Moon shadows. Sun shadows. Street light shadows. All it takes is a point light source that reveals the world to our eyes, while casting into shade those places not illuminated. The light examines, while the shadows add mystery. And definition. And design.
I have worked extensively with shadows as a compositional tool during the last few years, and here I present some of my favorite photographs from this era of my life.
On the end of a sunny day in March, the sun was shining warmly upon the land, with trees casting their organic shadows across the faces of buildings. I especially liked this old farmhouse, which had just a touch of gingerbread trim left from an earlier era.
LOCATION: Central Michigan, USA
Spring shadows crossing a snowy field, then gliding up the front and roof of a house. These are the kinds of compositions I notice, putting a subject in a whole new light.
LOCATION: Mormon Row, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, USA
SNOWSTORM IN A REMOTE VILLAGE
While visiting Newfoundland in midwinter, we stayed in a cozy home once used as a cod fisherman’s residence. I walked out at night during a heavy snowstorm and photographed homes and a church in the village. The falling snow leaves a slight texture in the sky, and the warmth of lights coming from inside the house lend a human touch. There is an air of mystery in this photograph that encourages repeated viewing.
LOCATION: Dunfield, Newfoundland, Canada
WINTER NIGHT BY THE SEA
On a February trip to Newfoundland we stayed at an old house right along the Atlantic shore in a tiny fishing village. It was magical. Then it started snowing. I took this picture with a very long exposure to blur the snowflakes, which adds an interesting texture to the dark background.
This picture is one of the rare pictures where I worked on the scene extensively using Photoshop. I modified the color that came from the sodium vapor street lamps and chose instead to bring the red colors and the snowy landscape back to what they look like in the daytime, and I think it looks painterly. It is my interpretation of the scene, and I like the feeling of it.
LOCATION: Dunfield, Newfoundland, Canada
DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN
Returning late from a snowshoe trip to the Mount Baker area, we stopped in the small town of Maple Falls to get a sandwich and gas. It was quiet, and the darkness beyond the brightly lit gas station reminded me of the paintings of Edward Hopper–one of my favorite American artists. I carefully composed the photograph in several ways, and this turned out to be my favorite. The name for the photograph comes from a Bruce Springsteen album, which has some of the same thematic elements as this photograph: the power of darkness, the lure of the open road, and the magic and threat of night.
LOCATION: Cascade Mountains, Washington State, USA
Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon is known for the petroglyphs and pictographs along its some forty mile route. But on this autumn day, an old cabin captured my lens. The mind has to puzzle out what is going on here, and that is part of the mystique of this picture.
LOCATION: Nine Mile Canyon near Price, Utah, USA
CURVE IN SPACE AND TIME
At the end of a spectacular Great Plains sunset, I had just finished photographing a grain elevator with a wash of sunset warmth. Leaving, I immediately crossed these railroad tracks, which reflected the orange and magenta colors in the sunset. I quickly turned the vehicle around and returned to photograph this wonderful curve in the universe. Grace in steel and light and darkness.
LOCATION: Boise City, Oklahoma, USA
STREETLIGHT SHADOWS ON SNOW
It was the dead of winter with a fresh layer of snow upon the ground. I was tired from driving home at night, and stopped at a rest area for a few moments of respite. There I noticed the orange sodium vapor lights casting their eerie glow upon the snow, with tree shadows adding grace and lines to the scene. I spent a long time trying to get the perfect composition without disturbing the snow, and this was my favorite for its organic lines and rich color.
LOCATION: Central Michigan, USA
TULIPS IN SUNSET GLOW
On a spring visit to Alaska, where my brother and his wife have raised a family, I noticed the warm sunset light glowing on the walls. I picked up a camera and began photographing the shadows and patches of light all over the house. When my sister-in-law saw what I was doing, she held up a vase of tulips to create these shadows on the wall.
LOCATION: Chugiak, Alaska, USA
BLUE WINDOW AND ADOBE SHADOWS
I like visiting Taos in October, when the warm, low angle sun sets the adobe afire with color. In this photograph, I captured a classic blue-framed window at the end of a crystalline day, with delicate leaf shadows adorning the adobe, as if painted by an artist.
LOCATION: Taos, New Mexico, USA
OCTOBER IN SANTA FE
With the aroma of pinyon logs burning in fireplaces, the cottonwoods sifting golden light through autumn leaves, and the piercing blue sky, Santa Fe is a special place in October. While browsing the art galleries along Canyon Road in late afternoon, I came upon these flowers and their shadows at an adobe house. This photograph brings back fond memories of a wonderful place and time.
LOCATION: Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
I was high on a ridge at sundown, when the sun was casting long autumn shadows on the colorful autumn meadow. The fir trees, with their pointed tops, create a strong graphic statement.
LOCATION: Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State, USA
NIGHT SHADOWS ON AN ADOBE CHURCH
San Francisco de Asis Mission Church is one of the finest photographic subjects I have ever encountered. In the course of one October day, I returned three times to photograph the church under different lighting conditions. This photograph is among my favorites: taken at night, the adobe walls are graced with shadows cast by a streetlight shining through cottonwood leaves. It has an interesting juxtaposition of shadows and shape and the texture of adobe, and even has stars overhead.
LOCATION: Taos, New Mexico, USA
Shadow of a car moving fast on a Michigan highway in the late light of an early autumn day.
LOCATION: Central Michigan, USA
While camping in Hell’s Gate State Park, I noticed how the occasional vehicle passing by my tent illuminated the dandelion seedheads in the grass. I loved the backlit look of the dandelions and the shadows cast by the trees, so I employed my van as a photo prop and set up this picture at deep twilight.
LOCATION: Lewiston, Idaho, USA
AMISH BARN IN WINTER
This is a recently built Amish barn in Michigan. I love the simple lines of it, suitable for the people who built it, with functionality foremost and certainly no embellishment. Look at the lines of the walls and roof and shadows: how they intersect each other and how they define the blocks of red and blue colors. This is another in my series studying how light falls on buildings, inspired by Edward Hopper’s paintings that worked with this theme.
LOCATION: Central Michigan, USA
Amish homes near my Michigan winter home are austere, with white paint and no superficial adornment, including flower beds or foundation plantings (interestingly, many have bird feeders outside the windows to bring color and life into their lives). In this photograph, I saw the blue shadow at the end of the day crossing the simple white house and thought it added a gaudy and unexpected touch.
LOCATION: Central Michigan, USA
All of my photographs are available for sale as prints, either on cotton rag paper or on metal. Go to http://leerentz.com to see my entire catalog. If you would like one of the photographs shown here in the size I have listed below, you have the option of ordering it through PayPal.
SHADOWS PHOTOGRAPHS FOR SALE
The photograph shown to the left is simply an example; any of the above photographs are available for ordering. Please indicate which of the above photographs you would like to order. This is a 16 x 24″ metal print on aluminum with high gloss surface and incredibly rich and accurate color, ready to hang with no picture frame necessary (slightly rounded corners, stands about 3/4″ out from the wall for a floating, modern appearance). You can see a much larger selection of print sizes and types at my website: http://leerentz.com. Shipping is free; sales tax will be added for Washington State residents. I am glad to answer any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Twisting and swirling, the red rock follows the random paths of a wild dream, then skirts a dome of white Navajo Sandstone cracked into nearly perfect polygonal plates, enchanting under a perfect sapphire sky. All of it originated 190 million years ago with a Jurassic sand dune that became saturated with groundwater, then experienced a sudden disruption–perhaps by an earthquake–that suddenly contorted the whole wet jumble while it had been hardening into sandstone. Incredible beauty resulted from this chaos.
Our time is short for exploring before the short period of golden light near sunset, so we walk around quickly to get a feeling for the whole area, which is about a square mile in size. An outfitter got us here and we have about 20 hours from mid-afternoon today to mid-morning the next day to explore and photograph before we have to leave. We are on our own, except that the outfitter provides dinner, a tent, and breakfast the next morning. The reason we came with a touring company is that we don’t have a rugged 4-WD vehicle to get us through the March mud quagmires and deep sand traps along the access roads. A tow out would cost $2,000 and is not covered by AAA. So here we are.
I once worked for the Bureau of Land Management on the Arizona Strip, a part of Arizona between the Grand Canyon and the Utah state line. This is an arid landscape that includes pockets of incredible beauty, such as Paria Canyon, The Wave, and White Pocket. When I was there with BLM in 1977, I was working as a writer and pen-and-ink illustrator for a book of wildflowers (still in print 43 years later!), but White Pocket was virtually unknown at the time, except for some ranchers and probably a handful of government employees. I certainly didn’t know about it and even if I did, my big Chrysler at the time couldn’t have dreamed of getting there. The name White Pocket originated from the desert term “pocket” which referred to a rock depression that can hold water–an important feature for cattle ranching and desert travelers. At that time the world hadn’t yet discovered much of the stunning beauty of red rock country. While at BLM, I heard the geologist for our district remark to my boss that he thought it was better in the desert when it was all considered a wasteland, and environmental regulations didn’t need to be followed. Fortunately, times have changed.
We spend the hours before dark exploring and photographing in great light, then walk back to camp for a meal of barbecued salmon or chicken or steak (another value in contracting with an outfitter!), then we venture back out into the contorted lands for hours of night photography. We return to camp sometime after midnight, then get up at 4 a.m. for dawn photography, so not much sleep. We stay until afternoon, delayed for a couple of hours by a vehicle problem, and we don’t mind the delay in the least, because it gives us more time to explore this place torn from time.
The photographs here give the visual story of White Pocket, which is the most stunning desert location we have visited.
Rather than give you directions and maps and more cautions, I will refer you to three good websites that cover all that information. Be advised that there have been discussions at the Bureau of Land Management about requiring a permit so the area does not become overused, so make sure you check with them about current rules and regulations (and road conditions) before you attempt traveling to White Pocket.
Thousands of years passed, blizzards howled over Iceland’s Katla Volcano in whiteouts that blocked out time and place. Uncountable snowflakes fell, dissolving the landscape. Immense compression squeezed the forming ice, forcing out air bubbles and creating a material of intense clarity and glacial plasticity. Gravity took over as the ice accumulated, and glacial ice flowed like a river that ignored time, down the volcano’s hidden ridges, scraping and sculpting the mountain, which was now hundreds of feet below the gleaming ice cap.
When we arrived at Kötlujökull glacier, a lobe of Mýrdalsjökull Glacier, we saw ice that was thousands upon thousands of years old. It ended abruptly at the glacial terminus, which was a sheer wall of ice over 100 feet high. Our small group entered a cave in the glacier, created by a flowing glacial stream and polished by air currents. These photographs represent the incredible sculpted and colored walls of the inner sanctum of the glacier.
We visited Iceland in March of 2018, with the intent of seeing the Aurora Borealis, which we did on three nights, and the South Coast, where these glacier pictures were taken. We also wanted to experience the Westfjords region in winter, which was also spectacular. We rented an all wheel drive Subaru so we could have more freedom of movement and spontaneity than a bus tour allows, and we stayed in modest AirBnBs to keep down the costs. Except for a couple of meals at restaurants, we ate simply, buying from small grocery stores (and Costco!). Our biggest splurges were for two guided ice cave tours, in which a driver and guide using a SuperJeep 4wd vehicle takes visitors to really spectacular places that would otherwise not be accessible. Well worth it!
Most of my work is available as prints on metal or cotton rag paper. To see a large selection of my work go to leerentz.com.
Memories of our formative years can remain incredibly vivid into old age. This account tells the story about my hiking trip along a section of the Appalachian Trail with Dowell Jennings Howard III after our spring semester concluded in 1970. Back in the University of Michigan dorm that winter, I had talked with my friend for a long time about how America’s young people needed to incorporate more adventure into their lives, so I pumped him up for the possibility of a May hiking trip along the Appalachian Trail where it passed through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We agreed to do it, and set the plan in motion.
I was a forestry student, while Dowell was studying mechanical engineering. He came from a family in the Cincinnati area that had deep roots in America, and his father worked for Procter and Gamble. His personality was a contrast to my shy and introspective traits; he was friendly and outgoing and was the kind of person who would run for office in student government. These traits were good for making connections while traveling.
We planned the trip, divvying up food purchases and making sure we had appropriate gear for a spring trip in the mountains. We purchased dried eggs and dried sausage that had to be rehydrated before cooking. There were dried noodles and beef and chicken, some packaged in cans instead of plastic. We packed socks and long underwear and warm hats and hiking boots and rain ponchos and matches and all the rest of the gear we thought we would need. I’m sure we hiked in jeans, which few would dare to do today because cotton is slow to dry and doesn’t keep a person warm when wet, but we didn’t know better.
After the semester ended, I flew from Detroit to Cincinnati on an old propellor-driven commercial plane, met my friend for a ride to his parents’ house, then we headed out on a Greyhound bus trip to Knoxville, Tennessee. The overnight bus ride was an experience in itself. The bus curved around constant mountains in the dark, stopping for a break in the middle of the night at a diner in Corbin, Kentucky. I still remember the clank of china and the harsh overhead lights and green walls that looked like they could have been the setting for an Edward Hopper painting.
After a transfer at the Greyhound Bus Station in Knoxville, we next rode a bus to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we stayed at a motel overnight and were interviewed on the street by a local television station about what we were doing in Gatlinburg; Dowell was a natural for television interviews with his politician’s aura, while I stayed in the background. The next morning we hitchhiked to a Great Smoky Mountains National Park campground. There we set up a tube tent that I had made, since I didn’t have money to buy a real backpacking tent. My tube tent was made from a sheet of clear plastic sheeting. I took a piece of plastic maybe 18 feet long and 8 feet wide and taped together the ends. When we set it up, we ran a parachute cord through it which was strung between two trees. It gave us shelter from the rain overhead, as well as a floor, but the ends were open to mosquitoes and no-see-ums.
At the campground we set up our tent, had dinner and told stories, then strung up our food to keep it away from bears and raccoons. Alas, we were virgins in the ways of clever bears, and the next morning we awoke to find that a Black Bear had raided our backpacking food before we could even start our hike. The cans of dried meat were opened as if with a can opener by the bear’s teeth and claws and there were tooth puncture marks and bear saliva slime on plastic food pouches. Now we had a dilemma: not enough food for our backpack. A kind man offered us a ride back to Gatlinburg to get a new food supply, but he decided halfway there that a convenience store was good enough. So we shopped there and ended up with a big jar of combined peanut butter and jelly, some canned meats, probably Vienna sausages, and crackers. The meals were going to be a bit more haphazard than we had planned, but we were young and adaptable.
After that we repacked our backpacks and started up a steep and rocky trail to where it intersected with the Appalachian Trail. The pack was heavy and the hiking was really hard after a year of studying at college with not much physical activity. It was a relief when we finally reached our first trail shelter, which was a three-sided structure made of ancient logs that smelled of years of accumulated smoke from wet campfires. One feature of the shelter that we both liked was that the front was closed off by ground-to-ceiling chain-link fence–designed to keep out marauding bears. We cooked over a smoky fire from downed wood gathered in the surrounding forest; most hikers at that time cooked this way because few had lightweight backpacking stoves. The Appalachian trail shelter had two platforms inside that spanned the width of the shelter, one upper and one lower, where quite a few people could sleep side-by-sde. We settled into our flannel-lined sleeping bags early and slept pretty well, considering all the mice scurrying around the shelter in the night.
After another smoky meal the next morning, we started hiking the Appalachian Trail, which would take us some 70 miles through the park, doing about ten miles a day. Painted Trilliums and other wildflowers bloomed along the trail on our May hike, and we had frequent glimpses through the trees of hazy mountains in all directions. We had learned that the blue haze was not smoke or pollution, but instead consisted of vapors given off by the incredible concentration of trees: the Indians called it the “Land of Blue Smoke.”
One guy we met at a trail shelter said that he had organized the first national Earth Day that spring. I told him that I had worked with the Environmental Teach-In at the University of Michigan earlier that same spring, so we had something in common. He was out for a dose of nature after finishing all that planning and coordination.
Along the trail I found out that my borrowed backpack was too lightweight for the heavy load I carried, and the aluminum support structure bent and broke when I repeatedly set the pack down on the ground when we took a break. To salvage it for the long trail ahead, I borrowed two dead spruce branches from the forest and lashed the broken aluminum to them. A bit crude-looking, but it worked. When in the wilderness, invention and adaptability are crucial.
On we hiked through a forest of deciduous trees just leafing out. We came to Charlies Bunion, a bare block of rock with steep drop-offs that terrified me, a flatlander. That night we stayed at the Mount LeConte Shelter, with the intent of having dinner at the legendary and rustic LeConte Lodge just a short distance up the trail. We dropped our packs in the shelter. Dowell wondered if we should hang the packs but I was tired and said no; we were just going a short distance to make dinner reservations. We walked up to the lodge and got our reservations, then hiked back to the shelter–just in time to see a mama bear and her two cubs biting into our packs to try to get at the food inside. We chased them away by throwing rocks, but Dowell’s pack was pretty bitten up. I apologized to him for not hanging our packs, but it does give me something to write about 50 years later!
We had our meal at LeConte Lodge, which was hearty and filling but nothing fancy, then watched a sunset from the mountain, where the legendary blue ridges of the mountains go on and on. It was the best view along the trail, and the light was magical.
The next day we crossed the only road through the mountains at Newfound Gap, where a woman made up like Dolly Parton, and her husband, offered us beer and took our pictures. By that time on the trail we were a pair of grubby young mountain men on an adventure that seemed exotic to the tourists.
On to another trail shelter, this one occupied by two grad student bear researchers from the University of Tennessee and a troop of Girl Scouts from Knoxville. The scout leader, Mary, was a wonderful young woman who was taking the girls on an adventure of their lives. None of them knew how ugly it would get.
A few minutes after we arrived, half-a-dozen men in their 20s walked up to the shelter. They had been drinking heavily on the trail, with at least one of them carrying a gallon jug of Gallo red wine with his finger curled through the loop on the jug’s neck. Almost immediately, this guy and others started making sexual comments to the young girls, which was among the most inappropriate scenes I’ve ever experienced. It looked like these guys were going to spend the night at the shelter, but the shelter was already full. Were they going to physically kick us out?
These guys, one of them explained to us, had just returned from Vietnam where they had been involved in combat in the jungle. They were tough, and big, and dangerous, and they didn’t like college students, who they would have thought of as protestors with deferments (which we were!). Combined with the alcohol, the discussion among them got ugly. Fortunately, one cooler head among them convinced them to hike on to the next trail shelter, so they left. Crisis averted.
We made friends with Mary, and agreed to look her up when we passed through Knoxville on the return (which we did, and stopped at her apartment for a nice candlelight spaghetti dinner on her kitchen table–which was one of those wooden cable spools popular among college students at the time). We were impressed by her leadership of the Girl Scout group and how she believed in mentoring girls in outdoor experiences.
On we hiked along ridges with stunning views of the great Appalachian forest, lush with growth. We stayed at the Silers Bald shelter, high along the trail, which gave us a view of dark and ominous clouds. At this shelter we talked for a long time with an old and grizzled mountain man from nearby Bryson City who had hiked up with three young men. Actually we had seen the young men earlier, and one was pulling a two-wheel golf bag cart up the trail–filled with bottles of beer! That explained all the hootin’ and hollerin’ from their campsite during the night. They had a big and blazing campfire that I’m sure was set in the traditional Appalachian manner: dousing the wet wood with gasoline, standing back, and tossing a match at it to watch it explode!
The next morning, a wet fog had settled over Silers Bald and we couldn’t see a thing through the thick sky soup. Another hiker came up to us while we were on the rock; he was thin and maybe 40 years old. He asked us how much we hiked in a day and we responded that we hiked about eight to ten miles a day. He wasn’t impressed. He said that he averaged over thirty miles a day and that his best day was 43 miles. I’ve never had the ability or the body type to do that kind of hiking, and it wouldn’t work with all the times I stop to take photographs, so in retrospect I’m not impressed, though at the time I thought he was superhuman.
By that time on the trail my feet were sore. Even though we washed our socks and dried them by the nightly fires, the trail had done its job on my tender feet. I had a blood-filled blister the size of a half-dollar on one heel, so I limped my way along the trail to the trailhead. We hitched a ride to a campground, where Dowell made friends with an older woman (she was probably 25) who was a teacher, and she took us the next day to go for a hike to a waterfall. That was fun, and this was a more trusting time in America, when people weren’t as afraid of each other. She drove us to the Gatlinburg bus station the next day, where we caught the bus to Knoxville. I distinctly remember the fat bus driver telling us and a couple of other hikers that he didn’t think backpacking was very sporting, so he wasn’t very impressed by us. Oh well.
In Knoxville we had just enough time to walk to Mary’s apartment for a meal, then walk back to the bus station where we boarded the overnight bus to Cincinnati. The atmosphere on the bus was electric, because many of the rural Kentucky and Tennessee passengers had just come off an experience attending a Billy Graham crusade that took place on May 28, 1970, in Knoxville. They felt inspired and chatty, talking about their churches and children and chickens.
We arrived in Cincinnati the next morning, where Dowell’s mother fussed over and treated my blood-filled blister, then we drove out to the family cabin in rural Ohio, which was a rustic place done in the Appalachian style with a long covered front and back porch. Dowell took me fossil-hunting in the nearby creek. In his high school years, he had been an avid fossil-hunter and actually had at least one scientific paper to his credit. The next day I flew home and began preparing for a summer semester in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Epilogue: I just finished writing this a bit over 50 years after the experience, surprised at how much of it still felt fresh in my mind. Early experiences can be like that, imprinting themselves on a still-impressionable young person. I lost track of Dowell a year or two later; I only know that he graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I went on to get my degree in Natural Resources, and later worked in that field and in photography for the rest of my adult life.
The Amish live close to the land, necessarily incorporating seasonal rhythms into their lives. After all the plowing and planting and nurturing and harvesting, the landscape breathes a sigh of relief as the world enters winter dormancy.
But not the Amish. Their lives are still busy with the daily rhythms of farm life. The horses and chickens must be fed. The children must walk to their one-room schools. Ice must be harvested. Laundry must be washed and then dried out on the line. The sawmills continue operating. Wood must be cut for warmth. Barns are built. Quilts are sewn. Sunday worship is not to be missed, as the believers gather in one home, converging from nearby homes by foot and by buggy.
It is a life apart, and that’s what those of us viewing from the outside find enchanting and ultimately unknowable, because we can only view the surface.
The photographs here represent six winters of quietly and respectfully observing these families at an undisclosed location in central Michigan.
For more information about my photography, go to leerentz.com
When I go out in the world, camera in hand, the pleasures of the visual world are my subject. I usually approach photography with an open mind, not planning exactly what I would like to photograph. I find that this spontaneous approach is more creative and rewarding than simply taking straightforward photographs of, say, a mountain or a bird. Sure, I do that as well, but I don’t consider those pictures my best work.
I love finding a subject that resonates deeply with me; something where light and subject and mindset and photographic technique come together to illuminate the mystical and spiritual qualities of the world. My work follows the long history of artists and writers who strove to capture those elusive qualities: the Canadian Group of Seven artists who portrayed nature as an experience of immersive light and form; the Zen poets who spent summers working on fire towers in the west; the photographers Ernest Haas and Eliot Porter who used color photography to tell fresh visual stories about nature. All these artists used their imaginations and artistic skills to explore the world in new ways.
I print this series of photographs on Japanese Unryu paper. It is made from mulberry trees, and the fibers winding through each print lend a natural touch that perfectly suits the impressionistic subject. To see more of my photographs in this genre, and to see what sizes are available for ordering, go to the part of my website called Zen Impressions