Ghost Town

If a building looks better under construction than it does when finished, then it's a failure.
      Douglas Coupland

If you've browsed much of this Web site you know I've a fascination with old buildings. The remains of things made by man, especially the rustic, as in barns, sheds, outhouses, chicken coups, and the like, with warped and twisted boards, protruding nails, and rusting hinges, beaten down by weather, time, harsh sunlight, and gravity, offer textures and tones I simply can't resist. Many of these subjects are tailor-made for black-and-white photography. As mentioned in my article “Gravity”, I began making a collection of such photos several years ago. You can view the body of work so far in our Gravity gallery.

Living as I do in a rural area, surrounded by farms and ranches and tribal lands, every day I see subjects for my collection. Many are on private property where it's often difficult to determine the owner. I won't trespass, so if I can't get permission to be on the property I'll use a long lens and photograph from the road or other public right-of-way. Of course, some of these interesting derelicts are on public land, in parks, wildlife refuges, etc., making close access much easier.

Bannack Ghost Town

A little piece of Bannack's Main St.

Several buildings along Bannack's Main Street. 'Montana Outdoors' Magazine published this picture.

One such place is Bannack, a preserved mining ghost town and a state park located in southwestern Montana. Conveniently, the park has a couple of campgrounds. We recently packed up the camper and drove into the Pioneer Mountains to spend a couple of nights at Bannack and see what might be there to photograph. Quite a lot, it turns out.

Once (and briefly) the Territorial Capital of Montana, Bannack has a fascinating history. The park's visitors center offers a map, books, posters, and other literature, and provides guided tours of the town. Most of the buildings are open and can be freely explored. There's also a collection of rusting mining machinery, hardware and carriages. The Web has a number of great sites for those interested in learning more; links appear at the end of this article.

Heat, Bright Sunshine, and Mosquitoes

The view out the rear door of a Bannack cabin.

The view out the rear door of a cabin.

During our June trip we suffered a bit from the heat, the weather being considerably warmer than normal for the time of year (which is, of course, becoming the new normal). To make up for that, thanks to recent rains in the area, the humidity was far greater than what we've become used to. Fortunately, when the evening sun dropped beyond the Big Hole Valley to the west, the air cooled quickly, making for comfortable sleeping.

Grasshopper Creek runs through the park; its water level ran quite high, as did that of several small ponds near the campgrounds west of the town site. The surrounding areas, lush and green, support numerous bird species, including brilliant mountain bluebirds (devilish hard to photograph!), which chased insects around the ponds and through the cottonwoods, and chattered constantly.

The rain, along with the ponds and creek, left conditions damp. Abundant mosquitoes, filling the air around and in front of my lens, sometimes made getting clean shots nearly impossible. Clear, sunny weather made for poor skies for photography. To kill time between golden hours one day we made a mid-morning hike of about five miles (eight km), which took us up to a ridge at about 6400 feet (1951 m) of elevation. The open, hot, and dry trail provided some relief from the mosquitoes, offered nice views of the ghost town below, and led us through areas of dense, ankle-high wildflowers. A couple of wooded areas along the trail provided a bit of relief from the sun. As the trail took us back down to the level of the creek we passed the crumbling remains of the stamping mill, used well into the 1950s for crushing mined rock, and then entered the town's main street from the east. We then walked the length of the town and returned to the campground, less that half a mile from the park's visitors center at the western edge of the townsite.

Shooting Fish in a Barrel?

That evening the sky improved slightly, offering a few wispy clouds. We walked through the town, battling the mosquitoes and getting a few photos. The bright sky required making exposures to be blended later using HDR techniques. This worked well, resulting in very natural looking pictures (as opposed to the typical HDR stuff, which often looks like someone had a tragic accident with the saturation adjustment slider).

Bannack's Masonic Hall/school house reflected in a window in the assay office.

Bannack's Masonic Hall and school house reflected in the assay office.

Our second full day in the park brought a better sky. The park officially opens at 8:00 AM. At the visitors center the previous day we asked, and received, permission to enter earlier to take advantage of golden hour light. Although cool, the damp morning brought out legions of mosquitoes; while Picaridin (Icaridin) is generally effective, it has its limits, forcing me to work fast to avoid being bled dry by the bugs. But the light was wonderful, the sky pretty good, and of course, the town was deserted, smarter people than we having stayed in bed. The old wood was lovely in the warm light. I also played around a bit making some close-ups of rusting metal on a crumbling carriage.

Photographing Bannack's relics felt very much like I imagine it must seem when making pictures of captive animals in a game farm. I've never done that, and have no interest in it, but such places make it relatively simple, for a fee, to photograph animals in nice “natural” settings, in good light, supposedly doing what the animals naturally do. One is all but guaranteed decent photos when the animals are cooperative (or bored silly), the light is good, and compositions are ready-made. While making quality photographs in a preserved ghost town is still work, requiring the usual skills, experience and techniques, it felt almost too easy, as if things had been laid out before me ready and waiting to be captured by the camera. I suppose they had, in some ways.

I enjoyed exploring and photographing in Bannack (OK, the mosquitoes, not so much), and I'm happy with a number of the images I made there. The people who look after the park and maintain the ghost town in its current state do a wonderful job. Some heroic work has been done since a flood swept through the ghost town in 2013. You can read more about the flood and see photos of the damage in this 18 July, 2013, Missoulian article. Most of that damage has been repaired, and those of us who'd not seen the town before wouldn't know there'd been a flood.

Here are links to sites with more information about Bannack, and a link to our own gallery of Bannack photos. If you find a broken link, please let me know. You can always use your favorite search site to find more information.

July, 2015

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