An Exquisite Corpse

“Garages, barns and attics are always older than the buildings to which they are attached.”
    Leonard Cohen

Flint Creek Valley Barn Detail, Montana, U.S.

Missing window and more, Flint Creek Valley.

Our South Dakota trip, about which I wrote shortly after returning home in October, 2018, wasn't photographically successful, mainly because of weather, but a couple of stops made along the way proved more fruitful, and more fun. I'd not planned to write a three-part article about this trip; if I had I'd probably not have written about our stops in reverse order, but that's how it's turned out. Our more successful second photo location, Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, is the subject of my November article (and, being the second of three, is in the right order either way). As I wrote then, I think I managed to get some unique photos there during a brief window when the light and clouds cooperated beautifully. So here in December, in my last article of the year, is the story's final chapter, about the first stop along the drive east from our home in western Montana. While brief, it was a fun stop, and it too resulted in a few photos I'm happy to have in my portfolio.

Shown here is a section of my subject, the beautiful corpse of a large barn in Montana's Flint Creek Valley. Obviously absent is the window; less obvious perhaps is that portions of the barn's backside have collapsed, allowing the distant cottonwood trees in fall color to be seen through the empty window frame.

The Pintler Loop

The Pintler Scenic Loop exits south off of Interstate 90 and, going east as we were, goes past Philipsburg, continues toward the mountains and Georgetown Lake, and finally reconnects with I90 at Anaconda. I'd driven the loop on my way to South Dakota's Black Hills in the spring of 2010, but in our many trips to points east, including to Yellowstone National Park, Pat and I had never made the 64 mile (103 km) detour together, so she'd never experienced this very scenic drive on Montana Route 1. On this day we had plenty of time in our schedule, so we decided to fix that. About 20 miles (32 km) after turning off I90 we made the obligatory stop in Philipsburg, visited the shops, and stocked up on goodies at the Sweet Palace, itself reason enough to make the trip. “Pburg” is a common destination for folk from Missoula and surrounding areas.

Flint Creek Valley barn, Montana, U.S.

A door to nowhere, and anywhere.

Returning to MT 1 we continued south, and within a few miles passed a magnificent, ancient barn just a few feet from the road. This required a turn-around to investigate. There's a convenient pull-out near the barn that leaves the car a sufficient distance away so it wouldn't interfere with any compositions I might find. The light could have been better; at about 11:00, with the sun fairly high, large clouds gave the scene a gloomy feel and muted the kaleidoscope of color. This being October, the trees and dry grass displayed yellow and gold. But the barn stole the scene. It had once been red, but much of the paint has been burned away by decades of summer sun. What little remained had faded to a soft purple. The remaining wood, beaten raw by sun, wind, and harsh winters, seemed to contain within the deep texture of its grain the entire red/orange/yellow end of the visual spectrum. The window glass had long ago vanished, leaving the small openings either side of the main door staring like blank, square eyes. The ironwork of hinges and the metal roofing had rusted to a rich, crusty brown. Moss had grown thick on the remaining shingles. All of this waited for a bit of direct sunlight to make the colors pop.

The clouds moved slowly, with the sunny gaps between them quite brief. The road provided a good base for my tripod and some easy compositions, but the occasional bursts of traffic moved very fast (this is Montana), making standing off the road and using longer focal lengths more sensible. Most of the time I stood close enough to the road's edge to be buffeted by the wind from passing trucks. I set up and waited, making exposures when the clouds allowed just the right level of sun to light the old wood. Once satisfied I'd move to another position and start over, always keeping one eye on the traffic.

I worked the barn for 40 minutes or so while the sun climbed higher as it tends to do, reducing the apparent texture and contrast in the barn's details and casting hard shadows in unwanted areas. But by then, with the thickening clouds, the sunny gaps had become briefer and less frequent. It became clear there'd be no more good light. At least I avoided being killed by vehicles flying by. I packed up my gear, stowed it in the back of our old RAV4, and we returned to the road, eventually hitting Anaconda for a nice lunch before returning to I90 and continuing east. That last sentence ignores many lovely stops one could make along the route. There's no shortage of photographic opportunities, some of which I'd taken advantage during my 2010 trip.

The Colors of Decay May Be Black & White

Flint Creek Valley barn, Montana, U.S.

A full-frontal B&W view of the Flint Creek Valley barn under a rapidly changing sky. See also the detail photo at the top of the page.

Such wonderful old wrecks as this barn are abundant in Montana (see my 'Gravity' gallery for photos of a few). Many, even very colorful derelicts like the Flint Creek Valley barn, are perfect subjects for black & white photography. The textures and the range of tones from black through the grays to white, and the fine detail in the woodgrain and rusted hardware look wonderful in large B&W prints. Countless books have been written and filled with photos of these old buildings (or their remains). I don't know if it's still possible to create a unique photo, something different from the rest, but I really enjoy photographing these things, so I'll keep trying.

December, 2018

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