Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lunar Eclipse

April 2014 lunar eclipse (c) John Ashley
April 2014 total eclipse of the moon

The forecast called for 70% cloud cover, turning slowly to rain. But right after the lunar eclipse started this morning, the clouds parted long enough for me to enjoy occasional views of the orange full moon. At every opportunity, I made exposures for the sunlit and shadowed sides of the moon.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Too Much Curiousity, Too Little Time

"I am in the sere and yellow leaf, dried and shriveled, about to fall and become one with my millions of predecessors. Here I sit, by the fireplace in winter, and out on the veranda when the days are warm, unable to do anything except live over in memory the stirring years I passed upon the frontier." (J.W. Schultz's introduction to "My Life as an Indian")

I met myself as an old man last summer, in Kalispell, during a lull at the local art museum's August show.

One of those fragile old men who takes short steps from one point to the next slowly made his way into the booth, stopping to rest in front of a wall of my photographs. These guys always have unexpected back-stories so, to the chagrin of my wife/business partner, I struck up a conversation.

As a young man, he worked the trains running between Montana and northern Idaho. Old trains, pulled by steam engines. Those old engines were fickle, he explained, as other people floated in and out of my awareness. Each steam engine had a unique personality that you had to learn or bad things could happen. Like the one that exploded, killing two of his co-workers.

He started out shoveling coal into blazing furnaces. It was a delicate dance between coal, water and steam that kept the engine alive, kept the train running on time. This required strong, talented men. But everything changed when the engines converted to diesel. Far fewer people were needed to run diesel trains, and whole careers were shoveled onto the scrapheap of history.

The old guy told me that he still had a few old black and white photos from those days, so I invited him to bring them back next day so we could look them over together. My business partner was not pleased. This old man had lots of train memories to share, but with each passing year he finds fewer and fewer people who would stop and listen to the old stories, look at his old pictures. I seemed to be the last person still interested in his career, his life.

When I was a young man, I started my "career" as a darkroom tech, processing other people's film and racing to keep up with a newspaper's never-ending deadlines. Squeezing images out of thin negatives was a dance I learned during those early years. When digital photography arrived, 20 years later, newspaper photographers started their great decline towards obscurity, into the forgotten boneyard of extinct careers.

It's hard to watch, depressing to read the struggling photographers' stories in every single issue of "News Photographer" magazine. I haven't subscribed for years, but an old friend sends his copies to me. Sometimes I force myself to sit down and read them, sometimes I just can't. It's like watching a beloved grandfather fade, and there's nothing you can do.

"Car Problems" by xkcd
You may have noticed this blog running thin over the past months. Then again, maybe not. But it seems 2013 was busier than previous years - not necessarily in a good way - especially during the already short Montana summer. In and out of the photo business, I wove Harlequin Duck fieldwork around a growing addiction to late-night mothing and astronomy together into a blur of sleep deprivation. Intentional sleep loss is a common occurrence for me that, I recently learned, generates the same brain-damaging chemicals as a concussion.

Something has to give.

The amount of photography information available on the web continues to grow exponentially. Some small crumbs of it are even worth reading. But my blog falls closer to "old man memories" than any pertinent, timely information. So, subconsciously at first, my writing time has shifted away from photography and back towards biology. I'm still passionate about making photographs, but my interest in writing about it is in decline. I never was much of a businessman, and self-promotion really rubs my hackles the wrong way.

And so, this blog space will update intermittently for the foreseeable future. I'll still post from time to time, but my passion for writing is now tied up in my natural history blog, Wild & Free Montana. Don't worry, I'm well aware that my words won't budge the needle, won't change the world, and might interest fewer and fewer people. I'm okay with that. But as long as my passion is there, that's where I need to be.

"Beauty" by xkcd

Friday, November 1, 2013


Want to become a cutting-edge bird photographer? You could spend four years putting in the time behind the scenes (like the folks in this Nature program) and, well, then you would be only be a few years behind the leading edge.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Close Encounters Beneath a Harvest Moon

Camera in one hand, flashlight in the other. And somewhere back there, a dim headlamp that fell off when I started running.

Ahead of me in the bouncing beam of light, I can just make out the vision of a portly porcupine who was covering a surprising amount of ground in a dead sprint. I didn't know porcupines could run, much less run so dang fast. Also didn't know they spent any time in treeless wheat fields.

Panting porcupine
Finally gaining on him, I circled around and began herding this fellow back in the direction of my car, idling there in the middle of that muddy road with the driver's door left open, back where the porcupine had run across my high beams.

We stopped, both of us panting. At the time, 3:08 am, the temperature dangled a few degrees above freezing. We carefully looked each other over in the middle of nowhere, Montana, both surprised to see the other. Just a featureless landscape of shorn wheat stubble, for as far as the eye could see in the glow of a Harvest Moon.

I flashed a few frames, then both of us turned back to our odd journeys. The thought occurred to me, "Is this normal?," and I wasn't referring to the porcupine. This guy wasn't the first or last well-armed critter that I would encounter that night.

It all started innocently enough. Met the wife in town where we dropped my truck at a local grocery. I climbed in the all-wheel-drive car with her and the two dogs, and we drove north for almost two hours. Turned west just before Canada, driving up the mountainside on a narrowing gravel road that kept your attention with little things like fallen rocks and logs, and dizzying drop-offs.

Curious bear
We paused near the bottom of the mountain to watch a large but distant black bear, mumbling around a small meadow. When I grabbed the camera and carefully closed the door, the bear stopped. Curiosity got the better of him, and he sat down next to a small tree to watch us watching him. The biologist and the bear, and who knew these woods best was painfully obvious to both of us. He soon bored with me and ambled off.

We resumed our climb. It'd be dark soon.

We scanned east from our mountain top, across the valley below and up to the distant, rocky backbone of Glacier National Park. Memory assured me that lovely mountains lay hidden in those clouds. An hour 'till sunset, to be followed by moonrise close behind. We ran the dogs, took multiple azimuths from multiple locations, and hoped for a break in the weather.

Half an hour later, the cloud bank had dissolved into several distinct clouds. Another 15 minutes, and snow-capped peaks began to appear as the clouds retreated further. Five minutes more and the fading light left the peaks in a blue funk, headed up into the higher cloud layer, and began fading pink.

Okay moon, we're ready. Any time now would be good. Any time. Dang it, where are you?

"There it is!" cried my wife. I hate it when she spots the moon before me. It was a little late and a tad north of my calculations. I shot a few frames and we raced downhill, trying to move the moon behind Rainbow Peak. But our angle of descent was less then the moon's ascent, and I ended up with a photo of a yellow orb behind the next mountain north.

Wish I could say, "started with."

I had scouted at least five locations for chasing this Harvest Moon through the night. So I headed east alone after dropping my family off at the grocery. Into the night, across the mountains, the Continental Divide and the great park. Then northward towards Canada, across the Blackfeet Nation and into the rolling plains of the east front.

Pavement gave way to gravel, which turned to mud before vanishing into a rutted wheat field. Google Earth lied to me - you can't get there from here without a helicopter. It was only 4:15 am, still enough time before moonset at sunrise. I turned the car delicately, so not to end up stuck where no one had driven in a very long time.

Within two minutes, headlights appeared. A white truck passed in the opposite direction, then spun around to follow close behind me. Calling in my license plate, I figured, so I pulled over and he turned on the flashing red and blue lights. I knew what was happening, but he didn't, so I rested both empty hands on my rolled down window, in plain view. No need for extra testosterone right now.

"I'm good," I answered cheerfully, considering the hour.

He paused. "What are you doin' out here?" His demeanor was polite, even a little curious.

"Tryin' not to get stuck. Did I wake you up, or are you on all night?" Officer Paycheck said he was on duty all night, then excused himself to walk far enough back to where I wouldn't be able to hear his radio.

"You the registered owner of this vehicle? Yeah, there's a road but it's barely a two-track. I wouldn't try it myself. You'd see the mountains better from Road 444, it's a lot closer. You carrying any weapons?"

He backs off again, but I can hear the radio crackle, "...be advised, no wants or warrants for that individual."

Porcupine quills (c) John Ashley
North end of southbound porcupine
My turn to ask a question. "You ever see porcupines out here?" I'd clocked it - three miles from the speedy porcupine to the nearest tree, which porcupines are supposed to eat (cambium layer inside the bark).

"Yeah," he told me, "they're all over the place." Wow, I thought, this really is a strange place.

A second truck arrived. Back-up in case this slightly strange photographer muttering about porcupines goes off the deep end. I tried explaining that I wanted to photograph the mountains from far away, not close, but gave up. They were both chuckling at me now. "Glad I could make your morning more interesting. I'll head back over to the mountains. If I get a decent photo, you can see it in a few days on my website."

"What's your website address?" asked my newest friend, Officer Paycheck.

"It's my name dot com," I told him. "John Ashley. Don't worry, dispatch has it written down."

Something about me always leaves Border Patrol officers laughing. Well, almost always. Still, I didn't dare ask if I could take their picture.

I drove another hour, reaching my third-choice destination at 6:18 am, then changed my mind and drove towards my fourth and most difficult moonset location. Due to road construction, I had to wait for the park service to open the road at 7 am, then drive several miles further before hiking down a trail to where I'd calculated the angle for a 7:39 am moonset. On paper at least.

The gate opened at the tick of 7, but there were two tourists ahead of me. One pulled over, but the second one refused. Take my advice, if you want to tour the entirety of Glacier Park at a speed of 15 mph, that's great. It's even more impressive if you park at the pullouts and look around, maybe even walk off the road a ways. But don't just keep driving at less than half the posted speed limit when there's a line of cars stacked up behind you.

Finally, I flew past him on a short straight-away. By 7:33 I was running down the trail through thick grizzly bear habitat, dangling 50 pounds of camera gear along the way. Two cameras, bag, monopod and tripod.

It was a killer shot, too. In the clear, cobalt-blue sky I could see bits and pieces of the full moon floating near the tip of a sunrise-orange, triangular mountain top. I just couldn't see enough of it to photograph. Google Earth had hinted at an opening in the tree canopy where none existed.

Ran for almost a mile, never even pointed a camera. After working for 17-plus hours, I missed the best photo op of a very long day, and I still had a three-hour drive home. This one only lines up on one day a year, clouds or not. I added it to my long list of mental images to try again.

Next year.

Harvest Moon in Glacier National Park (c) John Ashley
Harvest Moon rises Thursday between Numa Ridge and Rainbow Peak, in Glacier National Park.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Camera as Cultural Phenomenon

If you stop and think about it, the camera is a tool that has a huge impact on modern human cultures. My favorite example of this is the iconic photograph made by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas eve, 1968. Known simply as, "Earthrise," the photograph is credited with giving birth to the environmental movement to protect our planet. (You can hear the astronauts' awe here.) Anders described his reaction to this unexpected scene this way:

'Earthrise' courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute "There are basically two messages that came to me. One of them is that the planet is quite fragile. It reminded me of a Christmas tree ornament. But the other message to me, and I don't think this one has really sunk in yet, is that the Earth is really small. We're not the center of the universe; we're way out in left field on a tiny dust mote, but it is our home and we need to take care of it."

Earth from Saturn photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Photo of Earth (center right) from neighborhood of Saturn
Well, now NASA has done it again, in an even bigger way. Photographing the Earth from the moon was one thing, but photogaphing the Earth from Saturn is another order of magnitude on the "Wow!" scale.

On July 19th of this year, the space probe Cassini photographed our little planet from 753,000 miles beyond Saturn, and a mere 898.414 million miles away from home. How's that for location photography? I'd read about NASA's plans months earlier and was eagerly awaiting the image, but for now we just have a low-resolution version to keep us happy while they assemble the stitch of 323 images.

Meanwhile, NASA also did something else that I think was very wise. With those on the political right wanting to slash NASA's budget even more than it's already suffered, NASA has focused much more energy on public outreach to keep the general public informed and involved. One small part of this was having us Earth people wave at Cassini during the July photo shoot. And From those 1,400-plus images, NASA has assembled the "Earth Waving at Saturn" photo.

Photography that started a cultural movement. Photography to make science make sense to the general public. Photography as a tool to push back against political ignorance and arrogance. Photography as a valuable tool on a global scale. How's that for impact?

'Earth Waving at Saturn' courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute