The Viral Fence

“I hate to see artists who are real safe. I love to see artists swing for the fences sometimes.”
    Lee Ann Womack

I've written before* about my attraction to derelict buildings, crumbling sheds and shacks and barns, with their weathered wood, rusted hardware, vacant windows, dusty interior spaces lit through gabled gaps. Good light on the blacks and grays and browns of twisted boards, frozen hinges, and curled shingles brings a new life to dead structures. Capturing the details of nail heads that once held shakes to rough rafters, rendering those with maximum sharpness, getting the exposure just right to bring out the textures; that's photographic bliss. One can compose for close-up detail, back off to include a structure's surroundings, and everything in between.

The fence, the deserted highway, and the lake below

Looking down on my subject, while standing on the edge of the deserted highway (along the right edge of the photo). Flathead Lake can be seen below. The Mission Mountains beyond the lake are hiding in the low clouds. The snowy two-track was made by ATV joyriders.

I live a half-dozen miles north of a town on the shores of western Montana's Flathead Lake. To get to town or beyond I drive US route 93 down a long hill and across the bridge over the Flathead River. That highway is the route to Glacier National Park to the north, and south to Missoula and interstate 90 to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. It's often a busy road, and can get crazy with traffic when visitors arrive like a plague of locusts for the four months or so that make up our summer tourist season.

I've had my eye on a crumbling wood fence not far from my home. The fence runs alongside the highway; from my position seated in the car driving by I look slightly downward on that fence, and on every pass I see a broken section I'm sure would make a good photo. As is often the case, figuring out where to stand to get the desired composition is the hard part. In this case it seems the best spot for my tripod, to get the long view and the proper angle, is the middle of the highway, which of course isn't the best spot for anything except being flattened by moving vehicles. Standing there surely wouldn't end well for my health and safety.

I've been thinking about this photo for years. The fence is in tatters, which is part of the attraction, but I suspect the most appealing (to me) section won't be there much longer. If I don't get my photo soon I may lose the chance forever.

Silent Highway

My vision for this photo requires snow on the fence and covering the ground around it. The winter of 2019-2020 didn't bring much snow to our area, although higher-elevation mountain snowpack exceeded normal levels, and that's a good thing. Because of the tall grasses and brush around the fence the ground never appears solidly snow-covered anyway, making a good match to my vision unlikely. I'd have to make the best of what I get. An early April snowstorm added six inches (15 cm) to our seasonal total. That new snow gave me another, and probably final, chance to get the picture this year.

1 / 5
This is the composition I'd long envisioned for the fence photo.
2 / 5
A slightly closer view than the 'original.''
3 / 5
Closer still, as a meadowlark graces the scene for a splash of color on a dull day.
4 / 5
A difference section of the fence, looking up the hill.
5 / 5
A lichen-covered rock adds just a hint of color.

As I write this Montana, along with much of the rest of the U.S. and world is under a “stay at home” order as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One upshot of this (among many) is a lack of vehicle traffic—people really are staying home. The highway is nearly deserted much of the time, which offers an opportunity to stand in the middle of it while minimizing the chances of becoming roadkill. I decided to have a look, to see if I might finally get the photo I've been looking for.

A short drive through my neighborhood took me to a convenient spot to leave the car, about a half-mile downhill from what I guessed would be a good spot to set up for the photo. I walked along the deserted highway, a little surprised at the eerie quiet; no cars or trucks, no people, no wind. I heard nothing but meadowlarks and the crunch of my boots through the thin snow. As I trudged up the silent hill with the tripod on my shoulder I could look back and see a light fog over the town and lake below. Weak sun muted by thin overcast didn't light the fence as I might have liked, but it perfectly matched the isolated feeling of the place and time.

I set up my tripod in the middle of the highway, more or less simulating the view I have from the car as I drive by. As you can see in the photo at the top, this is some distance from the fence, but I'd planned to use a long focal length for the apparent distance compression that offers, so the fence would fill the frame in the way I'd envisioned. I made a few test exposures, but decided to move a bit down the hill and over to the edge of the highway. Ah, cool; this was going to work out nicely! I worked that angle for a while, and once satisfied I'd got what I'd wanted I walked down the slope for some closer work.

The fence is made of rails screwed to posts. Where the rails have rotted and fallen away the long screws, with their rough sheath of rust, provide some nice texture and a bit of color against the old wood with its silvers, grays, and blacks. The air temperature warmed as the morning progressed, and the tiny bits of snow on those nails began to melt, so I had to work quickly. I then moved on to some other compositions as I worked my way back down the hill toward the car.

A Fence on the Abandoned Planet

I spent a little less than two hours working the fence. I never saw another human, so very strange along that “busy” highway.

It's really satisfying when a picture you've envisioned for a long time finally becomes the picture you've envisioned for a long time. These photos come pretty close. I'd like to repeat the exercise when there's more snow on the ground. Now that I know I don't have to stand ON the highway to get the compositions I want I can try again next winter. Maybe the world will have returned to some kind of normal by then. Maybe there will be more snow cover than we had this year. Maybe the part of the fence I like best will still be standing. Some of those maybes are more likely than others, probably. Another photo I'd like to attempt is the same subject lit by the full moon. I plan to try this soon, if for no other reason then to test the idea. But I think it would work best with good snow cover, so that final picture will have to wait.

*Here are links to some of the articles I've written about photographing the remains of old buildings and other structures:

April, 2020

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