeated—I, like many people, was tired of pointless wars started for the fun and profit of Halliburton and Blackwater—it was time for that shit to stop.  But now, looking back, I wish he had won the nomination in 2000—maybe that would have prevented the Dick from screwing the world.  The pendulum swings, and McCain got caught on the wrong end of the swing both times—just like Hillary.  Good people, who would have made great presidents , but crushed by the Republican right wing shit machine (fake stories about illegitimate children—but what about real ones?).  By the time the political party comes to its senses and nominates the better candidate, the political will moves away from them.

Well , John McCain is gone, never had his inauguration.  But he did have his moment of glory—when he came back to the Senate, after being diagnosed with brain cancer, to tank the right wing attempt to repeal  “Obamacare”. (God knows, Obamacare is a poor excuse for health care reform—every other civilized nation has nationalized single payer health care—but “Obamacare” sure as hell is better than being robbed by thieves disguising themselves as “health care providers “.   (Going to the doctor should not feel like being mugged—but it does.  Before Obamacare, the only difference between getting mugged and getting  cancer is that the mugger gets what’s in your wallet—the oncologist gets everything—the house, the retirement account, and the college fund for your kid—and after we’ve been trumped, we’re back to getting mugged.))  But when he gave his thumbs down on repealing Obamacare, I had to admit, I get why he deserves the press he is getting now.

So, now, I want to say I had lunch with John McCain.  I think I know what he had.  A shit sandwich, compliments of the right wing Republican machine.  The same as served to the rest of us.


Most days, like today, I sit hunched over my computer screen, sitting in the deep shade, avoiding the heat and sun, slightly bored, not believing in much of anything.  As Dylan said, “it’s easy to see, without looking too far, that not much here is really sacred.”

But, every so often…

Cloudst at the pass, July 28, 2018


Like yesterday, my wife and son and I went to visit our niece, spending the summer on the coast at a marine science center, and decided to drive back to Spokane, even though we would arrive home late.  We also decided to try to avoid the traffic around Seattle, and take the “scenic route” home, through the North Cascades.  The result—we didn’t  arrive home until about 2 AM.

I recall driving through the north Cascades only once before—probably close to 20 years ago—and remembered only two real details from that trip—one was a tight canyon we drove through—the second a mountain with sheer cliffs and  multiple peaks that we passed as darkness approached.

Clouds at the pass, July 28, 2018


This time, we pressed hard to make it over the mountains  in the light, and arrived at the pass as the  sun was setting.  A passing thunderstorm dampened the road,  with clouds swirling overhead.  A sign pointed to an overlook—which I assumed to be the usual slender parking lot on the edge of the road—but this one turned out different—a modest parking area with a trail leading off into a forest—we followed the trail, and found ourselves on a rock outcropping, overlooking a majestic valley, with the clouds dancing overhead in the light of the setting sun.

I do not know what god or gods control our destiny—but sometimes I do feel that some force in the universe puts me in a place and time where something magic and sacred happens—the clouds dance, the thunder rolls, the mountains stand majestic,  and the light blesses it all.  And all I can do is raise my camera in thanks.


At the pass, July 28, 2018