Archive for April 2008

The Poison Ivy Problem

April 28, 2008

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

I have been approached by both National Geographic and National Geographic Adventure magazines this year, inquiring whether I had any photographs of Poison Ivy. I had some, but none that would meet their requirements for a story on how Poison Ivy is growing lushly in this era of global warming. So I have been on the lookout for good patches of this evil vine.

When I rolled into camp at Caddo Lake State Park at twilight, my van’s headlights illuminated a healthy Poison Ivy vine climbing a pine tree right in my campsite. It was late and I was tired, but I decided to try shooting anyway. The ground was covered with Poison Ivy, so I laid down large plastic bags to completely cover the plants so that neither my legs or the tripod legs would brush against the leaves. I set my digital camera to the highest ISO setting and placed the camera on a tripod. I wanted to look up the trunk at the sky, so I used a special 24mm tilt lens that allows me to get everything in focus from the immediate foreground to the top of the tree, plus I used small f-stop to achieve a greater depth-of-field. It was almost dark, so I “painted” the Poison Ivy using a flashlight during a fifteen second exposure. Then I went to the picnic table and downloaded the image to my computer to check the exposure. My initial guesses as to composition and exposure were good, so I then took two more photographs and called it a night. In the computer the only major change I made was to the light temperature, which I changed to a more daylight balance (the flashlight’s tungsten bulb was too yellow).

That is how I solved my Poison Ivy problem. I really like the resulting image, which shows the lush growth of Poison Ivy and actually shows stars in the deep twilight sky. Plus I only got one Poison Ivy blister, on my trigger finger!

April 23, 2008 Putting the Fun Back in Fundamentalism

April 23, 2008

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography.  I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Sometimes a good church sign is just too funny for this photographer to pass up.  In my recent travels in the American South, I encountered four church signs that made me laugh.  One is intentionally funny; the others are based on quirky place names. 

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.

April 7, 2008 Impressions of the Mississippi Delta

April 20, 2008

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography.  I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

The Mississippi delta is a legendary part of America.  The dark nights of lynchings and burning crosses; the gothic complexity of Faulkner’s stories; the tragic legacy of plantations and slavery; the sweet smell of wisteria on a spring evening; the hazy morning sun rising over vast fields of cotton; beaten down shacks that house the poor descendants of slaves; the riverbanks where cottonmouths and fire ants threaten; the lazy brown Yazoo and Tallahatchie rivers that rage like a mean drunk when flooding; the birthplace of the blues and vital to jazz and rock-and-roll; where mockingbirds jam in endless vocal experimentation all night long; and the civil rights movement had some raw beginnings.  All these are glimpses of the delta that is part of our national mythology.

On my way to the delta (specifically the flat and low-lying agricultural region of northwest Mississippi), I was listening to the car radio and heard the old line:  “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty delta da-a-a-ay.  I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was bailin’ ha-a-a-ay.”  On my departure from the delta, I heard another old line:  “The Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar.”  The former song, Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, explores the mysterious suicide of a young man who jumped from the Tallahatchie Bridge.  The latter song, Paul Simon’s Graceland, is a spiritual road trip pilgrimage to the home of Elvis.  The serendipity of hearing these songs on the radio was not lost on me, and both were running through my head for days.  Great songs that I grew up with (which gives you an indication of my age!).  About the same time as Ode to Billie Joe was playing on my transistor radio in the late ’60s, I was listening to Bob Dylan’s great album, Highway 61 Revisited, on the record player.  I didn’t understand until years later that US Highway 61 leads right through the Mississippi delta. 

In the delta I was struck by the sense of decay in small towns.  There were town squares where virtually every storefront was empty and people were just hanging out, as if waiting for something else to happen.  The liveliest places in many of these towns were the convenience stores.  Curious about the economy, I read a report in a Washington Post article http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/19/AR2007061902193.html?referrer=email which explained that basically the white farmers in the delta are well-off and receive huge government subsidies for growing cotton and increasingly, corn (to fuel the heavily subsidized and environmentally devastating ethanol economy–but I’ll leave that story for another time). In contrast, the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers endure lives of poor education, poor health, few opportunities, and high crime.  There are those who loudly proclaim that the poor of the delta should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” but such proclaimers have usually lived lives of relative privilege.  The desperate poor often don’t even have the boots … and the delta can be a trap.

The delta was significant in igniting the modern civil rights movement.  In 1955 a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till, visiting from Chicago, apparently whistled at a white woman while visiting Bryant’s Store in Money, Mississippi.  The shaken woman told her husband and in the deep night Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured, murdered, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River.  Later the accused were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury.  The story brought outrage across the country and was a tragic start to the march for racial equality over the decades.  The whole story can be read here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmett_Till.

I camp when I’m out photographing like this, and out in the delta there aren’t many places to camp.  I headed for a state park on the Mississippi River; actually, to paraphrase Don McLean’s song American Pie, “I drove my Chevy to the levee but the levy was”–wet!  When I drove over the top of the levee and looked down to the park, the road was flooded and the entrance building was half-submerged.  So I changed my plans and headed for another state park up on Choctaw Ridge, crossing the Tallahatchie Bridge on the way.  Of course, “seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge”–to quote Bobbie Gentry again–but at least I found a beautiful ridgetop campsite.  Spring leaves were just emerging on the oak trees around camp, so I photographed several leaves at this early stage in their unfolding.  An armadillo snuffed around camp sometime in the night.

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.

April 2, 2008 Caddo Lake State Park near Uncertain, Texas

April 18, 2008


This is part of my weblog documenting my travels and photography.  I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com.

On a recommendation from a fellow photographer, after the Bayou City Arts Festival in Houston I drove north to camp at Caddo Lake State Park along Big Cypress Bayou.  I didn’t know what to expect here, but was thrilled  with the setting—a bayou with Spanish Moss thickly draped upon old Baldcypress trees.  The Old South come to life in a corner of northern Texas.  

I was especially intrigued by all the old log cabins in this state park, and when I asked at the desk, the attendant confirmed that they were constructed by the CCC.  I happened to know what the CCC was, but another visitor at the desk did not, so I gave him a three sentence synopsis of its history.  Which I’ll also give you, or maybe I’ll make it a bit longer just for you, my dear reader. The CCC stands for the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was created in 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The CCC was a vital response to the devastating human toll of the Great Depression, during which family savings were wiped out, homes foreclosed on, and jobs lost in a grinding time of bare survival for many, many Americans.  This program put young men to work in every state:  planting trees, preventing soil erosion, and building the infrastructure for parks.  The young men worked in well-disciplined crews for eight hours a day, five days a week, and earned wages of about $30 per week, of which $25 was to be sent home to help support their struggling families.  Evenings were spent in educational classes and sports.  The CCC ended in the early part of World War II as the nation’s priorities shifted from beating the Depression to winning the War.  The “CCC boys” left a legacy of beautiful, rustic buildings in parks all over America—buildings that used logs and stones to create our shared sense of what a park building should look like.  And what a fine tribute the buildings of Caddo Lake State Park are to the young people who built them in a tough era!

During my two days at Caddo Lake, I spent a lot of time photographing the old CCC cabins and pavilion—both in living digital color and on traditional black-and-white infrared film (which I have not yet developed but will soon).  The infrared film turns foliage a ghostly white, lending a mystic atmosphere to the photograph, which I think is particularly suited to the historic structures.  Infrared light is a different range of wavelengths than visible light, and it actually focuses at a different point, so I have to adjust the focus on each exposure.  I also use a very deep red, nearly opaque filter for this film.  I’ll post the results when I can.

I am also a casual birdwatcher, not too serious about it because intense concentration on birds would mean less concentration on photography.  But I did note the following special birds in the Baldcypress swamp:  Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Wood Duck, and Pileated Woodpecker.

This would be a great park for canoeing, and there are canoes for rent.  Next time.  Word has it that campers can canoe to a place and purchase a few pounds of cooked crawfish to bring back for supper.  Sounds delicious. 

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.