At the very bottom of this post is an image of a dead bird. Now, it may
well be as beautiful an image of a dead bird as you've seen. But it's a dead
bird just the same and I'd not want to sandbag anyone, so...
Back in the day when eagles were still desperately rare, I once spent
four hours sitting at rapt attention in my car near the dam on the Presque Isle
Flowage during a late autumn snowstorm. I never took my eyes off the far
reaches of that flowage for longer than needed to check the time or hit the
windshield wipers, Scout's honor. It was
something of a holy mission.
About the same time each day a bald eagle rose from the headwaters of
the flowage, just this side of where boat chasers live and the Presque Isle is
like murky serpents coursing through bug-infested forest. Every late morning
that trip, the great bird came from deep in the floodplain, briskly reviewed
the length of flowage then headed off downriver in search of riparian bounty. It
flew past the dam, then disappeared over a stretch of dark, slow river that soon grows
headstrong and sometimes hot white along a quickening rush to Superior, where not
infrequently its voice is furious at the prospect of reaching big water and
I'd my sturdy Nikon F at the ready, determined to capture the eagle
front side and back as it went by. I could just barely see that damned bird all the way back there, circling low upon
a snow blotted sky. Of course with that last day of the trip having gone so
foul, it never came out. Which proved eagles had better sense than I.
Going through my back catalog of 35mm film reminded me that once upon
a time, I'd wanted to be a wildlife photographer. I mean, who wouldn't?
Imagine stalking some wild northwoods beast on its home turf not to
kill but to represent, so that others
of your kind might understand what drew you to do it. With that imagined ideal
image captured in perfect light of a bear or moose, eagle, loon or wolf doing
it's thing, you'd stand for the beasts of the wilderness and for wildness
itself. Because by choosing dominion over the world we've also chosen the responsibility
to tirelessly advocate for that better part of everything that needn't reduce
things to words. There's just no getting around that, if we're gonna pretend to
be boss and still get outta here alive.
On a less stormy afternoon we once got a really good look at a lynx
atop a beaver dam because we'd arrived downwind and in a canoe, now that's
some kinda quiet. That day the Nikon sat fallow on my lap and in three twelve
foot leaps the lynx was gone. By then I'd learned some sights are gifts meant
to be seen, not prizes for potential capture.
And the truth was, I couldn't make much of a wildlife photographer
working only twice a year on vacation either, so there's that. Though I never
stopped looking for the great grab shot and occasionally the looking paid off:
Near to 30 years passed before I finally captured an eagle. Just so happens it was during a
blizzard and I only got it because eagles are still
smarter than me.
In time I altered my gear and most basic creative approach to suit. Stalking
the wilderness in deep pursuit of what's typically hidden from the casual visitor
proved much the same no matter the quarry. And as it turned out, the mission to
stand for what has no voice -- in my case cultural memory embodied in monuments
to human dreams that continue to inform us -- proved much the same too. I'm proud
to have done it.
But maybe the happiest thing about architectural work as opposed to
wildlife photography was that by & large, nothing moved. That virtue was particularly
conducive to large format fieldwork, where I could spend 15 minutes setting up
a shot and then not press the shutter. Sure, each time I'd revisit a site in some
new season it'd maybe fallen down a bit more or perhaps wasn't even there. That was just part of the gig.
But nothing ever suddenly up & flew away.
You find a lot of different things in the wild. You've only to keep
your eyes open...
My film portfolio contains a raft of found objects, strange natural
sights and a variety of dead things. Courtesy of digital capture it'll finally
include some wildlife too, though not the sort I'd hoped for as a kid starting
Probably my first capture of a dead thing was when a fisherman left the
head of a King Salmon perched atop a rock at the edge of the Laughing Whitefish River, like a warning for
other salmon to beware. Trust me, that's a hell of an image. About such radical
transitions, the great northwoods poet, author and all around raconteur Pat O'Neill writes:
I think that's about right. Quality time in the wild only proves it. Life
relies on death for replenishment. It's the deal. The only deal, really. And it's a natural process
wholly devoid of moral consideration but
that we intrude upon it because we've intruded us upon life to the extent that
there's no going back on our responsibilities without the earth first shrugs us
off for its trouble.
Not to mention that found objects, natural oddities and dead things
don't move either. That remains appealing, even without considering I'll be 60
this year. Stilled voices still have things to tell us too, though not so
easily as architectural remnants that speak readily of dead people's dreams.
The image that appears below is from the last time I ever took the
Nikon N90s into the woods.
On a brisk autumn day, for old time's sake Heather and I walked the
short Speaker's Cabin trail in the Porkies down to Superior. I almost left the
Nikon in the car. By then I was using the Linhof to shoot what was appropriate
to that and 35mm film was about as pertinent to me as 16mm. In addition I'd
learned how and when to separate working in the wild from walking in the woods.
At the last minute I thought What the
hell and slung the vintage hippie camera strap over my shoulder one final
Because of that I captured this bird so recently slipped into something
else entirely, but not so far that you couldn't still see the life in its eyes.
And now probably the thing I'm looking forward to most about my
transition to digital imagist is the feel of a camera in hand as a ready
extension of sight, locked and loaded to capture whatever wonders there are to
I spent a considerable amount of time this winter reviewing my
extensive back catalog of 35mm images. This is the second winter in a row
I've committed to archiving film and there'll not be a third. That's part of the reason the header and other aspects of this blog remain so woeful out of date. I very much
desire to sell my big Nikon scanner and leave film behind once and for all. I
knew that if I didn't first scan select 35mm frames I never would. Then it'd be
like they'd never been captured all, which was existentially appalling.
So I've now put fresh eyes on 37 year's worth of film. As dogged an
effort as that's required, the retrospective is already serving me well in the
transition over to digital imagist.
Pictures I shot with Heather's Topcon camerain autumn of 1978 show that
my basic photographic interests were present from the start. Tucked amidst the prosaic
vacation pictures (geez we were young), I found images of heritage
...and shots taken in the dark:
You know when to get off Bobcat
in the evening by the bats. They work near the surface of the water and flit
around the canoe like whirligigs. After you watch the bats for awhile because
you must, by that time there's insufficient light to safely unhook a fish and
before much longer Heather'd have to fire a torch for to see my way home. I
guarantee the bats were out when I spotted this guy.
Anyway, as anyone who's followed along knows, my interest in heritage
architecture went on to define my body of work on film. Though I pushed hard at
the limits of large format fieldwork in low light with some good success, the night
-- so rich and wondrous in the woods -- continued to elude capture. I came to
figure it always would.
The most exciting thing for me about transitioning over to digital
capture is that's no longer true.
The (too) Luminous Dark
Having gotten the basic methodology of night shooting down during June
when I also learned that the Nikon has better vision than I do, I was particularly anxious to try
Near the end of a day in the field that'd begun before dawn, I went to
Bobcat. I made myself a steak dinner over fire and prepared for night shooting
at the same campsite as when I shot the blue fisherman in '78. Many's the time
I've retired after dinner to sit quietly at the edge of this splendid lake amidst
the croaking frogs and glow worms like stars in the grass to watch the Milky
Way rise as day transitioned over to night...
...except what'd previously always been only a mild and fairly
unobtrusive glow cast by tiny Presque Isle WI to the south proved freshly
Because I was settled in I tried a few different things, some more
successful than others. The hour grew late, the day exceptionally long.
There's a spot in the Ottawa with an overlook from a ridge where otters play. And one year, as my godson and I traveled
cross forest through the dark of night to fish a backwoods lake come first of
morning, we paused atop that ridge on our way and wondered silently at mighty Orion,
more brilliantly defiant in the sky over the hushed forest than I've seen him
before or since. I can make my way to that ridge even stumbling around
exhausted in the dark. So I packed up and headed there.
Where I found that vantage faces Presque Isle too, with what might
be the Ojibwa Correctional Facility off to the side. What? You think things like the occasional prison aren't stashed
in your National Forests? Think again.
Or maybe that big-assed glow is the
place where they apparently correct Ojibwa and the little one to the right's Presque
Isle WI. I didn't pull out the Gazetteer to figure that out. In either case,
the sky above my favorite ridge was ruined.
More or less defeated, I turned the Nikon to the north just for the
hell of it. I swear I saw nothing but stars with the naked eye and when the
Nikon saw green by that time I'd no earthly clue what it might've been. All I
knew for sure was that I couldn't see no stinkin' green in the sky and by that
time was pretty well wiped besides, so I called it a day. Night. Whatever.
Except it turned out what the Nikon saw and I didn't was the Northern
Lights. Had I not already been poleaxed by a too luminous night over the deep
woods I might've recognised that, even in the Nikon's little viewing screen.
Indeed, I should have recognised it.
In which case I'd have excitedly driven the 30 refreshed miles or so through
night shrouded wilderness to the shore of the big lake and happily worked the
Aurora right through 'til dawn or when the Lights went out, whichever came first.
The next nights proved fairly cloudy and that was that. Still, a couple
of things were made plain about this luminous night business, called Landscape Astrophotography.
First and foremost: Location,
location, location. There's only one officially sanctioned Dark Sky Park in Michigan and that's a long ways
from Superior. Then even if I find the perfect landscape with a grand sky vista it'd
still be a one off and that image would have to compete with the like of these. I'll not be visiting Easter
Island or find myself sitting at the exact perfect spot on Big Sur anytime
soon. So what's a fellow to do?
I mean, if you can't do a thing most others aren't doing and at a high level,
why do it?
Well, I've got some ideas about that. I've spent a lot of time
contemplating the night woods and know a thing or two about the luminosity that
informs an apparently dark forest at different times and under a wide variety
of conditions. I'll be working on some of those ideas, come May.
But that's not all, not hardly.
The facility of digital capture along with the review of my entire body
of work on film has led me to consider types of image capture I'd left behind or
shunted aside years ago, mostly in order to better concentrate on what the
limitations of large format fieldwork with film allowed me to do best. Should you like to know a little something about that, you'll just have to tune in next month. But that apparently hard wall? Viewed from a broader perspective, it marks a passageway:
You can still find people who argue that the imposition of censorship
during the early 1930's made Hollywood filmmakers more creative than they'd
otherwise have been simply because they had to devise ways to tell a richly
informed story within the narrow confines of prior constraint.
Except all you need do is to stream a choice handful of long suppressed
pre-code Hollywood films to recognise that argument for the stuff and nonsense
it is. Instead, what's true that those same prior constraints forced what'd become
the art form of the 20th Century into decades of self-imposed adolescence,
right at the hub of its global influence.
If you're interested, start with the uncensored version of Baby Face, then come back and tell me why six years later it was such a
big honkin' deal for Clark Gable to inform Vivian Leigh he didn't give a damn.
Or why three years after that even sophisticated adults couldn't be sure that Rick and Ilsa had
sex during their penultimate night in steamy Casablanca.
Yeah, on the one hand maybe the work of Busby Berkeley wouldn't have
been so gloriously mad if not for those same prior constraints. On the other
hand, for decades thereafter American popular culture was force fed straight
from the corporate trough of a relentless Fantasy Factory and You are what you eat, as they say.
On the other other hand, those technological constraints inherent to fieldwork with large format transparency
film dictated the hard limits of its creative use. I can't tell you how many
times I walked out into the light from the baroque interior of some splendid ruin
creatively bereft because my choice
of medium prevented its capture. Which would be why my architectural portfolio leans
so heavily to exteriors and why the most evocative scenic work was invariably
captured on overcast days.
Here's a fine example of both, on one sheet of film:
Houghton County MI, 2010
Real life enjoys its share of sunny days too, even around the Superior
Basin. And generally, when I was mucking around deep inside the guts of someone's
ruined dream I could see things just fine thanks, even when my film couldn't.
Thus did the prior constraints inherent in the medium restrain not only the body
of my work, but my creative vision for it as well.
Over time, those constraints went on to alter my fundamental approach
to my subject matter. The very thing I labored to convey as authentic.
And besides, who thinks perfect light never occurs on days so brilliant
it hurts your eyes just to see?
The last of film's halcyon days were spent largely in the technological
pursuit of ever finer light. Then film died before it ever quite reached the
point when early one morning you could lazily come out of a shaded bay, think "Geez,
would you look at that", lift
the camera, click the shutter and sit back to let the moment breath, reasonably
assured you'd captured the essence of it:
Ottawa National Forest, 2014
In years past, if I hit the Superior Basin for a week's worth of work
and that week turned out to be resolutely sunny, I'd have shaken my fist at the
too bright light with too deep shadows and cursed the photo gods right to their
washed out sky. Mostly, only the Magic Hour at either far end of the
day would've been salvaged for serious work, though after a while you realise
that having captured more than a few gorgeous sunrises and/or sunsets in your
time means you've pretty much got that covered.
Not to mention that the twice daily hour or so of magic light is also
magic for big fish. These days, I tend to side with the fish.
Before taking the Nikon out for extended fieldwork this last September, I'd
set distinct goals. I'd visit those select places
where I was already on intimate terms with the quality of light, sites I'd worked repeatedly through the years. That way I could
later compare the digital capture with film of the same image, which would allow me to better understand the differences between the two. By pushing hard at its creative controls, I'd find out what the Nikon was
As it turned out, that fieldwork had to be done during the most unusual of September weeks in the
Northwoods, with unrelentingly sunny days and bright bluebird skies and the
whole world bathed in contrast sufficient to make a strong shooter weep. Just the same, I
stuck with the plan.
Which decision proved liberating.
Union River, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness, 2014
Had I come to the turnoff from the South Boundary Road to the Union
River during light like that in years past, I'd not have bothered to go in. That's
basically in camera, with only the slightest, most routine Photoshop teaks.
As is this:
Gogebic County MI, 2014
Gogebic County MI, 2014
For a while I went sun crazy and was nearly blinded, by the light. Then
I remembered the dark.
Gogebic County MI, 2014
For all the images of this forlorn old Ford that I've captured on film and in a healthy variety of light, I'd
captured nothing the like of that.
All of which made me very excited to go traipsing off into the God's honest dark,
which we'll revisit together long about this time next month...
It's been suggested that the images in my portfolio with the greatest
intrinsic value are those of things that no longer exist. Abandoned remnants of
Northwoods culture that without perpetual maintenance somehow managed to stand
for decades in a wild place until one day they're gone, like they never were. Simply disappeared, except from the memories of people who worked there or lived there or maybe once upon a time found a special place while wandering in the woods then always remembered the day. And of course, those remnants survive in images people like me capture before it's too late. On balance that work is also the most valuable to me, personally.
Years pile up and people forget. Stumble across as much stuff back in
the woods as I have and in time you forget a lot. There're places I've been
that I couldn't find again to save my soul, even if they are still there. Like the time before I was a proper photographer
when Heather and I came across an entire -- if exceptionally small -- hilltop town
for sale. Complete with a view of big water too, probably Superior. But after
this many years of not remembering exactly where we were that day and being
unable to find it again, who the hell can say?
My discovery that Whitecap Mnts Manor got bulldozed brought these things to mind. My work there
wasn't done. Then it suddenly was. Today all that's left of the thing are memories
of the place and images of it. So here're some more images of things that no
The vintage barn below represents some of the first work I ever did
with the Linhof:
Johnny, Heather and I'd come across this abandoned homestead at the far
eastern reaches of the Gogebic Range during the early 80's while wandering around the woods. We had a strange adventure in the old house that stood near the barn, which is a story I'll save
for some other time.
Later, Heather and I returned to the site so I could work it. That was
the first time I'd ever been inside a vintage pole barn. The first two images
were captured in 1997 on a fine afternoon that I remember quite well primarily
because of how positively radiant Heather was beneath a warming sun as she roamed the
grassy fields behind the place while waves of grasshoppers led the way.
By 2010, this was all that remained. You can still see the pile of hay
that no livestock ever ate...
This next barn (?) stood for years by the side of U.S. 2, in Iron County WI.
I'm told that There's Nothing Like It In
New York was painted large across its face. I never saw that. I passed the
thing for years, going to or from one place or the other. Finally, I stopped.
Glad I did, because sometime after 2009, this too was bulldozed.
It's intriguing to me, how all manner of things in the Northwoods eventually
manage to get themselves pockmarked by bullet holes. Is that particularly American
In Ashland WI, there once was a
massive ore dock that stood as a reminder of the robust and storied heritage of
the place. Today, it too is gone. The good people of Ashland hope to someday build
a public pier on the crumbling base that remains. There's something perversely encouraging in the fact that there're still somedays afloat in the region. Mostly, that's what everything there's been built on all along...
As you approach the Keweenaw, the Painsdale Mine once required a proper
Administration Building. Then, people worked there and streams of miners passed
through it on a daily basis. I captured this image in 2005. I'm told the
bulldozers have since eaten this too.
Farther east out on the Keweenaw and along U.S. 41, there stood what was undoubtedly a classic American roadside
motel that for who knows how many years served weary travelers and happy
vacationers as they made their way around what today might still be the most isolated
county in the Midwest. This last September, I watched a couple of men on the
job walk over the now cleared lot.
They sure seemed to be assessing the place for some sort of future
development. A new motel, maybe?
Back on the Gogebic, this splendid wreck stood at the Puritan Location, so called for the iron
mine that long ago was carved into that particular hill. It's likely that this
structure was originally a company house for miners and after the mine failed, home
to whomever followed the miners for whatever reason up that hill.
Then during one brutal winter, the house simply couldn't take it
anymore. We happened across it in May of
that year, before any bulldozer could render the place once again safe for
civilization. The set of images I captured that day remain among my favorites
because in this one wreck is found just about everything I ever shot that sort
of thing for:
Lastly, there's this.
In 1984 my family returned to Bessemer to celebrate the 100th
anniversary of the founding of our hometown. That was the only time I ever went
there with my late Uncle Ray, who a few years after our visit turned out to be the last
surviving member of my immediate family that was born and raised on the Range. Uncle
Ray was the man who taught me to fish and because I fished, in '78 I
chose to take my first adult vacation in the Porcupine Mountains and the Ottawa
National Forest. Much of who I went on to be is owed to my Uncle Ray.
While there for the big party in '84, Uncle Ray introduced us to a raft
of extended family members -- third & fourth cousins and the like -- not a
single one of whom I remember today.
On that trip Uncle Ray also took us along an obscure dead end road up a
hill that rises above the northeastern reaches of Bessemer to look out across
an ancient range of mountains that once scraped the sky but are today merely rolling
hills, past glories having been rounded off by time until now only the shadow of
That afternoon Uncle Ray showed us the house Uncle John built, when once
upon a time on that hillside was our family farm.
In 2010 I returned to Uncle John's house, to capture the memory of it
before it was gone:
I'm thankful for a lot of things. For Heather especially. And of course
for all those I've loved through the years and who've loved me in return. I'm
well blessed in that regard and make no mistake.
But I hold a special place of thanks in my heart for the lifetime of work
I've been privileged to do on and around the Superior Basin. That work would
never have happened had not my great, great grandfather for reasons no one
remembers chosen to make his way to the Gogebic Range before it ever was that, sometime
prior to 1884.
I'm thankful every day that his grandson, my dear Uncle Ray, some 80
odd years later and in the place of my
birth that's about as different from the Northwoods as a place can get, saw fit
to teach a city kid how to fish.
Because as it happened, my maternal family of immigrants put down roots in their new country on what later became the fabled Gogebic Range, still one of
the most challenging and rewarding landscapes in America.
And today, those obscure roots in a hard place I've never lived still
manage somehow to sustain me.
Some of you may have noticed last month was the first month since
September 2011 that this blog lay fallow. At the last, I was out and about around
Superior wrestling with the Nikon through a brief window of autumn weather so
splendid that if we'd ever seen the like back in the day when each autumn Johnny,
Heather & I bustered around the place trying not to get in too much trouble
but only just enough, it'd now be revered as the halcyon days of our youth.
Standing together in contemplation of all that late season Northwoods splendor, a dear friend helpfully suggested You've
still got a few days... But I wanted no part of that. Starting work in
September then finally playing hooky in September three years later had suitable
symmetry and I very much needed to be full in the moment without needing to think
about translating that down for you on deadline.
I pushed both myself and the Nikon hard. It purred. Next time out I'll
have to push it harder. After the first of the year, we'll examine what I did.
In the meantime we'll just stick with an established theme. Film is
dead. Long live film and the ghosts captured with it...
All images scanned from 4x5 transparency film
I call these Stark's Cabins because on U.S. 2 near Watersmeet 40 miles
or so to the east, Stark's Cabins
Restaurant and Trout Pond was run by James Stark and his wife Molly from
1946 to their retirement in 1984. Maybe
this strikingly similar set of roadside tourist cabins near Wakefield was never
owned by James and Molly Stark. Maybe there came a time when most cabins in the
region were built this way and at that time there was for some reason a lot of red paint to be had cheap. There're a couple more like these, now outbuildings on a
spread between Wakefield and Marenisco and also hard to the road.
Anyway, Stark's Cabins these'll
always be to me. One thing's pretty certain -- the cabins near Wakefield closed
before my time on the Range, which began in earnest circa 1978. In my time, I believe
these were always derelict.
1946 was the first year without a World War in quite the while. America
was flush and stood astride the known Universe. Our love for the automobile and
the open road blossomed, as new and luxurious touring cars were introduced at
prices we could afford, when paid for on time. Kinda like this beauty, though I
can't vouch for the model year:
Throughout the great northern wilderness, roads had been cut and
facilities built back during that brief time between World Wars when Depression
struck and government put citizens to work making improvements to government
land in order to help save the country from wrack and ruin. Many of the facilities
constructed by the C.C.C. still stand as gorgeous examples of American
craftsmanship, but those aren't why we're here today.
By 1946 we'd hit the road in earnest and have yet to stop.
Born 1896 in Vienna Austria, James Stark had in the meantime made his
way to the northern wilderness by way of Wisconsin, where he'd married the
young Molly Harper. They owned a potato farm for a while but eventually turned
to logging then apparently followed the fallen forest north to Watersmeet. Near some of the last remaining old growth
forest in the region, they staked a permanent claim.
In 1946 the Mighty Mac was still just a dream and the U.P. remained the
edge of the stinkin' world, cut off on two sides by two Great Lakes and the formidable
channel between them.
It was a long drive to there from anywhere. But when you finally
arrived at what's today the surviving remnant of that aforementioned old growth
forest (the famous Sylvania Wilderness),
James and Holly Stark were there to greet you with the latest in Northwoods
style, one-stop shopping roadside convenience. Even a trout pond, in case you
really didn't care to venture beyond sight of the road for to catch some of those. I
worked this set of cabins near Wakefield on and off through the years. James
and Holly's verifiable cabins out near Watersmeet got torn down before I got
The thing that tickles me most about these is that in their heyday,
they came festooned with neon. Neon! Just
imagine evenings spent with the bzztt bzzzt bzzzt of glowing tubes drawing cumulus clouds of an all but unimaginable variety of insects while secure in rough but modern
creature comfort, fly strips swinging gently in the summer breeze, you lifting bourbon in a metal cup in honor of Northwoods glories past, present and yet to come.
I'd have given a lot, to have seen these cabins properly lit up just
once. Look closely, that light fixture is about half-filled with dead flies and
so much for yellow bug lights, eh?
These cabins near Wakefield proved deceptively difficult to shoot. Bad
light, lousy timing, mostly. Then in 2005 I was determined. It was a Red Flag Day when the light felt
right, the kind of day that 130 or so some odd years before Chicago had burnt right
to the ground.
And for the first time ever my old Bogen tripod betrayed me as the 40+
mph breeze that shook the woods shook the Linhof too and most of the images from
that set into terminal softness, two of which I've included here just the
same. Armed with a great new tripod, a couple years later I returned to finally seal the
deal with Stark's Cabins. Except in the interim, this set of vintage roadside
tourist cabins had been bulldozed then got burnt to the ground.
James Stark died on June 16th, 1984 in Watersmeet. Holly Stark followed
her husband on March 4th, 1988. From their union came three daughters, 28
grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren and Stark's
Cabins, Restaurant and Trout Pond. Having put themselves in the right place
at the right time and willing to meet opportunity with industry, together they served adventurous Northwoods travelers for nearly 40 years.
Though I never stayed in the cabins, ate at the restaurant or fished
the trout pond, I nevertheless have a related story...
Johnny, Heather and I annually rented our big-assed Grumman aluminum
canoe from Sylvania Outfitters in Watersmeet. Heather and I rode one of those into the Bear Story. I've long since owned my own
canoe but Bob Zelinski has run his place now for more than 40 years and I
recommend him to you. It may even be that Stark's old trout pond is hard by
Bob's parking lot, I don't rightly recall.
One year back in the day I'd traveled from Bobcat over to Watersmeet to
rent our canoe and found the shop closed. I wandered over to a sizeable building
nearby, hoping to inquire. I recall the inside as something of a rectangular shed
full of miscellaneous stuff and noticeably dim, with shafts of light from the
bright day outside intruding to catch dust dancing in the air.
At the far end of the building two bent old ladies dressed in dark
clothes sat together at a table, listening intently to a radio. I excused
myself. They didn't look up. Uncertain but about half desperate, I stepped forward
and excused myself again, thinking perhaps they'd not heard me over the din of
They replied in unison, with sharp glance and even sharper SSHHHH!!!
I'd not realized they were playing radio Bingo. Hell, until that moment
I'd not realized there was radio
Bingo. In time I was allowed to make my apologies, received the information I
needed and ended up back at Bobcat with that season's canoe. For years I
thought the story was about radio Bingo.
Today I'm pretty sure that building was what remained of John and Holly
And though I can't say for certain, I prefer to believe that one of the
old ladies who so admonished me that day was the estimable Holly Stark, widow
of James Stark, who with her husband once upon a time made a fine life together
in the woods.
Perhaps a friend first pointed me in this direction, I don't rightly recall.
Or maybe I got lucky, which can happen on
rain days salvaged by wandering previously unexplored back roads just to see
At any rate I didn't used to wander Wisconsin much, yet in 2001 I came
From 4x5 Transparency, circa 2001
It was a gloomy day. I've never been able to coax a great scan from my
first image of this grand old Wisconsin dairy barn abandoned to Iron County
wilderness, but by my next visit the inscription had faded. The above is the
only capture I have of it, misspelling of any generally accepted abbreviation
for mountains still largely intact.
Periodically, I returned to the site. In time, Whitecap Mountain Manor
became one of my favorite places to shoot and I've a raft of images from it.
This barn was built by hand to last, with materials mostly gathered from the
magnificent landscape around it. By any measure, a vintage American barn of authentic
From 4x5 transparency, 2009
Off to the left of the barn stood an outbuilding that turned out to be
nearly as enticing as the barn itself, what I came to call the Whitecap
Mountain Manor Annex:
From 4x5 transparency, 2009
That's a potted marijuana plant basking in the sun at the upper window.
I got close enough to know it, then discretely went about my business. That's the
thing about working abandoned places -- you never can tell who or what you'll find.
Prudence is frequently essential to the skillset.
At WCMM the next year, I captured one of my favorite images in
my architectural portfolio on film. Sometimes, you can find stars out even
during the day:
From 4x5 transparency, 2010
Then in 2011 at the beginning of this Odyssey I took the Linhof and new
Mamiya to crawl around the place but good. By that time the barn was in some
serious disrepair. I invited a friend to come along in both mutual interest and
for safety's sake, since I intended to finally work where prudence suggested I oughtn't...
From 120mm transparency, 2011
...including somehow getting myself
and the Linhof up to the 2nd story of the main structure:
From 4x5 transparency, 2011
What's a little tilted floor among friends, right?
Once up there it was plain to see where floorboards were cracked and
even given full away beneath the weight of other wanderers before me. I stuck to the hand hewn
support beams cut big around as my thigh in support of the outside edge, while my friend stood by below to catch the Linhof
if I tumbled.
Again on safe ground, I figured that for the prize of the day. I was
mistaken. From the upper window of the Annex, I later captured this with the
From 120mm transparency
In my portfolio there're many images of things that no longer exist. Somewhere along the way I figured out that those represent the most valuable
aspect of the fieldwork. Even though each time I revisit a site only to find
what I'm looking for is vanished, a little part of me vanishes too.
So it was last week with Heather on vacation, when with my spiffy new
Nikon in tow we took a run down to Whitecap Mountain Manor for to see what the
most brutal winter in years had done to the place and to continue my documentation
of its long, slow slouch into terminal wreckage. This time I came armed with digital
wizardry that had me very much looking forward to the interior shots a bit of
HDR capture might earn me.
Except we found my favorite incredibly sturdy if well worn example of rustic
Wisconsin dairy barns that'd long since become like an old, reliable friend was
Nikon 800e digital capture, August 2014
A Realtor owns the place. Fresh signage is up. You could buy it, if you chose. No doubt crumbling Whitecap Mountain
Manor finally proved too much a burden to the land, at least for purposes of
selling it. Now all that remains to tell anyone that something proud ever stood
there is a surprisingly small patch of brown dirt, laid flat by virtue of bulldozer.
And of course, there's my film of what was. Which is a big part of the reason I
decided to continue the gig, even without there being any more film.
I've been unable to uncover the narrative of Whitecap Mountain Manor. Being just another wreck in the woods, it
never shared the architectural distinction of the Annala round barn and no one saved it.
But should anyone reading this know any part of the story of this farm,
I invite you to please drop by and share it.