Friday, June 18, 2010

Photographing Time and Place

by  Sheila Robertson

For miles I grind through the dust following a friend up  Bachman Grade.  The clouds of khaki grit are thick enough that I drive on the far upwind edge of the road betting I won’t collide with someone coming down.
We started in Oreana, an assembly of ranches anchored by a rough stone Catholic Church and the Legion Hall.  It is the last community we will see, as we pick our way south along the flanks of the Owyhees, a spine of mountains that run east and west across the northern highlands of Idaho’s Great Basin Desert. There are a few fence lines and the road makes sharp turns along section lines, but most of this land is open range of rolling sage, gulches, ravines, rhyolite outcrops and the rise of the mountains.

The cows haven’t been turned out yet, but this will be their summer range.  It is marked by cattle guards and weathered corrals.  The corrals with their rough board chutes, maze of fences and multiple gates catch our eye. The poles and planks are splintered with stringing bark and fisted knots. They are patched together, repaired with baling wire and plastic twine. The smell of cattle and old hay mix with the tang of grass crushed under our boots.  As we circle and crouch for the best angle to photograph against the cloud-rucked sky, the corrals come alive in our imagination. We speculate on who settled here.  A stream runs alongside a stand of white-barked aspens and meanders on through a greening meadow where a small log cabin stands in the high grass.  It is fenced, so we photograph through the barbed wire trying to stop time, to capture it before it disappears.
 There are more of these isolated cabins and windblown ranches sparsely scattered along the miles.  Most are abandoned and sagging as heavy snow loads bend them a little lower to earth each winter.  They are located near creeks. In the green of the spring their settings in flower-dotted meadows are wild and lonely. We make up stories about these places as we photograph. The dangling door of the chicken coop and a toppled windmill fill our lenses and our storylines. Sheer curtains snagging on shattered glass, doors swinging on squeaking hinges, packrat feces spread over countertops and bear dung on the stained stuffing of an old mattress feed our plot line.  

Who are the absent characters that left these marks of their lives?  We photograph years of their labor in fence posts, barbed wire, pole barns, and weathered corrals.  We speculate on the woman who got her man to haul a fancy padded satin headboard all the miles for the bed in her remote log cabin.  She put up pretty curtains, raised chickens and preserved food in Mason jars.  She had linoleum floors and a little section of front yard next to the porch high fenced, perhaps for a garden or flowers.  What were her hopes?  What was her vision?  But seventy-five feet from the backdoor, the niceties end and the hard edge reality begins at the bleak, snow-tumbled outhouse. As we photograph shredding tarpaper and rusting metal, we imagine her chopping wood, canning, heating water for laundry.  By the barn we see her doctoring cows, pitching hay, and packing horses.  We imagine her hot summers, her cold winters, her isolation.  As we photograph the remains of what she walked away from; the disintegration of all that she inhabited, we find no happy ending to this story.

Closing her gate we resume our own journey as the sun slants through afternoon clouds.  Light rakes the golden tops of willows growing along Meadow Creek.  We are aware of being unbound from this land with our SUV’s and luxury of time and yet ache to interact with it and interpret it in our own vision.  Our story allows us to relate to its beauty and awe, if only for moments, if only with our cameras.  

We photograph the reflections of the surrounding mountains onSpencer Reservoir. Pairs of cinnamon teal and mallards paddle into the marshy edges where they have begun nesting. New flocks arrive, noisily quacking and patterning the water as they splash down. We move to capture adjoining Spencer Corral. Its long rows of upright logs stand in curving columns, each log eight to twelve inches in diameter. The golden light of late afternoon skims a board enclosure where cattle are weighed. We close on rust-streaked planks pounded together years ago. On barbs and strands of wire glazed in light.  On gates cropped at a low angle against the sun-shot sage.  We work rapidly, driven by the changing luminosity and angle of light.  

As it darkens we rush on to a ranch in a higher meadow.  The sun slips behind a low knoll on the horizon brushing the sky in the palest pink, peach and violet.  We work as the light washes the clouds and is reflected in the creek.  Black silhouettes dive and peel as dozens of swallows make their final passes before settling under the eaves of the barn.  As the birds settle into the night and the coyotes begin their first yips, we reluctantly drop our cameras and watch stars sprinkle the darkening  sky. 


  1. Oh, would that I had been there! But I was ... through your wonderful words and images ... right there. I too have captured that fence at Spencer Reservoir, and particularly like your version. My favorite shot is your friend in the pasture. Thanks for composing this...what a treat. Looking forward to the next one.

  2. Thank you Betty. And thanks to Ken for the critique. It is a special memory and the first time I have tried to capture a bit of what the act of photographing means to me. I know you understand.

  3. Sheila,

    Nice job of making photography and written word mesh. Sometimes, but not here,one seems to overpower the other. Love the part about the padded satin headboard and I also love the light you capture in the high meadow, at the corral, and the creek



  4. Thank you Ken. The light was gorgeous that day....perfect for photographing and creating visual memories too

  5. Excellent photos and haunting story. You brought us right there.

  6. Thank you, Mary. My forays into the Owyhees are always filled with stories...real or imagined. It's a wild and beautiful piece of the world.