Friday, April 30, 2010

No Bull, They Raise Bison in Illinois

Terry Lieb bought his first bison on a whim about 8 years ago at a farm sale. Today, his herd numbers about 20. His bison can get upwards of 2,000 pounds. And that’s not a lot of bull.

Josh Lieb takes me out to the pasture to get a closer look at the family’s herd. “If they start snorting and their tail stands up in the air, get in the Gator quick,” Josh cautions me as I step off the ATV and into the pasture

I sincerely reply, “If that happens, I’ll meet you on the other side of the fence.”

The herd slowly migrates in my direction. The younger ones are more curious than the adults. Obviously, the adults have had they’re picture taken before and aren’t phased by my presence.

Bison, or American Buffalo as they sometimes called, were almost hunted to extinction nearly a century ago. When bison roamed the land, they traveled in large herds, numbering thousands. Before 1600, it is estimated that 30-70 million roamed North America. By 1900, their numbers had shrunk to less than 1000.

Today, according to the National Bison Association, bison number about 450,000 in North America. Half of these are in Canada and about 200,000 are being raised on private farms, like the Lieb’s, in the United States.

There is a certain mystique that surround bison. When you see them, you can’t help but think of the wild west when these animals roamed the land. Unfortunately, the closest most people will get to bison are in zoo or on the back of an old “buffalo nickel.” Of course, people may have better luck seeing a live buffalo instead of the original nickel, which was minted from 1913-1938.

Today, the nickels are making a comeback just like the American Buffalo. The US Mint started a limited run in 2005, part of the Westward Journey series.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Very Civilized War If There Ever Was One

Imagine a war in which nobody dies. It’s just like playing Cops and Robbers with cap guns. You get shot and die, only to bounce back to life by some miracle potion on the level of a cootie shot. But this time you’re no longer a kid, the guns have a little more pop and the cannons give a big, thunderous belch that awakens the world. It catches the masses by surprise, scaring the bejesus out of you. Trust me on this one.

Starting with 2011, the nation will be marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. It’s America’s deadliest war, resulting in the death of 620,000 soldiers. And for the next five years, re-enactors will be reliving its most famous battles throughout the country.

Over 3000 re-enactors besieged the little town of Bentonville to re-stage the historic Battle of Bentonville on the 145th anniversary of the fight. The historic three-day battle pitted the army of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston against the army of Gen. William T. Sherman.

Most of the re-enactors came as soldiers of the grey and the blue, while some came as civilians. They camped throughout the historic battlefield and offered the nearly 50,000 spectators a glimpse into the daily life of earlier times.

Short of having arrived by car, the re-enactors tried to forgo modern amenities as much as possible during the re-enactment. Everything was relative to the time period; from their meals and utensils, to their clothes, to their bedding. So much for that Craftmatic adjustable bed.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In My Defence in Abingdon, Virginia

Call it a fascination with shapes if you want. But, sometimes, when I’m taking pictures, I find myself looking more at the graphic elements that I see through the viewfinder than the image itself.

As I was walking along the Virginia Creeper Trail looking for people photos, I came across these fences. (They’re actually one huge fence surrounding a farm just off the trail.) I was fixated with the lines they created and wanted to find a way to incorporate them into a picture.

But it doesn’t have to be straight or intersecting lines. Even the curving ridge of a hillside can catch my fancy. These shapes may make for interesting photos, but they can help the viewer move through the photo, too. It’s a lot like following the bouncing ball across the screen.

As a photographer, you hope the viewers find your pictures interesting and worth a closer look. Let them study it for a little while like it’s an abstract painting. You only hope it doesn’t lead them off the page and onto something new.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Moooooo’ve it on Over

This is another of one of those drive-by pictures. I’m not sure if it’s the ten years I spent hunting for feature photos at my newspaper jobs or what. But sometimes I can’t drive down the road without scanning the area for potential photos. The worst part is when you see something that would make a great picture and the only camera on hand is the one attached to your cell phone.

I was on my way to take pictures at White’s Mill in Abingdon, Virginia, when I saw these cows hanging out on the side of the hill eating. I pulled over and waited rather impatiently for them to work their way around so they were both on the ridge line. This created a distinct separation between their silhouettes and the hill.

If you look really hard, you’ll see the third cow in the photo that wasn’t quite as cooperative as the other two. That one’s definitely not on my Christmas list for next year.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Milling About at White’s Mill in Abingdon, Virginia

When I get to a new community, one thing I like to do is pick up some brochures of what’s in the area. One in particular caught my eye. It was the one for White’s Mill.

Taking pictures for a magazine, like Images of Washington County, sometimes requires a little on-site research.

The brochure gave me a little bit of information about it’s history, which dates back about 120 years. It was added to the Virginia and National Registries of Historic Places in 1974 and was still powered by water up until 1989. The mill fell out of production leading up to the turn of the century and, in 2001, the White’s Mill Foundation was formed and purchased the mill.

But it was the photo on the brochure that really piqued my interest. It was the mill at dusk with the warm glow from a floodlight illuminating it as it was reflected in a pond. Very cool shot. I wanted to try my hand at it and see if I couldn’t improve it a little.

I made the journey out to the mill a couple of hours before sunset one night. It’s about 15 minutes outside of downtown Abington, on, you guessed it, White’s Mill Road.

I grabbed my lightstands, tripod and camera gear and headed over to the pond. I found the angle I liked and set up my tripod. I then broke out the lightstands and starting setting up my flashes, a pair of Canon 580EXII’s. They’re small and powerful enough to illuminate the side of the mill.

As I walked over to the mill to place my lights, a little kitten popped out of nowhere and immediately attached itself to me. It followed me all over the place: to placing a light next to the floodlight, to placing one on the unlit side of the mill and then back to my tripod.

It hung out with me as I trekked back and forth to my lights, adjusting power and placement. Never venturing more than a few feet away. You’d almost think my pockets were filled with catnip.

Finally, the sun began to set and twilight started to take over. I started taking pictures.

After a few frames, I grabbed my camera off the tripod and changed the angle from which I was shooting. This time without the tripod.

I was using a Canon 24-105mm lens with internal stabilization. This allowed to drop the shutter speed and handhold the camera. With a normal lens, I probably wouldn’t have been able to let loose of the tripod.

The whole time, that little kitten was still attached to me.

I felt bad when it came time to leave. I’m sure the little thing started having separation anxiety as it saw me drive off.

Hopefully, I’ll get to see my little friend again next year, because this is definitely a place I’d like to revisit. (Hint, Hint)

The Eyes Have It in Abingdon, Virginia

I love it when I get to travel to some place new.

Last week I was in Southwestern Virginia, in a small town called Abingdon. I was there working on the Images of Washington County, Virginia Magazine.

Abingdon, or even Washington County for that matter, is probably not on the back of your mind as some place you’ve visited. But it should be a place you at least drive through and check out.

When I’m traveling to a new community, I try not to go in with any preconceived ideas. My goal is to spend the week getting lost, literally. That’s how I find some of the photos I take. They’re not the ones on the shot list. It’s just something I’ve stumbled upon.

That’s what happened when I took this picture.

I was actually on my way to grab dinner and just happened to glance across the road and see this unusual sign. It had that cool neon light to it. It was just after sunset and twilight had started to fill the sky, which means it wouldn’t be a picture much longer. It’d just be a neon sign against a dark sky.

I made a quick U’y and pulled into the parking lot of the Tri-City Opticians in Abingdon, VA.

The sky was a nice shade of blue, but I decided to give it a little more punch. I switched my white balance to tungsten and grabbed a few frames. That’s about the time my stomach started growing and reminded me of the priorities at hand: dinner.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Creeping Along the Virginia Creeper Trail in Abingdon, Virginia

The Virginia Creeper Trail got its start as a railway line shortly before the turn of the 20th century. It connected the towns of Abingdon and Damascus, VA. In a few years time, the line would expand to run all the way to Elkland, NC.

The rail line got its nickname “The Virginia Creeper” because of the strenuously steep climbs the steam locomotive had to pull the train up the steep grades, thus slowing it to a crawl.

Like most steam locomotives, the ones on the Creeper ran up until the late 1950’s. That’s when diesel engines took over the line and all of the steam engines that ran along the route were cut up for scrap.

The diesel era of the Creeper line continued up until 1977, when due to financial reasons, the rail line ceased operation.

Perhaps some of the most memorable moments of the Creepers’ history were captured by train photographer O. Winston Link. He became fascinated with trains at an early age and set out to photograph them in his adult life as a hobby.

For those not familiar with Link, he is one of the pioneers of night flash photography. And looking at his work you can see what he was able to accomplish in the days (or nights) of flashbulbs.

One of his famous night photos that you may recognize is the Hot Shot Eastbound, which featured a Norfolk and Western train passing a packed drive-in movie theater, using over 40 flash bulbs to capture.

Said Link, "Since I could only see the headlight of the locomotive in total darkness, I did not know until the flash was fired that I had captured this prize."

Pretty amazing when you realize he had only one shot to get the picture.

For all the railway fanatics out there, his photos can be seen at the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, VA. It just happens to be the old Norfolk and Western Passenger Station.

But some of his pictures of the Abingdon-Elkland line hang at the Washington County Historical Society in Abingdon. They show railway life along the Virginia Creeper line.

Today, thanks to funds that encourage transforming old rail lines into public use trails, the Virginia Creeper has been given a new life as a trail open to cyclists, hikers and joggers.

The Virginia Creeper Trail runs for 34 miles from Abingdon to Whitetop, VA. It’s passes by a couple of old, restored stations and traverses over 47 trestles. Unfortunately, the steep grade is still there. The climb uphill from Abingdon to Whitetop is about 1500 feet or, if you prefer, you can ride those 1500 feet downhill ride.

The old rail line may be long gone. But for those fond of nostalgia, "Old Mollie," Norfolk & Western Engine 433, rests at the trailhead for the Virginia Creeper Trail in Abingdon, VA, still longing for the heyday of steam locomotives.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Coming Face to Face with Myself from a Past Life

I'm working on a story for the North Carolina Travel Guide about the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War in 2011. The war raged from 1861-1865. For five years starting next year, various sites around North Carolina will be acknowledging this mark with historic battles that fall on that 150th date.

As I wander about the tents set up at the 145th Battle of Bentonville, in Bentonville, NC, I come across Bob Szabo. He’s crouched under a black cloth and carefully focusing on his subjects. He then disappears into his little portable darkroom to sensitize the photographic plate. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was an NFL referee huddling under the hood of an instant replay booth.

He reemerges and gives final instructions to his subjects before removing the lens cap from the camera. The soldiers sit stone faced, trying not to move a muscle as Bob counts to four and captures their image in the large wooden box set atop a tripod.

In this day of digital cameras, it’s rare to see anyone shooting film. But Bob is a rarity himself.

He shoots tintypes, a photographic method that dates back to the mid-1800’s. But then again, his subjects date back to that time period as well. They are re-enactors from the 145th Battle of Bentonville.

So to keep up, or back, with the time period, Bob is photographing in the period style of wet-plate photography. It’s called a wet-plate photographic process because collodion is poured over a small sheet of black coated metal (or plate) and exposed before it dries.

I take a few frames of the soldiers over his shoulder before he runs off to develop the picture. He returns with the plate still wet from developing and shows it to his subjects. They’re fascinated with the authentic look of a tintype.

Casually, I look down at the picture being displayed on the back of my camera. I keep it to myself. There’s no way my 21st century camera can compete with one about 150 years old. It’s no even close.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pickin' at Priddy's, Live Bluegrass Music at it's Finest!

(Click on image or click here to view the audio slideshow.)

For the townsfolk in Danbury, NC, a Friday night in February means Pickin’ at Priddy’s.

As the sun slowly sets, the cold starts to settle in. The warm glow of the sun passes easily through the leafless trees and hits the front of Priddy’s General Store. They huddle around the fire beneath the big, black pot, warming their bodies and their bellies. Tonight, it’s brunswick stew.

The crowd starts to grow as it gets closer to seven. They walk past a sign next to the door that reads, “Pickin’ at Priddy’s, Live Bluegrass Music at it’s Finest.”They’ve come to listen to one of the local favorites, Blues Creek. And it’s a packed house. There’s barely enough room to stand, much less find a place to sit. For those not lucky enough to get a seat, much less in the door, the music is being pumped outdoors.

As Jane Priddy Charleville, the third generation of Priddy’s to operate the store says, “We just want to try to recreate things like they used to be; when people got together at people’s homes for music and food and fellowship and fun.”

Her goal was to find something for people to do in the little town of Danbury.

As a result, Pickin’ at Priddy’s was born. It started nine years ago with their first band. And as Jane says, “It’s been on since.”

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Time for Tulips

It’s amazing to see spring arrive.

I’ve had the good fortune to follow it along as it moves from the coast up to the piedmont. Now it’s arriving in the mountains and it’s awesome. The only exception being that blizzard of pollen that comes with it and covers everything in a yellow blanket. But that’s nothing a little Claritin won’t cure.

I got to spend this past week in the mountains of southwest Virginia, in Washington County working on the Images of Washington County Magazine.

The town of Abington, the county seat of Washington County, was bursting with colorful tulips all along Main Street. Everywhere you looked, there was either a bed of yellow tulips or a barrel full of red ones. The dogwoods were starting to lose their white flowers. As the wind picked up, it looked like a very isolated snowstorm. The other trees are catching up with the dogwoods as their leaves are just now beginning to bud.

It truly is a great time of year. At least until summer arrives.