Dances With Wolves

The reason I always liked “Dances With Wolves” is that it is a Western that doesn’t really declare itself as one. When the movie was released in 1990, I was too young to appreciate the old Eastwood movies and had absolutely zero interest in the heroics of John Wayne; that was my dad’s generation, and, I guess, his dad’s. I came up in the blockbuster era of Lucas and Spielberg; I had to work to find films outside that realm, foreign films and Woody Allen movies, just to think more outside the box. By the early Nineties, there weren’t any decent modern Westerns – the genre was dead. Not even Eastwood was making them anymore.

When Kevin Costner came along with “Dances,” it was almost regarded as a joke. Westerns no longer sold tickets, and besides, “Kevin’s Gate” was rumored to be three hours long – with subtitles! Yet there was something about it that intrigued me, so one February night, as America went to war against Saddam Hussein in the opening salvos of Desert Storm, I went to see the movie in a cheap theater in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

I was sucked into the story and setting from the opening frames. Costner’s Western was not some phony-looking oater with plywood sets and a static, locked-down camera, but a Civil War drama unlike anything I’d ever seen. Not only were we catapulted into the midst of a battle, but the battle has drawn to a stalemate – the Union soldiers are injured, waiting for surgery, bored, demoralized. Even the officers are at a loss. What’s going on here? What kind of Western is this? (Hollywood, by the way, seems to define a “Western” as anything with horses.)

Costner’s Lt. John Dunbar, himself injured and facing the possibility of amputation, seizes a horse and charges the Rebel picket line. It’s a suicide run; Dunbar at one point lets go the reins and offers himself up as a free target. (Fortunately, the Rebs have awesomely poor aim.) This rallies the troops, and the Southerners are routed in a fight that suggests some of the exciting action still to come. “Dances With Wolves” is off and running.

Dunbar is transformed by his action from a suicidal “hero” to a man on a mission: to see the American frontier “before it’s gone.” He rides off into the wilderness to encounter a tribe of Lakota Sioux. The rest of the film concerns Dunbar’s gradual assimilation into this tribe, adopting a Sioux name (Dances With Wolves) and marrying a white woman whose Sioux husband was killed in combat. Dunbar comes to see the world through the eyes of the Sioux – their enemies, including the encroaching white Army – become his enemies, and the film ends with Dunbar and his wife, Stands With a Fist, riding back East to face charges of treason. It is a sad, ambiguous ending to a film filled with tremendous action and adventure.

Yes, I regard “Dances With Wolves” as an adventure movie, because Costner fills every frame with an exhilarating, sometimes terrifying, sense of exploration. His camera captures a side of the American West I’d never seen before, its epic grandeur, its beauty and terror, its severity and generosity. Whites and Indians are both reduced to specks on this golden, unfurling landscape. Yet he also goes to great lengths to explore the nature of the conflict between the two races, and uses Dunbar as a possible means of reconciliation and understanding. It is a mirage, of course, and something of a fantasy; Europeans mauled the Native Americans, stripped them their of their land and heritage, enslaved them, impregnated them, and wiped them out with diseases imported from across the Atlantic. Costner doesn’t ignore this fact – he portrays Whites as a savage, unforgiving enemy, “not worth speaking to” – but also gives us a story in which one such man, at least, finds common ground with these beautiful, honorable People.

Politics aside, the film plunges into Sioux life, and what an exhilarating experience it was, seeing it for the first time. We come to empathize with the Sioux and understand not only how they lived, but why. We see the Great Horse Culture of the Plains, the buffalo, the cyclical nature of nomadic life. Costner does a great job showing us, too, that Indians were not united – tribes banded together and fought against each other, a kind of genocidal behavior that Whites exploited. There is such a complexity to the story and to the civilizations on display that there is a different meaning to the movie each time you see it.

Critics have complained that Costner goes too easy on the Indians and portrays all Whites as cartoonish villains. I couldn’t disagree more. First of all, this movie argues against the long-standing cinematic portrayal of Indians as bloodthirsty savages, nothing more than cannon fodder for self-righteous white movie stars. (Y’know, the kind of Westerns I lost all interest in watching years before “Dances With Wolves” came out.) Second, there’s nothing wrong with a filmmaker turning a sympathetic eye to a culture that has not only been badly misrepresented over decades, but was systematically destroyed by the U.S. Government. That’s the fucking point. Dunbar goes to see the Indians before they were scraped from the surface of the planet by an army of insurgents. Yes, Dunbar is just as lilywhite as the rest of the Union soldiers, but this isn’t a case of a white man single-handedly saving “colored people” from destruction or ignorance. No, Dunbar fails to save anyone, including himself. The march of Manifest Destiny had begun, and “Dances With Wolves” ultimately reveals itself as a tragedy. Dunbar and his Sioux family – the only people he ever cared about – will be swept into the ash heap of history.

I can’t say enough about Costner’s direction of the film, and I’ll stop right here to say that he deserved his Best Director Oscar just as much as Martin Scorsese would have for “GoodFellas.” Costner took an enormous risk with “Dances With Wolves,” for reasons I outlined above, and came up with a great movie that transcends the boundaries of the mere Western. The movie is about trying to identify with another human being in spite of everything you’ve heard about him (or her), and realizing that everything you know might be wrong. He uses humor, tremendous action, a sweeping camera, and actual Indian actors (speaking Lakota Sioux!) to create a story that is straightforward but not simplistic. Yes, it is a fantasy, and no, life would not have been quite so idyllic for Dunbar in real life, but there’s enough gravity in Costner’s direction to suggest that, in a sense, it really was like this.

I walked out of the theater that February night reverberating like a guitar string. I wanted to learn how to ride, I wanted to see a wide-open vista, I wanted to go on a terrifying adventure that would challenge the way I looked at the world. You can’t ask for much more than that from any movie.

Costner would go on to a varied directing career, seeming to stop with 2003’s more traditional Western “Open Range,” which I will say was probably the best film of its year, as well. If he ever decides to tell another similar story, I will be more than happy to queue up for a ticket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The new Lara Croft, Tomb Raider

There is absolutely nothing special about “Tomb Raider,” in either its newest incarnation, starring the athletic Alicia Vikander, as Lara Croft, or in its early-2000s versions starring Angelina Jolie. There’s no reason it should warrant commentary, except to say that we all need to see a cheesy action movie from time to time, and there’s nothing cheesier – we’re talking a chunk of Velveeta here – than Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.

The new movie as well as the Jolie versions are based on a videogame, which I feel fortunate to say I never played. I am not, as a rule, a fan of the videogame-as-film genre, which includes Lara Croft and a dozen or so other movies, most of which I have not seen. But, Lara Croft is at least a female action hero, which makes her more appealing than the usual pile of muscles. Unfortunately, the Vikander iteration probably won’t live much past 2017.

The problem isn’t Vikander, it’s that there’s only so much that can be done with Lara Croft, and I’m afraid that gets back to its videogame origins. A videogame isn’t an origin story, so any film has to not only invent an origin story but spend precious time laboriously explaining it. With Lara Croft, we already got an origin story, more or less, in the 2001 version starring Jolie. This one is a reboot, meaning we are starting all over from scratch, with almost exactly the same story as the earlier picture. (We’ll pretend 2003’s LC sequel, “The Cradle of Life,” never happened.)

The 2017 version is a carbon copy, script-wise, of the Jolie film. It finds Lara as an orphaned adult stubbornly refusing to accept her inheritance following the disappearance of her famous father Richard, a wealthy and eccentric adventurer torn from the pages of a sweaty novel by Clive Cussler. Richard was the sort of larger-than-life character who took hoary legends seriously. In this one, he’s onto some kind of Japanese vampire goddess who was buried alive eons ago and now threatens to be resurrected from the dead unless so-on and so-forth. He was last seen alive on an island in the middle of the Pacific, and only Lara, after solving a series of puzzles, can so-on and so-forth.

“Tomb Raider,” the Vikander version, takes Lara from one exotic locale to another on a quest to find out what happened to her father. In a CGI sequence culled whole from both Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” and the more recent “Kong: Skull Island” (both better films), she washes up on the shore of this deserted island, which is populated by none other than an associate of her father’s, in search of the vampire goddess tomb. He answers to a shady figure who’s kept off-screen for as long as possible, then revealed in a none-too-surprising climactic twist. We yawn and shrug.

Lara is a novice as far as swashbuckling goes, but soon she earns her stripes, putting her budding martial arts and archery skills to the test. She faces down a small army of mercenaries, makes a daring escape, shoots rapids, clings to a dilapidated airplane (over a CGI waterfall, no less!), and so-on and so-forth, until she finds an answer to the question of what became of her father. Is Richard really dead, or did he grow a beard and become a cave-dweller? Hmmmmm …..

Look. I admire Vikander’s physical performance. She runs about as fast and as well – and almost as stylishly – as Tom Cruise in any Tom Cruise movie you’d care to name. She exudes charisma. She’s a movie star. But Lara Croft is weak tea. As a female Indiana Jones, she’s not given much resistance. Indy had to fight Nazis and a satanic cult; Lara’s up against guys with machine-guns. Okay? There’s a difference.

Also, the director, Roar Uthaug, offers little in the way of cinematic verve. The film looks decent, is competent, and just barely watchable. It isn’t particularly funny, though it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I would say that I was entertained right up until the moment I wasn’t, though I could not name that moment. This is not a great movie. It’s not a bad movie.

So how does it compare to the original Lara Croft? Well, Angelina Jolie is a movie star in her own right, but again, there’s only so much that can be done with the character. I will say that Angie’s Lara was sleek, sophisticated, slyly witty, eminently athletic, and self-conscious with regard to fashion. She approached her adventures with a sexy grin and a feral look in her eye. Jolie was THE reason to endure the otherwise creaky, cliched screenplay of her “Tomb Raider,” a special effect to outshine the woefully antiquated CGI (even for 2001 standards) and rather subdued practical stunts and effects. Her Lara Croft was a stranger character in an even stranger film, and I can’t say that any of it worked at 100 percent capacity.

Bottom line: Until a decent story can be found, I’m afraid no Lara Croft: Tomb Raider will be completely successful. The ladies work hard, and their work is commendable, but both have been undercut by half-baked screenplays. Too bad.

 

January Travel Day

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I found this burnt-out antique car on US 82 in Stamps, AR. Photographed with the Nikkor f/1.8 85mm at f/5.6, ISO 400.

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Fender, derelict car, Stamps, AR.Photographed with the Nikkor f/1.8 85mm at f/5.6, ISO 400.

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Abandoned metal building, Lewisville, AR.

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Old vending machine, Lewisville, AR.

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Ancient gas pump, Lewisville, AR.

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Bayou, Stamps, AR.

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Bayou, Stamps, AR.

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Forest floor, Lake Columbia.

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Derelict gas pumps, Lewisville, AR.

A Day with the Cubans

I accompanied a delegation from Southern Arkansas University – and the University of Artemisa in Cuba – to Little Rock today, where the presidents of the two universities signed an agreement for an academic exchange, then toured the Clinton Library and the Heifer International Center.

The signing ceremony was an official event well-covered by Little Rock media outlets. I had not had an opportunity to do any photography in our State Capitol, so I enjoyed grabbing a few images of the edifice itself before and after the ceremony. Our group then reconvened at the Clinton Library, a truly impressive structure made of “green” materials, glass and steel, overlooking the Arkansas River. We ate lunch in the 42 Cafe (named for the consecutive order of Bill Clinton’s presidency), a four-star restaurant where our university president introduced the visiting to Cubans to a former state attorney general and the former mayors of Little Rock and North Little Rock. We then toured the museum, which was every bit as spectacular as I remembered it.

From there we journeyed the short distance to Heifer International, a major charitable concern that has based its $17-million building in LR within sight of the Clinton Library. A volunteer tour guide explained to us that the Heifer building is (like the Library) built of green materials, powered by solar thanks to its unique architectural “footprint.”

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The State Capitol in Little Rock

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Rotunda of the State Capitol

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I took a selfie in the reflective glass behind which boxes filled with Bill Clinton’s presidential papers are displayed.

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The Clinton Presidential Center and Library. The building is designed to resemble a “bridge to the future” spanning the Arkansas River.

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The replica of the Oval Office inside the Clinton Presidential Center. No photography or video is allowed in the office, which exactly duplicates how Bill Clinton had the Oval Office arranged and decorated.

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Two floors of the Clinton Museum. That’s our group from SAU in the foreground, exploring exhibits of gifts that were given the Clintons during their tenure in the White House. The tall bookcases all contain Clinton’s presidential papers.

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This beautiful mosaic, gifted to the Clintons, is made entirely of small, hand-painted tiles, and is one of my favorite displays in the museum.

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The ground floor of the museum

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Bono wrote and signed this personal letter to Bill Clinton. It has been displayed in the section on the “Irish Troubles” for at least the past 10 years.

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Glorious photojournalism is on permanent display in the Clinton Museum. In the main photo, Al Gore arrives at the Governor’s Mansion to accept Bill Clinton’s selection of him as his vice-presidential candidate. How I wish we could go back to those days in 1992.

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The Heifer International building, a unique architectural design

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I liked this Photoshop treatment of a photo I made of stairs in the State Capitol.

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My boss, Aaron Street, pointed out this magnificent photo opportunity, taken from the third floor of the Heifer International building. The curvature of the structure allows for the windows to contain its own reflection. That’s the Clinton Library reflected in the foreground window.

Perdido Key, Family Vacation 2017

We are here on the lovely Gulf Coast for our annual family getaway, staying at Perdido Key, a white stretch of beach separating dry land, where I normally reside, from the Gulf of Mexico. This is not a complete trip report, obviously, but a quick post as I take a momentary break from the action (due in part to the pain of two sunburnt feet). We were here exactly two years ago (though not staying in the same condo) and are doing pretty much the same thing, which is, spending lots of time on the water’s edge. Today I practically dove into the chilly Gulf waters, bouncing and bobbing and generally getting swallowed up by waves. I’d forgotten how powerful those waves could be! There’s no feeling quite like getting swept along by a force beyond your control. I had also forgotten how incredibly awful seawater tastes, but got an unwelcome reminder. The ocean makes an eternal stereoscopic roar, and the wave pound incessantly, creating a never-ending playground for travelers like us who’ve enriched this place with our tourist dollars. We drove 14 straight hours to get here and most everybody else is like me: we’re going to soak up the sun and get our money (and hours’) worth. Here are a few photos.

NIkon Cow, our official trip mascot, hurtles east on an interstate in northern Louisiana, bound for Vicksburg, Miss., and the Gulf Coast beyond.

This has become one of my favorite destinations: the visitors center at Vicksburg, and this view of two bridges spanning the mighty Mississippi. I’m always inspired to go back and read Mark Twain after visiting this spot.

A different view of the twin spans.

This awesome barge was moving downstream, a reminder of the fact that commercial traffic does regularly use the Mississippi, the same as big trucks use the interstate system. This thing moved very fast and, from my vantage, silently.

My view coming into downtown Mobile, Ala., on I-10. To our right was Mobile Bay, and in the dock was a massive Carnival Cruise ship, easily 10 stories tall and God knows how long, visible for miles. It took us quite a few minutes for us to figure out we were looking at a ship and not some kind of massive wall rising up out of the bay.

The tunnel underneath Mobile Bay is a natural photo opportunity; I shot in continuous burst mode from one end to the other. Note the light at the end of the tunnel.

Just a lovely view of sea, sky and clouds.

Beach scene

 

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That’s my nephew, Zachary, in the lower left hand corner of the frame holding the fishing rod. He’d just spotted a stingray in the water, and would later tell us he saw something that looked like a shark about four feet long.

 

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I liked this view of the fence along the beach with sea oats and our condo in background. This scene has always reminded me of the movie “Jaws” and its opening sequence, with the fence line and vegetation along the shore. (Full disclosure: there are sharks in the water here, some as long as 10 feet!)

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The view from our third-floor balcony. I enjoy how a public beach is laid out in strips: from the no-man’s-land of sea oats, to the part of the beach you walk on, to the part where sunbathers lay out beneath blue parasols, to the actual water’s edge. (Note: my camera lens was actually fogged over in the transition from our cold living room to the 85 degrees that greeted me on the balcony.)

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Nikon Cow approaches the Mississippi River at Vicksburg.

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Another view of our beach.

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The ever-changing sky over the Gulf was a constant source of beauty and inspiration. This was the view from our stretch of beach on the next-to-last afternoon of our stay.

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Christa poses on the shoreline on a day that was perfect for photos. The air was a soft blue, the skies cloudy, the Gulf choppy.

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Christa and me.

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Seething foam breaking on the shore.

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The beach at sunset. Everything was a soft pastel color the entire time we were there.

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Storm clouds brew over the Gulf. I took this photo from our balcony.

Well, we just got back from Beach Trip 2017. This  year’s trip wasn’t much for photos, though we tried. Two crises hit, neither of which could have been avoided or foreseen. (Well, maybe one, but who thinks to have their battery tested?)

On our second night in Perdido Key, my mother-in-law, Marilyn, came down with a mysterious stabbing pain in her abdomen. She’d been fine all night, enjoying a nice meal with all of us at Lambert’s Cafe, one of our dining destinations, but about 3 a.m., Christa and her dad had to rush her to the nearest emergency room, which was 25 miles from our condo. Turned out, she was suffering from a kidney stone, one that was too large for her to simply pass on her own. She required an outpatient procedure. However, the fact that the date was July 4 meant the procedure had to be delayed for a day. So, Marilyn spent three full days in the hospital – a devastating blow to her husband and kids.

Christa spent two nights by her mom’s hospital bad; I spent one of those nights with her. Brother-in-law Larry took care of their dad, who was, I think blaming himself and feeling overly responsible for everyone’s good time. There were some tense moments, and the whole situation was compounded by the unfortunate fact that Marilyn felt terribly ill and was in a lot of pain.

So, a good 24 hours of my trip was spent in hospital, or en route to the hospital, all while trying to have some semblance of a vacation. (This was true for everyone.) The kids did manage to have a good time, swimming and tanning and gathering shells and staying up late. Two of the grandkids did catch small sharks swimming in the Gulf. And we did the usual eating and shopping.

Sunburn is a constant concern on the beach, and I managed to burn the tops of both feet. Christa also received a nasty burn on her back. We don’t know what happened; we both soaked each other in sunscreen. One of those things. For much of the time, I was literally hobbled.

We enjoyed Fourth of July fireworks on the beach, though everyone’s good time was muted by Marilyn’s absence. We were able to see the fireworks display at Flora-Bam (a honky tonk straddling the state line, where Christa once got hit on by a woman), and farther west, at Gulf Shores. Both were spectacular, but too far for me to make photos.

I spent four or five hours total in the water. It’s wonderful swimming in the Gulf. I love the weightless sensation, the waves, the feel of warm sand underfoot. My nephew snagged a big fish that brought the attention of a guy on the beach who claimed that that fish would fetch at least $20 in a restaurant. I held it by the tail before we released it; it was slimy and unappealing. Zachary caught at least three other fish, wading out hip-deep in the swelling surf to cast his line. The dude is an excellent fisher. I was surprised to learn that mostly what you catch along the beach are catfish.

We visited Lulu’s, another favorite restaurant. It is owned by Lucy Buffett, sister of Jimmy. We heard that the CEO of Apple had visited the restaurant just the prior week. I bought Jimmy’s Tales from Margaritaville in the gift shop, and ate the cheeseburger in paradise, which was topped with a grilled pineapple slice, crispy bacon and, yes, creamy pimento cheese. The “French-fried potatoes” were amazing.

We also dined at a beach joint called The Hangout, which was too crowded for my taste. We had to wait three hours for a table, during which time we mostly just …. hung out. Fortunately, the house band rocked, ripping through a setlist ranging from Journey to Pearl Jam to Prince to, yep, Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Journey itself also played in concert that same night, but we missed getting tickets.)

Marilyn was released from the hospital on Thursday but was too weak to enjoy the beach, and her husband, of course, stayed right with her at all times. There was some talk of leaving a day early  which sparked some controversy. We took family photos on a beautiful afternoon on the beach – the sky was perfect and we had plenty of crashing waves, providing interesting backgrounds. Christa was happy with many of her images; I felt that my own photography was somewhat stagnant and predictable. I didn’t get to shoot many of the things I wanted to simply because, unavoidably, there wasn’t much time for it.

On our last night, we all piled into my and Christa’s Toyota Highlander to head out for Adventure Island, where we played putt-putt golf until midnight, and when I turned the ignition, the engine wouldn’t crank. It took four tries to start her up. Shit. It seemed like the battery. We managed to do all that we needed to do, but the car was clearly having problems – the last thing we needed to have happen.

Facing a 10 a.m. deadline the next morning – we had to vacate the condo exactly on time or get locked out and charged an extra day – I hustled another 45 miles up the road to the only Walmart Supercenter with an auto center. Sure enough, the battery died just as I parked at the garage. They managed to replace the battery within an hour, and I got back to the condo by 9:30. By 10 a.m., we were on the road again. About 11 hours later, we were back in Magnolia. And here I am.

 

Fun shooting

John Miller and I went out and about in my hometown of Prescott, Ark., today getting the hang of his new Nikon D500 DSLR, which is truly a remarkable camera and a big step above my D3200. This is a professional-grade camera with a lot more bells and whistles than either of us is used to (the manual is 400 pages), but I had a great time applying my basic knowledge of the settings and layout of my entry-level Nikon to his D500. I don’t think either of us would ever actually use 1/10th of the features available on this camera, but I can say that it was fun to use, surprisingly versatile in spite of the added weight of the extra battery compartment, and matched well with my 35mm and 10-24mm lenses. We shot in Prairie DeAnn Cemetery, where I have kin folk buried, and in downtown Prescott, primarily the burnt-down remains of … well, half a city block. Prescott is old, in disrepair, running out of viable businesses, and run by a government that seems incompetent at best, careless at worst. Still, burnt-down buildings can make for some great art, what with their rough textures, exposed wood, etc., and we felt we were able to capture some of the desolation and (John’s words) “I give up” attitude of the city fathers. I also took a quick tour of an interesting old alley.

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Observation, and a clear night photo

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This photo was taken LITERALLY in the dark of night (about 9:00 p.m.), in the Science Building parking lot at Southern Arkansas University, as members of the Engineering Department set up telescopes to observe Jupiter and its moons. We got to see the planet, and it was a sensational sight, but I was most pleased with this photo grab of mine. I used my 35mm f/1.8, wide open, with the ISO jacked up to 3600 and my exposure compensation dialed up to 1.0. A very nice result.