Ellingsons Begin Quest to Capture The Beauty of American National Parks
by Dana Larsen
Reprinted Courtesy of Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune
Dr. Bruce Ellingson prepares to shoot panoramic images at Beef Corral Bottom near Wind Canyon in Teddy Roosevelt National Park. Photo courtesy Marge Ellingson.
When you grow up on a farm doing outdoor chores, you learn to appreciate both the sunrises and sunsets you work by.
The light matters.
As a roving landscape photographer some 40 years later, Dr. Bruce Ellingson, professor of media studies at Buena Vista University, still looks to the light in the golden hours of early morning and the soft moments of summery evening, when nature is at her most alluring.
Ellingson and his wife Marge are embarking on a photographic adventure this year - the mission is to capture striking images amid the scenic beauty of every national park west of the Mississippi.
Ellingson is using "high dynamic range" panoramic techniques that will create huge images - this requires bracketing three exposures of each perspective for depth, while panning across eight to 12 individual perspectives to capture the entire view.
As a 'shakedown tour' for their artistic journey, the Storm Lake couple drove to Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota in June, sleeping in a van, to spend four days beginning to capture images. They are taking full advantage of social media to share and document their experiences as they happen, with everyone who wants to follow along.
After returning home through the Fourth of July holiday, they will head to the Badlands of South Dakota to continue shooting, and then in August, it's on to Glacier National Park in Montana. During a sabbatical from his post at Buena Vista University, the Ellingsons will journey north to south across the western U.S., documenting the National Parks through November.
All the while, he will be searching for the light.
"Right now I'm looking at a photo of the sun setting on a Little Missouri canyon. It's 9 o'clock and the wind drops over the river and the sun dropping over the horizon just warms everything in an amazing way," he muses.
He says he often tries to make sense of why he takes the pictures he chooses to take. "My hope is always that people will look at a photo and say 'Whoa!' Not so much about the picture but because of how incredible these natural places can look. I suppose if I have a hope, it would be that people are able to appreciate what light does to a landscape."
Teddy Roosevelt park was an ideal first test for what will become the couple's lifestyle for the next several months. The park is more compact than others, and trails made for reasonably easy hiking to the regions chosen to photograph. "We're talking hundreds of acres instead of thousands, so it's not as if we started out having to look at the entire Rocky Mountains trying to choose one site for a photo."
The location of this first park held meaning too. "My mother was a North Dakota girl. I had never seen this region, but somehow, I feel a connection to this land," Ellingon says.
As he worked in the Riverbend Lookout in the north part of the park - a "Grand Canyon-esque" view, he said he could hardly believe he was in the midwest.
"As we were working, a couple from Illinois stopped to survey the scene. She said to her husband, 'Aren't you going to take a picture?' He replied, 'I'll buy a postcard. I can't capture this with my camera.'''
The park was virtually empty of people when he shot - going out around 4 in the morning to be ready for the soft early light. When he returned in the late afternoon to take advantage of evening light, he would be passing the other tourists who were on their way out.
"I'm sure that when we are in places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, we will be looking back on how nice it was to have a place to ourselves," he says.
With four decades of photography work under his belt, mostly in the photojournalism and education fields, Ellingson's new passion for landscapes is deepening. He looks at images from the masters such as Ansel Adams, and with each trip out - whether near home in Buena Vista County, to the nearby Loess Hills vistas, or on an ambitious trip to a national park - he seeks to learn.
Marge, meanwhile, uses a separate camera to shoot documentary images of her husband's project - doing so well at it that he jokingly refers to her as "Ms. Ken Burns."
He and his wife had toured national parks earlier in life, but it never occurred to him then to try to capture them in photographs. Returning is almost like an anniversary for them.
There is another benefit to this journey. As an educator, what Bruce learns and experiences will go straight into the classroom when he returns to Storm Lake.
"It's an immediate payback," he says. "Everything I'm learning, I can use."
It is not his first sabbatical from teaching, but he says his previous departure was consumed with completing PhD studies and a dissertation. "That was in no way fun," he laughs. "I told myself that when I did it again, it would be to do something where I would wake up every morning and want to be there."
The Ellingsons operate Nature's Image, dealing in the kind of photography they are perfecting on the trip, but he says there has been no thought yet of marketing or profiting from the project - at least for now it's all about the images and the pursuit of the light.
By starting in the north and working south, he hopes to dodge some of the winter conditions that can be become daunting in the wild western regions.
"I have no desire to challenge Mother Nature," he says. "Besides, one thing I've learned is that I really love the color green," he laughs.
While Ellingson likes to shoot on the fly, he does plan an itinerary with some locations that he can't miss, and hopes that weather cooperates.
"I like to have water in my images whenever I can, and I look for great skies. When you have a dramatic sky, you know you have an opportunity for a good picture."
Everyone should have some form of sabbatical getaway sometime, he firmly believes - to recharge batteries, shake up the lifestyle or simply reflect on life.
"I love teaching because you start new and fresh every September, and in May you clean up your office and you can spend some time thinking about what you've done, and what you'd still like to do."
Searching for the light, for example.
"My oldest son likes to say my photos are all sky and dirt. Maybe so - but what it's really all about is what the light does to that sky and dirt."
To see some of the project's first photos and to follow along with updates, go online to Nature's Image Facebook Page.