I spent an afternoon with my son, who’s in his last semester at Purdue. He really likes to walk, so we walked together, all over West Lafayette. It did my middle-aged body good to put some miles on my feet.
He lives in Cary Quadrangle, which is this grand old building.
We walked to the northwest corner of campus where there’s a large hill. Lots of people were out sledding. Many of them were using cardboard boxes, because who brings a sled to college? This giant stage is at the bottom of the hill.
We walked through campus a little. The cold got to me so I asked if there were a coffee shop nearby. My son led the way. We passed this building, which very clearly was once a Burger Chef restaurant. Burger Chef was a competitor to McDonalds that was headquartered in Indianapolis. (See more old Burger Chef buildings, repurposed, here.)
A burger joint still operating is the XXX, which has delicious root beer. Here’s one of its signs. You don’t see many of that style of Coca-Cola sign still in use.
Here’s another, this time in neon.
As usual, my son and I wound up at an Irish restaurant near the river. I got this nice portrait of him while we waited for our beef stew and shepherd’s pie.
Despite the cold, it was a good afternoon. I had in mind to have a long conversation with him about searching for a post-college job, but frankly, neither of us was in the mood so we skipped it and just enjoyed each other’s company.
Do you take many photographs during the cold of winter? I don’t. I hate cold weather.
So do some of my old cameras. Last winter when I shot my sexagenarian Pentax H3, I foolishly took it out on a near-zero day. It was out of my warm car for two minutes when I made the first shot, above. The shutter sounded odd, so I wound and shot one more time. That time, the shutter sounded quite sick. It made an exposure, below — a hot mess but I like it anyway. Those colors are so Kodak.
The mirror wouldn’t come back down after this shot. Worried, I tucked the H3 into my coat and then, shortly, back into my warm car. Thankfully, when the H3 warmed back up it worked fine.
If your camera is fussy about cold at all, then keep it warm right up until you need to shoot it. My oversized wool coat is great for this — it’s super warm and can hold even my bulkiest SLR. I make my shot and then let the camera warm back up before I make another.
Most of my wintertime shots are around the house, which gives the camera little time to get cold in the first place. In Gracie’s last year I shot her in the driveway with my Pentax ME, right after I knocked snow off the gutter and onto her head and back.
It was wintertime when I got around to testing a Kodak 35. I shot about half the roll around the yard in the cold. It did all right.
I took my 1980s-vintage Canon EOS 630 out for a long walk along the Michigan Road a couple winters ago. I let it hang off my neck the whole time, exposed to the elements, and it performed great.
The camera I’ve shot most outside on cold days is my digital Canon PowerShot S95. I made this photograph on a day when temperatures hovered around -12. A foot of snow had fallen, making the tree branches beautiful. I tried to capture the beauty. I largely failed, but this shot of my next-door neighbor’s house worked out all right.
My S95 performed fine shot after shot in that extreme cold, but I did stow it in my warm coat between shots. But my friend Alice also has an S95, and she finds hers to be fussy in weather below about 40 degrees. Who knows.
I’m consistently surprised by what does and doesn’t work on this blog. I’ll pour my heart into a post and when it goes live, crickets: few views, few comments. Other times I’ll dash off something quickly, something I don’t really care about, just to feed this beast — and it will take off. My three most-viewed posts are like that: two about getting film developed (here and here) and one about grammar (here).
I was thrilled when last week’s post about photographing an ice storm’s aftermath was so well received. A few readers shared it around, and so it got five times the views a new post normally gets around here. I even got an email from a famous blogger, who I didn’t know read my blog, telling me that my story lingered in her mind for two days. So let me share one more photo from that day in 1990, at a moment when the clouds parted.
What a great day, walking through the park with my camera after the ice storm!
It was 1990. I was 23 and didn’t know myself yet. Who does at 23? College was about a year behind me; I had gone to work. Trying to figure out what it meant to be an adult, I mimicked what I saw growing up. My parents went to work come hell or high water, even when sick, even in treacherous weather. The ice storm had blown hard all night. The radio said that roads were dangerous. Dutifully, I drove to work anyway.
The trees sparkled, their bare, drooping branches coated in ice. How beautiful they were! I wanted to stop and look, not drive, not pay attention to the road. But keeping my car straight took all of my concentration.
Ice-laden power lines had snapped and lay in the streets. Power was out at the office. Dim light from distant windows lit my way past cubicles to the break room. There I found a few co-workers huddled around tables drinking gas-station coffee, shivering in their coats, hands around cups for warmth. A couple of them nodded at me when I entered; most stared blankly into their cups.
I stood there for a minute, uncertain. There would be no work until power returned. I wanted to be out among the trees. And then, impulsively, I did it: I left.
As I stepped quickly toward my car, I felt free, elated — and anxious. Would I be in trouble the next day? Could I be fired? But I was in all the way. Driving slowly, carefully toward home, I made my plan. I would stop at the drug store and buy film. I would walk the one block from home to Collett Park and photograph whatever I found glistening with ice.
I walked carefully; the sidewalks were as slippery as the streets. When I stepped into the grass, it crunched under my feet.
Growing up in South Bend, I was used to bitterly cold winters with heavy snow blowing in off Lake Michigan. Terre Haute’s relatively mild winters were so easy! But Terre Haute got about one ice storm each winter. I’d never encountered anything like it. Such joy I felt in the discovery that morning that every inch of a chain-link fence would be coated in ice, just as would an enormous slide on a playground.
Ice dripped off horizontal surfaces. Had it thawed a little and refrozen? I wondered.
On the playground, the chains on the swings were frozen solid. I pulled one of the chains and the ice broke at a weak point. I thought that was so cool that I operated my camera with one hand while I held the chain with the other.
There would be no tennis this chilly day. Ice clung even to the net!
I had no camera skills at 22 and didn’t know that my point-and-shoot camera couldn’t focus closely. My intended subject, the branch, was out of focus. But thankfully this miffed shot gave me this broad view of the park. I so enjoyed Collett Park. I walked up there all the time and took strolls, or sat on a bench and watched people go by.
The sun came and went all morning. When it came, the ice in the trees lit up with a paradoxical warmth.
The cold stung my hands, bare so they could work the camera. I suffered for as long as I could because I didn’t want this rare joy to end. But my hands finally went numb. This time would have to end. I walked back toward home, stopping at the top of my street to photograph the street sign and the tiny icicles hanging off it.
Back home, I took one more shot, of stubby icicles hanging off the clothesline.
What a great morning! Returning inside, I made some coffee, turned on the radio, and puttered around the house the rest of the day. I felt great peace and surprising satisfaction — until the next workday, where anxiety struck over the hooky I had played. But the boss never said a word. I heard that the power came back on too late the day before for any real work to get done anyway.
25 years have passed. Today I know that this day was so me. I didn’t then, and I’d like to go back now to that happy afternoon of puttering and have a chat with myself:
Middle-aged me: Young me, pay attention to today and learn from this. You had a great day! Why do you think that is?
Young me: I’m not sure. But the ice really captured my attention, and spending the morning taking pictures of it really energized me. I really hope those photos turn out! I don’t really know what I’m doing with a camera. But I wanted to remember what I saw today.
MAM: You will. Actually, you will never forget this day, in part because you will always have these photographs and every time you see them they will bring back all of the good feelings this day generated. Do you have any idea why today brought so much joy and pleasure?
YM: I don’t.
MAM: Young me, please listen carefully to this: You felt this joy and pleasure because this morning you were fully you. You went off by yourself to explore. You experienced something new to you. You tried to really see it, and you used a camera to do that. And so when you came home, you felt lighter and happier. You felt energized and more ready to go out into the world. Young me, know that going off by yourself is how you restore your energy. And you love to experience new things. And you do see things best through a camera’s viewfinder. And every photograph you take will catalog a memory you might have lost otherwise. Make time for this to happen regularly in your life.
YM: But film and developing are expensive. I don’t make very much money.
MAM: Budget for it. You will not regret it. When stress runs high, explore with your camera. When you’re lonely, explore with your camera. When you are all peopled out, explore with your camera. You will refresh yourself.
YM: But …how do I even say this? I’m the only person I know like this. I feel so weird and out of place.
MAM: I understand. I know you wish you cared about football or golf so you’d have something to talk about with the guys. But I want to urge you to pursue the things that make you happy anyway, and try not to care whether anybody else gets it. And know this: in time, you will find others who love to spend a morning out walking with their camera, too. They’ll enjoy looking at your photographs, and you’ll enjoy looking at theirs.
Alas, that conversation didn’t happen. I didn’t figure this out for another 20 years. I’m glad I did! But I would have liked to figure it out then.
When this blog was brand new in 2007, I wrote a post about these photos called “A good icing.” It was my fourth-ever post; read it here. That post used scans I had made from prints. When I scanned all of my negatives last year, these images looked startlingly better than the print scans. I thought I’d re-run “A good icing” with these new scans. But when I reviewed that old text I decided to start over and tell this story from a different perspective.