Devils Tower, in Wyoming, is famous for many reasons, particularly in popular culture as the center piece of Steven Spielberg’s movie “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind”. It was also one of Americas first national parks. Established in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt, it has a rich history with the Lakota Indians & other tribes of the area who’s folklore tells a tale of 2 girls who went out to play, were spotted by several giant bears, who began to chase them. In an effort to escape the bears, the girls then climbed atop a rock, fell to their knees, and prayed for the Great Spirit to save them. The Great Spirit made the rock rise from the ground towards the heavens so that the bears could not reach the girls. The Indians named the tower things like “Aloft on a Rock”, “Bear’s House”, ” Bear’s Lair” & ”Home of bears” The name Devil’s Tower originated in 1875 during an expedition led by Col. Richard Irving Dodge when his interpreter misinterpreted the name to mean Bad God’s Tower, which then became Devil’s Tower.
I made a trip to photograph it in 2010, but found my initial results disappointing. In 2012, I decided to try again with an epic 12 day road trip across the top of America from Minneapolis to Washington State, then south on PCH all the way to Los Angeles. 12 days to shoot whatever I wanted. It was great. The only rule was to never hit any interstates, just 2 lane roads as much as possible and see small town America. “Miles Between” was born.
I set off from Minneapolis on Highway 212 October 15th. After driving for 10 or so hours, I came upon the Devils Tower National Park and the monument itself, which didn’t stick out all that well in the pre dawn darkness. I had hoped to get an earlier start and arrive there around 1-2am for a few long exposures, but as travel and traffic would have it-4am would have to work. Entering the park, I followed the road to a parking lot at the base of the tower. Man it was dark, cold and kinda freaky outside! I set up my tripod outside my car and rigged a remote so I could sit in my car and stay warm ( and also, because it was pitch dark and I had no idea what kind of animals may have been roaming around the park) Luckily, I found out later it was a brave idea to stay in the car as I was surrounded by vicious, blood sucking Prairie Dogs that woulda killed me for sure.
The tower is a dark, light eating rock, as I mentioned earlier, that was not easy to see in the darkness. Fortunately, I had a spot-light style flash light that I could use on the tower to focus my lens on the features. I was using a Nikon D700 w/24-70 2.8G, which is normally awesome in low light-but this was no light-so it was up to me to do everything manually. No prob, thats what infinity is for on the lens right?
So this shot, my hero from the day, was actually a mistake. Well, maybe not a mistake, but definitely not the shot I was aiming for when I pulled in. This was the first year I had tried long exposures at night with any success, and my formula was to do a test shot at higher ISO, then use reciprocity to recalculate the similar exposures at lower ISO. Easy peazy. I relate long exposures to cooking, because once you know all the ingredients and mixed it up, it’s just a matter of waiting for it to be ready. Even with all that strategy, there are also happy accidents-like this. The image above was actually meant to be a set-up or test shot for focus. I had rigged the spotlight on a stand, with my camera set low to the ground, I peeked thru my view finder to set the focus. Once that was set, I tripped my shutter release to see what kind of exposure would result from ISO4000 F2.8@ 30 seconds.
About halfway thru the exposure, I realized the spotlight was still on. I was tired and prone to errors after traveling and jumping into shooting. This error, however would result in one of my favorite images and certainly one of the more unique shots that anyone has made of this iconic American treasure. I made a few other long exposures before the dawn light took over and the day arrived, but this was the stand out.
The afternoon was beautiful & the light was soft which allowed me to make one last hero portrait as I hit the road west.
Thanks and stay tuned for more stories behind the image.