The Barracks (Part 1)

“The entire world could end and we wouldn’t even know.”

Justin Lowery said that once.  Or maybe it was me.  Honestly it’s tough to remember at this point as it happened over two years ago.  What I do know is that he and I once socially distanced at a truly epic level.  That word gets thrown around a lot in reference to photography, but in this case it was true.  So here’s the story about how he and I once went 5 days without seeing another human.  The world really could have ended and we would not have known.  We were socially distancing long before it was mandatory!

Prologue

A little background first though.  I’m a thorough researcher.  When getting into large format, I bought all the books on the subject that I could find.  When I read through those (thanks Ansel Adams for posthumously teaching me the fundamentals!) I went to YouTube.  It was there I discovered some guy named Ben Horne (maybe you’ve heard of him) and learned of his penchant for this collection of canyons called Zion.  All it took was seeing one video of the Virgin River Narrows and I was hooked.  I simply HAD to visit this place!  It sounds strange to say now, but at that point in my life (circa 2011) I had no idea rivers could be next to vertical canyon walls.  Growing up in the rolling hills of Tennessee, this was completely foreign to me.  So, as with all things, before I visited, I had to research Zion.  Following a similar pattern I bought up all the hiking guide books I could find and then, once those were exhausted, I turned to the internet.

Subway, the Narrows, Angels Landing…they were all covered very thoroughly.  I started to mentally map out all of the iconic shots I wanted to take on my first trip.  Once familiar with those, I started to research the more obscure locations: Clear Creek, Northgate Peaks, The Kolob Canyons…I knew it all like the back of my hand.  And then there was the Barracks.  Ever heard of it?  Probably not, because even in my YouTube journals and when discussing it on the Large Format Photography Podcast I never mentioned the name.  That’s by design as I didn’t want it to become overrun.  So I’m letting you into the Large Format Circle of Trust here.  If you go there, don’t ruin it!!

So back to the Barracks.  It was a hike that promised Narrows like scenery, epic (that word again) adventure, and at least a multi-day backpacking trip.  That was a minor issue because at that point I had approximately zero backpacking experience.  So for the time being, I stored the Barracks in the back of my mind and concentrated on exploring Zion through day hikes.  As I progressed in my large format experience, I gradually started to want to branch out further than just day hiking.  I had my fill of the icons; I wanted to explore areas where most people don’t take cameras, and that meant hiking further than I could make it in a single day.  Backpacking was the answer.

Again, books and the internet told me everything I needed to know about backpacking.  Even though the chapters about backpacking with large format gear were strangely missing, I was confident I could adapt; the Barracks were starting to almost, kind of, possibly be doable!!

Until I made my first trip.  In hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have made my first backpacking-with-LF-gear a 3-day experience when rain was predicted for days 2 and 3.  With thunder rumbling through the Smoky Mountains, I did manage to stay dry (and even took one of my favorite images of the Smokies) but my morale was shot.  I returned to my truck with my tail tucked between my legs, exhausted after only one night on a relatively flat trail.  I had a MAJOR problem…weight.  My pack was just too heavy.  How was I supposed to hike nearly 30 miles spanning multiple days in unforgiving terrain when I could barely make it one night on a flat trail.  The Barracks once again faded into the back of my mind.

And it promptly returned to the forefront the day I met Justin Lowery.  As with most in the large format community, Justin and I knew each other through social media.  After finding out our time in Zion one year would overlap, we met up, and as most photographers do, we compared gear!  He was shooting a generation 1 Intrepid 4×5 at the time.  Back then I was only vaguely aware of Intrepid.  I seemed to remember seeing a startup company on GoFundMe.  It was encouraging to see some new developments in LF, but that prototype was UGLY!  Do you guys remember seeing the front standard supports made out of plywood?!  Anyway, I dismissed the camera based on looks alone.  In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t judge a camera based on its prototype, because Justin showed me the Intrepid, and to my surprise, it was a sharp-looking camera.  But even more importantly, it weighed nothing.  I returned from Zion and immediately placed an order.  With my gen 2 camera in hand, the Barracks was now a distinct possibility!

I ran the idea by Justin and he was crazy enough to join me.  We spent the next year trying gear, refining our systems, and planning the hike.  From what little we found in guide books and online, we mapped out potential photography hotspots, places to overnight, and areas we could bail out if we needed to.  We settled on a 5 day, four-night adventure; carrying enough food was the limiting factor.  With packs loaded, and waypoints saved into a handheld GPS, we embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.

Day 1

The Barracks is a through-hike meaning we needed to arrange a shuttle for drop-off and have a car parked for pickup.  I arranged the shuttle through a local outdoor outfitter, and we arrived at Zion Outfitters at 6 a.m. on a brisk October day.  Justin left his truck at the Checkerboard Mesa parking lot with a note about our expected arrival date and time.  We had notified park rangers of our plans and they wished us luck…and told us not to get lost or hurt.  Rescues in the area would be difficult and could potentially take several days.  What a confidence boost!!  With temps hovering in the low 30s, our shuttle made its way to the Barracks trailhead.  I use that term loosely as there is no official beginning to the trail; you just drive as far downriver as possible and then start hiking.

Speaking of a river, I guess now is as good a time as any to paint a picture of exactly what the Barracks hike is.  The Barracks (disappointing named, I discovered, after a family ranch and not an ominous prison) is a canyon system along the East Fork of the Virgin River (as opposed to the North Fork that makes up the more famous Narrows).  Starting in the widely spaced white sandstone cliffs to the east of Zion National Park, the river gradually carves a deep East/West canyon along its course.  Along the way, several slot canyons branch off offering potentially breathtaking photographic opportunities.  These canyons, and the deeper chasm further down the main river, were what we were after, but it was going to take effort to get there.

(Sunlight on the white cliffs and the meandering East Fork of the Virgin River.)

Well before the sun made an appearance, we stepped out of our offroad shuttle to begin our adventure.  Let me tell you, the cold hits differently when you step out of the vehicle and have a river crossing in the first 100 yards of your hike!  At this stage, the East Fork is more of a meandering creek, with heavy emphasis on the word meandering.  With no trail to follow, it was a constant judgment call of when to cross the river, when to hike in the river, and when to stay on dry ground.  This was actually not that easy as getting in and out of the river required quite a bit of effort.  The banks were quite tall and mostly sand or overgrown.  Travel was slow and arduous, but as the sun crested the white cliffs behind us, team morale took a noticeable turn for the better!

(As you can see, getting out of the river was no easy task!)

And then I stepped in quicksand.  Through reading what little I could find on this hike, the word quicksand continuously made an appearance.  Not saying I brushed it off, but it didn’t concern me too much until I stepped in it.  At this point I should mention that the river is quite silty; so silty in fact that you cannot see what you are walking in.  As we were hiking in the river, I took one step that was ankle deep and the next unknowingly went mid-thigh.  If you’ve never hiked in quicksand before, it’s best to imagine walking on jello.  If you walk quickly you can stay on top of it, but if one-foot plants too firmly you’ll sink.  This is the predicament I found myself in.  To be clear, this was in no way dangerous.  However, my options were limited.  The current was too strong for me to step out of the pothole and backtrack.  A quick depth check with my trekking pole told me that another step down river would’ve placed the water at chest level.  This was not an option as I was carrying all my camera gear (and everything I needed to stay warm on this trip) on my back.  In order to save weight we decided to forego any type of dry bag; if I got soaked, the gear got soaked.  Thankfully, Justin was behind me.  He shed his pack to the bank, and then extended a trekking pole.  I grabbed hold and extricated my leg from the predicament.  Disaster averted!

Again, that wasn’t dangerous, but from then on, the seed of doubt was planted.  Was the next step I took going to plunge me even deeper?  We developed a method of tapping our trekking poles in front of us to test depth.  This helped, but I can’t lie…I enjoyed the hike much more for the portions when Justin was leading! :) I brought along the full video kit for this trip as I wanted to document as much as possible.  However, the hiking was so difficult that I was not able to capture much of the hike itself.  We did take occasional breaks whenever we found a freshwater spring; the silty, animal carcass (true story; multiple dead deer) filled East Fork just wasn’t going to cut it as a water source.  During these times I would grab some video to hopefully tell our story.  As an aside, this is some of my all-time favorite drone footage; not being in a National Park has its benefits!

After taking 5 hours to hike 6 miles, we arrived at the confluence of the Barracks and Mineral Gulch.  Mineral Gulch is a series of extremely narrow slot canyons and a source of freshwater.  Thankfully, at the mouth of this canyon was a little peninsula of land that made the perfect spot to set up camp.  There was a flat area relatively close to the river where I could pitch my tent and Justin his tarp.  We had to be a little careful here as we were on sand and not compacted dirt.  Driving a tent stake and then applying too much pressure would’ve caused the sand to separate and fall into the river; picture a glacier cracking and falling into the ocean.  Difficulties aside, we got camp set up and still had enough daylight to explore and photograph Mineral Gulch.

(The best campsite we could’ve hoped for…just as long as the sand didn’t cave in! Notice how silty the East Fork is.)

With camping gear offloaded, my backpack now barely even registered as being on my back.  Also, Mineral Gulch is mostly dry and flat so covering terrain was much easier now.  We traversed the north/south canyon several times searching for the best reflected light.  At one point, I found an intense glow, but by the time I had my camera up and focused, it was too late.  It was becoming apparent that we had missed the best light.  Not a huge worry as we had designated another full day to explore this slice of photography paradise.  One highlight of the day was coming across a brilliant cottonwood in front of a bright reflected light wall.  This was extremely lucky as most trees had unfortunately already shed their leaves; so much for capturing fall color on this trip.  Justin and I both photographed this tree and then returned to our campsite for dinner and some rest.

(Beautiful reflected light in one of the narrows of Mineral Gulch.)

(The only tree on the entire trip that showed any color…and it just happened to be in front on an orange wall!)

It turns out our little peninsula of land was just about the perfect campsite (the risk of the sand caving in and falling in the river notwithstanding of course).  Flash floods had eroded some areas at just the perfect sitting height.  I can’t tell you how great it felt to get in some dry clothes and sit down after a long day!  We even had time to build a campfire.  Once the sunset, I changed out film.  This was a real exercise in organization as I only brought two boxes.  One contained packets of Ektar, Velvia, and Delta 100 and the other was for unloading sheets from my four film holders.  I carefully recorded the order which I unloaded the film, and then reloaded everything for the following day.  With nothing left to down, I got in my tent and went to sleep to the sounds of the Virgin River.

(Forbidden Temple 4×5 Kodak Ektar 100)

(Fading 4×5 Fuji Velvia 50)

(Yin and Yang 4×5 Fuji Velvia 50)

Be sure and come back for Part 2 of this trip as Justin and I explore more of this beautiful canyon system.

 

What Ansel Didn’t Teach Us

As large format landscape photographers, it is of course a requirement to have shrines in our homes to the late Ansel Adams.  Stories of his images are the stuff of literal legend.  What would you do if you forgot your light meter and were so rushed that you only had time to expose a single sheet?  I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even bother unpacking the camera!  Instead, I would pull my phone out of my pocket, grab a quick snapshot, and then post it to the ‘gram (with appropriate hashtags of course) for maximum social media engagement.  Ansel on the other hand, nailed his composition, set the exposure based on some obscure lumen value of the moon, exposed a single sheet, and Moonrise Over Hernandez was created.  Like I said, the stuff of legend!

As great a photographer as Ansel was, he was perhaps an almost equal teacher.  For those getting into large format or film in general (especially black and white film) his books remain must-reads, even if they are a bit heavy on obscure math in places.  Personally, I learned how to use a camera by reading The Camera and learned to develop using The Negative…with a dash of YouTube teaching thrown in for good measure.  I have not read The Print because I do not traditional print yet and am therefore not a real photographer.  Maybe one day.

However, Adams didn’t quite teach us EVERYTHING that we need to know, and that’s why I’m here.  We are going to fill in the holes he left so that now you can be a complete large format photographer creating your own Moonrise Over Hernandez.  After reading this, I of course expect a portion of all of the sales from your award-winning prints…

IS THAT A HASSELBLAD?

In a world where essentially a super computer combined with a camera can fit in the pockets of even the skinniest of skinny jeans, why would anyone shoot with something as bulky as a wooden film camera?  It’s a valid question, and one that you’ll be asked.  A lot!  These cameras will draw a crowd.  For the most part, the crowds are just curious passers by genuinely wanting to know exactly what sort of contraption you are using and why.

The Hasselblad phenomenon was first brought to my attention by our own Ben Horne.  In the early parts of my large format journey, he let me know of the attention the camera would garner and that people would almost always assume it was a Hasselblad.  I don’t know quite what the big H did in their marketing past, but companies today would be well served to copy it.  Anything that isn’t a typical DSLR is a Hasselblad; end of story.  It matters not that Hasselblad does not make large format cameras, it’s the name that has stood the test of time.

Being that large format cameras were more common in Adams’ time, it is doubtful that he had to deal with such questions.  So how do you handle them?  It’s a timing issue really.  Are you still in the composing, focusing, calculating exposure stage of the image?  If so, then the answer to the Hasselblad question is a quick “yes” followed by a quick dive underneath the dark cloth.  That’s your safe-zone there.  You don’t have to actually look through the camera; just hide here until your audience moves on, bored with the tedium of film.  Have you already taken the image and are relatively certain that you didn’t screw it up too badly?  If so, you may take the time to (politely) educate your questioners that, yes, film does still exist, but this is not actually a Hasselblad.  No, the picture doesn’t show up on the ground glass after I’ve taken it…the whole having to develop the film thing prevents that.  No, after hearing my accent, I’m not actually from Texas.  This last question might be exclusive to me though.

Also, take the time to make sure they’re following you on social media…

MEASURE 15 TIMES, CUT TWICE (BECAUSE WE ALWAYS SHOOT DOUBLES)

I don’t think Ansel Adams or anyone else could have possibly prepared me for all of the creative ways I would mess up sheets of film.  Just when I think I’ve made every possible mistake, a new one sneaks in there.  Maybe he simply didn’t make those kinds of mistakes being the absolute legend that he was.  I’m somewhat less of a legend so here is a list of mistakes that I’ve made and how to remedy them.

Mistake – Pulling the dark slide with the shutter open.
Solution – Going off the wisdom of Ben Horne here.  Before you ever even think of pulling the dark slide, fire off a test exposure.  Large format shutters won’t fire unless the lens is closed.  If your shutter fires, you know the lens is closed.  This test “exposure” also lets you know if you have a sticky shutter, an intermittent issue on these decades-old lenses; staring straight at you 90mm Fujinon…

Mistake – Pulling the wrong dark slide
Solution – Just don’t be an idiot.  This is self-explanatory.  Also, you know those almost always useless rotate lock tabs on film holders?  Those do actually serve one purpose, to keep you from pulling the dark slide on the ground glass side of the camera.  As soon as I slide the film holder in place, I’ll rotate those to the back of the camera.  That has saved me some money on several occasions.

Mistake – “Exposing” film without pulling the dark slide.
Solution  – Again, just don’t be an idiot.  This is one of my favorite mistakes.  I can say that now because the image did eventually turn out.  Deep in the heart of the Narrows one morning I calculated a 14 minute exposure on Velvia 50.  Tripped the shutter, started the timer, then got bored at about the 7 minute mark.  Another LF photographer was making his way through, so we talked a bit until my exposure was almost finished.  I closed the shutter and then to my horror, could NOT find the dark slide.  I searched everywhere before realizing that the reason I couldn’t find it was because I never pulled it.  On a 14 minute exposure.  Thankfully I had a peer close by to witness my idiocy so that was nice.

Mistake – Forgetting to stop down.
Solution – At the risk of sounding like a broken record, don’t be an idiot.  Look, I realize that the bright and airy images can be all the rage, exposing an image at f/5.6 when the exposure was calculated for f/45 is not the best way to make images.  Having done this on multiple occasions, I’ve developed a little mnemonic that I say before every exposure. “Stop down, lock down.”  Seriously, I say it every time.  Stop the aperture down, and then close (lock down) the shutter.  Sounds silly, but it has worked!

As you can see, most mistakes can be solved by simply not being an idiot.  (On an unrelated note, this applies nicely to life in general.)  Having an aviation background, I’ll draw from that and say make a checklist.  Especially when you are just beginning, having a list so that you don’t have to rely on memory for these steps is an invaluable tool.  Once you have gained some experience you can leave the list behind…so that you can make the same mistakes again at a later date.

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE…IT’S ALSO A NECESSITY

Ansel Adams did talk about diligence while making images, but I’m not sure he prepared me for quite the level of patience that would be needed to make a successful large format image.  Keep in mind we are talking about a man who, despite appearances, did actually make a large percentage of his images from the top of his car.  Wind is now your ultimate nemesis and you’ll spend sometimes hours waiting for a few leaves or blades of grass to just hold still.  Clouds can be equally frustrating as, when you need them they’re never there, and when you want clear skies they inevitably return.  A story from the Narrows comes to mind here.  When I was in the middle of a 4-minute exposure once, the light suddenly disappeared.  I looked upward to see the tiniest of clouds occluding the sun that I so desperately needed.  I closed the shutter, tried to restart it once that cloud passed, but the film was ruined.  That’s ok though.  It’s only wasted money.  And soon to be (probably) discontinued Velvia.

Another time, as I was envisioning an image that required fog, I waited months for the optimum conditions.  I by necessity became an expert on East Tennessee meteorological patterns.  I now possess the completely useless ability to accurately predict heavy fog in my hometown.  It’s completely worth it though as it resulted in one of my favorite images.  Not to start a film vs digital war as of course you can be as patient as you want while holding your (actual) Hasselblad H6D behemoth digital back, but it’s simply not an option with large format.  Sooner or later you’ll have to fall in love with the waiting game.

VISIT THE APP STORE

Once upon a time, I put out a video on YouTube about apps for large format photography.  You can click for completeness (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swxX_nn4VzU) but I really don’t recommend it.  It’s dreadfully boring, and horribly shot.  So naturally, it’s one of my most-viewed videos.

Anyway, it’s odd that Ansel never included any apps in his books.  Perhaps he was an Android fan, or it could have had something to do with the fact that apps were about half a century away from existing whenever he wrote his books.  Either way, I do firmly believe that he would’ve firmly embraced technology to make photography easier, more efficient, and more fun!  This was a man who was predicting the rise of digital cameras before the technology actually existed.  Make no mistake, even though the get off my lawn crowd digitally yelled at me for my App video, technology will make you a better large format photographer.  Need to check a composition?  Aim your phone at it to frame without having to take the time to break out your camera.  Need reciprocity info for every film in existence?  Sure, you could bring along a notebook with its inherent risk on paper cuts.  OR, you could make a few clicks on your phone and discover that your one-second image on Velvia will actually need 4 years of exposure time to complete.

Yes, your phone could break and that would put a real damper on your afternoon, but you could just as easily lose a notebook full of data and charts.  Purists will scream at the use of technology…while also using a light meter and film instead of a wet plate.  The irony is as amazing as these apps on my phone.  I guarantee if you use them you’ll agree!  Probably.

It’s become somewhat cliche to say that Ansel Adams is one of your favorite landscape photographers, but he really produced amazing work.  This is especially true when you take into account the time period that he was producing this work.  His teachings were every bit as good as his images as well.  It’s a testament to his brilliance that his books are still relevant today in the 21st century.  Follow his advice and mine (but mostly his) and you’ll become an award-winning photographer in no time.

 

Name: Alan Brock

Location: Athens, TN

Description: I’ve been shooting large format since 2013.  I use a 4×5 camera and frequently bring it along on backpacking and extended hiking trips.  While I enjoy the high-quality images that this format produces, it’s the entire process of creating an image that appeals to me most.  Most of my work is from the mountains close to home in East Tennessee or in the desert Southwest.

Gallery: Alan Brock

Website: http://www.alanbrockimages.com
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