2021 March Madness Champion

Moraine Lake

Well I'd be lying if I said I wasn't pulling for my sentimental favorites... especially as we got into the later rounds. So when "After the Storm" made it to the final it felt a bit like poetic justice in a way. The scene depicts the gravel road I grew up on west of Tipton, Iowa- just down the hill from my parents house. It's a landscape I gazed across countless times while waiting for the bus every school day morning of my youth. It's a road I've walked and ran endless miles on- training for track and cross country, wandering down to visit my grandparents, or fishing pole in hand seeking childhood adventure at the crick. I've watched countless clouds, stood witness to so many formative sunsets and imagined untold dreams quietly absorbed in that very scene. It's where I come from, the place that made me who I am and that I love without compare... so it doesn't get too much closer to home for me than that. But...

That's not to say I can't appreciate how this all played out. To be honest, one of my greatest goals as a photographer has always been to show people that beauty exists everywhere; and to make that point I have always loved showcasing Iowa scenes side by side with iconic views from around the world, and having people admire them both. So it seemed fitting, too, that this would come to fruition through this contest in many ways.

In the end, it was "Moraine Lake" that was voted favorite, by a score of 41-12. Don't get me wrong, I really love that shot too and it's also a special one to me (honestly, they all are...) and I'll share the story behind it below. Many of you commented that it was the vivid color, dramatic sky and stunning vista that won your final vote- and as those of you who have been there in person can attest, it's even more incredible in person.

I'll speak more on that one in a minute. First though, with the conclusion of this contest I want to announce the prize drawing winners, and to also extend a heartfelt thank you to all of you who played along. I think everybody probably struggles with self-doubt sometimes, and that can be really challenging for working artists- because what we're sharing is always more than a picture, it's a piece of ourselves. It's something that I struggle with more than I probably let on, and something that almost led me to abandon this idea at the last minute before we even got started. I was afraid people wouldn't pay any attention, and wondered why anybody would care. But the response was really wonderful and I'm so grateful to all of you who took the time to comment and provide feedback. I sincerely learned a lot from your insights, and hope that you enjoyed it too.

Okay, with that, here is the complete list of prize drawing winners...

Grand Prize- 12x18 Chromaluxe Metal Print:

Jane Kirsch

Platform Prizes- Archival 8x12 Matted Print:

Email Replies- Julie Music

Twitter- Shaun Copp

Instagram- Kevin Railsback

Facebook- Jill Reeve

Round Prizes- 5 pack Artisan Note Cards:

Maletta Beuter

Kiley Schultz

Linda Bachus

Barbara Yoder

Michael Floy

Newsletter Subscribers- 12x18 Chromaluxe Metal Print:

Faith McGee

Tournament MVP (person who cast the most overall votes)- $50 gift card:

Karina Krall

Congratulations to all of the winners. I'll be in touch with each of you personally soon with details on how to claim your prizes.

And thank you again to everyone for taking part.

So to wrap this up I thought it might be fitting to share the story behind the photo of Moraine Lake. Many of you commented on the water color and that's something that I'm commonly asked about at shows. I note in the photo's gallery description what gives the lake this tone of blue (which you can read about HERE.) But while geologic features and processes provide an essential canvas, I feel that it's the convergence of this and two other elements: atmosphere (created by light and weather) and the photographer, that is necessary to make a good landscape photo. It's all of these factors coming together to create and capture a special moment in time.

The atmosphere was certainly present on this morning as fast-moving storm clouds rolled through at just the right moment to catch fire with the sunrise. This show lasted a few minutes, tops, before the sky fell again to almost complete darkness. (I hope to include this as an example in another blog post to be published soon.) As for the photographer in this one, well... he almost didn't show up.

This photo was taken in August of 2016 and part of a pretty productive little trip through the Northern Rockies. How productive? Well, many of the photos that faired so well in this tournament- Dusk on the Canyon Rim, Bighorn Reflections, Alpine Sublime, Forest Night, Moraine Lake, Canoe Rental, Spirit Island, and The Tetons (along with others in my portfolio not included in this contest) were shot during that ten day span. But what's maybe more remarkable about this is I was also fighting through some pretty bizarre health issues at the time that made it really difficult to be out there. Several months before I'd started to experience tingling in my extremities and developed extreme sensitivity to cold. This progressed to include a number of other symptoms including muscle spasms, dizziness and debilitating fatigue. In the weeks preceding this trip I could barely walk up the hall at work without becoming exhausted. I'd been planning this trip for over a year, and still almost cancelled, but was awaiting the birth of my son and knew I might not get another chance for awhile. And honestly, the way my body seemed to be deteriorating, I was scared that I might not get it again.

In all likelihood, what I experienced that year was Lyme disease. That's the diagnosis my neurologist suspected, though testing was inconclusive. In time the symptoms would fade and eventually disappear completely, with the exception of some minor relapses now and then. But on this trip I was really struggling. I made it out to Bighorn Canyon and almost decided to turn back home. That "Dusk on the Canyon Rim" shot?.. my legs felt so weak and shaky when that was taken that I didn't dare get any closer to the edge. (I was a little braver but had to inch my way forward the next morning for the reflections photo.) "Alpine Sublime"?.. I'd originally planned some more ambitious hikes in Glacier but instead returned to the Hidden Lake overlook trail at least three times over consecutive days, because the level out and back course was the absolute most that I could muster. My newsletter subscribers might remember the story I shared last May about falling into Avalanche Gorge (you can read that HERE) which also happened on this trip, and where "Forest Night" was taken. There almost wasn't a going home after that one.

So by the time my planned itinerary had me set to leave Montana and hop the border for a couple of days, I was definitely having my doubts. I felt demoralized and wasn't sure if I was physically capable of continuing the trip. But I also knew- as (weary now after months of this mystery affliction) in my mind I was growing more concerned this was something that I would not recover from- that if this were my "last go" I needed to give it everything I had.

I arrived in Banff late in the afternoon and checked into the campground, secured by perimeter high-voltage wire to keep the grizzlies out (or the campers, who have over the years proven a collective inability to exercise proper food storage, in.) By the time I had my tent up it was getting pretty close to sunset, and as much as I wanted to just rest after the drive, experience told me that I really needed to go scout things out for my shoot the next morning. I'd never been to Moraine Lake before and would need to arrive ahead of first light to set-up; and it's always a fool's errand stumbling around in search of the perfect vantage in the dark. I think it was maybe 10 or 15 miles from the campground to the lake; and after the choice to push into Canada, this decision to go scout was the second which in retrospect was absolutely crucial for this photo to happen. My expectation had been to go and find a spot at lake level, but to get this view you actually need to hike around the backside of a knoll and then climb to the top... something I don't know that I would have realized until it was too late if arriving sight unseen the next morning. This also added a little time to the approach- I think the trail was maybe a half mile or so, these distances are escaping my memory now- but definitely something that I would need to consider making those next morning plans.

I was out of my tent and on my way by 2:30 am, windshield wipers batting away the rain. It had stormed through the night, the effort to rise from my sleeping bag required a troubling amount of exertion, and I'd desperately wanted to just stay there and try to let my body rest. I knew I only had one chance, though- one morning to spend in Banff. It was either head out in the hope that the skies would part, or be guaranteed to come away with nothing. (A third decisive moment.) As for that god-awful time of departure, the August sun wouldn't rise this far north until about 6:30, but when photographing in popular locations I always make it a point to be the first person on the scene. That's a strategy that comes in part from my drive to get the best shot that I possibly can (which in competitive situations, or locations where angle makes all the difference, requires claiming your spot before someone beats you to it.) But it's also, admittedly, kind of a shyness thing. I don't like to bother anybody. If a location has the potential to get crowded, I don't like to ask if I can "squeeze in." I don't like trying to find a place to set my tripod while worrying if I'm imposing myself in someone else's frame. I'd much rather pass up on some sleep and get out there before anybody else. That way I can choose the spot that I want, and then just enjoy the pre-dawn solitude for a bit; and allow myself time to connect with the landscape before other photographers show up. It's the method that best suits my comfort level, my commitment to the shot, and my personality- and it's always worked well for me. (Except for the one incident when somebody tried to bully me out of position at Mesa Arch... but that's a story for another time.)

Things were pretty straight forward from there. After the drive and slow hike in the dark, I was in place around 3:30, and had this world to myself for almost an hour before anyone else showed up. That's the way I like it. As I said above it gives me a chance to connect with the landscape- to really immerse myself in the surroundings in both a physical and mental manner. I can of course show up to a place right when the light gets dramatic and respond immediately if that's what it takes to get a shot, and there's definitely a rush that comes with that- but the more I think about it and the more I learn or become aware that many successes in nature photography seem to have a perceivable degree of connectivity to the scene, the stronger I feel that this is important. This would explain why I can run out the door and capture a shot like "After the Storm" with absolute presence and confidence, but drop me under that sky in the middle of South Dakota with seconds to spare and I'll feel discombobulated, frantic, and will second-guess my every move. I already have that long existing connection back home, but when in a new place it helps to take the opportunity to sort of settle in and just become part of the scene you're going to shoot. The immersion can take on an almost meditative quality; which is maybe a yin to that yang of an exhilarating chase to capture fleeting light, and an equally compelling aspect of photography that I also love and crave.

When others did arrive, it was in a casual and cordial manner. That's not always the case at iconic locations, but here there was room for the crowd of thirty or so, consisting both of photographers who had come from around the world and tourists who'd simply come out to watch the sunrise, to spread out. I had a few people line up in positions to the left and right of me, and others perched a little farther up the hillside above. The rain stopped, but it remained gray and overcast right up until almost the minute of sunrise. It seemed like in a photo sense the morning was going to be a bust, but there was hope as the wind picked up and pushed the clouds along. Then, right at the moment of truth as the sun was rising over the horizon at our backs, everything just opened up. The lake glowed turquoise, the peaks glinted orange and the clouds caught shades of purple and pink. I could just feel that something special was about to happen. The scene was changing quickly, getting better by the second and just when I could sense the show was about to accelerate to it's prime... a girl in a bright red hat walked across the hillside and stopped right in the middle of my shot.

If there is one moment in my career that could define the intersection of my work and a lifelong relationship with my "wait... am I on Candid Camera?" brand of luck, this would have to be it. I heard others begin to grumble and recompose as they tilted their cameras upward to remove the girl from the scene, but I really wanted to include that foreground in my picture. I've been in situations like this before where the other photographers aren't nearly as forgiving and have seen things turn pretty ugly- which has led to my own personal ethic of never placing my photograph over someone else's experience. This girl had every right to enjoy her morning there too, without scolding or confrontation. I would almost never say so much as a word in these moments, but just this once, given the magnitude of the scene that was unfolding, the understanding that this might be a once in a lifetime chance to catch such a dramatic sunrise here, and everything that I'd been through... this time I did speak up.

"Excuse me," I said, noticing an opportunity for easy compromise. The girl looked up, completely oblivious to the crowd behind her. "You wouldn't mind moving over behind that rock, would you?" I smiled (even while still screaming with disbelief inside) and was as friendly about it as I could be. There was a large boulder just a few steps to the girls left that she could move to and be completely shielded from view. (And yes, I do realize there are Photoshop techniques that could have addressed this as well... also a story for another time.) The girl smiled back, said "sure, of course," and that was that. (And now you know that there's someone in a bright red hat hiding behind the pointed boulder, about a third of the way in from the left side of the frame.)

So that's the story behind this photo. Like I say, they all have one, and they're all meaningful. All of them with threads that tie into the fabric of my life. When I look at this picture I'm reminded of all the ways that it almost didn't happen, but I'm always grateful that it did. This one carries the story of perseverance and maybe even a touch of karma- playing its hand with the reward of such a spectacular sunrise; and a belief I've never questioned, that it was all just meant to be.

So it's pretty cool to be a part of such convergences- whether back at home or in a far corner of the globe- and to create work that stands testament to these special moments. Moments which photography allows me to carry forward, and touch the lives of others with too.

I thank you all for sharing this with me.