Evening Stage

Evening Stage | Beebower Productions

The 1939 movie “Stagecoach” gave Dad the idea for this Old West photo.  He envisioned a silhouetted stagecoach with the mountains in the background.  It sounds simple, but it required an enormous amount of planning.

Dad relied on his friend Red Wolverton for the stagecoach and horses.  Red is well known in the photo and movie industry.  He, his family, his horses and stagecoach all appeared in the 1993 movie “Tombstone”, among many other Westerns.  With the utmost confidence Dad chose Red to supply and drive the stagecoach for this shot.

Red brought the coach and team to Mendoza Canyon, Arizona early in the morning the day of the photo shoot.  Not too long after arriving, the sky opened up and a gully washer let loose above the canyon.  Water filled he sandy wash, normally bone dry, and it rose so high Red couldn’t navigate the stagecoach across it to the photo shoot location.  Everyone cooled their heels for an hour or two waiting for things to settle down.  Red even did a little cowboy cooking while he waited.

Once conditions improved, the whole crew crossed the wash and got ready for the photo. Dad chose the location for the mountains in the background, not because it was a well-used road.  So Red set up practice runs with the horses to get them used to the newly created path they were going to travel.

Right before the shoot started, Dad and his assistant tied cheesecloth bags loaded with Fuller’s Earth to the wheels of the stagecoach.  Prop masters and special effects folks frequently use Fuller’s Earth in the movies because of its nice tan color.   It sure looks like natural dirt. 

For our shoot, each time the wheel made a turn, it would hit the bags of dirt and release dust.  In addition to the wheel bags, Dad spread Fuller’s over the path the horses would travel.  The flying dust reflected the sunlight, helping to make light beams visible for the naked eye.

After a long, sometimes frustrating day, everything finally came together for the shoot. The sun moved lower in the sky.  Dad got his cameras ready for stagecoach action.  He used two Nikon FTN camera rigs for this session.  One camera sported a 50mm lens and the other used a 85mm lens.  Dad ensconced both cameras in plastic bags to protect them from the dust.

In the end, Dad only had three passes of the stagecoach to get the action and the light just right. The final image pleased him, though.  He successfully took the photo he envisioned and turned it into a real Old West photo.

He was so happy with the shoot, he didn’t mind when back at Red’s ranch his assistant hosed a thick brown layer of grime off his clothes with a garden hose.  Even then, the clothes didn’t look so great, but he didn’t really care.  He had more Old West photos to create.

If you enjoyed reading about the Evening Stage, check out these images from our Old West gallery.

Horses and Chuckwagon | Beebower Productions

Heading Home | Beebower Productions

Buckboard Cowboy | Beebower Productions

The E-Kit To The Rescue

E-Kit | Beebower Productions

For as long as I can remember it held a place of honor in the van.  It overflowed with tools, gadgets and a lot of zip ties.  That sucker easily weighed a ton.  However, we gave much honor and respect to the monstrous, gigantic, blue E-Kit.

My Dad’s emergency kit often saved the day when photographic disasters reared their ugly heads.  The calamities ranged from an unruly tree branch encroaching on a photo to an urgent need for a homemade flag. 

On our photo shoot at Madera Canyon in Arizona the sun shifted dramatically throughout the day.  We combated the pesky rays of light hitting our hummingbird set by placing multiple flags on light stands to block the light.  Eventually we ran out of flags. 

Broad-Billed Hummingbord at Mexican Cigar Bloom | Beebower Productions

The E-Kit rode to the rescue.  Within a few minutes I’d whipped up a solution to the problem by duct taping a cereal box to a light stand’s arm.  Dad got some great photos thanks to that little flag.

Dad’s photo shoots often took place in remote locations like ranches in the Rocky Mountains or the deserts of Arizona.  Stores and help were far, far away.  So Dad took everything he could imagine needing in the E-Kit.

“Sometimes a ‘fix’ from the E-Kit didn’t play a major part in a photo but we couldn’t have found the stuff on location,” Dad said.

Cherry Cobbler | Beebower Productions

The kit saved “Cherry Cobbler”.  Dad created this mouthwatering picture for his book “Legends of a Range Cook”.   To get an authentic feel to the photo he went on location and set up the campfire with the Dutch ovens and tools.  However, the wind kept blowing the tools around so Dad dug into the E-Kit and used some wire to lash them in place.

When Dad and his brother Gordon ran their commercial advertising studio, they had to deliver fantastic photos no matter what went wrong.   Both their reputation with art directors and their income rode on delivering despite what obstacles lurked around the corner.  After a short time in the business they became highly motivated to anticipate problems.  It required, however, becoming a jack-of-all-trades with a working knowledge of all sorts of tools.

Dad said, “You don’t know what’s going to go wrong and what you’ll need to fix it.  Basically you’re trying to make something be what it’s not to get the photo. But if you’ve done it right no one will be able to tell what you did either to fix the problem or put it back like you found it once you’ve got the photo.”

Stealing a Great Idea

My Uncle Gordon got the idea for the E-Kit at his first post-college job working for another professional photographer.  He observed this photographer not only used an E-Kit, he also bought bags for light stands, arms and other things in the commercial photo studio.  This made going on location a breeze because gear didn’t get tangled up in transport. 

Uncle Gordon talked to Dad and they decided to swipe both of these ideas.  As former Boy Scouts both guys loved the motto “Always Be Prepared”. 

Their first E-Kit was significantly smaller than the monstrosity I grew up knowing (and secretly hating when I had to try to pick it up). It proved to be inadequate for the amount of stuff they routinely needed on location shoots.

Meanwhile Dad observed one of the worker bees at another studio creating bags of all sorts using an industrial sewing machine and heavy-duty tarpaulin.  The material came in several thicknesses, all with bonded coating to make them waterproof.  Even better, the material wouldn’t rip.  You literally had to cut it to create a break in the fabric.

So Dad purchased an industrial sewing machine, tracked down the fabric and got started on a long career of bag making.  He designed the E-Kit bag with inner and outer pockets to make finding smaller items easier.  He left a large center well open well for items like staple guns and saber saws.  He also added heavy-duty straps for carrying the whole shebang. 

Heavy Duty Rottweiler

Problem solved.  Well, mostly.  As I mentioned the bag weighed about as much as a hearty, full grown Rottweiler.  Perhaps I exaggerated a bit.  Nope.  Now that I think of it, I’m certain it was in Rottweiler range. 

Back in the day it took two people to pick up the thing.  Dad, however, could heft it around by himself. Now Dad’s paired down the bag a bit since his commercial photography days are over, but it still weighs in at a chunky 40 pounds. 

Because the bag weighed so much, it mostly stayed in the van on location shoots.  If he needed something, Dad would send an assistant back to the vehicle to rummage through the E-Kit. 

When he was shooting “Evening Stage” he did send an assistant back to the van to get wire.  Dad needed to fasten flour sacks filled with Fuller’s earth to the backside of the stagecoach.   Each time a wheel made a rotation, it hit the bags releasing some of the stuffing and creating dust that made the sun’s rays really stand out. 

Evening Stage | Beebower Productions

Dad came up with this special effect on the fly.  Thanks to the E-Kit and a friend who had the flour sacks, everything came together to make one very believable piece of Old West art.

In making Western pictures like the stagecoach, Dad often sketched out his ideas before heading out to shoot.  One time he envisioned a winter photo in the corral at his friends’ ranch, but he knew he’d need extra lighting.  While still at the studio, he built a light with a strobe head inside to illuminate the model.  Then he headed to Colorado for the frigid photo session. 

Winter Pack Trip | Beebower Productions

Once on site, Dad secured the light to the fence with a drill.   Since this was a regular item in the E-Kit, Dad didn’t give the drill a second thought.  The photo turned out great and the ranch returned to normal by the end of the day.  Everyone was happy.

So a well-designed E-Kit can make or break a photo shoot.  It even helped Dad be a more creative artist as well as a problem solver.  He crafted “Buckboard Cowboy” by combining multiple photographs to make one Old West photo.  After shooting the cowboy driving the buckboard, Dad realized he’d need to add more dust coming up from the horses’ hooves to make it believable. 

Buckboard Cowboy B&W | Beebower Productions

While on location, Dad took a 2×4 from the E-Kit, wrapped it in blue screen fabric and stapled the fabric to the wood.  Then my mother hit the sand repeatedly while he shot the resulting “dust”.  The blue screen fabric allowed him to seamlessly cut out the dust in Photoshop and add it to the big picture composite.  It may have been a small part of the overall photo but that attention to detail combined with the other elements made a realistic photo for the viewers.

Blue Bag O’ Tricks

So you might be wondering what Dad keeps in that magic blue bag of tricks.  We’re going to tell you.  In fact, we’ve provided a complete list for you.  Just enter your email address and then download the list.

But first, one additional note.  Each time Dad goes on a shoot, he evaluates what he thinks he might need.  Anything not on the original list gets added to the bag.  For example, he’ll throw in a few garbage bags if the forecast looks especially wet.  He’ll add a shovel for super snowy locations.  You get the idea.  This is a list of basic supplies.  Tweak it to fit your individual situation.

 

Enter Your Name & Email To Download Your FREE E-Kit Check List

Horse Stampede

Horse Stampede | Beebower Productions

Dad found himself buried underground in a steel water tank waiting for a herd of about 50 horses to stampede over the top of him.  Dad hoped to capture a unique angle from below the horses.  He knew this would be challenging to pull off safely.  He turned to his friend Red Wolverton, who knew lots about movie magic and even more about horses. 

The plan revolved around a steel tank with slits cut in the sides for cameras.  The tank would be buried inside Red’s corral with Dad and his crew inside.  The slits would allow Dad to be at eye-level with the horses’ hooves and still have a degree of safety.  Red selected an ordinary live stock water tank to accommodate a photographer, motion picture photographer plus their assistants and their cameras.

Steel Tank Photo Lair | Beebower Productions

On the day of the shoot, Dad and the three guys got situated in the 7-foot diameter pillbox, as Red and crew called the modified tank.  Red then used the backhoe to fill in the door area with dirt.  About one foot of the tank was visible above ground.  That placed the camera openings in the perfect position for some amazing pictures.   

Pretty soon fifty horses supplied by Red barreled down the road right toward the corral and Dad.  Wranglers on either side of the herd ensured the horses hit the mark.  Nobody really knew what the horses would do when they reached the buried tank. 

The photo crew could feel the ground vibrating before they saw the horses.  Then things happened fast and furiously.  The horses kept coming toward the pillbox and veered to the left and right of the tank at the last minute.  Dust.  Stones.  Dust.  Hooves.  Shoot.  Shoot.  Shoot.

Dad only had two chances to capture the perfect shot both in movie and still form.  It took about 40 minutes between the two stampedes just to get the horses back in place and the cameras somewhat clean.

The whole shoot from start to finish took most of the day.  Dad got his winning shot on the first run.  The horses’ hooves came within six inches of the camera lenses and about 10 inches from Dad’s face.

“When you do something like that you don’t realize how much nervous energy goes in to it.  At the end of the day you’re just beat and covered in dust.  I think that dust stuck with us for about three days even though we washed off with the garden hose a couple of times,” Dad said.

Despite the dust, Dad and his team managed to create a unique photo that captures the essence of the Old West.

If you enjoyed this story, check out these other cool horse photos!

Mendosa Canyon Packhorses | Beebower Productions

Wild Big Bend | Beebower Productions

Storm Horses | Beebower Productions

Old Mescal Bronc | Beebower Productions

Cowboy and Horse in the Snow | Beebower Productions

Horses Cowboy Dust | Beebower Productions

Tracking True Grit Part 2

Fall Meets Winter | Beebower Productions

As soon as we turned off the highway, our jaws hit the floor.  Last Dollar Road outside of Ridgway, Colorado brought the Old West to life with a dramatic flourish.  The San Juan Mountains loomed over top of ranches that dotted the valley. Elk, badgers, black-billed magpies, deer and coyotes moseyed through the meadow as we meandered down the winding dirt road.  Groves of aspens framed the entire scene. 

Our mission: track down some of the most famous locations from the original 1969 John Wayne movie “True Grit”.  Our first stop on this pre-sunrise trip was Mattie Ross’ family ranch. 

The ranch sat on private land, but it was easily accessible without trespassing.  We wanted warm morning light hitting the decaying buildings, thus we left our hotel in the wee hours of the morning to reach the ranch in time.

Why go to so much trouble to photograph an old crumbling building?  We love Westerns and the Old West.  Henry Hathaway, the director of “True Grit”, not only opened the movie with the ranch; he also closed the movie with the ranch.  That sealed the deal for us, as did the building’s weathered, abandoned look.

We reached the ranch in time for the sunrise, but the mountains behind us blocked the light for about 15 minutes.  We didn’t mind.  We just feasted our eyes upon the marvelous landscape.

True Grit Ranch | Beebower Productions

“I thought it was fantastic,” Dad said.  “When we went up Last Dollar Road and then continued on up and explored the rest of the area, I thought, ‘Geez this is a really super place!’  The movie was well done.  They put together something that was very believable.  They took a little artistic license but you could definitely recognize the area from the movie.”

Dad loved the scene so much that he returned in October of last year to photograph the aspens changing colors.  He got a bit of surprise, though.  The aspens, indeed, burst forth with orange and yellow hues, but a storm dropped snow on the mountains.  So Dad shot “Fall Meets Winter”, the image at the top of this blog.

Apparently, the film crew from “True Grit” also got a wintery surprise during filming. 

According to the Ridgway Chamber of Commerce’s website, “The film crew was concerned about the lack of snow for the final scene, and had made arrangements for a snowmaking machine, but an early snowfall the night before the scene was scheduled to be shot solved the problem.”

So those high mountain meadows swing from one season to another at the drop of a hat.  Last Dollar Road sits at about 9,000 to 10,000 feet (depending on the spot you pick), and it turns out that worked well for Dad and the producers of “True Grit”.

“They tell me you’re a man with true grit”

After we wrapped our shoot at the ranch, we headed back to town for a little more movie history.   Surprisingly in the summer of 1968 Ridgway, Colorado became Ft. Smith, Arkansas.  Director Henry Hathaway loved this little patch of Colorado.  He preferred Ridgway to other locations the team found in Arkansas.

In 2000 Charles Portis, author of the book “True Grit” corresponded with Ft. Smith National Historic Site park rangers about the choice of towns. 

He said, “Hal Wallis, the producer, had considered making the movie in Arkansas, and sent an advance man here. I drove this man around northwest Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. He did like the town of Van Buren, saying it would do nicely for 1870s Fort Smith. Later, Hal Wallis called to tell me that there were logistical problems with shooting the picture in Arkansas. I have the idea that Hathaway (the director) persuaded Wallis to make it in Colorado.”

While Portis may not have loved the idea, the town of Ridgway immediately got to work remaking itself.  Set construction crews remodeled or moved buildings and created false fronts as needed.  Boardwalks popped up around town and then gallows sprung up at Hartwell Park.

The studio employed over 300 locals as movie extras and for jobs like shoveling manure off the streets.  In September of 1968 thousands flocked to the open set to watch John Wayne work his magic.

Today Ridgway remains proud of its Western movie heritage.  The Chamber of Commerce offers walking tours of the town.  Some of the modified buildings like the firehouse, originally a town hall and school before Hollywood came to town, can still be seen today.  The movie’s livery stable became today’s post office.   And the jail wagon used by Rooster Cogburn at the beginning of the movie waits for miscreants at Heritage Park.  Even the dirt roads around town lend an authentic feel to Ridgway.

True Grit Cafe | Beebower Productions

One building in town pays tribute to the whole experience, though.  The True Grit café, built in 1985, contains loads of movie memorabilia.  Movie aficionados will definitely recognize the original “Chambers Groceries” painted on the wall by the bar.  It appeared behind John Wayne as he unloaded the prison wagon at the beginning of the movie.

The builders carefully included the wall in the restaurant.  While the café was built 16 years after the movie, John Wayne fans will definitely enjoy the atmosphere while chowing down on some good grub.

Glowing Aspens | Beebower Productions

If You Go

The aspens along the road put on a magnificent display in October.  To reach Last Dollar Road, leave Ridgway going west on Highway 62 for 11 miles.  Drive over the Dallas Divide.  Then take a left on Last Dollar Road.  Travel 2.5 miles and look for the ranch on the right hand side of the road.

  • Take pictures but respect private property.
  • Passenger cars are fine on Last Dollar until you encounter rain or snow.  Locals recommend a high clearance vehicle.
  • To catch a walking tour of Ridgway, contact the Chamber of Commerce at 970-626-5181.  Tours leave the Visitors Center on Fridays at 11 a.m May through October.  They cost $10 for adults.  Children under 12 are free.
  • To learn more about Ridgway’s movie history Click Here.

Get Great Beebower Photos & More!

Receive our Photo of the Month Newsletter with tips, techniques, and more fun stories!
Plus be the first to know about events and special promotions!

You have Successfully Subscribed!