We all know that water flows downhill, seeking its own level, flowing to the sea. Water is a primary force shaping our planet and environment. It will erode rock, move soil, and, in its frozen form as glaciers, sculpt mountains, valleys, and plains.
I’ve been traveling upstream on the North Platte River through western Nebraska, eastern Wyoming, and northern Colorado at least once every summer for more than two decades. I go to see what the landscape looks like through the ground-glass focusing screen of a large format view camera. My current camera takes pictures using 8” x 10” color sheet film negatives.
Michael Farrell photographs “Jack Creek Split Rock”. Photo by Peter Stegen
The technology is essentially the same as the cameras that were used in the 19th century to photograph the horrors of the Civil War and, just a few years later, to visually explore and bring back powerful photographic images of the majesty of the American West. Although certainly much heavier and more unwieldy than today’s digital SLRs or smartphones, there is nothing yet that matches a large format view camera for clarity, detail, and tonal range.
View camera photography is contemplative, reflective and meditative. And that’s why I continue to do it. It takes me out of the contemporary sped-up, jangled flow of time and forces me to really look at my subject and make careful decisions. Every time I set up my camera it takes at least a half hour to get to the point of tripping the shutter. And each time I trip that shutter it costs about 40 dollars just for the film, processing, and shipping. And that doesn’t include the additional costs such as getting to the location, post-processing time and printing materials. So the process doesn’t lend itself to snap-shooting.
But I don’t think all that much about the costs or the time expended once I’m on the road and out in the world headed upstream. I look for places that express something profound. Sometimes it is a small detail and sometimes it can be majestic. In selecting the photographs for this portfolio I looked through several years of 8” x 10” color negatives and began to realize that a common theme emerged even without me actively trying to find ways to illustrate it.
“Erosion” is an easy word to use and understand but what I’m after is a word that hints at something metaphysically potent as well as simply describing a powerful mechanical physical process. Some of the first “clocks” used flowing water as a way to mark the passage of time. Given time, water is stronger than even the most obdurate of obstacles. Eventually all that is built up will be worn down…
For more than two decades, from way before we started the Platte Basin Timelapse project, I’ve been drawn to our river and the region through which it passes as one of the essential subjects for our current place in time and space, living here in Nebraska and relying as we do on the water and bounty of the Platte Basin for much of our livelihood and well-being.
When I’m out in the upper reaches of the river system, looking for places to photograph, I am drawn to those locations that make me think about the short time that we, as mere mortal humans, are allowed to exist here on earth and the eons of time that have passed since the water began flowing out of the mountains and through the canyons down to the plains, shaping that environment into what we see today. This is humbling to say the least.
And as I get older it is even more humbling to realize that almost nothing that we do as humans will have the same power and effect that water has flowing downhill to find its own level. The planet is patient and water will outlast humanity.
Here’s a thought to ponder: We tend to think of water seeking its own level, ultimately at sea level. Rolling down the mountains through canyons and past dams and reservoirs, through fields and wetlands, always going to some lower, flatter place. But that really isn’t true. Water seeks to be spherical. The earth is not flat, but round. “Downhill” only seems destined to arrive on a plane (or the Plains…) because we can’t easily see the curvature of the earth. But water really wants to become a uniform sphere, like a drop floating in a vacuum. A perfect shape. A unity. Perhaps that is why we are so drawn to water? To its flow, its musical sound as it gurgles over rocks or the roar as it cascades down canyons or the quiet peace of a lake at dawn. All reflecting the variable paths of our minds and spirits as we make our way minute by minute toward the inevitable…