Nice lens, get in the truck

10 things I learned from my daily photo challenge

Its been one month since I started the daily photo project – challenging myself to take a photograph a day that I felt was interesting enough to post online. While this project has been far more challenging than I anticipated, it has also been very rewarding.

I generally find top-10 listicles annoying, however, I am willing to make an exception in the name of efficiency. For those who hate lists, sorry – and for everyone else, here are the 10 things I learned from my daily photo challenge:

  1. Macro photography takes a lot more finesse than I originally thought.

    The shallow depth of field is both a feature and a challenge. Pinpointing a focal point and a close consideration of the backdrop are essential to creating a good composition. Macro photography also gives me an opportunity to view objects much closer than I typically would – revealing the unexpected in the otherwise ordinary.

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    Rainy day macro shot

  2. Expect the unexpected.

    Nine out of 10 times I would have a photo-worthy subject in mind, whether it was a decrepit building or a picturesque bridge. But sometimes, because of lighting, people or just serendipity, the proposed subject turns out to be less of a feature than the unexpected find. A fish stranded on a rock, a lone plant unfurling in the forest, or a light bulb embedded in a tree are all lucky captures.

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    Fishy Leaf

  3. From the extraordinary to the ordinary and back.

    Photographer Oliver Curtis points his camera in the opposite direction of some of the world’s most photographed landmarks to capture an equally gripping image. Instead of another image of Tiananmen Square, Curtis turns his camera to the spectators taking photos of the mausoleum. While Greenville, SC doesn’t have subjects as epic as the Pyramids of Giza or Christ the Redeemer, it does have some quintessential icons that are oft photographed. Take for example Taylors Mills – a one-time factory for bleaching, dying and printing fabrics that is inherently photogenic. Hoping to avoid a cliché, I took a more abstract approach to a close up of peeling paint on a window.

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    Peeling the layers into the past

  4. Nice lens, get in the truck.

    There is no way around it; I am going to be conspicuous. Whether I’m parked on the side of the road taking a shot of an abandoned mill, or walking in the woods with a telephoto lens, I am going to get noticed, and someone almost always comments about the size of my lens (usually with a “wow, that lens is bigger than you are”). Clearly I’m not invisible so instead I’ll have to come up with a few good one-liners.

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    Maybe it’s the bright red jacket?

  5. Not every day is going to be exceptional.

    While this project was supposed to be fun (mostly), I took it on with the same commitment and dedication I would any other assignment. With that comes a certain level of stress in my need to deliver on expectations. However, not every day is going to bring exceptional results – sometimes a play in light, a long shadow or a single flower will have to do.

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    Flower power

  6. Elements of Style.

    I approached this project with the desire to expand my photography skills and revive my curiosity. I was also hoping to help define a style. It is so much easier to find a market as a ‘landscape photographer’, ‘portrait photographer’ or the illusive ‘lifestyle photographer’. Instead I find myself wandering the landscape, capturing anything and everything that appealed to me. There are, however, a few elements of style that keep repeating themselves. Patterns, shadows and light play feature prominently in my images.

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    Stepping out

  7. Learning the ropes, again.

    I have been shooting a Canon DSLRs for more than 14 years, and you would think I would have figured out all the ins and outs of the camera. But to be perfectly honest, I’ve always prided myself on being what I call a guerrilla photographer (Guer-rilla, not Go-rilla) for the impromptu nature of my captures. This meant that I didn’t always pay close attention to the camera’s settings, preferring the ‘f-8 and be there’ approach. But when it comes to macro, wildlife, or come to think of it, any sort of photography, closer attention to the camera settings has some big benefits. The dials on my camera certainly got a good workout.

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    Red Shoulder

  8. Discovery.

    Every abandoned building, rusting water wheel and shuttered mill has a history that has brought me a deeper understanding of my surroundings. Photography for me is also a way to document the seemingly insignificant relics of the past that are being bulldozed to make room for a more monotonous landscape. There is nothing wrong with modernity, however, by erasing these run-down relics, we also condemn them to our cultural amnesia and slowly unravel a rich tapestry of knowledge. The Primitive Baptist church down the road reveals the cultural significance of its inception, the shuttered textile mills a significant reminder of the division between rural and urban America. To date, two of the buildings I’ve photographed have been dismantled – and that’s just in one month.

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    Newry Mill

  9. Falls, falls and more falls.

    While I’ve always loved waterfalls, I’ve also found them to be particularly challenging to photograph. How do you capture the magnificence of a waterfall in an image without it becoming cliché or boring? Confronted with so many waterfalls, I’ve found that a steady hand, a pair of rubber boots and long exposures are the answer. The challenge is to take something exceptionally beautiful and capture it in an enduring image.

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    Rainbow Falls

  10. Get out there.

    I confess, this project has also challenged me to get out there – to stretch out beyond my comfort zone in terms of photography and creative growth. As this challenge comes to a close, I notice that there are some elements in my photography that are strikingly absent. None of my photographs taken this past month have any people in them. This is really ironic since the majority of my past work has included people in them. Perhaps my next challenge is to shoot more people.

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    Last shot of the month!

Link to Daily Wander for a full photos from the daily challenge project.

Daily Wander

It seems fitting that the first photo of the year, and my first daily photo challenge, is of a hood ornament on an abandoned 1950s DeSoto. Named after the early Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, the car represents a time in the 50s when American’s criss-crossed their country in the family sedan, spurring countless roadside motels, drive-ins and a fascination with the Road Trip. While de Soto never did find a viable route to China, he did reportedly lead the first expedition into modern day United States, crossing the Mississippi River and exploring as far north and east as South Carolina – a state which I currently call home.

I have taken on this daily photo project as a way to challenge myself to find interesting perspectives, even in the most mundane.

Southern Pickin’

Shuffling from one table to another, it is difficult to keep focused on any one item. There are vendors selling expired vitamins, partially used perfume bottles, rusting rifles, old farm implements and a disproportionate number of books about the Third Reich. In another row of tables, a mess of shiny objects from keys to belt buckles grabs my attention and I begin to peck through the flotsam that was surely destined for the dump.

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Flotsam destined for the dump.

I’ll take two dollars for that,” one vendor offers a hesitant shopper. That, along with the indignant “I’ve got twenty bucks in that,” are favorite refrains around the Pickens Flea Market.

I look up to find my friend Malia negotiating for an old metal lunchbox. Malia, who curates an online vintage store Maliasmark visits the market most Wednesday mornings. The no-frills market attracts vendors and buyers as varied as the assortment of goods available for sale – mostly kitsch and things found on the side of the road. Who knew there was a market for expired cans of pineapple juice?

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Gemstones, costume jewelry and bolo ties are making a comeback!

With a trained eye for vintage, Malia picks through items that instantly have a nostalgic cachet: an assortment of wooden crates, trinket boxes and a familiar blue Holly Hobbie lunch box and thermos set – identical to the one I had as a kid. As we meander down the rows of tables, a disquieting realization hits me. When did my generation become vintage? And is it wrong to buy up all the things I tossed away when I moved away from home?

Ooooo, I love that!” Says Malia, betraying the cool, detached demeanor of a skilled buyer. It’s a music box, not the gilded, precious kind, but the cardboard and vinyl clad kind with a windup plastic twirling ballerina – Identical to the one I had as a kid! Shit.

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Negotiating for old aluminum trays and wooden crates sold by Les.

One of the sellers, in his mid 70s, is there to clear out his garage and share a few stories. He’s selling a collection of trays he’s fashioned into planters from aluminum used in a now defunct paper mill. Another woman shares her love of travel to Italy, selling some of her accumulated trinkets. Another vendor selling a retro wedding cake topper, boasts about her own garden wedding set in an idyllic 60s timeframe.

As the morning progresses, glimpses of personal stories, a peek into a private past, snippets from a school journal reveal themselves. After several trips to unload armfuls of stuff, we head back along the country roads and wind our way past rolling farmland and vestiges of old homesteads.

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Approaching the barn covered with old industrial signs.

We pull over to take a closer look at a barn covered with old industrial signs. As we walk along the edge of the property, keeping an eye for guard dogs, Wayne, the owner, happens to come out to check his empty mailbox and graciously offers to give us a tour of his property. He constructs fantastic stories of imagined past, building on the lore of the South, complete with practiced tales about using corn cobs as toilet paper and showing us the bedpan, complete with plastic poop prop, stowed under the bed of his little cabin in the woods [I’m still kicking myself for not taking a picture].

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Release the hound…dawg. This guy came sniffing around when we pulled up to the barn.

Wayne sits of the rocking chair outside his fabricated cabin filled with historic memorabilia cobbled as a tribute to the past and offers us tea and cookies. He spends the next hour talking about the various visitors he’s had on his property, the curiosity seekers, photographers and occasional derelicts that show up on his doorstep – we fall into the first two categories, hopefully!

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Wayne kept Malia and I entertained with his fantastic stories.

When I get home, I’m excited to play the 78 records on the newly purchased WWII US Army issued phonograph while I flip through advertisements for learning to play an accordion and the surprising number of promotions on how to ‘build yourself a “He-Man” body’ from a 1957 copy of Popular Mechanics. I have no personal history with that past, but enjoy listening to Glen Miller and his Orchestra perform American Patrol as the dull needle narrows in on the grooves of the heavy shellac records.

The phonograph will most likely collect dust and end up with someone else in the future. In the meantime, the novelty of the object puts a smile on my face.

Moonshine in the Dark Corner

October 21, 2016 South Carolina, Upstate 0 Comments

I’ve already written about my uncanny and comical ability to get lost, so heading into the woods on my own to explore some of South Carolina’s state parks would seem foolhardy. Setting aside my fear of bears, and armed with a portable GPS and an active imagination, I set out for a ramble along the Middle Saluda River in Jones Gap State Park.

Avoiding the ominously named Hospital Rock trail, I instead hiked up the friendlier sounding Rainbow Falls. The crescendo of rushing water fades in and out as I climb higher into the woods along the switchbacks.

The rivers and tributaries of the Carolinas were the powerhouses behind the once thriving textile industry; they were also the means to accessing fresh water that kept the illicit liquor supplies flowing through these hills. This particular region of South Carolina was notorious for moonshiners. Once the reviled backwater of the more refined Palmetto State, the ‘Dark Corner’ is cloaked with legendary blood feuds, a disdain for authority and a refusal to join the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.

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Moonshine in them hills – photo Barry Scully

I first became aware of the Dark Corner from the man who refilled our propane tank last winter. As a local, he knew the area well and pointed to Hogback Mountain, just northeast of our house. While the geographic area remains ambiguous, the general boundaries span from northwestern Spartenburg County to Pickens County and western North Carolina.

The settlers arrived in the late 18th century and embraced the value-added economy of turning corn to whisky, which was easier to transport and less dependent on the fluctuation market value of crops. These outliers lived in tight-knit communities and had a general distrust toward outsiders.

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Not too much of a stereotype? His trusty little dog makes sure he never misses an episode of Gunsmoke – photo Barry Scully

Just when I thought these legendary moonshiners were mostly relegated to myth, their bad-ass reputations capitalized by the legal selling and distribution at liquor stores, I met Robert. An archetypical Appalachian figure complete with overalls, beard and still, Robert was working the still at Hagood Mills, a historic site and folklife centre in Pickens, SC.

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A functioning still at Hagood Mills – photo Barry Scully

Robert, it turns out, is a well-known character around town. He had driven his ‘35 Dodge pickup truck to the site earlier in the day, the tires worn and cracked. Typically he would have some kind of menagerie in tow. This time, it was a rooster and possum (presumably pets) that were crated on the wooden flatbed. Apparently his little dog, a Chihuahua mix, barks at one o’clock every afternoon to remind him that Gunsmoke is on TV.

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pet possum or dinner?

Robert comes by his pursuit honestly. As he stokes the fire on the primitive looking still, he explains that he learned how to distill from his father who was in and out of jail several times before having to swear off illicit alcohol production for good. I comment at how the fire could easily betray the location of the still to the authorities. That’s why you work at night, Robert explains. Besides, smoke is not longer an issue since what few moonshiners are left now use propane.

 

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Back in Jones Gap, I climb steadily up the mountain in awe of the people who made this trail, carving steps into stones and meticulously placing logs into spiraling stairways to the waterfalls. The squirrels in the woods keep me alert, surprising me by leaping in front of me or scurrying in tree tops, just out of sight and enough for me to imagine a bear waiting to ambush me.

The view at the top is spectacular, of course. The waterfall cascades from the cliff top and I scramble up the side of the hill to try to catch a glimpse of a rainbow. I run into a park ranger who assures me that I needn’t have worried about the Hospital Rock trail. It wasn’t legendary for sending hikers to the infirmary as I had presumed. The lore of the area suggested that it was a route to a makeshift hospital that cared for Confederate deserters. He also tells me that rangers continue to find old stills hidden in the bush along the rivers and streams, further fanning my curiosity for exploring the dark corners of these surrounding hills.

Please Don’t Feed the Alligators

September 15, 2016 Kayak, South Carolina, Swamp 1 Comment

An over correction almost tips me into the opaque black water. I’m sure the alligator I nearly knocked over the head with my paddle was just as alarmed. It was at this point that I graciously let Barry glide ahead, falling back just enough to avoid a collision, but follow close by to occasionally touch the stern of his kayak. He’s now officially on alligator patrol.

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Paddling the Suwannee Canal

The long, narrow channel is straddled with trees decked with Spanish moss like clumps of tinsel randomly tossed on the overhanging branches. We’re exploring the Okefenokee Swamp that seeps across the Georgia and Florida border. It’s everything I’ve ever imagined a swamp to be – a black water maze studded with deadheads the size of tombstones, tall cypress trees firmly crouched in the mud, their knees poking above the water to take in the oxygen, and of course, the American alligator – alligator mississippiensis, scoping its territory camouflaged under green algae, or sun bathing on the edges of the river, with one eye open to disturbances from bright mango and lime-colored kayaks.

With misguided ambition and ultimately financial failure, the Suwannee Canal, which we currently paddling on, was dug in an attempt to drain the swamp. That failure eventually led to wide-scale logging of the rot-resistant bald cypress trees. Having exhausted the natural resources, logging stopped and the land was eventually designated a national wildlife refuge that covers more than 400,000 acres.

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Paddling the shallow, narrow channel in Okefenokee swamp

Keeping my fingers out of the water and with a clipped paddle, we move deeper into the swamp and divert into an ever-narrowing side tributary. The water is much shallower here and the trees give way to open marshy areas. We paddle past carnivorous pitcher plants and huge water lilies, and this time we surprise a siege of immature blue herons (as per proper birder nomenclature) that awkwardly balance on bleached branches. Barry promptly wedges his kayak across the channel and if it wasn’t for the scorching sun, I would have lost him for the rest of the day.

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Please don’t feed the alligators

Undaunted by alligators, our next paddling trip into the swamp was the northeastern tip of Lake Marion, SC. We had driven past towns with relics from a more prosperous time, now mostly shuttered along the roadside, to a secluded parking lot crowded with pickup trucks and empty trailers.

We slipped our kayaks into what can best be described as an enchanted forest. While Lake Marion was built in the early 1940’s as part of the Santee Cooper Project when the Santee River was dammed to create hydro-electric power and employment opportunities, this section is more like a swirl of confusing passages and dead end tributaries.

We paddled past ubiquitous bullet-hole riddled signposts, giant waterlogged stumps sprouting new vegetation and the occasional fishing lure stranded in a tree branch. There is little evidence of an artificially created environment. The towering black cypress and swamp tupelo trees form a navigable waterlogged forest. The path we make through the carpet of green algae closes in just as quickly as it parts for our kayaks, and without a GPS, we double back after a few hours, cautiously paddling around sturdy webs set by equally formidable spiders.

The stillness of the forest is broken with the occasional splash from a silvery fish skipping across the water glimpsed in our peripheral vision. There is a sound we have come to recognize that comes from a baby alligator calling its mom. It’s a kind of a guttural chirp, and there is no mistaking it for a frog. Maybe next time I’ll be brave enough to camp on one of those elevated platforms that stands somewhat precariously in the swamp. Who needs sleep anyway?