March Madness (Part Deux)

April 2, 2017

The "Spring-in-Charleston-by-way-of-Winter-in-Saluda" trip was truly a successful, satisfying escape (see Part 1 for more) - with winter and spring images all squeezed into what amounted to a single day of productive shooting. The only thing that stunk about my brief but bountiful venture was that some goob ate the rest of the chocolate chip cookies in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express when I went back for seconds. Seriously. The desk clerk told me some guy came in and took a dozen or more cookies back to his room, emptying the whole container. So there really is such a thing as the Cookie Monster. But I digress.

 

When I got back home from my journey, I was plum tired. Though I'm not sure what plums have to do with anything, but anyhoo....

 

Really though, I was (and still am) exhausted. Working what has amounted to seven day work weeks between the photography and the day job has taken a big toll on me physically. The constant driving, getting in and out of my car, bad diet, lack of extensive exercise, and other things have left me a bit worse for wear. When I went to the local Sub Shop in Waynesville several days ago, one of the managers there (also named Robert) looked me over and stated the obvious:

 

"You look tired, man."

 

"I am," I sheepishly replied.

 

Though I didn't tell him I was plum tired, but again I digress.....

 

So my usual travel weekends were spent near the house instead, with me sleeping in most mornings, getting out long enough to grab a cascade shot here, taken along an old stretch of US 19/23 near Sylva:

Or a gloomy Parkway shot there, as I circled around to Looking Glass Rock:

I even did a little storm chasing of sorts, as I tracked a thunderstorm from the road to Black Balsam, right down the road from Looking Glass Rock:

In the meantime, two older images of mine were selected for inclusion in the May/June issue of Blue Ridge Country Magazine, where I am a regular contributor. These images, taken in more colorful conditions, are certainly more cheerful than the gloomy brown winter landscapes I tend to be stuck with from November to April:

 

Both of these shots - the top taken just below Waterrock Knob, and the bottom, taken atop Craggy Pinnacle - are fairly familiar ones to those who follow my work, and it's nice that they will now see publication as well.

 

But the prestigious Appalachian Mountain Photography Competition was up on the horizon in late March; and for the very first time, I was a finalist, in the Landscape category.......for a winter image I had actually shot in Autumn. Confused yet?!? Let me explain further.....

 

In November 2015, I originally had set out to visit a friend in the Tri Cities area, but once I saw rime ice capping the tops of the highest peaks on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I swung around to capture those scenes. It turns out my friend couldn't meet up that day anyhow, so I had free rein.

 

I drove out to Craggy Pinnacle (that place again!) and found myself in 24 degree temperatures and icy scenes, everywhere I looked:

Rime ice (basically, fog that freezes to surfaces on contact at high elevations) coated everything I saw, except the trails; and most importantly, the Blue Ridge Parkway itself.

 

I took dozens of images that day; and as so often happens, a few got lost in the shuffle. I was running around like a man possessed, shooting every composition I could find. I felt like the proverbial "kid in a candy store" - that's how excited I was at what I saw.

 

I edited a few images, posted them, and left the rest alone, transferring them from the CF card to a compact flash drive.

 

Until a year later.

 

With the wildfires raging all throughout the region (and my steadfast refusal to take or share images of them for the sake of likes, shares, or notoriety) I found myself "digging through the archives" to keep my social media flow going.

 

So I pivoted back to that November day in 2015 to cull a few images from my old flash drive; and I came across one I'd forgotten, or just plain overlooked. I took this particular image freehand with my old Nikon D700 and wide angle lens, with no tripod. I simply boosted my ISO speed, and the image still came out clean. After giving it an edit, I quite liked how it turned out. I figured it was worth entering, so I did, along with the above image of the famous Craggy Tree. This is that image; and if you have followed me for any length, you are well familiar with it by now:

I titled it "An Entrance To Winter."

 

I also entered four more images to the AMPC. This year, I felt I had a fairly good chance at being a finalist, particularly since my skills had improved dramatically over a year previous. 

 

December 9 was the day that finalist notifications would be sent. As the long day wore on, and no notification was received, I resigned myself to the fact that once again I would be passed over as a finalist in the AMPC.

 

But surprisingly, about 4:30 that Friday, I received an email from Rich Campbell, director of the AMPC:

 

"Dear Robert,

 

The jurors of the AMPC have chosen 48 finalist images out of 900 total images. Congratulations! Your image "An Entrance to Winter" in the Landscape Category was chosen as a finalist in the 14th Annual Appalachian Mountain Photography Competition."

 

Well, hot dog! I'd finally gotten through!

 

So it was a game of "hurry up and wait" until March 25, when the reception would be held for the finalists of the AMPC. At the reception, the award winners would be announced.

 

Before that Saturday, I decided to drive out to Newport, Tennessee after originally planning a sunset at Max Patch Knob. I decided to bypass Max Patch, mainly because I wanted to keep from repeating myself, but also because I sensed that the sunset would not be worth the torturous drive up the rugged gravel road from Harmon Den.

 

Instead, I kept going west on Interstate 40, briefly checking out the Foothills Parkway before finally deciding on Douglas Lake, located just outside Newport. I took a shot of the vast sky over the lake at sunset.....

......before heading to the south side of the lake to engage in a little creative fun.

 

If you look carefully at the above image, you'll see what appears to a an old road at the very bottom, spanning the length of the image. That road is an old, abandoned stretch of US Highway 25E, which was buried under Douglas Lake when it was created circa 1943. After the lake was filled, the road was relocated to a higher elevation. When the lake is drained during winter (or when there's drought conditions) the old poured concrete surface can be seen, even driven on in places - which is astounding, even after more than seventy years of abandonment.

 

So I stopped at one of the places where the road is exposed; and decided to get "artsy," with a long exposure of me being the blurry, enigmatic figure walking along that old stretch of road, which once served many generations ago as the main highway between Asheville and Knoxville:

Saturday morning came; and I headed out to Boone for the AMPC reception (and awards ceremony!) by way of Marion, stopping to grab a Heath Bar Blizzard at a Dairy Queen on the way.

 

Wait a second. First, I reference cookies and plums, then hot dogs, now Blizzards. Geez, my diet is horrible, and I'm not even through referencing food yet. Again, I digress......

 

I had to arrive at the Turchin Center at Appalachian State (where the reception would be held) early, as I was selected for two "portfolio reviews" - where other professional photographers would look over a selection of my work and give me insights on how to improve - and I can always stand to improve.

 

I chose two photographers whose successful photographic backgrounds appealed to me - first, Andrew Caldwell, who as it turned out was also one of the judges for the competition; and secondly, Brian Bookwalter. Both are Assistant Professors in the Commercial Photography program at Appalachian State; and since I am interested in commercial photography (particularly, saleable landscape images to commercial publications and entities) I thought both would be a big help.

 

And both told me virtually the exact same thing - that while my images were uniformly excellent, they were all a bit too "even," meaning that I was playing it way too safe in post-processing (my use of Photoshop and Lightroom). There was drama and intrigue in those images, and I wasn't bringing that out properly. I needed to be a bit more daring. Andrew in particular pointed out something I already knew, yet needed to hear again:

 

"Cameras don't see light and color the way the human eye does, and you need to take advantage of that. That, plus adding people into some of your images, wearing and using the latest outdoor gear, will help make your images more saleable to clients who may want to work with you in the future."

 

I tend to be a purist when it comes to developing images, not going too far, trying to accurately represent what I saw. But I sometimes forget that photography by its very definition is art - and since I am an artist at heart I could stand to be a bit more aggressive in my approach.

 

"You'll know when you've taken it too far," Andrew assured me.

 

Brian likewise seconded Andrew's assessments, also adding that including people in some of my images will help the viewer feel more of a connection to the image, as well as give a sense of scale, particularly in my typical wide angle "Cinema Scope" style. He also confirmed for me something I have sensed for quite some time now - that Facebook is becoming less and less an attractive option for posting work, and that other places like Flickr and Instagram are the way to go.

 

Both gentlemen were a big help - it was a nice, swift kick in the direction I was already sensing I needed to go. I thought, "Well, even if I don't win anything tonight, these portfolio reviews were really great."

 

I headed back to the mezzanine at the Turchin Center, where the reception would be held, and bumped into friend and fellow photographer Jason Frye (one whose excellent body of work is criminally underrated) and said to him, as the catering tables were being set up, "It's getting to be nervous time for me."

 

Nervous, indeed. It was only a matter of an hour or so before the awards ceremony; and though I was surrounded by good company - my photographer friends Steve Yocom and his friend Leslie, J Smilanic, the aforementioned Jason, Cathy Anderson, and her friend Amanda - I couldn't shake the nerves. Add to that the swelling crowd of people into a cramped space, and it was all starting to feel a bit claustrophobic for this introvert.

 

So I grabbed a couple of cookies from one of the catering tables (more food references again!) and also one of the local IPA brews, in hopes it would calm my nerves a bit.

 

It did, perhaps a bit too much - frankly, that one can kicked my rear. I looked down at the can, then back up at Steve.

 

"Looking for the content?" He asked.

 

"Yup."

 

"It's 6.8%."

 

Well, alrighty then. Local IPA 1, Robert 0.

 

As I walked around the exhibit, I was awestruck, perhaps a bit intimidated by the sheer quality of images on display. There was literally one masterpiece after another gracing the walls, images taken by true artists with passion and love. I looked at Steve, J, Cathy, Leslie, and Amanda, pointing out a couple of images, saying, "I wouldn't be surprised in the least bit of one of these got People's Choice," the award that the public has a hand in choosing, via online voting. I did my best to get the word out for people to vote, but I really didn't think I had a chance to win.

 

The director of the AMPC began the awards ceremony soon after. First up, the aforementioned "People's Choice Award."

 

Director Rich Campbell began by saying something to the effect of, "This particular image was pretty much in the lead from the beginning of the voting process, and never relinquished its lead. The winner of the People's Choice Award goes to Robert Stephens for "An Entrance To Winter!"

 

My jaw went to the floor.

 

What happened in the following seconds seemed like a dream. My inner Sally Field was going, "You like me, you really really like me!"; while on the outside, I danced a silly little jig, complete with a Saturday Night Fever/Tony Manero point to the sky. Everyone had a good laugh while I approached Rich for a handshake. At least I appeared somewhat normal here! (photo courtesy of High Country Press):

He continued down the list of winners to the Landscape category, where he called my name again as the winner! I approached again to shake Rich's hand as well as pick up my award, then went back, looked at J, Steve, and Jason, and said, "I'm in shock!"

 

And I was. I went in not expecting anything, and walked out with two awards. It was beyond my expectations, and then some.

 

Cathy went on to win "Best In Show" for her image "South Mountain Wildfire;" and after the ceremony she and I playfully jousted with one another as to who was the bigger winner, making a couple of silly videos. I insisted - tongue firmly planted in cheek - that since I won two awards to her one, I was the bigger winner (even though she came away with the big prize). I also kept referencing Meat Loaf (the singer, not the food) and his song "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad," since I won two of the three possible awards I was eligible for. But it was all in fun. We all also hammed it up for the camera, making silly faces while Amanda took photos of us:

As things go, Cathy looked fabulous, while I looked like a country bumpkin holding a water bottle. I was originally wearing a button-up shirt similar to what Steve had on (far right) but I felt it too dressy and changed to my familiar Columbia jacket. In retrospect, I might have been better advised to keep the buttoned up shirt on!

 

In all, it was a tremendous honor to hang out with friends (some of whom are new), walk away with two awards, and to be recognized by my peers and my ever-faithful social media following. I am forever grateful, and glory goes to God for all the good that came my way. If I never make it to another AMPC final, I am content. Big thanks to Rich and to Mary Anne Redding who organized the portfolio reviews. The catering was fantastic, and the sponsors superb (including my camera company, Nikon). It was a top notch evening, all the way around.

 

But still, one cannot rest on his laurels long; so I was back out in the field the next day dodging raindrops and wind to catch some Blue Ridge Parkway Sunday drama:

And I was scouting out new locations as well on Monday, making the short-but-very-steep climb to Lover's Leap on the Appalachian Trail, overlooking the quaint little town of Hot Springs:

Plus I just got a new ultra wide Nikkor lens in the mail to test out for some night images. I already have a couple of friends in mind to serve as "models" for some of the concepts I want to employ, as soon as I get the proper hiking gear. Those awards I won (both being sizable gift cards to outdoorsy-type stores) will help take care of that.

 

Oh, and it's supposed to snow in the higher elevations here on Thursday, my off day.

 

As you can tell from this and the prior blog, March was indeed crazy for Yours Truly; but it looks like the madness - as well as new opportunities, God willing - will continue into April and maybe beyond.

 

Not that I'm complaining. Everyone needs a little madness in their lives......

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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