Saturday, May 31, 2008

Hiddenhurst from Wheeler-Collins Farm

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY - Standing amid the tall grasses of the Wheeler-Collins Farm I watched as the clouds rolled over the valley from the north-west, past Wheeler-Collins and then to the south-east where Hiddenhurst stood. Wheeler-Collins is the farm where the previously posted photo on "Threesomeness," was shot.

The cloud cover was solid and the broad valley looked flat and unappealing, so I did what I've learned to do in such situations; I waited. When a first beam of light came into view I crossed my fingers that it would eventually move toward Hiddenhurst. Then a second beam followed it at a short distance. What would be the chances that both would slide into position to clarify my shot? They moved toward me at the speed of a passing car, and then the light was on me for less than a minute, and then I was back in shadow again, but the trajectory looked good. I watched the first beam pick out a foreground tree from a row of trees behind it, and then the second beam came my way. Yes, everything was aligned, and I watched as the two beams subsequently revealed and concealed each level of the scene. I snapped many shots, but I knew that I had found the right moment when that second beam caught the foreground tree again at the very same moment the first beam was shining on Hiddenhurst.

So, what is the story of Hiddenhurst? Well, the truth is it was built by millionaire paint manufacturers from New York, Edwin and Thomas Hidden in 1903 for the breeding and training of their race horses. Here is how Amenia Historian Arlene Pettersson explained it to me:
They did build this place specifically to raise and train their driving and harness racing horses. There was a 1/4 mile track which encircled a magnificent stable which housed the horses and an indoor arena which was very unusual at the time. The price for the barn was $100,000 (or that may have been the price for the entire construction but I don't know for sure-I kind of lean toward it being the cost for the whole place because the house itself sold for $45,000 in the 1940's. ) Anyway when Thomas Hidden died he left no will, and the estate went to his three nieces (this was in 1918), Frances Hidden, Maria Watson Hidden and Sarah Hidden. I didn't do a detailed search, but the house and estate changed hands a few times after that. It went at one point to the Sheffield Dairy which was a big milk operation around the corner and then to the Fitzgeralds. They changed the name to FITZLAND FARM when they got it in 1945. It was shortly after that the great stable described above and two silos caught fire and burned to the ground.

So it is not entirely clear to me what the barns in the picture are. They have the form of dairy barns. The current owner tells me that he, "renovated the old barn." Arlene thinks they were all destroyed. One doesn't install three giant harvester silos like those unless one has a major cattle operation, and three clay tile silos suggest cattle farming must have spanned a considerable period of time. Nothing on the barns looks especially old, but they do play well to theater lights. While their history may be a bit atypical for this dairy region, it is only their flamboyant setting atop their hurst that sets them apart from the many dairy farms still standing in the region.

The silo in the previous TODAY'S is the one on the far left of the barns, partly hidden by the tree in the center of the picture.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: They called it "Hiddenhurst." Until yesterday I had no idea why. A "hurst," I found out, is a hillock. This is a land of hillocks, hillocks and dairy farms, but few of them claim to be hursts. No self-respecting Holstein would graze a hurst, nor did I know why this one claimed to be hidden. It's plainly visible from every hillock and hurst for miles up and down the Harlem Valley.

When one stands on almost any hillock around here one can look across to at least one or two other farms, but, although they are oriented to maximize sunshine, they all shyly hug their backs to a hillockside to block the winds. Only Hiddenhurst struts atop its hurst, hardly hidden. Until yesterday I had no idea why they called it Hiddenhurst.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: It takes a bit more gas to get across the border into New York, but that's where the skies are biggest; during spring showers, it's the place to be to shoot the sky or to catch the hillsides transform under theater lights beaming between the clouds. Cool weather and alternating periods of sun and rain have sent the grass soaring by inches per day. The roll and the sway of the sweetgrass hills is intoxicating. Saturday, when I walked here, it was waist high, and I was inside the roll and sway of these sweetgrass hills. On Sunday the farmer had begun mowing. Elsewhere tiny buttons of corn had begun popping up in long rows, and I was here again, having driven a few extra miles to catch, maybe, a small miracle. Everything moves to the turning of the great wheels.


Ah! Sun-Flower

Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done:

Where the Youth pined away with desire
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Theater Lights #3: Waiting for the Grass to Grow

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: I'm coming to believe that theater lights must be tended and harvested like a precious crop. They come in many moods. When the clouds are dense, and there are few holes for the sun to poke through, I stand and wait, uncertain and guessing where the stage will next be set and what my composition might be; waiting for the shafts of sunlight that will add a transitory note to the harmony, a moment of expectation or hesitation, that sense that I have caught the leaf falling.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Theater Lights #2

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY - The Bearded Barn holds the stage beside a full cast of supporting characters. Here they are, arranged as if ready to take a bow. This is a prime stage for future "theater lights" shoots which raises the issue of potential redundancy. I like to think of the photos that make it to TODAY'S as likely "keepers." Is this shot merely an opening bow for a more spectacular performance yet to come, or will it hold its own when set beside future acts?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Theater Lights

RALPH WALDO EMERSON: "All our progress is an unfolding, like a vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: And so in this season of, "dark brown gardens and peeping flowers," this week I returned to Strait Farm. It has been a bit over a year since I first visited Strait and photographed the building which The New Milford Times dubbed, "The Bearded Barn," when they published my image. All that has changed at Strait Farmstead in a year is my eye and my understanding of light. [Two additional imges of The Bearded Barn: (1), (2)]

Without doubt, my favorite kind of sky has become what I call "theater lights."  Theater lights usually occur after or between storms when all sorts of breaks let sunlight play over the hillsides. At such times clouds of many colors may make beautiful patterns above, while a tropospheric lighting designer moves the cloud-banks to spotlight the sun's energy onto specific hills, trees or other features below. His experiments can make contours fade and reappear while constantly reshaping composition and transforming mood. The photographer tries to make sense of it all. I realize I need to work on my routines and skills to better exploit such rare and treasured light.

The weather forecast for the past three days has been rain, rain, rain. In fact, it took me most of two days finishing indoor chores to realize that outside the best photo weather was going by unexposed. Why is it that I rush to stand freezing in a blizzard, but a little drizzle shuts me in? I suppose it's the unpredictability of it all - not wanting to get caught in a downpour. It is clear to me from the past two days that I need to formulate a strategy much as I have done for shooting in snow.  

Notes to myself:
1.  "Theater lights," enrich a panorama.  A high position with views of rows of hills and features in several directions multiplies options.
2.  Foreground - middle ground - background.  Collect "drive-to" locations with panorama plus interesting foreground feature(s).
3.  When no panorama is available, intimate effects may be possible.
4.  "Theater lights" can happen at any time of day. Which sites are best at which times of day for sidelight and/or frontlight?
5.  Graduated ND filters required. 
6.  ALWAYS PRE-VISUALIZE - There's usually no shot when no beams light the landscape, so don't shoot. Similarly, the "theater lights" effect doesn't happen when all the lights are on. The purpose of "theater lights" is to set things apart and lead the eye.
7.  Pick a site. Don't chase rainbows. Be prepared to wait.  
8.  It is in the nature of this kind of sky that changes can happen quickly. Stop and watch the movement of the light until you're at its rhythm and can anticipate how it will light fore-middle-background and when the best compositional balances will occur.
9.  Realize that sometimes it's just not meant to happen.
10.  Don't take chances with thunder.

There is a more difficult problem for which I must find temperament to manage.  Because (1) "theater lights" happen at all times of day, because (2) they can pass as quickly as they come, and because (3) they are so spectacular, I sometimes jump the gun and wind up tired and hungry and heading for home just as the sky promises a sunset finale.  Alternately, I think the event will pass so quickly it is not worth even gearing up and heading out to shoot. When there's reason to hope, it may be worth holding out to time things so I have stamina to reach the sunset finale.

The photo above catches The Bearded Barn at a moment when the sun illuminates brightly the vines on its front while playing soft light over the hillside behind. It leaves no question over who is the star of the show.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Point of View #2

JOHN B. WELLER: "Once I've composed a photograph, I look at all of the elements inside the frame and ask myself, 'What function should this element ideally play?' and, 'How is it functioning in the current light?' Sometimes moving the camera a couple of inches allows it to play a different role."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: This photo was taken about ten minutes later than yesterday's TODAY'S. I'd like to think the slant is the same, but the point of view has been shifted. Yesterday's image told the story from the farmstead's staid point of view. The format is now horizontal, and the lens has zoomed out (from digital 52mm to digital 28mm, a bit of a wide-angle). Any slight shift of the camera left, right, up, or down realigns porch and yardscape, significantly rejiggers the composition.

I step back to put one column right and set my level so the column is vertical, a weak anchor for the image. From this anchor everything else seems to be in motion and expanding with the first leafing and flowering. I refine the composition putting the decorative bracket, with its finial and miniature column, tightly into the upper corner. This gives it moment. I've never seen one quite like it. What is its story? All I can say is it makes a gracious entry into a composition that spins. Would it bother anyone if I made it spin clockwise? What obligation does the photographer have to the actual?

Point of View #1

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: The first questions are always about light. The qualities of light are infinite, and there are no reliable rules about how they will react with the forms and textures of the farmscape, so composing is always spontaneous.

What happens to ancient barn boards as they age is mysterious to me; I've seen old barns change color with the time of day. I've also seen a row of tree trunks that is a dark silhouette at dawn disappear at noon and become a high-kicking chorus line at dusk. Light defines shapes one moment and later turns them into negative space or makes them vanish. Compositions don't appear until the light frees them from the material world.

Even more mysterious than the reflective quality of old painted barn boards and high-kicking tree trunks is the relation of light to emotion. Naturally, the barns and fields I photograph have a general intellectual and emotional appeal to me. By endowing these subjects with specific emotion, light makes their appeal of the moment. It gives them, "the immediacy of the falling leaf." Every successful shoot is a process of discovery during which the scene becomes charged with emotion.

The first questions are about light; they tell me where to shoot and how to compose, but the essential questions are about purpose. Purpose begins to be clarified as I shoot but must become clear in processing. My slant must determine the camera's angle and the image's gradients if the final picture is to be fully charged with meaning.

Two contrasting reactions have dominated my feelings about True Mountain Farm: First is the silence and venerable decay of the buildings. Second is the slow, inexorable explosion of spring that is enveloping those buildings. At True Mountain Farm the present is devouring the past. I've tried to present and develop this clear slant through all of the True Mountain images that have become part of TODAY'S.

In this image of the blacksmith's shop I've aligned the photo canvas with the architectural elements. This rectilinearity emphasizes the stillness of the buildings. I like also how the shadowed porch commands the view of and contrasts with the stolid blaze of the shop. The crisp rhythm of Victorian balusters, one edge catching a bit of diffused light, has a primness about it that suggests to me the righteousness of it all; the porch almost refuses to acknowledge the disrepair. Do the small, irreverent advances of spring creeping into the corners of the shot quietly mock the old edifices? How many more such assaults can they withstand?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Spring Springing

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY - A book I read a few years ago advised, "When you see a good shot, grab it. It won't be there when you come back."

Most of the time I shoot places, not people. It might seem I should have much leisure to catch the images I like. Those who shoot people must be quick to catch the telling gesture, but the landscape, in most people's eyes, just sits there. However, there may be a thousand tiny factors that lead to distinguishing a "composition," from the infinity of random "snapshots," that lie about wherever one points the camera. Most of the time the "compositions," only emerge in the course of my scouting and scoping walks. I was reminded this past week of just how transient some of those compositions may be. Even when the shot lies beneath a totally clear sky, and one can return at the same time of day, the shot of yesterday may be gone tomorrow.

It's not that the bicycle is likely to move any time soon. It's probably been sitting and rusting there for a dozen years. I shot this image early yesterday morning, but my reason for rising at 5:15 to catch the morning sun was to re-shoot two other images I had taken a few days earlier at the same time in the morning. Both were striking compositions, well worth the effort of re-tracking them. I'd even spent time the afternoon before trying to locate and mark the exact spots from which they had been taken. I didn't expect to be able to shoot in the afternoon what had been successful at sunrise, but I wanted to be able to find the location quickly the next morning as morning light is always fleeting. I re-scouted the locations with some difficulty, but I was reasonably certain I had found them.

These were long shots through my telephoto lens that compressed elements separated by as much as 800 or 900 feet. The shots would have been beautiful had they not been technically flawed. Whether wind or carelessness caused the blurriness, I couldn't use them that way, and they struck me as sufficiently unusual sightings that they were worth stalking a second time. What I had not expected was that in the few intervening days the thin spring leafing would change everything.

The chief culprits were two background trees. They shouldn't really have mattered; they blocked little. One had just leafed. The other that had frail green leaves before, now was covered with white flowers. However, suddenly the two trees claimed undo focus and a few details they blocked turned out to be small but necessary points of interest. Had I not seen them previously there would have been nothing to grab my eye; the compositions, so stunning a few days earlier, were completely gone. I snapped as best I could being certain there was no shake, but back at my computer the new shots were failures. This is why it is so essential to blank the mind of expectations and always shoot at the edge of the moment.

Lesson relearned: When you see a good shot, grab it. It won't be there when you come back. That's why I spent 30 minutes of my precious sunrise shoot refining this shot of the great silos atop True Mountain.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Starry Night

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: The two silos are side by side and to casual glance, snug against the end wall of the barn. In fact, I found there was a narrow passage between them. It was strewn with debris and will probably be overgrown in a month. Once through this channel I found myself in a musty, triangular space between silos and the barn. To my left and right were narrow passages that hugged the barn wall and led back out. In front was access to the barn. When I turned and looked, I saw the silos had been outfitted on this side with iron levers and handles that worked wooden gates, the patented hardware of the Unadilla Silo Company. I had entered the inner sanctum.

I couldn't help but think of the back-breaking task of shoveling the silage from here to the cows inside the barn. At least the whole process had been designed to let gravity do a bit of the work. I have much to learn about how this really did work - a note for my next visit.

The appliances that operated the gates were rusted and decayed and too fragile to fool with. I could just about find space to poke my head in, and it took an awkward twist to look up and take in the space. This was the belly of the beast or at least one of them. I gazed in dank & awe and then quickly but carefully unscrewed myself. Definite possibilities! ...and impossibilities. I thought about the impossibility of doing "the silo twist," with a camera. Worse yet, it was dark and there was no way I could use a tripod. The camera would have to be rock steady. I reached deep inside, guessed at the trajectory, and braced myself against something smelly. Instant digital feedback at least allowed me to check that I got the shots I wanted eventually. I find, however, a few of the "rejects," seem to me now like great serendipities.

As it turns out, the silos are not so old as I had thought, but I would guess wooden silos had a relatively limited life. The Unadilla Silo Company which, by the way, still exists, kindly and amazingly took less than 24 hours to locate sales documents showing three silos shipped in 1950. I'm not sure what the working life of a silo is, but these were undoubtedly replacement silos. In 1950 it cost $45 to ship a large silo such as this from Unadilla, NY, to True Mt., Conn.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Sadly, jpg reduction lacks the great detail of the full-resolution original which clearly reveals the bolts and fasteners in the apex of the silo roof. In this reduction the structure itself is dim. If possible, view this image full screen and against a dark background. Turn down/off nearby lamps.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Watchful Eyes

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: In three visits to the farm atop True Mountain I took almost 900 photographs. That seems like a lot even to me, but it is a big place, and there is much to learn and even more to decide. There are 14 or 15 buildings in the farmstead cluster. The farmstead stands amid fields bounded by stone walls, and there are beautiful hillside vistas on all sides. After three days of scouting, I still haven't "covered all the angles," and many shots were taken when the light was wrong for the purpose of recalling possibilities - angles to revisit or ignore. Most importantly as I scout and shoot I find the wonders and rhythms of the place, and they often invoke feelings. With any luck I've made some images that communicate some of this.

Reviewing so many shots of the same place at once begs certain questions. The same barns, many angles, near or far, three days, varying weather, sunrise and sunset - so many possibilities - after you've shot them all, how do you chose? In fact, one might ignore the barns completely and shoot the avian bacchanalia in the surrounding fields. With many warm, sunny options from which to chose, I beg patience while I capture stop-motion images of the slow-motion passing of these grand, old structures. If they could speak to us now, what would they say? Perhaps these photo images are an offering to the muses that abide here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Farm Atop True Mountain


What is it about the great farmstead atop True Mountain that I find so compelling?

Certainly, it is the silence. By that, I don't mean that all is quiet. Especially now, as spring is in full fling, the avian choirs at dawn and dusk are glorious and loud. No, it is the silence inside where the gates and chains in the milking parlor no longer jingle, and the skuffing field mouse along a purlin seems loud. But other farmsteads are similarly still.

It is also the great age of the silence. For a hundred years from 1860 the busi-ness of the farm was handed from father to son: Fields were plowed, cows were milked, horses were shod atop True Mountain, until in 1960 it all stopped. Then the scurrying began. Vines slipped under the brittle, shrunken barn boards. Pigeons nested in the two great silos. Windows slipped and shards of broken glass were found. The rafters belonged to the mudwasps and hornets, the sparrows and bats. The chimneys, through fifty unheated seasons of wet and dry, crumbled without a sound.

It is also the buildings themselves that amplify the silence - so many brittle facades that give form to barn yard and door yard, to the ladies' flower gardens and the men's vegetable gardens. And from the courtyards and gardens old farm roads reach in all directions to the fields and the pastures and the orchards, and water flows in channels and clay pipes carefully designed to fill the cow pond and keep the farm roads dry. The tumble of buildings gives form to the daily routine. I guess at the purpose of each structure and speculate on the activities of the day. On the way from the cow barn to the stable I stop at the blacksmith's shop or peek in at the chicken house. I wonder if more corn is needed up at the farmstand by the road or if the barnyard needs shoveling. When I look again the dooryard has lost all focus, and the barnyard is dry and tidy, the vegetable garden is all weed and the outhouse door is always shut.

Most of all it is the two great wooden silos that hug the farmstead and tower above it. The wind of fifty winters and the sun of fifty summers have dessicated the joists and the planking of the barns since they fell silent. Nails rattle like loose teeth. The great iron belts of the silos fall slack as the boards of the silos contract their girth, yet the great skeletons stand as if almost ready for another day of chores to begin. When I climb inside one of the silos I see stamped onto the frame: "Unadilla Silo Company, Unadilla, NY, Silos & Tanks - Stanchions & Partitions. pat. 228904."

Venerate these old barns, eggshell-thin and brittle,
Even as the season springs its fling, unflings its spring,
and around the crumbling cow stalls green things slither toward light.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Light and Water

HENRY DAVID THOREAU: "The whole bank, which is from twenty to forty feet high, is sometimes overlaid with a mass of this kind of foliage, or sandy rupture, for a quarter of a mile on one or both sides, the produce of one spring day. What makes this sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly. When I see on the one side the inert bank,for the sun acts on one side first,and on the other this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me, had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat (leibo, labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; lobos, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words)...."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: One who wants to photograph the land follows the seasons. This is the season of water and its cycles and its endless capacity for transformation and metaphor. I've been following its currents since the big rains came in March that rutted my road and finished the work of the thaw: I went to Great Falls on the Housatonic to shoot the water's torrent, and to Collinsville where the Farmington River was, long ago, divided into narrow channels so its energy could be engaged in the building of a nation, and finally, after days of warm sun, the water led me here, and it feels like a beginning. To say more is to say too much.