That Much Further West

From June through November 2010, as part of a faculty sabbatical, Dr. Bruce Ellingson, professor of media studies, and his wife, Margie visited 11 national parks west of the Mississippi plus Monument Valley. They travelled via van, spending a few weeks on the road and a few in Storm Lake. In the process, the Ellingsons traversed two frontiers, one iconic and one virtual: the classic landscape of the American West, and the ever-evolving world of social media. The lessons he learned from and about both, he takes back to the classroom, providing a working example for students of the opportunities and methods today’s creative professionals utilize.

“It’s been six months, 15 states, 20,000 miles, and 11 national parks,” is how Margie measures it. “It was a lot of driving, but I’ve seen a lot of great sights.”

“We started at Teddy Roosevelt in June,” says Bruce. “There are virtually no iconic images there, because no one has cared enough to record them. At Glacier, we knew we were going to a place where you could go on the Internet and see 1,000 pictures. I can shoot what I want to shoot, though. If I don’t want to shoot the most popular tourist spot, I don’t have to. The only person who feels any pressure is me.”

Bruce’s pictures are “high dynamic range” panoramas, which use a compositing technique to capture a range of light and detail that are not possible with traditional methods of photography. He takes a series of exposures at different settings with his Canon EOS 5D Mark II, then shifts the camera a few degrees and does some more. Later, utilizing a combination of editing programs, he composites the pictures to create a detailed panoramic image.

While Bruce’s journey produced amazing images, his social media experiments provide a working example for students. On his Flickr feed, eight people “like” one photo. 163 have viewed this picture; 12 have commented on that one. The feedback loop between the artist and audience is instantaneous, and arguably unprecedented.

“Twenty-five years ago, mass communication was one way, broadcast from the creator to the viewer,” says Bruce. “Today, everything is two-way interactive.”

“Newspapers aren’t hiring, but the job want ads today are for the likes of ‘social media directors’,” Bruce says. “To a large extent, things really do rest on the shoulders of the entrepreneur. We in the media are beginning to accept the fact that when you create materials, you have to publish them as well. You’ve got Flickr and Youtube. You’ve got Facebook, and your friends are a natural audience. The challenge is how do you translate social capital into market capital?”

There is perhaps an inherent tension, or at least an irony, present in using the most up-to-date technology to capture images of such rugged terrain. Bruce, however, views the technological advances as a way to depict reality with further detail, to provide an image that is closer to the way the eye sees it, and an opportunity to feel closer to the experience himself.

“When the sun hasn’t risen yet, and I look off to the west and see the first visible light catch some mountain peak – that is a moment when you are really present in the real world,” he says. “The rest of all this is just a way to share. The chatter of social media, the incredible flood of information can cause you to forget reality. Photography narrows the moment. One little tree can narrow the moment, and I’m reminded of when my dad got me out of bed on the farm at 6 a.m., and I’d see a little feature of nature that I hadn’t seen before. I’d be all by myself, just enjoying that moment.”

And Bruce Ellingson continues westward, merging subject with the medium, and reconciling the photographer to both.