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.
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.
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).
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.
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.