It Only Lives When You Give It Away

I’m done.

Retired, that is, from hiring myself out as a photographer, selling my photos as prints, and marketing them as stock images.

More on that in a moment.

Here’s the new plan: I’m going to make my photos available to everyone, at no cost, under a Creative Commons license.

Millions of content creators have been using Creative Commons licenses for the last twenty years to share their music, photos, illustrations, graphics and other works with the world. I appreciate the fact that I’ve been able incorporate Creative Commons licensed music in several of my video projects. If my photographs can be put to some constructive use by writers, artists and educators, then I prefer to pursue that option rather than simply leaving them locked on a hard drive until I die.

Take a moment to read the terms of the CC BY-SA 4.0 license that I use, then follow this link to view all of my Wikimedia Commons uploads to date. There you can download, embed or share any image you choose.

If you’re keen on one of my photos that you’ve seen before but it’s not in this collection yet, just let me know and I’ll move it to the top of the list. Bear in mind that I very recently started this project, and only 160 images have been uploaded thus far. With thousands and thousands of photos in my library (and thousands more yet to be taken), adding all of this material to the Commons is a process that will take years to complete, as each file needs to have keywords manually added to the metadata.

By the way, if you’ve ever appeared in any of my photos, note that I will not be making those images available via Wikimedia Commons unless you are in silhouette or your face is otherwise invisible. Also, I’ll refrain from uploading any of my experimental and abstract film images, such as double exposures, souped films and collaborations. Though I may occasionally play with 35mm film in that manner, I want the Commons uploads to focus on the more straightforward photographs in my catalog—those that are potentially useful to people who need a photo to illustrate an article, a book, a website, etc.

Speaking of useful, I’ve recently taken steps to purge material and accounts from platforms whose time has passed; I’m after a more targeted approach to sharing my photos and videos. And, with my retirement from the financial side of photography, the website is no longer needed; it has been deactivated. The links to my remaining online content can be found at the end of this post.

So why walk away from print and stock sales? Why give my images away for free?

Because the days of photographs having financial value are over…or very soon to be so.

What happened?

First, let me say that there’s no heartbreak or sour grapes at play here. My motivation to shoot remains as it was when I started in 1976—simply for the love of it. I never aspired to a career as a professional photographer, nor did I expect to live like a king on stock photo royalties. The few paid shooting jobs I took on over the years, the attempt at selling prints and merchandise, my sojourn into the world of stock photography…these were merely experiments with potential sources of supplemental income.

It should also be known that I’ve never been good at—and never cared for—selling myself (i.e., promoting my goods and services). But more than that, my lack of enthusiasm for photography as path to income has always been a defense against contamination from the stress that comes with shooting to meet the customer’s expectations. True professional photographers can manage that; I’m not wired for it. And I did not want to assume the risk that that stress might diminish my motivation to continue shooting for my own pleasure. So the photo gigs I accepted and the images I marketed were those that suited my taste and expectations. That didn’t fly for print sales, but it did turn out well for selling stock images…while the party lasted, that is.

“Print is dead.”
~ Egon Spengler, Ph.D.

I’ll wager that few of you reading this post ever shop online for photographic prints to hang on your walls as art. Yes, I’m still a believer in analog superiority; music sounds better on vinyl and photographs look better printed on high-quality paper. But we’ve all become used to viewing photos on screens, and unless everyone you know visits your home regularly, digital files are clearly the best method of sharing images with your friends. If you do have photographs hanging on your walls, they’re likely photos of family members or events from your life, rather than something you purchased online.

As for the prints that are being sold as wall art, most of those end up not in homes but in offices, lobbies, waiting rooms, hotels, restaurants, and so on. These buyers are typically interested in stuff from the fine art genre; you’ve seen these images…dark and mystical forests, long exposures of waterfalls, macro photos of exotic flowers, narrow streets in tiny Mediterranean towns, etc. There’s also love for the fantasy genre, as I call it…images heavily photoshopped to the point of distorting reality; stuff that’s more akin to digital art than photography.

I know photographers who work in these genres, who are very skilled at their craft, and are making money doing it. I’m not trying to be dismissive of these photography styles, and I’m glad these people have found success. I’m just stating that I have no interest in creating such work. My bag has always been realism—capturing a brief slice of time and space that I was there to witness, then posting it without embellishment. And as my experiment confirmed, realism doesn’t sell prints.

During those five years when I had an account at Fine Art America—with around 660 images available for purchase—I think I sold about 10 prints…and all of those were bought by family members. Frankly, this came as no surprise. Having seen countless prints hanging on countless walls in public places, I knew going in that my reality-based images were not going to break any sales records. So, a failed experiment, but one that I felt was worth a try.

Would I change my photography style and the subjects I shoot just to gain sales? No. If I’m not being true to my own eye for the process, the activity becomes pointless.

There are two aspects of  fine art and fantasy imagery that prevent me from attempting such work. One is that these styles involve a considerable amount of computer time, manipulating and—often to a great extent—creating the image. Popular techniques used in fine art photography include multi-exposure focus stacking and exposure stacking. Aside from my double-exposure collaborations with friends, all of my images are captured with a single click of the shutter. The software component of digital photography has always felt chore-like and tedious to me, and I don’t like staring at screens for extended periods.

The other relates to the philosophy that prevailed back when I started, when film was the only game in town: “Getting it right in the camera” means taking the time to perfect your composition and your exposure settings before releasing the shutter, yielding an image that is the best it can possibly be with little or no need for touchup after the fact. The advent of DSLRs and editing software brought along the temptation to bypass that traditional process by allowing a shooter to quickly rattle off dozens of shots, pick the best one, then dress it up with Photoshop, Lightroom, etc.

Even with my DSLR, I still try to “get it right” and keep my shutter count low on each shoot (though I’m not always successful). But my problem with digital shortcuts has nothing to do with purism or seeing them as a slap in the face to tradition; it’s the fact that they suck so much of the fun out of photography. When I look at one of my images—old or new—I’m not only savoring the view, I’m also remembering everything that went into getting that shot. I can recall the weather that day, my mood, conversations with friends who were there, the successes and difficulties of capturing that image. It’s all of those events that take place before the shutter opens—sitting and waiting for the perfect light or for the clouds to drift into just the right position, the time invested in setting up for that one shot you’re after, the hours of driving to find the ideal location to capture the rising Harvest Moon, listening to the coyotes as you wait expectantly in the cold night air for an aurora borealis appearance—that make photography such an enjoyable pursuit. Grabbing a quick half-assed shot and then manufacturing the finished product in Photoshop…well, where’s the fun in that?

One of the many joys of shooting with film: When I get those scans back from the lab, they’re ready to share “as is”—no digital touchup required…

Kodak Portra 160 35mm film

The Stock Market

Realism did however payoff with the sale of my stock images. Photos of subjects that I enjoy shooting—wind energy, the power grid, agriculture, scenes that capture the loneliness of the Great Plains—were big movers.

When you make a stock sale, you don’t know the identity of the buyer or the intended use of the image. But targeted searching via Google has allowed me to locate many of my photos and it’s been fun finding out where they have landed. Most of them were used for online articles (you can see a few here, here and here); others found their way to websites, corporate literature, even a children’s book. (One of my photos from a paid shoot became a magazine cover…a magazine you’ve likely never seen before.)

But I was a late arrival to the stock photography market. Before digital cameras came along, stock sales belonged almost exclusively to professional photographers, and they were paid very well for their work. Then, quite quickly, we reached the point where everyone was carrying a high-quality camera in their pocket. Stock and microstock exploded over the last decade, drawing in not only hobbyists and casual shooters but non-photographers who just wanted a little extra income. The market became hypersaturated, and payout prices plummeted.

During my time in the market, I saw my commission percentages drop, just like they did for contributors across the industry (though I’m sure the decline I witnessed was nothing compared to the drop experienced by stock veterans who had been there for decades). I sold thousands of licensed images over the last five years, but toward the end, my payouts typically ranged from one to twenty-two cents per sale.

Microstock platform EyeEm filed for bankruptcy last month, after a troubled final year that saw them failing to make payouts to their contributors.

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the decline and potential demise of the stock photo industry, there’s no shortage of articles available on the subject. Here’s one you can read at Is This the End of the Stock Photographer?

I chose to share this particular article because I was struck by one reader’s comment, which crystallizes the current state of affairs quite well…

“When creativity is easily democratized as it is now, there is no premium for excellence and no penalty for average. It’s just disposable stuff that anyone with a phone can get anywhere in the world for free.”

It’s hard to fathom the number of photos that humanity has generated over the last twenty years.

I, Robot

That article mentions the entry of AI into the realm of stock photography. Will AI turn out to be the stock industry’s deathwatch beetle?

The AI-armageddon dance party is in full swing this year; no matter the type of news you follow or where you view it, you’re sure to see daily stories on this scary technology and its ability to destroy everything you love…and possibly all of humanity. Personally, I’m not losing any sleep over AI and I don’t subscribe to all of the paranoia surrounding it. But is AI a legitimate threat to stock photography? That’s certainly a reasonable assumption. Pretend you’re a buyer in need of a stock image; you can: (a) spend hours looking through thousands of files on a stock website for the best suitable photo, or (b) feed your parameters into an AI generator and let it create the perfect image for your needs in a matter of seconds. Which would you choose?

In spite of my earlier overstatement about photos no longer having financial value, the point of today’s post is not to make sweeping declarations about the death of photography as a source of income. Professional photographers will continue to work, stock images will still be bought and sold, prints that are suitable for framing will still be ordered. Shooters and digital artists will continue to make money with their craft and, despite my own retirement, I wish them success. But with the challenges that have already emerged, and new ones on the horizon, it’s logical to assume that the trend of diminishing returns will continue, and fewer photographers will survive without finding sources of supplemental income. And we’ll probably see further consolidation in the stock photo industry, as smaller outfits close their doors or get bought out by someone bigger. The stock companies with the brightest future are likely those that will find a way to embrace AI, rather than fight it.

What cannot be denied is that the world of photography has changed radically in the last two decades. I’ve known skilled professional photographers who thrived in the 1990s, then with the new century saw their livelihoods dwindle away until they were forced to switch careers. As for what lies ahead, I see no indication that photography’s rapid evolution is losing any speed.

Kodak Portra 160 35mm film

One last thought on AI…

At the moment, the thing about AI that I find most disappointing is the sad fact that our eyes can no longer be trusted. Everything is suspect. “Is this a real photo or was it faked?” As time goes on and the technology improves, it will become harder and eventually impossible to tell.

Though my exposure to social media is limited, I’m seeing more and more deceptive content lately. Mind you, the AI-generated imagery is a fairly recent arrival and is often labeled as an AI creation. The bulk of these fake videos and photos are the kind that have been floating around for the last few years, manufactured by individuals who enjoy showing off their prowess with editing software and/or enjoy fooling people with their hoaxes.

Perhaps the majority of the viewing public doesn’t care; they can appreciate an image or a video regardless of its origin. As for me, I do care.

And if you care as well, be assured that when I share my photos and videos online, you’re seeing a moment that existed in the real world, captured by an eyeball and a camera.

Where’s Carl?

Here are the remaining active links to my online content:

YouTube channel:
Facebook (mirrors Instagram posts):
Google Photos: state & provincial borders album
Google Maps: interactive travel map
Wikimedia Commons: my uploads


My First 16mm Movie, 1989

This is likely the longest introduction you’ll ever read for an online video. Since I’m sharing with you my favorite creation from my college years, I feel compelled to tell the full story of how it came to be.

At the time, my friend John and I were going for B.A. degrees in Radio, Television and Film. I added a minor in photography. This struck me as an obvious and enjoyable path through college. At age 7, the neighborhood kids and I starting making 8mm movies and recording audio skits on cassette tapes. I began shooting 35mm film in middle school. Our high school had a primitive black & white video camera and taping system. John bought one of the early Sony 8mm camcorders in the mid-80s, which we used extensively. And through this degree program, we both landed internships and part-time jobs at local TV and radio stations.

Turns out that our hands-on A/V experience would prove quite useful in class. You see, the university’s R/T/F department was woefully understaffed during this period. Keep in mind, we were at a satellite campus, and few such institutions have the staff, equipment and resources that you’ll find on a main campus. There was a basic TV studio with a control room/editing suite, and a couple of small booths for reel-to-reel audio recording and editing. All were outfitted with a mix-and-match approach to audio and video equipment, from stuff that was just a few years old to vintage machinery from the early days of television. Yet the department’s greatest deficit related to the faculty—there were just two instructors on the payroll. These guys had the chops for deep discussions on history, theory and programming, but they were very light on technical experience. So, unofficially, it fell upon John and me to serve as teaching assistants, helping the other students—as well as the instructors—by sharing our knowledge regarding the use of this equipment.

As for the film portion of the degree, well, that was simply a holdover from years past; by this time, “Film” was on the verge of being dropped from the program name. Courses such as Script Writing, Practicum in Film and others still appeared in the curriculum. I would gladly have signed on for several of those film classes, but with no qualified instructors available to run them, I was out of luck. Frankly, no one else cared. DIY video was booming in the 1980s and, just like vinyl records, movie film was being shown to the door.

But the department had a beautiful old 16mm camera on the shelf, sitting unused for many years. It was a Bolex H16 Reflex with an 18-86mm zoom lens, still in excellent cosmetic and operational condition. The H16 has been around for the better part of a century; it has a great reputation and remains highly prized by both amateur and professional filmmakers. And in the department’s old basement freezer were four 100-ft. rolls of Kodak 16mm reversal film, each can encased in about one inch of frost. From the look of the labels, I’d guess they had been frozen in place since the late ’50s.

I asked the department head if I could use the camera and those four rolls of film to create a personal project. No problem, he said. Naturally, I would receive no course credit for making this film; it would be done strictly for my own enjoyment. That was fine with me, because I already knew exactly what I wanted to shoot.

In essence, it would be a music video. I’ve created a few of them way back when, and several others still exist in my imagination. The process is the same each time…it always begins with the music; a particular song crosses my path and I fall in love with it instantly. I play that song over and over until I get lost in it, and eventually, I visualize a series of scenes that become married to the music. When I reach that point, it’s time to load up the camera, then shoot and edit until I’ve recreated the imagery residing in my head.

In this case, we’re not dealing with some obscure song which few have ever heard. The music in this film comes from what many regard as the greatest jazz album of all time (or possibly the greatest album of all time); it is certainly the best-selling jazz record of all time. From the 1959 Miles Davis masterpiece Kind of Blue, it’s the track that closes out the album, a sublime tune entitled “Flamenco Sketches.” John Coltrane on tenor sax, Cannonball Adderly on alto sax, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, Miles Davis on trumpet.

I was fortunate in the 1980s—and beyond—to have a personal music advisor on staff at the neighborhood record store. Todd, in addition to being a skilled musician and songwriter, has an encyclopedic knowledge of recorded music spanning most genres. Over the years, he introduced me to numerous albums and artists…a vast quantity of superb music that I still treasure, and that I would never have found through the predictable programming of the dozen classic-rock radio stations that ruled this town’s airwaves. Todd sold me a Kind of Blue CD probably a year or two before I made this film. I remember playing that amazing disc incessantly. And so the process began.

Early on Saturday morning of a very pleasant April weekend, I loaded up my ’57 Ford Fairlane and made the three-hour drive to Chicago. An iconic metropolis with no shortage of things to point the camera at, it was the ideal location for this film—close to home and I knew my way around quite well from the frequent visits my friends and I had made in the ’80s to enjoy the city’s bars, restaurants and concerts.

I imagined this film as a “still-life movie,” with shots that focused on the city’s hardware and structure rather than activity; I wanted to minimize the appearance of humans and moving vehicles in the film. That did not prove to be difficult. I spent several hours in the downtown business district, and with all of the offices closed for the weekend, the whole area was pleasantly deserted. I can’t recall speaking to a single soul during the entire shoot. Once night fell, the absence of people and traffic became a bit eerie, but still enjoyable. I stayed up all night, roving the downtown area and filming, while marveling at the quiet and solitude in the heart of such a large city. As light started to fill eastern sky, I made sure I’d be back at the lakefront in time to catch the Sun rising over Lake Michigan.

This having been my one and only shooting experience with this camera, I wouldn’t know how well it performed until the video transfer of the film had returned from the lab in Detroit (by the way, FilmCraft did a great job on the processing and the transfer of these ancient rolls). Overall, I was very pleased with the images I’d captured. There are certainly some flaws and quirks within the finished movie, but nothing that breaks my heart…

  • The in-camera light meter worked fairly well, though several scenes came out overexposed.
  • A few pieces of dust and debris found their way into the film gate and can be seen in some of the shots.
  • I did not have access to a proper tripod with a fluid video head for this shoot; I had to use our family tripod designed for still cameras. As a result, the panning and tilting is a bit jerky in places.
  • The camera was running somewhere between 28 and 32 frames per second rather than the standard of 24 fps. This lends a bit of a slow-motion feel to the shots with movement (birds flying, flags waving, water falling in the fountains). It’s also responsible for the strobing effect you see in the night scenes—the camera operating at a frame rate that was a poor match with the frequency of the juice feeding the street lights, with the 30 fps rate of the video equipment, or both. Still, within this film, I happen to like these effects.

Video dub of the film in hand, it was now time to edit. The department’s TV studio used a Sony U-matic (aka 3/4″ tape) system for editing, which was the baseline industry standard in the ’80s (the same kind of equipment John and I used at the local ABC affiliate to edit the evening news footage). This was a basic dual-deck system—a source/PLAY deck and a destination/RECORD deck—set up for simple cut editing…sharp, instantaneous transitions from one shot to the next.

From the start, I knew that I wanted this film to incorporate slow dissolves between scenes; the harshness of cut transitions would not compliment the serenity of this music. But editing a video with dissolve transitions required a three-deck setup known as “A/B roll,” which was a more advanced (and more expensive) system capable of creating dissolves one edit at a time. Without that system, how could I give this movie the look I was aiming for?

Happily, my brain had a rare “light bulb” moment and I realized that I could fake an A/B roll process by doing it the hard way—manually and on the fly from start to finish. There was a third U-matic deck in storage; not in great shape, but it still worked. So I made a request to have it installed in the control room temporarily. Now I had a recording deck and two source decks—A & B.

I’d already completed the process of ordering my scenes and timing them out to key points in the music (the night scenes certainly had to be paired with Bill Evans’ beautiful piano solo). I then placed all of the odd-numbered shots on my A tape, and the even-numbered shots on my B tape, with the appropriate amount of black space in between to account for the next shot in sequence. Each scene overlapped the ones before and after by three seconds to accommodate the dissolve transitions.

Once everything was in place, the RECORD deck was set in motion. And with decks A & B paused and cued to matching starting points, I hit their PLAY buttons simultaneously, then sat down at the control board. Each deck had its own monitor perched on the wall above the board. I focused my attention on the output monitor that showed what was being recorded, using my peripheral vision to catch the arrival of the next scene on the A & B monitors. As soon as each new shot appeared, I launched the two-second dissolve, then waited for the next transition. So it went. About eight minutes later, it was all over, and I could breathe again.

Those four rolls of film I shot did not yield quite enough usuable footage to cover the entire duration of the music. I had to shave off the final minute or so of the track, fading it out at the end of the final CMaj7 section that Miles plays; to my ear, that felt like the best place to end this movie anyhow.

~ ~ ~

Once the following semester rolled around, all of the film-oriented courses had finally been eliminated from the university’s catalog. I wish I had thought to ask the department about their plans for the Bolex H16…I would have given it a good home.

I produced this film under the name Alexander Scott, my radio DJ alias at the time.

The title cards were drawn by a dear friend, artist Teresa Bailey.

The filming in Chicago took place on the weekend of April 29-30, 1989.

Miles Davis recorded “Flamenco Sketches” on April 22, 1959.

Overall duration of the video is 8:48. Note that the first 12 seconds of the movie are black before the title fades in. This beautiful tune is rather quiet in several places, especially at the beginning; you might enjoy the soundtrack much more with a pair headphones.

Other than playing my VHS copy of the movie—decades ago—for a few close friends, today marks the official debut of this film. Hope you’ll enjoy the show.

(If you can’t access the video above, follow this link to my Vimeo channel.)

Action in the North Atlantic

The last time I traveled on a plane was ten years ago today, returning home from Iceland. My BFF and I decided that this was the perfect place to celebrate my 50th birthday…

After a post-flight hot bath at the Blue Lagoon, we drove along the southern coast. Turning down the narrow gravel road that led to our hotel, we came upon our first waterfall of the trip—Íráfoss. I immediately began to reflect on all of my past lodging experiences, and I knew that I had never before seen a more awesome neighborhood for a hotel…

Hotel Anna is located just below the notorious Eyjafjallajökull volcano & glacier. Note the shorter hill on the right in the photo below. On our second day there, as the sun was going down, I decided that a visit to the summit was just what I needed right before dinner. I ran up there a little too quickly; it’s higher than it looks, and my heart was pounding pretty hard on arrival. But the view was worth it. The first and last photos in this post are self-portraits I shot at the top of that hill…

Back down at sea level, we enjoyed the pastoral scenery, and the horses roaming the hotel grounds…

Smaller than the horses we see here at home, they’re soft, fuzzy and friendly beasts…

They also seemed to be quite curious about our rented Honda. Or maybe they just wanted a ride…

Plenty of red and white churches dotting the countryside…

Lava Meets the Sea: Views from the black sands and rocks of the heavily photographed Reynisfjara Beach…

The Land of 10,000 Waterfalls: We saw several of them, and I won’t oversaturate you with all of the photos. Here’s one of the more popular waterfalls, known as Skógafoss…

The Road Not Taken: Signs informed us that this road leading into Iceland’s rugged interior was closed for the season beyond this point. A shame; just the kind of road I’d love to explore in the Pontiac…or any other vehicle, for that matter. It was disappointing to have to turn around…

The Vikings Have Landed: No, those are NOT matching jackets; they both just happen to be red. Until we find the appropriate cult to join, you’ll never see us in matching clothing…

Of course, being farther north than either of us had ever been before, we scanned the sky every night hoping to catch the aurora borealis in action. Our chances were good, since the equinoxes usually bring an increase in auroral activity. As the clock ticked down to our final night on the island—March 17—the solar wind finally worked its magic.

Below is the very first frame I ever shot of the northern lights. Before the trip, I went online to get info on the best exposure settings to use for aurora photography. Score one for the Internet…

St. Patrick’s Day in Iceland: Green beer just can’t compete with this experience…

Timing is everything. Turns out this was not just any ordinary night of auroral activity, but a G2-level solar storm from a March 15 coronal mass ejection. These brilliant bands were the first lights to appear that evening, and they raced rapidly southward over the Atlantic, leaving us with more diffuse displays for the remainder of the night…

Parked on the side of the road while we were shooting, we met two other photographers who were out for the evening, and at their suggestion, we all drove on to Thingvellir National Park to enjoy the rest of the show…

The Moon and the Pleiades falling toward the Mid-Atlantic Ridge…

We saw quite a lot of amazing scenery in our five days and four nights in the Icelandverse, and we never left the southerwestern portion of the island. To circle the entire coast and stop at every beautiful location, you’d likely need to put in a solid two weeks, at minimum. And with all of the mountains and ridges and volcanoes and glaciers filling its daunting interior, you could spend many wonderful years there and still never see it all. Were it possible, I’d be content to live in a little hut behind Hotel Anna and spend my days petting the horses and hiking the hills around Eyjafjallajökull.

To watch a panoramic video recorded on this hilltop perch, follow this link to my YouTube channel.



During my road trips across North America, I’ve shared plenty of Moon photographs with you via this blog and on social media. Most of those images came from the Great Plains, where wide-open horizons and clear prairie skies mean that a great lunar show is a virtual certainty. But in my zip code, getting shots of heavenly objects is often problematic. It seems that I live in a particularly cloudy area—or rather, always cloudy at the worst possible times. I’ve missed a lot of interesting celestial events as a result of uncooperative weather here at home.

And while the pervasive orange glow of this city’s light-polluted sky is enough to overwhelm all but the brightest stars and planets, the Moon is always an easy target on those welcome cloudless nights. Here are twenty Moon pics that I shot locally…most of them from right in my own front yard. By default, I’ll use my old Nikon 300mm f/2.8 ED-IF lens when photographing the Moon. The image above, however, was captured by attaching a DSLR to my Orion 102mm Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope (1300mm focal length).

Below, the penumbral eclipse of the Snow Moon, as seen through high, thin clouds on February 10, 2017…

The Color of Butter


It’s not often that I shoot the Moon with my film cameras, but it does happen occasionally. Here are two shots of a spooky sky captured on Ilford FP4 35mm film…

And a double exposure made on a very old roll of Yugoslavian 35mm film, Efke KB21…

A summer moonrise through the trees along the river…

Another summer Moon, rising above the Pontiac…


Just before sunrise, a colorful orb sinks in the western sky…

Believe it or not, this is also a color image, but the air was especially clear on this night and the Moon was riding high in the sky. Our atmosphere chose not to augment the moonlight on this occasion…

Throw & Catch

A sub-zero morning in January; the Wolf Moon illuminating my frozen kitchen window…

The Old Banana Tree

Shooting the sky over the years, I eventually developed a fever for spotting thinner and thinner crescents—those that appear just one or two days on either side of the New Moon…

(Follow this link to view my slimmest crescent on record, captured in New Mexico, May 2021.)

I have one more crescent to show you. But it happens to be the other crescent visible in our sky—the planet Venus. This image was taken on March 16, 2017, about one week before Venus reached inferior conjunction. It’s a bit fuzzy, due to that evening’s stiff wind which kept rattling my telescope…

Keep looking up!


Man With a Camera

Meet Ralph, my grandfather.

Last year, I wrote about the great purge of thousands of slides, negatives and photos cluttering my home. Those images worth saving were scanned, then all of that analog media was sent to the landfill. The great bulk of the pile consisted of the Ektachrome and Kodachrome slides that Ralph had exposed from the 1940s through the 1970s—nearly all of them decaying in some combination of mildew, rot, scratches and color shift.

My grandfather loved to bring his camera along whenever he left home. Most of his photos were taken with the same Argus C3 camera that I used for these shots in 1990 (it was my only working camera at the time). Apart from the obvious lineal appeal of his photography, I also like wandering across vintage America through his lens, enjoying the cars, the clothing, the signs and the places. Here are 33 of my favorite images. (You can click on each photo to enlarge it to its full size.)

Plenty of family photos in the mix, of course. My mother and grandmother at the beach…

Real food (gluten, sugar and lard…yum!) at a family gathering in Boonville, Indiana, circa 1950…

Before my grandfather got the Argus C3, he used a half-frame camera, which shoots two 18 x 24mm photos on each 35mm frame. These next three images were captured with that camera.

Easter Sunday, probably 1946. In so many photos through the years, it seems that Marie was always dressed like a movie star…

A rare white Christmas in Evansville, 1948 or so. My mom (in red) and her friend showing off their toys…

Miss Moneypenny (Ralph’s secretary)…

Perhaps she’s the one who took this photo of Ralph at his desk. On the shelf, a framed portrait of my grandmother…

In the 1950s, Ralph held an administrative position with The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. This work took him and his associates all over the country, and many of the travel photos in his collection were captured on business trips. This conspicuously tall man appears in dozens of images from these journeys. Here’s a visit to Chinatown, San Francisco…

Making friends at Fisherman’s Wharf…

Beware the frisky boat captain…

Breakfast in New Orleans…

Black Cat, Woman in Red: Don’t know who she is. Perhaps she works there, perhaps she sings there. Maybe she was just strolling by. I’ve searched online for Piro’s and The Black Cat but I was unable to pin down the location. I can say that this photo was near the batch of slides from the group’s trip to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. If you recognize this establishment and know which city we’re in, please leave a comment below…

Proud to be a union man…

Johnny Lunchpail…

View from a window seat; a Lake Central Airlines DC-3 taxis by…

Happy people in Kentucky…

Summer weekend traffic in the mountains of Tennessee…

Baptism in progress…

Poolside in Clearwater, Florida…

Busy day at the beach. Not a good place to bury your friend in the sand…

Cabin life in the 1950s (has it really changed much?)…

Harvard Square, 1970…

A photo of Ralph’s shiny 1962 Corvair, taken in 1963…

The railroad bridge at Henderson, Kentucky, and a riverboat made from an old city bus. The man on the right is the boat’s builder and captain. My grandmother is seated on the railing. These friends enjoyed plenty of weekend cruises along the Ohio River…

The 6′ 7″ Mr. James Arness (Gunsmoke’s Marshal Matt Dillon) attends a party on the bus-boat. He was a friend of a family friend…

And there are several photos of me in Ralph’s collection, showcasing many years of questionable haircuts. Here’s my first visit to the Atlantic Coast. North Hampton, New Hampshire, 1964…

One of my earliest road trips, April 1965. Somewhere along the Mohawk Trail

Lounging with my grandparents. I believe that’s the only pair of red shoes I’ve ever owned…

Logan Airport, 1966. Probably my first airplane ride. Remember when people would dress nicely to fly?

Marie and me, 1964…

Ralph and me, 1968…

Thanks for tuning in. Hope you enjoyed the slideshow.


Riding with Carl: New Interactive Map & Dozens of New Videos

With the departure of the Pontiac, I have decided to decommission the large framed wall maps of the US and Canada which show my first 32 years of North American exploration. While many new journeys await the arrival of my next vehicle, I’ve no interest in continuing to trace lines on these maps. The USA map is already a tangled mess from the Pontiac routes alone; by the time I add on all of my upcoming trips, the map will be nothing but a giant splotch of Sharpie ink.

Furthermore, who enters my home to look at these maps? No one. In fact, they’re hanging in my storage room where even I rarely see them. The transition from one vehicle to the next seems like the perfect opportunity to take this project to the web, where the data can be easily updated after each new adventure and easily shared with my adoring public.

Presenting the new Riding with Carl interactive map, viewable through this link

The four layers of markers show my campsite history (green), my hiking locations (red), state & provincial summits I’ve ascended (blue), and other points of interest from my travels (purple).

Some markers are very close together and one may be hidden by another when you’re in the wide continental view; just zoom in and pan the get the view and the level of separation you want. You can also use the checkboxes in the left-side menu to toggle each individual layer on or off, in case you’d like to see the distribution of campsites alone, or just the summits, etc.

Of the 132 markers currently on the map, 67% of them have a photo attached, along with links to trip reports and/or videos if available. Just click the marker on the map, or the marker’s title in the left-side menu, to bring up the details page with the image and the active links. Click on the photo to enlarge it…

Those markers with missing photos are mostly older events. As I add new markers on future trips, I’ll be sure to get a photo or some video to preserve the occasion.

Please note that certain markers for hiking and for campsites may be off by as much as a few miles from the actual location. This was done either to protect the identity of private landowners who gave me permission to be there, or simply because the event happened so long ago that I can’t recall the specific spot; some markers date back to 1973. Also note that I tried to reduce clutter by omitting hiking markers where summit markers already exist. If I made it to the summit, some quantity of hiking is implied (for about half of them, that is; Delaware’s summit is certainly one that falls into the “drive up” category).

There is a fifth layer to the map…the one with that jagged black line. Although I said I wanted to get away from drawing lines on my maps, this is one route I just had to preserve—my first cross-country journey, and my first Pontiac road trip, which happened less than four months after I had purchased the LeMans.

On that long, long ride in the autumn of 1990, I recorded about 14 hours’ worth of VHS video along the way—a lot of it with the camera mounted to the top of the windshield. And now that the footage has been digitized, I’ve sorted through it all and posted the clips worth sharing to their own YouTube playlist, which contains 17 videos—some short, some long. You can view all of the VHS clips from that journey via this link to the playlist: The Road to California.

All of the videos recorded during my October 2022 camping adventure have also been uploaded to YouTube. Overall, my channel currently has a total of 108 videos. I’ll keep adding new ones with each new adventure, and old ones as I dig them out of digital storage. You can subscribe to my YouTube channel if you want to be notified whenever new content is available. I hope you’ll enjoy the scenery, old and new.

~ ~ ~

So that you can easily locate all of my online material whenever you feel the need, here is a complete list of my current links. Feel free to grab a screen capture of this list, or bookmark each link individually…

This WordPress blog:
YouTube channel:
State & provincial borders photo album: Click here, then bookmark the page
Interactive travel map: Click here, then bookmark the page


Now What?

Little did I know when I acquired this yellow bandana in 1991 that it would be with me longer than the Pontiac I had purchased just one year earlier; a car that I assumed—for the better part of three decades—would be with me always. But way back then, I would never have guessed that my taste in travel would evolve to its current state, and now the LeMans is on the market, waiting for its new owner. Still, there’s no reason that this bandana—which has been peppered with road dust across hundreds of thousands of miles of North American travel—can’t continue to ride along as I explore new corners of the continent in my next vehicle.

I got an excellent taste of the road ahead during last month’s western excursion. In a borrowed 4WD GMC Envoy, I set out to do something I had never before attempted: complete a long road trip without spending a single cent on lodging. And I pulled it off quite easily. Motel charges have always been far and away the biggest chunk of any journey’s total cost. But this year, I traveled for 15 days and covered more than 4000 miles, all for less than $900 worth of gas and groceries—the trip’s only expenses.

In recent years, each motel stay seemed to be more unpleasant than the one before. And frankly, those experiences are the primary driving force behind my desire to purchase a vehicle that’s big enough to be a home away from home. This trip in the Envoy was a great way to test out the transition from conventional lodging to vehicle camping. With the rear seats folded flat, and the simple addition of an air mattress and sleeping bag, I had exactly enough room the stretch out at full length; not an inch to spare on either end. Even so, I was perfectly comfortable and slept surprisingly well each night—a much more satisfying sleep than I’m used to from nights in motels or tents. If I can be that cozy in an SUV for two weeks, a nice roomy van with a real mattress is going to feel like a luxury suite. Here’s hoping that I’ll never have to spend another night in a motel while I’m on the road.

So lodging charges are now relegated to the “good riddance” file, joining the fees that one has to pay at developed campsites. Whenever possible, I’ve avoided pay-to-stay campgrounds; the few I’ve experienced in years past were just as noisy and irksome as motels. You know from reading this blog that my preferred way of enjoying the wilds of North America is through dispersed camping on federal public land—national forests, national grasslands and BLM lands—and I’ve been making the most of these tranquil no-cost campsites for quite some time. But with each season, I’m learning that there are more and more free camping opportunities out there, particularly at the state level, such as in wildlife areas managed by the state DNR (big thanks go out to Jeff at the Iowa DNR for all of the helpful information he shared with me last month). With so many dispersed camping options available, I have a great chance of camping fee-free for the rest of my traveling days.

A key contributor to the deep sleep I experienced on this journey was the isolation of my chosen campsites. And that’s been another big incentive to get out of the LeMans and into a rugged van—being able to make my way to sites that are located deeper in the wilderness, using roads, tracks and trails that are inaccessible to the Pontiac and its low ground clearance. During several of last month’s stops, I had an entire road and all of its potential campsites to myself, because I had ventured down a track so narrow, uneven, rocky or deeply rutted that RVs and vehicles pulling trailers dared not follow.

My recent sleeping bag upgrade was a success, living up to its rating; I was perfectly warm each night, even at 9,000 feet up in the mountains of southern Wyoming, with overnight temps in the low 20s (°F). Even though I’ll be atop a proper mattress in the van, I intend to stick with the superior warmth of the sleeping bag, rather than messing with sheets and blankets.

I’m glad that my tent-camping days are behind me now. And while there’s much to be said for sleeping in comfort at my age, there’s just as much to say about driving in comfort. This was my first long journey in more than 30 years that didn’t see me riding on the back-breaking bench seat of the Pontiac. Driving in that comfortable, modern seat last month did a great deal to reduce fatigue. Heated seats, lumbar support, cruise control…all are going on the “must have” list for my van purchase.

While my van will indeed be outfitted for driving and sleeping comfort, it’s definitely not going to be a showcase of craftsmanship. Many campervan owners are embellishing their vehicles with decorative wood trim and furnishings. I’ll have none of that; no cabinets, no drawers, no countertops, no closets, no fold-out seating or tables…likely, no wood whatsoever. Nor will my van be rigged with indoor plumbing (I’ll shower and brush my teeth outside, as I did last month) or kitchen equipment (I previously addressed the lack of any need for cooking while camping in this blog post). Other than my bed and a 12-volt refrigerated chest for my food, the remaining space will be used to stow my gear—below window level, that is; I want all of the glass in my van to remain unobstructed so I can enjoy the view in every direction. Overall, I’m aiming for an interior that is utilitarian, modest and durable.

In case you’re wondering, I am not looking to hop aboard the “van life” movement. That term primarily applies to full timers who live and travel in their vans all year long. My current formula of taking a trip and then returning home will remain in place; I enjoy the balance of a road life and a home life. But having my own campervan will change a few things about the way I travel. For instance, with the elimination of lodging costs, I’ll be able to journey more frequently than just once or twice per year. And with the superior sheltering effects of a van, a large chunk of the calendar (i.e., winter) now becomes part of “travel season.” Finally, while I was never that excited about touring the eastern half of the country in the Pontiac, my camping experiences last month in the high country of Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest have given me a new appreciation for quiet campsites on the piney tops of hills and mountains. Shorter trips closer to home are now on the menu, and I won’t always have to cart myself two time zones away to revel in some natural peace and quiet. I can choose from a wide range of destinations to suit my mood and my available time, whether it’s just one or two nights at a national forest in my home state, or a six-week epic adventure through Newfoundland & Labrador.

I will not be participating in the rendezvous scene or in other social gatherings that are popular with many van lifers and those in the RV crowd. I’ll continue to steer clear of developed campgrounds, metropolitan areas, festivals, national parks and other places where people congregate. I’ll also be relinquishing the highways and roads and campsites to the traveling public during the summer months and on major holidays. I’ve never been keen on summer travel anyway and I don’t see that ever changing. My goal remains to journey as a solo wilderness explorer, giving myself as much personal space as I can find.

By the way, last month’s “anonymous driver” experience was a new one for me. In my 32 years of convertible travel, the LeMans was a green light for total strangers to approach me and start a friendly conversation. I always treasured those encounters, but it turns out that I also liked being invisible on this recent road trip. No one gave me a second glance; I was just another guy in just another SUV. Sweet.

The Pontiac has always been a useful and eye-catching prop for adding a sense of scale to landscape photos. As for the van I end up purchasing, I expect it to be nondescript and utterly forgettable. And while it may appear now and again in my campsite pictures, it’s a safe bet that future photos and blog posts will focus less on the vehicle and more on the scenery…and my enjoyment of the silence and the solitude.

On the subject of silence, let’s go back a few weeks to my previous blog post, where I wrote about the joy of listening to great music while riding in the Pontiac. Here’s a fun fact about last month’s road trip: I did not use the Envoy’s stereo at all during the entire 4000-mile ride; not a single song heard the whole way; nothing but the sound of the tires on the road. Didn’t plan for it to happen like that, but…

Maybe I just wasn’t ready to hear my favorite music in a vehicle that afforded no view of the big prairie sky overhead. I suppose this long winter break will give me enough time to reset my brain’s music center, and I’ll be ready to wade into my playlist during next year’s first excursion. In any case, boredom never intruded during those 15 days of silence. I’ve never been afraid to be alone with my thoughts, and that time was put to good use—processing everything that I was learning about this new approach to travel, and mapping out my priorities for the road ahead. I now feel that the journeys yet to come are going to be even more rewarding than my initial expectations.

And the cherry that capped this trip was the confirmation that selling the Pontiac was the right thing to do. While I had reservations earlier this year about losing my old friend, the success of October’s journey has certainly made it much easier to let go.


The Last Ride

More than 32 years after my very first ride in the Pontiac, our last drive together is now in the books. With the LeMans currently listed for sale, I’ll be shifting my focus toward future road trips and launch the search for the vehicle that will be making those journeys. (Of course, there are still plenty of old Pontiac photos and video clips in storage that will pop up occasionally as I unearth them…maybe even a story or two that has yet to be told.)

Music would play a big role in this final cruise, as it always does when I’m in the LeMans, so I thought of the tracks I had to hear one last time from this particular seat. I have previously written about the artists and genres that enhance—and are enhanced by—driving on prairie roads under a big sky. That applies closer to home as well. In fact, on most of my sunrise and sunset excursions along the farm roads in my home county, this vehicle is essentially a rolling jukebox, and the day’s drive is really just an excuse to enjoy some of my favorite songs in the best possible setting. I’ve listened to far more music while riding in the Pontiac than I have in my everyday vehicle or inside my home.

Rolling across scenic North Dakota

(If the video above does not display, follow this link to YouTube.)

Once I had gathered about 30 or so of my favorite driving songs, I hit the road late in the afternoon. Good driving weather on this day, with high thin clouds in the west, a crescent moon to the south, and clear skies in the east. In the end, I rode for more than three hours and logged over 100 miles on this grand finale.

The Cowboy Junkies have released plenty of music over the years that pairs so well with a drive on lonely country roads. I played their version of the Allen Reynolds song, “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” which features a chorus that seemed especially appropriate for the occasion…

Someday I’ll get over you
I’ll live to see it all through
But I’ll always miss
Dreaming my dreams with you

Once the sun went down, it was time for a track that is steeped in reverb, and has always been, for me, the ultimate prairie night-driving song: “Once Upon a Time in the West,” the opening track from the second album by Dire Straits. This one sounds great when played loud enough to fill sky around you. And once is never enough; when I do ride at night, I usually play it three or more times.

What to choose as the very last song I would ever hear in the Pontiac? I had to think about that for a moment, but the answer came to me faster than expected and with no room for uncertainty: “Lenny,” the beautiful instrumental track that Stevie Ray Vaughan wrote for his wife, Lenora, and which closes out his 1983 debut album, Texas Flood. Few tunes scream “coda” as perfectly as this track does, but there’s another reason—one that dates back 32 years—why this choice worked so well for my last moments in the LeMans.

When we started out on that first cross-country journey in 1990, it had only been a couple of weeks since Stevie’s tragic death. Even before that event, I had planned to stop for a few days in Austin, Texas to visit my friends there. The city was certainly humming when I arrived that September, and we took in a lot of live music downtown. Before I left, my friend suggested that I dub his SRV CDs so I could enjoy them on my long drive ahead. With a fresh pack of blank TDK 90-minute cassette tapes, I did just that, as well as copying some of his other albums by Texas guitarists that were new to me. Continuing westward and leaving my friends and Austin behind, I enjoyed my very first miles of driving a car through a wide open landscape. And it was there, rolling along US Highway 190 in the vast emptiness of western Texas, with Texas Flood playing on the stereo, that I first felt the incredible power of those four key ingredients working together—a convertible, a big sky, a lonely road, and great music.

US 190 in Texas

Over the years, I have listened to these wonderful tunes inside my home, as well as in sedans and other mundane vehicles. Trying to compare those musical moments to my experiences in the LeMans is definitely an “apples & oranges” scenario. Having an unobstructed view of the surrounding sky as you roll down the road makes all the difference in the world when hearing these songs. Without a doubt, the hardest thing about letting go of the Pontiac, the hardest thing about living without a convertible, is the realization that listening to some of my favorite pieces of music will never be as fulfilling.

Thanks for the ride.


Two for the Road

This week saw my final Pontiac ride with a co-pilot. Turns out that she was one of my earliest passengers in this car as well. Here we are in 1991, when we both lived in California…

And a photo from our ride earlier this week…

One more from our catalog—a sunny November day in 2013…

Thanks for riding along, T!

(First two photos: © Teresa Stephens)


The Low Road

Two years before the Pontiac conquered the highest paved road in North America, we took a drive down the lowest road in the Western Hemisphere—Badwater Road in California’s Death Valley, at 274 feet below sea level…

Naturally, I ventured down the final eight feet to the true bottom of things, and sat on the salty floor of Badwater Basin…

A deserted alien landscape like this is just the sort of place I’d love to spend hours, if not days, roaming at will across the basin’s 200 square miles. But this was a cloudless summer day, and though I had arrived at Badwater—and departed—early in the morning, the heat was already noticeable. On this particular journey, I was underequipped to take on such a hike in those conditions. No doubt I’ll return to explore the basin on a future road trip…probably during a cloudy week in January.

Exiting Death Valley on California Highway 190, I resumed course for the coast to visit my friends. The car’s top was up during this drive to give me shelter from the burning sunlight; good thing, too, as I would find out a few minutes later. I was climbing out of the valley on the grade that leads up to Towne Pass. This grade is 17 miles long, and with several lengthy stretches of laser-straight road in front of you, there are times when it’s not visually obvious that you’re ascending a fairly decent slope. But the Pontiac’s drive train certainly felt the tug of gravity that morning as it climbed the grade in the rapidly warming desert air.

In the blink of an eye, my forward view was obliterated by a cloudy, gooey mess. I lost a moment in time and then, as the motor knocked twice and quickly died (thankfully, preventing any internal engine damage), I realized what had happened: a seam on the 27-year-old factory radiator had opened up like a tube of biscuits, and the entire contents of the cooling system flew onto the windshield…the convertible top keeping the hot liquid from getting inside the car.

Forward momentum completely gone, I stood on the brake to keep my place on the hill, shifted into Park, removed the keys from the ignition and sat for a moment listening to the deafening silence and taking in the surreal view that was devoid of other vehicles and humans in every direction. Then, after walking up front and inspecting the carnage under the hood, I wiped off the windshield as well as I could and contemplated my next move (of the very few available to me). Looking back toward the valley, that formerly not-so-obvious slope now appeared to be monumentally steeper.

(Google Street View of the approximate point where the radiator exploded, facing up the grade toward Towne Pass.)

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever tried this, but executing a modified reverse downhill 3-point turn in a powerless vehicle on a narrow highway with sloping gravel shoulders and no guardrails is not a particularly fun thing to do, and I hope I never have to pull it off again, but it worked. I was now freewheeling down the long slope at 60 mph, about a mile or so back to the small rest area I had passed earlier just north of Emigrant Campground, where I coasted to a stop under the partial shade of a scrawny desert tree…

A very basic rest area, it featured the important amenities: a picnic table, restrooms and—best of all—a payphone, with the numbers of the nearest emergency towing companies conveniently displayed. I placed a call to an auto repair shop in Lone Pine, California, then I lounged around in the shade while waiting for my ride.

Once the Pontiac was loaded on the flatbed, we made the 72-mile drive to civilization. And it was a trip that can match any amusement park thrill ride. The highway featured plenty of wicked curves and a dearth of guardrails. Sitting in the passenger seat, I could look down steep dropoffs that came frighteningly close to the edge of the road and see rusted old hulks of cars that had long ago crashed to the desert floor some 50 or more feet below us. But these tow-truck drivers have made the trip in and out of Death Valley hundreds of times, and they have the skills to get you to Lone Pine intact.

My new radiator was ordered and would arrive early the next morning, so I walked to a motel a short distance from the shop and spent a peaceful night in that quiet little town just east of Mount Whitney. In the morning, the Pontiac was repaired quickly by a excellent crew who handles this kind of work on a high-volume basis (location, location, location), and I was back on the road; my Death Valley adventure delaying my arrival on the coast by just 24 hours.

And let’s raise a glass to towing insurance (these days more commonly known as Emergency Road Service), which I’ve always had on my auto policies and still costs me just $5 a year. My insurance agent of 30+ years frequently shares my Death Valley towing story with clients to emphasize the value of towing insurance. Once I had arrived back home, I handed this receipt to my agent and he wrote me a $288 check right on the spot…

P.S. – Gotta love the days when you could get your old radiator removed, a new one installed—plus thermostat, gasket and coolant—all for less than $250, parts and labor.


Kodak Tri-X 35mm film
Kodak Gold 400 35mm film (single-use camera)