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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.

8-0097-sticks

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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

Portland, Oregon, April 9, 2003

Portland, Oregon, April 9, 2003

As a young photographer decades ago, I was the beneficiary of the encouragement and generosity of several older photographers.  In 1983, when I was in my mid 20’s, I decided to purchase a 4×5 camera—several photographers I admired were working in large format—and so I started looking for a camera to buy.

I recall looking at an older, small wooden camera with red bellows in the window of a camera store in Lynchburg, Virginia—I was traveling with my parents to visit my sister who was attending Liberty Baptist College—but it was Sunday, and the store wasn’t open.  Lucky for me.  When my old photo instructor and friend, Bob Lowing, discovered I was shopping for a 4×5, he offered to sell me his—a Linholf Technika IV—his daughter was taking dancing lessons, and he needed the money.  He agreed to let me try out the camera, and to pay him the appraised value.   I took the camera to a used camera/repair shop in Philadelphia, and was told the camera was worth $500, the sum I paid for the camera. (Later, when I brought the shutter in for repair, the same person told me the camera was worth much more—I suspect he was trying to purchase the camera from me at a low-ball price when I asked for an appraisal.  When I told my friend that I may have under-paid him for the camera, he laughed, and said it was in good hands.)  My recollection is that the deal also included a few film holders and some other accessories.

Kool Jazz, Philadelphia, June 1983

Kool Jazz, Philadelphia, June 1983–First day in the field with the Linholf

The Linholf Technika is a “field camera”, a similar design to a collapsible Speed Graphic press camera—when not in use, the camera folds into a compact box.  To use, the front folds out, exposing a rail that the front standard and lens slide out on.  The Linholf is a metal camera—virtually indestructible—in the 33 years I owned the camera, the only servicing I had done to the camera was an occasional shutter clean and adjust.

I didn’t own a car while I lived in Philadelphia, so I would strap a tripod to the rear rack of my bicycle, put the Linholf in a backpack, and ride around the city looking for photographs.  Only in retrospect did it occur to me how ideal this was—I never had to find a parking space—I just got off the bike, set up the tripod, and made the picture.

Snow White, Philadelphia, June 1983

Snow White, Philadelphia, June 1983–First day in the field with the Linholf

By this point in my photographic career, I’ve owned something like a few dozen cameras—from a key chain digital camera to a 12×20 inch banquet camera—and each camera seems able to make only certain pictures.  The best pictures come when the photographer and the camera learn to work together—sometimes an easier process than others.  But right from my first day in the field with the Linholf, the camera helped me make great pictures–ones I still look at with pride.

The Linholf was my primary camera between 1983 and 1987, when I purchased my first 8×10 camera.  I was goaded into the 8×10 by George Tice (I took a class with him at the New School in 1986) and Michael A Smith (he had a show, I attended the gallery lecture, and decided to buy my own 8×10 rather than purchasing one of his prints—they cost about the same).

Fishing for Tom Cods, Kotzebue, Alaska, November 1987

Fishing for Tom Cods, Kotzebue, Alaska, November 1987

When my wife and I left New Jersey to spend the summer in Alaska, I decided to leave the 8×10 at home and take the Linholf—we were headed to a remote field camp on the tundra, and I wasn’t sure that bringing along a huge camera was a good idea.  I think it goes under the Ansel Adams rule about cameras—“use the biggest one you can carry.”  There are times when the 8×10 is just too much—the Linholf was the perfect smaller camera.  Which is why the Linholf went with me to the northern Brooks Range in 1996.

Karupa Lake, Brooks Range, Alaska, August 1996

Karupa Lake, Brooks Range, Alaska, August 1996

One issue with any sheet film camera is the problem of loading and unloading film holders–you can do it in the field, but it is a real pain in the butt. In about 2006, I decided to switch to redi-loads–individual sheets of film packaged in cardboard holders–they weren’t cheap, but it eliminated the issue of handling film while traveling.  About 5 years ago, I discovered that redi-loads were no longer available for purchase–another victim of the digital revolution.

A few years ago, my friend Ben Huff and I had a long conversation about Adak, an island that has a recently closed military base on it.   Ben took a couple trips there over the past year, and got a grant to continue his project–I volunteered to join him on his next trip–which we did together in September.  I took along the Linholf and the last 62 sheets of redi-loads.

Sea and sky, Adak, September 2016

Sea and sky, Adak, September 2016

The Linholf was a great camera for Adak–I could carry it on walks around town, the camera was stiff enough to work in the constant wind–and the camera movements were more than adequate for the architectural pictures I wanted to make.  But I have to admit, my eyes aren’t what they used to be–I did a lot of guessing about the focus on the ground glass–and did a lot of the movements based on experience.  The scans I’ve done so far look pretty good, though.

But Adak was the end of the road for my work with the Linholf.  I don’t want to go back to sheet film holders in 4×5–I much prefer the experience of looking at the 8×10 ground glass–I make different pictures with the bigger camera.  So I sent the camera home with Ben.  He has a project or two in mind for the camera, and I’d rather see it in his hands, making new pictures, rather than sitting on my shelf.

Snow Fence, Adak, September 2016--Last picture with Linhof

Snow Fence, Adak, September 2016–Last picture with Linhof

In all, I made about 2800 images with the Linholf in the 33 years I owned the camera.  Not that many, especially compared to the number of pictures I make with a hand-held digital camera.  But many of those images still hold my interest–perhaps a direct result of the care and time needed to make each picture.  And the steady, comforting quality of working with a great camera, like a friend.

Gary Pfaff

September 13, 1944- August 26, 2016

Rest in Peace

Gary and Erica, 1984

Gary and Erica, 1984

 

My dear friend and fellow photographer, Gary Pfaff, passed away on August 26, 2016.  His death was preceded by a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

I first met Gary on the street in West Philadelphia in about 1983—I was out shooting with a 4×5 when a man holding a small girl came up and said—“hey, I have a camera like that”, and started talking cameras  (I hate talking cameras.)  When he learned I lived a few blocks away, he invited me to his house for dinner—I was a little surprised by the invitation—but I accepted.  The little girl in his arms—two year old Erica—seemed to take a shine to me—and I was unofficially adopted into the family as “Uncle Dennis”.

Gary, Safe Harbor, Susquehanna River

Gary, Safe Harbor, Susquehanna River

 

When I first met Gary, I was a graduate student, living on a small stipend, but very interested in making photographs.  I couldn’t afford a lot of things—but Gary had very nice cameras.  He loaned me a Leica camera—an M3 that many consider to be the best 35mm camera ever made–for a cross country bike trip—something I could never have purchased on my own.  Through the years, he has given me cameras and film—my pictures are better because of the gifts he gave me.  I have tried to repay his generosity as I could, giving him photographs made with the equipment—but mostly I’ve tried to honor his gifts through passing on my own excess equipment to younger photographers, those with time, energy, and ambition, but limited money.   Gary taught me to share the toys–it’s more fun that way.

 

Gary and LD 1995                                                                  Gary and LaDorna, 1995

 

Gary also gave me my first bicycle helmet, a gift I must admit I ruined when a dog hit my bike when I was going down a hill fast—I broke my collar bone and the helmet, but my head was fine.  In 1984, we did a cross-Pennsylvania bicycle ride.  One short story—we stopped to camp at a fairground in Broad Top City—an old coal mining town—we set up our tents, and went into the local bar to have a beer in the evening.  There were a couple older gentlemen at the other end of the bar that looked like they had been working their stools since morning.  There were two beers on tap—Schlitz (forty cents a mug) and Strohs (forty-five cents a mug).   We decided to spend big, and went for the Strohs.  The beer came served in a 12 ounce frosted mug, filled completely to the brim, no head.  Gary laughed, and noted that this was a coal mining town—people worked for their money—and expected to get beer for their money—if the bar tender didn’t deliver, he probably would wind up at  the bottom of a coal mine shaft.  The next evening, we stayed at a hotel in Carlisle, and had dinner in the hotel restaurant.  We ordered beer–$3—which came in a tiny crystal glass—maybe five ounces of warm, flat beer.  After dinner, we went to a convenience store next to the hotel looking for ice cream (we had ridden 100 miles that day—we thought we deserved the calories)—bought a half gallon of ice cream, planning to just discard what we didn’t eat—but we managed to polish off the entire box without much trouble.

--Through the snow--Christmas Card

–Through the snow–Christmas Card

 

Gary had a sense of humor, though it was sometimes a little wacky–a bit on the punny side.  Here’s one joke I remember him telling—“Three strings walk into a bar, and try to order a beer.  The bartender looks at them, and says, ‘get out, we don’t like strings here’, so they leave.  One string ties itself in a knot, then starts beating itself against the wall.  It then goes back into the bar and orders a beer.  The bar tender looks at it, and says, ‘say, aren’t you one of those strings I just threw out of here?’  and the string replies, ‘no, I’m a frayed knot.’”    Gary’s sense of humor was also on display in the Christmas cards he and LD put out every year.  My favorite was a blender with a can of peas—“Visualize whirled peas”.

The last decade of Gary’s life was defined by his struggle with Parkinson’s disease.   I visited Gary when I could—about once a year—and watched his slow, steady decline.  In the beginning, there was talk of the possibility of new treatments, but, the progression of the disease was relentless.   Gary bore the ravages of the disease with as much grace and patience as I think possible—aided always by the love and care of LD.  Most difficult to watch were his struggles to express himself—Gary was still in there, a clear mind trapped by a body failing.

I think of Gary when I’m out photographing—I  often use a camera from him—mounted on a tripod from another friend who passed in 2010—and I’m grateful to still be able to do my work.  Our days are all numbered, one day our work will be done.  My work, and life, is better because of the gifts he gave.

*************************************

Gary made wonderful pictures, which he put in boxes and hid in his basement.  Here are a few examples:

 

Gary Pfaff, Pawn Shop, Warrenton, VA 2001

Gary Pfaff, Pawn Shop, Warrenton, VA 2001

 

Gary Pfaff, Warrenton, VA, 2003

Gary Pfaff, Warrenton, VA, 2003

 

Gary Pfaff, Ocean City, 2003

Gary Pfaff, Ocean City, 2003

 

Gary Pfaff, Gainsville, VA, 2000

Gary Pfaff, Gainsville, VA, 2000

 

Gary Pfaff, Hatcher Pass, AK, 2003

Gary Pfaff, Hatcher Pass, AK, 2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Frost famously said, “Good fences make good neighbors”—something that makes a lot of sense in the country surrounding our farm.   A fence is a way of dividing ownership of the landscape into what’s yours and what’s mine, clearly defined, visible:  an obstacle that must be walked around, or passed through with a gate.  Fences work both ways: some things are being kept in, so they don’t wander off—things that are ours (sheep, cows, dogs, children), and some things are being kept out—other people’s animals, wild animals, other people’s kids, or strangers.

When we bought our farm 25 years ago, the fence around the property was in very poor repair, and other people’s cattle had the run of our meadow—as allowed by “open range laws”.  We gained control of the meadow only when a local rancher spent a summer building fence around the property to keep his cattle out—if they could get into the meadow, they would never leave—and he had leased 14,000 acres of forest lands surrounding our property—where he wanted them to spend the summer grazing.  Now, when he opens the gate to our property in October, the meadow is soon filled with his herd—I once counted 160 cattle in our meadow in late fall.  It makes it easy for him to round them up and move them to their winter range.

 

Cows in the meadow, Fall 2015

Cows in the meadow, Fall 2015

The old farmhouse we are using as a cabin is in the middle of the meadow, and was surrounded by a fence to keep the cattle out of the yard.  Behind the house, a deer fence surrounded the garden area.  Another fence kept the cattle out of the pond.  Every time we went to the garden, we opened a gate.  Going from the house to the well  near the pond required going through three gates.

The old fences, Spring 2016

The old fences, Spring 2016

 

Last winter, my wife Rachel suggested that we surround the house, garden, and pond inside a single fence, high enough to keep the deer out.   We love watching the deer, and are glad there are so many, but they do tend to eat almost anything we plant.  The new fence would enclose all the sheds, the new grove of trees we planted to the south of the house (the next generation of shade), the newly planted apple trees, and the place where we are trying to start a thicket for the birds.

Early this spring, we figured out where we wanted this new fence to go, marked corners, and measured distances.  I started building the new fence in early June, starting with pulling out some of the old fence to make way for the new.  I have memories of helping my father build fence, back in Lancaster County, when I was a boy.  It’s hard work—digging holes, stretching wire, pounding posts, pounding nails—dirty, physical labor—not the kind of thing I’ve spent my career doing.   I wind up drenched in sweat and filthy at the end of the day.  And the job is big—each day I work I make some progress, but the job requires many days of work—weeks, months.  The satisfaction, though, is in being able to see my progress, and knowing that I’ve done the job right, and that, with luck, the fence should last the rest of my lifetime.   We are making the fence as transparent as possible, so we can see the space beyond.

I’m about half way done with the job now.  Moving the fences changes the space in many ways—trees that had been outside the fence—in the space belonging to the deer and the cattle—are now inside—in our space.  Even though we legally own the whole property, building our fence is a way of defining our space—where we can plant things—and making the property our home.  We dream of gardens and orchards, with flowers and seeds and thickets for birds, and porches to watch them from.

 

Fence (1 of 1)

untitled (50 of 108)This year has been weird, weather wise–it was in the 80’s in early April, we planted our garden around May 10 (even though the locals say there can be frost until June 1)–thought we had made it home free–no frost–and a temperature of 102 on June 5.  But yesterday there was a light frost–only killed one zucchini leaf–but very clearly frost.  Then today, the picture above, a thunderstorm with something not quite hail, not quite snow–more like slush balls falling from the sky, covering the ground.