Friday, November 21, 2014

Captured on Film, Part 4 -- In Thanksgiving

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 longer exist...

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 or what?

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 it remains.

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.


  1. I loved reading this. I know the word is overused, but it's the right word. My determination to get to Quebec has just been bolstered. Thanks, Frank.

  2. Thank-you, dear Nonnie. Just the word "Quebec" carries the promise of adventure...

  3. Frank, I enjoy your pictures but especially your stories.
    Hope all is well.
    Your cousin Jim

  4. Thanks, Jim. I'd wondered if I shouldn't make the effort to let all the cousins know I'd finally run a picture of Uncle John's house. Please be so kind as to pass it along...

  5. Frank, I love your work so much. It's stunningly beautiful but I also appreciate it captures a disappearing past without clinging to it or fetishizing it (if that makes any sense).

    I find great comfort and encouragement in those floating "somewheres", too.

    1. Thank-you Shaula. It makes perfect sense to me, yes. Your generosity of spirit is greatly appreciated. Part of what I've found while mucking around in the past is that good bad or indifferent, we're pretty well indomitable. And that ain't half bad, considering.