The 63 Club

An iPhone double exposure made in a pizza restaurant somewhere along the Sterling highway in Alaska.

In October of 2012, writer Tim Layden called us. He was worried. One of the longest standing NFL records was on the brink of being broken, and he wanted to tell it’s story before that happened.

It’s a record that had stood since 1970 when Tom Dempsey, a club-footed kicker for the New Orleans Saints, booted a 63-yard field goal to beat the Detroit Lions 19-17 on November 8.

Since then, only three other kickers had ever managed kicks of 63 yards - Jason Elam, Sebastian Janikowsky and David Akers.

We talked the story over and decided to all travel together to the four kickers in three locations - Janikowski and Akers were both in the Bay Area, kicking for Oakland and San Francisco, respectively. We would all work together to interview them each on camera. This made it more economical from a budget standpoint, and more likely that each of the players would agree to the story since they would only have to sit for one, not two, interviews.

We wanted it to be simple. Video interviews, historical images and a voice-over by Tim to connect the stories.

Our first stop was New Orleans to visit with Tom Dempsey. He lived in a small house decorated with his football paraphernalia, including his specially made shoe.

Tom Dempsey's custom kicking shoe, one of his memorabilia saved from Hurricane Katrina when his home flooded.

Tom Dempsey's custom kicking shoe, one of his memorabilia saved from Hurricane Katrina when his home flooded.

Dempsey at the time was suffering from the early signs of dementia. When we first arrived he seemed scattered and suspicious, ranting about the NFL bureaucracy, Democrats and everything in between. But he settled down and talked easily about the kick - a known clear spot in his foggy memory.

He told us about the late night he and his teammates had had the night before - they had just fired their coach - the hangover he was nursing during the game, the dusty ground he kicked off of and being carried off the field after his improbably game-winning kick.

Tom Dempsey in his galley kitchen in New Orleans, LA.

From there we went to northern California. David Akers and Sebastian Janikowski were in the middle of their respective seasons, so we had to find a week when they were both home and available.

We went to Janikowski first. He is a famously difficult person to track down. He would always give media time, but on his terms. He’s not rude, just very short and to the point.

We waited outside the Oakland practice facility as the team finished working. We watched the entire team return to the locker room, but no Jano. We waited longer. Finally, he came out.

“So you want to take a picture,” he finally came out to ask wearing his jersey and a backwards hat.

He took us out to the empty practice field and showed us the field goal uprights.

“This will work,” he said in his famous Polish accent, allowing no room for discussion.

It was 1pm in Oakland, California. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky. It was an almost impossible situation from a portrait standpoint. Regardless, Bill positioned him under the upright and took as many frames as Sebastian allowed.

Sebastian Janikowski in Oakland, CA.

From there we moved inside for the interview.

As we set up we talked about his college years at FSU and his home in Jacksonville, FL, where he and his wife live in the off-season. He reminisced with Bill and Tim about his younger, wilder years in Tallahassee.

“Everyone grows up,” he said with a chuckle.

He then told us his wife had given birth to twin girls a couple weeks before and he was looking forward to getting home to them. We worked quickly and he answered every questions perfectly.

We talked about his kick - a 63-yard kick against the Denver Broncos on a rainy day in Denver on September 12, 2011.

“I didn't really hit it that good,” he told us, “but the ball goes an extra 7, 8 yards there [Denver].”

He went on to predict that whoever would eventually break the record would do so in Denver. He thought the altitude and thin air made it easier than other stadiums.

We met David Akers the next day, who was one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met. His 63-yarder bounced off the cross-bar and through the upright in Green Bay just before halftime against the Packers on September 9, 2012. He was the newest member of the 63-yard club.

Akers had his family at the practice facility that day. His kids and wife all had on Akers jerseys so we included them in the photo, which doubled as their Christmas card that year.

David Akers with his kids, Luke, Sawyer and Halley.

Our last stop was Alaska to catch up with retired Denver Broncos kicker Matt Elam.

I was upgraded to first class on our very early flight out of Jacksonville. I got on the plane as soon as I could and rested my head against the window, ready for a nap. I watched as people filtered on the plane. Then, a tall and somehow familiar man got on. I knew his face, but couldn’t place him. He sat down next to me and I saw him put his backpack under the seat. It was an official Jacksonville Jaguars team bag with #10 on it. I was sitting next to Josh Scobee, beloved Jaguars kicker.

I chuckled and he looked up.

“You’re my favorite Jaguar,” I told him, adding, “You score points.”

He laughed, said thanks, and extended his hand in introduction.

Bill was sitting across the aisle so we all started talking. We told him about the story we were working on, the personalities we had met. We discussed each kick, Scobee dissecting the conditions of each one.

We told him our hope for the beginning of the video was to get a close-up of a foot hitting a ball in slow motion.

“I’ll do that for you,” he told us. “When you get back just call up the office and tell them I already agreed to the shoot and we’ll set it up.”

We arrived in Alaska on a cold but clear October day. We got all of our stuff and Tim, and took off for the Kenai Peninsula to meet up with Jason Elam, who had moved there after retirement.

Elam’s kick came on October 28, 1998, just before halftime against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Denver. He was the first kicker to join Dempsey in the record books.

As soon as we left Anchorage, the drive became a series of Ooohs and Ahhhs from Bill, Tim and I. If you’ve never been to Alaska, go to Alaska. Every turn is stunning. It was taking us so long to drive the what-should-have-been two hours to Elam’s house that we had to stop taking pictures (which is a real shame).

An iPhone pano image taken just outside of Anchorage.

On top of the amazing landscape was a plethora of wildlife. A buffalo here, a moose there. I felt like I was driving through a national park (which we may have been).

Elam and his wife, Tamy, decided to move their family to Alaska in 2010. They love the outdoors and the quiet lifestyle. They hunt, fish and home-school their five children. The home is full of animals they have killed (and eaten). They have two satellite dishes on their home, but Jason doesn’t watch the NFL. He got his fill in his 17 seasons in the league.

Jason Elam on his dock in Soldotna, Alaska

Of the kickers, we spent the most time with Elam. He’s the only one who’s retired and healthy. He showed us around his property, then took us to the small local airport where he keeps his two planes.

“Does one of you want to go for a ride,” he asked Bill and I?

The backseat of his two-seat plane was tiny, so I got the nod.

The plane was glass on all sides, so their was always a view. There was not a view, however, of Elam, who was the subject. I tried to make pictures of him as he turned his head from side-to-side, but the flight ended up being a much better life experience than photograph.

Jason Elam flying above Alaska. AS we flew, he pointed out different areas, animals and natural phenomena, of which there are plenty in Alaska.

We left his home with a couple hours of daylight left. As we began our long drive northeast to Anchorage, the weather took a serious turn for the worst. What had started as a crisp, cool day turned into an impossible-to-prepare-for blizzard. One minute it was sunny with blue skies, the next snow was falling in sheets and roads were dangerous.

Florida girl takes in sudden blizzard in October.

We didn’t know if we should pull over and let it pass, or continue and hope we make it back before roads close. We opted to stop for a half hour, pulling off into a park that was covered in 6-inches of now in the blink of an eye.

Snow-covered ground through a rain covered windshield in Alaska.

Luckily, the storm passed as quickly as it started, and we were able to continue the trip back to Anchorage.

We finished shooting and immediately started editing as Tim raced to finish the written story. Every week that passed was a week that the record could be broken, making the story obsolete.

As soon as we got home we called the Jaguars and scheduled our shoot with Scobee. She showed up with various sock options and a holder and kicked the ball for about 20 minutes for us. Then we stayed and talked for another 30.

The story was wrapped and published by the end of the month, a full 13 months before the elusive record fell.

It fell as predicted, in Denver. On December 8, 2013, Matt Prater of the Denver Broncos lined up for a 64-yard field goal just before half time against the Tennessee Titans. His kick sailed through the uprights, officially sending the 63 yard kickers and the 43 year record into history.

Portlandia

Enjoying a temperate night and a local beer in Portland, Oregon, in 2011.

It’s Friday! And for the first time in a long time I have nothing to do tomorrow. No work. No plans. Nothing.

With that said, I plan on recreating - in one way or another - the above photo.

This particular image was taken in Portland, Oregon, in June of 2011. Bill and I had just finished covering the USATF Championships in Eugene, it was the day after my 25th birthday, and we were visiting our friend, Patrick Pendergast, for a down day on the road. We had known Patrick for a couple years through work and shared interest in music, and he graciously opened his home and a couple beds to us for a visit.

Posing in Portland with Patrick.

Track and field in Oregon has always been one of my favorite sporting events. With that said, it’s also a few of the longest days on the road. On non-Olympic years (which 2011 was), the USATF crams a ten day event into four very long days. By the end of those four day stints I was always exhausted and more than a little ready to get home and rest.

Before the track championships I was excited to visit Portland. It had just hit my radar screen as a “cool” place to be. Voodoo Doughnuts had opened the year before, craft breweries were springing up all over the place, artisan coffee shops were on every corner and farm to table restaurants were all the rage.

But the best laid plans always seem less fun when you arrive - as I did to Portland - with a single and immediate desire to just go home. I badly wanted the comfort of my own bed and the warmth of my north Florida beaches.

Usually when I decide I'm done and want to go home, I find a way home. I have more than once driven through the night - through rain and snow - to get home a few hours earlier than planned. But Florida is a long way from Portland, and I knew that Patrick's offer of a house and hospitality was a really nice one. I didn't want to be in a bad mood, but I've never been good at disguising emotions.

I was in a less-than-fun mood when we arrived in Portland from Eugene. I was tired and irrationally mad at Bill and myself for not being better at predicting my future moods. 

When we got to Patrick’s house, my mood began to lift. His house was warm and inviting; its walls full of interesting art and fun memories. I always enjoy when a place fits a person, and Patrick's house absolutely fit him.

Then, Patrick took us to lunch. Anyone who knows me well knows that there is one unfailing truth in dealing with me: if I’m unhappy, just feed me. Food makes everything better.

That was especially true that day. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant but I remember there was food and it was exactly what I wanted/needed.

Lunch, a guaranteed mood lifter.

After lunch I was able to get out of my own way - and out of my own head - and truly enjoy the city and the people I was with. We walked the streets of Portland, ate doughnuts, drank coffee, looked at art and finished the visit with a couple of my favorite things - pizza and beer.

The simple things in life - good food, local beer and great company - saved the day.

In fact, I think I may enjoy those same simple things tonight.

The Kings of Arthur

A team portrait of the 2008 Arthur County Wolves.

October is one of my favorite months.

The temperature drops, the leaves change and football season is in full swing.

I’ve been lucky in the last decade to cover football at every level and on every stage. I’ve been to seven Super Bowls, countless college games across the southeast, high school rivalries in Florida, and - my personal favorite - homecoming in Arthur, NE.

Arthur is nestled in the rolling and windy sandhills of western Nebraska. It’s not close to any major city or town. No highway goes through it. No railroad goes by it. Cattle outnumber people roughly 275 to 1 (human population is 145).

Sitting outside the Arthur gas station / convenient store / tire shop.

The town is so small that in order to field a football team, they have to play 6-man football. For those of you, like me, who had never heard of 6-man football, it’s very similar to the 11-man game we’re used to but faster and shorter. The field is 40x80 yards, the ball has to be touched twice before it crosses the line of scrimmage, and virtually every player plays multiple positions (for full rules click here).

Bill and I went to Arthur in the fall 2008 to work on a feature for Sports Illustrated for Kids. Bill had been years earlier - before digital cameras existed - and wanted to revisit with a new eye and new tools.

We had just begun delving into the world of multimedia. To that point we had produced stories on NASCAR fans and the NCAA Men’s Final Four. We were both still figuring it out. Still looking for the right mix of stills and video, still learning how to shoot quality video footage - the settings and setup are very different than for stills - and still learning how to ask good interview questions. 

DSLR cameras didn't yet have a video function in the fall of 2008. I instead worked with an actual video camera that recorded on actual tape. Looking back at it now, the footage looks grainy and jerky. The camera wasn’t exactly top of the line and neither was my knowledge of how to use it (I've never been one to read manuals, preferring the “I'll figure it out” method).

Learning how to shoot video on the fly with the Arthur wolves team dog (in my experience, every small town in Nebraska has a dog at practice).

That trip to Arthur was one of my first to the great state of Nebraska. In the years since, Nebraska has become a second home, but then it was still a strange place in the middle of America.

It was on that trip that I first began to understand what made Nebraska special.

We spent a week in Arthur, going to school during the day, football practice in the afternoon, and home with players at night.

On the left, me in the middle of practice. Only in a place like Arthur do they let you shoot from between the tackles. On the right, the resulting image I made, one of the first images I remember making and liking.

The town welcomed us with open arms, each person more willing than the last to tell a story, brag about the toughness of their football team, or recommend a local delicacy (note: rocky mountain oysters in no way resemble actual oysters from the ocean).

Making friends outside the town bar / restaurant / motel (it has four very small, basic rooms).

We had total access. We could go anywhere, take pictures of anything. The town was warm and open. They trusted us in a way most people don't in the modern world. It was disarming and relaxing. 

We spent time with the players in and out of school and got to know several of the boys on a personal level.

There was Will Lagey, a 96 pound kid with diabetes who was as tough as the biggest kid on the field and had hopes of someday attending law school (if all went well, he's about the right age now to be doing just that).

Will Lagey (10) walks onto the practice field with a tall teammate.

Anthony Trimble, the quarterback who also played saxophone in the school band.

Anthony (4) plays the saxophone in the school band before kickoff at their homecoming game.

There was Jeff and his girlfriend Brittany, the town's sweethearts.

Jeff and Brittany in the school gym.

And Brad Vasa, a 15-year-old ranch kid who woke up every morning at 5am to do chores before driving himself fifteen miles to school.

Brad Vasa in his truck on the road home.

After practice one day Brad invited us to his family’s ranch. 

Bill followed in an SUV as I rode with Brad in his navy-blue truck down the long, winding dirt road - nothing but rolling hills and cattle out the windows - to his house. I interviewed him as we drove, asking him about life on a ranch, school and football. He was kind and simple in a way I had never experienced. There was something pure about him that made me wistful for a simpler time. He seemed familiar in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.

We got out to the field just as the sun began to set behind an overcast sky. Brad’s chore that night was to count and feed the horses.

The scene was amazing; like something from the past. A teenage boy in an old truck surrounded by horses under a dark sky. 

Brad feeds horses just before a thunderstorm broke out at dusk.

Lightning danced across a distant horizon. The sky glowed with building electricity. The air was cool yet warm. Bill and I quickly made images in the increasingly low light. Then, suddenly, the wind picked up and the distant lightning became rapidly closer.

It’s a moment I will never forget.

I could feel the pressure drop as the storm grew nearer. We made images as long as we could then ran back to the car, throwing cameras and tripods in the back. We got in just as the sky opened. We followed Brad, slowly, back to the barn to park safely and wait out the storm. As we pulled in, hail the size of golf balls began falling. The lighting was so frequent it looked like a stroboscopic daylight outside. The sound was so intense I couldn’t hear myself scream over it. 

I felt like I was in a modern day Willa Cather novel. In that moment the Vasa ranch seemed more foreign to me than a temple in Mumbai. Brad and I had grown up in the same country, but worlds apart.

The next day was homecoming. We photographed the parade down main street in the morning then went to the soggy field for the 1pm kickoff (with no lights on the field games have to be played early).

The Arthur County High School Homecoming Parade.

Football in places like Arthur is a community event. It’s not just about the game, it’s about the people. The entire town - entire town being a feed store, post office, gas station and bar - all close down for every football related event. 

The Arthur Wolves won the game easy, though I couldn’t tell you the score.

After the game we did our best to dry off, then got in the car to make the long drive back to Denver - the closest major airport (4 hours away).

Bill drove as I edited the multimedia. The car bounced across rough county roads as I attempted to make sense of the world I had just witnessed.

Beach Kid

Miami Beach in 2008

I'm a beach kid, and always have been. I was born and raised on the north Florida coast and still call Jacksonville home.

The beach is where I find my balance. My life over the last decade has been hectic, and the Atlantic Coast has offered me calm from the storm.

Most days of the year, the north Florida shore is pretty quiet - small waves roll in over our shark-teeth laden beaches. But the end of summer brings added stress. Not only is it the beginning of football season - we take football seriously in the Sunshine State - it's the heart of hurricane season.

This time of year is always full of nostalgia as well. Hurricanes - as terrible as they are - tend to bring out the best in people. Communities come together, families make plans, friends reconnect.

Some of my most vivid memories are from hurricanes.

I remember running on the beach during Hurricane Bertha as hard as I could, barely moving in the tropical storm winds. I remember my dad hammering plywood over the windows and trying to help as the dog paced nervously.

I remember fleeing Hurricane Floyd in the middle of the night with my dad, brother, dog and cat (mom was a local news anchor and had to stay at the station) to my grandparent's house in northeast Georgia. We spent four carefree days on a lake in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My mom was the first back in our neighborhood and I remember how faraway and strange her voice sounded as she described the small amount of damage, stress and relief heavy in her throat.

I remember my senior year of high school when four hurricanes hit Florida in six weeks. We had a week off of school and spent it surfing, mudding (as in driving trucks in mud) and having hurricane parties by candlelight. 

This time of year also makes me nostalgic for the places that have made Jacksonville home.

The North Beach access of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (Guana, for short) is one of my favorite places on Earth. Guana is 10 miles of untouched oceanfront that I imagine looks very similar today to what Ponce de Leon found when he first landed in Florida back in 1513. If I ever need a few moments to myself - to smell the salt air and feel the wind my hair - Guana is where I go.

My dad got me interested in infrared photography when he made a series of really dreamy images on old IR film. Being a child of the digital age, I quickly converted an old Nikon D300 and started making images myself. This is one of my favorites, infrared or otherwise. This, to me, looks like home.

The north beach access at the Guana Reserve.

The Jacksonville Beach Pier has always been the icon of summer fun for me. I never spent much time there as a kid, but the idea of it always captivated me. The place is constantly crawling with surfers, fishermen and lifeguards. It's like Baywatch, but without the super models.

Last summer on a warm August night, the moon rose as the sun set over Jacksonville Beach. I took a Nikon D810 with a 200mm f/2 lens and a Manfrotto tripod to the Jacksonville Beach Pier to capture the rare event.

The moon rise over the Jacksonville Beach Pier.

Last October Hurricane Matthew came through and took off the last 350 feet of the Jacksonville Beach Pier and vastly changed the makeup of the beach; the tall dunes at Guana still stand but have eroded significantly. The Pier is still being rebuilt.

Still, in my lifetime, Jacksonville has been lucky. We've faced a lot of threats from different storms but have never endured a direct hit. We get the process without the devastation.

Hurricane Harvey reminded all of us what a bad storm can do. And Hurricane Irma - one of the largest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic - is quickly approaching the south Florida coast. 

Watching Irma make her way north and west over the Caribbean has left me with conflicted emotions. On one hand I fear for my neighbors in south Florida. On the other I feel incredibly lucky for the distinctly happy memories from the storms of the past, the people I shared them with and the places that made them special.  

I'm traveling to a wedding in Vermont today and am wondering what Guana and the Pier will look like when I return; if they'll still be there at all.

Home, and the places that make it such, change as time does. In Florida, we have natural disasters to remind us of that.

I've spent most of the last two days on the phone with friends and family. We're making plans and seeing who needs help.

At the end of the day it's not the places that make a city home, but the people. As long as they're okay, home will always be there.

Friends in Photographs

Behind the scenes with the Hensel Porty 1200 at Katie and Kevin Morrow's farm north of O'Neill.

Nebraska is a story I keep telling. It’s a place I never imagined visiting that I now can’t imagine leaving.

I arrived in Nebraska (once again) two weeks ago to put in a few long days of work on the Great American Eclipse out in Moose’s Pasture - as I discussed in last week’s blog - but I also wanted to see the friends who have become family.

Over the last three years, I have spent almost as much time in Nebraska as I have at home. I have devoted an incredible amount of professional and creative energy to the Nebraska Project. It has been some of the hardest and most fulfilling work of my short career.

Much of what has made Nebraska so special and the project so successful are the people.

For three years Nebraskans have welcomed me into their cafes, schools, bars, studios and homes with open arms. I entered this trip without a return ticket - I’m not sure when I’ll be back in Nebraska. Once the eclipse was over, I was determined to spend time with some of the people I have grown closest to. To have one last meal, share one last laugh, and make one last portrait.

For this series, I brought a Hensel Porty L 1200, a Grand 90 parabolic softbox, a couple reflectors and a Master PXL umbrella. I’ve always heard wonderful things about Hensel light, but had never had the chance to work with them before. This was my first time using the system, but won't be my last.

When I light something, I don’t want the light to be obvious; I want it to look natural. The Hensel’s made achieving that “natural” look incredibly easy. The light seemed to melt into each subject, gently wrapping around their features and offering just enough punch to make them stand out from the background.

My first test with the Hensel’s was with the Messersmith family.

I first met the Messersmith’s three summers ago as we were beginning work on the Nebraska Project in earnest. We spent the better part of the summer of 2014 out west, much of it on the Messersmith ranch. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The first time we drove down Nebraska Highway 250 from Rushville I remember thinking, “This must be what Heaven looks like.” Rolling green pastures, crystal blue skies, gentle white clouds. There’s a reason Nebraskans call the sandhills “God’s Country.”

The Messersmith’s are exactly the kind of people you expect to meet in heaven. They are handsome, kind and incredibly hospitable. When we met them, they had three little girls (they now have four) - Ava, June and Paige. Watching their family grow over the last three years has been one of my greatest joys on the job. In fact, all the work I did in Nebraska over the last two weeks almost didn’t happen thanks to a game of tag gone wrong, when I fell over Ava and slammed my right shoulder into the ground. Nothing broke, but I have learned how many things you use your shoulders for (pretty much everything, including lifting my camera to my face) in the days since.

The Messersmith family. When we first met them Brooke (left) didn't exist and Paige (the blonde hugging her mom on the right) was a baby.

I wanted to show the Messersmith's on their land at sunset. Their ranch is one of the loveliest places on Earth, and their personalities match it. The Hensel light allowed me to almost paint them into the sky as the sun sank behind them.

After the Messersmith’s, we headed back east to stay with some of our newest friends in Nebraska - the Kester family. We have been working on a story with them - and their numerous offspring - for most of the summer. They are a huge family - their reunion over Memorial Day had over 200 people. More than their numbers, however, has been their kindness. Like many Nebraskans I have met over the years, they welcomed us with open arms. But then -  after they welcomed us - they insisted we stay.

Getting to know the various members of their family has been incredibly fun.

Anthony “Smoke” Kester has about as much personality as you’d expect from someone who calls himself Smoke. Smoke is a cancer survivor, rancher and member of the NRA. He gives jokes just as well as he takes them and has a horse named Reno. I wanted his portrait to show him in his element - on a horse on the family farm. There was a storm moving in just as the sun began to set, giving the horizon a firey glow. I used the Hensel with a sport reflector to his him with harsh but warm light to match the sunset.

Smoke and Reno at sunset on the family farm.

Chris Kester is a high school quarterback. He’s one of the oldest of the many Kester cousins and genuinely enjoys spending time with the many younger kids. Emorie just turned 5 and started pre-school. After her first day she came up to me exasperated, exclaiming that she hates school because they didn’t get to paint (they have painted in subsequent classes and she is much happier).

Emorie Bearinger and Chris Kester, cousins and friends.

I wanted to show the yin and yang of who they are while still connecting them to each other. Emorie is a precocious girlie girl who  gets just as muddy as the boys. Chris is a high school football star who carries himself with a quiet kindness. I wanted the light for their portrait to disappear, so I lit them softly with a Grand 90 parabolic softbox and just a kiss of light.

I wish I could have made a picture of every member of the Kester clan, but time and my bad shoulder didn’t permit that.

From Clearwater we drove north 45 minutes to O’Neill - another town I have spent an inordinate amount of time in - to visit the Morrow’s. I met Katie Morrow in 2009 at an education conference in Orlando. Later that summer we went up to photograph the Holt County Fair for an Apple ad. It was there I met her husband, Kevin (who has since produced several shoots for us), and their three kids Emily, Claire and Drew. Since then, I think Drew has become the most photographed kid in Nebraska. He is incredibly photogenic - a red-head with countless freckles and piercing blue eyes. An all-American, Nebraska boy.

Drew Morrow in the cow pasture at his family's farm north of O'Neill.

Like Chris and Emorie, I wanted the light on Drew to disappear. I lit him with the Master PXL umbrella from slightly above and to the right (his left). Fair-skinned people tend to be difficult to light - Lighter colors are more reflective - but the incredibly soft light that bounced out of the Hensel umbrella wrapped around him for a beautiful, gentle glow.

I’m not sure when I’ll see all these friends again - or the many who I didn't manage to visit on my last trip - though I’m confident I will. When people and places are important, you find a way to make room for them in your life. Until, then, these pictures (and many more) will be daily reminders of my Nebraskan family.

Moose's Pasture

One of our tents under the Milky Way in Moose's Pasture.

I watched the Great American Eclipse from one of the most American places on Earth - a cattle ranch in Sheridan County, Nebraska.

The eclipse has been a future event for an eternity now; something we have been thinking about and planning for a long time. When it finally got here, it ended far too quickly.

The Nebraska Project has been the air I breath for the last three years.

I’ve spent more time in America’s sandhills than I ever imagined I would. In fairness, until a few years ago, I didn’t know the sandhills even existed. I thought - like most people - that Nebraska was a flat land of corn and cows.

What I have found instead - the rolling hills, the endless sky, the rugged badlands - is some of the most surprisingly beautiful country on Earth.

There is no place I would rather watch day become night than a cow pasture in Western Nebraska.

This particular pasture is one of my favorites. I’ve probably spent a total of a month in this particular spot over the last three years. The closest “city” (city being a town of about 8,000 people) is over 40 miles away, so the night sky screams with cosmic beauty. You don’t just see the Milky Way, but galaxies beyond.

Setting up an overnight, motion-controlled time-lapse at sunset.

The field is called Moose’s Pasture, named after a horse called Moose. I never knew the origin of the name until this trip, when we found the bony remains of Moose himself (Moose even made a cameo in the time-lapse video - see below).

This trip was work, but it was also play. We had friends join us in Moose’s Pasture from New York, Colorado and Texas. When Bill and I camp out, it’s rustic. With all the camera equipment we travel with, we pretty much only have space for our tents and sleeping bags. But our friends brought the works -  stoves, generators, tables, chairs, a fire pit, food, a camper and a side-by-side. We quickly turned Moose’s Pasture into a temporary town.

Our temporary city in Moose's Pasture.

Our temporary city in Moose's Pasture.

Each night we sat under the stars and talked about life and photography. The pasture itself is a technological purgatory - the only cell service available was atop a very steep sandhill - forcing us to enjoy the company provided.

We spent a total of four nights in Moose’s Pasture - two before and two after. We wanted to arrive enough ahead of time to map out exactly where the sun would be at the moment of first contact, through totality, until fourth contact. We knew eclipse day - August 21 - would fly by and wanted to be prepared well in advance.

Planning notes for the eclipse. 

Planning notes for the eclipse. 

We used a total of 30 cameras and lenses for the eclipse - everything from a 14-24mm f/2.8 to an 800mm f/5.6 on D5, D500 and D810 bodies.

Cameras, lenses and tripods, built and ready for totality.

Not one of us had ever personally witnessed a total solar eclipse before. We had each spent hours researching the different stages, different filters and different settings, but wouldn’t know for sure what would work best until the moment the moon covered the sun. To make sure we got the shots we wanted, we had several duplicate setups with slightly different settings and filters.

Setting up at D810 with a 14-24mm f/2.8 with a 10-stop filter behind some wildflowers.

The lead up to the eclipse was intense. We had every camera checked and double checked and placed in the pasture at least an our before first contact. Once first contact began, we didn’t want to be scrambling for cards, batteries or different lenses. We had cameras pointing directly at the sky, cameras behind a windmill, cameras behind wildflowers, cameras overlooking the valley, cameras on top of sandhillls, motion-controlled cameras.

Our favorite piece of timel-apase equipment - the Cinevate motion-control sytem on their Atlas 200 slider. It's the most solid motion-control equipment available.

We wanted to see the eclipse from every angle. We weren’t just concerned with what happened to the sun, but what happened to the land.

IMG_9897.JPG

What we experienced was not in the literature I read. In honesty, I thought the eclipse was going to be overhyped. It’s the only thing I have heard about - outside general news - for months. And, frankly, for the first 80 minutes, I felt it was.

Then, when the sun was about 90% covered, the light took on a silver hue - a color temperature I have never seen - the air temperature dropped about 20 degrees, the wind - which had been blowing ceaselessly - picked up, and the crickets began singing. As the moon finally enveloped the sun a ring of orange appeared on the horizon, the clouds surrounding the moon and sun glowed an eery blue, and a star appeared to the west.

Just before totality I pointed my unfiltered 600mm f/4 toward the sun and captured this image through thick clouds.

Still, the night sky we had been promised never happened. While it got significantly darker, it was nowhere near the darkness we had read about. All the cameras we had setup to capture that darkness had to be quickly changed. I yelled some unsavory remarks and ran to each camera, trying and failing to change them all; all the while being sure to look around myself for at least a moment to take in the scene.

Totality seemed to last for a split second. Looking back at the time stamps in each camera, it lasted for two minutes and thirty one seconds, but in the moment it felt much shorter.

Once totality was over I cursed myself for missing so badly on the dark exposures - most of the frames were pure white. Completely unusable. Everyone told me not to worry about it, that it was impossible to predict something I had never experienced. Still, when you spend so much time and energy to get something right, getting it wrong stings. That sting was relieved a bit the next day when I opened up a file from a 35mm on a D810 I had directly under the windmill and found the picture I had been hoping for. The one wide angle frame I got of totality. A picture that would not have worked if it had gotten as dark as I had planned on it getting.

My one wide-angle frame from the midday moon.

I stayed up late the night of the eclipse processing time-lapses. Deadlines don’t care if you’re in a wifi-less pasture.

The next morning I woke up to everyone packing their things at 6:30am. I sleepily said my goodbyes before going back to bed (bed being a small thermarest and a sleeping bag). When I emerged from my tent 2 hours later, Moose’s Pasture was empty. The cadre of friends had left. The event we had been anticipating all year was over.

I walked over to my small gas burner and made coffee. Then I sat on a pelican case by myself - the chairs and table had left with the early risers. I took a deep breath of the unseasonably cool morning air. The stress and adrenaline from the day before melted away and I was left with deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the incredible experience, the friends that made Moose's Pasture a temporary home, and the time I have been lucky enough to spend in Nebraska's beautiful sandhills.

Circles

A spiral staircase in a hotel in London, representing my current mood.

I’ve been running in circles all week; working on a video edit I should have been done with 10 days ago, trying to start a home renovation with no beginning in sight, making everyday plans and decisions I feel like I’ve made a thousand times.

It hasn’t been a bad week, just a repetitive one.

Over the years I've noticed I have creative cycles. Every few months or so, I hit a funk. I am currently experiencing one of those funks. 

I can't get out of my own way. I've been making technical errors I haven't made in years. I've had trouble connecting story elements that I know are right in front of me; like a word on the tip of my tongue I can't seem to find what I'm looking for.

These cyclical funks used to really get me down. I'd get depressed wondering if lightning would ever strike again; if I'd ever make another picture, write another line or shoot another video worth anything.

I now see these funks as necessary time down.

I spent many years burning myself out trying to force my way out of these fruitless periods. I now know that if I'm not feeling the magic, banging my head against a computer for hours isn't going to help. It's only going to make it worse.

This week hasn't been totally lost. I finally captioned and uploaded some images that have been at the top of my to do list for weeks. I even made some progress on the aforementioned video edit before being side-tracked by everyday issues like putting my clothes in the wash only to realize I was out of detergent (true story).

So now, instead of aimlessly listening to interviews I have now heard several hundred times, I'm going to walk to a local art festival, I'm going to drink a beer with friends and I'm going to watch the Jaguars play what I hope will be mediocre football.

Tomorrow will be a new day. The circle will continue spinning and maybe - just maybe - this funk will be over.

Work and Play

Trying a different angle for our Aperture 3 shoot in 2009.

I was a pretty serious tom boy as a kid. I played soccer at recess, wore Umbro shorts and Nike t-shirts, and had my hair in an eternal ponytail.

I didn't start wearing dresses regularly until I was about 19 and still don't remember to put on make-up everyday. I didn't know my athleticism and distaste for uncomfortable clothing was abnormal until I hit third grade. Suddenly gender became a thing and I was somehow in the middle.

Then, one day on the playground, I noticed another girl sitting on a bench in Umbro shorts and a ponytail. She was in my class, but I hadn't talked to her yet (I was also deathly shy). She was eating Goldfish - my favorite snack - so I took the opportunity to offer a trade:

“I'll give you half my Nutter Butter for half your Goldfish,” I said softly, offering my Little Debbie delight.

She agreed to the trade and a friendship was born.

Twenty-two years later, Sierra Poske is still one of my best friends.

We bonded in elementary school because we were both athletes. I played every sport fairly well. She played one exceptionally well - tennis. We once matched against each other in a tennis tournament. She beat me 6-0, 6-1. I'm still proud of the one game I won.

We survived middle school awkwardness and high school bad decisions together.

Seniors in high school. I'm on the far left, Sierra is the red-head on the right.

Seniors in high school. I'm on the far left, Sierra is the red-head on the right.

In 2005 she went off to Wake Forest on a tennis scholarship while I went to the University of Florida on an academic one.

Then, in the spring of 2009 just after we had both graduated from college, Bill called me with a potential shoot. Apple was gearing up to release Aperture 3, the third iteration of their photo archiving software. This version, unlike it's predecessors, would incorporate video and audio into the workflow, which was becoming increasingly important as DSLR cameras began to include video functions. 

Apple needed material to include in the demo and tutorial material, and for the in-box brochure. They were hoping for a couple options, and at least one that included a sport. 

Our problem was that the summer of 2009 was already pretty full - we had a month in Australia, two weeks in Germany and two weeks in Italy already blocked out. Whatever we did, we needed to do it soon and hopefully close to home. Bill was struggling to come up with affordable options.

“I know a pretty good tennis player,” I offered.

When you tell a collegiate tennis player to aim for the camera, they hit the camera.

Two weeks later we were shooting. Luckily, we live in Florida, so finding a tennis court and a partner to hit balls to her was easy.

Disclaimer: never play tennis on a court with this many loose balls. You will sprain and ankle. For this shot we spread tennis balls all around the court and had Sierra stay in the same position for each shot. Though the balls aren't a realistic representation of a tennis practice, they are graphically pleasing.

We captured most of the images at the tennis courts at the ATP Tour Headquarters, shot weightlifting in her parent's garage, an interview at my parent's house (complete with homemade brownies) and morning jogs on the beach.

Walking down the beach after a morning jog. Sierra jogged. I did not.

As shoots go, it was a pretty great one. It's not often I get to mix work and play so seamlessly. We literally laughed our way through the three-day shoot. Working long hours under a hot Florida sun just seemed easier with one of my oldest friends in front of the camera.

The early stages of DSLR video. A rare Nikkor 300mm f/2 on a Nikon D90 - the first DSLR to capture video - on a Manfrotto tripod with a fluid head.

Sierra has been on my mind this week (hence this blog). This weekend she's coming back to town - she's currently living in Washington, D.C. after stints in Azerbaijan with the Peace Corps and Vermont for graduate school - for her bachelorette party.

We've been together through a lot over the years. There have been a lot of tears - happy and sad ones (though more happy) - and a lot of laughs.

This weekend will be much the same, celebrating what is still to come.

The Red Center

At the Devil's Marbles, or Karlu Karlu, in the outback of the Northern Territory, Australia.

This is the Devil’s country; he’s even emptied his bag of marbles around the place!
— John Ross, Australian Overland Telegraph Line expedition, 1870

The outback is a wild and magical place where I was lucky enough to spend a week in 2009.

Over the last three weeks I've been highlighting my 2009 trip to Australia for an advertising campaign I was helping Bill Frakes with for the then soon-to-be-released Nikon D3s. We began our journey in Sydney, Melbourne and Tasmania, then took off for a week in Western Australia. Now is the final installment on Australia - our final week in the Northern Territory.

The name, “Northern Territory,” evokes images of the unknown. To my mind, a territory is a not-yet-settled land mass; it's a place humans don't go, or haven't yet traversed. 

The Northern Territory is different. It's been consistently occupied for more than 40,000 years by the Australian Aborigines, one of the oldest extant cultures on Earth. 

Ancient Aboriginal cave drawings somewhere outside Alice Springs.

We arrived in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, a little worse for wear after short nights in Cervantes and a long flight from Perth. The date was July 20, 2009, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

The Northern Territory radio station - there was only one station - played R.E.M's "Man on the Moon" on repeat. Driving through the scant civilization that is the Northern Territory made me feel as though we had been transported back to 1969 and that there really was a man on the moon above. 

Our first stop in the Northern Territory was Ayer's Rock, also known as Uluru to the native cultures.

Uluru was a place I had imagined one day visiting since I first started working with Bill two years earlier. One of my favorite pictures of his is a black and white silhouette of tourists climbing the side of the rock. 

Bill's image of Ayer's Rock (Uluru) that he took in 1985, which I always like to remind him was before I was born.

The rock itself is a rock. A large, red rock, but a rock none-the-less. Still, I loved the Aboriginal beliefs surrounding it. Uluru is a sacred place that is central to their creation story. It's been reported that those who take rocks from the formation are cursed and suffer misfortune. I didn't want to test the theory and left Uluru as I found it. 

After one sunset we drove back to Alice Springs on an ill-advised overnight drive. We were both tired and there is very little in terms of gas, food and help along the highway - highway being a generous term for a two lane road - between Uluru and Alice Springs. But there was no rest for the weary. We had a shoot the next day at a rodeo outside Alice Springs and had to get back.

Over the last decade I've been to some good rodeos, but none of them compete with Hart's Range.

I made some friends while searching for a high vantage point of the rodeo atop a bluff in Hart's Range.

It's a hard place to explain. It's rural to the extreme. When I say it's located “outside Alice Springs,” I really mean it's roughly four hours away. Most of our drive to Hart's Range was off road. I'm still not entirely sure how we got there. A lot of bumps, a few streams and endless desert. 

The rodeo itself was a dusty mix of cowboys descended from European settlers and Aboriginals. The sight of the sun scorching through the red dust is an image I won't quickly forget. Pictures from the day still bring back memories of the arid smell of the desert mixed with a potent sun beaming through cool air.

The rodeo ended as the sun set and we began the long trip back to Alice Springs. To break up the drive, we stopped for a drink and a bathroom in Barrow Creek. One of the small-town stops along the Stuart Highway - Australia's principal north to south highway - in the Northern Territory. We had seen it on the way in and knew we needed to stop on the way home. 

Outside of the Barrow Creek Pub earlier in the day.

Barrow Creek is a town with a pub / hotel and a population of 11. The night we were there, 3 of the 11 inhabitants were at the bar - the owners of the pub / hotel and a local ranch hand. The pub was built in 1926 and still has the original tin ceilings and bar, along with a collection of eclectic memorabilia and signed bills from around the world given by various pub visitors over the years. 

I sat and talked with the ranch hand - whose name I no longer remember - over a beer for a while that night. He was on a quest to collect all 50 of the state quarters from the USA. I fished into my pocket and offered Wisconsin and South Dakota. I've never seen 50 cents make anyone so happy before or since. 

It was in Barrow Creek that we recorded the closing shots to our "All Over Down Under" multimedia piece - a dog yawning in front of a fire on a black and white checkered floor, and Bill wearing an Akubra and lit by a dim, red light. It was the final chapter in one of our first major multimedias

One of our last night's in the mythical land of my childhood dreams, and one of my fondest memories of the last decade. 

Western Australia

Flashing myself (pun intended) in the Nambung National Park at dusk in Western Australia.  

Flashing myself (pun intended) in the Nambung National Park at dusk in Western Australia.  

Australia is too big of a country/continent to be limited to one blog post.

As I mentioned last week, Bill Frakes and I spent 3 weeks down under working on an advertising campaign for the then soon-to-be-released Nikon D3s.

Three weeks seems like a long time, but when you consider the size and breadth of Australia it wasn't very long at all.

We raced from shoot to shoot. From Tasmania we went to Melbourne.

Sam, an Australian swimmer we met in a very cold pool on a very cold morning.  

Sam, an Australian swimmer we met in a very cold pool on a very cold morning.  

We spent a cold morning in a cold pool with an Olympic swimmer, an afternoon with a basketball player and a sunrise floating above the Yarra Valley in hot air balloons.

Testing the SB-900s for the basketball shot with Mr. Blue, one of our Japanese art directors.

Testing the SB-900s for the basketball shot with Mr. Blue, one of our Japanese art directors.

A picture Bill took of the hot air balloon I was in with Gen, Mr. Blue and an Australian balloon pilot.  

A picture Bill took of the hot air balloon I was in with Gen, Mr. Blue and an Australian balloon pilot.  

To complete our task - 52 camera functions in 20 days - we had to make multiple images a day. There was no rest, but I was 23 and in Australia. I couldn't have been more excited.

After Melbourne we spent another couple nights in Sydney - one with a boxer and one with an opera singer - and then took off for Western Australia.

Sydney opera singer in front of the Sydney Opera House.  

Sydney opera singer in front of the Sydney Opera House.  

Before we left Sydney we asked some locals how long the flight was and what the time difference would be. No one seemed to know.  Answers ranged from 2 to 4 hours - for the flight and the time change (it's a two hour time change and a 5 hour flight, for the record). It seemed so odd to me that no one knew how far away a city in their country was. It made where we were going seem incredibly far away.

In fairness, where we were going was incredibly far away. We flew into Perth - one of Australia's major cities - but got in a rental car and drove another four hours north through the Swan Valley wine country to Cervantes, Western Australia.

Cervantes isn't much. From what I could tell it had a Best Western Motel, and restaurant (inside the Best Western Motel which was surprisingly good) and a gas station. We were set to be in Cervantes for three nights, one of our longest stays of the three week trip.

Our reason for being in the town had little to do with the town itself, it had to do with its proximity to the Nambung National Park. Inside the national park are the Pinnacles, a series of cone-like limestone formations in the desert. There's no consensus as to how the Pinnacles came to be, but everyone agrees they are amazing to see.

We got in just before sunset and quickly checked in to our motel (the only motel) before heading into the desert to scout. We had three dancers from the Perth Ballet meeting us there the next day and wanted to see where the best spots to have them dance would be.

I remember driving into the park as the sun began to sink behind the Indian Ocean. The Pinnacles aren't visible at first. For the first 10 minutes in the park all you see is low brush and dust. Then - just as when you drive into the mountains - formations slowly begin to appear above the horizon.

The sight is otherworldly. You feel as if you've been suddenly transported to Mars.

The dancers arrived the next day. I don't remember their names but I remember how lovely they each were to work with. It was shockingly cold in the desert and they danced barefoot in dresses and tutus across the rocky terrain. They were excited to be there and never once complained, though I know they must have been cold. I was cold and I had on jeans, boots and a jacket.

Standing in as a human light stand on a sand dune with the Pinnacles in the background.  

Standing in as a human light stand on a sand dune with the Pinnacles in the background.  

On our first night in the park with the dancers, we worked past sun down.

Dancers in the desert.  

Dancers in the desert.  

Sunsets in the desert seem to last longer. I don't know why. I just know that light seemed to hang on the horizon longer than it does in a city, on a beach or above a mountain range.

After the sun set we took advantage of the dusk ombré. We had a generator, a dedo light and hundreds of Pinnacles silhouetted on the horizon. We put the dancers three across - each on a pinnacle - and when the light hit them they "came alive," moving their arms and legs fluidly in the warm light for a video clip.

A still frame of the dancers at dusk, light from a dedo sstreamingg past them.  

A still frame of the dancers at dusk, light from a dedo sstreamingg past them.  

Bill sat about 50 feet away from us with a 70-200mm f/2.8 and D3s on a Manfrotto tripod. I stood parallel to the dancers with the light. In between takes the dancers would all run to me to absorb some warmth from the generator and light as Bill tried to yell instructions to us. After one take we couldn't hear what he was saying and he was clearly tired of yelling, so - much to the dancers' chagrin - I turned the generator off. When I looked up I saw two massive forms behind him that weren't there before.

The sight caught me off guard, sending a quick shock of fear down my spine. Then, I realized that our commotion had attracted two curious kangaroos. I told Bill to be quiet and turn around. The five of us watched as the kangaroos checked us out for a few moments before hopping off into the dusk. I felt as though we were witnessing time begin.

It was the first time I saw a kangaroo in the wild - I soon discovered they were all over the national park - and a moment I will never forget  

Check back next week for the third and final Australia installment.