The Cowee Mountains Incident
Sometimes, things don’t go as planned. Such was the case the last time that I went to Cowee Mountains Overlook in October 2015. This was a significant trip as it was the first trip my family had taken since welcoming our son George! This was my first opportunity to do large format landscape work since he was born and I was very excited about that. We located ourselves close to a lot of scenic spots in Western North Carolina and I subscribed to SkyFire as well and that service was predicting that the first night of our trip was going to be a good night to go up on the Parkway and watch the sun set!
I vividly remember the drive up the mountain — the color in the mountains was spectacular at the higher elevations and I almost thought to stop and shoot that color with the evening light. That said, Cowee Mountains Overlook was calling me. It looks almost due west and has a lot of layers of mountains, making it a popular overlook with photographers and anyone wanting to enjoy the beauty of the area.
When I got to the overlook, I was met by the DSLR army. It almost never fails that when I go to Cowee, there are a number of other photographers there, all with their digital cameras ready to take hundreds of frames of the sun as it goes down. As a large format analogue photographer, arriving at this scene is one that makes you wonder what will happen next (you certainly aren’t going to go unnoticed and something will happen).
When you pull out large format gear, a lot of people get really interested and want to talk. After all, it’s not every day that you see someone with one of these big cameras and a dark cloth. I very much understand their curiosity — I’m the one who is curious enough to be using the camera after all! That said, the time when you are setting up to photograph changing light is not the best time to be having a conversation about much of anything.
I had a few conversations with people around the fact that I had a big camera while I set up and then made this image on Kodak Ektar 100:
What happened next was unexpected and quickly changed my evening for the worse. I went to adjust my location and composition and did not have my tripod secured and then my camera took a tumble! Thankfully, it didn’t go very far. Unfortunately, a small stick went right through the bellows, rendering the Crown Graphic unable to take any more pictures that evening!
I wish I could tell you that the other photographers were supportive and helpful and helped get me out of the situation, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I heard “You should get a better tripod” and “Can you even fix a camera that old?” Those were actually some of the more helpful comments. The reality was that I put the tripod in the wrong place and even had the tripod been rated for more weight, I’m not sure that would have helped.
To salvage the evening, I thankfully had my Leica R3 ready to go and loaded with Fuji Velvia 50. As such, I was still able to make the most of my time at the overlook.
I drove back to my accommodation in a very somber mood thinking that I had clearly killed my camera after only taking 1 sheet of film for the whole trip. I had trouble sleeping that night because I was very disappointed by this turn of events and the less than helpful responses I received from the other photographers.
As I lay there trying to sleep, I realized that I had gaffer’s tape on the back of my Leica R3s to cover the film window and that I could probably use the gaffer’s tape to seal the holes in the bellows! With this realization in mind, I went straight to work. I patched the holes in the bellows and then in a dark room put a light in the bellows to ensure that no light escaped. I had fixed the camera — and with the gaffer’s tape that I already had! To this day, gaffer’s tape comes with me on photography trips. (As a side note, I don’t think gaffer’s tape fixes Canon’s ERR 99 and other such computer malfunctions….)
After fixing the camera, I was able to get to sleep and enjoyed the use of my camera for the rest of the trip!
Here are my favorite images from the Leica R3 from that evening: