2016 Michael Reichmann Grant Winner – Jan Bell
I was honored to learn that I was the recipient of the 2016 Michael Reichmann grant. It allowed me to set out on a 12-week trek along the northwest coast of the United States. Shortly after receiving the grant I learned that Michael had lost his battle with cancer. That had a big impact on me. I was prepared to work twice as hard to achieve my goal, and I did. His legacy crossed my mind on multiple occasions throughout the journey.
I chose to drive cross country. This allowed me to pack what I would need for such a lengthy trek. Badlands National Park was the halfway point on my journey. My plan to camp for two nights turned into four after securing a secluded campsite alongside a prairie. Being in such a quiet place allowed me to mentally decompress and connect with the land.
Once I reached the state of Washington, I camped near Port Crescent, along a stream, under a canopy of Douglas fir. To my liking, I was the only camper in the small campground. It was here that I got my first taste of a rainforest. The tall Douglas firs towered above me, ferns covered the forest floor. I felt at peace with my surroundings and settled down for a good night’s rest. The following day I arrived at the coast.
The northwestern portion of the Olympic Peninsula is on the Mikah Indian Reservation. I had read that it was necessary to purchase a permit to hike and/or camp on tribal land. Upon entering Neah Bay, I stopped at the Makah Cultural Center/Museum and purchased a permit along with a ticket to tour their museum. If you pass through Neah Bay, it’s worth a stop.
I planned my journey so that I would arrive late in the season to avoid tourists. My first shooting location in Olympic National Park was Shi Shi Beach, specifically the Point of Arches. I camped at Hobuck Beach along the Makah Passage Road. It’s a short drive from there to the trailhead to Shi Shi Beach. Being that I don’t photograph on sunny days, I waited out the weather for three full days. On the fourth-day cloud cover rolled in. While many photographers make the most of the sunrise and ‘golden hour’ shooting, I prefer an overcast day. It creates a luminous “softbox” type of light.
While it is possible to park in a lot at the head of the trail to Shi Shi Beach, it is not recommended due to vandalism. I parked at one of the two houses located about a mile from the trailhead. The cost was $10 and provided some security. The owner even shuttled me to the trailhead.
My GPS showed that the hike to Shi Shi Beach was 4.1 miles. Point of Arches is an additional two mile hike along the beach. Once I arrived at my destination, I did some preliminary scouting and shot several test photos on my iPhone. Being that I work in a square format, I set my iPhone to shoot in that aspect ratio. Once I figured out what I wanted to capture, I shot for several hours. It was a beautiful location and would render various moods with its varied tides and weather conditions. The hike back made for a total of 12.1 miles (with 40 pounds on my back). I wish that I could have taken the trail up and over the headlands to investigate what lay to the south of Point of Arches.
I chose Mora Campground as my base for the next three weeks. It’s located on national park property, across a channel from the small tribal village of La Push. From the campground, Rialto Beach, First Beach, and Second Beach were within easy driving distance. It was here that the rain began. I experienced a few days of good weather, but overall it was bad. In fact, it ended up being the worst fall on record. Fortunately, I had good rain gear which allowed me to brave the elements. It’s interesting to note that Olympic Park has never closed. But portions of the park were shut down due to extreme storms during my stay, including Mora Campground. The Sitka Spruce, Douglas Fir, and Western Hemlock are over 200’ tall and can topple under high winds.
I was forced to evacuate in the dark and relocate to a campground four miles inland. The rain and wind were fierce throughout the night. The hail was deafening. The following morning I chose to seek out more secure shelter. An old metal RV storage unit became my base for the next three days/nights — uninspiring to say the least. During this time I made periodic trips to the beaches to witness the storms and do some shooting. Once the park reopened I moved back to Mora Campground.
I feel that I did some of my best shooting during my stay at Mora. I allotted a day to scout at each of the three beaches, noting the height of the tide that would best suit my imagery. Tidal charts were invaluable; I used an app called Tides. If water levels had been too low, I would not have been able to include the ebb and flow of water in the foreground of my images. If it had been too high, it could have obstructed rocks that I chose to include in a composition. This was why scouting was invaluable, at least for the way I worked.
The sea stacks at Rialto Beach were about an hour hike from the parking lot. If one lingers too long, the tides will rise along the beach and you will be forced to hike back over boulders and piles and piles of downed trees. The entire beach is lined with them. The spruce trees grow to over 200’ in this area, so you can imagine how large their trunks are.
Second Beach was my favorite location in the park. The hike was short and became more beautiful each time I approached the coast. It was secluded, the beach was expensive, and the beautiful sea stacks made for a perfect setting. Except for a couple of people camping on the beach, it was devoid of people.
Working in seawater was a learning experience. For my style of imagery, it required that I stand in water periodically. I had purchased a pair of Salomon Quest 4D GTX hiking boots for this trip. They were great boots from the get-go — waterproof, extremely comfortable, great support, etc. But they didn’t prove to be tall enough to keep my feet dry. That lead to my next purchase — a pair of Bogs rubber coated neoprene boots. They were great in water but did not offer as much support while hiking. I quickly learned of the force of moving water, bracing myself for each approaching wave. If they appeared as though they might be too large to be safe, I would take to the beach. I also quickly learned that it was necessary to support the legs of my tripod on stones, otherwise, they would sink ever so slowly into the wet sand with each passing wave. The stones were no match for the force of the largest waves though. I ended up with several shots where that was evident.
Keeping camera gear dry in rain and wind proved problematic. My first line of defense was my ThinkTank rain jacket (a covering for my camera body and lens). It proved to be unworkable as I tried to manually focus and change settings. Then I pulled out an AquaTech jacket. It was no better. It made me wonder if the designers of this gear ever tested them in harsh conditions. That said, I purchased some 6-mil plastic and fabricated a “skirt” using duct tape to waterproof the seam. A bulldog clip tightly cinched the opening around the lens, and another held the skirt from blowing off. Finally, I was able to reach up to the controls of my camera. Overall, the handmade “skirt” worked great. The only weather condition that proved problematic was wind and rain that blew directly at me. My only line of defense was to constantly wipe down my UV filter.
Saltwater spray was an unavoidable problem. Even though I carefully wiped down my gear at the end of each day, it took a toll. One of my camera bodies needed some minor repair upon my return to Ohio.
At each location, my objective was to create dreamy, ethereal imagery. I used a Really Right Stuff tripod and ball head for support, and an ND filter to lengthen my exposure time. My 4”x4” Singh Ray filters were held in place with a Lee filter holder. All focusing was done manually and shot in bulb mode. Times varied depending on the look I was after, and/or the amount of light present. As I previously said, overcast skies were imperative for achieving this goal. The same techniques held true throughout my time at Olympic National Park and during the remainder of the trek.
Once I made my way into Oregon, I found it to be much more populated — one coastal town after another. There were state parks every 30 miles (+/-). The good thing is that 100% of Oregon beaches had public access, allowing me to shoot anywhere.
I was fond of a coastal “shelf” that extended out into the ocean at Cape Perpetua State Park. There were many areas to explore, with Thor’s Well being one of the most unique. Further south I stopped at Shore Acres State Park. The waves were fierce upon my arrival, reaching a height of 75-100’ as they broke against the cliffs. I was pelted by sea water that was propelled by what seemed to be hurricane force wind. Needless to say, I learned quickly to stay out of its path. The following day I explored and shot the unique sandstone formations, working in the same area that would have been deadly the day before.
The Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor offered some of the best locations along the Oregon coast. The park is a 12 mile, forested, linear park with rugged, steep cliffs interrupted by small sand beaches. There were several parking lots along the road adjacent to trailheads that lead down to the coast. Some were extremely steep and dangerous. One slip and I would have kissed my life (and gear) goodbye. It was here that I found some of the most beautiful coves of the Pacific coast. Finding good compositions was difficult because the sea stacks were nestled tightly within the coves, and there were very few vantage points to shoot from. Granted, it would have been easy to get the obligatory “I was here” photo. But achieving an image that captured the essence of what I saw before me was tough. I feel that I snagged one great photo, and that’s all I hoped for. Ansel Adams once said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” By contrast, I’m happy with six or eight.
Traveling south I entered California. I realize that northern California is not technically a part of the Pacific Northwest. But no trip to the west would be complete without spending some time there. I did some shooting in the redwoods (unsuccessfully). Regardless, I loved being amongst those towering giants. My goal for California was to capture a new image at Point Reyes National Seashore. The elements came together and I got what I was looking for. Of course, it had to rain while I was shooting.
The following day I headed inland. It was difficult to pull myself away from the coast; my heart and soul remain there.
Death Valley was not far off course on my return route home. I’ve been there numerous times but never get enough of it. It’s a harsh environment if you visit during the hot months, but days were a comfortable 75 degrees in December. I remained there for two nights and added another beautiful dune photo to my portfolio.
All in all, I traveled 9,750 miles. And I would do it again in a heartbeat, despite the harsh weather that I endured. Nothing is more exciting than a new adventure!
Bell Images has seen a slow but steady growth over the past 16 years. During that time my prints have transitioned from mainly color to black and white. This transition occurred shortly after taking a workshop at the Ansel Adams Center. It opened my eyes to the beauty of black and white. I spent considerable time studying photos — from the last century as well as contemporary work.
The retail end of my business has provided the funds necessary to continue my exploration of the beauty of the American landscape. The income has come from several sources — monetary awards, sales of 1,000 prints (+/-), workshops, and the licensing a handful of color images.
If my style of photography has sparked some intrigue, you might consider booking a spot in my 2018 fall workshop at Lake Superior. Rock Island Lodge will be our headquarters. It’s situated on the shores of Lake Superior, with four guest rooms. A majority of time will be spent shooting at Lake Superior Provincial Park, along with a one-day shoot at Pukaskwa National Park. Both offer beautiful rugged shorelines along the Lake Superior coast. It will be a small group – only four participants unless two people would care to share a room, in which case I will take five. With so few participants, there will plenty of one on one instruction. The emphasis will be on composition and creating an expressive photo – one that goes beyond the captured image. Contact me directly if you are interested in this opportunity here. In addition to this workshop, I offer private Photoshop instruction.
You can visit my website here.