There is deep American history imbued within every stalk of wheat and worn wooden plank in eastern Washington’s Palouse region. I sensed it when I slowed down and quieted my anticipation. I paused intentionally and inhaled the sweet air to further inform my senses.
The region is a must-shoot destination for thousands of photographers each year, and every one of them prizes the rolling fields and aging barns. But from my experience, few take the time to make photographs that convey a deeper story. That was my goal last month, and will be each time I visit.
The images below are the beginnings of my series of uninhabited portraits of the timeless Palouse.
The Palouse region in Eastern Washington and Idaho has long been one of the world’s largest producer of grains and legumes. In fact, it’s products help feed several countries. Many locals take pride that their families descended from it’s original settlers. It is those generations who have given the region and it’s structures their story that is often told through stories and crafts. Thousands of painters, printmakers, weavers, quilters, and especially photographers have flocked to this region, and 95% of the images they share are colorful testaments to the beauty of their subjects. I want those colors to fill my eyes and my frame, but also want my images to impart a sense of history.
Despite the multi-hued paint that covers this old sun-scorched Dodge, I chose toned B&W to better reflect the silence of an engine’s final stall. Who’s Dan Hood? I’ll be sure to find out.
From up on Steptoe Butte, a long lens and patient eye is required to isolate ideal compositions from an endless quilt of interlocking patterns. No matter what the season, this region offers beauty to anyone who decisively interprets it.
The region’s citizens are of several faiths, and all I met there are members of a congregation. That’s community, pure and simple as it has been for generations. Through times bountiful or harsh, the many churches of the Palouse region have bound people together. I imagine that these structures still house silent echoes of sermons, ceremonies, laughter and tears of the past. I imagine the voices and creaking floors, and the turning of crisp bible pages.
At the top of a hill sits Freeze Church and cemetery. Here, many old graves reveal clues to the history of the town.
Young Margaret Bailey passed before nine years of age. One cannot imagine the void left by of her death, not the tears that have since watered her grave. Her stone has faced west for a hundred years. It’s inscription has been read by hundreds of visitors, and has been warmed by several thousand sundowns.
Cautious by nature, these sheep kept their distance from us curious humans— and a potent electric fence. Here, I framed with story in mind, the background giving context to the lone grazing sheep who was just a few feet away. By using a wide angle lens, I am always able to include a subject and it’s environment.
I learned that it is best to preset the camera before approaching, as Sheep are unlikely to wait for a fiddling photographer.
One of the more poetic features of this otherwise soft-edged landscape are the many broken Cottonwoods that have survived dozens of thunder storms, winds and icy winters. If someone says “Oh, sure, that’s near that lone broken tree up north”, the tree in question could be the one just a few minutes drive, or one of many miles away.
Once a busy working vehicle, this rusting sentinel now houses a nest of ornery hornets as it watches the sun set over nearby fields. I imagined the many conversations, songs and sports scores that once filled it’s time-hollowed cab. That is my photographic daydream, adding detail to tell the story, and choosing compositions that leave room for the eye and imagination to wander.
Here, a backlit dust plume trails a tractor tilling fertile soil. This scene repeats annually throughout a verdant rolling panorama. The Palouse is now the nations largest producer of lentils, which are shipped for processing or direct consumption.
Grain piles are common near the huge steel silos that dot the region. These wheat kernels are at the heart of any Palouse story, so I took time out to make several closeup portraits.
No matter where you travel or how deep you look, there is a story behind the subject that first attracts you. Try to go beyond the obvious, beyond the popular and the postcard. Tell your story through your photographs.
I’ll be back with more from this series after my next trip in Summer. From then on, I’ll endeavor to meet more locals in the region and begin to weave them into my stories.
Addendum: We’ve filled our upcoming May 2017 Palouse workshop, and we will lead more. We’ve scouted the region, met local people for learning and mapped the best locations for days of striking, clean-air photography. If you’d like great guidance to capture your story of the Palouse and learn of our next tour, subscribe to this blog. Once a subscriber, you’ll automatically be informed of everywhere I go and what I shoot and write. You’ll also get my newsletter with a lot of key info and opportunities to grow as an artist.
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