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Milwaukee
United States

No Photoshop. No Computer Manipulation. 

Every color you see is created onsite by our own hands using flashlights, strobe lights, and colored theater gels. The camera shutter remains open two to nine minutes, while the full moon or our own hand-held lights expose each building, wall, structure or creature. Every composition requires a lot of experimentation, patience, and climbing in and out of rickety buildings before we get the final, perfect shot. The long drives, late nights, bugs, animals, frozen toes, and unexpected roll-in of thick cloud cover can make every single adventure a tale to tell.

And we'd be happy to tell you more . . .

Night in the Life of a Night Photographer

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Night in the Life of a Night Photographer

Fading Nostalgia

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/Gang aft agley”

(“The best-laid plans of mice and men / Go oft awry”)

~ Robert Burns

But sometimes the best part is the 'awry.'

. . .

A few months ago, a friend of ours passed along some photos of a gorgeous but abandoned homestead somewhere in central Illinois. It's true location, a complete mystery. With some clues from the photographer, he physically took the time to drive around the general area himself in order to find it for us. Eventually...success! (Kevin, you ROCK!!) He passed its location along to us, and we gratefully filed the gem away in our mental Rolodex for the next clear full moon night. With an 8-hour drive time to-and-fro, there simply was no room for error. Months came, months went. Thick, winter cloud-covers foiled our plans every time.

Finally, a full moon arrived, and our various weather apps confidently declared—despite the lack of sun all day—the clouds would part in central Illinois about 9pm. It was a little risky, I thought, but we packed up the gear and headed south with a smidge of light left in the day.

So, obviously, Chris and I travel a lot. For locations, for shows, sometimes just for nothing, but the thing is, we don’t live in California. The view outside our windows doesn’t typically look like this:

Or this.

And certainly not this.

In fact, if you’ve ever driven any of the interstates through the central midwest, you know that it’s no picnic scenery-wise. I-39 is particularly mind-numbing. So perhaps you ask yourself, how is this in any way fun, and how do we not fall asleep at the wheel?

The magic diesel that fuels this partnership: conversation. To be fair, it’s mostly me bringing up odd observations and Chris does his best to play along with my thought processes, which begin with a warning of sorts: "Isn't it weird that...."

On this particular journey, we passed a prison, which—after a quick web search—sparked a rousing discussion about the cost per prisoner and the travesties of the for-profit prison industry. Chris enlightened me about how the Goo Goo Dolls got shafted by their record company. I dug deep and talked about how it's strange that some childhood memories feel longer ago than others despite their proximal occurrence. We wondered when Genesis was the Prog-iest. We happened upon a semi-large city in central Illinois that we had never heard of. We got far too excited about our dinner which consisted of coffee and Salt & Vinegar chips from a gas station. And, because we saw a group of Amish or Mennonite teens at said gas station (purchasing Subway and soda...getting wild for Rumspringa perhaps?), we proceeded to school ourselves on what Mennonites actually are. In context, when you’re staring down a four-hour road trip through darkness, it’s kinda nice to ring out your mind and see what pours out.

In any case, three hours into our venture south, 9pm approached and our upward glances to the sky meant one thing and one thing only. These clouds were going nowhere. We hung our heads low as our not-so-trusty weather apps confirmed our fear: No clearance until maybe 3am. We’re no strangers to succumbing to a failed attempt. Once, we tried a full moon adventure up to the Estonian Church in Gleason, WI, outside Wausau, but turned around with just one more hour to go when we noticed the clouds barreling in from the west.

Well, here we were, already three hours into our attempt. Considering we had already paid our weight in Illinois tolls, we decided against turning around. Onward we traveled. At least we’d see the place...make sure it hadn’t been destroyed by the recent tornados that ravaged the vicinity.

As our tires crawled along a gravel road—our arrival audibly announced to the entire tri-county area—the looming shadow of the old house finally appeared from the ether. We parked, approached, and carefully and respectfully took a tour, outside and in. We marveled at the Italianate-style architecture, the attention to detail that certainly made this home a mansion in its time.We glanced at the sky one last time. You could barely make out the circular glow nestled deep behind the cloudy mass. Oh well, let’s see what happens.

Chris took some quick exposures for good measure and you can see that even at a brief 13 seconds at 10,000 ISO, the clouds act like nature’s softbox (for those photogs playing at home), an effect which causes the landscape looks like daytime. So, in order to try to find a balance between enough light to see the place with enough dark that it actually looks like nighttime, Chris pulled up on his usual F-stop and told me I’d only have 110 seconds to run around inside with my colored flashlight. Less than two minutes. So many windows, so little time. And there was this staircase without a banister that scared me half to death, quite literally, because one false step forward would send me one story down to my demise. All for what, I assumed, would be a throwaway shot. But I put on my game face and we were off.

After the first shot or two with a red color, and frustration that the house looked so flat without the moonlight, I got an idea. We repositioned to get a more dynamic angle, and I ran back into the house. I did every room as absolutely quickly as possible, with an epic concentration on not falling over the banister-less flight of stairs, and on my way out of the house, switched my flashlight from color to a white and bathed the whole front of the house where the moon would’ve been. “Time!” Chris shouted and I ran over to the camera.

click to see big!

Yes, that was it! I couldn't believe it. Because typically, helping a structure along with your own flashlight results in a flat, unnatural look, which is why we rely so heavily on the full moon. But this time, because of the angle adjustment, the architecture, the internal light, and something about the orangish glow in the distance, it all came together just right.

The clouds, the long drive, I-39, all worth it. It's about the journey, not the destination.

We swapped colors, did another half dozen attempts, and finally got it to where we wanted. Onto the rest of the house and some other ideas. This time, we took a little more time to open our eyes and really look around. While walking up the aforementioned grand staircase, it was difficult not to feel overcome with emotion and feel the spirit of the family that lived in this home so long ago. The views across the prairie were breathtaking even at this late hour. This feeling of Once Was Home rarely comes across, but on this night it really struck us deep.

click to see big!

click to see big!

click to see big!

The lack of full moon got pretty frustrating at this point though, with results that were ok, but would definitely benefit from some a more natural glow and a cobalt sky packed full of stars. Ah well, next time.

After about an hour and a half, we bid the Italian beauty a good night, and hopped back in the van—back into the dark tube of Illinois tollway and the titillating conversations that await our increasingly exhausted minds. Four hours to go, with one hour of time lost to the archaic Daylight Saving system that causes a 10% increase in heart attacks*. Of course, the clouds did indeed evaporate as we drove north, a beautiful blanket of stars in their wake. At 4am we arrived home to hungry cats and comforting pillows. But not without one last look at our labor of love.


Credits:

Thanks again, Kevin, for your dedicated search! Check out the original photographer who inspired this trek! Forgottonia Photography has lots more photographs of this house and other gems throughout Illinois.

The image from the blog banner is a stock photo dramatization. Because why would I take a picture of driving in a tube of darkness? 

*Yes! A 10% increase!

And one last thing

Music always accompanies our travels into Nowheresville. So, why shouldn't we create playlists based on our journeys. Our very first one, “Night in the Life,” is not to be missed! Hand-selected tracks that weave ever-so-delicately throughout our venture south of the border.

Just press play.

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