Two people could build an outhouse in four hours. They're not complicated.
   Robert Maxwell

In December, 2011, I wrote about my affection for crumbling old shacks, barns, sheds, and other ancient buildings seemingly scattered about the rural landscape. While I strive to photograph natural, unspoiled or unaltered landscapes, I sometimes find an old building I simply can't ignore. I see sagging rooflines, gaping windows, and perhaps broken dreams. The grain of the wood, rusting hardware, cracked or missing boards, and the nearly impossible angles at which these things sometimes lean are all fascinating and mysterious. Who built them? When? Why were they abandoned?

When I find such wrecks in beautiful light, I can't resist making the attempt to capture a photo. I've been working to create a collection of such pictures, a “body of work”, but the effort has been irregular. I don't have a catalog of these old buildings in mind, a list of those I want to photograph. More often I'll stumble upon one and either make some pictures then, or plan to come back when the light or weather conditions seem appropriate for a good photo.

The collection of photos is slowly growing; you can see what I've got so far in the “Gravity” gallery on this site.

Rough Seating

Crumbling outhouse in Ninepipe NWR, Montana, U.S.

The Ninepipe NWR outhouse. This makes a lovely print on Epson's Hot Press Natural mat paper, with deep, rich blacks and excellent detail.

The Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge is about 25 miles (40 km) south of our home here in western Montana. We drive past the refuge several times a month. We often stop with binoculars and spotting scope to look for trumpeter swans, ducks, gulls, herons, and many other birds. Migrations with the change of seasons bring more opportunities to spend time in the refuge. It's a lovely area, with the Mission Mountains to the east and the Salish Range to the west. Now and then I'm able to bring home a keeper photo of birds or landscape.

On the edge of the refuge is a tiny, leaning shack, most of its roof torn away by the wind, its remaining boards twisted and cracked with a deep gray patina. I've driven past it a hundred times, always wondering what it is (or was), and promising myself I'd someday stop for a better look. I finally did that early on a calm, warm March morning. I'd driven to the refuge to look for snow geese, trumpeter swans, and white pelicans. As it happens, just a day or two earlier these visitors had left to continue their northward migration. I saw a few resident swans far out on the reservoir, too far away for my optics. But the sun has just cleared the ridge of the Mission Range to the east, the light was warm and beautiful, the air calm, and the old shack had no migration plans. I was out of excuses; the time had come to investigate and perhaps make a photo.

Crumbling outhouse in Ninepipe NWR, Montana, U.S.

A detail section from the image above, at 'actual pixels' in Photoshop-speak (enlargement to 100%).

A bit of haze softened the strong side-lighting. Clear sky to the south and west, and a cloud band to the north opened up a number of compositional options. Spring rain earlier in the week had softened the ground and contributed to a small, temporary pond off the south-west corner of the shack; it would be necessary to tread carefully, or risk finding myself mired in mud. Leaving the camera in the car, I walked to the shack and circled it several times. What I'd seen from the road is the backside of the building, featureless except for the texture in the old boards. Walking around to the opposite side revealed a door, permanently rusted open. A glance inside revealed the building's purpose: a “three-holer” outhouse. Most of the floor had disappeared. If there'd ever been any interior amenities, they too had long since departed. Grass had grown tall around the door and through part of the tiny interior; that grass now withered and dried by winter.

After a walk back to the car for my gear, I set up and made a number of exposures, playing with compositions, exposing to make the most of the range of tones, bringing out a little detail in the shadows while maintaining the deep blacks. The sky was perfect, interesting but taking nothing away from the building. After an initial look, I decided to concentrate on the building's exterior. The narrow doorway made it difficult to find any compositions of the inside that worked, given the lack of context. What may have seemed like an interesting aspect of the place turned out not to be.

Details, Details…

Crumbling outhouse in Ninepipe NWR, Montana, U.S.

One of my favorite features of the place is the rusted nails in the roof rafters. With no roof for those nails to hold down, I'd say their purpose now is to provide another layer of texture and detail. They do it well, along with the rusted door hinges, which are difficult to see in the small photo at left.

I spent perhaps half an hour there, the most fun thirty minutes I've ever had at an outhouse. I got several keeper photos, including a couple in color in addition to the black & white shown above. I also have ideas for additional compositions, not that I need more reasons to return to Ninepipe. As often happens when I make a discovery like this in what should have been an obvious location, I left wondering why I'd waited so long to check the place out.

Modern vault toilets of the type found in our national parks and refuges are durable, can be cleaned and maintained relatively easily, are safer and healthier, and likely will last a hundred years or more. They are also completely free of interest or character. That's perhaps as it should be, considering their purpose, but I'm glad they were built simpler decades ago.

March, 2015

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