These are photographs I took during and after the April 22nd wildfire that reduced most of the Council Bluffs riverfront between the Veterans Memorial Bridge (South Omaha Bridge) and the Western Historic Trails Center to smoldering stumps and vast fields of white ash, fueled by strong wind, dead vegetation, and fallen timber that had been killed years ago by flooding of the Missouri River. Of course, the trees that were still standing after the fire appeared to be mostly alive judging from their fine branches and intact bark (dead and dying trees lose these over time). Even so, most of the standing trees were charred, more so toward the ground than up high.
In hindsight, I realize the poor judgment I exercised by entering the area the morning after the fire had been mostly contained. But curiosity doesn’t kill every cat, so I kept hiking farther and farther into the smoking woods long after my better judgment gave up on me. What I found upon arriving was a scorched scene not unlike that of the Yellowstone geyser basins we visited years ago, the place that truly sparked my interest in photography. Except that the heat from the fire was, at times, overwhelming and seemed to radiate from inconspicuous places along the path—a bed of underground coals where once lay a system of roots over here, a patch of white ash concealing a massive bed of embers over there. Unlike Yellowstone, there was no raised boardwalk trail to guide one from harm’s way, and I realized after I should have how easily a weakened tree, guts still afire, could have fallen on me. Indeed, I heard several fall in the distance while I was taking these photographs, and another landed with a tremendous thud not 50 yards away from me just before I decided to leave.
In these photographs, what looks like fog is smoke, smoke so dense that it made my eyes water continuously. When the wind died down, it was stifling, and when the wind picked up again, it was nearly unbearable until it had a chance to thin out. As of this writing, eleven days later, I can still smell the smoke on my camera and all the clothes I wore that morning, even though they’ve all been through the laundry.
I ask one favor before I go. If you have the means, please view these on a screen larger than a cell phone, at least the panoramas. Each was assembled from multiple frames and could be printed large enough to be a mural, so the thought of it appearing as a thin slice of pixels across a 5-inch screen is depressing.
And if you know anybody who might find these photographs interesting, please share them.
My favorite photos from the Council Bluffs/Omaha riverfront are the ones that convey the silence on the Iowa side and the twinkle and haste of the Nebraska side. There’s just something about the spectacle of downtown Omaha as viewed across the great expanse occupied by the mighty Missouri, especially when the only west-facing spectators include me, the occasional deer, and all of those majestic cottonwoods along the bank.
There seems to be growing interest in developing the Iowa side of the river. I was beyond relieved when the plans for Tom Hanafan River's Edge Park stopped short of the undeveloped area near the pedestrian bridge. But now with the addition of the River’s Edge Pavilion, it seems only a matter of time before the creeping hand of development continues its encroachment northward along the river. So my plan is to visit the area as often as I can for as long as I can and to share the photos I take there. Who knows? Maybe I can convince the right people that a humble patch of sand, trees, and silence is worth preserving.
This particular photo was taken around Christmas last year, which explains why the First National Bank building is wearing its festive lighting.
This was taken during a foggy morning in early fall amid the kind of eerie stillness that forces introspection and an odd sense of hallucination. If my song of celebration for fog started years ago as a subtle heel-tapping, it’s grown into a full-on drum solo. I love it all—the otherworldliness of it, the secrecy, immediacy, mystery. The way it transforms the familiar into shapes, discolorations, and mere suggestions of form is almost seductive. Maybe reality, after a while, just gets too mundane, and a good blanket of fog helps to cast things in a new light. Or maybe I’m just crazy. Either way, I hope you like it.
Here’s the 2017 installment of this series. A little smokier and brighter than last year, and a lot more light on the church from a big neighborhood show on South 3rd St. Happy Birthday, America!
Country church in Oakland, Iowa. You can scour Google Earth all day long for spots with photogenic potential, head out early when the conditions seem just right (sun rising in a good position, enough clouds to make for an interesting sky), and previsualize the “perfect” angle and “perfect” lens, but it will always be the unexpected discoveries that serve as a reminder that Iowa and Nebraska (and pretty much all of the Midwest) hold so much hidden beauty and that almost no hike or drive (gravel or otherwise) goes unrewarded. A friend and I were out before sunrise this past weekend and drove by this chapel in search of other “pins with potential” on my Google Map. It turned out to be (at least for me) the highlight of the trip, for obvious reasons, although it had never shown up on my radar prior to the outing.
Boy Scout Island, Lake Manawa. This was taken a few mornings ago. The air was incredibly still during the predawn hours, and there was just a smattering of clouds inching their way lazily toward the sun. Squadrons of white pelicans were overhead as if on patrol, leaving the water’s surface perfectly calm below them. Minutes later, the squadron came down to fish, shattering the mirror. These moments are rare and fleeting, and I always feel lucky to witness them firsthand.
I originally found this "barn" several years ago along the backroads near Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska. This was taken on a very foggy, frigid winter morning amid the type of silence that makes footsteps through snow seem eerily audible.
I say "barn" for lack of an appropriate label to put on such a building. Being a city boy, I once called every rural non-house structure a "barn" until I was regularly corrected on social media. It always went the same: "That's not a barn, it's a corn crib" or "That's not a barn, it's a machine shed." I'm not sure of the pictured structure's intent, so I'm falling into that old trap of calling it a barn pending further education (from a commenter, perhaps?).
About a month ago, I made the trip north up John J Pershing Drive/North River Drive/Road P51/Road 51, a picturesque jaunt that runs (mostly) parallel to the Missouri River, to reconnect with the old "barn" for a sunrise shoot, but it was gone! Many of my favorite "barns" have met the same fate in the past year, razed unexpectedly, leaving a sudden void where there wasn't one.
So here's to the places only I love.
Another incredible sunrise at Lake Manawa State Park, Council Bluffs, Iowa. I simply cannot get enough of this place.
Bayliss Park is hauntingly beautiful in the predawn fog. The fountain, the plaza, the performance space and canopy, they all complement each other amazingly well. The black squirrels, the splash area, the Veterans plaza, the meandering brick path, Music in the Park, Art in the Park, and, my goodness, all those amazing trees! What a great place. A grand vision executed with class and grace. Yet another beautiful part of Council Bluffs.
Boy Scout Island, Lake Manawa State Park, Council Bluffs, Iowa. Today (Sunday, September 18, 2016, noon to 4 pm) is day two of the Southwest Iowa Art Tour at the Harvester in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Here's the official Facebook invite for details. One of the unique aspects of the show is that artists are encouraged to create art while the show is going on. So I’ll be photographing some flowers alongside my print display. If any of this sounds interesting, please stop by.
Council Bluffs, Iowa. I’ve been planning this photograph for quite some time now, and all the necessary elements converged a few mornings ago. Thanks to the handful of drivers who unknowingly lent me their headlights/brakelights to create the rivers of light. I’m also excited to announce a new show that’s opening this Friday (September 2, 2016) from 4-8 pm at Everything Electric (5170 Leavenworth #200), a small gallery in Omaha, Nebraska. The show is called Vanishing, and it will feature a selection of my photographs that depict foggy sunrises around Council Bluffs and Omaha, most of which I’ve not yet shared on my website. A portion of any print sales will fund future print donations to Summer Bash for Childhood Cancer. I’ve donated prints for auction the past few years to help support this important fundraiser, whose goal is to support children with cancer and their families.
Bellevue, Nebraska. This cost me exactly two dollars more than other homegrown photos. A westbound dollar and then an eastbound dollar. But watching the sunlight explode through the fog yesterday morning under the Bellevue Toll Bridge was well worth the price.