Tracking True Grit Part 1

True Grit Meadow | Beebower Productions

Like U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, we raced up the mountain with anticipation and determination burning in our gut.  But our prize wasn’t a low-down dirty outlaw, rather the most famous scenery from the beloved 1969 Western “True Grit”.

When I discovered that most of the legendary John Wayne movie had been filmed around Ridgway, Colorado, I knew tracking down the movie locations was a no-brainer.  Dad grew up watching a steady diet of Westerns.  From TV shows like Gunsmoke and Rawhide to movies like “High Plains Drifter” and “The Magnificent Seven”, he eagerly soaked up stories of the vast, untamed American frontier and the folks who lived there.

An art festival brought us to Ridgway, but I quickly informed Dad of our post-festival activities.  The Ridgway Area Chamber of Commerce printed a brochure called “Ridgway’s Western Movie Heritage” that revealed all we needed to know.  Hollywood loved filming in and around the tiny town.  The marquee included “True Grit”, “Tribute to a Bad Man”, “How the West was Won”, “The Sons of Katie Elder”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid” and most recently “The Hateful Eight”. 

While Hollywood directors loved the scenery around Ridgway, not everyone lauded the decision to film there.   Charles Portis, author of the book “True Grit” (upon which the movie was based) said he thought Colorado looked more like a “big sky” Western than Ft. Smith, Arkansas, the real setting of the book.

“True Grit” movie director Henry Hathaway later said, “Yes, I know, but it didn’t matter because all Western movies were fairy tales, more or less, and a specular landscape was expected.”

Dad agreed. 

“If I go to a movie, and I’m thinking “Holy mackerel!  I’ve gotta go see this place!’ then the director’s done his job well.  I’m always curious what the real place looks like,” Dad said.  “Obviously directors go to a lot of time and trouble to find the best places to film their movie.  If you pay attention to scenery in movies and can find out where it was shot, you save yourself some trouble.  It’s basically location scouting done for you.  Plus it’s just cool to see the place for yourself.”

Visual story telling drove Hathaway.  According to movie historian Fredrik Gustafson’s blog, “He (Hathaway) was very particular about what he wanted.  He would sometimes wait, and hold up the production for days, until the light was exactly right for a particular shot, dismissing angry calls from producers.”

In fact, Hathaway commented, “I’d say my greatest directional strength is my stubbornness:  I know what I want and I go after it.”

Hmmm…sounded like another guy I knew.  That led me to conclude if the San Juan Mountains possessed jaw-dropping scenery good enough for Hathaway’s “True Grit”, they’d be perfect for Dad.

“Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!”

We tackled the movie trail backwards, finding the end-of-the-movie scenes first.  Locating the stunning meadow where the final show-stopping firefight takes place between Wayne’s character Rooster Cogburn and Ned Pepper’s gang of misfits topped our list.  Locals called it Katie’s Meadow. 

We headed out north on Highway 550 from Ridgway and turned off at County Road 10 going towards Owl Creek Pass.  Cattle once plodded along this dirt road on the way to market.  We followed the long, winding path 14.7 miles up through the Cimmaron Mountains, enjoying the picturesque ranches, dramatic bluffs, the sparkling creek and hundreds of towering trees as we crept toward the meadow. 

We completed switchback after switchback.  Then, just as the directions stated, the meadow unfurled to our left.  And what a glorious meadow it was!  The sun backlit hundreds of golden corn lilies in the meadow as a lazy, crystal-clear stream meandered toward the road. Chimney Peak and Courthouse Mountain soared high above the field adding drama and the “wow” factor to the scene.

We spent the morning exploring the meadow.  We easily found the creek where Rooster, Mattie and Laboeuf camped as well as the rock on the far side of the meadow where Pepper shot Cogburn’s horse right out from under him. 

True Grit Aspens | Beebower Productions

Groves of aspens testify to the visitors at Katie’s Meadow over the years.

Apparently plenty of people visited the meadow over the years, leaving their own mark on the aspens that follow the creek.  I found tree after tree carved with dates, initials and art.  If you watch the movie, those aspens had just started to turn beautiful shades of yellow, something Henry Hathaway purposely waited on before filming the grand fight scene.

Next to the creek, Dad and I discovered a wooden fence line that lent an air of the Old West to the meadow.  By then, we’d noticed storm clouds building around the peaks and the light shifting to a favorable position.  Like Hathaway, Dad knew what he wanted and he went after it.

He wasted no time venturing through the corn lilies to capture his piece of Colorado beauty and movie history.  I hung back to capture Dad working his magic in the grand landscape.   

At the end of the day, we’d joined hundreds of other Wayne aficionados in taking a piece of movie history home with us in the form of pictures.   We couldn’t wait for the next day’s “True Grit” adventures.

Join us next Wednesday when Dad and I track down the Mattie’s ranch and learn how Ridgway, Colorado became Ft. Smith, Arkansas.

True Grit Fence | Beebower Productions

If You Go

Head north from Ridgway on Highway 550.  Turn right about 1.7 miles out of town on County Road 10.   Follow the signs on this unpaved road toward Owl Creek Pass.  County Road 10 will eventually become County Road 8.  Travel 14.7 miles from your turn off.  Just after a series of switchbacks you’ll see Katie’s Meadow on the left.  There are no signs marking the meadow, but there is a place to pull off and explore.

  • Continue up the switchbacks a little less than a mile until you come to Owl Creek Pass.  The rock that Mattie slept on is on the right near the creek. 
  • The road leads to Silver Jack Reservoir and eventually comes out at Cimmaron.
  • Take a high clearance vehicle.  It’s not required but a good idea.
  • Take food, water and gas.   There are no services along the way and cell service is spotty.

Arrested Decay

Bodie From a Distance | Beebower Productions

Welcome to Bodie

It put the “wild” in the Wild West.  It rivaled infamous towns like Tombstone, Deadwood and Dodge City.  It even inspired the phrase “Badman from Bodie” thanks to its lawless reputation.

Bodie’s Arrested Decay | Beebower Productions

During its heyday from the 1870s to the 1880s Bodie, California had 31 murders, no less than 60 saloons, many houses of ill repute and lots of gold to fuel the insanity.

One three-year-old little girl supposedly prayed “Good-bye, God; we are going to Bodie in the morning” when she found out her family was moving from San Jose to the infamous gold rush town.

The town’s newspaper editor didn’t miss a beat revising the girl’s prayer.  He replied, “We would like to make a slight correction to the punctuation of the above.  It should read, ‘GOOD.  By God we are going to Bodie in the morning.’ 

Bodie’s Leaning Pisa | Beebower Productions

Arrested Decay

I went to Bodie just like that little girl.  The difference?  I couldn’t wait to get there.  Bodie, near the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, is one of the best-preserved, non-commercial ghost towns in the West.  It’s chock full of fantastic photo opportunities.

Unlike many Old West towns, Bodie doesn’t sport a single tourist trap or modern convenience (except for the bathrooms near the parking lot).  Instead the weathered wooden buildings are in a state of arrested decay. 

When California State Parks bought the town from the Cain family in 1962 officials decided to preserve the buildings’ roofs, windows and foundations.  They did not, however, restore or reconstruct the buildings.  What remains now is about five percent of the original town.  But believe me, you won’t run out of things to photograph.

Bodie’s rich gold mining history can be seen as soon as you hop out of the car.  This giant wheel from one of the 30 mining companies found in the Bodie Mining District was left to bake in the sun.  In the far right of the frame you can see some of the Standard Consolidated Mining Company’s Stamp Mill.  The town is peppered with pieces of its mining history. 

While only five percent of Bodie still stands, it’s spread over a good distance.  The only way to see it is by walking.  So I decided to keep the gear light.  I took my 16-35mm zoom and a 24-70mm zoom along with my Singh-Ray LB Warming polarizer.    The day was warm, so my lighter load paid off in more energy to shoot.

Wheel of Misfortune | Beebower Productions

Bodie’s Rust Bucket | Beebower Productions

Hitching a Ride to Bodie | Beebower Productions

I meandered around town and my mind went into overdrive with photo ideas.  Bodie truly is an Old West photographer’s Disney World.  It wasn’t long before I stumbled upon a car graveyard.  What, you may wonder, was a 1940s era car doing rusting in a 1880s ghost town?

A Little More History

Bodie had a long and colorful saga before it faded into oblivion.  W.S. Bodey, a New Yorker, discovered gold in 1859 near what would be the town.  Unfortunately for Bodey, he died in a blizzard a couple of months later and never saw the town that would be named for him (although with a slightly different spelling). 

Despite its shaky beginning the city did grow as more riches were discovered in the nearby Bodie Hills.  In 1875 a big vein of gold ore was exposed and a new gold rush infused life into Bodie.  Homes and businesses sprang up at a rapid pace.  The rougher element also arrived to give Bodie its infamous reputation.  At it’s peak about 8,000 people called the town home.

By the 1900s, Bodie began to decline.  In 1932 a terrible fire destroyed a large portion of the town.  Many folks packed what they could into their cars and left everything else behind. 

Today things are exactly as those folks left it.  It’s bizarre to look through the windows and see homes and businesses precisely as they were the day they were abandoned (with a thick layer of dust, of course).

After the fire Bodie slowly became a ghost town.  When the last mine shut down in 1942 the town faded away until the California State Parks officials purchased it with the intent to share this gold mine of history with the public. 

Remnants of the Past | Beebower Productions

A Bodie Kitchen| Beebower Productions

Bodie California| Beebower Productions

So that 1940s era car really does fit into Bodie’s history.  You’ll see houses and artifacts from the 1870s through the 1940s.

Shooting Strategies

You could spend all day at Bodie.  But I opted to spend one afternoon and the next morning shooting.  The park’s hours preclude shooting during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset.  But shooting late in the afternoon and early the next morning allowed me to capture images of both west and east facing buildings.

Because I visited in the fall, the crowds were smaller.  I had no problem getting the shots I wanted.  The park rangers were visible and helpful.  At the same time I was free to wander and photograph.

The overall building shots are intriguing but don’t overlook the detail photos.  I found old truck bumpers, bullet-ridden signs, a giant blade from the sawmill and even a mine car sitting next to the main street.   Be sure to peek in the windows of the buildings too for those “just abandoned” inside shots I mentioned earlier.

Door to the Past | Beebower Productions

If You Go

If you decide to visit Bodie you’ll need to know a few things:

  • Admission is $10 per car, cash only.  You can check the park’s website here for updates on admission and hours.  Several times a year you can participate in an evening Ghost Walk.  The park stays open until 10 p.m.  Get the details here.
  • Summer hours run March 18th through October 1st.  The park is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.  Winter hours are November 1st to March 17th.  The park is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.  You won’t be able to catch the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, but you can still make nice photos if you’re creative.
  • Take food and water.  If you plan to spend much time at Bodie, you should bring your own provisions.  Nothing, other than a water fountain, is available in the park.
  • Summers are hot.  There are no trees in the park and the sun quickly broils tourists.  Dress accordingly.  Winters are cold.  It’s a wind-swept landscape.  Bundle up.
  • If you visit during the winter, call 760-647-6445 to find out road conditions first.  Roads often close due to snow.
  • You must drive 13 miles off U.S. 395 to reach the park.  The last three miles are a rough dirt road.  Trailers are not recommended.
  • During the peak summer tourist season, the streets of Bodie are crowded.  You may have to wait for an opening to capture your photo.  Bring lots of patience and creativity with you.
  • The town of Bridgeport, about seven miles north of the park turn off at State Route 270, is a good place to spend the night and get a meal.
  • Dogs are welcome as long as they are leashed and under your control.

Mountain Lion and Dogs

Mountain Lion and Dogs | Beebower Productions

Things aren’t always the way they seem.  You may be wondering how Dad managed to safely get a pack of hunting dogs and a mountain lion together just in time to snap the photo.  Simple.  He used a stuffed mountain lion.

To many mountain lions embody the untamed West.  Dad knew he wanted to capture a shot of this impressive, shy cat, but he also knew it would be next to impossible to pull off the photo he had in mind with a living cat.  Enter the local taxidermist.

Dad had worked with this particular taxidermist from Lewisville, Texas several times.  He had created a faux big bass that looked so real fishermen couldn’t tell the difference.  (You can read all about that adventure at

Dad knew his taxidermist would be able to find a stuffed mountain lion for him.  He’d just have to convince the fellow to let him “rent” the stuff cat.

As it turns out, the taxidermist had just been given a mountain lion.  He and Dad agreed on a $500 rental fee.  Dad created a giant plywood transport box and the cat was ready for the big photo adventure.

Dad knew exactly where he wanted to shoot the photo—at Vermejo Park Ranch’s Castle Rock in New Mexico.  In the early 1990s Dad spent a lot of time photographing at Vermejo, a sprawling ranch that spanned the borders of New Mexico and Colorado.  He was very familiar with the best photo spots on the ranch.

But he needed a little help finding the hunting dogs.  One of his connections at the ranch knew just the fellow.  He had a pack of trained big game hunting dogs.  These hounds didn’t think twice about hunting bear or mountain lions.

On the day of the shoot, the hunter and his dogs drove over from Colorado.  He kept the dogs in the truck while the set was being prepped.  Dad got the mountain lion on top of the rock formation and employed a little trickery.  He tied a monofilament line to the lion’s paw.   Every so often Dad would have the assistant who was stationed behind the rock tug the wire to make the dogs think they’d cornered a live cat.

Dad also set up several strobes that ran off a Honda 3500 generator to light the main portion of the photo.  In the background another assistant would spread a thick layer of fog with an Igeba fog machine. 

Photographers often have a short time to get a photo.  A hard deadline, financial considerations, model availability or a photo permit with specific date restrictions often create pressure to get the photo quickly.  That’s when photographers like Dad begin to wonder how they can create the weather.   In this case, the weather was fog.  Dad wanted fog to help create a mysterious mood. 

“Fog is a wonderful element that puts mystery into photos,” he said.  “If you take a horse and guy out there it’s not the same as a horse and guy in the fog.  It’s ambience.”

So Dad turned to the Igeba fog machine.  The machine the assistant would use for this photo had a gas engine with a long exhaust pipe in the front.  A mister sprayed the fog solution on to the exhaust pipe and the solution instantly vaporized into fog.

Dad loved this fog machine.  The fog didn’t dissipate quickly which gave him time to make sure everything else in the photo was right before taking the image.  You can read the full story of how Dad created the weather in many of his photos in our post called “Creating the Weather

Back at the ranch on the day of the shoot, the hunter let his dogs out just before sunset.  They immediately zeroed in on the mountain lion.  The baying from the hounds was deafening.  Dad began shooting furiously.  He had about 10 minutes shooting time before it got too dark. 

Everything began to gel and Dad was almost certain he’d nailed the photo.  Of course, back in he days of film you had to wait until the roll was processed to know if you’d really nailed the shot.   

“Looking back on it, lady luck sure was shining on us.  Everything was working out as smooth as glass,” Dad says.  “It was a short and easy shoot.  It was unbelievably easy.  You’d never think something like this photo would be so easy, but it was.”

Dad, upon his arrival home, returned not only the mountain lion, but he also brought a picture for the taxidermist.  The fellow was so impressed the mountain lion was returned in pristine condition and that Dad had such an amazing photo, he actually returned $250 of the $500 rental fee.  Apparently the taxidermist didn’t believe Dad could pull off such a crazy photo idea.  But he now agreed.  Dad nailed it and another piece of the Old West came to life.

Creative Secret Sauce Part 2

The Great Horse Chase | Beebower Productions

Last week we revealed that Dad’s creative process involves watching lots of Westerns, studying old paintings and doodling on copious amounts of paper.  This week we’ll reveal more of Dad’s secret sauce of creativity.

But first to recap:  Dad starts by sketching the kernel of an idea he gleaned from the said Westerns, paintings and movies.  Once the idea is fleshed out, he contacts the experts for a second opinion on the plan.  Sometimes the experts are cowboys, ranchers or trail cooks.  Other times the experts are taxidermists and fishermen.

Pulling the Pieces Together

At this point, Dad has the idea, he’s talked with experts and developed a plan on how to shoot the photo.  Now he brings everything together by assembling the parts.

Dad asks himself a lot of questions at this point.  Does he have the right camera gear for the shoot?  Who are the people he can count on to do their jobs well during the shoot?  Where can he get the props needed for the picture? What sort of special rigs does he need to build?  Where can he test them?

In the case of “The Great Horse Chase”, Dad built a special metal frame that would hold three Nikon FTN camera bodies.  This rig guaranteed he’d get photos from three different vantage points, ensuring the shoot would be a success since he only had a few passes of the horses before the camera. 

Dad tested and fine-tuned the camera set up in Dallas.  Meanwhile, he trusted Baker and McGrew to arrange for the actual horses, cowboy model and wranglers.  Then Dad secured his two most dependable photo assistants for the trip.

All of this preparation gives Dad a clear sense of how to direct people like models, wranglers and photo assistants during the photo shoot.  Throughout these big photo productions, Dad functions more like a move director than a simple still photographer.  There are many moving pieces he must bring together to create a photo like “The Great Horse Chase”.

Big Bass | Beebower Productions

Other photos are complicated because they require designing and testing unique mechanical rigs to create the action in the photo.  The “Big Bass” shoot required hiring a taxidermist to create a fish so realistic no one would believe it was fake.  The faux fish was then attached to an arm powered by an air cylinder.  (You can read the whole story here.) .  Dad spent a great deal of time fine-tuning the projectile fish before shooting a single frame with his camera.

The idea that photographers just run out and shoot great photos is very flawed.  Occasionally that happens, but most of the time they spend hours creating photos.

Ansel Adams summed it up best.  “You don’t take a photograph.  You make it.”

Photoshop Revolution

One of the key parts of Dad’s creative process is Photoshop.  For Dad, Photoshop functions as an artistic tool like a paintbrush would be to a painter.  He’s been able to create many of his best photos thanks to the software.

In the days of film, you were locked into one location. That site had to have everything you or the art director wanted.  It was limiting, expensive and often required the headache of getting permits, among other things.

One Wild Ride | Beebower Productions

Photoshop allows Dad to shoot a simple landscape shot in one location and the model in a controlled setting at the studio.  Then he merges the two images in Photoshop to create a seamless piece of Old West art.  That’s exactly what he did with “Wild Ride”.

“As soon as I knew what Photoshop was capable of, it became a very important part of planning,” Dad said. “I began to shoot differently, like the movies.  I could shoot a cowboy on a blue screen and drop him into the cactus landscape.  It saved a lot of time and money.  I could create more of the photos I imagined.”

Time Flies

So you may be wondering how long it takes Dad from the time he thinks of an idea until he’s shooting.  That depends on a lot of things.  Sometimes the idea needs to percolate for a while.  Other times the idea is straightforward and entails little planning.  Such was the case with “Barrel Racer”.

“Barrel Racer” required a barrel and one seasoned rider and her horse.  Add a blazing sunset and you’re done.  Within a couple of weeks, the image was shot and processed.

Big Bend Country | Beebower Productions

More complicated images take longer to plan. “Big Bend Country” necessitated traveling to two separate locations, a ranch in Colorado and Big Bend National Park in Texas.  Dad shot the cowboys and cattle at the Goemmer Ranch in Colorado.  But he needed a dramatic background. Dad remembered a desolate area near the Cottonwood Campgrounds at Big Bend that would be perfect.  He hit the road and photographed the mountain peaks. 

It took about two months to get the two photos; however, the real time consuming labor would be done in Photoshop.  Dad worked on this image for about three months, in between shooting images for his commercial advertising clients.  It was a tricky photo to blend.

The secret to merging the Big Bend photo with the Colorado cowboys was the dirt.  Some of the dust coming off the horses and cattles’ hooves was part of the cowboys’ photo.  But Dad also needed some dust from Big Bend to make the scene believable.

He got the dust by creating a special hoof-shaped tool that his assistant used to hit the ground, stirring up the dust.  The tool was encased in blue screen, a fabric that is used in the movies.  Special software detects the blue color and efficiently cuts it out as if it had never been there.  So when you look at Dad’s photo all you see is the dust, not the tool.  And, yes, there were two colors of dirt naturally occurring in the Big Bend half of the photo.   So all together Dad spent about five months developing this picture.

Always Learning

As you can see Dad’s always learning something new.  Whether it’s how to propel a fish out of the water or how to blend dust from one location with another location in Photoshop, photography is never boring.

“Oh, you’re always learning something new.  It may just be a tidbit, but it’s an on-going thing,” Dad said.  “You just keep packing the info in your head, but eventually it’ll come back around and you’ll use the knowledge again.”

That on-going quest of learning helps keep Dad’s creative juices flowing.

Replenishing the Well

Every once in a while, though, Dad hits a creative roadblock.  Every artist does.  When that happens, he shoots something new, visits a new place, purposely meets new people or tries out a new technique.

Horse Stampede | Beebower Productions

“You have to mix it up every so often so you don’t get stale,” Dad said. “A while back my friend Red Wolverton gave me the idea to shoot a stampede from underneath.  He buried a steel tank in the corral for me.  We got some fantastic images from that shoot thanks to Red.  It’s a unique perspective.”

Start to Finish

So there you have it:  Dad’s creative process from a kernel of an idea to the actual photo.  The planning that goes into each of his photos takes them from average shots to authentic Old West photos.

We’d love to hear how about your artistic process.  Do you have a secret sauce to spice up your creativity?

Creative Secret Sauce Part 1

Chuckwagon Grub Line | Beebower Productions

Every artist has one: a creative process that takes a kernel of an idea to a finished photograph.  Dad’s creative process involves watching lots of Westerns, studying old paintings and doodling on copious amounts of paper.

While his wildlife photography doesn’t follow this process because, well, the animals are wild, all of his other images started out as a tiny idea that mushroomed into a full photography expedition.

Stealing from the Greats

Dad often is asked where he comes up with the ideas for his photos.  Does he have a secret sauce for creativity?  Yeah.  He steals them from other great artists.

Renowned artist Pablo Picasso said, “Bad artists copy.  Great artists steal.”

The difference between copying and stealing in Picasso’s definition is pretty simple.  Stealing, according to Picasso, is allowing someone else’s work to inspire you to create something unique rather than just copying another artist’s work.   

Dad often gets ideas from TV Westerns, movies, Old West paintings and dime novels.  He pilfers the ideas and then creates his own photograph with a different twist.

Sedona Stage | Beebower Productions

“You’ve seen the action some place,” Dad said.  “You read a lot of books, looked at a lot of ancient paintings and seen a lot of movies.  I got the idea for ‘Sedona Stage’ after watching Mel Gibson in ‘Maverick’.  Of course if you do something based on something you saw, it’s going to look totally different than theirs because it’s so hard to shoot this stuff and you want to make it your own.  Coming up with ideas is just part of the problem.” 

Sketching the Nitty Gritty Details

Dad works out a lot of the problems by sketching his ideas.  When I was growing up Dad would often come home from the studio and spend the evening in his own little world.  He’d draw idea after idea on his yellow legal pads or sheets of paper folded into quarters. (I don’t know why it was quarters, but every paper was folded into quarters.  I never asked because I didn’t want to mess with his creative mojo.) The TV was on, but Dad was so engrossed in his sketches, he couldn’t tell you much about the show.  He was a prolific sketcher.

When Mom and I would clean, we’d find discarded sketches under the couch, stuffed into magazines or full yellow legal pads haphazardly piled up near his seat.  We never dared throw them away.  You never knew when he’d need that sketch.

Like Dad most photographers are visual thinkers.  Sketching out a photo idea helps artists to think through and plan for multiple aspects of a shoot.   There are so many pieces to consider.  It would be easy to miss something that will really impact the success of the shoot. 

Some of the things Dad considers while sketching are: the strength of the photo idea, what the photo communicates to the viewer, the best composition, types of lighting, models-both human and animals, additional helpers that might be needed on the set, props, equipment (beyond just the camera and lenses), special effects, possible problems and the price tag for the shoot.

As world famous photographer Ansel Adams said, “To visualize an image (in whole or in part) is to see clearly in the mind prior to exposure, a continuous projection from composing the image through the final print.”

The Great Horse Chase Setup Diagram | Beebower Productions

Case in Point

Let’s take a look at one of Dad’s most popular photographs, “The Great Horse Chase”.  He got the idea on a trip to Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico.  Then the real work began.  The photo looks like an impromptu action shot, but it required an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes planning to pull it off successfully.   It also involved a crew of about 10 people.

Dad sketched this idea out in detail and came to the following realizations:  A team would be needed to construct the corral and create a path for the horses to run right past the cameras.  One photo assistant would need to run the wind machine and another would need to throw Fullers earth into the wind stream. Wranglers would open and close the corral gates and the cowboy would throw the rope at just the right moment as he sailed past the cameras.  That was a lot of people to coordinate.

Without the visual thought process of sketching his photo shoot, Dad would have missed many important elements required to pull off the shoot.  He also wouldn’t have been prepared for the next step in his creative process.

The Great Horse Chase | Beebower Productions

Consulting the Experts

Once Dad’s idea has been sketched, he moves on to the consulting phase.  He takes the idea to those who can best help him.  In the case of “The Great Horse Chase”, he presented the idea to Jim Baker and Pat McGrew at Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico.

The duo advised Dad on whether his idea for the cowboy and horses were true to life and where to find the best horses, cowboys and wranglers.  They supplied the inside knowledge needed to create a great Old West photo.  Dad often finds brainstorming with experts, in this case cowboys and ranchers, takes his photography to a whole new level.  He was very pleased with the outcome.

Sometimes, though, Dad has to bring in the big guns to pull off the image he visualizes.  Big Bass”.  Dad knew enough about bass to realize fish don’t jump out of the water on cue repeatedly.

Big Bass | Beebower Productions

“Sometimes it takes talking with movie special effects guys and that in itself becomes a real task.  You’re trying to pry out of them how to do things,” Dad said.  “Sometimes they’re reluctant to let you in on their secrets.  But I usually got the information.  I just had to be persistent.  A lot of times the answer meant I needed to build a special set up to pull off the photo.”

Luckily, Dad also happens to be very mechanical and he can build pretty much anything he’d need for a shoot.  That helps in the next part of his creative process, pulling the pieces together.

Coming Next Week

To find out the rest of Dad’s secret sauce of creativity join us next week.  We’ll see how he pulls the pieces together, how Photoshop figures into his artistic vision and what he does when the inspiration dries up.

High Country Elk Hunt

High Country Elk Hunt | Beebower Productions

Things weren’t going well.  Dad and his team were searching for a spectacular mountain backdrop for an elk-hunting photo.  Besides the normal time constraints on a photo shoot, a giant winter storm was pressing down on Siskiyou County, California.

Semis were sliding off icy roads, wet snow was falling and one team member lost his wallet full of a large sum of money as the team scouted locations.  Things just kept getting worse.  Route 5 near the border of California and Oregon shut down one hour after Dad’s crew found a good spot for the photo.  The team holed up at a hotel and waited for the calm after the storm. 

The next day things were looking up.  Dad retrieved the art director from the airport.  The roads reopened.  The snow stopped falling.  The shoot was definitely on—with one little hitch.

Dad thought Mt. Shasta, a 14,162-foot volcanic peak in northern California, would be fantastic.  He also knew the mountain was often shrouded in clouds.  The day of the shoot, Dad needed a “Plan B” because the mountain was, indeed, completely obscured by clouds.   When he turned around Dad saw “Plan B”.  It was the perfect spot for his elk hunt photo, but it would prove to be a challenging place to reach. 

The previous night the blizzard dumped 2 ½ feet of snow on Siskiyou County.  In order to reach an elevated shooting spot, Dad thrashed his way through thick mountain laurel and a lot of snow in the semi-dark hours before sunrise. 

He wound up with snow down his jacket and icy fingers despite heavy gloves.  He wore layer upon layer of clothes for the early morning shoot because of freezing temperatures, but it was an arctic morning.  In fact, Dad loaned the art director some extra clothing so he wouldn’t freeze on the shoot.

Everyone was cold, including the mules.  They had to forge a way up to the ridge in the photo.  There was no road or trail.  Mules can be stubborn.  To get the authentic look of working pack mules, the model, who also happened to own the mules, led the team in a circle across the ridge, down the ridge and back up again.  The mules got a bit testy after the first two passes.  They did not appreciate multiple trips sliding around and trudging through deep snow.

But things finally started to come to together for Dad.  The sunrise was perfect.  The assistant laid the fog in the background at just the right place and the mules were doing the right thing.  Dad used a Mamiya RZ67 with a 50mm wide-angle lens for this shot and it proved to be the perfect fit for the shoot.

When he returned to Dallas and warmer temperatures, the only change he made in Photoshop was to remove a small part of Route 5 that was visible in the lower right part of the frame.  Everything else looked great.

There was also good news for the team member who lost his wallet.  After the snow melted in the spring, the distraught man found his wallet exactly where they’d parked the horse trailer.  All of the money and credit cards were still there.  The man decided he did want to remember the photo shoot after all and requested a print from Dad.

As Suzy Toronto said, “Plan A is always my first choice…the one where everything works out.  But more often than not, I find myself dealing with the upside-down version where nothing goes as it should.  It’s at this point the real test of my character comes in…Life really is all about how you handle Plan B.” 

The “High Country Elk Hunt” photo shoot was indeed a character builder, as Dad would say.  But despite numerous setbacks, Dad’s determination made a wintery mess look like a serene Old West photo.

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