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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When I was studying forestry in college, a guy who shared a lot of my classes told me kinda, sorta jokingly that he thought I would end up manning a fire lookout tower. Yeah, he was essentially right: I was and will forever be introverted, and I am happy to be alone with my thoughts. Though I never was stationed on a fire tower, I could have been perfectly happy doing so, and would have followed in the tradition of beat writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, both of whom manned lookouts in the North Cascades of Washington State. Alas, spotter planes have replaced fire lookouts in most areas of America, so the option of being a fire lookout has closed in on those of us suited for the job.
I have known a few fire lookouts, and they conformed to no real stereotypes. The first one I met was an elderly lady (probably about my current age!) who was staffing a lookout about 50 road miles from anywhere in California’s Lassen National Forest. At the time, I was a 19-year-old on a forest fire water tanker crew, and one of our routine jobs was to deliver water to that lookout, which lacked a nearby spring. When the lady lookout greeted us, she was wearing a dress and long white elbow-length dress gloves–which she considered to be the proper way to greet visitors. She certainly made an impression!
Fire lookouts in the past were sometimes the wives of firefighters, back before the US Forest Service routinely employed women on fire crews. Every morning we would hear the four or so lookouts announce that they were starting their workday on the radio that blared across the fire compound where I worked. I recall one lookout from Horse Ridge in California saying that the lady lookouts with the sexiest radio voices were often the most overweight (hey, a little snarky commentary is always fun!).
Several years ago, we encountered a young woman staffing a fire tower in Mt. Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest. She hadn’t seen many fires that summer and, when I asked her what she really thought her job was, she said “public relations.” She was to put a good face on the Forest Service for all the hikers who came her way, and to establish a sense that someone really was caring for all the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest. I envied her lifestyle: immediately after leaving her Forest Service temp job as a fire lookout, she was heading to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station for a long season working in the cold. She was having a series of lifetime adventures!
Fire lookout towers come in various configurations. When I was growing up in the Midwest, fire lookouts had to be tall to rise above the trees; they were set atop spindly steel towers that could rise roughly 100 feet tall. When I was younger, I had a fear of heights, and even on a calm day, I was afraid to climb all the stairs to the top of a tower. One time, when I was about 12 years old, I climbed several levels on the tower at Seney National Wildlife Refuge (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and was able to see a Black Bear foraging in a meadow below. But I didn’t like seeing the ground through the gridded metal stairsteps … it looked so far below that my boy’s legs wobbled.
When I was in college in 1970, attending a forestry summer session in the Upper Peninsula, my buddies and I drove from camp one evening to visit a nearby fire tower. Two of the guys climbed the tower to smoke marijuana while watching the sunset (as in “Oh wow, man”); the two of us who didn’t like heights stayed on the ground and didn’t toke. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was descend 120 metal steps at twilight after smoking dope! But my friends made it down without incident and appeared to have had one of those hippie spiritual experiences made possible by drugs.
Fortunately, I’ve outgrown my fear of heights and can now lean over cliffs to get a photograph whenever the opportunity arises. In fact, one time at Palouse Falls I almost took a step too far on an extremely steep and loose slope, but I’ll leave that story for another time.
Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout is different from those Michigan lookouts. The cabin is about the same size, and they used the same Osborne Fire Finder to pinpoint fires (in combination with other lookouts, the location of a fire was precise). The big difference lies in the location. Gobblers Knob commands a stunning location atop a rocky promontory right in the face of Mount Rainier. It doesn’t have to rise above the trees, because the rock it sits on rises above most of the trees. There is only one short set of stairs to climb–after sweating up over a thousand vertical feet of steep trail.
The Tahoma Glacier starts near the summit, which rises above 14,200′, and continues down the mountain to about the 5,500′ level, which is about the level I’m at while taking this photograph from Gobblers Knob Lookout
Gobblers Knob Lookout was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was among America’s best ideas; it put young men to work during the Great Depression and created much of the best rustic infrastructure of America’s national and state parks. The CCC, with camps run by the US Army, also installed discipline and a work ethic in hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men; some have argued that this training and discipline was a huge asset in winning WWII. Gobblers Knob Lookout was used to spot forest fires until after World War II, when it was largely replaced by spotter planes.
The lookout remains today, and it is considered an historic place by the National Park Service, so it is maintained. In fact, several years ago, the roof was crushed by heavy winter snows, but the lookout was rebuilt in its original form.
To get to the lookout, our group of six took a trail that skirted Lake Christine and led to Goat Lake, where we established our campsite. The day was unseasonably hot for Western Washington State, so we were glad to reach Goat Lake. We changed into swim trunks and went swimming in the subalpine lake that had sported melting ice just two weeks earlier. After swimming, we cooked an early dinner, hung our food to guard against bears, then four of us hiked up the steep trail to Gobblers Knob. Along this trail, we passed from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest into Mount Rainier National Park.
Our plan was to experience sunset at the lookout, then to descend the trail in the dark, by headlamp. We took careful note of landmarks along the trail so that we could follow the path without getting lost in the dark. All went well, but in the heat and steepness, I ran out of steam several hundred yards short of the fire lookout, and had to stop for an energy bar and some water.
The view from the lookout was astounding. It sits right in the face of the mountain, and caught the last light from the western sunset. The sky was clear, but we didn’t get the pink alpenglow we had hoped for, and had to be satisfied with the warm light reflecting beautifully off the peak. Before we knew it, dark descended. Two of our group went down the mountain ahead of Karen and I; by the time we decided to descend, we really did need the headlamps almost immediately. We had recently gotten a powerful new LED headlamp for Karen, and it gave us a sense of wonderful certainty about the trail in complete darkness. Based upon this experience, I suggest that anyone going into the back country should use as powerful a headlamp as possible.
On the way down the trail, we saw a light in the woods ahead. It turned out to be a young woman backpacking with her dog. She was resting on a log and had a sheen of sweat from the warm night; her dog was panting heavily. We asked if she had enough water for the dog, and she replied that she did, but that he was getting old and tended to overheat more on the trail. Her plan was to camp near the lookout that night, and she had about a mile to go. We made it back to camp without any problems, and quickly burrowed into our tent, where we lay atop our sleeping bags until we finallly cooled off enough to crawl inside.
The next morning, I took a cold swim in the lake, which refreshed me for the hike out. It was cold enough to encourage me to yelp with a combination of pleasure and pain. We stopped at Lake Christine, which had also recently melted out. Near the lakeshore, there was a meadow with the highest concentration of White Avalanche Lilies I have ever seen. These spectacular lilies start emerging through the melting snow, then quickly bloom with pristine white purity. There were also spectacular shooting stars and Columbia Tiger Lilies in this beautiful lunch spot.
The day grew ever hotter as we descended, but near the trailhead Karen spotted a yellow columbine. It turned out that this was a rare alternate color form of the familiar red-and-yellow columbine we normally see. At the trailhead, cold water in an ice chest was a wonderful pleasure.
Photographs from the trail:
For more information about Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout and the trail approaching it, go to:
Washington Trails Association Route Description (Note: this is the route we chose, and we added the side trip to Mount Beljica, which also gives a spectacular view of Mount Rainier)
Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout (information and history)
There is an excellent recent book, Fire Season, by Philip Connors, that chronicles his life as a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest during eight fire seasons. I just finished reading it, and enjoyed how he wove National Forest fire policy into the narrative.
Go to LeeRentz.com to view the range of work by Lee Rentz. Work is available as metal or archival paper prints, and most are available for licensing for websites, magazines, and books.
The Iron Goat Trail leads through the magnificent ruin of an all-concrete snow shed along the now-abandoned high route over Stevens Pass (now replaced with a lower route, less prone to avalanches, over the same pass)
“I was journeying to Seattle from Spokane, planning to visit my sister who lives on an island in Puget Sound. It was nippy when we left Spokane, but the cold was bitter when we reached the Cascade Mountains. As we climbed toward Stevens Pass, the snow was falling steadily, and at the pass it was accumulating on the tracks too fast for the rotary snowplows to keep up. We got to the Cascade Tunnel, and were safe from the falling snow inside the tunnel, but when we emerged on the other side at the little town of Wellington, it was a full-fledged blizzard and the conductor said that we were going to have to wait for the snow to subside before the train could leave the station. We stayed warm enough in the train while we waited for an endless two days. There was enough food, but the snow kept falling. Some of us thought it might be safer if the train could back into the tunnel, but the conductor said that we could be poisoned from the train’s smoke, so the train remained stopped outside.
Finally, the snow stopped late in the day on February 28. Later that night we awoke to a rare winter storm with thunder and lightning. The temperature was suddenly a great deal warmer. I was sleepy, but I could tell that something wasn’t right because there was a loud roar outside. Then a wall of snow hit us hard, and pushed the whole train off the tracks and down the mountain. It was as horrid as can be; passengers were screaming and flying through the air and slamming into walls and the ceiling as the train tumbled down. I hit my head and passed out, so I didn’t even realize that the broken passenger car was now covered by snow. Two hours later, I was pulled from the wreckage by three men; I was colder than I have ever been, but the men said I was lucky just to be alive.”
From the journal of Lucy Annabelle Wiggins
(a Victorian lady, born in England, emigrated to America in 1893, and real only in the author’s imagination)
The Great Northern Railway tried to make first the Stevens Pass route over the Cascades work well, they really did, but the mountains of Washington are prone to tremendous snowfalls followed by rain. When the rain saturates the accumulated snow, the cold, wet mass gets too heavy for the slope, and an avalanche is possible.
On the night of March 1, 1910, 96 people in two trains died in the Wellington Avalanche, which was triggered when lightning hit a snowy slope high above Wellington. Most of the bodies were not recovered until snowmelt the following July. Only 23 passengers survived, in the greatest natural disaster ever to hit Washington State in historic times and among the worst train disasters in America.
After the disaster, the Great Northern decided that they needed more snow sheds along the route. Snow sheds over the tracks provide a way for avalanches to pass right over the tracks without hitting the train. They even built a high-tech (for the era) all-concrete snow shed that was nearly half-a-mile long. With all the snow sheds and tunnels on this route, travel became safer, but the entire route was abandoned in 1929 upon completion of the 7.8 mile long Second Cascade Tunnel down along the river.
Time wore on. Timbers rotted in the wooden snow sheds and roofs collapsed. Douglas Firs and Western Hemlocks and Grand Firs grew up along the old roadbed. Rockfalls and avalanches covered the old route with debris. The village of Wellington, later renamed Tye to avoid association with the avalanche, burned down after being abandoned by the railroad. Traces of the old forest fire and clearcut above Wellington–which had contributed to the deadly avalanche–gradually absorbed back into the forest. Souvenir hunters made off with artifacts. The place was quiet, haunted by the terrible event of 1910.
Then, in the 1980s, the Volunteers for Outdoor Washington, working with the U.S. Forest Service and other organizations, began work to create a trail along this route. The Iron Goat Trail, named for the iconic Mountain Goat logo of the old Great Northern Railway, is now among the best historic trails in Washington State. As a railroad buff since I was three years old, I was thrilled to hike this trail and see the old roadbed, tunnel portals, and snow sheds. There were even a couple of remnant avalanches still melting out along the route to remind us of the terror that still lurks along these slopes during the long, snowy winter.
The following photographs are a gallery of the ruin of the all-concrete snow shed, which was truly an amazing architectural accomplishment and which is now an exquisite ruin
For more information about access and history, go to the following web sites:
Train Disaster Kills 96 (HistoryLink Site)
Iron Goat Trail 1074 Scenic (U.S. Forest Service information about trail)
The web site for Lee Rentz Photography, which includes an archive of tens of thousands of photographs as well as photographic prints for sale or license, please go to LeeRentz.com
Mt. Rainier National Park was spectacular on this crisp Indian Summer day, and we enjoyed hiking a trail in the subalpine meadows of Paradise (originally named by a woman who thought the exuberant summer wildflower display looked like paradise). Our wildlife total included two American Black Bears, who were feeding ravenously on blueberry bushes red with autumn color. Wisps of clouds rose from the mountain’s summit, which was brilliant white with fresh snow.
Our real purpose in visiting Paradise was to see the new $22 million National Park Service visitor center that opened two days ago. With my long-ago background in parks and nature centers, I enjoy seeing new visitor centers and evaluating their potential for success, so a visit to this new rustic-style center gave me an impression of what planners now believe is “state of the art.”
The old Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in Paradise looked like it was designed by an architect for the Jetsons. Essentially, it was. In 1962 Seattle hosted its famous World’s Fair, which featured the iconic new Space Needle. This monument, still the symbol of Seattle, illustrated what was thought to be the American future–and this closely matched the original prime time showing of the animated sitcom, The Jetsons, which favored the same sorts of futuristic design themes. The National Park Service, in that design climate, approved a visitor center design that echoed the top of the Space Needle–as if the towering base of the structure lay buried in lava oozed by the great mountain. That structure opened to the public in 1966, an exciting era of growth within the National Park Service and a time when post-war America was at its most optimistic.
Fast backward nearly a hundred years. Mt. Rainier National Park was the fifth national park in the nation, and the early design of its roads and structures was sublime. Roads were designed to curve gently around the mountain, winding through a dark tunnel of ancient forest, then coming around a curve to see the massive mountain suddenly emerging in magnificent splendor. The experience of driving these roads reminds me of a musical score, with low bass chords followed by a brass crescendo. In the same era, structures were created with logs and stone and cedar shingles, echoing the materials found naturally on the mountain. This park helped pioneer this rustic style, and today visitors still love the early Paradise Inn and other buildings that were born in that surprisingly sensitive era.
Fast forward to the new century. The futuristic spacecraft theme of the original visitor center looks as dated as a console television set from the 1960s. In contrast, the nearby Paradise Inn, built in 1916, is still elegant after all these years. It is in this context that the National Park Service planned a completely new visitor center, which would fit in with the original historic architecture but which would be built to contemporary “green” standards. The old visitor center had physical problems of handicapped accessibility–it doesn’t even have an elevator for its multiple floors. It also had a complex snow melting system to try and deal with the up to 1,000 inches of snow that Paradise receives each year: the concrete roof has a built-in system of tubes carrying hot water to melt the snow. These are powered by diesel–burning up to 500 gallons of diesel on a cold day in winter! The windows use old insulation standards and the center just looks “tired” overall.
The new Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, named for a powerful senator representing Washington State when the original visitor center was funded and built, has been planned for several years. I like the overall look of the Center, though I think the soaring interior is more successful than the exterior. The natural wood and black metal of the interior work beautifully together in the cathedral ceiling, and the craftsman-style copper light fixtures harken back to the time when the original buildings were erected at Paradise. The exterior consists of stone and wood and a bank of beautiful windows on each side. These windows have shutters that are open during the day to let in light and views, but they close when the Visitor Center closes, to conserve energy. Good idea.
Much of the lobby is open, and visitors can see at a glance the opportunities to see a movie, get information from a desk ranger, visit the exhibits, or browse the bookstore. The big, multi-paned windows look out in one direction on the great mountain and in the other direction toward the Tatoosh Range. Circulation patterns for people browsing the center’s features work well.
The exhibits explore the major stories associated with the mountain: the eruption history, subalpine meadows, volcanic hazards, wildlife, climbing to the summit, and effects of pollution and other outside influences on the plants and wildlife of the park. Everyone’s favorite exhibit is on the main floor: this is a scale model orientation map that lights up when a visitor presses a button to show, say, the route of the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around the mountain. I once worked as an exhibit designer, and I’ve noticed that every visitor center designed in the last 25 years is described as having “state of the art” exhibits. This one included. The exhibits are effective, though probably not as gripping in story or execution as the planners hoped. I think the problem with exhibits is that even though they have beautiful graphics and some interactive components, they simply can’t compete with today’s everyday interactive gaming and internet computer experiences. And that’s all right. Not everything has to dazzle and absorbingly entertain us. Here the star experience is The Mountain itself, and the trails that lead from the Visitor Center. Today, for example, the bears feeding on huckleberries are what every visitor is going to remember. And that’s great!
The most effective part of the Visitor Center was the theater, which featured a spectacular new movie about Mt. Rainier, including stories about climbers, wildlife, and the geologic history and hazards of the great volcano. It was so beautifully filmed in high-definition video that some visitors stayed in the theater to watch it a second time. It was as close to perfect as this type of movie can be.
All in all, the National Park Service did a great job on the new Visitor Center; the tax dollars were well spent. As we left the park, there was a touch of alpenglow on the upper reaches of the massive volcano. A fitting end to a great day in one of America’s great national parks.
To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com
Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.