Skip navigation

I traveled back to Lancaster County in January 2018 with the sole purpose of photographing the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline construction project.  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, near Mount Joy, Jan 2018

My goal was to photograph the construction project in full swing–and my timing proved fortuitous.  During my first day photographing, I discovered pipe in the trench at the southern end of the line, ready to be buried.  There were sections with welded pipe, sections with unwelded pipe, sections with soil removed but no pipe, and sections with vehicle tracks over farm fields.  During the following two weeks, I watched as tasks were completed, and crews and equipment moved northward.  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Red Hill Road, Martic Township, Jan 2018

Based on my childhood memories of winters, I knew that the weather might be bad–January is the coldest month, the most likely to have snow and freezing temperatures.  But my luck held with the weather–the days were warm and sometimes sunny–and many of the nights were cold enough to freeze the soil.  There was also a rain of about 0.3 inches.   The result was a glorious mud mess.  


Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Red Hill Road, Jan 2018


My timing was intended to reveal the construction project during its most visible disruption to the landscape.  I know that once the pipe is buried and the grass planted, the pipeline will be largely invisible, except for the markers indicating where the pipe crosses under the road, and in the treeless right-of-ways through forests.  The wounds will heal, but scars will remain.  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Silver Springs Road, Drumore Township, Jan 2018


This project has also made me aware of some of my family history.  In reading about the Conestoga Indian Village, I discovered that  in 1739, my ancestor Jacob Witmer settled nearby, apparently maintaining neighborly relations with the Natives.  In 1763, the Paxton boys massacred the Indians, and threatened to kill anyone who dared identify them.  As a child, my uncle Oliver Hess farmed some land along Indian Marker Road (currently farmed by Donnie Witmer–same name as my dad).  Nearby Witmer Road, Witmer Run, and Witmers Run still carry the family name.  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Drytown Road, Martic Township, Jan 2018

The Paxton Boys justified their killing of the Indians, as they were “not making good use of the land.”   The argument for the pipeline is not that much different:  Williams Pipeline company is hugely profitable, and can offer farmers payments far in excess of what they make farming the land.  

Of course, Williams isn’t killing anybody, at least not directly.  But there are moral and ethical questions that can be asked about this project.  On a global scale, this project will deliver massive amounts of fossil fuels to markets, adding to climate change.  The contracts for the gas to be shipped through the pipeline are mostly for export, and could lead (decades from now) to energy shortages in the US, or to higher prices for natural gas for US consumers.  On a more personal level, what gives a large corporation the right to seize land from individual landowners through eminent domain, when the “public interest” claim is so tenuous?   Do land owners, or Native Americans have a sacred right to keep their lands from being disturbed?  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Pequea Creek Crossing, Jan 2018

But what I found myself thinking about, as I drove the pipeline route, was how much this land has changed already, in my lifetime.  My father had a small farm–57 acres, a herd of 14 dairy cows–and told me that he didn’t think I could make a living on that farm.  Now, all the small farms are gone, except for those farmed by Amish (who are expanding their range).  Most of  the old stone barns have been Martha Stewartized–new roofs, new pointing, clean barnyards, and Christmas wreaths on the barn doors.  The “real” farms have huge new chicken and pig houses with massive ventilation fans, and big new tractors in the steel pole barns.  The Earl Butz “get big or get out” curse has run its course.  There are no more family farms.  

When I left the county in 1980, my fear was that the county would be paved over, becoming one huge housing development.  The changes that have occurred are different than I expected–there are still fields, but almost no farmers.  I’m not quite sure what to make of it.  

My distress about the pipeline through the landscape of my childhood is mixed with the other changes that have occurred.  Change happens.  Of course, in 1739, the change was brought about by a German immigrant named Jacob Witmer.  




I’ve noticed that on social media sites, people “share a memory”–re-post something from their site in the past–though, of course, the past is only as old as the social media site.


Near the Buck, Lancaster County, July 1983

Over the past few days, I’ve been scanning negatives I made during my first months working with a view camera, in 1983–now 35 years ago.  I don’t know when an image becomes a historical image–maybe the best rule is after the photographer and his generation are dead–when no one remembers what the time of the photograph actually looked like.  So by that definition, Walker Evans photographs are on the verge of becoming historical photographs–but my images from 1983 are not.  I still remember making the photographs–but perhaps even more important, they still look like I think the world looks now.  If I were to drive through the landscape in Lancaster County in 2018, the landscape would still pretty much look like these photographs, I could still find views that look like these.

Southern Lancaster County, July , 1983


Of course, there there have been changes–some farms have gotten bigger–embracing the industrialization of agriculture–but in Lancaster County, some farms have also gotten smaller–split into two or more farms, by the new Amish owners.  In 1983, there were no Amish in Martic Township–now there are several–and I suspect that there will be more in the future.

Amish Farm, near Quarryville, PA, July 1983


I moved away from Lancaster County in 1980,  thinking that the landscape in Lancaster county was being destroyed by development–farms that had been in my family for generations were being converted into housing developments–and the economics of farming were disastrous.  I think when I made these photographs, I thought this landscape would disappear within my lifetime.

The fact that this landscape remains as intact as it does is a bit of a surprise to me.  Maybe this says more about the slow pace of changes in the landscape–maybe in a few more decades, these pictures will look “historic”.

Near Karupa Lake, 1996

A story in the New York Times a few days ago caught my attention—it was about a bear destroying a sound recorder at a remote site in Alaska—at Karupa Lake, in Gates of the Arctic Park.

I spent a week at Karupa Lake in August 1996.  At the time, my wife Rachel was a biologist working for Gates of the Arctic Park.  I accompanied her on the trip as a volunteer, agreeing to help clean up trash around the lake.

Karupa Lake, August, 1996


The trash we were cleaning up came from several sources:  the remains of a cabin that local natives used as a hunting and trapping cabin, 5 gallon metal gas cans used by game guides, and (mostly) 55 gallon metal fuel drums, at least some of them left by an oil exploration camp in the late 1940s.  We crushed and stacked the metal for later pickup, and burned the plywood and 2x4s from the cabin.  I recall thinking, while burning the wood, that we were destroying the only fuel within miles—and in doing so, may have deprived some future person of the means of survival.  It felt like our job was to create a sense of “wilderness” in a place that had, in fact, been the site of human activity before.

I remember picking up a 5 gallon square gas can, probably from 50s, that some vole was using to store dried leaves for the winter—like hay in a barn–shaking the leaves on the ground before crushing the can—probably depriving that animal of his carefully collected food source for the winter, thus insuring its death—but my job was to get rid of human debris.


Karupa Lake, August 1996


Karupa Lake is remote, by any reasonable standard—about 350 miles or so from Fairbanks, on the way to nowhere, on the northern edge of the Brooks range.  The location is beautiful—but only in an Alaskan ordinary way—there is nothing there to attract hikers or backpackers that might justify the several thousand dollar charter flight needed to get there—there are other, more spectacular, more accessible places that can provide a “wilderness experience” for those with the means to pay for it.   On the other hand, it is possible to land a float plane (the way we got there) or a ski plane on the lake—a cheaper (and somewhat quieter) option than a helicopter.

In thinking about the sounds of silence that happen in a place like Karupa Lake—the wind blowing through the leaves and branches of the shrubs—the occasional call of a raven or a hawk, a handful of smaller birds—those are the expected sounds.  But there are also some unexpected sounds—like the clatter of caribou hooves on stone, or the splashing as they cross a shallow river.  But, of course, we think of silence as the absence of sound, or, more to the point, the absence of meaningful sound.  I have experienced, on the tundra, silence so deep that eventually you become aware of an unfamiliar but persistent sound—that of blood flowing through the capillaries of your own ear.  If there are no external sounds, we make our own.

Karupa Lake, August 1996

Of course, achieving silence is possible in places other than a remote wilderness.  It is physically possible to build rooms that absorb all sound, achieving an industrial version of silence.   Of course, the more common way of creating a sense of silence is to create “white noise”—ignorable or comforting sounds loud enough to cover the background noise of our lives.

I once read that most people can keep track of 5 sources of sounds at one time—right now, I’m hearing my son’s annoying music from the next room, the clatter of my own keyboard, the kitchen fan that we always leave on, the sounds of water heating in an electric teapot, and the fan of my computer.  Plus an occasional car moving in the street outside my house.


Near Karupa Lake, August 1996


Composer John Cage once wrote a piece titled “Four minutes, thirty three seconds”, usually called “four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence” which has been performed in concert halls.   It instructs the musicians to sit and do nothing for the prescribed period of time—the music, of course, being whatever the ambient sounds are.  Of course, the audience as well as the musicians are expected to honor the silence—but, of course, there are sounds—the ventilation system in the hall, the unsuccessful attempt to stifle a cough, the siren from the street outside—those sounds become part of the performance of the piece.  The other part of the performance is whatever is happening inside the heads of both the audience and the musicians sitting in front of them.

But it seems like the definition of silence is becoming one of the absence of industrial human sounds.  What happens when no engines or fans or iPhones can be heard.  So silence is being defined as a quality of “wilderness”—what the earth sounded like before we were here.  In other words, silence is what happened after the bear destroyed the recorder.    Or before it was there.


Karupa Lake, August 1006

Wild Pollock, 2017, Pigment on Poster Board, 29×19.5″


A story from the art world:  Andy Warhol rips a picture from a magazine, holds it up, and says, “I made a drawing”.    On one level, he might have been right, in that drawings are sometimes studies for paintings, especially his silk screens that were based on widely reproduced photographs, but I think most would agree that ripping a page from a magazine is less creative than “making a drawing”.

I remember, back when I first started making photographs, some other photographers who went to art school talk about how the painting students would accuse the photographers of suffering from “painting envy”.  At that time, there was a lot to be jealous about:  “serious” photographers worked solely in black and white because color materials were “non-archival”, and most photographs tended to be small objects on paper, and were not really considered to be high art suitable for serious collectors.  Paintings, on the other hand, were big, bold, and colorful, and at least some paintings sold for lots of money.

Museum of Modern Art photography curator John Szarkowski noted that for him to consider something to be art it must first of all be a beautiful object—an opinion that put him at odds with the conceptual art community—but an interesting standard for photographs.  While it is easy to make a photograph—any idiot with a camera and film and access to a corner drugstore could make a photograph—it is much more challenging to make a photograph that could be considered a beautiful object.  I tried for years to make good photographs—it required attention to many things, starting with the selection of a camera and lens, care with focusing, avoiding motion and vibrations, exposing the film properly, then the dog work in the darkroom, developing the film, contact printing, doing work prints, and then finally selecting a few negatives to work with to make finished prints.    I made some photographs I consider to be beautiful objects, though I must admit that most of the prints I made over the course of 30 years don’t rise to that level.  Why?  Mostly because I didn’t have the patience to work with printing—I’d rather be out making new exposures rather than spending time in the darkroom, spending the hours necessary to make beautiful prints.

The Digital Revolution has changed photography, from silver gelatin on film and paper to pixels and pigments on paper or canvas.  Early on, I began to realize that even though I continued to print black and white images scanned from monochromatic negatives, the materials I used were the same as if I were printing in color—and, as a matter of fact, with the printing methods I used, colored pigments were being used in printing the monochrome images.  The whole “black and white is archival, color is not” argument became moot when printing digitally.


Red Dot, Digital File


I bought my first digital camera in 2001—a Nikon 995 Coolpix—a 3.2 MP camera—pretty small by today’s standards—but an amazing camera—it made bright, vivid pictures—and I started printing in color.  In black and white, a photograph depends on shape and texture to carry an image.  In a color image, the most important element is always the color.  The red object (if there is one) is always the subject, because that’s where the eye is drawn.  One of the first things I did with the digital camera was to find red subjects and put them in the middle of the frame.  Those pictures are about as subtle as hitting your thumb with a hammer.

It didn’t take long to figure out that printing from digital files was far different than printing from scanned color negatives.  The one problem with film is the presence of grain—in color materials, several layers of grain—which the scan would attempt to resolve.  A digital file, though, would assign a solid color to an entire pixel, so fields of color would be rendered as a continuous surface.  Even though the files weren’t very big, the resulting prints were quite convincing.


Bullet holes, Tanana River, Digital File


I remember, in about 2004, being invited to participate in a group show in Fairbanks called “the Gun Show”.  I submitted a print of bullet holes in the side of a red truck, printed at about 16×20 inches.  The red paint was rendered gloriously—and hanging in the gallery, it caught the eye of Kes Woodward, one of the town’s best known painters.  He stood in front of the print, shaking his head.  He turned to me and said, with a bitter laugh, “it isn’t fair”.  I laughed.  Damn straight, it isn’t fair.  Finally, photography could do big, bold, red, and beautiful.   But photographs were still fragile objects on paper that had to be protected, behind glass, matted.  Paintings were tough and independent.

I remember making my first large digital prints—it was the summer of 2004, and the university had managed to buy a 44 inch Epson printer—someone in the art department offered to let me use the printer one night.  I showed up with some high resolution scans from 8×10 negatives, and stayed all night, managed to complete 5 prints.  On my way home, about 9 in the morning, I took them to show the local gallery director—he took one look at them, and starting laughing.  “Boy, did you screw up” he told me.  But they are beautiful, I protested—he agreed—yes, they are beautiful, but at 44×55 inches on paper, they are bigger than standard matting materials.  I’d never be able to display them.


Green, 2017, Pigment on Poster Board, 29″x19″



I’ve tried several ways to make big photographs—printing them on canvas (which works, but stretching them is a pain)–thumb tacking big prints to the wall (works, but looks unfinished)—or gluing them to foam core boards (works fine, but is a pain in the butt to do, and often warps).  Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about printing on Aluminum panels, which are then laminated to protect the image surface—which sounds like a robust way to make an image.  However, several images I’ve seen in galleries on metal had very poor detail resolution—something I’m unsure if it was due to the image file or the printing process.   And given the high cost of the aluminum panels—about $10 per square foot for a printable panel—printing on aluminum is not very affordable—especially if a group of images have to be printed for an exhibit.

I did discover that Epson makes an Enhanced Matt Poster Board product.  I’ve printed on Enhanced Matt paper for over a decade—it is a very serviceable printing surface—so I decided to give that a try and see how it looked.  It looked pretty good—especially after a coat of varnish which I had on hand from coating canvas.    And by gluing a wooden frame to the back, I could both stiffen the board, prevent warping, and attach a wire hanger to the back.  The final product looks great, is light weight, and hangs easily.

The resulting objects are big, bold, and colorful–and beautiful.   My son calls them paintings.  So, I guess I’ve made some paintings.  A pretty bold claim for a photographer.


Dumpster Painting, 2017, Pigment on Poster Board, 29″x19″

I enjoy photographing grain elevators—they bring back memories of my childhood on the farm back in Lancaster County, when my dad would let me ride in the truck when he delivered corn to the local feed store—I remember stopping on the scales on the way in, dumping the corn onto the big grate in the floor, then the second stop at the scales.    And I admired the grain elevators in the western landscape when I rode my bike across the country—the grain elevators were the biggest things out there—you could spot the huge silos from miles away.


Nebraska, 1984


I started making photographs of grain elevators as soon as I arrived in Spokane, five years ago.  I recall taking a drive out into the wheat country south of town while waiting for a call-back on renting an apartment during my first full day in town, and seeing elevators I wanted to photograph.


Madson Elevator, Whitman County, July 2017


Within a few weeks, I made my first photographs of grain elevators in Whitman County, located just to the south of Spokane County.  This is the heart of the Palouse country, one of the highest wheat producing areas in the world, the highest wheat producing county in the US.  My first photographs there were on the northern end of the county, in the towns of Rosalia and Oakesdale.   Both of these towns had clusters of wonderful old grain elevators, which I later discovered had been photographed and painted by other local artists.


Rosalia, March 2017


In talking with local residents, there is a lot of discussion about the fact that the old wooden crib style elevators are being torn down, disappearing from the landscape.  The problem is mostly that those elevators are too small to efficiently deal with the volumes of grain that are being produced by current farming methods in Whitman County, and so are on the verge of becoming functionally obsolete.


First steam powered elevator, Moorehead, MN, 1879


Of course, changes in farming methods are nothing new—I discovered a couple of ebay treasures a few years ago—two historical photographs from wheat farming from more than a century ago.  One shows “the first steam powered elevator, Moorehead, MN, 1879”—with dozens of farm wagons loaded with sacks of wheat waiting to unload their harvest at the elevator.  Obviously, the farm wagons couldn’t have traveled far to reach the elevator—meaning that small farmers using horses to reach the railheads needed an elevator within a few miles of the field.  And each trip could move only perhaps 20 bushels of wheat.  Looking at the photograph, it looks like the crib elevator could have held something around 35,000 bushels of wheat.  While it isn’t clear from the photograph, it is almost certain that this elevator was located next to a rail line, so that the grain could be loaded, by gravity, onto bulk rail cars.    It is crib elevators like the one in this photograph, now mostly covered with corrugated steel siding, that are being torn down.


Combine Advertising Photo, 1907


The other photograph is from 1907, an advertising photo intended to show off the new combines that were being built to harvest wheat.  There are a total of 5 combines shown, each requiring 3 men and 33 horses, for a total of 15 men and 165 horses.  That’s a lot of mouths to feed to get the harvest done—and lots of hay that needs to be put up for the winter.


McCoy Elevator, near Rosalia, 2013


Currently, In addition to the wooden crib elevators, many locations added “tanks” for additional storage to the sides of the wooden elevators.  These are occasionally made of wood, but are usually either concrete or steel.  This configuration—the wooden crib “house” elevator flanked by “tanks” is a fairly typical configuration of operating elevators in Whitman County.  Elevators of this type can typically store a few hundred thousand bushels of grain.

Newer elevators are being built that use a vertical steel shaft with numerous tubes coming down in various directions to feed the storage tanks.  Sometimes these are added to the tops of existing crib elevators, which look a bit like some muli-legged alien landed.


New McCoy grain terminal, March 2017


The problem with all of the elevators is that the volume of grain that is being produced in Whitman County is huge—about 30 million bushels per year—and there is a cheaper way to store all this grain—put it in piles on the ground.  The capital cost of a pile on the ground is almost zero, but there is the problem of waste—if it rains or snows, the grain on the top of the pile will rot or sprout—though I’ve been told that wheat will actually make its own protective layer—mixing wheat with water makes a paste that hardens and protects the rest of the grain beneath it.   In years of abundant harvest, a lot of the wheat produced in Whitman County is stored in ground piles.  Large pile storage is especially common at the barge loading facilities along the Snake River that forms the southern boundary of the county.

But the northern end of the county is a long way from the Snake river terminals—about 60 miles from Rosalia to Central Ferry—so the decision was made to build a high volume rail terminal—the new McCoy terminal.  This facility is designed to load 40,000 bushes per hour on to train cars—about 10 cars per hour.  A typical “grain train” has 110 cars—430,000 bushels.  The McCoy terminal has three steel tanks each big enough to hold enough grain to load a train—and four ground piles, each 1.3 million bushels (three train loads), for a total of 6.4 million bushels of storage.  The piles are covered with a thick plastic cover for the winter to minimize spoilage.


New McCoy grain terminal, March 2017


I stopped in at the new McCoy terminal a few weeks ago, at the peak of the wheat harvest in Whitman county.  The place was hopping—big trucks lined up to get on the scales, about a dozen people in the office—and three different dumping spots, one for the big steel tanks, and two for ground piles.  The men working in the office said that they were unloading 400 trucks a day—some of them were smaller dump trucks (500 bushels), some were regular semis (900 bushels), and some were semis with a second trailer (1500 bushels)—so my guess is that the terminal was taking in about 400,000 bushels a day.  They took in trucks from 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM, a schedule designed so that they could load trains at night.


New McCoy Grain Terminal, August 2017


I’m having an exhibition of my photographs of the grain elevators of Whitman County at the Library in Colfax during September and October.  I was offered the show in March, and decided at that point that I wanted to find and photograph as many of the elevators in the county as I could find.  I’ve managed to locate a total of 62 sites with grain elevators—these range from heaps of rotting lumber where a grain elevator used to be, to abandoned elevators, to small elevators now privately owned, to small but active co-op elevators, to clusters of elevators in communities, to large terminals for bulk shipments.   While the wooden crib elevator may be disappearing from the landscape, the grain elevator remains an important part of the landscape of Whitman County.

And I think they are beautiful.

South of Pullman, WA, May 21, 2017


Well, maybe I’m mixing my metaphors.  Could be something from Transformers 7…

As a photographer for nearly 40 years, now approaching 60, I began making photographs in the “dark ages” of photography—when the act of making a photograph required a darkroom.  A photograph was made on film, exposing a negative, which was a physical object, used to make a print, also a physical object.  The creation of a print required time and materials.  The making of a good print also required experience and skill.  Once a photograph was created, it persisted for a long time—I have, hanging in my home, at least a dozen photographs that are close to or more than 100 years old.

Objects 1

Atget, Friedlander (press photo), and the ass

There were some major disadvantages to the making of photographs the old way.  The process was time consuming, the materials were relatively expensive, and most photographic prints tended to be small.   My recollection is that a roll of black and white film in the early 1980s cost about $1, (about 3 cents per 35 mm negative) a package of 25 sheets of paper cost about $12—this is after the Hunt Brothers attempt to corner the market on silver—so not terribly expensive by my standards today, but sufficiently expensive to limit my ability to make lots of pictures, especially when I was young and poor.

Objects 2

Double Evans (LOC), loon, and pine cone

Even more limiting was the way the photographs looked—a black and white silver print looked a certain way, and it was relatively difficult to change the appearance of the photograph in any significant way.  Most photographers embraced the idea of a “straight print”, meaning that an image would be created by the optics of a lens, recorded on film, and converted to a print though a second lens, but with no attempt to change the content or the look of the image.  A “good photographer” was one who understood the materials he was working with, and managed to create beautiful objects.

Objects 3

Clockwise from top, Friedlander (press photo), Loman Brothers, anonymous, and Evans (LOC)

Although I didn’t understand it at the time, I witnessed the beginning of digital photography, during the space program in the 1960s.  TV had been around for a few decades before I was born (it was invent in 1929), but the resolution was pretty bad.  Only during the space program did NASA begin to create higher resolution sensors in order to create still images that could be sent in a digital stream back to earth.

Now, almost all photographs are digital.  There is no film, no negative.  Memory chips have become incredibly cheap.  When I first began making digital photographs in 2001, memory chips cost about $1 per megabyte, so a 3 megabyte picture created by my first digital camera cost $3 of storage to hold it, roughly 100x more expensive than a film negative in the 1980s.  But the chips could be downloaded and cleared, so used over and over again, and storing images as Jpegs allowed more images to be stored on a chip.  During my first few years of working with a digital camera, my shooting was limited by both the small size of the chips and the high cost of the rechargeable batteries—at first I could shoot maybe 50 pictures a day.  I eventually discovered that I could buy disposable batteries for about $10, and chips started getting cheaper, so I soon found I could shoot more pictures—I remember going to the Grand Canyon for the first time in May 2002, and shooting a few hundred pictures in one day (just checked my Lightroom database—I could do about 300 pictures per day then).  Now I buy 16 GB chips for $6 each, each one holds about 2000 Jpeg images   When I went to China in 2011, I shot about 6,000 pictures on a seven day trip.  I don’t even clear the chips anymore.  Chips are cheaper, per image, than negative sleeves.  And, yes, that was a test of your age—at one time negatives were stored in plastic or glassine sleeves, which you hand wrote the “metadata” on—the date and place the pictures were made.  They cost about a penny per negative.  At current chip prices, an image costs about three tenths of a cent to store on a memory chip.  300 for a buck.  Not bad.

Back in the dark ages, all photographs were made with cameras.  Now, the majority of digital images are made with cell phones.  People used to pull out their wallets to show pictures of their kids.  Now they pull out their cell phones and show pictures of their cats.  It used to take days or weeks to get film back from the drugstore—now people text or tweet an image to the world in seconds.

Object 5

Neil and Buzz, a week before the moon, July 1969

I remember watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon in 1969 on a black and white television at a neighbor’s house—an event that had been anticipated for a decade—probably the most expensive piece of television broadcasting ever made.  It was news, but only because somebody finally did something that required heroic amounts of money, brains, and luck, something we weren’t sure that humanity was capable of.  I remember the first news event I learned from the internet—the death of Princess Di—my wife was puttering on the net and saw the news come up only minutes after the event.  And then there was the live video feed from the wing of Sully’s plane in the Hudson…  Some untrained non-journalist with a $100 cell phone broadcasting news to the world.

My 20 year old son has convinced me to make an Instagram account.  I don’t really know what to do with it.  My one instinct is to use it to post pictures instantly—to see something, to make a picture, and to post it within seconds—isn’t that what the instant thing means?  I’ve done that a couple times, but somehow it seems a bit unsettling—to commit an image that quickly to the world. Maybe I could have done better.  Maybe I look like a fool.

On the other hand, in following several younger photographers, it is apparent that many people, or at least some of the ones I follow, don’t do posts that way—they shoot images with a “real camera” (a digital camera, not a cell phone), then load them to their Instagram account days or weeks or months later.  A lot of the photographs are manipulated in some way—one photographer always reduces the color saturation, another does major shifts to the hue of the color, and makes composite images.  A lot of the photos look like model shoots.  My son goes out and poses for pictures that appear on Instagram.  I only follow a handful of people, about the same number follow me.  I don’t “like” that many pictures, and my audience apparently doesn’t “like” my pictures that much either.

Object 4

Anonymous Itinerant Photographer

OK, so maybe it’s time to discuss my Luddite tendencies.  Over the past year or so, I tried hitting the “send to iPhone” button on my Sony Camera, but even though my Bluetooth connection was established between the two devices, the camera just got stuck, the picture never got transferred.  After several attempts over several months, I eventually discovered that I needed to download “the app” from Sony onto my phone.  To download “the app”, I had to use the iPhone App store.  My “Apple ID” didn’t work.  I reset my password, tried to download the app.  My phone went into the Apple version of the Windows “blue screen of death” mode.  I had to go to my computer, google the magic reset combo for the phone (I kept trying to do a reset with a paperclip—discovered the absence of a reset hole).  I just tried it again—after a 30 minute struggle, I managed to get my phone to talk to my camera—and transferred one picture.  Not sure I could do it again.  Not sure I want to do it again.

What I have been doing with my Instagram account is occasionally making an IPhone picture of a print I’ve made—kind of like the long way around to get to an instant digital picture that will immediately vanish into the infinity of all the other digital images out there on the internet—but somehow it helps me knowing that somewhere in the process, the image exists on paper.  It is, or at least it was, a real photograph.  It is an object. Like the photos on my wall.  Maybe that image will still exist in a hundred years.  Or maybe not.

OK, to join the endless self-promotion—which my son tells me is the point of all this–I Instagram at dennis_witmer_photo

Fredrick Sommer, a photographer known for his minimal shooting output (a few hundred negatives in his whole career) once remarked that most photographers shoot too much, an, as they age go from being artists to someone managing an archive.


Broken Trees, Dover, New Jersey, Spring 1987

His student, Emmet Gowin, called photography “a generous medium”, by which (I think) he meant that when you finally figure out what you are trying to do, you probably already have the images you need.


Broken Trees, Fairbanks, Spring 1992

I’m nearly 60, and have been making photographs for nearly 40 years, always as an “amateur”, a lover of photography, always distracted by a “day job”.   I made pictures on weekends or days off, developed film when the weather was bad, and printed what I could in evenings or odd hours.  I always felt like I was leaving a lot of images “in the file”, and that someday I would get back to finish looking at them, and print all the good ones.


Trees Smashed by Thor, Fairbanks, April 2007

I didn’t think it would take this long, but finally, I seem to have time to go back and look at images in the file—to dig through the archive.  I have about 6,500 8×10 negatives, 3,000 4×5 negatives and just under 500 12×20 negatives—about 10,000 large format negatives in all.  Starting in 2004, I scanned every 8×10 and 4×5 negative as a proofing step (rather than contract printing), so I have digital images of about 3,000 negatives on my hard drive.


Flotsom and Jetsom, Tanana River, July 2008

I never set out to “do a project”, and I never had deadlines when something needed to be finished, so there was never a reason to put a project to bed, other than losing interest or moving to a new landscape.  I have some subjects I began photographing 30 years ago that I continue to photograph whenever I find a new scene.  I’m not trying to scan every sheet of film, but rather trying to find every image I made from a subject—so far, I’ve completed scans from the Dalton Highway (about 450 negatives), Denali Park (a mere 120 negatives), and my Tanana River Mud series (150 negatives).  I’m arranging these scans into print on demand wire bound books arranged by location or similarity in image content.

I always knew I was leaving some good images in the file, but I always assumed that I had skimmed the cream off the top—that I had identified and printed the best work as I went along.  After all, that’s what I had been taught—shoot film, develop it, proof it, examine the proofs, print the best, and move on.  What I am finding is a surprising number of wonderful images in the files—way more than I expected.


Wood Scraps, Northland Timber, Fairbanks, June 2010

To be honest, the my weak link in the chain was the proofing step—back in the silver days, I did make a proof of every negative, but they were done quickly—frequently overexposed and under developed—dark and flat—because I was usually guessing at exposure time (too lazy to make test strips).   If I had a show, I would try to produce some “finished prints”—which meant doing a test strip, and making 5 or 6 prints from a negative, then toning them differently, looking for a single finished image.  I could print maybe 5 or 6 negatives in a printing session (my print washer held 32 prints).


Smashed Wood, Oakesdale, WA, June 2013

Digital printing is far more predictable than the trial and error tedium of the darkroom.  The actual scan takes about 5 minutes (including handling the negative) on my flatbed scanner, followed by several steps in Photoshop to adjust contrast and sharpen the image. The most time consuming part is a dust removal step—with grayscale images, always done manually—usually takes 10-15 minutes.   The first print is often “good enough”—meaning that I would be willing to put it in a frame and hang it on a wall.  My standard workflow includes writing the negative number, the title and date of the negative, and the paper type and date of the print—and I sign the print.  I usually don’t number an edition—I usually only make one print from each image.

The Western Landscape is a classic subject for American Photographers ever since the invention of photography—one might even argue that photography invented our vision of the American west, with views by O’Sullivan, Muybridge,  Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams (and many others).

Lee Friedlander has turned his delightful eye on this subject.  In the 2005 epic retrospective book, “Friedlander”, the last section (68 photographs) is devoted to “Landscapes”.  This work seemed to be something of a continuation of “The Desert Seen” (1996) in that iconic views are frequently relegated to the background of photos that seem to feature sharply focused rocks and trees in the foreground.

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004

In 2008, Friedlander published “Recent Western Landscapes”—a book I pre-ordered on Amazon, but never received a copy of.  Apparently the book sold out before any copies were shipped to Amazon.  I’ve never managed to find a copy at a reasonable price, so have never held that book in my hands.

So when “Lee Friedlander:  Western Landscapes” was available for pre-order on Amazon in mid-summer, I ordered a copy, fingers firmly crossed.  It arrived a few weeks ago, but I gave it to my wife so she could wrap it as a Christmas gift.  Weighing in at 7 pounds, and 14 X 15 inches, with 189 full sized plates, each reproduced at 12×12 inches, the book feels epic in both scope and size.  The printing can be described only as perfect, in the sense that one cannot imagine that looking at an original silver print could offer more pleasure than the reproductions presented in the book.   (Given my modest means as a collector, purchasing an original Friedlander print is well beyond me, but purchasing a second copy of this book and desecrating the binding with a razor so I can frame and hang at least some of these images may be a temptation I can’t resist.)

Lee Friedlander, Point Lobos, 2012

Lee Friedlander, Point Lobos, 2012

The book begins with a series of images from Point Lobos—the neighborhood playground of Edward Weston.  There are many other easily recognized places—Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Zion National Park, Arches National Park—as well as numerous images of seemingly anonymous tangled trees.   There are a handful of images from the Canadian Rockies, and one from Mexico.

I must confess one disappointment with the book, albeit a personal one.  My first reading of the book was to look at the pictures, one by one, hoping to find some Alaskan Landscapes.  In “America by Car”, Friedlander included eight images from Alaska, all dated from 2007, so it seemed reasonable to hope that a few of Alaska’s majestic views caught his attention.  I did not see any recognizable views on my first reading, but examination of the captions at the back revealed one image was from Alaska—plate 145.

Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007

Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007

At first glance, this image is, in my humble opinion, one of the least interesting images in the whole book, a disappointment to someone who has spent a significant part of his life attempting to photograph the Alaskan Landscape.  The foreground appears to be a grassy bank—not typical of Alaska–it looks like a road cut—which occupies more than half the frame—and beyond that, some scruffy trees, and a sliver of a river in the distance.  Only after looking at the image for a few minutes did I recognize the view—one I’ve seen many times, though never photographed in the way Friedlander did—it is a view of the Susitna River from a tourist pull-out on the Parks Highway about 130 miles north of Anchorage.  The pull-out was built to provide a view of the south face of Denali, a splendid view when the weather is cooperative, with the braided channels of the Susitna River in the foreground and the mountain in the distance, a view that could be seen—in clear weather—by pivoting ninety degrees to the right from the Friedlander picture, and walking a few hundred feet to the tourist viewing area.

My question is, why did Friedlander include this picture, rather than one of the iconic mountain?  The simple answer, and probably the most likely, is that the mountain was hidden by clouds during the time Friedlander was there—a guess suggested by the clouds that appear in the upper right corner of the frame.  From the “America by Car” images, Friedlander includes two pictures of rain on the windshield of his car—weather typical of late summer.  While, on average, the “mountain is out” one day out of five, there are streaks of bad weather where the mountain might not be out for weeks at a time.

So why did Friedlander include this picture at all?  Is it intended as a snub at Alaska—a “this place is really overrated” statement?  Or is it an admission of defeat—between the weather and the almost exhausting array of possible subjects, he walks away without an iconic frame to include with the others?  Or is this picture an inside joke–a deliberate look away from the iconic view?   Of course, the picture is mute.

There have been multiple books on the American west that don’t include a single image of Alaska—so having one—even boring—picture included is perhaps a way of saying that Alaska is included in his view of the west.  There are at least two other states represented by a single image in this collection—Nevada and Idaho.   Maybe “the West” is too big for any single photographer, or single book.  But he includes two photographs from New York—hopefully at least west of his house.

If the country thinks that TV stars make good presidents, let’s at least put the best one forward.

Time to start the next presidential campaign.  Jon Stewart in 2020.    How about “Make America Smart Again” for a campaign slogan.  Draft him if he doesn’t want to run.

Image result for Jon Stewart photo